Merriam-Webster defines superstition as:
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 everywhere:
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.
The English-speaking World
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.
People are also wary of leaving shoes on the table, because it might cause an argument, and killing spiders, which is just plain unlucky.
Mentioning hypothetical 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 alone.
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.
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 they misbehaved!
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!
Happy Friday 13th!