No, the title of this post is not a reference to the 1979 disco tune of the same name by Amii Stewart…although hey, if you feel like strolling on over to YouTube to give it a listen, I certainly wouldn’t stand in your way. Anyone who commits to an album cover the way Amii does here deserves some respect in my book:
But no, whether the rumors are true or not that I maintain a fondness for disco, that’s a discussion for another time and maybe a different forum…
I was talking here instead about the practice of actually knocking on wood that people perform when they’ve said or encountered something that’s potentially negative. For example, you might see someone who was speaking of a tragedy that’s recently occurred, or who stumbled across some superstition-trigger (like, they inadvertently broke a mirror), then go and rap their knuckles on the nearest wood surface they can find. The idea is that the knocking of said wood can somehow serve to dispel any dark forces that might otherwise be drawn to whomsoever it was that did that speaking or that stumbling across. Superstitious dread would have it that if you invoke or witness something harmful, then that same something harmful can stick to you like a stain, and follow you around, making your life miserable.
A variation on this concept is that some people will also employ wood-knocking if they’ve spoken of something good, but don’t want to jinx and ruin that good thing by simply mentioning it — knocking on wood is then believed to help prolong the favorable condition.
How does knocking on wood help in such situations?
One notion is that in earlier times than these, people would sometimes adjourn to the woods for privacy to discuss important and possibly dire matters, and they would literally knock on the wood of the closest tree trunks so as to cover up their discussions with enough clamor that any local spirits attempting to eavesdrop wouldn’t be able to make out what was being said. This practice may have evolved then into the thought that knocking on wood — any wood — can set up an interference pattern that confounds visitors from spirit planes.
Another idea, and the one that I’m personally inclined to buy into, is that knocking on wood puts a person into physical contact with benevolent spirit beings — think of essences like tree spirits, wood/earth elementals, and even Gaia (Mother Earth herself). Knocking on wood can perhaps serve as a quick shorthand way of requesting aid from earth-based powers such as these.
But however interesting you may or may not find all of that, the real reason I wanted to bring all of this up — aside from the fact that I myself have a habit of knocking on wood (or, since it’s maybe even more commonly found in our modern society, of knocking on faux-wood…) — is to point out that whenever we perform this little act, we’re essentially engaging in some minor but valid spell-casting. Using a specific gesture or ritual action such as knocking on wood would qualify as something known as apotropaic magic: taken from the Greek, the term refers to sorcery aimed at averting malevolent influences. If you’ve ever knocked on wood in this fashion, then possibly even without knowing it, you were engaging in magical practice. Maybe you’re not quite Gandalf or Merlin or Harry Potter, but you were edging right into the realm of applied sorcery! Magical endeavors don’t necessarily need to involve elaborate costuming and complex rituals. Even the simple act of writing can serve as a magical act (why else is it that we call the use of letters “spelling”…as in, casting spells…?). And more examples abound throughout our seemingly mundane and non-magical days.
Should there be a groundswell of support for it, I’ll maybe next work up a column on the ins and outs of throwing salt over one’s shoulder…
Until then, feel free to practice knocking on wood, and see what happens…