Fragments from the Forest, Part 4 – Believing Today

In the past few blogs I hope I have established that for many people ‘touching wood’ is believed to have a beneficial effect.

It would seem that boasting or counting on good luck can be a very dodgy business and that touching wood is one way of ensuring continuing good luck or protecting yourself from bad luck, which is also the cessation of good luck, can be achieved.

I can claim this because of the way that this belief has become so embedded in both our personal and popular cultures. We are quite happy to accept it when someone stops a conversation to find some wood to touch or use the phrase in conversation. We may not necessarily believe it ourselves but will certainly accept that others do.

Going to the trouble of finding a piece of wood to touch and thereby risking looking ridiculous would suggest that that some of us believe  that there is some special power that can help protect us from our own folly or from the evil intent of others both spiritual and corporeal. But why does such a belief exist at all? What is it about wood that makes it so special? Is it wood that people believe in, or is it a tangible symbol for some unseen, unknown power that can influence our lives or be called on to do so? Then we have to ask does the type of wood make any difference? Is oak more powerful than hawthorn and are products like plywood and chipboard not effective at all as a protection?

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.