Chances are that you’ve seen, on more than one occasion, someone knocking on wood or a wooden object after they discuss good luck, with the intention of keeping that luck from going bad. Like many superstitions out there, these two things don’t seem connected at all, yet everyone instantly understands what you mean when you do so. In order to unpack exactly how people came to link knocking on wood (or touching wood in the UK) with good luck, we need to do a bit of a deep historical dive into how people perceived both good and bad luck.
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The Origin of Knocking On Wood
There are two main theories that come up when we talk about the notion of knocking on wood. The first is a very ancient concept indeed.
In antiquity, many pagan tribes in Europe placed great spiritual importance on trees. In fact, the ancient Celts believed that spirits lived inside the trees. One theory is that they would knock on the trees (knock on wood) either to rouse the spirits inside or as a form of thanks for good luck. Some historians theorize that this evolved into knocking on any wooden object as a form of wishing for good luck, as we see it today. Another perspective on it is keeping humble in the face of spirits or deities. After getting a moment of good fortune, knocking on a tree or wood as a form of thanks ensures the deity doesn’t get upset, altering your good fortune.
However, there is a second theory that may not be as exotic, but may be a more practical explanation of the superstition. In the Victorian Era in England, there was a schoolyard game called Tig Touch Wood. Based on accounts of the day, this was a variation of tag where the person deemed Tig was “it,” and had to chase the other children. However, children could be rendered immune to being tagged if they were able to touch a pre-designated tree or another wooden object.
Related post: Why Is Friday the 13th Unlucky?
It should be noted that while a lot of the knowledge on this particular superstition revolves around the United Kingdom and Western Europe, there are a variety of international variations on this basic concept.
For example, the ancient druids weren’t the only people in those days that revered trees. The ancient Greeks also associated the oak tree with the thunder god Zeus, and touched the trees in an attempt to gain his favor. Moving further east, ancient Turks had a similar practice of knocking on trees to wake good spirits as well as to dispel bad spirits.
In fact, if we look elsewhere around the world, there are a variety of superstitious practices like these designed to ward off bad luck, some involving wood/trees, and others that don’t. For example, in Bulgaria, the superstition takes a variant of being used exclusively for warding off bad luck. In reaction to real or imagined bad news, people will knock on the nearest wooden object, or their foreheads if there’s nothing available, while saying “God guard us” or something to that effect.
In Brazil, the superstition takes more of a physical turn. No one has to say anything, just knock three times on a nearby piece of wood after giving an example of a bad thing potentially happening. In the absence of any wood, people can say “bater na madeira” (literally “knock on wood”). In Italy, a common expression is “tocca ferro” (“touch iron”), generally said after talking about death.
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