The origins of superstitions and lucky charms

Theatre customs

Professions traditionally fraught with uncertainty, such as acting and fishing, have attracted many superstitions. In Greece and Rome, plays were performed to propitiate the gods and to help to assure every important event from the return of spring to fruitful harvests. Many customs still persist. An actor will keep a rabbit’s foot, an ancient lucky charm, in a make-up box, and avoid knitting or whistling (which can summon evil) anywhere in the theatre at any time. A cat backstage is lucky, as are shoes that squeak on a first stage entrance. A visitor can bring good luck to the dressing room, but only if they enter right foot first.

‘The Scottish Play’ – actors will never call it Macbeth – has strong associations with ill luck. One theory is that the witches’ speeches will curse the production. Another is that actors may be injured during the numerous scenes involving swordplay. Or it may simply be the case that the play was regularly staged as the repertory season came to an end and audiences were smaller than they had been.

To ensure good weather, safety at sea and a good catch, sailors and fishermen observe many superstitions. For a fisherman, meeting a woman in an apron is the height of bad luck and may even prompt an immediate return home. Launching a ship by breaking a bottle of wine over her bow dates from the Greek practice of pouring wine over a ship as a gift to Poseidon, god of the sea. Because they are thought to embody witches, pins are never taken on board ship, but gold earrings offer protection from both shipwrecks and drowning. In the USA, May Day is auspicious for fishing, when, it is said, fish will ‘bite almost a bare hook’.

Days and dates

It is an ancient belief that anything started on a Monday will not work out well – possibly because it was seen to be a day of reckoning after the events of the previous week. In France the name St Lundi was given to days when shoemakers would, for this reason, take a day off work. In the British Navy, ‘Blue Monday’ was the day when a sailor’s misdeeds would be punished. But both nails and hair are best cut on Monday ‘for health’.

Friday, the Roman ‘day of Venus’, was an auspicious day associated with love and beauty, but for Christians, who remember it as the day of the Crucifixion, it has many connections with bad luck. The Christian tradition also underlies the belief that it was sinful (and unlucky) to work on a Sunday. In medieval times, many dates were considered unlucky. They were called ‘dismal’ or ‘Egyptian’ days from their links to bad luck or to events such as the 10 plagues of Egypt. One 15th-century calendar includes 32 such dates, beginning with 1 January and ending with 17 December.

Red, green and blue are the colours most associated with superstitions, as well as the ‘non-colours’ black and white. Red represents energy, life-giving blood and healing. As the colour of a talisman, it confers protection against both witches and the Devil. The custom of giving babies red coral teething rings reflects this ancient superstition. Green is a symbol of life and its ‘resurrection’ in spring, and also of mischief. The two associations combine in the character of the Green Man or Jack in the Green. This figure is sometimes regarded as a fertility symbol, but at other times as malign, maybe even the Devil himself.

Blue, the colour of the sky, denotes truth and knowledge, and is thought to dispel the power of the Evil Eye. The association of blue clothes with good luck dates back to the time when the children of Israel fringed their clothes with ‘blue ribands’ for protection. Highly-regarded boy babies were given the same safeguard with blue clothing.

Black is bad, white good, mirroring dark and light, evil and purity. The two colours combine in magpies, birds feared on their own but welcome in pairs. The dual colouring relates to the bird’s refusal to go into full mourning after the death of Christ.

 

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