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Teeth in Folklore
Teeth play an interesting role in folklore around the world. Losing the first baby tooth represents a child’s first step into adulthood, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that myths have popped up surrounding this stage of life. However, as these folk tales and beliefs developed in many places independently, there are a wide variety of stories and superstitions.
One of the oldest traditions for the disposal of baby teeth in England was burning them. This supposedly protected the child in the afterlife, and many European traditions taught adults to burn a tooth to defend themselves from a witch’s curse. Other adults benefited from the mystical powers of tooth magic, too, as traditions held the teeth to be potent magical items. Some warriors in Scandinavian cultures even collected strings of baby teeth for protection in battle.
- Some medieval traditions held that a little boy or girl who didn’t perform the correct baby tooth disposal ritual would wander the afterlife aimlessly.
- Teeth, like salt, protected children from bad fairies in European folklore.
- People in some European countries threw baby teeth into the air, and some scholars believe that this may be a practice held over from ancient, pagan sun-worship rituals.
Where did the American Tooth Fairy come from, though? The truth, like a good fairy tale, is a little more complex than you’d expect. To begin with, the Tooth Fairy is a unique creation of the American melting pot. She isn’t as old and mysterious as her name suggests: She first appeared in the U.S. around the turn of the century. She also wasn’t the first magical being to spirit away teeth in the middle of the night, and some of her predecessors are still around today.
The Tooth Fairy’s primary competition is actually an ambitious rat or mouse. Instead of the Tooth Fairy, many Hispanic cultures carry on the Spanish tradition of El Raton, also called Ratoncito Pérez, a mouse who originated in Madrid in the 1890s. The Italians have a version, too, called Topolino, as do the French, who await the arrival of La Petite Souris. Scottish children also believe in a similar creature, a white rat.
In America, this tradition of a sneaky little trader interested in a lost tooth paired with the concept of the gentle fairy. The gentle fairy trope caught on in the early 20th century, and it appears in many children’s films and stories. She often replaced stranger or less benevolent figures in Disney interpretations of Grimm’s fairy tales. Most notably, a kind fairy in soft colors replaces the tree growing on the grave of Cinderella’s mother as the magical gift-giver and dressmaker.
One could say the American Tooth Fairy is the offspring of these two characters: the rat and the fairy. The idea of a rat in the bedroom seems much less comforting than a smiling little fairy in a tutu.
- Venice, Italy, has its own unique tooth fairy named Marantega who leaves a gift when a child’s tooth falls out.
- Sometimes, children leave their tooth in a glass of water while they wait for the rat to take it.
Trading a tooth for a coin isn’t the only way people dispose of their baby teeth. In a number of Asian cultures, particularly China and Vietnam, children throw each tooth onto the roof of their home. Other cultures modify this by throwing teeth on the roof or on the ground depending on whether the tooth fell out of the top or bottom jaw.
Certain Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee, throw a fallen baby tooth onto the roof while calling to a beaver to give them a strong new tooth. Other tribes, such as the Dene Yellowknives, put their baby teeth in straight trees, encouraging the new tooth to grow in as straight as the trunk. Cultures all over the world have sacrificed a baby tooth to actual animals by leaving the tooth by a mouse hole, a beaver dam, or the home of another strong-toothed creature. These traditions all hoped to exchange this magical little token of childhood for strong, healthy teeth.
- Be careful throwing your baby tooth on the roof: If it lands on its side, it means your adult tooth will grow in crooked.
- Children in Greece also throw a fallen tooth onto the roof.
- Origins of the Tooth Fairy
- The Folklore of Teeth
- Sympathetic Magic
- Fairy Folklore in Medieval Europe
- Abductions by Faeries
- Korean Tooth Traditions
- Tooth Fairy vs. Little Tooth Mouse
- Don’t Tell the Kids: The Real History of the Tooth Fairy
- Names for the Tooth Fairy in Other Countries
- What Is Folklore?