The Ancient Custom of “Knocking on Wood”

Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990, photographer  Created / Published  1939 Apr.
Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990, photographer
Created / Published
1939 Apr.

I grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia in a small town filled with some of the hardest working and most honest people I will probably ever have the privilege of knowing.

My father’s circle of friends consisted almost entirely of farmers, factory workers and strong Appalachian men.  These individuals wore denim to work every day and lived their lives in a manner most folks these days would find peculiar and foreign.  They chewed ‘backer, carried pocketknives, and were the precise type of people you wanted to have on your side if things ever hit the fan and humanity was forced to go back to living off the land again.

Though hardly any of these men went to church regularly and when it came to spiritual matters they largely seemed disinterested, they all seemed to share one commonality: They were staunch adherents to old Appalachian superstitions.

My dad would never allow someone else to fold a pocketknife he had open, for doing so was said to bring bad luck.  When a bird was heard chirping out the window, it was feared that someone close by would soon die.  Once a death did come, we’d brace ourselves for the inevitable second… and third, for death came in threes.

These were but a handful of the hundreds of mountain superstitions that had been passed down for generations — superstitions that were practiced throughout my childhood.

As rich and wonderful as these ancient beliefs were, my favorite superstitious ritual would typically go as follows: Either my father or one of his buddies would be bragging about something, “Yeah, that new engine I overhauled is running like a ‘skeer’d rabbit’, ain’t had a bit of trouble!”  This statement would immediately be followed by the person speaking knocking their knuckle against n something wooden.  Occasionally they would throw in the statement, “knock on wood” immediately after stating something good.

They feared that by bragging on something (their health, a newly overhauled engine, a successful business, etc.), they would be “jinxing it”. “Knocking on wood” was done in hopes of warding off this misfortune.

Though this practice is commonplace, even to this day throughout the mountains of Appalachia, there seems to be very little agreement as to its origins.

According to the August 1930 issue of Popular Mechanics, “Knocking on wood became a superstition when an ancient conceived the similarity between it and knocking on the Cross (of wood).  Some cross their fingers for the very same reason.

Other historians argue that the mountain practice of knocking on wood can be traced to German folklore, to a time when fairies and spirts were believed to have lived in trees.

Pagan people would knock on or touch wood to request good luck or to distract spirits with evil intentions. When in need of a favor or some good luck, one politely mentioned this wish to a tree and then touched the bark, representing the first “knock”. The second “knock” was to say “thank you”. The knocking was also supposed to prevent evil spirits from hearing your speech and as such stop them from interfering. Alternatively, some traditions have it that by knocking upon wood, you would awaken and release the benevolent wood fairies that dwelt there.

During the 1700s, men would knock on the wood stock of their muzzle-loading rifles to settle the black powder charge, ensuring the weapon would fire reliably.

Though the origins of knocking on wood remains a mystery to many, the practice continues to this day throughout our region and is for many more something that is done more out of habit and ritual than out of an actual fear.

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