Feeling lucky around the world
Here's a whistle-stop tour of 7 symbols and ideas linked to good (and sometimes bad) fortune from across the globe...
- A Four Leaf Clover
- The four leaf clover is probably one of the best known, mystical signs of luck in the Western world. The common understanding is that the four leaves stand for hope, faith, love and luck. The symbol goes back to biblical times and legend has it, that Eve, when banished from the Garden of Eden, snatched at a four leaf clover as a souvenir of her time in paradise. In 1620, English writer, John Melton made the first written reference to the four leaf clover by saying ‘if a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing.’ In fact part of the reason it’s considered lucky is that it’s very hard to find due to its genetic rarity- have you ever seen one on your travels? Some link it to Ireland and the shamrock (the more common, three leaf clover) saying that it symbolises the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
- Dolphins are a symbol of good luck, admiration and affection in many different cultures across the world. For the ancient Greeks, dolphins were seen as kind and well-meaning animals, and a good omen to sailors if they were spotted out at sea (a sign of positive times ahead). They believed that dolphins were messengers of Poseidon, the god of the sea and protector of all water creatures. Taras, the son of Poseidon, was even saved from a sinking ship by a dolphin sent by a senior. The ancient Romans thought of dolphins as spiritual beings who were in charge of the mythical processes of life, death and rebirth. In ancient Greece and Rome, access to the outside world was exclusively through the Mediterranean and it’s no wonder people fell in love with dolphins as they sailed on the sea. Nowadays, love for dolphins is shared around the globe as many people see them as intelligent, sociable creatures that can do tricks and even save sailors in trouble.
- In many parts of Asia and Africa, the elephant is a symbol of good fortune, intelligence and dignity. For Buddhists and Hindus, the white elephant is a sacred animal. Chinese people often place two pairs of elephants at their front door to bring home good luck. Elephants get this reputation in Asia largely because they are tame and have performed tasks and worked for humans for thousands of years. African elephants are physically larger, and less easily domesticated than their Asian friends, which makes them a symbol of power and social stability. Africa’s love of elephants can be traced back to 8000BCE in rock art, and elephants have played an important part in many African ritual ceremonies ever since. Despite these differences between Asian and African elephants, many people believe that an elephant's trunk pointing upwards is a key symbol of good luck - they will shower good fortune on every person who passes by.
- Despite being treated as scary and spooky creatures in Western culture, bats are a symbol of good luck and happiness in Chinese society. In fact, the Mandarin Chinese for bat sounds the same as the word for fortune. In Chinese art, red bats are often painted flying around Zhong Kui- a king of ghosts and demons in Chinese folklore. It’s believed that the bats working together can drive evils and bring home safety and success. According to the Book of Documents (one of the five classics of ancient Chinese literature ), there are five kinds of fortune you can wish for—long life, wealth, good health, a peaceful death and virtue (being a good person). Displaying five bats together often represents these five fortunes. Interestingly, bats have had a change of identity in Japan. Influenced by Chinese culture, bats were once seen as a good luck symbol but now they’re seen more as a creepy animal as Japanese culture has shifted to embrace Western culture and values.
- Magpies are ‘lucky birds’ in Korea and China. In Korean folklore, if a magpie chirps at your doorstep, it’s a sign that a visitor is about to come with good fortune and good news. There’s also an old nursery rhyme in Korea which goes like this: ‘magpie, magpie, yesterday was your new year’s day; us, us, today is our new year’s day’. This is based on a belief that magpies are intelligent enough to identify when men and women are travelling back home to reunite with their families on New Year’s Eve. They were chirping loudly to also mark a day of celebration. In China, a close link between luck and magpies goes back thousands of years. ‘A magpie forebodes [predicts] good fortune’, according to the ancient Chinese text, Qinjing or the Book of Birds (770-5th cent. BCE). In the UK magpies are viewed differently. For example, seeing a single magpie is not thought to be a good sign. Some people salute saying ‘Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?’ to stop it from passing bad luck onto them. Imagine being Mr Magpie…it would be pretty confusing the different reactions you’d get around the world?!
- The wheel is a special symbol of good fortune in Buddhism. Known as the ‘Wheel of Life’, it represents the circle of birth, death and rebirth that spans over six realms—a heavenly realm, a realm of jealousy, an animal realm, a hell realm, a realm of hungry demons, and a human realm. It’s not your usual good luck symbol though. The ‘Wheel of Life’ is seen as something to help your thinking- to help you find your own way towards inner peace. Equally important in Buddhism is what’s called the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. This is made up of a circle with an axis, eight spokes and an outer circle that symbolises the teachings of the Buddha (the founding father of the Buddhist religion). For Buddhists, good fortune does not come to those who are greedy and ignorant. But rather to people who work hard towards achieving spiritual growth through meditation. The wheels are just tools for you to use, for good or bad. It’s left to your own interpretation.
- The idea of moral luck
- Moral luck is a special kind of luck that matters in terms of when we think about what’s right and wrong, and justice (what’s fair). For example, if a person is born into difficult circumstances (e.g. they’re born into a poor home or with a disability), we don’t normally think that they deserve to be born that way. We may try to offer them help and support. But if luck is linked to a smaller issue—say you slip on some ice but don’t get badly hurt, it seems unreasonable to let others compensate you for your bad luck. Philosophers often go on to address the problem of ‘brute luck’, the bad luck that randomly comes your way. What philosophers often do is offer individuals opportunities to buy insurances so that they can get compensations if they suffer bad brute luck. But this doesn’t always seem enough. For example, suppose a poor farmer decides to give up an opportunity to buy insurance for crop failure even though they know it’s highly likely to happen and they may lose everything they own. Some argue that it’s too cruel a punishment if we let the farmer go down this route of misery. Should we do something to help or respect that it’s the farmer’s choice - they’re aware of the situation? What do you think? This is a big debate in Philosophy- whether and when can we hold people responsible if bad luck happens to them?
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