Beloved by queens and presidents, scientists and writers, good-luck charms have long promised safe passage through the seeming randomness and unpredictability of life. For centuries, true believers have divined wisdom or luck from a variety of objects—from collections of healing crystals to jars of peanuts (favored by administrators at NASA). Below, we present a few stories of the favored emblems and totems of some of history’s most famously superstitious folks.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen
Crystals and stones
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This 11th-century Benedictine abbess was a healer who was well known for her practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. Her masterwork, Physica, contains a whole chapter on the uses of the stones in which she details the healing powers of agate, onyx, emerald, topaz,and jasper. At a 2003 Vatican conference, which covered “A Christian Reflection on the New Age,” the Catholic Church released a study noting that crystals are “reckoned” to vibrate at different frequencies. “Hence,” the Church writes, “they are useful in self-transformation.”
The Queen often gave and received small charms as gifts, and would frequently wear them joined together on a bracelet. One bracelet had small heart-shaped lockets of precious stones, which contained hair from each of her children; another included a miniature portrait of Prince Albert in evening dress. When Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Victoria wore until her death a mourning bracelet of gold and black enamel charms studded with diamonds. Because Queen Victoria wore them constantly, charm bracelets became popular among British upper-class women, and they later spread to the United States. In 1889, a year before Victoria’s death, Tiffany & Co. introduced their own popular version of the charm bracelet, with a single heart-shaped pendant, a design that is still sold today.
Michael Jordan's winning jump shot for University of North Carolina in 1982 created a star out of the shooting guard—and it also made him superstitious. The hoops legend, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships, wore his college shorts under his pro uniform as a sort of good-luck charm, popularizing a longer shorts style in the process. Decades later, most NBA players favor Jordan's knee-length style, though it’s hard to say whether they are following the trend for fashion, for performance, or perhaps because they are wearing their own lucky shorts underneath.