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.


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.

Lead Agnus Dei Container is licensed by ©The Trustees of the British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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.


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. 

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.


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The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is an auxiliary enterprise of the University of Maryland, School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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