Did you know that if, in the 1800s, you rocked an empty cradle, you were inviting into your home the birth of another child? That may or may not have been an ominous foreboding; it depended on how well off you were, and if you already had ten mouths to feed. And what if, as some cattle were being driven past your house and three of them wandered into your garden? Of course you would know that within the next six months you would learn of the deaths of three of your loved ones and acquaintances.
Superstitions were part of the everyday life of our ancestors. Superstitions elicited belief more readily during the 20th Century than they do now. So many things which we now know to have ‘natural’ causes, existed as mysteries in the ages before science proved them to be harmless.
But there are still vestiges of superstitions hanging around even today. How many of you walk around a ladder rather than under it? How many people still toss a bit of salt over their shoulder if they accidently spill some? Although we may want to think that we are sophisticated and above all that, we sometimes find ourselves instinctively following a course of action to accomodate a superstition. We will gladly expend more energy to step over a crack in a sidewalk, rather than step on it and risk causing harm to a loved one.
In the following discussion, I plan to recount some superstitions in which our ancestors believed. You might be familiar with some of them while others may surprise you. Just be aware that for many of our ancestors, the belief in these superstitions was a part of their everyday lives. No one thought it unusual to be upset about accidently breaking a mirror; the fear of having such an accident was simply so commonplace, that it was accepted as normal behavior.
According to the contemporary Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word superstition refers to “beliefs or practices resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, or trust in magic or chance.” According to the Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1789, the meaning of the word was given as “too great Nicety as to Things above us.” The word Nicety referred to, among other things, “curiosity” and the phrase Things above us referred to “spiritual” matters. The 18th Century definition of the word superstition held a more spiritual meaning than the current 21st Century meaning does.
Through the ages, people believed that certain things, situations and events existed as the result of mystery and supernatural forces primarily because they did not understand them or the things that caused them to be. In a day and age when even the most mundane and commonplace things, such as the revolving of the earth around the sun to produce the difference between day and night were not understood, it is no wonder that more unusual things would be held in awe and feared. It was out of that fear of the unknown (which encompassed practically everything and anything) that superstitions arose.
As the ages passed, and the art of science grew and matured, the process of controlled testing and the understanding of cause and effect relationships came to either prove or disprove many of the following things that had previously fallen under the heading of superstitions.
If your left eye itches, you will laugh; if your right eye itches, you will cry. The belief was that if your left eye itched, you would experience something soon after that which would bring joy to you. But if your right eye itched, you would soon experience some sort of bad luck.
If the first butterfly you saw in the spring was white, you would eat white bread the rest of the year; if the first butterfly you saw was brown, you would eat brown bread the rest of the year. The belief was that to ‘eat white bread’ was good luck, but to ‘eat brown bread’ meant bad luck.. It was further believed that if you saw three butterflies flying together, a death in the family would be eminent.
It was bad luck for an unmarried girl to sit on the surface of a table, because it was believed that she would never be married then.
It was bad luck to be buried to the north side of a church. This belief arose out of the days when criminals were customarily buried to the north and west sides, while the good Christians were buried to the south and east sides of the church. Over the years, people might not have known why they thought it was bad luck to be buried on the north side, not realizing that they had a deep seated rememberance that it was only ‘bad’ people who were buried there.
What sensible person, even today, would think of mending their clothes while they had them on? This superstition arose from the belief that when you mended something while still wearing it, you were “stitching sorrow to your back,” or that “to mend clothes on your back, you’ll have to wear black.”.
A dog howling was feared as a foreboding of evil. In the year 1507 a writer warned: “Whan one hereth dogges houle and crye he ought for to stoppe his eres, for they brynge evyell tydynges.” It was a well-known ‘fact’ that when a dog howled, without provocation, its master was dying, or would soon be dead.
Cats were watched closely because their behavior so often foretold luck, either good or bad. The most common superstition to continue into this 21st Century of ‘enlightened’ people is that of having bad luck come to you if a black cat crosses your path. But in the 1750s it was also believed that if a cat washed its face by passing its left paw over its left ear, a stranger would come calling that night.
If a cat was seen to wash its face by rubbing its forepaws over its entire head, not just over the face, then rain was soon to come.
If a cat came to sit in front of a fire with its back to the fire, you could be sure that you were in for a hard frost, or a hard long winter.
Cats were sometimes taken along on ships, not just to keep them rid of the mice that would get into the holds, but also so that they could warn the crew of inclement weather. If a cat was unusually playful and frolicksome, a gale or storm was coming on.
Farmers would have to pay another to kill a cat if they wished to have it done, because to kill a cat was considered the surest way to have some of your cattle die.
In a day and age when a deceased person’s corpse was kept at the house during the period of mourning, all the cats would have to be locked up in a different room to prevent them from leaping over the corpse. It was considered the easiest way to have bad luck enter the house, and the cat would have to be killed immediately. It was believed that if a cat which had leaped over the corpse were allowed to live, the first living person it would leap toward would go blind.
It was believed unlucky to leave old nails or tacks in a floor if new boards or floor covering were to be laid down; any bad luck that was in the house before would be kept there to cause problems in the future. This superstition might have arisen out of the preciousness of metal nails, and the financial need to conserve and save them.
To pour gravy out of a spoon backwards (or rather backhanded) is unlucky because it foretells a quarrel ready to begin.
The saying of “God bless you” after someone sneezed arose out of the belief that in the instant after expelling air from the nose, the Devil would attempt to jump into the sneezer’s body. By quickly saying the blessing, a friend could help prevent a person from becoming possessed. Although not as widely known was the similar custom of one holding a hand over his/her mouth when yawning so that the Devil or any other evil spirit would be prevented from getting into the person’s body.
When putting on stockings, a person knew to always put on the left one first, because it would prevent getting a toothache. But a writer in 1627 cautioned his readers that the order should be reversed to putting on the right stocking first during the dog days of summer or else you ran the risk of falling and breaking your leg.
An old custom was to rise early on the first of May (i.e. May Day) and, without saying a word to anyone else, go outside, gather dew from the grass and wash the face with it. This had a double good luck effect: it would rid one of freckles, and if a girl thought of the boy she loved, he would be smitten with her and become her sweetheart.
The last superstition to be mentioned is one that many people even today are guilty of believing in. It is the superstition that carrying a certain object, such as a rabbit’s foot, will bring good luck. The belief grew from the superstition that witches commonly took the form of the rabbit, or hare. By carrying a rabbit’s foot, you were showing the witches that you could take control over them; thusly the severed foot served as a sign that would protect one from witchcraft.