Ever wondered about the origins of common superstitions? Discover why raw onion is believed to ward against baldness, why four-leafed clovers are considered lucky and much more. Author Max Cryer investigates in the fascinating book Superstitions and we we have them from Exisle Publishing.
- What is it like to a psychic?
- Dinky-di Aussies: how slanguage helped form a new national identity
- Book corner: we review All the Stars in the Heavens
1. The superstitions behind umbrellas
The name is descended from the Latin diminutive umbra, meaning shade or shadow. For many centuries umbrellas were soley for protection from the sun. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it seemed to occur to anyone they could also protect from rain.
Naturally superstition gathered around them. The most common of them was not to open an umbrella inside the house – something bad will come of it. Nor must it ever be laid – even unfurled – on a bed or table.
And any woman yet unmarried who drops her umbrella must wait for someone else to pick it up. If she retrieves it herself, she will never wed.
2. The superstition behind our beds
For those who are unmarried, a suspicion might offer some help. It concerns ‘turning’ or ‘making’ a bed each day:
If one day you would be wed,
Turn your bed from foot to bed.
Married or not, the susperstitious abide by the belief that whatever side of the bed you get into a night is the side you must get out of in the morning. Not doing so will cause disruption. In fact, the belief resulted in the saying that someone disgruntled ‘got out the wrong side of the bed’. (However, any potential disruption caused by inadvertently getting out on the ‘wrong’ side can be adverted by putting one’s socks on the right foot first, then the left.)
The jury is still out on the ancient and vexed superstition regarding getting out of bed ‘backwards’. One school of thought decrees it is to be back luck, but the opposition says it is good luck. It’s probably best avoided by getting out of bed frontwards.
3. The superstitions behind baldness
In spite of extensive advertising claims to the contrary, most men afflicted by baldness find the condition irreversible. An American superstition claims that baldness can be delayed by cutting the existing hair very short, then singeing the cut ends.
What unusual superstitions have you heard?
Another superstition claims that when a man starts to go bald, he can slow the process by stuffing cyclamen leaves up his nose. And sprinkling parsley seeds on the head three times a year is also believed to help.
Three other cures have come to us from ancient traditions – albeit two of them might be rather difficult to obtain:
- Rubbing with raw onion might help, but it is best done when you’re going to be alone for a while. After rubbing, smear with honey.
- Believed to be more effective is a poultice of goose dung.
- Best of all – if you can get it – herbalist William Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence against all Sickness (published in 1562) offers the best preventative: poultices made of fat from the body of a bear.
4. The superstitions behind peas
If your peas don’t come from frozen in a bag from the supermarket, but are actually shelled out of their pods within the household, watch out for any pod which contains either just one pea – or nine, for good luck will then come to you. And if the pod which housed nine peas is rubbed on a wart, it will cure it. . . or so the superstition says.
Finding nine peas in a pod is believed to be good luck
5. The superstitions behind garlic
As far back as Ancient Egypt, garlic has been credited as a protection against a wide range of problems – and not just for its notable flavour.
At least two versions of its origin ignore that it is just a plant, allium sativum, a tasty and aromatic member of the onion family. Early Egyptians perceived garlic as a gift from the gods, but post-biblical mythology decreed that it grew where Satan’s left food trod as he was evicted fom the Garden of Eden (the print of his right foot gave rise to ordinary onions).
Supstition has credited garlic with various powers: protecting sailors from storms and shipwreck; giving soldiers courage; protecting miners from evil underground demons; if placed under the pillows of babies, protecting them overnight; and as a household garlands to protect against illness, witches, robbers and vampires.
The perceived connection between vampires and garlic was slow in reaching the English language. The first vampire story in English, The Vampyre by John Polidori (1819) makes no mention of garlic. Irish author Bram Stocker’s later vampire novel, Dracula (1897), introduced the powerful effects between vampires and what they greatly fear: daylight – and garlic. But as a protection it had been widely used for long before that – against toothache, sunstroke, leprosy, even bed-wetting.
Medical research can identify a genuine physical condition called alliumphobia – a powerful dislike, even fear of garlic. And there is a medical theory that some people simply must not each garlic because it causes disorder in certain blood types. Scholars point out that this condition, and its necessary repudiation of anything to do with garlic, may be a contributing factor to the legend of vampires and their avoidance of garlic.
The vampire legends were believed historically in southern Slavic countries and Romania, where an eye was kept on those who rufused to eat garlic. Consequently, superstition decreed that cloves of garlic be placed in the mouths of the deceased before they were buried, to ward off any passing vampies.
Do you avoid walking under ladders because you think it is bad luck?
6. The superstitions behind four-leafed clover
A four-leafed clover has superstition going into a spin. Find one, and you’ll be able to see fairies and recognise evil spirits, which will give you the ability to tell who is secretly a witch. Carry it with you and evil spells will bounce right off you, and in your house the milk won’t turn sour. If a young woman puts the precious leaf inside her shoe, the first man she meets after stepping out will be her future husband, or (this suspicion has a let-out clause) if that’s not the case, it will be someone of the same name.
It has been estimated that in nature, there may be one four-leaf clover approximately 10,000 three-leaf clovers. When found, each of the four leaves has a duty to fulfil; the first is for faith, the second is for hope, the third is for love, and the fourth is for luck.
Note: It is perhaps worth adding that in recent years horticulturalists have successfully developed a clover plant with four leaves exclusively, so the purchase of a ‘four-leave-clover kit set’ will enable you to grow as many as you like.
This is an extract from Max Cryer's Superstititions and why we have them, Exisle Publishing. Get your copy here!
What superstitions do you believe in? Share with us below!