Cultural Curiosities: Superstitions Around the World


Superstitions – for some people they are merely silly children’s playground chants. “Step on a crack; you’ll break your mother’s back. Step on a line, you’ll break your father’s spine.” But for others, these are very real indeed, and not to be taken lightly. Every culture has them, and some are more curious than others.

  • In ancient Greece, sick people would consult ‘mirror seers’ who would tell them whether or not they would live or die. The seers would dip the mirror in a bowl of water. If the ill saw a distorted image of themselves, then they would soon die; if it was clear, then they would survive. Later the Romans added to this superstition. They believed a person’s health changed in seven-year cycles. By breaking a mirror, one saw a distorted image of themselves. They were sure to suffer seven years of ill-health and misfortune.
  • Walking under a ladder – Egyptians believed strongly in the power of the triangle and of the pyramid. A leaning ladder makes a triangle, so walking under it would break the sacred power of the pyramid.
  • Knock on wood for luck or to counter bad luck. Many different stories about this origin are out there. In Ireland, touch wood to thank leprechauns for good luck. Greeks believed the oak tree was sacred because it was sacred to Zeus. Celts believed spirits lived in trees, and touching those trees brought good luck. In any event, most of us still do this!
  • Saying ‘Macbeth’ in theaters (except during the actual play) will bring misfortune. They say ‘The Scottish Play’ instead. This superstition goes all the way back to the very first performance when the lead actor was stabbed with a real dagger instead of a stage prop.
  • In the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Black Witch moth is seen as the omen of misfortune and death. If one of these moths fly into the house of a sick person, it is thought that death is not far behind.
  • In Wales, if a person wears a hat they made out of hazel sticks and leaves, it is believed to grant them one wish.
  • In Yamen, pregnant women throw a dead snake into the air to determine the gender of their child. If the snake lands on its back the baby will be a girl, but if the snake lands upright, the baby will be a boy.
  • In the state of Vermont, there are some strange windows. Many 19th century farmhouses were built with slanted ‘witch windows’ for it was believed a witch’s broom could not fly into tilted openings.
  • Hold onto your purse in Brazil! In Brazil, it’s bad luck to let your wallet or purse hit the floor. This means you will lose money. Thoughtfully, proprietors place purse hooks under counters for this very reason!
  • In Denmark, it’s customary to throw plates at your house for luck. Friends and family save broken porcelain dishes throughout the year, to throw at your house on New Year’s. The bigger the pile, the greater the fortune.
  • Many Cultures believe brides should place a penny in her shoe to ensure a happy and prosperous marriage.
  • Seriously, Argentina? Speaking the name of former president Carlos Menem will curse everyone in earshot with bad luck. If you hear it, you must touch your left breast or testicle (similar to knocking on wood?).
  • In Egypt it is bad luck to open scissors unless using them, and you should never leave them open. Sleeping with them under your pillow will prevent nightmares.
  • In Japan, children must hide their stomachs during thunderstorms, or Raijin, the ‘god of thunder,’ will steal and eat their belly button.
  • No beards for me, thank you! In Rwanda, women are taught to avoid eating goat meat, or they will grow beards.
  • In Turkey, there is no gum chewing at night. It is believed that after dark, the gum becomes the flesh of the dead.

Silly or not, I’m not taking any chances. No goat meat or gum chewing, after dark, under a ladder for me, thank you, President Carlos Menem! Ooops! (knocking on wood).