Waking up I glanced at my watch and realised that it was the first of the month. My immediate reaction was to mutter “White Rabbits”. Standing in the shower a few minutes later I started to think about this superstition and remembered that as a child I had inherited it from my Granny. She firmly believed that if the first thing you said aloud on the first day of the month was “White Rabbits” you would have good luck for the month. My Mother had picked up the superstition and so had I, but my Father and Brother never did. In fact my Brother would often say “Pink Elephants” just to be contrary and he was perhaps the luckiest persons I ever knew. Once he and his mates had booked to go on holiday and the day before final payment was due he didn’t have the money. That evening he and his pals all went out for a drink and landed up in a West End Casino where he didn’t just win the money for the Holiday, but also the spending money and a lot more besides!
Back to “White Rabbits” where did it come from? Well it seems no one knows, but it is in fairly common use in the U.K. and North America, particularly the North Eastern Seaboard. It has been used in several novels and was mentioned in the 1909 book “Notes and Queries”. During WW2 RAF Bomber Crews where known to believe that saying “White Rabbits” brought them protection.
While on the subject of Rabbits why is a Rabbits foot considered lucky? We have to go back to the Celts who believed that whole Rabbits not just there feet were lucky. They thought that because the lived underground they were in contact with the spirits that also lived underground. It was until much latter that a Rabbits foot became to be considered lucky and we have the Americans to thank for that superstition. Africans brought a believe to America that Rabbits, because of there breeding prowess, were a fertility aid. Of course it was impractical to carry a Rabbit around with you so it was reduced to a Rabbits foot.
But here it gets a bit strange, it’s not just any foot, for some odd reason it has to be the the hind left foot. Not only that to be lucky the foot has to be cut off in a graveyard and preferably on a Friday! To be extra lucky the Rabbit has to be killed and the foot cut off on a grave. Oh and the meaner the person cutting off the foot the luckier it is.
I don’t think of myself as particularly superstition, I don’t have a pair of lucky underpants or always put on one shoe before the other, but I would think twice before walking under a ladder. Talking about why I don’t like walking under a ladder is more practical reasons than superstition, I know someone who got paint dripped in their hair by a careless decorator. But why are so many people superstitious about walking under ladders? The answer to this one is not so straight forward. Of course there is the chance of something being dropped on you or you nudging the ladder and it falling on you. However there seem to be several other reasons. The ancient Egyptians believed that the triangle formed by the ladder and the wall was similar to a pyramid and walking under the ladder desecrated the power of the pyramid and was unlucky. Early Christians believed that the three points of the triangle form by a ladder and wall represented the Holy Trinity and that it was thought that those who walked under a ladder were in league with Satan and risked being called a witch and all that went with that. Finally in Mediaeval times ladders were associated with Gallows, both in their construction and in getting a hanged body down. Consequently death was associated with walking under a ladder. If you do walk under a ladder by accident another superstition says that the bad luck can be reversed by walking backward under the same ladder.
Friday the 13th is an interesting superstition as it combines two different fears, Friday and the number 13. In some countries Friday is considered to be the unluckiest day of the week, this is particularly true of Italy. However in Spanish speaking countries Tuesday is considered unlucky. The number 13 being considered as unlucky probably goes back to The Last Supper, where the 13th apostle to be seated, Judas, is said to have betrayed Jesus. In some buildings there is officially no floor 13, numbering going directly from 12 to 14. This combination of day and date is considered particularly unlucky in the Western World despite the fact that there is at least one occurrence every year.
Misfortune is often associated with stepping on cracks in the pavement or the gaps between paving slabs. As a small child I remember two superstitions associated with this, the first was being told that if I stood on the gaps between paving stone Bears would be waiting around the next corner to eat me. The second was the saying “Step on a crack and break your mothers back”, this seems to be a more modern version of the original “Step on a crack and your mothers baby will be black” which is not now considered PC. Stepping on cracks superstitions go back to times when cracks in the ground were said to lead to a Hell inhabited by demons and devils who would reach out and grab you.
Superstitions around Black Cats are mixed in some countries they are considered good luck and others bad luck. For example in Japan they are lucky especially for a spinster as owning a black cat is supposed to attract a wealthy husband. In the U.K. Black Cats were associated with witches and hence bad luck however in the Midlands and Scotland a black cat turning up unexpectedly at your door is believed to be a sign of prosperity to come. In the US a Black Cat crossing your path is bad luck, but in Germany it decades on the direction it crosses, left to right is good fortune and right to left is the opposite. In the U.K. one walking up to you is considered good luck. In Italy a Black Cat on the bed of a sick person is said to foretell death. It really looks like you will have to make up your own mind as to whether to have a pet Black Cat.
A superstition my Granny was particularly hot on was opening an umbrella indoors. She considered this to be very unlucky and that ill fortune would “rain” down on anyone who was foolish enough to do so. One explanation of this belief is from the days when umbrellas were employed as Sun shades and opening one indoors was an insult to the Sun god. An alternative theory is that an umbrella protects you from the storms of life and opening one in your home insults the guardian spirts who live there and they will leave the house leaving you unprotected.
These days it’s considered to be polite to say “God bless you” to someone who has just sneezed. This is believed to have started with Pope Gregory The Great during The Bubonic Plague. Blessing someone who sneezed came from the erroneous belief that the soul escapes and the heart momentarily stops when you sneeze. Saying God bless you was supposed to welcomed the sneezer back to life.
How about it being unlucky to put a new pair of shoes on a table? It seems that many years ago it became a tradition to place the boots of a dead Miner on their Kitchen table. Often this was how the rest of the family learnt of the death and how shoes on a table became associated with tempting fate. It’s not so clear how it moved to being particularly associated with new shoes but one suggestion is that new work boots often had hob mails in the soles and would scratch a table.
A commonly held superstition is to throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder if you spill some.
Back in Roman times salt was very valuable and was occasionally used instead of money. It was believed that if you spilled some it was the work of the devil as he was making you waste money. The devil was thought to stand behind your left shoulder waiting for you make a make a mistake, by throwing salt over your shoulder you temporarily blinded him and could recover the situation. Here again superstitions overlap, in the Da Vinci painting of the last supper Judas is depicted as having knocked over the salt.
As a child I remember that on our old shed we a horseshoe nailed over the door, I was told it was for good luck. The story is that a Blacksmith name Dunstan was approached by a man with cloven hooves who wanted new horseshoes nailed on. Recognising him as the Devil, Dunstan agreed and while the Devil was distracted by the pain of the nails he tied him up. He only freed the Devil when he agreed never to enter a building protected by a horseshoe. Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury in 959AD and subsequently St Dunstan. In the U.K. a horseshoe is supposed to be nailed up above a door with its legs pointing up like a ‘U’ so as to retain the luck, the other way up and the luck would drain out. During the Middle Ages, for some unknown reason, it was thought that Witches were afraid of horses and in particular Iron horseshoes and this was another reason for hanging horseshoes over doors. Horseshoes are now often found on charm bracelets and are given to Brides for luck. One other thing to note is that traditionally horseshoes have seven holes and are secured by seven nails, this ids understood to be the origin of seven being considered a lucky number.
In many cultures to Touch Wood or to Knock on Wood is considered lucky. This is another one of those superstitions who’s true origin is in doubt. One idea is that the ancient Celts believed that spirits lived in trees and that by touching or stroking the trees you were praising them or by knocking on them they were waking the spirits up to come to your aid. There are of course other explanations, Christians will tell you that it is to do with the Crucifix and others claim it is based on the 19th century game “Tiggy Touchwood”. This game was a version of tag in which you were safe from being tagged while you were touching wood.
The superstitious often believe that a broken mirror brings seven years bad luck. Again this has ancient origins. Early mirrors were poor reflectors and very expensive hence it being unlucky to break one, but it was the Romans that made the bad luck last seven years. They believed that human life renewed itself every seven years so that if you broke a mirror it would take a full life cycle to clear the bad luck. The Romans also had a method of avoiding the seven year curse, you have to collect up all the broken pieces and either bury them by moonlight or throw them into running water.
Chain letters seem to have gone out of fashion but where quite common a few years ago. Chain letters all have one or two things in common, firstly they ask you to pass on copies to several more people and secondly they play on the superstitions of the receiver by claiming they will receive good luck if they do as requested and bad luck if they break the chain. Today’s chain letters have nearly all morphed in e-mails that mostly fall into two sources, they are either Urban Legends or Hoaxes. The Urban Legends are usually mostly harmless, for example a recent one claimed a child close to death was attempting to get into the Guinness Book of Records, before he died, by collecting postcards. It asked you to send him a postcard and to pass on the email to your friends. This of cause was rubbish and some poor child ended up getting sack loads of unwanted mail. Hoaxes however can often be malicious, phishing for personal information or getting people to erase essential files in a computer operating system. Don’t be afraid in breaking a chain letter or email, nothing will happen.
Sailors have many superstitions, ranging from not stirring your tea with a knife, via not wanting sailors with flat feet or red hair to not wanting Bananas on board. Of course women are considered unlucky unless, conveniently they are naked which is said to calm the seas. This is why so many of the old sailing ships had a bare breasted figurehead.
Finally one of my favourite superstitions is Saluting or saying Good Morning to Magpies. If while out and about you see a Magpie some people say you should Salute it, others say you should say “Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your Lady wife today”. Magpies are considered unlucky or even evil by many people and a single Magpie is considered to be especially unlucky and this is the way to negate the bad luck. Magpies are a clever bird and some have even been taught to talk. They do however have a bad reputation for stealing bright shiny items and eating the eggs and young chicks of other birds. Gamekeepers are never happy to see Magpies in the breeding season. In Scotland a single Magpie seen near a window is seen as a harbinger of death possibly because they are said to carry a drop of the Devils blood under its tongue. Magpies mate for life so to see one on its own is seen as a sign of sorrow, while seeing two is considered a joy. Hence the old rhyme “One for Sorrow”.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
I’m certain that many of you Puffins have superstitions of your own or know of other superstitions and I’m equally certain you won’t hesitate in telling us all about them.
© WorthingGooner 2019
The Goodnight Audio file