A twelfth-century-bc Chinese king consulted an oracle and was told his lucky charm would not be a tiger, dragon, bear, or leopard but rather a wise counselor. He soon came upon a sagacious old man fishing in the river and conscripted him into service. It is said the man’s virtue was such that he fished not with a hook but with a straight piece of iron; acknowledging his integrity, fish impaled themselves voluntarily.
When Booker T. Washington and Austrian ambassador Ladislaus Hengelmüller visited the White House on the same day in November 1905, Hengelmüller took Washington’s overcoat by mistake. According to the Washington Post, he noticed the mix-up on finding in the pocket “the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, killed in the dark of the moon,” which he “heroically relinquished.”
A young nobleman in ancient Athens fell in love with a statue of Agathe Tyche, goddess of good fortune. He hugged and kissed it, then offered the local council a large sum of money to purchase it. When his request was denied, he decorated the statue extravagantly with crowns and garlands, offered a sacrifice, uttered a lengthy lamentation, and killed himself.
Suetonius reported that Caligula often cheated when playing dice. The emperor once interrupted a game to go into the courtyard, where he spotted a group of rich knights passing. He had them arrested, stole their goods, then “resumed the game in high spirits, boasting that his luck had never been better.”
When Apple released its Shuffle feature for iPods, users were deceived by the true randomness of its playback; songs from the same album or artist were often grouped by chance. Complaints led Steve Jobs to alter the device’s programming and begin offering Smart Shuffle, which allowed users to adjust the likelihood of hearing similar songs in a row. “We’re making it less random,” he said, “to make it feel more random.”
In Serbian oral tradition, fate often appears written on foreheads. A typical story tells of a man on the run from a plague personified as a woman. “It is not fated that I should kill you,” she says on catching him and seeing his forehead’s inscription. “You’ll be killed by a turtle.” Later, the man mows a field. His scythe hits a turtle, ricochets off its shell, and slices his leg. He dies soon after from blood poisoning.
Sailors’ fear of bananas may extend back to seventeenth-century Spanish ships trading in the Caribbean. Crew members would often purchase wooden crates of the fruit, and when their vessels sailed north to pick up the Gulf Stream in the Straits of Florida, hazards of the passage shipwrecked many, leaving behind stray clumps of bananas floating ominously on the water’s surface for later ships to see.
In November 1934 a team of American baseball stars, including Babe Ruth, toured Japan. When they arrived for a game in the town of Narashino, each man was presented with a horseshoe-shaped flower wreath. Ruth detested the gift; he later told a Japanese baseball magazine that he considered such wreaths bad luck and had never hit a home run after receiving one.
Legend regarding the horseshoe as a lucky symbol holds that in the tenth century, while St. Dunstan was working in England as a farrier, the devil entered the forge and demanded his hooves be reshod. During the process, the future saint caused as much pain as he could, and the devil begged him to stop. Dunstan agreed—on the condition that Satan never enter a house where a horseshoe is on display.
The Cincinnati Commercial complained in 1871 about the game of fly loo, a “detestable canker that destroys men’s souls.” Players selected sugar lumps and bet on which would attract a fly first. “Every afternoon from twenty to thirty of the very flower of our mercantile population retire to a private room and under locks and bolts give themselves up to this satanic game,” the article noted, “while the deserted ladies are languishing for a little male conversation below.”
Archaeologists found in a Utah cave as many as seventeen thousand carved sticks, canes, and bone pieces—gambling items used in the thirteenth century by ancestors of the Apache and Navajo. “Seventy to eighty percent of dice games were for women only,” one researcher said about the find, which may have been America’s first casino. “So what do we have here? Women who knew the games of other women.”