the Culture Bomb

Parallel Memes: Knock on Wood

This is the first article in a series I’ve decided to call Parallel Memes. Remember that a meme is something we’ve created ourselves as part of our social structure. All of the memes of a society make up its culture. Myths are sacred stories that provide the basis for religious beliefs and practices. Parallel myths result when the same stories are told in different cultures. Take the flood myth for example. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that literally every ancient culture has a flood myth with many details similar enough to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark to raise an eyebrow. So that is an example of a parallel myth. A parallel meme is a meme that crosses cultures and has a number of origins all leading to the same meme.

When someone says, “Jenny got into another car accident today. I’m sure glad I’ve never been involved in an accident, knock on wood,” what do they mean? That by knocking on wood, they can effect the outcomes of situations in which they would otherwise have no control? Yes, but they also believe that by uttering the fact that they’ve never been involved in an accident that they have somehow increased the chances of it happening, thereby finding a piece of wood to knock on or touch (as in the U.K.) to counteract the bad luck just incurred. 2 + 2 – 2 = 2. Essentially the subject believes they have the power to curse themselves and others. What’s more is they believe they have the knowledge and power to ward off the curse with a charm or by casting a spell. When put in these terms, don’t superstitions sound silly? And yet people who generally only believe in reality as that which they can identify empirically, often find themselves believing in some sort of superstition. Many of these people are in someway involved with sports, whether as a participant or spectator. One example is the playoff beard, and that’s the only one I’m going to touch on.

So where did this meme of knocking on wood to contradict spoken curses come from? Well, we aren’t entirely sure. Sorry to disappoint. All the speculation however makes for an interesting parallel meme.

Some people believe that knocking on wood stems from rituals from ancient times when trees were considered sacred by various groups. Others believe it originated in Ireland, as one would knock on wood to get the attention of a leprechaun and thank them for the good luck. Or knocking on wood after you speak an unintentional curse prevents the devil from hearing the curse, which in turn prevents the curse from occurring. Or knocking on wood is a reference to the cross Jesus was crucified on. Still others believe it predates the Iron Age, and knocking on wood was a meme to discharge electricity and allow “bad luck” to flow out of the hand into the wood. Some tend to think it is a reference to the early days of Christianity. Before church bells, wooden plaques were knocked on to organize the assembly. I found evidence of an old Celtic belief in wood nymphs who would hear the tempting of fate and come to bring chaos, knocking on wood would scare them off. Lastly, in the early 1800’s, children used to play a game called “Tiggy-Touch-Wood” where they had to “touch wood” in order to be safe.

With so many different origins all leading to the same meme, many even seeming occur without relation to each other, maybe people were meant to be in the habit of knocking on wood. Our current body of scientific knowledge does not support such a meme. But in the future, maybe we’ll discover that there is such a being as the tree fairy, and by knocking on wood you alert them of your presence and ask for assistance in stemming misfortune. Maybe.

This entry was published on September 28, 2010 at 7:02 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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