Coins have been in use for thousands of years, so it’s no wonder that folklore has arisen about them.
In folklore, coins often have the ability to change fate or create good fortune: this power may be tied to the value of precious metals that most coins have been made of. Little to no folklore exists about base metal coins.
Most people are familiar with the legends of leprechauns, small mischievous folk with magical stores of gold. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, claimed that this gold came from “treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time.” Given the number of coin hoards dug up in the British Isles, this legend isn’t so far-fetched!
Wishing wells and fountains are some of the most innocuous–and widespread–folklore about coins. It’s possible that this practice dates back to pagan sacrificial traditions of gods or spirits living in wells and springs; an offering of precious metal brings about one’s desired outcome.
Sometimes the coins themselves are held to have special properties. The American “Mercury dime” is one of the favorites for “lucky” coins. ue in part to the silver in the coin, as well as its association with Mercy, the Roman god of games of chance and prestidigitation (though the image on the front of the coin is Liberty, not Mercury.) Mercury dimes struck in leap years during the 29-year run of the coin are considered particularly lucky, and the coin is often used as a hoodoo token and an aid to gamblers. It’s even been said to fight off evil; just punch a hole in the coin, thread a piece of red string through it, and tie it onto your ankle. If someone tries to curse someone wearing a silver dime, the dime will turn black and deflect the attack. If you suspect you’ve already been cursed, folklore suggests putting a silver dime under your tongue to detect the spell.
Many old household chores, such as churning butter, are said to be vulnerable to witchcraft, and can be protected by placing a silver dime in the area (under the churn, for instance.) Some say the coin must be heated and tossed into the churn; others think the “In God We Trust” motto is the efficacious aspect, though the motto only dates back to the 1860’s on coinage. (If this proves ineffective, the milk can be scalded in fire or whipped with sticks, inflicting pain on the evil person inflicting the curse.)
Some hold that pennies are luckier than dimes; the Indian Head cent is a special favorite for a “lucky penny.” A copper cent coin minted from 1859 to 1909 (when it was replaced by Lincoln cent), the Indian Head penny is considered especially powerful in folklore. Nailed around doors or windows, they are said to be able to keep unfriendly viewers away from one’s property.
Coins have also been said to be very powerful for purposes of healing. The famous Lee Penny, an Edward I groat obtained by Sir Simon Lockhart while on crusade in the Holy Land, is one of the most legendary healing coins. Set with a triangular red stone, the coin was exempted from the Church of Scotland’s ban on charms, and is said to cure rabies, bleeding, and other medical issues. During the reign of Charles I, it was borrowed by the citizens of Newscastle as protection against the plague. The charm is used by dipping the coin twice in water, with a final swirl; no words must be spoken during this process, lest the user be accused of sorcery. In the Appalachians, someone with a gift of healing are said to be able to rub a wart with a coin, then instruct the former wart-sufferer to spend the coin, giving away the wart in the process.
One of the more potent uses of coins in folklore is their use as “totenpässe,” passports of the dead. In many traditions, the dead must pay a price to enter the afterlife or be shut out forever as wandering spirits. Many funerary rites include placing coins on the eyes or in the mouths of the dead, so they can pay their fare and move on to the next world.
Whether you believe any of the tales or not, coin folklore is old, established, and here to stay. It’s something to think about the next time you stumble across a penny lying in your path.