Why do we knock on wood for good luck: the meaning of the whimsical superstition

Knocking on wood helps us keep negative emotions under control

You've probably done it more than once: boasted about something like not getting a speeding ticket or sharing some plans, and then immediately knocked on the nearest wooden surface. In Ukraine, when wishing a person to pass a test without complications or to avoid losing good luck or health, people say: "Knock on wood." Have you ever wondered where this custom might have come from?

The Conversation investigated this topic. It turned out that it probably dates back to pagan times in Europe. A common explanation states that in this way, the inhabitants of the continent, which was forested at the time, addressed the spirits living in the trees and asked them to ward off disaster or thanked them for their help and good luck. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrases and Fables, "traditionally, some trees, such as oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn, and willow, had sacred significance and, therefore, protective powers."

The same hypothesis indicates that Christian reformers in Europe could have deliberately changed the pagan custom, giving it a more acceptable meaning for the church. They connected touching the tree with the cross on which Jesus was crucified. However, there is no material evidence for this hypothesis. 

Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase "touch the tree" only to the early 19th century. Back then, it appeared in a British children's game called Tiggy-touch-wood, in which children could "release themselves from capture [by] touching a tree." However, since folklore is mostly transmitted by word of mouth and recorded in writing with a long delay, this phrase and ritual likely appeared before it entered the dictionary.

Modern researchers call the habit of knocking on wood an almost automatic action that people learn in childhood and use to "cancel" any negative consequences of their actions, words, or decisions. Such actions also include spitting over the left shoulder and sprinkling salt over it.

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski explains such actions with the "anxiety ritual theory." According to this theory, in order to cope with the anxiety caused by uncertainty, our psyche turns to magic and rituals to gain a sense of control. So, in this way, we simply reduce the pressure of negative emotions.

Earlier, OBOZREVATEL talked about a similar magical action that allows you to "cleanse" an inappropriate gift that can portend misfortune.

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