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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Signs, Omens, Superstitions and Old Wives’ Tales

Signs, Omens, Superstitions and Old Wives’ Tales

One Mapgpie Is Bad Luck, Think Some - Aviceda
They’re part of the cultural fabric of folk memory, but do good luck charms and a myriad of superstitions actually make any difference to what happens?

Most people know about touching wood (UK) or knocking on wood (US), not walking under ladders, not letting two people pour from the same teapot at the same meal for fear of the second one ’having ginger twins’ . Many heed the old adage, ‘be careful what you wish for…’ In other words, what people want could be disastrous.

The Romans invented ‘superstition’ as credulous belief, not based on reason. Early Christians dismissed anything outside their views as the tales of silly old pagan women. In violent times of uncertain acts of nature, disease and the constant proximity of sudden death, superstition easily took hold: signs & omens became immensely influential on daily life.

In a world of self-believing sophistication and less dependence on ritualistic aspects of traditional religion and almost none on primitive reading of the entrails of a sacrificed animal, people still read horoscopes, get their palms read and employ fortune-telling paraphernalia. Greetings cards contain emblems of alleged good fortune. ‘Fortune cookies’, made from flour, sugar, vanilla and oil wrapped around a paper fragment containing false wisdom or vaguely prophetic thoughts, are often served as desserts to Chinese meals in the west. Unknown in China, they may have come from immigrants into California a century ago.

Omens of Good Luck

So, even today, people do superstitious things to bring luck. A horseshoe hung above a doorway will bless a home, although some believe it must hang facing upwards, others down. Carrying an acorn is supposed to be ensure long life, though most citizens would be hard put to get an acorn these days.

Spitting on a new cricket bat in Britain, baseball bat in the US is an act of luck-bringing. An elephant picture in a room invites fortune, but only if it’s facing a door. A black cat walking towards one is a harbinger of luck; but if it walks away, it takes the luck. Left-hand itching presages paying out; right hand indicates receiving money. This may be the hangover from widespread prejudice against left-handed people.

Unlucky Fridays have become folklore (possibly because of Jesus’ Crucixion on Good Friday) especially the 13th, so good luck may be hoped for if the following are avoided on Fridays: setting sail in a ship or starting any journey, changing a bed or it will bring bad dreams, or eating meat if people are Catholics.

Harbingers of Bad Luck

The list of ill omens is longer than beneficial ones. People shouldn’t put a hat on a bed; place a bed facing north-south; get out of bed the opposite side to the one they got into it or leave a house by a different one from their entry door; or drop a comb or they risk disappointment.

When people regularly carried pocket knives, it was bad luck for a different person to close it from the one who opened it. Seeing a magpie in the past, an ambulance today, is regarded bad luck, unless the person pinches his/her nose or holds the breath till a black or brown dog comes into view. To see one crow was bad luck, two was good luck, three a wedding and four meant certain death. If a bee enters a house, a visitor is coming, but if the bee is killed, the house is doomed; if a swarm lands on a dead tree, there’ll be death in the family.

Sailors of old thought a woman on a ship was ominous and some think the same if ‘pig’ is said while fishing at sea. To kill or injure an albatross was a certain invitation to doom, and Coleridge wrote a poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, (1798), about a man forever condemned to tell of albatross murder as a warning about evil spirits who wreaked revenge on ship and hapless crew.

Milk must not be allowed to boil over, shoes may not be placed on a table and an umbrella must not be opened in a house. Many of these sayings are specific to local areas, but the breaking of a mirror leading to seven years bad luck is far more widespread.

Nothing Rational or Logical Gets in the Way of a Good Ritual

Tribal memory, of things handed down in families or localities often over many generations can lead to superstitions surviving, even when the origins are long lost to the mists of time. Throwing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder with the right hand was meant to throw it into the Devil’s eye should he be standing right behind someone. This may have come from days of salt as a purifier in communities who credited plague and other afflictions to the Devil.

Black Shuck, the black, hairy dog that has many incarnations in UK’s East Anglia grew out of a primitive fear of wild animals, shadows and devilish workings in the minds of the susceptible. From the same region, there is a refusal to burn elder wood, as it was thought to be the wood of the Cross.

Today, athletes are often regarded as superstitious, wearing certain socks or dressing in the ‘right’ order. A soccer player coming on during a game is often seen crossing himself or kissing a talisman, but there are academic studies examining the differences between pre-performance routines and superstitious behaviour in sport. Many of the lessons are applicable to other fields like public performance, endurance or almost anything challenging. People evidently need something to get them through difficulties, from crossing fingers to full, obsessive-compulsive routines.

First published on Suite 101, 22 July 2010.

Photo: One Mapgpie Is Bad Luck, Think Some – Aviceda

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