Friday, January 13, 2012

Three Cultures of Good Luck


The Milagro
Literally meaning “miracle,” a milagro is a charm or talisman, sometimes offered to a particular saint, and made in their image. Milagros are also made to represent animals, an affected part of the body, or an object. Often connected with specific prayers, these charms originated with the ancient Iberians who inhabited Spain. Milagros have been used extensively in Spain and the Americas for centuries, and are made from many different materials, depending on local customs. They can be flat or fully dimensional, and fabricated from gold, silver, tin, lead, wood, bone, or wax. They are often made as a charm, to be pinned to, or nearby the statue of a saint.

In New Mexico, the majority of milagros take the form of small metal charms, and can be found adorning shrines and devotional niches. In recent times, milagros have evolved into charms used in jewelry which can be worn on the person, as an amulet, or purely as decoration.

The Ristra
Each year after the harvest, chiles, garlic and other produce are hung out to dry to save for later consumption. They may be made into a wreath, or tied at various heights on string, a form which is known as a ristra. Chile ristras can be found throughout New Mexico, conspicuously hanging from portals by the front door to welcome visitors and bring good fortune to the home.

Traditionally, chiles were also used as amulets to ward off malaria, the plague, the evil eye (mal de ojo), bad luck, and bewitchment. Thus, another part of the belief that chile ristras bring goodness or good luck in general. Originating in Mexico, this practice has spread throughout the Southwestern United States.

Native American

The Fetish
Zuni fetishes depict animals and icons integral to their culture and mythology. According to Zuni tradition, there were animals associated with each of the six directions which were carved for ceremonial use, as well as others with ceremonial meaning. Additionally, fetishes might be a power animal for the carver, embodying the spirit of the animal as protection and to lend strength to its bearer.

Other Zuni fetish carvings depict animals and reptiles such as the frog, turtle, buffalo, deer, ram, otter, and others. There are many more subjects of contemporary carvers, including dinosaurs, for example, which would be considered non-traditional. In addition, there are numerous insect and reptile fetishes which are integral to Zuni mythology and folklore, petroglyphs, and patterns of design in pottery: for example, dragonflies, butterflies, water spiders, and lizards.

Fetishes were carved from stone indigenous to the region, or procured by trade, the most important of which was turquoise, which is considered by the Zuni as the sacred stone. Jet, animal shell and coral were also frequently used. Other materials used include jasper, pipestone, marble, and organic items such as bone and deer or elk antler. There are some Zuni carvers who will not carve fetishes from bone or antler, considering the practice to be dangerous.

The Kachina
Kachinas are depictions of spirits, often in the form of a doll, traditionally made for ceremonial uses. There are virtually hundreds of Kachinas, some with meaning to one or several related tribes, while others appear almost universally in tribal legends.

Perhaps the most well known Kachina is the Kokopelli. Found also in the mythology of the Zuni, Kokopelli is a Hopi fertility god, also known as a prankster, hunter, healer, musician, dancer and storyteller. As a fertility spirit, many Kokopellis found as petroglyphs were depicted with an erect phallus, but contemporary Kokopellis tend to be more modest, wearing a long loincloth or tunic which covers the genital area. While many believe that Kokopelli was humpbacked, tradition has it that he carried a trader’s bag on his back.

In some Hopi tales, Kokopelli’s bag contains gifts that he uses to attract women. In others, he carries a baby on his back and leaves it with a young woman. As a trickster, he appears in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples. Kokopelli’s flute is similar to the flutes used in Native American religious rituals. As a hunter, Kokopelli may play the flute to attract the mountain sheep he is hunting. The Zuni call him a rain priest and connect him and his music with the gift of rain. According to the Hopi, Kokopelli warmed the land and the winds by playing his flute as he led them to their homeland. And lastly, some legends suggest that Kokopelli was a real ancient Toltec trader who played the flute and traveled routes between Mexico, the West Coast, and the Southwest.


The Horseshoe
When kept as a talisman, a horseshoe is said to bring good luck. The most common belief is that hanging it with the ends pointing upwards is good luck. Some feel this is because the horseshoe itself is good luck, and this keeps the luck in. Others believe that the horseshoe acts as a container which catches any good luck that happens to be drifting by. Many believers hold that to hang the horseshoe with the ends pointing down allows the good luck to fall out. There are others, however, who believe that the shoe should be hung with its ends pointing down, as it will then release its luck to the people around it.

Horseshoes were considered lucky in part because they were made by blacksmiths, which was considered to be a very powerful and lucky trade. Blacksmiths were thought to have special powers because they worked with elemental fire and iron. Iron was considered magical because of its superior strength and ability to withstand fire. Centuries ago, iron was used as a charm to ward off evil spirits.

Another aspect of the horseshoe that added to its good luck was the fact that it was commonly held in place by seven iron nails; seven being thought of as the luckiest number since ancient times. Life was thought to be divided into seven ages; a rainbow has seven colors; astrology once held that seven planets made up the universe; a seventh child was thought to have special powers; there are seven days in a week; the moon changes from one phase to another every seven days; and the body is completely remade every seven years.

The Wishbone
Sometimes called the “merrythought” in Great Britain, the wishbone is the collarbone of fowl, especially the chicken and the turkey. It is the custom to save this bone intact when carving the bird at dinner and to dry it over the stove or by the fire (or sometimes, to dry it for three days in the air, three being a fortuitous magical number) until it is brittle.

Once the merrythought is dry, it is given to two people (usually children), who pull it by the pinkie fingers until it cracks and breaks, each one making a wish while doing so. The person who gets the “long half” of the wishbone will have his or her wish come true. This wish must never be spoken out loud and must remain secret to the wisher or it will never come true. If the wishbone breaks evenly, both parties get their wishes.

The term “wishbone” is believed to have come from the ancient Italians who read the future in the bird’s entrails. It is believed that people also started thinking the wishbone was lucky because they were sure that hens and cocks were fortune tellers at soul, as proven in their ability to foretell the break of the day.

As an amulet the wishbone represents wish fulfillment and is sometimes artistically represented in gold or silver pendants or brooches. The term “getting a lucky break” originated from the wishbone ritual, referring to having received abundance or winning a prize. The wishbone has also been used as a fertility charm. Maidens would hang wishbones over the doorway in their homes to attract a suitor to their hearth.