Keep the bad luck at bay

WHEN people ask me why am I shorter than my siblings, I know that it’s because my brother walked across me as I lay on the floor, age five.

He even laughed as he predicted that I would be vertically challenged for the rest of my life.

As a child I was surrounded by superstitions that made little sense to me and that no one could actually explain.

Mistakenly bumping my head on my friend’s head had to be counteracted by a second bump of heads. “Snakes will come to your house,” he said. Once when I refused to neutralise the bump, due to the belief that we lose brain cells every time we bump our heads, he nutted me gently.

Older relatives also tried to steer me in the correct direction by passing down their superstitions:

•Never leave your hair uncovered at night or the spirits will get to you.

•Shoes should never be left upside down because something bad will happen.

•Don’t swallow gum or fruit seeds or a tree will grow in your stomach.

My grade seven teacher pointed out the logic behind some superstitions.

For example, “never sweep your house at night” dates from the Middle Ages, when people didn’t have electricity and might otherwise have swept out valuables in the dark.

There are many superstitions that still have currency today.

Some of our daily actions stem from old superstitions.

Saying “Bless you” after a person sneezes arose from the belief that the devil could enter your body when you sneeze; pronouncing a blessing drives the devil away.

These may sound familiar: pulling out grey hair will grow 10 more; if your right hand itches, you are to come into money; breaking a chicken’s wishbone will grant your wish; and if your ears are itchy someone is talking about you.

Some of the superstitions flying around the Witness editorial team:

•The usual: don’t walk under ladders; or breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck. As for black cats walking across your path, said a colleague, “there’s big trouble there”.

• Never eat straight from the pot because it will rain on your wedding day: fairly common and not related to a specific culture or race.

•On Christmas morning, the first person to walk through your front door has to be a dark-haired man. No exceptions.

•Don’t have sex in your car because you will have an accident — “That’s how my first car got written off,” said one reporter.

•Salt seems to feature prominently as an antidote to bad luck.

Leaving salt at your front door prevents evil from entering, while “turning salt” (a term often used by Indian people that involves one person holding salt and moving it around the other) is said to remove the evil eye.

Spilling salt or passing it to someone, however, brings bad luck, and should be counteracted by throwing salt over your shoulder.

• Some superstitions come with ethical guidelines, such as: never urinate while swimming in a river or your gender will change; or if you look at a naked woman as a small boy, you’ll go blind.

• Other superstitions are culture-specific.

For example, in an African community, a headless chicken hanging on your front door or gate is believed to be a bad omen, which can be neutralised only through a cleansing ceremony conducted by a sangoma.

“If the chicken is black, it would be even worse,” said a colleague.

And the winner is … “Touch wood”. This superstition transcends racial and cultural boundaries in the Witness editorial team. It is often said in reaction to a statement to avoid tempting fate.

•DON’T spill the salt.

Salt is one of the most ancient and versatile foodstuffs, used for preserving food as well as flavoring it, and was highly prized valuable in the past, sometimes used as currency. Spilling it was therefore seen as blasphemous; throwing a pinch over the left shoulder was said to keep the devil away, since he was sure to be following you after such a grievous offence.

•Walking under ladders brings bad luck.

Some Christians believe that any object with three points — like a ladder leaning against a house — represents the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Early Christians believed that to destroy or subvert a three-pointed object (like walking through it), one was expressing disbelief in the Trinity, and would therefore probably go to Hell. As religious conviction softened, the promise of eternal damnation was relaxed to merely the threat of bad luck.

•Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.

Long before mirrors were invented, people used to see their reflections in pools of water, and since they had no scientific knowledge at the time, they believed this reflection to be their soul or their other self and any interference with the other self would injure it. Hence, when mirrors were invented, and they were broken, it was thought that the other self was harmed.

And where did this seven-year thing come in? Well, the Roman belief was that life renewed itself every seven years. Since a mirror meant “broken” health, it was believed that the person who broke it would need seven years to recover.

— and

MOST cultures have superstitions centred on the number 13, which can be traced right back to the ancient Greeks.

Some believe the number to be lucky while others are terrified of it. The prominence of irrational fear of the number 13 got it a name: triskaidekaphobia [triss-ka-deck-ah-phobia].

Some number 13-related superstitions:

•Several tall office buildings or hotels do not have a 13th floor. Various residential homes and block of flats do not have a 13th place.

•Beware of giving your children 13-letter names. Some believe that people with such cursed names live notoriously bad or evil lives. Examples: killers Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper.

•If 13 people sit down to dinner together, all of them will die within the year. American president Theodore Roosevelt was one of those who would not sit at the same table that held 13 other people.

•There are 13 loaves of bread in a baker’s dozen. The extra loaf (presumably the smallest of the lot) was baked as a special bribe for the devil not to spoil the batch of loaves.

•Some people are so afraid of Friday the 13th that they refuse to get out of bed or go to work on the “cursed” day.

A study in the British Medical Journal in 1993 looked into the relationship between driving and road accidents in the UK by comparing two separate Fridays — the sixth and the 13th.

The study was carried out over a period of a few years, and it eventually concluded that:

“Friday the 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52%. Staying at home is recommended.”


•Seeing an ambulance is very unlucky unless you pinch your nose or hold your breath until you see a black or a brown dog.

Touch your toes

Touch your nose

Never go in one of those

Until you see a dog.

•To cure a cough: take a hair from the coughing person’s head, put it between two slices of buttered bread, feed it to a dog, and say, “Eat well you hound, may you be sick and I be sound.”

• Think of five or six names of boys or girls you might marry, As you twist the stem of an apple, recite the names until the stem comes off. You will marry the person whose name you were saying when the stem fell off.