In Britain and Ireland
Touching wood is perhaps the most universal and ancient superstition. It probably formed in the early time of man’s development when trees were thought to be deities. Trees provided wood the fire, for warmth and cooking; a table and a chair; a bed and, of course, a coffin at the end of life. Trees provided shelter from the hot sun during the summer and fruit and nuts for the table in autumn. A branch could be made into a walking stick or a cudgel for building a home, killing an animal for dinner or attacking an enemy. A shepherd’s crook was originally a branch used to hook sheep out of a waterlogged meadow and soon became a tool for delivering a new born lamb. Tall trees, such as firs were way markers for drovers’ routes and for pilgrims on their way to a place of worship. Is it any wonder that trees were venerated and that their wood was considered ‘lucky’?
Iron was another lucky substance as it was thought to ward off many types of evil. Before the days of iron, weapons and tools were made with stone and later with bronze. Iron was a much harder metal than either and was thought to have magical properties of protection. Horse shoes, made of iron, are thought to collect luck from heaven in their arms when placed at a doorway, providing the arms point heavenwards U and not towards the earth. There is a country saying “never pound a nail after sundown or you will wake the tree Gods”. There are several customs surrounding a blade which survive from ancient times. They say never give a knife as a gift or if you give a blade to a friend, he must give you money ‘to avoid cutting the friendship’.
One of the oldest of superstitions of the British Isles involves fairies. These sprites and spirit creatures are often called ‘the wee people’ or ‘the faery folk’. There are all kinds of nature spirits that fall into this category, some that inhabit open spaces, buildings, trees, mounds, rivers, lakes and bridges. The people of the Western Isles of Scotland believed that good fairies, called ‘brownies’, loved to warm themselves by the hearth fire. For this reason, the home fire was left burning throughout the night and, if the home-dwellers moved house, they would take the embers from the old fireplace to the hearth of their new home.
In Ireland, broken tomb stones should not be used for any building purposes. It is important to take care of a tree in the centre of a field. It is called a ‘faery fort’ and is a protection for the nature fairies. The Irish do not pour liquid libations and offerings to the Gods on the ground. They are conservators of their liquor!
In Scotland, three swans flying together warn of a national disaster. If you carry a spade through the house, you will soon dig a grave. They say, red and green should n’er be seen – except on an Irish colleen! Love letters should not be posted on Christmas Day.
In eighteenth century Wales, it was considered good luck in marriage to be given a spoon, often made by a young man for his sweetheart. He would give the spoon to her parents as an offering of his good will and affection. Elaborately carved ‘loving’ spoons now fetch a high price at auction.
Women were very superstitious in the home. Egg shells were never thrown on the fire out of respect for the hens that would be insulted and stop laying if they knew their shells were not used for composting. Another belief was that if two knives were placed on the table across each other, that there would be an argument in the home unless someone uncrossed them. If the bread did not rise in the oven, it would be considered a disaster because the devil resided in unrisen bread. It is also said that if a white table-cloth is left on the table over-night that someone in the home would soon need a shroud. Above all, 13 people should never sit down together for a meal. Some think this superstition originated with Jesus being betrayed by Judas when Jesus and the twelve disciples met at the Last Supper. Some think that the superstition arose from Norse mythology when twelve gods met for a feast when the Spirit of Strife, known as Loki, appeared and started a quarrel which ended with the death of Baldur, the favourite of all the gods.
Many superstitions have developed from primitive religious thought. The superstition about walking under a ladder is not because a pot of paint might fall on you. It is due to the shape that the ladder makes when placed against a wall. The triangle was a holy shape in times gone by, and when walking beneath the ladder, one ‘breaks the triangle’ – the symbol of the Christian Trinity. One of the most common superstitious beliefs still in circulation is that a broken mirror bestows seven years bad luck on the person who broke it. All broken glass is said to bestow ill will and the shards should be treated with the greatest respect if they are not to reach out and take revenge.
Actors are notoriously superstitious and think it unlucky for a woman to knit in the theatre. Cats and umbrellas are banned from the stage area and anyone except a stage hand was not allowed to whistle. If someone whistled in the dressing room, they would be asked to leave the theatre and enter again. The last line of a play is never spoken in rehearsals.
There is a legend amongst British seamen that the Royal Navy named a ship ‘The Friday’ and it was skippered by a Captain ‘Friday’. Would you believe it sank on its maiden voyage which was on a Friday? This is the story! The Admiralty deny that they had attempted to scupper the superstitions of sailors throughout the ages who believe that any mention of the word ‘Friday’ is unlucky. In the early days of the British Empire, sailors would have a crucifix tattooed on their back as this was said to save them from receiving a flogging for being drunk on duty. Whistling is not allowed at sea, except if the ship is becalmed. Certain birds were unlucky to kill at sea, especially the albatross because the spirit of a dead sailor was said to fly into a sea-bird and to shoot one down meant bringing death on board ship.
In herbal folklore Solomon’s Seal will banish poisonous insects, a hazel tree branch that is gathered on Palm Sunday will keep lightening away, caraway seeds prevent poultry from wandering and fennel banishes witches.
Superstitions around the World
Malta has many strange customs. It is not unusual to see a church with two clock faces, one that shows the correct time and the other a false one to confuse the devil.
In Iceland, shooting a sea-bird from a boat will bring bad luck and if an unmarried person sits at the side of a table, they will not marry for seven years. Cracked cups are thrown away quickly because if a pregnant woman should drink from it, her new-born will have a hare-lip. The Dutch were invaded by Danes and it was considered unlucky to have red hair, a sign of Viking ancestry. In China if someone causes a death, there is still a belief that the soul of the dead person will reap revenge on their perpetrator. Nigerians believe that a house must be swept in the morning and not in the evening when good luck might be swept out of the door. If someone visits and leaves a bad impression, sweeping the home, sweeps the bad energies away. If a man is hit with a broom, he must hit the person who hit him seven times with the same broom or he will become impotent. The Japanese thought it was unlucky to pick up a comb with the teeth facing towards the body. They believe that cats are unlucky and that if you kill a spider in the morning, you are destroying a human soul. The number 13 is lucky for them but the number four is avoided as the word sounds like the word for ‘death’. They do not sleep with their head to the north as the dead are buried this way. They say if you kill a snake, you will lose your money. The Greeks believe that crows announce death and say “Go on your way and bring good news”. The eye on the bow of a ship is to ward off the evil eye. Greeks often wear a blue glass eye as they think that blue-eyed people are jealous. Any compliments received from a blue-eyed person can place the evil eye or a curse upon an entire family. The people of Thailand believe that the number 6 will bring a reversal in fortune and that if you dream that a snake holds you tightly, that you will find your true love. If a woman sings in the kitchen, she will be an unmarried spinster. In Brazil, to become rich you must put sugar in the coffee cup before pouring the coffee. If you keep a broom beside the front door, you will deter unwanted visitors. You must never place your purse or wallet on the floor or you will lose all your money. If you eat lentils on New Year’s Day, you will have a lucky year. People from Turkey believe that if you right hand itches, you will receive money. If your left hand itches, you will spend it and that if you see a spider in the house; you must not kill it because it attracts good visitors. In Argentina, they have several coin superstitions, for instance, you should always pick up a coin that has been lost in the street and hand it on to another person. It is auspicious to drop a coin into a fountain and you can make up to three wishes. It is very bad luck to be tempted to take coins from a fountain. The custom amongst travelling Gypsies is to burn a caravan when the owner dies, never to step over food or to drink from a stream that a woman has stepped over.
You might notice several similarities in superstitions throughout the world. Numbers, mirrors, cats, snakes and spiders feature in most world traditions as the poor, powerless country folk attempted to bring some power and control into their lives. In modern day Western society, we have access to education and proof based research techniques, but still the tiniest lurking suspicion remains to shock us into primitive thought if someone puts up their brolly in the house or their new shoes on the table! Article by Wendy Stokes www.wendystokes.co.uk