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lays out some lesser known superstitions around the world, explaining how to
avoid the bad luck brought on by seeing a nun, and why you should never pass
food from one set of chopsticks to another.
1 a : a belief
or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or
chance, or a false conception of causation
b : an
irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God
resulting from superstition
2 : a notion
maintained despite evidence to the contrary
But there is
another definition, put forward by old wives and rational, intelligent folk
Time-honored advice you follow because… well, you
don’t know exactly, but why chance it?
In researching this article,
I was struck by how many cultures around the world believe in the same
“classic” bad luck portents: broken mirrors, black cats, stepping on cracks,
walking under ladders, and so on.
To mark Friday 13th, here’s
a collection of superstitions from around the world that you may not know.
You’ll never look at electric fans the same way again.
Fear of Friday
the 13th – or, brace yourself, Friggatriskaidekaphobia – is common,
supposedly because the number 13 is thought to be unlucky. Even more so when
combined with Friday, which is traditionally unlucky according to Norse myth.
Causes arguments in much of the world, and poverty in
Bolivia. Photo by spiritinme
People are also wary of
leaving shoes on the table, because it might cause an argument, and killing
spiders, which is just plain unlucky.
unpleasant events, such as “If Donald Trump becomes president of the United
States,” is tempting fate, and the speaker should knock on wood to make sure
this doesn’t happen.
People in Bolivia also
believe leaving shoes on the table is unlucky, but instead of causing an
argument, doing so will lead to poverty. A Bolivian friend taught me this
saying: Zapatos sobre la mesa, cien años de pobreza! – “Shoes upon the
table, 100 years of poverty!”
In both Bolivia and Mexico, people believe
leaving your purse on the floor encourages your money to
walk away. Mexican restaurants will offer their clients stands with hooks on
them just so they can keep their purses off the floor.
In Italy, as in parts of
the Arabic world,
the malocchio, or evil eye, holds special significance. According to the
superstition, misfortune comes to those who receive the malocchio via an
envious or hateful glance. Round, eye-shaped malocchio symbols are
thought to ward off the evil eye, and people hang them in houses, on a chain,
and from car rear view mirrors.
The number 17 also
represents bad luck. This is supposedly because in Western numerals, the number
resembles a man hanging from the gallows, and in Roman numerals, XVII is an
anagram of VIXI: Latin for “I have lived”, or “I am dead.”
Finally, catching sight of
a nun (suora in Italian) is also thought to be unlucky. If you see one
you must touch iron, or touch the person next to you to pass on the bad luck.
Saying “Suora tua!” (Your nun!) helps.
Hungarians give flowers in
odd numbers, because only corpses receive bouquets of flowers in even numbers.
And never whistle indoors, because it causes your money to
be whistled away.
There are more: spilling
salt or leaving the pointy end of your knife face up lead to arguments, and a
bird flying into the house is thought to be a portent of death. My Hungarian
friend won’t say whether death
comes to the residents of the house or to the bird.
According to Russian
superstition, wearing your clothes inside out will attract a beating! If
friends discover one of their crew has put an item of clothing on inside out,
they’ll give him or her a symbolic punch. Before a test it’s bad luck to wear
anything new, make your bed, or cut your fingernails; and it’s bad luck to celebrate
someone’s birthday before the actual day. A hare crossing your path is as
unlucky as a black cat, and
for singles, sitting at the edge of a table will doom you to another 7 years
The number four is
considered extremely unlucky because the word is strikingly similar to the word
for “death.” (Same goes for China and Korea.) Many buildings won’t have a
fourth floor for this reason.
Since almost all Japanese
funerals are cremations, and part of the ceremony involves the relatives
picking the bones out of the ashes with a pair of giant chopsticks, a few
Japanese deathly superstitions involve these implements. Don’t stick your
chopsticks straight into a bowl of rice, and never pass food between them, as
this recalls the act of passing the deceased’s bones between relatives.
A good friend of mine taught ESL in Daegu, South
Korea for a year and told me this: never write someone’s name in red ink,
because it means they will die. Another fear in South Korea, bordering on urban
legend, is fear of Fan Death. This is thought to occur when one turns on an
electric fan in a room whose windows are all closed.
Charms against the evil
eye. Photo by zoonabar
But it might be more than
mere superstition: Korean scientists have studied the phenomenon, and believe
electric fans can cause hypothermia, and contribute to asphyxiation due to
environmental displacement of oxygen.
Fan deaths are reported in
South Korean media every year. My friend said her students were absolutely
terrified of Fan Death, so she would threaten to turn on the electric fan if
A Chinese-American friend
of mine got married
several years ago, and having grown up in America, had a typically fluffy view
of how her big day should be… until her Chinese-born parents shot down her
ideas one by one, claiming they were horribly unlucky. White invitations and
white flowers were a no-no, since in China white is the color of death, as were
sandalwood fan wedding favors – since fans open outward, and therefore push
people away from you.
My friend and her fiancé
had wanted to buy four millimeter wedding bands, but – stunned at all the
superstitions they’d never known about – decided to run this idea by their
parents first, in case it was also bad luck in some way. Their parents laughed
at them. “That’s just silly,” they said.
Like many places in the
world, folks in Egypt have no love for black cats, owls, or crows – believing
them to be bad omens. A friend who lives in Cairo told me very traditional
Egyptians might sometimes give their children strange names to avoid envy – so
could, for example, call their boy khaysha, which means “rag”.
Some people believe
complimenting a baby’s looks attracts the evil eye. So instead of saying, “Oh,
what a beautiful baby,” try something like, “Oh, what an ugly kid!” Go on – you
know you’ve always wanted to!