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The Stories Behind 7 Beloved Good Luck Symbols

Are you feeling lucky? It’s possible you just came across a patch of four-leaf clovers, or walked underneath a horseshoe. Maybe you were just given some lucky bamboo. But why are these things considered lucky? And what’s the story of the “lucky cat” next to your favorite Asian restaurant’s cash register? The number seven is supposedly lucky, too — so we’ve rounded up seven good luck charms and the stories behind them.

Four-Leaf Clovers

Part of the reason four-leaf clovers are lucky is pretty simple: They’re exceedingly rare. Clovers have four copies of each chromosome in every cell, and all four copies need to carry the gene for the fourth leaf in order for the plant to produce one. Environmental factors can affect the expression of the trait, too. One survey in 2017 found that around 1 in 5,000 clovers have four leaves, although they tend to be found in patches.

How clovers and shamrocks became a symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day is a little less clear. Legend has it that St. Patrick used a three-leaf clover to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity to nonbelievers. On his feast day on March 17, wearing a clover was an easy, inexpensive way to look nice at church.

Meanwhile, when the English were expanding their rule into Ireland, some tried to paint Irish people as primitive and described them as eating clover. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries — around the same time a rose started to symbolize England and a thistle Scotland — a three-leafed clover started to appear as a symbol for Ireland. This was possibly a reclamation of the “eating clover” idea, and possibly because of the plant’s association with St. Patrick.

Horseshoes

There are a few reasons horseshoes could be considered lucky. One is pretty straightforward: In Western Europe, iron was believed to drive away evil spirits, and horseshoes were made of iron.

Another reason has to do with an Irish folktale about a blacksmith who was forging horseshoes when he was visited by the devil, who asked for shoes of his own. The blacksmith put a red-hot shoe on the devil’s foot, and the devil, in extreme pain, vowed never to go near a horseshoe again.

Another superstition was that witches were afraid of horses — it’s why they supposedly traveled on brooms instead. Therefore, a horseshoe could ward away witches.

Rabbits’ Feet

The origin of rabbits’ feet as a good luck charm may go back as far as ancient Rome, when the feet of hares and rabbits were thought to have medicinal powers. For centuries in Europe, people carried paws from rabbits or hares for their supposed effects against cramps and other ailments. The idea of rabbits’ feet as good luck then transformed in America, where it may have been appropriated from an African culture, or based on a joke among African Americans that European Americans didn’t fully understand. In the early 20th century, merchants started selling rabbits’ feet with marketing claiming that they’d been harvested under spooky circumstances, like under the dark of the moon on a Friday the 13th; Black people were often said to have been the ones doing the harvesting.

The use of the symbol could also be connected to the Hand of Glory, a hand cut from a hanged man, usually the left one, and often pickled, after which it was said to have mystical powers. In a sense, the use of the rabbit’s foot was thought to stand in for the human appendage.

Lucky Bamboo

Lucky bamboo is a popular houseplant because it’s easy to care for and associated with feng shui, an ancient Chinese practice for creating balance in a home. According to tradition, it brings prosperity to the corner of the home in which it’s placed. The number of stalks is significant; for extra luck, try six or nine. Notably, it’s not actually bamboo, but a tropical plant closer to a succulent.

Lucky Cat

Maneki neko, the Japanese-style statue of a white cat with one paw raised, dates back to the Edo period (1603 to 1868 CE) in what’s now Tokyo, and first appeared in Buddhist temples. One legend is that a cat beckoned a samuraiinto a temple and helped him avoid a heavy thunderstorm, and in return the samurai showered the temple with donations — maneki neko translates to “beckoning cat.”

Ladybugs

Ladybugs are incredibly beneficial insects to any gardener, killing nasty common pests like aphids and mealybugs. It’s possible that this is the origin of their purported good luck, too — farmers saw ladybugs’ arrival as a sign that their crops would thrive. Today, a ladybug landing on you is still considered good luck.

Some ladybug beliefs get even more specific: If you make a wish while holding a ladybug, the direction it flies will supposedly be where your good luck will come from. A ladybug landing on you while you’re sick will supposedly heal you. Counting spots will tell you how many months of good luck you’ll have, or how much money you’ll gain, or any other numerical luck-related inquiry. On the flip side, if you kill a ladybug, it’s supposed to bring heavy misfortune your way, and this belief is found in many cultures.

The Number 7

Seven is widely considered a lucky number — but if there’s a specific origin for the belief, it happened a long, long time ago, possibly in ancient Sumer. Humanity seems to have a general fascination with the number: There are seven days in the week and seven wonders of the world. Medieval scholars studied seven subjects, together known as the “liberal arts” (grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Shakespeare’s All the World’s a Stage monologue describes the seven ages of man. Most major religions give significance to the number, too. Part of the reason may be mathematical: It’s the only number we can count on our hands that can’t be multiplied or divided by any other number countable on our digits.

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