There’s something about this picture that may (or may not) make you feel queasy…
Meet Effie Conigrave, age 17 and dressed as ‘good luck’ in 1887. We’re given no clues as to why she’s dressed as ‘good luck’. Nor do we know if this outfit actually did bring her any luck. Based on her frock and cap (and a sizable dose of superstitious belief from childhood), I would hazard a guess that this young lass may have tragically and unwittingly cursed herself to a miserable existence of epic proportions. Not only is she wearing a horseshoe upside-down; she has chosen to do so four times. An invitation for disaster.
Whether we think we’re superstitious or not, superstitions are a significant part of our cultural heritage. Most of us can name a few, though we often don’t even realise we’re actively passing them on. Indeed, many of us don’t even understand why we carry them on; nor do we remember exactly what they mean. (Superstition is also a fabulous song too, by the way).
Do you ‘touch wood’? Say “bless you!” when somebody sneezes? Cross your fingers (physically or verbally as a gesture of good will)? Turn a teapot clockwise or anti-clockwise? Resist opening an umbrella inside? Throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder after spilling some? What would you do with a horseshoe if you found one?
Our parents and grandparents were likely to be much more superstitious than we are today. We still practice funny little rituals such as the above; largely because we picked them up almost subliminally as children but also because of that nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, our forbears were right despite our judgement that such things might be completely irrational. Some superstitions, after all, are downright nutty.
And then there’s the flip-side. To one person, a custom might be a ‘superstition’ when to another it might be a genuine ‘belief’. In this case, customs become a far more meaningful and integral part of a person’s spiritual identity and set of values. At times the line between superstition and belief can be extremely blurry.
Superstition has happily existed alongside religious belief in many cultures for centuries; often weaving its way into religious rituals and events.
For example, superstitions are a key part of wedding celebrations (the garter, something old, something new, something blue and the elegant-riot-inducing catching of the bouquet). Birthdays are full of superstition (blowing out candles, making a wish, cutting the cake and snogging the closest suitable person if the knife emerges unclean).
Let’s face it; we often don’t identify as being superstitious, though our lives are littered with superstitious customs. They even sneak into the workplace. Especially if you’re a sailor. Ahoy. Wishing the cast “chookers” on opening night is common practice in Australian theatre. Its equivalent, “break a leg” is also still a very popular phrase used to wish luck in a variety of situations. We know what it means; and it’s not about wishing a friend immense pain and a trip to the emergency department.
Superstition is also unfaithful. While our cultural and religious backgrounds have a big impact on what we practice and believe, our customs are easily adapted and adopted depending on our immediate surroundings; family, friends, school, pony club, flash mob group, sci-fi club, hairdresser, local pub etc. You get the idea…
In the ABC Radio National series Sounds of Then, Australian oral history and folklore guru Rob Willis gives us a great insight into superstitious cultural clashes in the household, superstition in the workplace, the unlucky colour green and the significance of the moon symbol on a dunny door (for overseas readers, ‘dunny’ is Australian slang for the WC or powder room).
About a week ago, I posted on a social media forum asking people about current superstitions observed by themselves in regard to protecting a house or household from bad fortune, bad luck, witchcraft and nasty vibes in general.
Responses came from the UK, Ireland, America and Europe. Many outlined serious beliefs, some were accounts of superstitions held by family relatives, some were specifically connected to cultural and religious background and some (very amusing) superstitions belong firmly in the realm of fairy tales and wacky notions from times past. “My grandmother always said you can’t cut fingernails on a Sunday for fear of bad luck…”. This is definitely a favourite!
In conjunction with a quick online survey (courtesy of ye olde Facebook friends), I’ve been able to include some superstitions and beliefs from Australia too.
So here goes… a snapshot of popular superstitions observed and remembered in 2016 from around the globe. Hope you enjoy these!
All practices cited here are taken from individuals and their first-hand observation of traditions. No cultural bias intended.
FROM THE KITCHEN: Food & Drink
(UK) “In childhood I was told to leave some of my drink in the bottom of the cup. We all did this, I think, for unseen house denizens. Even now at my age I do it”.
(NE Scotland) “Same here except it brought a death. I still can’t do it”.
(UK) Leaving loose-leaf tea in a cup to read tea leaves.
(Australia) “We turn the tea-pot around three times before pouring to supposedly bring good luck”.
(UK) “I’m not actually superstitious, but I still follow my Mum’s instruction that knives should never be crossed on plate or table, because it would lead to arguments”.
(Australia) “Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl. It means you’re dead”.
(Midlands UK/Wales) “We… were encouraged to break our boiled egg shells… – witches can use them as boats or ships to sail in.
(Australia) “If you spill salt you have to throw a pinch over your left shoulder … Terrible bad luck if you don’t!”
(Australia) “I burn a bayleaf (just on the gas stove burner – no pan) when we argue”.
(Australia) Don’t eat bananas when you have a cold.
(UK) “Sitting 13 to a table to eat – the superstition is that someone will die within the year”. Incidentally, this person admitted that a couple of people she’d sat at a table of 13 in her home died unexpectedly the following year…
(UK) “…if there were 13 people at the table my gran would lay an extra place”.
(New York, USA): “My Neapolitan mother-in-law had a Kitchen Witch doll ornament hanging in the kitchen for good luck; so did all her Italian-American friends and family in Brooklyn, NY. She referred to it as La Befana, the Christmas witch”.
(California, USA) “The kitchen witch was really popular here in the States in the ’80s and into the ’90s. We had one when I was growing up and I have one now. We’re California WASPs [White Anglo Saxon Protestants]”.
(New Mexico, USA) “…my mom had a kitchen witch when I was very little… I and am Welsh/French Norman/Irish/German genetically”.
Calendar & Food Traditions:
(NE Scotland) Never wish anyone a happy new year, before the year is out. If for some reason you have to, follow it up immediately with “when it comes”.
(UK) “When I was growing up in the late 80s-early 90s in Herefordshire every year my parents used to keep one branch of Christmas holly hidden in a cupboard until the following year when it was replaced with a new one “for good luck”.
(UK) “I knew there was a tradition of portions of Christmas pudding being wrapped and kept hidden in the house for good luck until the next year. Same with hot cross buns”.
(UK) “…Yule log. I think you should keep the last bit to light the next one”.
(Australia/USA) “I always have a clean house before bringing in the New Year….If you have a dirty house then your house will be dirty all year!”
(NW England): “Bringing in the new year should be done by the person with the darkest hair…. so they’re the first through the door after midnight”.
The tradition of ‘First Footing‘ (as above) was also mentioned by numerous people from Scotland and Yorkshire).
(UK) “…in rural parts of Greece there is still belief in the Kallikantzaroi – a sort of dark elves with animal characteristics who tend to saw the trunk of the world tree all year but come
out to the surface during the twelve days of Xmas (during which time the trunk fully regenerates). During those days they will wreak havoc souring milk, spilling beans and lentils and mixing them with ash, throwing ash from the hearth all over the house and tying knots in sleepers’ hair.
The way to protect the house from them is to spill rice on the doorstep or leave an upturned sieve in the kitchen – they can’t help but count the holes in the sieve or the grains of rice and by the time they are done it’s dawn and they have to hide in the shadows”.
FROM THE GARDEN:
(Midlands UK/Wales) “We were never allowed to bring May (Hawthorn Blossom) or Lilac into the house as kids. I remember making the mistake of picking some May, putting it into a posy, then being screamed at by my Mum and rushed out of the house. I was told that was where the fairies lived. They’re both considered very unlucky indoors”
(UK) “…never burn elder wood. Traditionally it was the tree Judas used to hang himself but it does spit when burned so is potentially dangerous. I use elderberries a lot and always ask permission and say thank you. And never pick blackberries after Michaelmas because the Devil peed on them. Actually they can be bitter after the first frosts. I don’t practise formally now but the old respect is still there…”
(Oxford, UK) “The not picking blackberries after Michaelmas because the Devil has spat/ peed on them is one we had as children and I still subconsciously adhere to”.
(Midlands (UK) “I remember growing up being told that Bluebells are fairy flowers and should not be brought into the house. If you happen to hear one ringing it is an omen of death…”
(UK) “I was told that you should never buy the herb mint but should instead be given it as a gift…”
(UK) “Rowan trees are also said to ward off evil. It is bad luck to cut down a hawthorn tree”.
(Michigan, USA) “Wolfsbane… to keep the werewolves away”.
(UK) “St Johns wort in the attic to protect against lightning”.
(Australia) “Jade plant for wealth. Rosemary for travel”
(Netherlands) “My grandma used to say not to put shoes on the table… let’s say a box with newly bought shoes in it. That would bring poverty. I still can’t bear (clean or dirty) shoes on the table because of that. I would never do it”.
(Australia) “Can’t do shoes on a table bench or chair…old Scottish thing I think…”
(Australia) “Never do shoes or boots on a table. The only time they go on the table is when you are laying out the dead. Your shoes on table means you are next…”
(Australia) “No shoes on a table… and if [I] put them on a bed I make a concession and put them on their side”.
HORSESHOES & ITEMS ABOVE ENTRANCES:
Traditionally placed over doorways or in the garden, the association of the horseshoe with good luck is a very old one. Beliefs about the direction in which the shoe should be placed varies between cultures. Placing a horseshoe with the points facing up ‘keeps the good luck in’, whereas some believe that by placing the shoe with points facing downward means that the good luck will fall on you as you enter the door. Many people mentioned horseshoes in their responses…
(UK) “…horseshoes are ‘cold iron’ and supposed to keep evil spirits away, hang them with the points of the shoe up so the luck won’t drain out”
(UK) “Instead of an iron horseshoe, my grandmother hung a metal four leaf clover above a doorway in her home. It had an inscription but I don’t remember it. It was for good luck- most likely similar to the horseshoe idea”.
(USA) “I know that people still use horseshoes here in Wisconsin. Hanging them above doorways, especially in rural areas, like above a barn door. I think it’s more a part of the country aesthetic nowadays, but it comes from the good luck talisman”.
(Ireland) “In Ireland the woven Brigid’s cross over the doorway to protect the home from harm… ”
(NE Scotland) “Never give or accept a knife as a gift (money should always change hands) otherwise it cuts friendship”.
(Australia) “My mum is Scottish… the one I can’t shake is picking up a knife that I’ve dropped: mum used to say that if you drop a knife, a man is coming, if you pick it up yourself – it’s bad news. Don’t pick up the knife! Needless to say I used to come home to find the odd knife on the floor waiting for someone else to pick it up”.
(Ireland) In response to above: “I was told the ill luck was negated by tapping the knife with your foot before picking it up”.
(USA) “‘Enterrar el cuchillo en la tierra’ in Columbia is where you stick a knife into the ground to prevent bad weather – often done at weddings”.
CLOTHING, HATS & PURSES
(SW Georgia, USA) “I was always told to never put your purse on the floor, it was bad luck and you would lose your money. If your hand itched, you were going to get some money soon”.
(Scotland): “You should also “handsel” a purse or wallet” (place money in a purse before giving it as a gift).
(USA) One winter day I put my purse on the bed along with my hat. [My ex-boyfriend] freaked out – turns out a hat on the bed means somebody will die. His family was from Arkansas USA”.
(Australia) “…turn around three times if I’ve put a top on backwards or inside out before turning it in the right way. No idea why… other than its been passed down from my nan”!
(NE Scotland) “…if you mis-button clothing (e.g. a cardigan) someone else has to undo it. If you put clothing on inside out, it has to stay that way all day”.
PROTECTING THE HOUSE
(UK) “…with witch balls it is supposed to be bad luck if they ever touch the ground, once you have one, you should always keep it suspended from your roof or ceiling”.
(UK) “I’ve had my witch ball for probably over ten years now. Always keep it at the window. I like to think it does its job. The glass strands are there to capture and contain evil spirits that may try to enter the house”.
Smudging & Saging:
Various forms of smudging were reported as a modern tradition in Australia, UK and USA.
(USA) “Burning sage and making sure you get the smoke in all corners of the house including cabinets and closets, cellars and attics. You can add cedar and sweetgrass to the burning sage. In addition you can beat a drum or a spoon in a pot at the same time and say that you are getting rid of all negativity. Presumably this is Native American. I live in Massachusetts”.
(USA) “Sage smudge the whole house in a clockwise direction when you move in and anytime you feel it needs it. Salt circle of the boundary of the property, also in a clockwise direction. I am in Oregon USA but we lived in New Mexico when I was younger and that’s where my mom is from. She’s the one who taught me to sage. It comes from native American culture and drifted into witchy and new age practices a bit changed. I was saging a house once and a native American guy was walking by, smelled it and asked what we were doing. He joined in and showed us his way which was a little different”.
Haint Blue, Colours, Trinkets & Brooms
(Louisiana USA) “A generation ago Louisiana was full of apotropaic things for the house. A shade of blue paint sometimes called “haint” blue (like haunt,) was used around windows and doors, on a chimney stack, or underside on the roof of the porch. Said to protect against spirits and witches. Brick dust (oxide red type bricks,) was sometimes spread on stoops. And a broom laying across steps.
(UK) “…painting front doors red is positive for the household”
(USA) “In the American South… you shouldn’t sweep stuff directly out the front door, since you’ll chase the luck away”.
(UK) “Every house I’ve lived in (I’m in the north east of England) has had a “lucky stone” hanging up, usually on a door handle. It’s a stone found on the seashore with a hole right through it so you can pass a loop of string through”.
(UK) “I have a black Onyx Crystal hanging on the inside of my front to, to keep negativity away and salt along the front door step”.
(California USA) “…it is rather common where I live to see small mirrors, about the size of a powder compact mirror, attached to the outside of homes, to ward off the “evil eye.” It’s a practice that comes from Asia but has passed into the local mainstream culture, more or less”.
(UK) “…buying a new broom when you move into a new residence because ‘a new broom sweeps clean'”.
(East Tennessee, USA) “A witch jar can be used to avert bad luck or hexes. A jar filled with nails and urine can be buried near the front porch step to turn away a hex laid on a person. Also red brick dust can be spread on the porch steps and windows to keep bad spirits and negativity out”.
(UK) Greek eye to ward off the evil eye…”
(Australia) “…it is a pagan custom to mark the edges of a property where a single woman lived with menstrual blood to ward off attackers. Also most gypsies still have horse shoes around the house and coins above or near doorways to bring good luck”.
(Australia) “When leaving the boat to go ashore [I] always goes once around it anti- clockwise! No idea why”.
(USA) “Burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in your yard is still practiced in NYC as a way to help sell your house”.
(UK) “…any image/ornament in the shape of an elephant should face into the house, otherwise the luck will leave”.
(Australia) “…numerically relevant images and ornaments representing the inhabitants (e.g. 3 = mum, dad, kid)”.
ALL SORTS! From sneezing to feathers to personal luck…
(Dorset, UK) “My Grandmother disliked people wearing green clothes, as that was “The fairies colour”. Peacock feathers were also considered unlucky, so unlucky that they must not come into the house. I don’t know why!”
Peacock feathers in the house were mentioned by many… BAD!
(Scotland) “It is traditionally bad luck to kill house spiders…”
(UK) “Carrying a rabbit’s foot for luck: my mother gave me one. I think it might be rooted in Romany beliefs”.
(USA) “In America, it has been a tradition to bring bread to a housewarming party so they never go hungry”.
(Nth California, USA) “Burn palo santo to feel more at home in your space. Also common to gift when you visit someone’s house the first time, especially if you are staying the night”.
(USA) “My German Mother always said when a person sneezes the appropriate response is “Bless you and the Devil miss you.” I still say it to this day. I’m from Irvine, California and my late German mother from Chicago, Illinois”.
(Scotland) “Never say ‘thank you’ when somebody sneezes – it lets the devil in!”
(Ireland) “Covering mirrors at wakes…”
(Australia) Prosperity Bowl: “I have had one in every house I have ever lived in. The bowl
is filled with equal parts white rice (for prosperity), white salt (for protection) and white sugar (for the sweet things in life). On top I add what I want or need to be caught along with an open pin (to catch them). I have coins for finances and luck, fools gold (to catch myself being foolish with said money), and a small bottle of crystals to intensify. I often add or take things away depending on need”.
(Australia) “First night in a new home count the corners of the bedroom before going to sleep. Then the next morning when you wake you know where you are”.
(Australia) “My grandmother always said you can’t cut fingernails on a Sunday for fear of bad luck… the same family however that threw a beautiful black opal into the ocean because it brought bad luck…”
(Australian/Italian) “Italian things: no hats on the bed, don’t re-use birthday candles, the number 13 is LUCKY”.
(Australian/Asian) “The number 4 is unlucky because it’s pronounced the same way as the word for death, but 8 is really lucky. If it rains on your wedding day it’s good luck – it means your life together will flow smoothly, be prosperous and fertile.
Don’t leave baby clothes out on the line overnight because the devils will come and wipe their dirty mouths on them. Welcome people either outside the front door or once they are in the house, not across the threshold…I could carry on for days with superstitions from East and West, which meet in my mum’s house. Not so much mine”.
(Australia) “…if someone comes in the front door they must go out the front door, same applies to back door, breaking a mirror 7 years bad luck…”
(UK) “Crossing fingers of right hand and tapping wood to show that I hope something is going to happen but there’s no guarantee…”
(Australia) “…don’t count your blessings too much or something/one will notice that you’re having it too easy and will smite you”.
(Australian/Italian) “When I was a kid my auntie slapped me for walking over my new born cousin .. My cousin was lying on the floor at a family get together..she believed the baby would stop growing and I had to walk back over her”.
(Australia) “I originally wanted to get married in May but my grandmother nearly had a stroke when I told her. She says “Marry in May and rue the day!” ”
(Australia) “Every time you let crystal ring, a sailor dies”.
(Australia) “… we never go on a long journey without spending a few minutes meditating in our home just before we depart – this is a Russian custom (they used to sit on their bags) and it ensures a safe return”.
(Australia) “In my new house during building, I ‘paid’ for the land by burying money in the foundations”.
(Australia) “We practice “two’s bad luck” – which means that all kisses have to be either one or three, not two kisses, because two’s bad luck”.
(Australia) “…you shouldn’t cross on the stairs either… no umbrellas to be opened in the house…”
CONTACT ‘THE HIDDEN CULTURE’: firstname.lastname@example.org