A belief in the mysterious power of luck can be found in cultures around the world.
ANU Reporter Deputy Editor
Last spring, I kept finding four-leaf clovers. I collected nearly 50, arranging them in cups of water like tiny lily pads or pressing them between the pages of books. I was convinced my sudden knack for spotting the genetically mutated plants was a message from my grandmother, who had recently passed away; a sign life was going to get better.
Four-leaf clovers have been considered lucky charms for centuries, a belief originating from the ancient Celts. As 17th-century author Sir John Melton wrote: “If any man walking in the fields finds any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing.”
If the promise of “some good thing” seems vague, that could be because the concept of luck is difficult to define. The occurrences we attribute to luck are random and wide-ranging. When a loved one embarks on a daunting task — whether a job interview or an umbrella-free dash to the shops on an overcast day — we wish them good luck. We often insist we are ‘just lucky’ when something wonderful happens in our own lives.
Luck is a “really wild concept”, Dr Matt Tomlinson says. As an anthropologist at the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, Tomlinson studies the relationship between language, politics and religious ritual.
“It’s not entirely human because if you made something happen, it would be down to your own skill or ability. But luck is not from a divine source either; if good things keep happening because of a higher power then it’s considered a blessing.”
In many languages across the Pacific Islands, the term mana describes spiritual power or effectiveness. Tomlinson has spent years studying the concept and co-edited a book on the topic, New mana published by ANU Press.
His favourite anecdote in the collection is from the Vanuatuan island of Mota, a place where the belief in mana bears a resemblance to the Western concept of luck. As the story goes, a young man named Jacob always had money in his pocket because he had been blessed with mana. But when his wife became suspicious and accused him of having an affair, he grudgingly revealed his nebulous source, knowing it would put an end to his good fortune.
While some scholars have translated mana as luck because it is used to describe the notion that certain people simply get better results in life, Tomlinson says it has more of a foundation in theology.
“It’s got strong religious associations in many societies of the Pacific. In the Christian church in Fiji, there’s a belief that some people are blessed and can act with mana. But it can also be tied to older pre-Christian ideas that certain people just have this extra, beyond human ability.”
In Chinese culture, the use of language can favour people with good fortune or otherwise.
“Language and the written word play a central role in forming the system of belief among the Chinese-speaking community,” Dr Annie Ren, from the ANU Australian Centre on China in the World, says.
Eight is the luckiest number because it is pronounced ba, which sounds similar to fa, meaning to prosper. The number is associated with wealth and success in Chinese numerology and was the reason the Beijing Olympic Games started at 8.08pm on 8 August 2008. Meanwhile, the number four, si, sounds like the word for death and is considered so unlucky that some buildings do not have a fourth level.
Written characters are said to have magical powers and are often inscribed on buildings and objects for protection.
“Before the Lunar New Year, most Chinese families stick red sheets of paper with written characters on their door, believing this will bring about good luck and protect the family from illness and misfortune,” Ren says.
Jade talismans — another form of protection — also have characters carved onto them to enhance the mineral’s existing powers of good luck and healing.
The wearing of a lucky charm was a tradition also practised in ancient Rome, according to Dr Caillan Davenport, Head of the ANU Centre for Classical Studies. Temples throughout the city were dedicated to the goddess Fortuna, considered the personification of luck, but it was not she who adorned the pendants of pious Romans.
“The phallus was regarded as a symbol that could protect the wearer from evil,” Davenport says.
Known as fascini or fascina, phallic charms were often winged and could be worn as amulets or rings. Romans also decorated their houses withwind chimes known as tintinnabula. These bells, which hung from metal phalluses, were intended to ward off evil and welcome good fortune.
Whatever luck is, and whether we have any control around manifesting it in our lives, its presence across different cultures throughout time is a reminder of humanity’s tendency towards optimism.
There is always the hope that some good thing is waiting on the horizon, so long as we avoid black cats, walking under ladders or shattering a mirror.
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