On Saint Patrick’s Day, the Irish celebrate lucky charms like a leprechaun or a pot of gold—but they’re not the only symbols of good fortune.
Many animals are considered auspicious in various cultures worldwide, from India to Egypt to the Americas.
In Cambodia, where fish are associated with “health, well-being, and good fortune,” a species called the try kantrop is particularly lucky, says Barry Kaufkins, a folklorist at Western Kentucky University. (Also read about animal superstitions around the world.)
In fact, this species inspired a product for treating anemia in people with iron deficiencies.
When Canadian physician Christopher Charles was in Cambodia researching the health problem about a decade ago, he observed how important fish—and try kantrop—are in the country.
That gave him the idea of placing fish-shaped iron ingots into cooking pots; the boiling water releases iron into the food, without any impact on taste.
Now a product called Lucky Iron Fish, these small, reusable objects can treat short-term iron deficiency in some people.
Across Asia and Europe, crickets are a symbol of good luck, says Jeanne Ewert, a specialist in folklore studies at the George F. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida.
They were even kept as pets as in the Charles Dickens’ story “The Cricket on the Hearth.”
“It was considered very bad luck to kill a cricket because they sing and harm no one,” Ewert says.
In ancient Egypt, the most important amulet was the scarab, usually modeled after the common Egyptian dung beetle, Scarabaeus sacer.
This insect was “symbolically as sacred to the Egyptians as the cross is to Christians,” according to the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee.
Images of scarabs were believed to bring good fortune, in this world and the next, if sewn in to the wrappings of your mummy. (Read how dung beetles can navigate via the Milky Way.)
In many cultures, the iconic ladybug, with its spotted red wings, is thought to bring good luck. In the United States, it’s a fortuitous sign if a ladybug lands on you.
That’s because the beetle is “dedicated to the Virgin Mary,” a central figure in the Christian religion, says Dan Melia, a professor of Celtic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In other words, “it’s ‘our lady’s bug,’” he says.
Ladybugs have associations with the divine in many languages. In Sanskrit, the beetle’s name means “Indra’s shepherd”; Indra is a Hindu god.
In Asia, particularly China and Japan, people view red-crowned cranes as fortunate because they’re linked to longevity, and are thought to live a thousand years, Ewert says. (In reality, a red-crowned crane lives about 30 years in the wild.)
Cranes in general are “nearly universally lucky” around the world, she adds. This may be because these tall, elegant birds pair bond and stay together for years or until one of them dies.
The mating dance of the red-crowned crane (watch) is “such an exuberant thing,” Ewert adds.
“They are symbols of pure happiness.” (See beautiful pictures of whooping cranes.)
Elephants are lucky in China, Ewert says, and also in India, where they’re connected to the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh.
In the Hindu religion, Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, especially at the start of an endeavor.
In Buddhism, a gray elephant symbolizes the untrained mind—agitated and potentially destructive. After practicing the religion, the mind becomes controlled, strong, and serene—and is then represented by a white elephant.
Luck of the Irish
It “is culturally notable” that animals aren’t anthropomorphized in folktales or considered lucky in Ireland, Melia says, especially since it’s so common elsewhere. (See 17 pictures that transport you to Ireland.)
Even their rugby team mascot is a plant: The shamrock.
Is it four-leafed? We’ll take it!