A-Z of superstitions
Posted 20 August 2006 - 03:14 PM
Magical invocation that is now associated chiefly with stage conjurors and pantomime witches but has in fact a much longer history as a cabbalistic CHARM. First mentioned in the writings of the Gnostic physician Quintus Serenus Scammonicus in the second century BC, abracadabra comprises the abbreviated forms of the Hebrew words Ab (Father), Ben (Son) and Ruach A Cadsch (Holy Spirit), though an alternative derivation relates the word to Abraxas, a god with snakes for feet who was worshipped in Alexandria in pre - Christian times.
The charm was said to have special powers against FEVERS, TOOTHACHE and other medical ailments as well as to provide protection against bad luck. Sufferers from such conditions were advised to wear metal AMULETS or pieces of parchment folded into a cross and inscribed with the word repeated several times, with the first and last letter removed each time until the last line read just 'A'. According to the thinking behind the charm, the evil force generating the illness would decrease as the word grew shorter. Once the charm had proved effective (after a period of nine days), the wearer was instructed to remove the parchment cross and to throw it backwards into an eastwards - flowing stream before sunrise.
Such charms were, according to Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722), widely worn in London in the seventeenth century as protection against the plague. Simply saying the word out loud is also said to summon up strong supernatural forces, hence its use by contemporary stage performers and entertainers throughout the West.
Posted 21 August 2006 - 03:11 PM
An unintentional misfortune or other occurance that has no apparent cause, but which the superstitious generally blame upon sinister forces. Echoing the Christian doctrine of an omnipresent God, popular folklore has often attributed accidents to some hidden influence or else to the working of luck, blaming such everyday mishaps as sick ANIMALS and broken pots on ley lines (invisible paths that criss - cross the land and possess strange powers), DEVILS, and their agents, such natural phenomena as the phase of the MOON or the flowering of a certain plant, or just the fates in general. In the East Midlands of England, for instance, accidents are said to be most likely when the BEAN plants are in flower. According to some interpretations, outwardly innocent happenings around the home may threaten dire consequences. Thus, a PICTURE that falls off the wall for no obvious reason, or a window blind that comes down without warning, are omens of death that should not be lightly ignored. Even picking up things that have been accidentally dropped on the floor is risky: much better to get someone else to pick them up and then to withhold any word of thanks - then both parties not only avoid ill luck but may also get a pleasant surprise.
Specific examples of accidents that are somewhat perversely good omens include the Japanese belief that if a patient's medicine is accidentally spilt then he or she will shortly recover.
See also BREAKAGES, CUTLERY, MIRROR and SALT.
Posted 26 August 2006 - 11:24 AM
The fruit of the OAK, which has been associated with a variety of superstitious beliefs since time immemorial. The oak was venerated by the Druids in pre - Christian times and was similarly revered by many early civilizations, including ancient Rome (the goddess Diana was often depicted wearing a string of acorns). The Norse legend that Thor sheltered from a thunderstorm under an oak tree has led to the belief that having an acorn on a windowsill will prevent a house from being struck by LIGHTNING, hence the popularity of window blind pulls decorated as acorns.
In Britain, one old tradition has it that if a woman carries an acorn on her person it will delay the ageing process and keep her forever young (a reference to the longevity of the oak tree itself). Young lovers meanwhile may place two acorns, representing themselves and the object of their affections, in a bowl of water in order to predict whether they have a future together: if the acorns drift towards each other they are certain to marry. Back in the seventeenth century, a juice extracted from acorns was administered to habitual drunkards to cure them of their condition or else to give them the strength to resist another bout of drinking.
Tomorrow: actors and actresses
Posted 29 August 2006 - 12:13 PM
The theatre has a larger body of time - honored superstitions than any other branch of the arts, and actors and actresses are renowned for often obsessive preoccupation with protecting their luck. Many leading performers insist on following the same routine before each appearance and carry charms of various kinds (see AMULET and TALISMAN): they may also refuse to change any detail of their costume if they have had success while wearing it. Zsa Zsa Gabor, for instance, though famous for her fabulous jewels and costumes, always wears a worthless child's ring for good luck. WHISTLING in a dressing room is regarded as particularly unwise and the offender may well be asked to leave the room, turn around three times, and spit or swear (see SPITTING) before he or she can beg to be allowed back in. This taboo may well date from the days when changes in scenery were signaled by whistles, rather then tannoy. Similarly, wishing an actor good luck before going on stage is considered to invite disaster by TEMPTING FATE, hence the tradition of telling an actor to 'break a leg' (presumably because worse mishaps than this are unlikely).
Certain plays are said to be especially unlucky, usually because they incorporate supernatural scenes or references to WITCHCRAFT. Actors are almost universally reluctant to quote from or even to Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, preferring to refer to it instead as the 'Scottish play'. With its GHOSTS and witches' invocation of supernatural spirits, the play is notorious for the long list of serious (even fatal) accidents that have befallen productions over the years. Incidents blamed on the tragedy have included the destruction by fire of the theatre in Lisbon where it was staged in 1964 and a spate of accidents and illnesses that plagued a production presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967. The play's unlucky reputation was hardly relieved by the once widespread practice of presenting it as a means of boosting receipts in otherwise unsuccessful repertory seasons. Similar fears surround the pantomimes Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Babes in the Wood and Bluebeard, all of which also have undesirable reputations.
The colour GREEN has particularly strong associations with ill fortune in the theatre and many performers refuse to wear it (a particular problem in the case of works featuring Robin Hood in his Lincoln green). Casts have even been known to return scripts bound in this colour. This mistrust may date back to the days when by convention a green carpet was laid down when a tragedy was to be performed, or else to the use of limelight, which cast a greenish glow over the stage and tended to make actors dressed in green invisible to the audience.
Other taboos connected with the theatre include prohibitions on the use of real FLOWERS, drinks and jewellery on stage; never allowing PEACOCK feathers to enter the theatre (or, in the USA, a picture of a peacock or ostrich); never setting CANDLES in groups of three either in the dressing room or on the stage; never allowing performers to be presented with bouquets at the stage door before the play begun; never wearing BLUE or YELLOW (which has the power to make performers forget their lines); never dropping a COMB or spilling a MAKE-UP box (which must never be tidied up); never looking in another performer's MIRROR while he or she is putting on their make-up; never putting one's SHOES on a chair in the dressing room; never hanging PICTURES in dressing rooms; never using yellow for stage curtains; never sitting a peephole to view the audience anywhere but in the middle of the curtain; never allowing knitting in the wings ( a superstition associated with the magic of knots); never opening a new show on a Friday (see DAYS OF THE WEEK); and never speaking the final line of the script before the first night.
The presence of a cross-eyed person (see EVIL EYE and EYE) backstage is considered ominous, and a black CAT crossing the acting area similarly warns of ill luck. A good dress rehearsal is also widely considered a bad omen (probably for the very good reason that it may promote a false sense of security). Picking up a thread of COTTON from the dressing room floor and finding that it will go all the way round one's finger without breaking is said to be good luck among performers and a sign that a contract is in the offing. Other welcome events include an actor's shoes squeaking on his first entrance, discarded shoes landing flat on their soles, finding that one has been given a part that calls for the wearing of a wig and the first ticket for a production being brought by a relatively elderly man or woman. Somewhat perversely, falling over during the course of a performance is said to bring a production good fortune (as long as it does not happen on a first entrance, in which case the performer is fated to forget his or her lines). One Continental superstition, incidentally, suggests that lines can be learned more easily if the actor or actress sleeps with the script under his or her pillow.
Posted 02 September 2006 - 12:35 PM
Poisonous SNAKE, which, as the only venomous reptile found in the British Isles, has attracted to itself a host of superstitious beliefs. According to ancient British custom, simply coming across an adder is bad luck, unless the snake is killed immediately (anyone killing the first snake seen in the spring is said to be assured of good luck against enemies in the coming season). Another belief has it that an adder cannot be killed before sunset unless beaten with an ASH stick or else rendered helpless by murmuring a special CHARM (the first two verses of Psalm 68). To trap the snake in the first place the procedure is to draw a circle around the creature and then make the sign of the CROSS inside it. The presence of a live adder on the doorstep, moreover, is a sure omen of death in the household, while dreaming of adders is an indication that a person's enemies are plotting against them, according to one ancient Dorset superstition.
Actual adder bites can be treated, according to gipsy lore, by killing the snake and rubbing its body against the site of the wound or else by coating the bite with a paste of fried adder fat (a course of action described by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Return of the Native). An alternative treatment suggested in the seventeenth century was to hold a live PIGEON to the wound until it has absorbed all the poison, or else to slaughter a chicken (see COCK) or SHEEP and place the bitten part of the body against the still warm carcass (which turned black when the poison has been absorbed). Simpler cures include the application of an ointment comprising ROSEMARY and BETONY mixed with water or the drinking of goose grass juice and wine. In Wales. The effects of an adder bite can be negated by leaping over water before the snake has disappeared.
More beneficent is the use of a dried or cast-off adder skin, which, wrapped around the affected part, is alleged to have the power to cure RHEUMATISM, HEADACHES or pricks from THORNS and, if hung above the hearth, will protect the whole household from FIRE and ensure good luck. Swallowing a potion containing powdered adder skin will remedy any problems with the spleen or, eaten as a soup with chicken, will cure compsumption. Other superstitions concerning adders include the erroneous but commonly held belief that they swallow their young when frightened and the incorrect assumption that they are deaf because they lack visible ears (they detect sound vibrations through the tongue).
Tomorrow: adder stone
Posted 03 September 2006 - 02:13 PM
A perforated or glasslike stone, naturally occurring, that is traditionally believed to have magical powers. Adder stones were venerated by the Druids and are still thought to be particularly efficacious against diseases of the eye and as charms (see AMULET and TALISMAN) guaranteeing protection against evil. Such small stones, of various colours, have been credited with curing children of WHOOPING COUGH (particularly in Scotland), with preventing nightmare, with ensuring success in legal cases and with assisting in recovery from adder bites. Superstition has it that such stones, otherwise known as 'serpent's eggs' or 'snake's eggs', are created from the hardened saliva of adders massing together at certain times of the year. According to popular belief, adder stones can be tested by throwing them into a flowing stream - only those that float are the genuine article. The perforations are said to be caused by the tongues of snakes before the stones solidified.
Tomorrow: adder's tongue fern
Posted 10 September 2006 - 07:25 AM
Small species of FERN that is believed to possess strong healing powers. So named because of its forked spikes, the plant has been credited by British folklore with curing adder bites and countering other evils associated with SNAKES, and was once widely used as an ointment for minor cuts and wounds (the ointment being particularly effective if made from plants gathered when the MOON is on the wane). It is still found in some medicinal lotions and is sometimes drunk as a tea to cleanse the blood.
Posted 12 September 2006 - 02:55 PM
The placenta, expelled after CHILDBIRTH, which is held to have certain magic properties. One of the best-known traditions relating to afterbirth concerns the number of lumps in the placenta or the number of 'pops' that are made as it burns: either reveals how many children a woman is going to have. Another old belief links the time the placenta takes to burn to the newly delivered BABY's life expectancy, though it should be noted that some authorities insist that burning the placenta is unlucky and advise that it should be buried instead.
See also UMBILICAL CORD.
Posted 13 September 2006 - 03:23 PM
An impure variety of quartz, valued as a GEMSTONE and the BIRTHSTONE for June, around which a number of curious beliefs have accumulated since ancient times. Called agate, according to Pliny, because large numbers of such stones were to be found near the River Achates in Sicily, the stone was once thought to have the power to render someone invisible, as well as the strength to turn an enemy's sword against himself. Agate's other alleged properties in different cultures have included defence against the EVIL EYE, the treatment of FEVER and poisons, the cooling of boiled water, the gift of an eloquent tongue, the bestowing of better sight (see EYE), the promotion of fertility (relating to both childless women and CROPS), protection against STORMS and LIGHTNING, luck in love, and increased athletic prowess (if worn around the neck together with a few strands of LION's hair).
Of the many different forms of agate, jasper is said to staunch bleeding and lessen pain. In former times a piece of jasper was often placed on the stomach of a woman in CHILDBIRTH (it was also respected as a treatment for EPILEPSY and as a means to conjure up RAIN and stop draughts). Red-veined agate is one of the more prized varieties, the red supposedly the ossified blood of the gods, while the possession of green agate is reputed to guarantee the owner a happy life.
Posted 14 September 2006 - 12:32 PM
The British tradition that it is unlucky, particularly for a woman, to reveal one's age is thought to have originated in the ancient fear of numbering things (the NUMBERS themselves being vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits). A way round this superstition is offered by one old custom, according to which a lover may determines partner's age by attaching a single HAIR taken from his or her head to a gold RING, suspending it in a GLASS and counting the number of times it strikes the sides (once for each year lived).
See also LONGEVITY
Posted 22 September 2006 - 09:51 AM
The crews and passengers of the world's airlines observe innumerable personal superstitions, carrying lucky AMULETS, ritually following the same routine before each flight and so forth. Plane crashes are said to occur in groups of three, though crews are unlikely to comment on this prior to take-off as it is considered unlucky to talk of crashes at this time. Crews also have, as in the theatre, a prejudice against real FLOWERS being allowed on to their aircraft and sometimes ensure that the seatbelts of vacant seats are neatly crossed so as not to provoke invisible evil spirits. Touching the wood of a living tree is generally recognized as a good defence against misfortune in the air, and extra protection will be afforded to a crew member who empties his or her pockets on to the ground as a sacrificial offering after making a safe landing.
See also GREMLIN
Posted 24 September 2006 - 06:43 AM
Large seabird, capable of long-sustained flight, which has been considered a symbol of ominous portent among SAILORS since time immemorial. The appearance of an albatross, said to be the incarnation of a drowned seafarer's soul, is thought to herald a coming storm and any droppings that the bird deposits on deck cannot be removed but must be left to weather away if luck is to be preserved. Killing an albatross is especially foolhardy and will bring permanent misfortune to both SHIP and crew, a tradition promoted by Coleridge in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Running somewhat against this tradition, it should be noted, was the sailors' custom of killing them so as to make tobacco pouches out of their large webbed feet. The albatross's gliding flight, meanwhile, has given rise to the popular idea that the bird can actually sleep in mid-air.
The superstitions surrounding the albatross have survived into modern times: Scottish seamen have been known to object to the use of Swan Vesta matches because the SWAN on the box resembles the albatross (swans are traditionally feared in Scotland anyway), while in 1959 the crew of the cargo ship Calpean Star, which was carrying an albatross to a German zoo, blamed the bird for a series of mishaps that befell them during the voyage (when the bird died on the ship fifty of the crew demanded immediate release from their work). Such is sailors' fear of the albatross, and by extension of virtually all birds, that in 1958 the crew of the Queen Elizabeth demanded and obtained the removal of a budgerigar named Joey who was accused of being the source of various problems that had plagued the ship.
Posted 25 September 2006 - 04:20 PM
Method of divination, in which a white COCK is placed in a circle divided into twenty-six segments, each containing a grain of wheat. The order in which the cock eats the grain as a magic incantation is delivered will spell out the answer to any question previously posed, be it an unknown lover's name or the identify of the next ruler. A cock thus employed predicted the coming to power of the Roman Emperor Theodorus in ancient times, and over the centuries the practice has been resurrected for various purposes in many countries.
Tomorrow: All Hallows' Eve
Posted 14 October 2006 - 06:06 AM
The almond tree and its blossoms, according to Greek myth, had its origins in a story of doomed love. Briefly, Phyllis was transformed into such a tree after she committed suicide when her betrothed, Demophon, failed to appear on the day set for their marriage (he was in fact merely delayed). The Roman writer Pliny alleged that eating five almonds was a cure for DRUNKENESS, while later authorities have had it that almonds will prove fatal if eaten by FOXES and will also prevent the onset of CANCER if taken on a daily basis.