You may flatter yourself you’re not the superstitious type. But if you’ve ever touched wood when expressing a wish, clinked glasses after making a toast, or even taken part in a wedding, you’ve engaged in behaviour not much different to a medieval peasant stroking the severed paw of a bunny.
“Lots of people tell me they are not superstitious. Then I look down and see they’re wearing a wedding ring on the third finger of their left hand,” says New Zealand-based author Max Cryer.
“Why have millions of people across the centuries worn a ring on that finger? Because of a belief a vein runs from that finger to the heart. Of course, no such vein exists.”
Cryer has just released a book on superstitions called, appropriately, Superstitions. While researching it, he was surprised just how many attitudes and behaviours are rooted in baseless beliefs. Here are some of the most common.
(1) Ever wondered why people clink glasses when it doesn’t make the liquor taste any better? Whenever people make a socially mandated racket, it’s based on the ancient superstition that loud noise drives evil spirits away.
(2) That also explains why otherwise sane adults walk around on New Year’s Eve blowing into vuvuzelas.
St Valentine’s Day
(3) The Catholic Church boasts 11 St Valentines, all of them celibate priests who lived at least 1000 years ago. The modern bonanza for florists originated in a throwaway line in a Chaucer poem about a bird finding his mate on “seynt Volantyny day”. Over successive centuries other writers, including Shakespeare, began portraying it as a day when not just birds but also humans hooked up.
(4) Gents, if you forget the big day, you may wish to point out to your enraged beloved that February 14 is both an arbitrary and stupid date to celebrate St Valentine (it’s the middle of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, hardly a good time for couplings, ornithological or otherwise). Ladies, it’s allegedly best to stay indoors and away from windows in mid February. Seeing a sparrow portends you’ll marry a pauper and seeing an owl means you’ll die a spinster.
Unlucky days and numbers
(5) You may wish to keep the following in mind when arranging your schedule. Friday is unlucky, given it’s believed to be the day when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Jesus was crucified. Monday isn’t much better. It’s believed to be the day Cain was born, Abel died, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed and Judas betrayed Jesus. Sunday, the Sabbath, is seen as the luckiest day. The remaining four days can swing either way.
(6) There are two theories as to why 13 is considered so cursed that airlines, cruise liners hotels, restaurants and real estate developers avoid using it. One comes from Ancient Norse mythology and involves the trickster god Loki showing up uninvited to a dinner party for 12 held in Valhalla and wreaking havoc. Centuries later, a similar scenario played out with the Last Supper, with Jesus and his 12 disciples forming a party of 13 shortly before the Crucifixion.
(7) Many Asian-Australians don’t suffer from such triskaidekaphobia (yes, there’s even a word that explicitly pertains to the fear of 13), but are freaked out by the number four. That’s because it sounds similar to the word for death in Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Not pointing fingers
(8) Turns out there’s a reason your mother warned you “it’s rude to point” and that many service industry employers train staff to use their whole hand rather than a solitary finger if they need to direct a customer somewhere. It comes back to evil spirits again, specifically the ancient belief that by pointing your finger you’re emitting a laser beam of malevolent energy. Interesting, a similar belief exists among some Indigenous Australians. To point a bone at someone – at least in certain ritualistic contexts – is seen as signing their death warrant.
Almost everything at a wedding
(9) In agrarian societies where divorce is not an option, there are few fates worse than an unhappy and barren marriage. So it’s hardly surprising everyone involved in a wedding would take every conceivable precaution to get things off to an auspicious start. To ward off those ever-lurking evil spirits, the best man and groomsman would wear a small bunch of flowers and herbs, on the left side near the heart.
(10) The bride would wear something old for a feeling of security and something new to symbolise her new life. She’d also wear something borrowed from a trusted female friend who had worn it during a joyful time, presumably in the hope the happiness would rub off, and something blue, to represent the sky, the path to heaven.
(11) In times past, wedding guests believed they could harvest some of the new bride’s happiness if they ripped off a piece of her wedding dress. This led to predictable problems. Over time, the more civilised approach of throwing the bouquet developed, meaning all the bride’s good luck was channelled to the fortunate flower catcher.
(12) Confetti may be coloured paper or petals nowadays but it started off as rice, grains, small sweets or, in the Middle East and India, fennel and coriander seeds. These were all showered upon the freshly hitched couple in the belief it would help them have children.
All of the above raises the question of what the appropriate response is to discovering many of one’s actions are saturated with superstition. Cryer’s advice is to just sit back and enjoy them.
“You don’t need to stop wearing a wedding ring or clinking glasses after a toast,” he says. “Some superstitions, such as putting goose dung on your head to cure baldness, have downsides. However, most are harmless and have now become treasured customs.”