Fragments from the Forest, Part 3 – Influencing the Fates

TOUCHING WOOD – a meaning.

It could also be that touching wood is a sign of humility, a gesture designed to placate some mysterious forces who might become annoyed and vengeful at too much boasting. This of course, brings in the idea that there are forces outside our control who can influence our destiny. This might be known as ‘the wrath of the gods’, or more specifically in the case of ancient Greece, the three fates who wove the destiny of man on their loom; Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, who measured out the length of the thread of life, and Antropus, whose job it was to snip the dangling thread when Clotho had finished weaving it into her fabric.
But we are not ancient Greeks and although some of their beliefs have filtered through to today, there have been other forces from other mythologies at work as well. Some of these early beliefs might well have filtered through via the Celts whose culture covered a large part of Europe and who occupied Britain many centuries ago. In the UK there is also a long history of Scandinavian folklore and belief infiltrating our culture, for example the names of their gods have become attached to our days of the week – Tuesday (Tiw’s Day), Wednesday (Woden’s Day), Thursday (Thor’s Day) and Friday (Freya’s Day).

Fragments from the Forest, Part 2 – Touching Wood Today

An American version of touching wood is to ‘knock wood’ or ‘knocking on wood’, something that has featured in a number of popular songs. One was featured in the film Knock on Wood, a 1954 comedy starring Danny Kaye, in which he plays an American ventriloquist with a jealous dummy. Another appeared in the film Casablanca and yet another composed by Eddie Floyd in 1966 which has been covered by over thirty artists, including James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, Cher and David Bowie. In the latter song knocking on wood is used to help keep a lover.

Knocking on or touching wood is so common in our culture that it has now become part of our everyday language, so much so that a Jewish friend of mine now uses the phrase without thinking even though there are a range of customs available from her own culture to ward off evil, such as spitting three times (ppp-ppp-ppp) before mentioning anything good.
Many people do touch wood and believe that it can be effective. Research by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago has found that people feel much better when they touch wood, in that bad luck has by some means been ‘pushed away’. For many Christians it is symbolic of touching the wood of the true cross.

There is also a suggestion that touching wood is designed to retain the ‘status quo’, in other words to preserve things as they are. So if you are having a run of good luck then touching wood might help it to continue. This interpretation apparently also applies to the superstition of crossing your fingers where your best wishes are designed to keep someone in good health or fortune rather than to increase it. Although in both cases many of us still hope that by touching wood or crossing our fingers we can improve the situation for either us or others.