The Power of Magic
By: Derek and Julia Parker
In our everyday lives we still pay tribute to superstitions, guiltily throwing salt over our shoulders, avoiding walking under a ladder (or, just as culpably, carefully walking under one to "prove" that we are not superstitious!). We excuse our lack of success in life by "bad luck", just as, if we are modest, we may attribute our achievements or prosperity to "good luck".
The superstitions of Western Europe are legion, as one might expect, for they reflect centuries of unquestioning belief in the power of witchcraft, spirits and demons. It would require a huge volume to collate them all. Here, however, are a few of the most common or curious.
(These have been added for interest sake only)
Getting out of bed on the right side
This is a superstition which dates at least from the sixteenth century; but there is no trace of any explanation of how the idea rose. The "wrong" side of the bed seems to be the one you don't normally use. It used to be said that getting out of bed backwards meant good luck-but only if you did it without thinking.
Telling the news to the bees
It is a very ancient convention that if you keep bees, any piece of important news should be told to them before anyone else in the family hears about it. This especially refers to news of a death.
Blacksmiths and horseshoes
Blacksmiths were often regarded as "Lucky" in country districts, and were said to be able to sure sick children. The association between horseshoes and good luck is immemorial. It is especially lucky (if, these days, uncommon) to find a horseshoe; but acquiring one from a smith and nailing it to your front door is the next best thing. Reginald Scot (c.1538-99) in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) wrote:
To prevent and cure all mischiefs wrought by these
charms and witchcrafts..nail a horse shoe at the
inside of the outmost threshold of your house, and so
Yyou shall be sure no witch shall have power to enter
you shall find the rule observed in many
The heel or open part of the shoe should always be pointing upwards, or there will be trouble. As recently as 1983, a small boy in Essex explained to Iona Opie, co-cuthor of A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989) that if you hang the shoe with the heel pointing downwards "the luck drips out".
The traditional notion of dropping a key down the back of the kneck to stop a nosebleed seems to have no medical foundation, any more than the many quasi-religious charms which were supposed to staunch a flow of blood.
The Sortes Virgilianae
Stemming from the use of a book by the Roman author Virgil, this is the term for the judgement offered by opening a book at random and stabbing the page (eyes closed) with a pin or a finger. The words indicated are supposed to have a bearing on the query or problem in mind. The earliest recorded report of this practice in England dates from AD 379. The Bible was very often used for the purpose, and so were the works of Homer. The method has something in common with the ancient Chinese I Ching, where the verse is chosen according to the falling of some tossed yarrow sticks or coins.
Carrying the bride over the threshold
A custom dating at least from Roman times, the origin of this is uncertain. One notion is that it shows how unwilling the bride is to loose her virginity: she must be forcibly carried into her man's house! Another is that the household is sacred, and the man (the owner and governor of it) must first carry his partner into it if she is to live there happily.
Throwing the brides bouquet
The idea of the bride throwing the bouquet into the crowd as she leaves her wedding reception, and the girl (man?) who catches it being the next to marry, seems to have originated in Americ sometime in the early 1900's, But the explanation of the custom is unknown. In Lancashire, the idea was for the bridemaid to throw the bride's shoe: the man it hit would be next to wed.
Something Borrowed, something blue
A bride should wear "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue". The rhyme seems only to be about a century old, but the ideas it enshrines are older. While wearing splendid new clothes for a wedding, the idea of also wearing something borrowed from a happily married woman sprang up centuries ago. The idea of "something old" seems more recent - on the eve of her marriage a bride was sometimes dressed by her bridemaids in her oldest nightgown. The colour blue has been associated with a happily married life for at least 600 years (it is mentioned in Chaucer).
Cats have been associated with magic since ancient Egyptian times, and the number of superstitions attached to them are legion. Ordinary cat behaviour is often associated with weather forcasting: a cat washing itself is apparently an infallible sign of rain; if it sits with its back to the fire there will be a frost; if it rushes illogically about, a storm. Like the behaviour of cows (who when they lie down are said to foretell rain) this may be based on observation of some sort. Less readily explained is the belief that if a cat washes behind its ears, one will soon see a stranger.
Cruel recipes for curing sickness (especially in children) involve roasting cat's hearts or heads; more innocently, the tail of a black cat rubbed across a running or itching eye will certainly cure it. The belief that a black cat running across your path brings good luck is precisely balanced by the contention that it will bring ill luck. The idea that cats have nine lives may relate to their ability to land on their paws, but the number nine also has numerological significance.
Carrying a caul
To be "born with a caul" (portion of amniotic sac sometimes covering a childs head at birth) is believed to be lucky. The superstition usually refers to the caul being twisted in some way about the baby's head, in which case good luck will follow. To carry one's own caul into battle was to be magically protected from injury or death - and the belief died hard: cauls were advertised for sale as recently as during World War 1, when they were particularly sought after by sailors, as they had always had the reputation of protecting one against drowning.
It is an ancient and tenacious idea that a clock will often stop at the moment of a death in the family. Only one or two coincidences of this sort would of course be sufficient to start the superstition off, but by the nineteenth century it had certainly gained currency through Western Europe and America.
This may be a case of relative rarity making the leaf a lucky one - the tradition has existed in England for at least 500 years. It was said that if one carried a fourleaved clover, one could see fairies invisible to others.
In the ninteenth century in England, most burglars were found by the police to be carrying a piece of coal "for luck". It was also believed that to "turn over" a piece of coal on a fire was a way of invoking the protection of good spirits against evil ones.
Touching the corpse
Fear and horror of death has provoked many superstitions, among which is the belief that to touch a dead body prevents one from dreaming about the deceased; if a tear falls on any part of a dead person, its ghost will walk; a corpse unburied over a weekend, or at the beginning of a new year, brings bad luck; a hand cut from a corpse can be used for all kinds of curative purposes, especially warts and other growths; if a corpse is carried to burial through a field, nothing will subsequently grow there well.
Crossing your fingers
Crossing your finger for luck may seem a very ancient superstition; yet the oldest reference to it so far found appears to date only from 1912. Crossing the legs for luck, however, has been current for at least 300years.
Two crows seen together bring good luck; more then two, ill luck. This is an old superstition - and the crow itself has been thought an unlucky bird in many cultures for at least 2,000 years.
The donkey's cross
A hair from the "cross" on a donkey's back is supposed to cure whooping cough.
The elder, the curse of the gardener, has attracted many superstitions: it is unlucky to cut down an elder tree, and one should apologize even when pruning it. Burning green elder is very unlucky, and bad luck is associated with anything made from elder wood; though it is said to cure saddle sores and be a protection against lightening.
Fire is so important to man that it is unsurprising that many superstitions attach to it: if a fire burns low, it is a sign of difficulty and dissent; if it burns on one side it can be taken for the sign of a wedding, a move away from a neighbourhood, or a death; if still burning the following morning, it presages illness; sparks mean news. It is very unlucky to let a fire go out on New Years Eve - or to allow anyone to "borrow" a fire (i.e. start their fire with the flame of yours). You should not spit into a fire, for fear of bad luck - or poke anyone else's fire unless you have known them for at least seven years.
The first person to enter your house in the New Year suggests the sort of luck you will have during the ensuing twelve months. Ideally, the first-footer should be dark, and male.
This is for some reason considered an unlucky day (because of the alleged association with the crucifixion?). It is unlucky to begin a venture on Firday, to set out on a journey, go courting, get married or move houses on that day. Friday the 13th (to some) is especially unlucky.
Hair has always been considered strong magic - witches casting often use a piece of hair from a client to make the spell truley effective. If a bird picks up a piece of your hair and uses it to build a nest, the consequences can be extremely unpleasant for you. It is very unlucky to burn your hair, though sometimes this was done as part of a spell to raise a vision of a possible lover.
Hangman traditionally made a considerable profit by selling pieces of the rope used at an execution: among other things, such as a talisman could cure headaches or the ague. A piece of a suicide's rope provides protection against bad fortune.
A rabbit's or hare's foot traditionally brings good luck, protects one from witches, (Smiles) and is an efficacious charm against the gout or rheumatism.
The idea that heatheris lucky may spring from Queen Victoria who gave her prospective daughter-in-law, Princess Alexandra, a piece of heather allegedly picked by the late Prince Consort, saying it would bring good luck. The news, being reported, inspired many people to copy the idea.
Walking under a Ladder
This superstition seems to have arisen during the eighteenth century, and may be connected with Tyburn Tree (the famous London Gallows) and the ladders used there. It was believed that anyone who walked under a ladder would remain unmarried for at least a year. Spitting three times after passing beneath a ladder may alleviate bad luck.
Magpies have sometimes been considered as unlucky as crows, presaging evil events.
Seven years bad luck
The idea that breaking a mirror brings bad luck may be associated with the notion that magicians commonly use magic mirrors to raise spirits. The magic in mirrors has often been stressed, from Bilical days onward ("now we see through a glass, darkly"). The extent of the bad luck which follows a breakage varies; it can be death, or merely seven year's misfortune. Mirrors were often covered with a cloth in a sick room, lest the invalid should see his or her own face.
Kissing under the mistletoe may be pleasant, and may be lucky; originally, activity of another sort, taking place under a mistletoe bough, made it certain that the lady would conceive.
Superstitions cluster around the cycle of the waxing or waning Moon: enterprises started under a waxing moon are more likely to be successful; vegetables and other crops should be harvested under a waning moon; it is unlucky to point at the moon (it offends (apparently) the "Old Man"(?)who lives in it); the light of the full moon causes or exacerbates madness; to sleep in moonlight is dangerous to the health. On the other hand its light washes away warts. You should always bow to the new moon when you first see it; if you see it first on your right-hand side, that means good luck, Seeing it first through glass is unlucky.
A roasted mouse
This will infallibly cure whooping cough.
Fingernails and toenails
The clippings have much the same uses as hair (see above). It is very unlucky to cut your nails while on shipboard - or on a Friday or Sunday. THey should always be cut on a Tuesday.
Oddly, ill-luck has always been attached to the robin - perhaps because of the blood-like red breast. It is thought of as a harbinger of death, and believed to tap three times on the window of a fatally sick person. It has nevertheless often been considered "sacred", and not to be injured.
This essential, like fire, has collected many superstitions about it from ancient times (when it was often deemed holy). It is unlucky to spill it, unless one throws a pinch over one's shoulder afterwards. It can be a protection against evil spirits; it is dangerous to led it; throwing a handfull on to the fire will disarm a witch; strewn on a corpse it will prevent the ghost from walking.
It has been suggested that a sneeze was one of the first signs of the plague, which was why many cry, "God bless you!". But a similar cry went up when someone sneezed in ancient Rome. It seems now just to be an excuse to exchange a friendly word or greeting. An old rhyme suggests:
Sneeze on a Monday, you sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on a Tuesday, you'll kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on a Wednesday, 'tis for a letter -
Sneeze on a Thursday, something better.
Sneeze on a Friday, sneeze for sorrow,
Sneeze on a Saturday, see your love tomorrow.
Sneeze on a Sunday, The Devil will have you!
... (I guese that's only if you believe in devils...:o)
This creature has always been considered a bringer of good luck - and indeed money; it is very unlucky to kill one. The Roman natural historian Pliny suggested that a spider's web should be applied to a wound - a recipe which has some basis in medicine; webs have also been said to cure whooping cough.
Until our own cleanly day, spitting was common and regarded as an extremely useful prophylactic against witches, spells, forged coins, and magic in general. The Romans spat in the street to nullify the effect of seeing a deformed person or a beggar; spitting could also cure sickness. Spitting at a known witch would prevent her from injuring you.
The idea that it is unlucky to open an umbrella in the house is a relatively modern one - and certainly cannot be older than the umbrella itself - the middle of the eighteenth century in Europe (though it was known in ancient China). Held over one's head indoors, an open umbrella presages death.
Clothes, both ceremonial and everyday, are so very closely connected with their wearer that it is hardly surprising to find them surrounded by a variety of Superstitions, many of which are still
It is lucky to put s garment on inside out when
dressing, if it is done accidently, but it must be left as ir is and worn inside out, otherwise the luck will be changed.
On the other
hand, to do up buttons or hooks wrongly is unlucky, and in this case,
the garment must be taken right off and put on anew, to avert the
To mend clothes while wearing them is always unfortunate. In some districts it is said to be a death omen, in others a sign that the mender will make enemies, or come to want.
In mending, as in dressmaking, the use of black or dark thread on light-colored materials is very un-lucky.
When putting on new clothes for the first time, it is usual to make a wish. If there is a pocket, a coin
should be put into at once, to ensure plenty of money whilst wearing the coat or dress in the future. Children appearing in new clothes are often pinched by their companion, while some sort of rhyming
formula is recited, like;
"Health to wear it,
Strength to tear it,
And money to buy another."
New clothes should be ( and usually are) worn at Easter, otherwise the crows will befoul the old ones, and more serious bad luck will follow.
A whole new outfit it, of course, the ideal to be aimed at but if this cannot be-afforded, then a hat, a pair of gloves, a scarf, or even a pair of new shoe-laces will suffice.
In some districts, this custom is obserbed at Whitsun, or at Christmas. In an article contributed to Folklore (1958).
Alan Smith says that in East London it is quite usual for children to take a day's holiday from school before Easter, and again before Christmas, in order to
buy the necessary new clothes for these festivals.
The clothes of the dead are commomly said to wear badly when gives away, or worn by the heirs. They fret for their former owner and have no staying power, even when they are comparatively new.
In his English Folklore (1928) A.R. Wright records the case of a man who disappeared drom Heywood in Lancashire, and was presummed by his
family to be dead because his clothes began to rot. He returned, however, some five years later, and was fined for desertion.
The detail about his clothes came out in evidence during the court case.
When tramps and beggars were more numerous than they are now, many other charitable people thought it un-lucky to give them old clothes
unless they knew them well. This reluctance to give clothes to a stranger almost vertainly sprang from a half-forgotten fear of Witchcraft, one of the principles of which was that anything that had
once been in contact with an individual could afterwards be used to affect him for good or evil, even from a distance and when the physical contact had been completely broken.
Rags from a dress or coat, an old glove, anything once worn and now discarded could be used in malicious spells, or to strengthen the power for harm of a
wax or clay imagine.
Similary, the clothes of a living person, if secretly buried in a grave, would cause him to pine way and die of some wasting disease as the garments mouldered in the earth. When Agnes Sampson, of the
North Berwick, was tried for a witchcraft in 1590, she confessed amongnst other things, that she had asked one, John Ker, to obtain for her some part of James VI's clothing. With this and that venom
of a toad, she intended to injure the King magically. Ker refused;
nut in her confession she averred that if she had been able to get even a piece of linen which the King had worn and soiled, she had bewitched him to death, and put him to such extraordinarie paines, as
if he had been lying upon sharp thrones and ends of needles.
by E. and M.A. Radford
edited and revised by Christina Hole
We accept that superstitions are rituals - what can they tell us about magic rituals themselves? They tell us what is important to ritual: colour, movement, timing and the relationships between events that bring certain things about.
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