Brushing Up on Teeth as Totems

Most people prize their teeth for the practical functions they provide, and we know that smiling has the power to make us feel good. But teeth have long served as totems in cultures around the world, cherished for properties beyond biting and chewing.

shark tooth necklace photo
Photo by The Marmot. Shark teeth are often prized for luck and incorporated into jewelry, like this necklace.

The Lucky Dog Tooth That Wasn’t (Lucky or a Dog Tooth)

A Chinese tourist traveling to New Zealand’s Queenstown Airport was recently fined for not declaring what she described as a “lucky tooth.” According to one news account, the woman told authorities it was a dog’s tooth purchased in rural China. The tooth was purported to bring good luck while flying.

The tooth, however, was suspiciously large for a dog. Staff recognized it as a cow tooth.

The tooth was detained due to contamination concerns; New Zealand takes great measures to protect its agriculture industry and unique wildlife. The tooth’s presence, incidentally, was sniffed out by a biosecurity dog.

Animal Teeth as Talismans

Animal teeth have deep roots in folklore and superstition. Amulets and other totems crafted from animal teeth are linked with ancient cultures on multiple continents, and some still hold teeth as good luck charms today.

Alligator teeth for centuries have figured in some African cultures, renowned as objects of good fortune. They were often included in so-called mojo bags or gris-gris. Still used traditionally in some parts of the world, alligator teeth are also popular with modern gamblers seeking an edge.

Some South American cultures believe that alligator teeth mounted in silver or gold bring fortune and safety, according to the book Animal Spirit, which discusses the symbolism of animals in folklore. The same book notes that badger teeth are also a globally popular talisman among gamblers.

Don’t Disregard the Lucky Tooth

The hapless tourist in the story mentioned above may not have been helped by her lucky charm, but research indicates there’s a little something to superstitions and totems.

A 2010 study suggested that belief in a good luck charm could positively affect performance. Such superstitions are rampant in sports, and they often involve teeth; Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber has a “lucky” shark tooth, and former Major League Baseball pitcher Turk Wendell famously wore a necklace made from the teeth of animals he hunted and that he believed brought him good luck.

A segment in the British Dental Association’s dental folklore series observes that animals with prominent teeth—such as rats, donkeys, dogs and wolves—are often considered especially powerful. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder popularized the belief that a necklace of foals’ teeth protected infants from teething pain; wolves’ teeth were believed to possess similar dental benefits.

Of course, the best way to protect your teeth and maintain a beautiful, healthy smile is through quality dental care and regular visits with your dentist.

Austin cosmetic dentist Dr. Dan Matthews is dedicated to providing compassionate, comprehensive dental care. If you’re seeking to restore your smile, please call us today at 512-452-2273 to schedule your appointment at our comfortable Bee Cave Road office.

Dan Matthews DDS
Dan Matthews Dan Matthews DDS The Park at Eanes Creek,
4407 Bee Cave Road
Building 2, Suite 221
Austin, Texas, 78746
(512) 452-2273
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