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Touching wood for luck is a more pagan than Christian custom

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Superstition on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about superstition originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Druids, picture, image, illustration

Druids under the oak trees gathering mistletoe, by William Rainey

“Touch wood” said our ancestors hastily, as a kind of insurance against disaster. But in these enlightened times, we modern people are above such idle superstitions. We no longer believe in such outmoded nonsense – or do we?

It has always been held unlucky to anticipate future luck or happiness, in case some jealous sprite might steal it away; or the gods overhear and withhold the good fortune to teach the boaster a lesson. It is equally dangerous, for the same reasons, to congratulate someone else on his good looks, or good fortune.

Touching wood has long been one way of compensating for possible harm done – Christians sometimes believed it brought the protection of the Cross. (In Ireland, if a stranger admired a baby too highly, its mother would often touch wood, make the sign of the Cross, and say “God be between him and harm.”)

But the practice goes much farther back than Christianity. Throughout mythology there have been sacred trees, such as the oak which was supposed to be immune to lightning and give protection in storms, as well as harbouring the mistletoe, a plant sacred to the Druids.

Nowadays people often think it is enough to say – “touch wood” without actually doing so. Children sometimes touch their heads as a joke, to suggest “wooden-headedness,” or stupidity (perhaps half-believing that such modesty will appease the angry gods!)

In some countries iron replaces wood. Touching iron is still sometimes practised in mines. If some other mining superstition has been defied, disaster can be averted if the speaker, and his hearers, immediately “touch cold iron.” Its “supernatural” properties date back to the earliest days of man’s life on earth. The first iron found was meteoric. Because it appeared unexpectedly, in strange, menacing shapes and unlikely places, it was believed to have been hurled from the heavens by angry gods. When it was first used in tools and weapons its natural superiority over stone and bronze caused it to be feared as “magic” by tribes who still used the older and more inferior metals.

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