Source of image: Wikipedia
What do children do when their milk tooth (baby tooth) comes lose? The practices and customs concerning a milk tooth are surprisingly similar across the globe, and the myths and customs can be classified into similar motifs and types.
The Japanese today have a custom whereby if a child loses an upper tooth, he or she is to throw it in the dirt. If a lower tooth is lost, it is to be thrown onto the roof. The new tooth will grow towards the old one and will come in straight.
This is most similar to the customs of East and Southeast Asians, so the customs and myths may possibly have been disseminated by the neolithic agriculturalists and/or the (proto-)Austronesian dispersal.
Countries that share the throwing onto the roof motif, such as:
The Chinese (as well as Singaporean Chinese), whose children are to put their upper tooth at the foot of the bed and throw their bottom tooth onto the roof, which is supposed to ensure that the teeth are pulled in the opposite direction and to expedite the growth of a new tooth.
Taiwanese kids throw their teeth onto the roof
Indonesian kids must throw their tooth backwards over the roof and they must throw very straight or else their teeth won’t grow in straight
Both Vietnamese and Cambodian kids will throw a lower tooth onto the roof, and an upper tooth under the bed
Thai kids throw their lower tooth onto the roof and place their upper teeth under their beds or on the ground
[Note: There appears to be a commonality among Austronesian and Austro-asiatic peoples.]
The exceptions here are the Philippines, Malaysia and Korea. Filipinos hide the tooth in a special place and make a wish; Malaysian kids bury the tooth in the soil
As you go further south in East and Southeast Asia, other motifs dominate, such as a sacred or fertility tree, soil or watery theme
Oceania and Polynesia
Aboriginal Australians: The tooth is placed inside of the shoot of the pandanus plant, and when the pandanus plant grows into a tree, the tooth grow along upright too (cared for by the spirits of the pandanus tree)
Watery / throwing motif
Maoris of New Zealand put their tooth under their pillow to collect a gift, after which the tooth is thrown into the mighty River Waikato of the Waikato tribe.
As you go further north and northeast and northwest, i.e. across Eurasia, many countries share an animal motif and mainly the Mouse, the Dog or a Bird act as an active agent in bringing in good or bad teeth. In the New World, the Americas, there are mixed motifs among the tribes. Some tribes throw the tooth over / onto the roof, others place the tooth under their pillow, while many tribes offer the tooth to an animal helper. Interestingly, the types of sharp-teeth animals diversify considerably, and include the rabbit, beaver in addition to the usual Mouse, Bird and Dog participants. The Rat in particular, is a recurring motif – seen in Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco, Algeria, and Luxembourg.
Countries that share the animal helper motif include:
Koreans kids throw their teeth on to their roof and petition Blackbird to bring a new tooth.
Shuswap and Yupik Indian kids mix their lost tooth in with some meat and then feed the mixture to a dog while saying, “Make my teeth strong.”
Cherokee Indians: Children run around the house with the lost tooth and then throw it on the roof while reciting this phrase four times: “Beaver, put a new tooth in my jaw!”
Argentinians put their teeth in a glass of water. During the night a little mouse will drink the water, take the tooth and in exchange leave some coins or candy in the empty glass. (See Spain below – other Hispanic cultures, including Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia follow Spanish customs)
Mexico Teeth are left in a box on the bedside table in the hopes that the magic mouse El Raton will leave some coins or candy in exchange for the teeth.
Guatemala/El Salvador/Colombia: Teeth are put under a pillow, while waiting El Raton/rabbit to leave some money.
Venezuala: Tooth placed under a pillow so that it will be exchanged by a mouse for some coins
Brazil: The tooth is cleaned and thrown outside, while petitioning the birds to remove the tooth, and exchange it for a new one
Some Native Americans also see a burial in the soil or under a tree (the custom may include dancing around a tree) – likely fertility motifs include:
Navajo Indian children take their tooth to the southeast, away from their house. They bury the tooth on the east side (the east is associated with childhood) of a sagebrush, rabbitbrush, or pinyon tree.
Teton Indian The children bury their tooth in the dirt at the entrance to the lodge. Anyone who walks over the spot where the tooth is buried is said to grow a new tooth.
Dene Yellowknives have their mother or grandmother take their lost tooth, put it in a tree, and then have their family dance around the tree to make the new tooth come in upright as a tree.
Instead of an animal helper, a few tribes have a human intercessor, a grandmother or a saint:
Chippewa tribe: The lost tooth is charcoaled black and thrown to the west while petitioning grandma to help the permanent tooth to grow in strong.
Brazil The tooth is thrown out of the window onto the roof, while imploring St. John to bring a healthy tooth in exchange for the rotten one.
Throwing action/ roof / directionality motif
In Haiti The teeth are thrown on the roof, while petitioning Rat to send back an old tooth (reverse psychology, to trick the Rat into doing the opposite)
Eurasia / Central Asia
Animal motif / burial in a hole or in soil (fields)
Kazakhstan: The tooth is dropped under a bathtub, while petitioning Mouse to bring a new tooth
Kyrgyzstan: The tooth is rolled in bread, and left for an animal with good sharp teeth, preferably a Mouse, because a dog will produce ugly yellow dog teeth!
Russia: Teeth are left in a mouse hole in the ground
Mongolia as well as in much of Central Asia: The tooth is stuffed into meat fat and fed to a dog (Dogs are regarded as guardian angels in Mongolia.) *(Bury it by a tree so that the new tooth has strong roots.)
Afghanistani kids throw their teeth in a mouse or rat hole in the hopes that the rodent will grant them a nice, strong tooth like the ones they have.
Tajikistan: Teeth are sowed in the fields so that children will grow up to be warriors
Animal / throwing / roof motif
Georgia: The tooth has to be thrown high up on the roof of the house while asking Mouse to take away the spoiled tooth, and replacing it with a strong healthy one
Moldova: The tooth is thrown on the roof of the house while saying “Crow, crow, coming from the mill, I am giving you a milk tooth, now you give me a bone one”
Slovenian children are visited by a mouse while they sleep. The baby tooth is replaced with candy.
France: tooth is placed under the pillow in exchange for a gift from Mouse (interchangeable with a Tooth Fairy)
Spain: The tooth is left under the pillow, and Rat will leave money or candy in return.
Pillow and tooth fairy motif – is the tooth fairy good or evil? Sometimes the animal can be an antagonizer instead of a helper-intercessor
Danish children put their tooth under their pillow and wait for the Tooth Fairy to come give them some money.
English children do the same, but during the Middle Ages, children were told to toss their teeth into a fire. This was partly for religious reasons connected with the Last Judgement and partly for fear of what might happen if an animal or some witch got them. It was believed that if the tooth were destroyed in fire the tooth could not be captured by a witch, who could then burn it and steal power from the child. These days, the British people rely on the Tooth Fairy to snatch the tooth from under a pillow, leaving money behind. It is thus deduced that the fairy evolved from the tooth mouse, depicted in an 18th Century fairy tale, “La Bonne Petite Souris,” in which a mouse turns into a fairy to help a good queen defeat a mean king by hiding under his pillow and knocking all his teeth. The US and Canadians follow the tooth fairy customs.
Swedish children put their tooth in a glass of water. In the morning a coin mysteriously takes the place of the tooth in the glass of water. In medieval Scandinavia there was a similar tradition, surviving to the present day in Iceland, of tannfé (‘tooth-money’), a gift to a child when it cuts its first tooth. In some parts of Norway (and Australia), the children also put the tooth in a glass of water.
Lithuania: Teeth are merely kept as keepsakes
Austrians: The tooth may be turned into a pendant or key ring. But if the little tooth isn’t turned into a pendant or a key ring, it is thrown. Upper teeth are thrown under the house and lower teeth are tossed over the roof. (Germans don’t seem to have any tooth fairy customs)
Note: Dr. Rosemary Wells, the curator of the Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois stated that the tooth fairy is only known to exist in the United States and in countries with a similar ethnic background. (Canada and Australia) but Jennifer Walker gives us the following plausible explanation of how the Tooth Fairy tale originated with the Mouse tale:
“Years ago it was common practice for Europeans to bury baby teeth in the ground so that a permanent tooth would grow back in its place. In later years, especially those who didn’t have vast land at their disposal, baby teeth were buried in flowerpots. Eventually, even Europeans gave into the practice of the Tooth Fairy, who left money in place of the teeth.”
The Greek motifs diverge from European animal/tooth fairy ones, follow the Caucasus-Eurasian trail of roof traditions…
Greek children throw their teeth on the roof for good luck. Then they make a wish that their adult teeth will be healthy and strong.
Throwing / roof / burial / bird / mouse / sun motif
Indian kids will throw their tooth on the roof and ask a sparrow to bring them a new tooth. Other children in India throw their tooth at the sun, hoping for a bright adult tooth in return.
Nepali children are very protective of their lost tooth. They believe that if a bird sees or eats their tooth, then a new one won’t grow in. Their goal is to bury their tooth so that it won’t ever be seen or found and eaten by a bird.
Bangladeshi children throw their tooth in a mouse or rat hole so the mice will give the children strong white teeth akin to their own. And the animals usually leave a gift while at it.
Sri Lankan children close their eyes and petition the squirrel to take their tooth and give them a new one. And then they throw the tooth on the roof, running into the house without looking.
River (watery) motif
Pakistani children wrap their lost tooth in cotton, and then throw their tooth in a nearby river at sunset for good luck.
In Turkey parents believe that their child’s lost tooth holds success within it their future. If they want their child to become a great soccer player, they will bury the tooth in a soccer field. If they wanted their child to go to dental school (what kind of parent would?!) then they would bury the child’s tooth around a dental school.
Middle East and North Africa
Aside from East and Southeast Asian countries throwing their milk teeth up high, Middle Eastern countries’ kids including those Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan and Egypt, are encouraged to toss their teeth up toward the sky. The tossed teeth tradition is thought to date back to the 13th century.
Egyptian children wrap their teeth in a tissue and take it outside. They throw their tooth at the eye of the sun, asking the son to take their buffalo tooth and give them a bride’s tooth. This is similar to most children in middle-eastern countries, who throw their tooth at the sun, hoping that it will give them back a tooth to make their smile brighter.
Omani children too face the sun and throw the tooth as far as they can syaing “Oh mighty sun, take this tooth, play with it, and do not forget to bring it back.’
Lebanese children throw their tooth into the sea or field while saying, “Oh sun, oh sun, take the mouse’s tooth and give me a gold tooth.” [Sun motif combined with watery or soil theme]
Libya: The tooth is thrown at the sun while saying ‘Bring me a new tooth” They are also told that this will give a bright smile because teeth come from the sun.
Sun + animal motif
Moroccan children place their tooth under their pillow at bedtime, and when they rise with the sun the next morning, they throw the tooth toward the sun while saying “I give you a donkey’s tooth and ask you to replace it with a gazelle’s tooth.” (Not saying so might beget the child donkey teeth.)
Animal motif only
Ancient Abyssinia (a historical nation in the northern part of today’s Ethiopia, northeast Africa): Children used to throw their lost tooth to a howling hyena asking the hyena for strong teeth.
Mid- and Southern regions of Africa
Roof combined with burial or with bird theme (Backmigration or admixture with Eurasians?)
Mauritania: The tooth is wrapped in a small piece of cloth and thrown onto the roof of the house. If when waking up early the next morning, the child should find a rooster on the roof, he or she can keep the rooster. The child is told that if he or she does not wake up early enough, he will not find the rooster.
Mali: The tooth is thrown into the chicken coop. The next day, the child will find a big fat hen and his mother will make him chicken soup.
Benin: The tooth is thrown onto the roof. If a lower tooth is lost, it will buried in a hole in the ground. It must be kept hidden from a lizard or the new tooth will not grow in.
Cameroon: The child throws the tooth over the roof while shouting “Take this bad tooth and bring me a new tooth.” Then the child hops around his house on one foot and everyone laughs.
Unusual and anomalous customs in Africa
Throwing / roof / moon motif
Botswanian children throw their tooth on the roof and then ask the moon (rather than the sun) to bring them a new tooth.
Running away / stones motif
Nigerian children have an interesting tradition. A boy will hold his tooth and eight stones in his fist. A girl will hold six stones and her tooth in her fist. The child then closes their eyes, states their name, and counts to the number in the fist. They then say, “Oh, I want my tooth back!” Next, they throw everything in their fist up in the air and run away as fast as they can.
Animal – Rat motif
South Africans leave behind the milk teeth in a slipper for the mouse to come and replace it with a gift. (as descendants of Europeans, their traditions cluster with the Europeans)
The sum of it is that a trajectory of mythical motifs and customary practices can be seen, and stories clearly stick around stubbornly, are fairly consistent and customs die hard, people carry their customs and traditions with them wherever they migrate to, passing them on from generation to generation. The customary motifs and practices also become mixed, presumably where admixed populations are found.
It might also be pertinent to note that Japan too has an ancient Tooth Fairy of sorts. A local custom of burying a tooth in the ground in supplication to the tooth kami was recorded in a passage, although this wasn’t dealing with milk teeth, but teeth in general, see p. 58 of A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen :
“… the Hakami Shrine located within the great Shittennoji templewithin Osaka. Hakami was a tooth kami whose cult required toothache sufferers to make a paste of soy beans and bury it in shrine ground. Supplicants prayed to Hakami to release them from pain, at least until those pasted beans sprouted.”
Sources and references:
Did you know that Japan has its own tooth fairy too? (Source: This blog)
Beeler, Selby B. Throw Your Teeth on the Roof; Tooth Traditions from Around the World
7 tooth fairy traditions around the world
Lost tooth customs from around the world
Baby teeth – tooth fairy and worldwide traditions