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Superstitions and Coins 

Source: Image by Yuri from Pixabay

As Halloween approaches, spooky and seasonal decorations are overtaking shops, restaurants and homes. Whether you are a fan of pumpkins, bonfires or haunted houses, it is a season where superstitions are high and pumpkin spice aroma is in the air. In numismatics, we encounter a lot of superstitious behaviours, so we will take you on a quick trip around the world about the most common superstitions and beliefs about coins. Some of the most famous superstitions have money at the heart of them! 


Probably one of the most famous coin-related beliefs is the one about Charon’s obol originating in ancient Greece and adopted by Romans as well. The coin was placed under the tongue of the deceased to pay Charon. He was the ferryman who transported the souls of the deceased from the world of the living into the world of the dead across the mythical river Styx. Greek and Latin literary sources mention that the coin used was an obol, a silver denomination from ancient Greece. Obols were issued by various city-states, throughout many centuries. However, obols that are found as grave goods with the buried remains are extremely popular archaeological finds. Although originating in ancient Greece, the evidence of this burial custom is present in different cultures with some examples dating even from the early 20th century.  

“Obols that are found as grave goods with the buried remains are extremely popular archaeological finds”

An example of an ancient Greek silver obol from 4th century BC.


Coins had a great significance in the divination practices of ancient China. The word numismatomancy has its origins in Greek: nomisma and manteia (coin and prophecy), however some of the most detailed accounts of how to use coins in divination come from the ancient text of I Ching (Book of Changes) that is one of the Chinese classics. Originally a divination manual from the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), it was transformed in the later centuries and the early Imperial period. Predominantly yarrow stalks were used for divination, however, using coins became widely spread during the Tang Dynasty. The inquirer was to toss three identical coins in the air and depending on where they fall draw a hexagram which was interpreted through the instructions in the book. Coins have a great apotropaic function throughout Chinese history, as outlined in our next paragraph.  

A cash coin of the Tang Dynasty. 


Beliefs in lucky coins are found all over the world. Lucky coins can be of different metals, bent, damaged, holed, found on the floor, carried in pockets, on pendants close to skin or on strings… Who hasn’t looked on the floor to spot a lucky penny? There are numerous variations of how people around the world interpret, use and wear lucky coins. Some of the most famous lucky coins are Chinese cash coins: they have a round shape with square holes and they were the main currency of China from antiquity to the end of the 19th century. These coins feature four characters on obverse and were produced in astonishing quantities especially during Northern Song and Qing periods. They still continue to be produced, mostly as good luck charms. The charms are shaped the same, with various depictions of animals usually added. The coins had a square hole so they could be strung into higher denominations – sometimes even tens of thousands. It is believed that tying a red ribbon around them would make them more auspicious, especially if the ribbon was tied in the Endless Knot – one of the Eight Buddhist Symbols.  

“Some of the most famous lucky coins are Chinese cash coins”

Cash coins of the Qing Dynasty.


Perhaps due to their small and convenient size, as well as high silver content, sixpences are coins that prompted more superstitions than many other British coins. During Christmas and New Year’s festivities, silver Sixpences were traditionally mixed into Christmas puddings. The coin would be placed in the mixture which was stirred by every member of the family. Once the pudding was ready, whoever found the coin in their slice was believed to receive good luck in the year to come.  

There is also a famous tradition relating to weddings for a bride to wear ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.’ The custom says that it is the bride’s father who places the sixpence in her shoe, as a gesture for good luck in the forthcoming marriage.  

If you have ever ‘gone on a bender’ you should know that the slang for going on a prolonged alcohol-related adventure comes from times gone by where one could drink all day in taverns for a sixpence. Since the coins were of high silver content and soft, they often got bent in pockets, thus, a bender.  

A sixpence of William III, from 1689. The small coins are difficult to find in such lovely condition.

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