In modern times, the superstition of saying “touch wood” after making a statement that could “tempt fate” is widely recognized. Even those who do not actually touch wood will use the phrase. This belief is often attributed to the worship of trees and tree-spirits by our ancestors, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Another explanation suggests that the phrase invokes the protection of Jesus Christ, as the cross was made of wood. However, there is no basis for either theory beyond speculation.
The phrase “touching iron” is recorded earlier than “touching wood” but it still does not go back to pre-Christian times. In a similar context to “touching wood,” the phrase “cold iron” is said when a taboo has been broken to invoke protection, such as when fishermen hear the forbidden word “pig” or “rabbit” or when factory girls from the Staffordshire Potteries meet a clergyman. Iron has a long-standing belief in its effectiveness against witches, fairies, the Devil, and other evil beings. It is not always clear whether the object or the material is being invoked or has the desired effect in various beliefs about iron.
The superstition of “touching wood” to ward off bad luck or tempt fate is prevalent in many countries. However, in Italy, we have our own variation where we touch iron instead. In ancient times, metal was believed to possess magical properties, making it a common choice to invoke protection from evil forces.
But what happens when there is no iron in sight? In such cases, Italians believe that there is something equally precious that one can grab to avoid tempting fate – their private parts. Women are instructed to place their hand on their left breast, while men are advised to cup themselves. These gestures are believed to preserve fertility and protect it from the ill-effects of fate.
So if you ever find yourself in Italy and need to avoid tempting fate, you know what to do!