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The Many Lives of Lucky Charms

A treasured object can be a powerful thing, especially for these men and women who couldn’t live without them.

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.

Naphtali ben Isaac Katz

Amulets

This 17th-century rabbi and Kabbalist was said to be an expert in the magical use of amulets, which usually came in the form of an engraved silver talisman. In 1711, the holy man started a fire in his house while testing the protective qualities of the amulets, and then prevented his neighbors from extinguishing it. (The rabbi’s belief in the amulets' power was so profound that he expected them to protect the surrounding community from the very fire he had started in the first place.) As a result, the entire Jewish quarter of Frankfurt was destroyed, and Katz himself was arrested, imprisoned, and then banished and forced to resign his position as rabbi of the city.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen

Crystals and stones

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.”

Charles Dickens

Compass

The author carried a compass with him at all times, and the device cropped up frequently but inconspicuously in his work. As detailed in his letters, Dickens used the compass for navigation in the countryside and on one memorable occasion broke it while hiking “in the black mists and the darkness of night.” Dickens was also known to rearrange hotel rooms to suit his directional superstitions, using the compass to position his bed and desk so he could face due north while he slept and wrote.

Queen Victoria

Charm bracelets

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.

John Lennon

Leather necklace

The famed rock star wore a necklace throughout the 1960s that he claimed gave him “tremendous good energy.” A plain leather strap decorated with a small flowered panel, the necklace was given to him as a gift in 1968 while the Beatles were visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Worn as his only piece of “clothing” on the Two Virgins album cover with Yoko Ono, which was released later that year, the necklace was purchased by Oasis musician Liam Gallagher in the 1990s as a gift for his brother Noel. “It came in a glass case, but I wanted to try it on,” Noel told Q Magazine. “So one night I came in, tanked up and took a hammer to it. All these beads started falling off and rolling across the floor. I thought, ‘Fuckin’ hell, John Lennon’s beads!’ It’s back in a case now.”

Michael Jordan

Basketball shorts

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.

NASA

Peanuts

The staff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reportedly keep “good-luck peanuts” on hand for all major launches. It’s said that the legumes made their first appearance in JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility in July 1964, following six failed missions in the moon-bound Ranger program, which aimed to capture, and transmit, close-up images of the lunar surface back to earth. “I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room,” said Dick Wallace, the Mission Trajectory Engineer, who provided the peanuts for what would become the first successful Ranger launch, Ranger 7. Since then, peanuts have become a staple of informal countdown checklists for almost every launch, and are often seen in mission control during critical mission stages such as orbit insertions, flybys and landings, or other high-pressure events.

Barack Obama

Various objects

The 44th president is said to carry a slew of small objects as pocket touchstones for luck and to keep him grounded. He keeps a bowl of the small talismans in his office and carries four or five with him in rotation each day. “Ever since I began running for office, I noticed people were handing me things when I talked to a crowd,” he explained in a 2016 interview with the Associated Press. “Now I have a habit. I always pick out and carry a few to remind me of all the people I’ve met along the way, and the stories they told me.” Rosary beads gifted by Pope Francis, a lucky metal poker chip given to him on the campaign trail by a biker, and a statuette of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, are just a few of the treasures he pocketed during his presidency.

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