If you’re looking for extra luck this year, pick up one of these magical souvenirs while traveling.
When asked, most people admit to believing in the odd superstition, whether feeling uncomfortable at the number 13 or knocking on wood to prevent bad luck. Even more, people are happy to bring home a lucky charm or two from worldwide travels. After all, a lucky charm can’t do any harm, right? As I write this, I am surrounded by a blue evil eye from Lebanon, a golden cat from Hong Kong waving at me, a red Chinese knot from Singapore dangling near my desk, and a lucky German piggy on my desk. Superstitious? Me? Never. But I like to collect lucky charms, just in case.
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The Evil Eye
Three consecutive rings of turquoise, white and dark blue set around a center of dark blue, often made from glass but with variations on the theme, make up the symbol of the evil eye, a charm that reportedly wards off a curse of envy. Even though dubbed “the evil eye,” the amulet, called the Nazar in Arabic, is, in fact, not the evil eye itself but protects against it. Found not just in Turkey and the Levant, where admittedly it is most prevalent, it has been associated with cultures around the world, including South America. Believers wear it or hang it on the wall near them to ward off any ill wishes directed toward them by envious others upon personal successes. So, if you are doing well, but people are envious of your success, get a little evil eye to ward off any potential curses.
The Maneki-Neko is translated as “the beckoning cat,” a friendly-looking kitty popular in East Asia, especially in China and Japan, although the good luck charm is originally Japanese. What we perceive as waving is, in fact, beckoning, as the cat’s history starts back in 1600 near the Gōtoku-ji Temple in Tokyo, when a cat saved the regional ruler from a lightning bolt by beckoning him inside the temple. Today, they are considered lucky, money-bringing ornaments, often decorated with coins, carp, or a drum, a symbol of business success. It might not pay to spend your last dollar on a Maneki-Neko, but you never know; the kitty may beckon some money your way.
Chinese Red Knot
This intricate knotting work, tying together red string into beautiful patterns that look the same from the back and front, goes back hundreds of years. Typically hung on a wall, inside or out, warding off evil spirits, these knots, in the auspicious red color, are deemed lucky and attract wealth. While many are mass manufactured, if you look at the carefully knotted designs of better versions, you can see that it is an ancient art form. The designs are different, with many knots featuring anything from dragonflies to several layers of knots, often incorporating Chinese buttons and zodiac symbols.
In Germany, if someone tells you you’ve had “a pig,” it means you have been lucky. On New Year’s Eve, it is common to gift people a pot of four-leaf clover with a little piggy stuck onto it, plus a chimney sweep for extra luck. The lucky pigs are called Glücksschweine, and the belief that they are lucky originates from centuries ago when owning a pig was associated with wealth and the luck to have meat to eat while others were eating cabbage. This also explains the piggybank, another ornament associated with money and wealth.
The symbol of a hand, flat and outstretched, often made from intricate silver thread, or even incorporating the evil eye, is common across Northern Africa and around the Levant region. Representing the hand of God, the hand is believed to bring its owner luck and happiness. And here you get two in one: reportedly, when the hand faces down, it brings abundance and fertility, while when it is facing up, the wearer is protected from evil. Either way, wearing this talisman brings good luck.
Horseshoes are generally considered lucky, especially when a horse has previously worn them. The story of its origins leads to Ireland, where legend tells of the devil walking into a blacksmith’s store, demanding him to make shoes for him. The smith did so but nailing them into the devil’s hooves hurt so much that the devil ran away. Since then, hanging a horseshoe above the door was believed to have warded off evil. The problem is, which way should you hang them? Hanging it open side up, some say, the luck stays safely in the shoe, while hanging it open way down, the luck runs out and pours down over the owner. There are even beliefs about the lucky number of holes in the horseshoe. Apparently, the luckiest have seven holes.
The key is probably the widest spread and oldest good luck symbol. Not only a good luck charm that is symbolic of opening new doors, doors to freedom, such as the keys given on 21st birthdays, but also keys to a lover’s heart. In the west, keys are given to celebrate new chapters, while in East Asia, they are thought to bring luck. Even better luck if you wear three on the same chain, as they open doors to health, wealth, and love. But leave your keys behind, and we all know how unlucky that can feel.
Elephants are generally thought to be bringers of luck, but not unlike the dilemma with the horseshoes, some believe that they only bring luck when their trunk is up, while others think it to be luckier if the trunk is down. If in doubt, play it like they do in Thailand, where the elephant is lucky, period. Never mind what it is doing with its trunk. But if it rears up on its hind legs and has the trunk in the air, it represents power and protection. If you are lucky enough to have two elephant statues in your home, make sure they face each other for lots of luck and good fortune for the entire family.
The Dala or Dalecarlian Horse
Should you ever frequent a popular Swedish furniture store, you will have come across the Dala Horse: A usually red, wooden, stylized figurine of a quite chunky horse, often decorated with colorful patterns. Horses are revered worldwide for their beauty and strength, but they can also be lucky in Sweden. In the 1600s, small wooden horses were sold on markets across Dalarna County in central Sweden, just north-east of Stockholm, initially as a children’s toy. Later they became the symbol of Sweden and are still given as gifts on special occasions. The world’s largest Dala Horse is standing by a highway near Avesta.
The cornicello, or little horn, is the Italian version of the evil eye and brings the bearer luck. Most common in and around Naples, the little horn protects against the evil eye and negative influences. Looking a little like a chili pepper, the typically red horns have a long history dating back more than 3.000 years, when horns and horn-shaped objects were hung outside front doors to protect the people inside and to bestow fertility and strength. The larger the horn, the better it worked, or so the legend goes.
As the name suggests, Dreamcatchers catch dreams in the web central to the design, which is also embellished with feathers and embroidery. The charm is clever enough only to catch bad nightmares, letting good dreams through. In North America, traditionally hung over the bed to make full use of its powers, the dreamcatcher reportedly originates from the Ojibwa Native Americans and is associated with Absibikaashi, the Spider Woman, who catches the bad dreams in her web. You can also find dreamcatchers in East Asia, where they tend to be made with lucky peacock feathers but are, according to the Feng Shui philosophy, to be placed near doors or windows, the points of entry.
The scarab, or the humble dung beetle as he is known in normal life, is not only lucky but also holy. For thousands of years, the beetle, which collects dung, rolls it into perfectly round balls many times larger than himself, and into which the female lays her eggs, has long had superstar status in Egypt. Ancient hieroglyphs depict gods with scarab heads, and today you cannot step into a bazaar without finding scarab pendants or figures for wear or decoration. The symbol of renewal and rebirth, it also helps with general fortune and spiritual transformation.
If your dreamcatcher does not produce sleep quite deep enough for you, try a Guatemalan Worry Doll. These tiny dolls, hand-made from wire, wool, and textiles, listen to your worries, which you tell them every night before bedtime, and when placed under your pillow overnight, deal with them and make your worries go away to allow you to sleep well. Strictly speaking, the dolls originated as aides to calm children and are used widely in child psychiatry, but there is no reason for someone past their first childhood not to try to harness their powers. Note, though, that you need one doll for each worry.