As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.
Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:
- Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
- Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
- Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).
Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:
- Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
- Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
- A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375)
- “It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
- Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
- Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
- Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
- Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)
In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.
Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:
- Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
- Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
- Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
- Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38).
Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.
Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):
- A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
- “The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck.
- (Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
- Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153).
You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore).
Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!
Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.
- Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 6, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
- Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.
- Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935.
- Martin, Kameelah L. Conjuring Moments in African American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
- Thomas, Daniel, and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton Univ. Press, 1920.
- Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, and Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3 (Jul. 1968), pp. 180-83.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.