Teeth in Folklore

Teeth have been a part of various folklore throughout history and all around the world. Teeth are an integral part of life and stronger than any other substance in the body, but for millennia, how and when they grow and why they can cause so much pain have been shrouded in mystery. Folklore, magic, and the supernatural all derive from unknown and mysterious natural occurrences. With how much that was unknown about teeth for so long, teeth fit perfectly in different oral traditions and customs passed down through different cultures.

Teeth as Protection

Many cultures utilized the mystical properties of teeth by creating various ornaments meant for in or around one’s home. Animal teeth and other charms were hung near the entrance of the home to ward off evil or bad luck by Renaissance-era Italians and ancient African tribes. Placement of charms also played a role in the type of protection they can provide. When worn around the necks of Renaissance Italians, Agnus Dei pendants containing teeth were said to prevent possession by demons. The use of teeth in primalistic attacks, such as biting and snarling, may be why they were seen as protective by ancient peoples. Another reason for this may be that teeth protect an entrance to the body.

 Front of agnus dei container showing latin enscriptions and lamb of god
Lead Agnus Dei Container is licensed by ©The Trustees of the British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Prevention and Toothaches

In addition to their protective properties, some customs also view teeth as preventative measures. The teeth can prevent unwanted objects, like large pieces of food, from further entering the body. Australian tribes viewed shed or extracted teeth as objects that needed protection in order to prevent harm to the individual they come from. A connection between a tooth and a person may also have led to the belief that one person’s tooth health could be transferred to someone else. Far away from Australia, many European cultures believed that carrying the tooth of a deceased person would prevent tooth aches.

Superstitious Beliefs About Teeth

Superstitions around teeth have been recorded in different civilizations. These beliefs could have helped explain the mysterious timings of when teeth would emerge and how teething was commonly regarded as an indicator of the child’s future. Children who were born with teeth, like King Richard III, were believed by some to have demonic parentage or that it meant another child was on the way soon. 

Line Engraving of King Richard III

Richard III, King of England by George Vertue from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Not only was the timing of teething closely watched, but it was also important whether the top or bottom teeth came in first. Both Tanzanian and Indian tribes believed that upper teeth coming in first was a sign of bad luck. Once all of a person’s teeth came in, their arrangement  was also important. For women who resembled The Canterbury Tales character The Wife of Bath, gapped teeth were predicted to live a short-lived life. For men meant to grow corn, it was said that the man’s teeth needed to be straight so that the rows of the corn would be straight. Whether or not teeth determine someone’s path in life, superstitions around teeth were common.

Ivory copy of The Tooth Worm as Hell's DemonFrom around 5,000 BC in Sumeria up to 8th century Europe, a widely held belief was that toothaches were caused by nefarious tooth worms that would burrow inside a tooth and live in the root. Despite discoveries in the 18th century by Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek linking tooth decay to bacteria, instead of worms, this belief persisted into the 20th century. Currently, it is no longer believed that mystical worms cause toothaches. It is likely that medical professionals mistook exposed nerve endings for worms when removing rotted teeth. While most beliefs regarding oral health have been explained by science, some superstitions still live on.

The image to the right is of an Ivory copy of The Tooth Worm as Hell's Demon, Unknown Artist, on display at NMD.