7 Historical Good Luck Charms That You Don't Know

It's a brand new year, and for you, that may mean coping with a still-lingering hangover, making New Year's resolutions about how the next 12 months are going to be excellent, and trying to start 2016 off in the best way possible. And since most of us can use all the help we can get, why not incorporate some awesome good luck charms — used by various civilizations throughout history — to get luck on your side? Even if you don't necessarily believe in good luck, fate, or magical amulets (I don't), you have to admit — pinning a hedgehog to your shirt has a little more panache than carrying a boring old rabbit's foot.

Most of us are already familiar with the most common good luck charms used in Western traditions: the four-leaf clover, the horseshoe, the something-borrowed-something-blue on wedding days, or the evil eye (which originated in Mediterranean cultures). But there is a whole world of good luck charms and rituals that are probably less familiar to us — some based in ancient cultures, some used in U.S. culture just a few decades ago. And while some elements of them — like preserving umbilical cords, keeping a cricket as a pet, or wearing a picture of a pig on your hat — might seem far-out, think about it: how is any of it any stranger than obsessing over the number of leaves a plant has, or thinking that a bride's undergarment has magical properties that could help you land a date?

Some of these traditions are still in use in various communities around the world, while others have transformed or died out. But no matter their current status, they're still interesting — and still available to you, if you want to make 2016 extra lucky (but you're just sick to death of hanging horseshoes around your house).

1. A Boar On A Hat


If you've ever spent any time in Germany over New Year, you know that the pig is considered a symbol of good luck, and there are stalls everywhere selling marzipan and gingerbread porkers to give as gifts. But while it might seem like a cute modern tradition, the idea of a lucky pig actually has a long history in Europe: according to the British Museum, way back in the 1st century, small metal boars were used as amulets or attached to helmets to give good luck to soldiers in Northern Europe. They were made of bronze, and if you don't have a helmet handy, don't worry: it was also considered lucky to place them on the nearest cleaning bucket.

2. A Hedgehog On A String

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has one of the more intriguing good luck specimens from the ancient world: an ancient Egyptian hedgehog amulet. (No, not a real one; the hedgehog is carved out of soapstone.) Even the museum's experts are at a loss as to why hedgehogs might have symbolized good luck to the ancient Egyptians, but they apparently popped up throughout ancient Egyptian history over thousands of years, so something must have stuck. One possibility is that hedgehogs are actually pretty hardy beasts that can survive a lot — so if you're looking for a trinket that will get you through a year of finals and other tests of endurance, this may be your best choice.

3. A Beaded Turtle With An Umbilical Cord Inside

Though examples of this tradition — which involves protecting a child from birth by putting their umbilical cord inside a special beaded amulet shaped like a turtle, and letting them wear it all their lives —stretch back hundreds of years, it is still an active tradition in some Lakota and Sioux communities in North America . The incorporation of a turtle isn't incidental — it's highly symbolic, and draws from the idea that turtles are exceptionally long-lived and well-protected.

4. A Cricket In A Small Golden Cage

This traditional good luck charm still exists among some communities in China, but you may be already familiar with it because of the "lucky cricket" in Mulan: in ancient China, it was considered excellent luck to keep a pet cricket in a cage. This tradition seems to have originated during the Chun Qi period, when noble ladies of the court would catch crickets and keep them in golden cages around their person at all times. The crickets weren't just good luck totems, though — many people also used their crickets for fighting, a tradition dating back over 1000 years.

5. A Palindrome-Covered Amulet

If you're a wordy person, some ancient Greek good luck charms might give you inspiration: specifically, you might be interested in a roughly 1500-year-old amulet, discovered on Cyprus early in 2015, that uses palindromes to create luck. The ancient Greek lettering on that amulet, which references various Egyptian gods, reads exactly the same both backwards and forwards —a pretty neat trick, considering that the passage is a whopping 59 letters long. (It has a few typos, but you've got to give the maker credit for trying at least.)

6. A Tiny Doll Giving The Thumbs-Up

Ever wanted to carry around a tiny doll pinned to your clothes? If you were a soldier in World War I, there's a high chance you did. The little good luck charms were called fumsups , after the fact that they all gave little thumbs ups. They first came into popular usage in the U.S., Australia, and other countries during the 1880s, reaching their peak in popularity during the First World War.

Fumsups could be made of anything from pewter to gold, and often had real jewels for eyes. But the head was always made of wood, so you could touch it for luck. Originals sell for quite large amounts of money on the antiques market, but they're also frankly a little bit creepy, with their big eyes and oversized baby heads. To properly access the lucky properties of the doll, you were to recite the following rhyme:

Behold in me the birth of luck,

Two charms combined TOUCH WOOD-FUMSUP.

My head is made of wood most rare

My thumbs turn up to touch me there.

To speed my feet they’ve Cupid’s wings,

They’ll help true love 'mongst other things.

Proverbial is my power to bring

Good luck to you in everything.

I’ll bring good luck to all away,

Just send me to a friend today.

7. Get Drunk With Everybody You Know

If you're not interested in charms, you'll be glad to know that there's at least one other ancient tradition used to ensure good luck in the new year: getting absolutely blind drunk with your family, your neighbors, your coworkers, or anyone else who happens to be passing by. It's related to an ancient Egyptian festival of drunkenness, an annual tradition where members of Egyptian society gathered together to get drunk off their faces. The falling-down drunkenness was meant to pay homage to a legend about Hathor, a bloodthirsty goddess who drank an ocean of beer she thought was actually human blood, and promptly passed out.

So while we certainly don't endorse getting irresponsibly drunk, if you had a few too many on New Year's Eve, know that you weren't just making a spectacle of yourself; you were taking part in a very important rite designed to honor a goddess, thank you very much.

Images: Wikimedia Commons; LaReineBoheme/ Etsy