Throughout the centuries, the early superstitions that brought solace to the fear-stricken primitive mind have spawned thousands upon thousands of magic practices and beliefs—all with the goal of warding off danger, of placating angry deities, or of summoning good fortune. Since humankind's earliest awareness of the final destiny of the grave that awaits all individuals, people have feared death and they have imagined omens, or warnings, in the simplest things, such as the appearance of a black cat, the spilling of salt, the number 13.
In a broad sense, superstitions are a kind of white magic in that people will believe that their observing or practicing the personal ritual will bring them good luck, prevent illness, and ward off evil. And many superstitions offer procedures for overcoming the negative acts threatened by these omens, such as casting a pinch of salt over the shoulder or whispering a blessing after a sneeze.
Out of these early forms of magic and superstition grew many curious customs that remain to this day. For example, in time of illness the medicine man applied his lips to the part that issued pain and "sucked out the evil spirit." Mothers around the world still kiss the bruised finger or knee of their crying children to "kiss it and make it well." Many people still "knock on wood" to guard against their words or thoughts having been misunderstood by eavesdropping spirits who might wish to punish them by bringing bad luck upon them. Some believe that the howling of a dog during the full moon predicts the death of its owner. To place three chairs in a row accidentally means a death in the family. If a sick person is changed from one room to another it is a sure sign that he will die. One who counts the number of automobiles in a funeral procession will die within the year. An open umbrella, held over the head indoors, indicates approaching death.
Scores of superstitions such as these still exist among people everywhere. Centuries ago, human beings entered into a superstitious bondage from which they have never wholly escaped. Many men and women today, in spite of the wonders of contemporary technology, still feel a great sense of helplessness as they attempt to chart their individual fates in a hostile environment. In many instances, the terrors of the modern world surpass the horrors that lurked in the shadows in that time long ago when primitive humans first dared to venture out of their caves. Even the most sophisticated of today's men and women may still knock on wood and carry a rabbit's foot in their pockets for luck.
Niels Bohr (1885–1962), the Danish Nobel Prize-winning physicist, kept a horseshoe nailed over the door to his laboratory. When someone once asked him if he really believed the old superstition about horseshoes bringing good luck, he replied that he didn't believe in it, but he had been told that it worked whether one believed in it or not.
David Phillips, lead author of an extensive study of the effect of superstitions on the lives of those who believe in them, has stated that superstitions of any kind can raise stress and anxiety levels. The scientists who conducted the study, which was published in March 2002, concluded that it is as if superstitions are hard-wired into the human brain, for they affect all people, regardless of educational level or ethnicity. While numerous studies have demonstrated that positive attitudes and certain religious practices, such as prayer and meditation, can reduce stress, superstitions that have become ingrained in someone's belief system can become extremely harmful.
Perhaps no animal has inspired as much superstition as the cat. Throughout history, cats have been worshipped as gods by certain cultures and abhorred as demons by others. In European folklore, the black cat is the traditional companion of witches. Because of this old belief, the black cat has become an omen of misfortune and ill luck, and a popular notion is that unhappiness will follow quickly in the wake of the black cat that crosses one's path.
An old book called Beware the Cat (1584) gives warning that black cats are witches in disguise, and that killing a cat does not necessarily mean killing the witch, for a witch can take on the body of a cat nine times. In the Middle Ages, the brain of a black cat was considered an essential ingredient in all recipes of the witches and witch doctors.
The old belief that a cat has nine lives goes back to ancient Egypt. The cat-headed goddess, Bast (or Ubasti), was associated with the benevolent aspect of Hathor, the Lioness, and was said to have nine lives. The Egyptians did not fear the cat, but rather reverenced it, and they elevated cats far above the role of domestic pet. To the Egyptians, the cat was transformed from mouse catcher to supreme deity, the "Sayer of Great Words." The Egyptian word for cat was Mau, which is at once an imitation of the animal's call and the nearly universal human cry for mother. Cats came to be worshipped with such intensity that the wanton killing of a cat was punishable by death.
Because the old Egyptians had a great fear of the dark, they observed with awe that the cat, a creature of the night, walked the shadowed streets with confidence. Carefully considering the import of the cat's midnight vigils, the Egyptian sages decided that the cat was solely responsible for preventing the world from falling into eternal darkness.
At the same time, the cat's nocturnal excursions made it a symbol of sexuality and fertility. It seems quite likely that long before Cleopatra worked her magic on Caesar and Antony, the sirens of the Nile used makeup that mimicked the hypnotic eyes and facial markings of the cat.
Bubastis, a city in Lower Egypt, dedicated itself to the worship of the cat. Each May some 700,000 pilgrims journeyed to the city to participate in the festival of the cat.
During the Persian invasion of 529 b.c.e., the Egyptians' deification of the cat proved their undoing. Knowing of the obsession of the Egyptian people with the divinity of felines, Cambyses II, king of the Persians, made a cat part of the standard issue to each of his soldiers. The Nile-dwellers led by King Psamtik III laid down their spears and bows for fear of harming the cat that each enemy soldier carried, and the Persians conquered the city of Pelusium without shedding a drop of blood.
Some people believe that the unwavering stare of the cat can bring about illness or insanity or even cause death. Such an unreasoning, fearful response to cats is known as ailurophobia. Henry III of England (1207–1272) would faint at the sight of a cat. Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had plans to dominate the world with his Third Reich, but the sight of a cat set him trembling. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769– 1821) arrogantly snatched the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor from the pope and conquered nearly all Europe, but when he spotted a cat in his palace, he shouted for help.
Such dread of cats may be genetically transmitted: when Joseph Bonaparte (1768– 1844), King of Naples, visited Saratoga Springs in 1825, he complained just before he fainted that he sensed a cat's presence. Although his hosts assured His Majesty that no such animal was anywhere present, a persistent search revealed a kitten hiding in a sideboard.
Besides a glance that can bring on terror, folklore also empowers the cat's eyes with the ability to see in the dark. Since all other creatures can see only in the daylight, to see at night reverses the natural order of things and is perceived as sinister and satanic.
Today the cat is not feared as it was in earlier times, and it is now the most popular pet among people in the United States, Australia, and France. However, many superstitious people still regard a cat as an unlucky omen and believe that not only the black cat, but all cats, have nine lives.
Days of the Week
The belief in lucky and unlucky days is very old and appears to have been originally taught by the magicians of ancient Chaldea. The natives of Madagascar have since the earliest times believed in lucky and unlucky days of birth, and in previous times if a child was born on what they considered the unlucky day, it would be killed.
The ancient Greeks believed that the 13th day was unlucky for sowing, but favorable for planting. Many early peoples harbored the superstitious belief that it was best to sow seed at the full of the moon. Others maintained that it was best to gather in the harvest when the moon was full. Still others regarded the crescent moon as a fortunate omen. Even today in South Africa, many people consider it unlucky to begin a journey or undertake a work of importance during the last quarter of the moon.
The Romans marked their lucky days with a piece of chalk, their unlucky days with charcoal. From this custom of marking unlucky days with charcoal started the phrase "black-letter day." Today, "black-letter days" are generally ones remembered with regret because of some unfortunate occurrence connected with them.
"Blue Monday" is an old phrase still in general usage. In early days those whose business circumstances forced them to work on Sunday, the official day of rest, were considered entitled to a holiday on Monday. On Monday, therefore, while others were back at work, the people who worked on Sunday had a day of rest. Because the churches throughout Europe were decorated with blue on the first Monday before Lent—which was a holiday or "lazy day" for everyone—the day of rest throughout the rest of the year for the Sunday workers came to be known as "Blue Monday." Although the term is still used, now when people speak of a "Blue Monday," they most often wish to convey that they feel lazy, tired, or would rather be on holiday than at work.
The origin of the superstition concerning Friday is traced by most authorities to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.) on that day. But some writers advance the theory that Friday is regarded as an unlucky day because, according to ancient tradition, it was on Friday that Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of paradise.
Followers of Islam try to avoid beginning any new enterprise on Wednesdays. For reasons long forgotten, Wednesday is seen as a bad day. Even today, many Muslims avoid even getting their hair cut on that day. And such important occasions as weddings are never scheduled for a Wednesday.
A familiar old rhyme preserves the old superstitions concerning the personalities of various children on various birthdays: "Monday's child is fair of face,/Tuesday's child is full of grace,/Wednesday's child is sour and sad,/Thursday's child is merry and glad,/Friday's child is loving and giving,/Saturday's child must work for a living,/But the child that is born on Sunday/Is blithe and bonny, good and gay."
Dogs, "man's best friend," do not have any of the kind of sinister superstitions that surround the cat, their domesticated companion and competitor in hundreds of thousands of households around the world. Not only have dogs been humankind's most consistent and considerate animal friend, but certain scientific research now suggests that the human species might not be here today if it hadn't been for an ancient linkup with the canine family. In his book Evolving Brains, biologist John Allman of the California Institute of Technology stated that canines and humans formed a common bond more than 140,000 years ago and evolved together in one of the most successful partnerships ever fashioned.
To the Native American tribes, as well as to all aboriginal people throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the wolf was the great teacher, and the social structure of early humans was largely patterned after the examples set by their canine instructors. Although among the vast majority of mammals the care of the young is left solely to the mother, human tribes soon adopted the cooperative rearing strategy employed by the wolf, with both parents participating in the rearing process.
According to the legends of several Native American tribes, the first humans were created in the shape of wolves. At first these wolf people walked on all fours; then, slowly, began to develop more human characteristics until they became men and women.
Among the superstitions associated with the dog is the ancient belief that the howling of dogs portends death and calamities. This appears to be a relic of the time when humans made deities of animals, and as a deity, the dog was supposed to be able to foresee death and give warning of it by howling or barking. This superstition became perpetuated among the Egyptians, who depicted the god that presided over the embalming of the dead as Anubis, the jackal-headed deity. It was also Anubis's task to lead the spirits of the deceased to the hall of judgment.
Among many Native American tribes, it is the dog who awaits the spirit of the newly deceased on the Way of Departed Spirits and who accompanies the entity to the Land of the Grandparents. In addition to its role as a guide to the other side, a number of tribes associated the dog with the moon and the sun. Such an association with the moon may have stemmed from the dog's howling at the moon on shadowy nights. The connection with the sun may derive from the dog's habit of walking around in a small circle before it lies down. To early people, the making of such a circle was to create a symbol of the sun.
In ancient Persia, dogs were believed to be able to protect the dying soul from possession by evil spirits. When a person was dying, a dog was stationed by the bedside to keep away the negative spirits that hovered near newly released souls.
The Greeks believed that dogs had the ability to perceive the presence of Hecate, the goddess of darkness and terror. While this malign entity remained invisible to human eyes and was thus able to work her evil undetected, dogs were able to see her and warn their human companions by barking and growling at her unseen presence in darkened corners.
There is an old superstition that good luck will be granted to a person who is followed by a stray dog. If the dog should follow someone on a rainy night, however, such action brings bad luck.
The Evil Eye
Among many people and cultures, the fear of the evil eye persists as strongly today as in ancient times. In the contemporary world of superstitious beliefs, both men and women can possess the evil eye and direct its negativity toward those who invoke its wrath. A vast array of charms, spells, and incantations for the purpose of warding off evil influences has been passed down from generation to generation. In ancient times, the amulet intended for protection against the evil eye was usually just a bit of stone, a shell, or an image carved on wood or bone. Today these amulets have taken the form of good-luck charms and are offered in such forms as miniature wishbones or horseshoes, little china pigs or elephants.
The Dutch, the Irish, the Italians, the Egyptians, and the Chinese all fear the evil eye and have charms for the purpose of warding off its evil influence. The Dutch place broad strips of black paint upon their farmhouses; the Irish have special charm phrases; the Chinese employ the universal means of fighting off the evil eye by spitting over the shoulder to frighten away the Evil One. Italians, especially the men, wear a charm shaped like a small horn around their necks as a deterrent to malocchio, the evil eye. Some individuals may also spit over their shoulder and cross themselves when they feel they have been the victim of malocchio. Even more effective than the sign of the cross, many Italians feel, is to make the sign of the devil's horns by extending the index and little finger. Ever since ancient times, if one does not have a special amulet to defend against the evil eye, then the prescribed antidote is to spit as quickly as possible over the shoulder—preferably the left.
Even today among the country people of Greece, people with blue or green eyes are believed to be capable of matiasma, the evil eye. Those people whose eyebrows are connected are also under suspicion, as well as those individuals who, when they were babies, had their breastfeeding interrupted. Most Greeks believe that those who possess matiasma are not necessarily evil or malicious people, but may simply have the uncontrolled power to kill or injure livestock, cause mechanical breakdowns in machinery, and precipitate various accidents.
The belief in the evil eye remains powerful among the Muslim and Christian Arabs of the Middle East. Mothers purposely leave their children unwashed and shabbily clothed so they will not attract the attention of malignant men and women who might curse them with the evil eye if their offspring should appear too healthy or attractive. If one should ever inquire about her child's health, the affectionate mother will hastily emphasize any defect or illness the child has. Poor mothers dress their baby sons as girls to counter the evil eye. Some give their children nonsensical names, such as "sandal" or "toy marble," so the possessor of the evil eye will overlook them. Any compliment that may be directed at a woman's child will quickly prompt the exclamation, "Mashallah!" (by the grace of God) from the wary mother.
The superstition that the finding of a four-leaf clover can bring good luck is so old that its origin is lost in antiquity. One of the oldest legends has it that Eve, upon being ejected from the Garden of Eden, took a four-leaf clover with her. Because the clover was a bit of green from paradise, its presence in one's own garden came to be looked upon as an omen of good luck.
According to some traditions, a young woman seeking a husband should go in search of a four-leaf clover. If she is fortunate enough to find one, she is to eat it. The first unmarried man she encounters after eating the clover will be the one she will wed. Another tradition of gaining a husband or wife is to find a four-leaf clover and place it in one's shoe first thing in the morning. The first unmarried member of the opposite sex encountered that day will be one's future spouse.
The popular superstitions concerning gems are survivals of the ancient custom of wearing amulets. An amulet (from the Arab word hamala, "to carry") is anything hung around the neck, wrists, ankles, or in any way attached to the person for the purpose of warding off evil or protecting against illness. For many individuals, the gem amulets of modern times carry the same powers to deflect the evil eye or other negative forces as they did in the days of the pharaohs.
Amber is one of the oldest of all gem amulets. Because it is said to change color with the state of one's health, it is an excellent indicator of one's physical condition. There is also a belief that amber has the power to prevent illness, and that it will provide a special protection against throat problems if it is worn on a ribbon around the neck.
Coral also is said to change color according to the state of one's health. An old tradition instructs mothers to hang an amulet of coral around an infant's neck to save it from falls and illness. During the Middle Ages, coral amulets were worn as protection from evil wrought by witchcraft.
For centuries, opals have been thought to be lucky gems and to possess supernatural powers.
The sapphire has also been a symbol of good luck since the most ancient of times. The Greeks believed that to wear the sapphire was to invite the favor of the gods. The diamond was also considered lucky, particularly among the Romans.
While certain people believe that pearls bring bad luck, the Romans and Greeks wore pearls to win the favor of the goddess Venus. Asians generally esteem pearls to have medicinal properties and believe that to wear them greatly improves the clearness and beauty of the skin.
The custom of wearing one's birthstone as a lucky gem still exists. Following are the birthstones that are traditionally believed to bring good luck to the wearers: January, garnet; February, amethyst; March, bloodstone; April, diamond; May, emerald; June, agate; July, ruby; August, sardonyx; September, sapphire; October, opal; November, topaz; December, turquoise.
There is no greater symbol of good luck than finding a horseshoe with the open hoof space facing toward the fortunate discoverer. No ill omens seem to be connected with this particular superstition. Even if a person merely dreams of finding a horseshoe, good luck will come to him or her. In the modern world, it is not quite as easy to find a discarded horseshoe as it was in the days before the automobile became the principal means of transportation, so perhaps the horseshoe is even luckier in the twenty-first century than it was in the past.
According to one application of the old superstition, the individuals who find a horseshoe must first examine it to see how many nails still remain in the holes. They must next count the number of holes, which then determines how many weeks, months, or years (depending upon the beliefs of the region) it will be before they will become rich or will be married. In a variation on this process, it is the number of nails remaining that must be counted to determine the length of time before good luck arrives. According to yet another interpretation, the number of nails remaining in the horseshoe indicates the number of years of good luck that the finder will enjoy. Some traditions advise that one shouldn't even bother with a found horseshoe unless it still has some nails remaining in it.
Some old accounts advise that one toss the horseshoe over the left shoulder and spit after it to increase the good luck that will soon arrive.
The last letter in the Greek alphabet, Omega, is shaped like a horseshoe, and perhaps the ancient Greeks used reverse psychology when they tacked a symbol of "the end" on their walls to protect themselves from the plague. The Romans must have thought the horseshoe was an able defender against the terrible disease, for they followed the Greek custom of placing a horseshoe on their walls.
The U-shaped image of the horseshoe was undoubtedly revered even before humans domesticated horses and shod their hooves. Many prehistoric stone monuments and structures, such as Stonehenge, are set in a horseshoe shape, quite likely associated with the early humans' attempt to trace the movements of the sun.
Nailing a horseshoe to the threshold of one's home helps to bring good fortune to the family. The horseshoe, tacked in place with three nails and the open end down, wards off evil.
In the old days, sailors used to see to it that a horseshoe was nailed to the foremast of their vessels to keep witches and wizards from cursing the voyage or damaging the ship.
Some traditions prescribe the hanging of a horseshoe in the bedroom to prevent nightmares from invading one's sleep. If the horseshoe is tacked points upward, the sleeper's masculine powers will be increased. If the sleeper is female, her latent powers will be awakened if the points are facing downward.
Knocking on Wood
The old superstition of knocking on or touching wood to ensure continued good health or fortune remains common today. One often hears the expression used after someone has stated something like, "I've never had a toothache," then quickly adds, "knock on wood." Many authorities on folklore and traditions believe that the custom may have originated in the practice of touching wood upon every occasion of happiness or good fortune in gratitude and veneration to Christ who died upon a wooden cross.
Others state that their research indicates that the ancient Druids of Great Britain and Northern Europe began the practice with their belief that the trees housed deities. Touching the trees in a respectful manner encouraged the gods and goddesses within to grant one's physical selves health and prosperity and one's spirit eternal life. Through the process of cultural evolution within the mass consciousness, the custom of touching or knocking on wood came to be looked upon as a means of warding off ill luck.
Ladders are among humankind's earliest tools and constitute one of its most universal symbols. But where did the superstition originate that bad luck would dog one's path if he or she walked under a ladder? It would seem to make great sense not to walk under a ladder while a carpenter is standing on it pounding in nails with a heavy-headed hammer. Is this superstition just plain common sense?
Going back to ancient Egypt, when the priests placed ladders in the tombs for the dead so they might ascend upward if they chose to do so, it was believed that spirits collected in the space that formed in the area between the ladder and the wall that it leaned against. When a ladder leans against a wall, it forms a natural triangle, and that particular geometric shape has been regarded as sacred since the most ancient of times. And since it is a region to be venerated, it is also a space to be avoided. Evil, as well as benign, spirits may be resting there.
Those people who have somehow walked under a ladder can placate the disturbed spirits by immediately placing their thumb between their index and middle finger. This is an ageold method of warding off bad luck.
In Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, individuals who inadvertently walked under a ladder would cross their fingers on both hands, calling upon the sign of the cross to protect them from any evil entities lurking in the shadows existing between wall and ladder. Others would employ the always-reliable method of spitting to banish the negative beings, for best results, three times—one for the Blessed Virgin, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.
More optimistic folks altered the superstition to state that if a person was, through unusual circumstances, forced to walk under a ladder against his or her will, he or she might receive anything wished for. This is much preferable to the superstition that to tread under a ladder is to foreshadow one's being hanged.
On the symbolical level, the ladder often represents an individual's spiritual quest as it moves from a lower to a higher level. Seen in dreams, the ladder may symbolize that the percipient is about to achieve a transition to a higher state of awareness.
The archetypal ladder vision or dream for Christians and Jews is the one received by Jacob at Bethel when he perceived angels descending and ascending a ladder and giving assurance to him that he would be the chosen vessel to extend the Jewish people into a great nation (Genesis 28:11–19). Since that seminal experience, dreams or visions of ladders have been associated with communication with a higher source or with the rites of passage.
One of the most widespread of superstitious beliefs is that the number 13 is unlucky. So pervasive is this notion that many hotels and office buildings in Europe and the United States do not have a room number 13.
In Scandinavian mythology there were 12 Aesir or gods living in relative harmony until the god Loki came among them, making the 13th. Loki was cruel and evil, and according to the myths, he took special delight in causing human misfortunes. Because he was evil, and because he was the 13th member of the hierarchy of the gods, the number 13 came to be looked upon as an omen of ill luck. Another explanation for the origin of this superstition also comes from Scandinavian mythology, which states the winged Valkyries, who waited to escort the heroes fallen in battle to Valhalla, were 13 in number.
The most popular explanation for the superstition surrounding the number 13 is that there were 12 apostles and their master Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.) who partook of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot being represented as the 13th guest. According to Christian tradition, Judas betrayed his master after they had observed the Passover meal. Judas later hanged himself because of his guilt, and he was said to be damned for all time as his punishment.
It has long been a matter of etiquette in France to avoid having exactly 13 guests at a dinner or party. Napoleon (1769–1821) wouldn't allow a dinner to begin if there were 13 guests at the table. There is a custom of the "quartrozieme," a professional guest who can be called on short notice to avoid having only 13 people dining at a dinner party. Although the superstition of 13 guests is not quite so strong in the United States, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) would not permit a gathering of 13 while he was in the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) had the same superstition, and it is said that his personal secretary was often called upon to be the 14th guest at a dinner party.
The number seven has been regarded with superstitious awe for centuries—some consider seven to be lucky; others, unlucky. Rather than being viewed as bringing good fortune or misfortune, the number seven has long been considered a digit of great power. For example, there are seven ecstasies of Zoroaster, the seventh day that celebrates the Sabbath, the seven days of the week, the seven golden candlesticks of Solomon's temple. Among various early peoples, the seventh son of a seventh son was believed to be born with supernatural powers, a boy who would become a wizard when he grew to manhood. Likewise, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter was believed to be born with gifts of prophecy and healing.
Chinese and Japanese people have a superstitious fear of the number four, because the word for death, shi, sounds just like the word for four. Even in the contemporary United States, cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese Americans spike 7 percent higher on the fourth of each month. The number four is considered so unlucky in China and Japan that many buildings don't list a fourth floor, the Chinese air force will not assign the number to any of its aircraft, and even cartoon characters that have only four fingers are deemed bad luck.
Among many Jews, even numbers are considered unlucky, even dangerous. While there are no official Christian teachings regarding any numbers being lucky or unlucky, many people believe that the number 12 has significance because of the 12 apostles. And then there is the unholy number 666 , which many Christians attribute to Satan or the Antichrist.
Experts cannot agree why the rabbit's foot has become synonymous with good luck. The superstition that a front paw—or a hind paw— of a rabbit can bring good fortune is so old that its origins are lost in the mists of time. While it may be forgotten exactly why the furry little foot is lucky, the rabbit's foot remains one of the most common of good-luck charms throughout Europe and North America.
Those who believe in the superstition don't seem to be able to agree if the foot should be carried in the right pocket or the left. Some insist that it must be the right foot of the rabbit carried in the left pocket or the left foot tucked into the right pocket. The foot may also be secured in a purse, a makeup kit, or the door pocket of an automobile.
Wherever one carries the rabbit's foot, the general procedure is to stroke it three or four times before entering into any kind of social event, athletic contest, or gambling effort. Actors take out their rabbit's foot before going on stage or filming a big scene. Lecturers stroke their bunny's paw before approaching the lectern and making the speech that will inspire the audience. Athletic coaches likely wear out several rabbit's feet during a single season of sporting contests.
Some experts suggest that the most likely origin of the rabbit's foot bringing good luck is the gentle creature's association with the holiday of Easter, which for Christians celebrates the resurrection of Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.). In actuality, there is nothing to connect a rabbit with any scriptural references to the death or resurrection of Jesus. Christian tradition borrowed the symbols of a rabbit and colored eggs for children to hunt on Easter morning from an even older religious tradition in Northern Europe that portrayed the rabbit as the escort of the fertility goddess Eastre (Easter). As Christianity spread through Europe, the adaptation and incorporation of the rites and symbols of Eastre into the celebration of Jesus' resurrection transferred to the rabbit the dubious distinction of people attributing good fortune to the act of removing one of his hind legs and carry it on their person.
Many people believed that the soul was located inside the head, so they regarded the sneeze as a sign that the soul was giving them an omen, which some interpreted as a lucky omen, others as unlucky. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians considered the sneeze a kind of internal oracle that warned them in times of danger and foretold future good or evil. Sneezing to the right was considered lucky; to the left, unlucky.
An old Flemish belief maintained that a sneeze during conversation proved the truth of a remark. Such a superstition was also prevalent among the Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians.
The custom of uttering a benediction, a "God bless you," after the sneeze is universal, and each country has its own particular superstition concerning it. The Romans believed that the sneeze expelled evil spirits; therefore, the act of sneezing was considered an effort on the part of the person to rid his or her system of evil spirits, and those present at the time would say, "Good luck to you."
There is an old legend that before the time of the Old Testament patriarchs, people sneezed only once, and died. But the patriarch Jacob interceded on behalf of humankind and obtained a cessation of this law on the condition that the benediction "God bless you!" follow every sneeze.
In Iceland, according to legend, there was once a dreadful epidemic in which many people died. In a certain household, a brother and sister observed that everyone around them who succumbed to the disease was first seized by a sneezing attack. Therefore, when they themselves sneezed they cried, "God help me!" Because of this prayer they were allowed to live, and they spread the story of the healing benediction to all the inhabitants of the district. The Icelanders have continued the custom of saying, "God help me!" when they themselves sneeze and "God help you!" when others sneeze.
In England during the seventeenth century, it was the custom for all those within earshot of someone who sneezed to remove their hats, bow, and shout, "God bless you!" In nineteenth-century England, someone originated a rhyme regarding the consequences of sneezing on certain days of the week:
Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger. Sneeze on Tuesday, kiss a stranger. Sneeze on Wednesday, sneeze for a letter. Sneeze on Thursday, something better. Sneeze on Friday, sneeze for woe. Sneeze on Saturday, a journey to go. Sneeze on Sunday, your safety seek—for Satan will have you for the rest of the week!
Many people believe that the custom of uttering the benediction "God bless you!" after a sneeze dates from the Great Plague that swept London in 1665. Other traditions are firm in stating that the practice began much earlier during the pontificate of Gregory the Great (c. 540–604; pope 590–604). During this period a deadly pestilence raged throughout Italy that proved fatal to those who sneezed. The pope issued prayers to be said against the plague, accompanied by signs of the cross. It was during this era, according to some scholars, that the custom of crying "God bless you!" to persons who sneezed became definitely established.
Since ancient times, one's spittle has been valued as a charm against all evil. Spitting is a way of consecrating or anointing. To spit on anything has been accepted as a method of ensuring good luck or success in an undertaking for so long that no one can determine when the practice began.
Sailors spit on their ships for luck. Fishermen spit over the edge of their boats to guarantee a good catch. Schoolboys spit on their shooter marbles for luck in knocking the other players' marbles out of the circle. In the old days, those about to engage in a fistfight spit on their knuckles to increase the power of their blows. Even today, some people who are about to undertake a difficult physical task first spit on their hands to make the job easier.
In many cultures, if people accidentally drop their money, they must spit on it for luck after they retrieve it. Others spit on their money for luck before placing a bet on a sporting event. Some individuals spit on their paycheck to bless it before cashing it. Modern postal employees are used to seeing people spit on the envelopes containing contest entries before the hopeful contestants drop them in the mail slot.
Almost universally, if people feel that a person with evil intent has put the evil eye on them, they must spit immediately to protect themselves from the curse. Whenever individuals sense that a spell of witchcraft for sorcery has been directed toward them, they must spit over their left shoulder. If one should awaken from a frightening nightmare, one must spit over the left shoulder three times to be certain that it doesn't come true. Even if one should encounter Satan himself, the Prince of Darkness can be made to disappear if one spits between his horns.
In the gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.), the miracle worker from Nazareth healed people of blindness and deafness with his spittle. The ancient Greeks believed that eye troubles could be cured by rubbing them with the spit of someone who had been fasting. On occasion, mothers worldwide use their spittle to rub over their child's bruise or cut to make it heal faster.
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