Every region and culture in the world has its own superstitions – beliefs that certain actions or events can have results that are either unexplained, or the work of supernatural forces. Modern, developed, and technology-driven societies tend to be seen as less superstitious and tradition-bound, and perhaps with good reason. However, even in the most developed countries in the world, quite a number of superstitions persist to this day.Some of course make their way into etiquette – for example, saying “bless you” whenever someone sneezes. Few people today really believe that their automatic response saves the sneezer from death or disease, but the response persists, and failure to respond may be seen as rude. Other superstitions, however, are still in existence, and there are plenty of people who will laugh at themselves but diligently take the recommended precautions to keep away bad luck or attract good fortune.
Superstitions relating to ladders, mirrors, and black cats are of course well-known and widespread, but here are a few European superstitions that you may not have heard of.
The kitchen witch
In the Scandinavian countries and Germany, it is considered good luck to have a homemade doll or puppet in the kitchen, in the form of a witch. Known as a “kitchen witch” or a “cottage witch”, the doll is considered to be particularly lucky when gifted to friends or family. For the most part, the kitchen witch is said to prevent minor kitchen mishaps such as boilovers, spills, and burnt food, but in addition, it’s also thought to be lucky in general, keeping away evil spirits and misfortune from the house.
The dead cat in the walls
This tradition exists in other parts of Europe too, and it’s also been recorded in the US, but it was probably the most widespread in the United Kingdom. The belief is that having a dead cat sealed within the walls of a house keeps evil away. It’s not clear exactly how this is supposed to work, and the practice isn’t followed today. However, dried up corpses of cats and rats have been found within the walls of old buildings; certainly not a pleasant surprise to find when renovating your house!
In the mouth of the wolf
The Italian phrase “In bocca al lupo!” is used to wish performers good luck before they hit the stage, and translates to “In the mouth of the wolf!” It comes from a combination of the superstition against saying positive things to someone undertaking an important task (this is thought to be unlucky) and the popular and unfortunate perception of the wolf as an evil creature. The idea is that by wishing the performer ill luck, you ensure that they have good luck. In this sense, it’s very similar to the English phrase, “Break a leg!” The Italian phrase however has a comeback: “Crepi il lupo!” or “May the wolf die!”
The Blarney Stone
Blarney Castle is a medieval castle in the town of Blarney in Ireland, and it’s now a popular tourist attraction. The castle is beautiful and has plenty to see, such as the rooms themselves, the surrounding rock formations, and massive gardens, including a “poison garden”. One of the main and most famous attractions is the Blarney Stone. According to local lore, kissing the Blarney Stone, which is also known as the Stone of Eloquence, gives the kisser the “gift of the gab”. And if you think that’s an absurdly easy way to gain the gift of the gab, there’s more – in order for it to work, you need to go all the way to the top of the castle, sit at the edge of a parapet with your back facing the stone, and lean over backwards, dangling over a sheer drop while someone holds you by the legs. There are now handrails to make it easier and safer to kiss the stone, but it’s still no easy task.
Tycho Brahe days
Tycho Brahe was a Danish astrologer, astronomer, magician, and alchemist, and although he doesn’t seem to have actually mentioned these unlucky days in his work, they have become forever associated with him. These are specific dates in each month of the year when, according to Scandinavian folklore, people are advised to avoid planning or carrying out important tasks and events. The superstition primarily relates to magic – spells, for example, should not be cast on these days – but it is also applied to personal and business activities. Since there is no definitive source, there is no definitive list of Tycho Brahe days, but usually, there are around 30 to 40 specific dates in the year that are considered inauspicious or unlucky.
The sign of the horns
Most people associate the sign of the horns with heavy metal music. However, the sign is much older, and has its origins in an Italian superstition, which is also shared by other Mediterranean cultures. The sign of the horns is meant to invoke supernatural protection against misfortune and bad luck. Many Italians use it when confronted by unpleasant or unfortunate events, and sometimes even when talking about such events, similar to the more widespread superstition of knocking on wood. Quite famously, Giovanni Leone, Prime Minister of Italy for short periods during the ‘60s, was photographed making the sign of the horns in public on more than one occasion. Once was when shaking hands with patients during a cholera epidemic – his other hand was behind his back, making the sign of the horns, supposedly to keep him from falling ill himself.
Toasting with water
This is a taboo that exists in many places in the world, but we’re told that it’s taken a lot more seriously in Germany, where it’s a sort of superstition. Here, toasting with water is not just bad manners, it’s terrible, terrible luck. It’s said that if you must, you can use an empty glass, but never one containing water. Apparently, the superstition comes from a time when a toast was an offering to the gods.
Avoiding negative hand gestures
This is a rather elaborate Russian superstition that has to do with using hand gestures to illustrate what you’re talking about. Hand gestures are a universal accompaniment to speech, but according to Russian folklore, when using them to illustrate anything unpleasant or unfortunate, you should never do so on your own or anyone else’s person. What this means is that if, for example, you were explaining to a friend how another friend got cut their finger nearly chopped off by a knife, you wouldn’t make a cutting gesture on your own finger or your friend’s finger. If you did, you would be inviting the same misfortune upon yourself or your friend. However, if you do make such a gesture, don’t worry – all is not lost. All you need to do is drive away the specific misfortune you have just invited by promptly wiping your finger with the palm of your other hand, and then blowing on it.
Tuesday the 13th in Spain
Across most of the world, Friday the 13th is the day that is supposed to be unlucky. In Spain however, and in many Spanish-speaking parts of the world, it’s Tuesday the 13th that you need to worry about. This is the day of bad luck, and many people consciously avoid scheduling important events on this day. This is at least partly because Tuesday, apparently, is ruled by Mars – in fact, martes, the Spanish word for Tuesday, comes from the name of the planet – and Mars of course is associated with war and destruction.
Spilling water behind a traveler
In Serbia, there is a traditional custom that involves spilling a little water behind someone as they leave for an important journey. The “journey” need not necessarily involve travel; they could simply be heading off for some important job down the road. Water of course flows easily and is difficult to stop, as anyone who’s tipped over a glass on their kitchen table knows, and the deliberate spilling of a little water is meant to impart to the traveler good luck in the form of exactly such ease and unstoppability.
The first-foot custom exists in several places, and has to do with the first person to set foot in a house on New Year’s Day. In Greece it’s called podariko; in Georgia it’s called mekvle; and in Scotland it’s called first-foot or qualtagh. According to the superstition, the first person who steps into the house at new year begins brings good luck or bad, depending upon whether or not they meet certain criteria. The specifics of the superstition vary from place to place. In some traditions, the first-foot shouldn’t be a resident of the house, and should be tall, dark-haired, and male. In some places, the family looks for a carol-singer to be the first foot, and in other places, they simply find a friend or family member who’s considered cheerful and fortunate. Sometimes, the first-foot may be welcomed with food, drink, and singing.
Russia has a number of traditions and superstitions relating to death and funerals. Many of them involve the usual elements of purity, the soul or spirit, religion, money, food, or personal belongings for the next life. However, there’s one rather unusual and specific superstition that has to do with the handkerchiefs used at a funeral to wipe away tears. According to this superstition, bringing a tear-soaked hanky home from a funeral means bringing sorrow and death into your house. Hankies used at a funeral must therefore always be thrown away immediately after the funeral, and should never be brought home.
Knocking on the Stammtisch
From Germany comes another superstition to do with drinking. A Stammtisch is a regular meeting of the same group of people at a local pub or restaurant. The table at which this group meets is also called a Stammtisch, and according to the superstition, whenever you go to your meeting, you should slam your fist down on the table instead of waving or shaking hands. Apparently, at some time in the past, people at Stammtische were fairly concerned about the possibility of the devil turning up at their meetings in the shape of one of their friends. Luckily for them, there was a simple way to find out whether the devil had in fact turned up. Stammtisch tables were usually made of oak wood, and legend has it that the oak is holy, so the devil can’t touch it. Pounding one’s fist on the table was therefore a good way to prove that the person who’s turned up for the Stammtisch was themselves, and not the devil. It’s fair to assume that few people today are concerned about the devil gatecrashing their meetings, but the tradition is still fairly popular, especially among older people.
Are you superstitious? What local superstitions exist where you live? Let us know in the comments!