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Fortune’s Favor: Happy New Year & Good Luck
We’ve just passed that luckiest of holidays, New Year’s Day, and I hope everyone has eaten your black-eyed peas, rice, beans, greens with a dime cooked in them, etc. Luck is a funny thing, isn’t it? We talk about it as a fickle force, capricious and careless: “a stroke of good luck,” “the luck of the draw,” and “just my luck!” (implying the Murphy’s Law tendency of luck to be good for everyone but ourselves). We personify good fortune as Lady Luck, a modern manifestation of the Roman Fortuna, often depicted blindfolded and holding a cornucopia or spilling coins about her feet, spreading abundance freely but without direction.
This preoccupation with good luck (no one seems to be courting the bad kind, after all) is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans—from whom so many modern American superstitions seem to derive—had a plethora of ways to attract the favor of Fortune:
- The buying and selling of cauls, the amniotic membrane which sometimes remains on a newborn child’s head after birth, and which were reputed to bring good luck to sailors in Roman seaports and towns like San Francisco and Boston during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- Roman marriages frequently took place at lucky times of the month, such as Kalends, Nones, or the Ides (bewaring the Ides of March, of course). Brides and grooms today still look for auspicious wedding dates, and days which have repeated numbers (such as 12/12/12 or 8/8/08) often find chapels crammed with couples eager to wed.
- Athletes competing in footraces or other games would frequently touch or carry items like a piece of cloth which had touched a winning athlete previously. This is not all that far removed from the idea of a “lucky jersey” or “lucky pair of socks” worn by athletes during sports competitions today.
In America, we have taken on some distinctly Roman characteristics—the symbol of the eagle, the hand-over-heart salute to our flag, etc.—and our adoption of luck as a national totem seems right in line with that identity. We’ve even gone so far as to build a holy city to Dame Fortuna with the glitter and neon of Las Vegas, not to mention countless smaller Meccas of chance around the country.
For all of our belted choruses of “Luck Be a Lady,” though, I often wonder what we think luck is, exactly. Is it simply avoiding the harsher caprices of Fate? Is it rising to meet a glorious Destiny, even if that requires sacrifice and toil? Is it accumulating wealth and possessions with a minimal amount of effort? That last definition, while shallow, seems to be at least somewhat like the glitzy Vegas version of luck we imply with phrases like “luck of the draw” or a “stroke of luck.” As someone with a Pagan and animistic perspective, however, I tend to view Fortune as an active, animate force, someone who does not simply unload cash and prizes on her favored few. Instead, I like to think of luck as the force that provides opportunity, the chance to open doors that have hitherto been closed. She may help to point us down a path, but only we can walk it.
So how does all of this tie into eating those black-eyed peas at New Year’s? Well, it’s magic, isn’t it? It’s quite magical to think that swallowing a few beans or grains of rice on a specific day can influence the flow of Fate in some way. Just as it’s quite magical to think that in a world where earthquakes, fires, lunatics with weapons, and corporations with bottom lines and little ethical compunction can wreak so much havoc, we can take advantage of opportunities to improve things for ourselves and others. If we are willing to make small accommodations to Fortune by way of beans and greens, we can be willing to make larger accommodations, do greater things, and perhaps leave the world a better place than we found it. Living a magical life is not for the timid, because it means that we take charge of our destiny. You may not feel like rubbing a lucky penny is much more than idle superstition, but when you let that action shape your greater actions (say, by convincing you to take a chance and stand up to your boss, or to call for justice when someone is victimized), the power of luck becomes much more important than rolling sevens and getting a jackpot. If we are willing to come to the altar of Fortune, should we not also be willing to walk through the doors she opens, to live bravely and boldly?
After all, doesn’t the saying go, “Fortune favors the bold”?
Here’s wishing you a year of great opportunity, and the courage to make the most of it.
All the best,
Sources & References:
Brunvand, Jan. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (1996).
Burris, Eli Edward. Taboo, Magic, Spirits: A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion (1931).
Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States (1972).
Hyatt, Harry M. The Folklore of Adams County, Illiniois (1965).
Watts, Linda S. Encyclopedia of American Folklore (2007).
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