DS: “Here’s a superstition I live by. Every time I think of something negative, I knock on wood three times. If I don’t see any wood, then I knock on my head. It’s all about the transfer of energy. I’m literally trying to knock the bad energy out so it can be replaced with positive energy.”
DS does not define himself as a spiritual person; however, he does believe in good and bad energy. He wholeheartedly believes in this superstition. DS’s mother first told him this superstition when he was a child and he has lived by it ever since. He is unsure of its origins; however, he does not believe it has to do with his Chinese roots. Instead, it is simply a personal superstition that everyone in his family performs daily.
This appears to be a case of Sympathetic Magic. In knocking on wood or his head, DS is expelling the bad energy and leaving room for the good energy to flow. This falls under the Law of Contact, as the action being performed is creating the magical effect. Personally, I think this is a very interesting superstition. I always knew the superstition ‘knock on wood’ but had never heard of someone doing the same with their head. I feel like this helps to illuminate the meaning of the superstition and why it still holds weight to this day.
As this is a famous superstition, there are many variations of it within the popular culture. For further research, be sure to check out this Ted-Ed article:
LaBrascio, Lisa, and Stuart Vyse. “Why Do We Knock on Wood?” TED, May 19, 2017. https://blog.ed.ted.com/2017/05/18/why-do-we-knock-on-wood/.
Background: The interviewee, NB, is a European female in her early twenties. NB resides in Los Angeles however has citizenship in the United Kingdom. Her parents come from both England and Italy however, her traditions primarily spark from her Italian descent. The term “Tocca Ferro” translates into English to the phrase “touch iron.” This phrase is similar to the anglo superstition of knocking on wood. This piece of folklore was learnt through her Italian grandparents on her mother’s side of the family. NB stated that this was passed down orally through several generations, not knowing its exact origins. NB explained that the idea behind the reasoning for touching iron versus knocking on wood is that iron is stronger and more durable than wood; therefore by touching iron you have a better chance of avoiding an undesirable situation in the incidence of believing one has “jinxed” themselves. Ultimately this folklore has lead NB to partake in both superstitions: knocking both on wood, “or [her] forehead if there is not wood available,” and any metal that may be nearby.
Location: origin: Italy, practiced: America
Interpretation: By definition, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation” (Webster Dictionary). The term superstition came about sometime between 1375–1425 from English origin. When researching the idea of superstitions especially those surrounding the idea of knocking on wood, I found it interesting that different cultures use different phrases. For example in Britain they use the phrase “touch wood,” as NB stated in Italy they use the phrase “Touch Iron” and here in America I have often heard the phrase “Knock on Wood.” I find interesting that the British phrasing combines both the word “touch” found in the Italian version, and “Wood” found in the American version. After diving deeper into this phenomenon I that Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa also use the phrase “Touch Wood.” The idea of knocking on a surface falls into the category of apotropaic tradition. Apotropaic comes from the Greek “αποτρέπει από τρέπειν” which directly translates into English as “prevent it from happening.” Apotropaic tradition is a type of magic, primarily practiced in Egypt, that is meant to deter harm or evil repercussions. Apotropaic traditions range from symbols, names, charms, and all the way to verbal phrases or actions (such as “knock on wood”). Another common explanation of the reasoning for knocking on, specifically, a wooden surface is that ancient pagans held strong belief in the idea that spirits and gods resided in trees. The ideas of superstitions have always held a strong interest of mine because I, like many others, believe they work. I find it interesting that so many cultures and groups use the same action of knocking to ward off evil or reverse bad luck. I am however, intrigued with the origins of the action of knocking because when i think of that action I normally related it to myself knocking on a door as if I am asking to be invited into someone’s house. This idea does not relate to the idea of warding off spirits or warding off anything in general. For this reasoning I am left with curiosites and want to dive deeper into actions pertaining to European superstitions and how they vary from those in America.
Informant: Three ladies were visiting with each other, and one lady said, “I just don’t know what’s happening to me. My mind wanders. I tried to put a broom in the refrigerator the other day!”
The other lady—the second lady—said, “I know what you mean! I was—my husband and I were watching television the other day and I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t remember his name!”
The third lady said, “Well, thank goodness nothing like that has happened to me.”
[informant leans forward to knock on wooden table—knock on wood]
“Yes, come in!”
The informant (my grandmother) was born and raised in Texas. She spent many years moving from place to place across the world with her husband, a banker, before settling in Connecticut long enough to work as an English teacher at the Greenwich Country Day School. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.
The informant told me that this joke had gone viral at the old person’s home in which she lives. I believe that this joke might be popular with such an audience because they can relate to the troubles the three aging women face—deteriorating memory, both short term and long term. The punch line of the joke is that the woman who claims to be the most mentally competent and unaffected by aging is, in fact, the one who can’t tell that her own knock on the wooden table isn’t a knock on the door. The joke assumes that the audience knows what the practice of “knocking on wood” means.
““Cuando dos personas dicen lo mismo al mismo tiempo, ellos tienen que hacercarse a ir a tocar madera para que no se queden cotorras”
When two people say something at the same time they have to make sure to go near somewhere that has wood and knock on it first, because the person who knocks on it last it said to like end up really old without being able to get married or “cotorras”. Since this came from Mexico it was very important in the past for women to find a good husband to marry, therefore if they had the bad omen to end up alone it would be bad.
In a society where ending up alone it was seemed as bad is important to realize that people come up with these kind of superstitions in order to scare women of ending up alone (which is bad to them). This kind of folklore is kind of entertaining because it bases it self on different fears that people have.