Non è vero ma ci credo (‘It’s not true but I still believe in it’) – Italian saying
As the light fades and the creatures of the night gather for another Hallowe’en festival, prepare your candies and cookies to placate the witch, the vampire and the ghoul, but spare a thought, too for their sinister companions. Those cats, bats, owls and spiders are traditional symbols of misfortune in their own right and part of an ancient system of beliefs that still persists in the popular imagination all across our continent. If a black cat crosses your path in any part of mainland Europe (apart, oddly, from Normandy where tortoiseshells are feared), you must expect bad luck to follow. Only in Great Britain is the opposite thought to be true. The cat’s power for good or ill is said by some to derive from the fact that in Ancient Egypt it was sacred; others more convincingly point to its role as the European witch’s familiar in mediaeval times. The bones of bats are carried as protection against evil in Greece, though, awkwardly, in that country killing a bat will put a curse on the perpetrator. Spiders are lucky in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, in Finland if you kill one it will rain the next day. In Slovenia spiders are only unlucky on Monday mornings. As for the night-haunting owl, for centuries an omen of doom, according to French superstition, if a woman catches sight of one during her pregnancy, she is guaranteed to give birth to a girl. Each hoot of the owl, a Welsh tradition maintains, marks a local girl losing her virginity.
Inanimate objects of course can also figure in superstitious beliefs. Horseshoes are hung above the doorway in Britain and France for protection, though in the former they open upwards to contain the luck, in the latter they point downwards to decant the luck on those passing through. Breaking a mirror – symbolising not just one’s image but one’s soul – is everywhere regarded as highly unfortunate. (The seven years bad luck it is said to bring was probably how long it took to find the money to replace such an expensive item three or four hundred years ago). In the same way touching or knocking on wood, perhaps a hangover from pagan tree-hugging or clutching religious relics, wards off evil, while sneezing must be accompanied by a blessing and spitting and throwing salt over your (in most cultures, left) shoulder will keep malignant spirits at bay.
Other beliefs are particular to one nation, and pretty peculiar, too. In Turkey you mustn’t chew chewing gum at night as it will have turned into the flesh of the dead. Italians think seeing a nun is unlucky, Ukrainians a priest, but only before midday. Germans dread seeing old ladies in the morning; in Iceland knitting on the doorstep prolongs the winter, while in Norway knitting your boyfriend a sweater will drive him into the arms of another. In Belgium picking poppies attracts lightning, Danes throw broken dishes at their neighbours at New Year, in Holland you mustn’t sing at the dinner table. In the UK hearing a cuckoo before breakfast used to signal bad luck all that day; hearing it while resting in your bed could be fatal. Avoid bird droppings on your shoulder at all costs if you are Lithuanian, otherwise they are lucky – and in Spain never put a hat on a bed, unless you are a priest administering the last rites.
Many of the theories put forward to explain superstitions are as comically far-fetched as the beliefs themselves. The idea that opening an umbrella indoors is unlucky, it is claimed, comes either from the fact that Christians disapproved of hieroglyphics showing Pharaoh’s sunshade or from the shape it makes which symbolises a broken roof. We may prefer to think that opening huge Victorian umbrellas could easily put out an eye if done in enclosed and crowded spaces – even today’s telescopic versions can take us by surprise. Walking under ladders is almost universally advised against (Russia is apparently the exception), on the grounds that the ladder leaning against a wall represents the gallows, the Holy Trinity or even – the appeal to Ancient Egypt again – the malign power of the pyramid. Sceptics point to the more prosaic possibility of a paint pot, a painter or even the thing itself falling onto one’s head. Coincidentally or not, ladder-carrying chimney sweeps are thought to be lucky in many European countries: in the UK seeing one on your wedding day guarantees lasting happiness while in Germany a model of a sweep fixed to the roof as a weather vane brings good fortune to the household beneath. If you search the internet for an explanation you will be told that William the Conqueror permitted sweeps to wear top hats (William reigned from 1066!), that George II of England – some accounts have George III – invited a sweep to his wedding after he calmed a ferocious dog, or that an unnamed woman saved a falling sweep who gratefully proposed marriage and was accepted. To modern eyes neither the dirty, underpaid sweeps of yesteryear nor their hapless assistants, the ‘climbing boys’ as young as seven who cleaned inside tall chimneys, appear very fortunate. A more subtle explanation would be that the sweep was associated with the hearth, the focus of the family, and with coal which the Roma among others considered a sign of wealth. The last word, though, must go to a present-day German chimney sweep, Heiko Kirmis: they bring good fortune
“because they prevent fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Three centuries ago the philosopher Voltaire was a famous disapprover, opining that “superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”
But whether or not superstitions make sense is really not the point, says Parisian musician Justin Chambord. “They add a sense of enchantment, a tinge of magic to everyday life. Negotiating all the banal frustrations of a typical day becomes a sort of adventure when you are dodging ladders, crossing your fingers, knocking on wood and fingering your St Christopher medallion.” For retired Slovenian manager Petra Mlakar, though, the colourful folklore of which superstitions are a part is a hangover from a primitive past with no relevance to modern realities. “Our parents’ and grandparents’ lives were ruled by dozens, if not hundreds of superstitions but almost nobody remembers them now.” Certainly beliefs change: the fireflies which flicker at the edge of Slovene forests in early summer used to be feared as they were thought to be the souls of dead relatives. Nowadays, for teenagers at least, they signify luck in romantic relationships.
The commonsense explanation of superstitions is that they date from a time when most humans were at the mercy of their environment. In pre-modern peasant societies the average fearful person was a helpless victim of the seasons, prey to natural disasters, disease, random persecution by the rich and powerful – not to mention witches, ghosts and demons. One’s destiny was not under one’s control and an appeal to the supernatural was the only solution.
But for citizens of the ultra-complex, accelerated societies of today, struggling with modern technology, information overload and economic uncertainty, anxiety levels are, or are perceived to be, at an all-time high, while our own ability to influence the wider world is still in doubt. Real and irrational fears persist and the OCD-like behaviour that they trigger mean that many of us still reach for magical remedies, whether we truly believe in them or not. Surveys show an astonishingly high level of superstitious behaviour – in one 86% of respondents confessed to some sort of private ritual or wish-fulfilment act, while 15% of trained scientists admitted to a fear of the number 13.
Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that superstitious behaviour is linked to high levels of anxiety, but some, slightly less predictably, have suggested that ‘magical’ rituals work, others that superstitious people are actually more fortunate. Research has confirmed what we know: that sportsmen and women and students, with their mascots, lucky socks and pre-performance rituals are particularly prone to superstition. Both groups are of course engaged in high-stakes activities where luck can sometimes make all the difference.
In a 2003 study by the British Association for the Advancement of Science the aptly named Professor Richard Wiseman found that people used superstition to manufacture their own luck, but that this could be good or bad depending on their attitude. Those who followed practices thought to create good luck – touching wood and crossing fingers, for instance – actually experienced it while those who believed in unlucky numbers, broken mirrors and open umbrellas were measurably less lucky in their lives. A 2010 survey by the University of Cologne in Germany found that subjects could be persuaded that a random ‘lucky’ object, a ball for instance, would help them and this then significantly improved their performance in tasks involving memory and motor skills. Reliance on the completely spurious ‘charm’ boosted concentration and confidence in individuals and teams allowed to keep their charms scored better than teams denied them.
When you stop and think about it, though, it really is rather unlikely that wearing lucky underpants to an interview (in Serbia they must be worn inside-out) is going to land you the job. Nor is it objectively probable that avoiding the cracks between the paving stones or putting shoes on in the right order is going to result in a successful day, that kissing the fuselage before takeoff or choosing a special seat number on the plane will make your journey any safer. How can Friday 13th be unlucky for some nationalities while for Spaniards and Greeks it’s Tuesday 13th, for Italians the 17th? Why on earth should wearing green bring misfortune, yet wearing polka dots on New Year’s Day (as some French ladies assert) have the opposite effect?
However rational we try to be, the urge to exert some control over our little corner of the universe by any means possible can be irresistible. Why tempt fate? Better to be on the safe side and keep your rabbit’s foot keyring with you, even though no-one has ever explained that particular choice of charm. Search for a four-leaf clover (if Polish you will eat it when you find it), or you can always buy one online for around $25. After all, in the words of US author Judith Viorst, “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”
Don’t you know it’s bad luck to be superstitious?
Thank your lucky stars if you aren’t!
A version of this article first appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine
On the origin of the s-word itself:
And from the British Psychological Society in May 2022, a podcast on the psychology of superstitions: