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Grab that lucky charm. February 20, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Katniss Everdeen was right. Fans of “The Hunger Games” may recall how Katniss held on to her lucky charm, a mockingjay pin, to help her get through the gladiatorial bloodbath she was forced to fight in. Well, brain science is backing her up.

Turns out, the secret to optimal brain function under stressful conditions—such as combat or, say, work deadlines—is a feeling of being in control. And the feeling is apparently as good as actually being in control of your circumstances, as far as your brain is concerned.

“Even a good luck charm can help—because good luck charms really do work,” says Eric Barker in “”The samurai secret to always being at your best.” He continues: “Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually helps people perform better with them.”

He quotes The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

“…people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer…and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games.”

So go ahead and grab that four-leaf clover or evil eye deflector or piece of eight or even a mockingjay pin. Even if you’re not heading for the Hunger Games arena, it might get you through your next performance review.

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Talismans and good luck charms. March 16, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Continuing Poor Richard’s Almanac’s “Lucky Post” week, today let’s look at various charms, amulets, and talismans that are believed to keep us from harm.

The other day, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were watching one of our favorite films, “Conan the Barbarian.” The pendant that Conan wears throughout most of the film, featuring the spoked wheel symbolic of his god, Crom, as always caught our friend Ben’s attention, especially when Conan decides that Crom has failed him, rips off the pendant, and replaces it with another talisman, the Eye of Set (a huge ruby), which now means more to him symbolically.

When our friend Ben was a child, the number of good luck charms (aka amulets and talismans) available to a U.S. citizen of the South were extremely limited. The fabled four-leaf clover was of course the most prominent, and no child could pass by a clover patch without looking for one. (The “normal” clover had also gained renown centuries before as a symbol of the Trinity because of its three-leaflets-in-one-leaf structure.)

A horseshoe was also considered lucky, but I doubt that anyone knew the reason was that its arms formed horns, and that nailing a horseshoe upside-down over a doorway was thought to keep the devil from slipping inside. We just thought they were cool, and that any of our friends who managed to obtain one were really lucky.

The rabbit’s foot—mercifully, no longer considered socially acceptable—was another hugely popular charm. It was affordable and readily available, dyed in an assortment of colors, on a keychain. Our friend Ben has no clue why a rabbit’s foot would be considered lucky, especially given the fate that obviously befell its original owner.

Finding a penny was also supposed to be lucky, as in “Find a penny/Pick it up/All day long you’ll have good luck.” Of course, you were supposed to keep your “lucky penny” rather than spending it.

There were also ways to make your wishes come true. Sadly, we didn’t have access to Aladdin’s lamp and its wish-granting genie, but we did have wishbones, and of course we had the ritual of making a wish and blowing out all the candles on our birthday cake to make the wish come true. 

If your family was religious, you might wear a crucifix, Miraculous Medal, St. Christopher or St. Francis medal, or simple cross around your neck, or display a “bathtub Mary” in your yard or “dashboard Jesus” in your car. It would have been considered blasphemous to suggest that these were talismans to ward off evil and provide protection rather than signs of faith, however. But the Sign of the Cross did make it into the lesser realms of luck: We would cross our fingers for luck, and some evil types would cross their fingers behind their backs to “double-cross” someone and back out of their word.

Despite our fascination with “lucky charms,” we had no idea of the scope of good luck charms available around the world. Good luck charms, more formally called amulets and talismans, have probably been around as long as we have. They’ve typically taken the form of small, portable objects that could be easily carried or worn to bring good luck or ward off misfortune. Here are some of the more popular amulets:

Scarabs: One of the best-known early talismans is the Ancient Egyptian scarab, a symbol of immortality for more than 4,000 years. For all their glorious art and sophistication, the Ancient Egyptians were a few blocks short of a pyramid when it came to immortality. They were such experts at preserving bodies that their mummies are not just still around but are even identifiable thousands of years later. But, though they carefully preserved not just the bodies but the internal organs for the afterlife, they apparently thought brains were more or less cotton padding between the ears, extracted them, and discarded them prior to mummifying the bodies. The brainless undead that resulted may have been the inspiration for sci-fi zombies.

Similarly, they chose as the symbol of immortality a dung beetle, frequently seen rolling a round ball of dung around, because they watched the beetles bury the dung balls in the ground and then, later, saw beetles emerge from the holes and assumed they were the original beetles reborn. The round ball of dung also reminded them of the undying sun, their greatest god, Amun. (If this rings a bell, think Tutankhamun.)

Ankh: Speaking of King Tut, his name also contains another powerful Egyptian amulet, the ankh. The Ankh was the most popular amulet in Ancient Egypt, symbolizing both immortality and the Key of Knowledge. (Poor King Tut, who died at just 19, didn’t seem to have benefited from his lucky name. But if he failed to achieve immortality in his own time, he certainly has gained it in ours!)

Coral and pearls: These gifts of the sea both assumed protective powers as talismans. In the Mediterranean, coral was associated with protection for infants, and was often presented as a birth-gift. That’s why so many Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child show the infant Jesus holding a branch of coral or his Mother’s coral rosary. The pearl, on the other hand, has been believed to preserve purity, relieve depression, and prevent insanity. But one reason for its enduring appeal in jewelry may be the belief that it protects its weaers against the loss of beauty.

The eye: From the Egyptian Eye of Horus to the eyes on Greek and Maltese fishing vessels to the blue glass eyes of Turkey and the eyes on peacock feathers in India, the eye has always been viewed as a protective talisman. It is supposed to protect the bearer from the Evil Eye by staring it down.

But what is the Evil Eye, and how did it gain a reputation for evil? Our friend Ben doesn’t know, but I do know that the concept is enduring. (Think of Frodo staring into the Mirror of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings and suddenly beholding the Eye of Sauron.) Furthermore, why would a blue eye be considered more protective than, say, a brown or green eye? The Devil is supposed to have gold eyes, so perhaps a yellow eye would be most protective of all!

Dzi beads. Dzi beads are perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most treasured, of all the eye amulets. To this day, no one knows their origins. But for thousands of years, these natural black or brown agate beads with up to a dozen white “eye marks” have been prized in Tibet. Genuine dzi beads can bring over $100,000 per bead on the collector market, so it’s not surprising that numerous fakes have been made over the centuries. You can find modern knock-offs for sale for a few dollars in any bead store, as Silence, an enthusiastic beader, can attest, and very nice reproductions in stores that carry Tibetan jewelry and artifacts.

Just for gardeners. Believe it or not, that ubiquitous and much-loved piece of lawn art, the gazing ball, also originated as a device to ward off the Evil Eye and bring good luck to the home and garden. Since it reflects light and images in all directions, it presumably blinds the Evil Eye no matter what direction it’s coming from. Good thing for gardeners that gazing balls have been undergoing a landscape revival!   

Dreamcatchers. These Native American talismans, in the form of a circle with a “spider web” in the center and often adorned with feathers, beads, and even fetishes, have become so popular they may now have become America’s favorite good luck charm. Originally hung over the cribs of infants to protect them from harm by catching their bad dreams in the “web,” they now hang from rear-view mirrors, are worn as earrings and necklaces, are hung over the beds of adults as well as children, and are used as wall ornaments. Our friend Ben and Silence have a collection of interesting examples, and Silence vows that she’ll start making some of her own for friends and family.

There are many, many other talismans that our friend Ben has no time to delve into here, from the Hand of Fatima to the ladybug. In fact, I haven’t even scratched the surface of this fascinating phenomenon. Have I left out your favorite? If so, please let us know what it is and why you think it’s lucky!

If you’d like to learn more about talismans and amulets, let me recommend my favorite book on the subject, Body Guards: Protective Amulets and Charms, by Desmond Morris (Element Books, 1999).

Our series of “lucky posts” here at Poor Richard’s Almanac continues tomorrow. Stay tuned!