What is the origin of the tooth fairy? When I was a kid I thought the idea was great when I got a quarter. But now that my kids are holding me up for $5 a tooth, the whole thing seems strange. Where did the idea come from?
-- A.W., San Diego
Well if you're not sold on the tooth fairy, how about the tooth rat? The history of the tooth fairy, who has definitely suffered from inflation recently, is vague. But we'll give you the pieces and you can glue them together whatever way suits you. And one of the pieces does have a rat on it. Basically, the tooth fairy is the result of centuries of superstitions and folklore about body parts that fall out or are cut off, bad mojo back in our misty past. Most folklorists figure the tooth fairy originated in the British Isles, but she (sometimes he) also has a hint of a Scandinavian or German accent.
Back in the day, when a person was buried, he or she should have all body parts accounted for, even if they weren't in their original locations. According to the superstition, upon reaching whatever reward lay beyond the grave, the deceased would have to produce all missing parts or at least have a pretty good explanation for where they had gone. In some cases, people believed that if you didn't bring all your teeth with you, you'd have to go back and search around until you found them. To avoid that wearisome eventuality for one's children, the wise parent saved a baby's teeth.
A related superstition was that any body parts carelessly left lying around could be stolen by animals or witches. If a witch found the tooth, it could be used to cast spells on the person. If, say, a pig should come across the lost tooth, the person risked having his or her teeth turned into pig teeth. Babies' teeth were treated with particular care, since starting life under a curse could prove tedious.
At some point, and these transitions are never clear cut, it was decided that burning the lost tooth would protect the person from witches and also dispense with the need for a long explanation when grilled about it on Judgment Day. The tooth-burning ritual was later embellished with a rhyme that called on the gods to replace the lost tooth with a new, strong one. Then, to turn the old superstition on its head, some people decided that encouraging an animal with strong choppers, i.e., a rat, to carry off a baby tooth would be a good thing. The kid's new set of pearlies would be tough as a rodent's. Even as late as the 20th Century this notion persisted in parts of Europe. So there's your tooth rat.
A fairy paying a kid for a tooth is an American idea, begun sometime in the 19th Century. There's no clear origin for that specific tradition, though the Vikings were said to have paid their children for fallen teeth and strung them into necklaces. The tooth Viking? Not likely connected to the fairy, who seems to be just another example of the enterprising American spirit and the ability of our children to get us to do lots of things we don't really want to do.