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.
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.
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.
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.
On Friday, January 13, 1882, thirteen men met in New York City as the Thirteen Club; they walked under a ladder, ate lobster salad sculpted into the shape of a coffin, and sat beneath a banner reading morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you”). The following year, the club’s newsletter gleefully reported that “not a single member is dead.”
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.
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.”
“Among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal,” poet John Berryman told an interviewer in 1970, two years before his death. “Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
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.”
According to Pliny, after an oracle predicted Aeschylus would die from being hit by a falling house, the poet began “trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.” His precaution was futile; he was killed that day when hit by a tortoise dropped from the sky by a hungry eagle eager to crack open its shell.