The custom of relying on animals to bring us luck is shared by many cultures. While the roots of these practices often date back centuries, the superstitions have stuck around even into the 21st century. For example, some people in Britain and North America wake up on the first day of the month and mutter “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” believing that the phrase guarantees good luck for the rest of the month — a tradition some historians believe can be traced back to the Celts. It was even customary at one time to pocket a rabbit’s foot for luck, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt carried one during the 1932 election campaign. Curious to know the stories behind other lucky creatures around the world? Here are seven animals that are traditionally thought to bring good fortune.
The reason pigs are considered lucky in Germany has origins on the farms of the Middle Ages. Back then, owning a large number of pigs signified wealth and prosperity. While farmers might have wanted to hang on to a cow for its milk and a horse as transport, pigs weren’t too valuable to sacrifice to the dinner table. Therefore, if they had pigs, they’d never go hungry — something that could definitely be considered good fortune.
Centuries later, these farmyard animals are still a lucky symbol. The German expression “schwein gehabt” translates literally to “got pig,” though the phrase effectively means “got lucky.” If you want to wish someone in Germany good luck, it’s customary to send a marzipan pig to accompany your message, particularly to ring in the New Year.
Along with several other animals — both real and mythological (see: dragons) — tigers play an important role in traditional Chinese culture. One reason for this is that associations in China often relate to language. If the written symbol for one word appears similar to another character, you may find a parallel link embedded in cultural traditions and customs. With tigers, the Chinese character for “king” looks similar to the markings on a tiger’s forehead, so the animals are considered natural-born kings, a symbol of prowess, strength, and good fortune. In China, gifting a tiger charm is done to wish the bearer good luck. Newborn babies are given tiny shoes with tiger heads embroidered on them to secure a good start in life.
South Asia: Elephants
In India and several other southern Asian nations, if you hope for good fortune, you’re likely to turn to an elephant. The animals often play a significant role in religion. Indians call upon the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh if they wish to summon wisdom, success, or good luck. Elephants often accompany Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance, and Indra, god of thunder, rides a white elephant called Airavata.
Elephants are also important to Buddhists, to whom they represent protection and good fortune. Because Buddha’s mother dreamt about a white elephant before she gave birth, white elephants are particularly auspicious. The creatures figure largely into primarily Buddhist countries such as Thailand, where they are revered as a national symbol and signify royalty.
When traveling in southern Peru, you’re likely to spot a pair of ceramnic bulls perched on the roofs of homes. Known as Toritos de Pucará, they are named for the town in which they’re made near Lake Titicaca, and they symbolize protection, happiness, and fertility. The introduction of these ceramic figures can be traced back to the colonial era, when Spaniards introduced el toro to the Americas and they featured in the traditional festivals in the region.
The two bulls represent the Andean belief in duality: Opposing pairs — whether it's the sun and the moon, mother and father, or night and day — are depicted together. If one can achieve equilibrium between positive and negative energy, that person will enjoy good fortune and prosperity.
You may be familiar with these waving cat ornaments placed in shop windows and restaurants in Japan. Known as maneki-neko (which translates literally to “beckoning cat”), the figurines — and cats in general — have come to be associated with good luck in Japan. A few legends explain these origins. In one, a noble stood under a tree in a thunderstorm, and seeing a cat beckoning in a similar fashion as the ornaments, he walked toward it. As he did so, the cat saved his life as lightning struck the tree he had been standing under just moments before.
Whether the story is true or not, many Japanese people still believe that cats are lucky. Across the country, there are many shrines and temples dedicated to felines. Tashirojima, off the coast of northern Japan, is often referred to by its nickname, Cat Island, as the island’s population is reportedly made up of 25% humans and 75% cats. The island was once a center for silkworm production, so to get rid of unwanted pests on the island, cats were introduced. Their population has grown, and the island is now a popular tourist attraction.
Visit Sweden, and there’s a good chance you’ll come back with at least one Dala horse in your suitcase. These brightly painted wooden horses are a national symbol, but they shot to international fame when a supersized one appeared outside the Swedish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. And when Swedish premier Göran Persson arrived in the United States on official business in 1996, he presented one to then-President Clinton.
Dala horses aren’t just a souvenir, however. They’re a reminder that for centuries, Swedes have considered horses to be lucky. As far back as the Viking era, they were a good luck charm — burying wooden horses in the graves of warriors would send them on their way to the next world. That wish for safe passage is no coincidence if you understand that Odin, the Norse god of war, rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir who could gallop on water and fly. These days, the Dala horse is a nod to that long-standing tradition, and Swedes place the talisman in a window to bring good luck to their homes.
The ancient Egyptians revered a number of creatures, one of which was the scarab beetle, a large dung beetle that was common in the region. Khepri, god of the morning sun and by extension the renewal of life, was depicted as a scarab beetle or a man with a scarab for a head. When the pharaohs were around, seals bore a scarab design. The beetles also featured in jewelry of the time. Decorative scarabs were painted in symbolic colors: red for the sun god, yellow for the desert, or blue for the Nile. Some amulets even made it into tombs among the treasures the pharaohs would take with them to enjoy in the afterlife. Scarab trinkets are still produced in Egypt today: Buy a souvenir from an Egyptian trader and you might find one wrapped up with your purchase to wish you good fortune.