Superstitious? Who me? Nah (touch wood)

Botswana, fish eagle in bare tree ©JoannaMaitland2019Earlier on this week, I caught myself saying “Touch wood” and started to wonder where the expression came from. Was it me being superstitious? Or was it just a cultural thing, like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes, or “Goodbye” (= God be with you) when we leave them?

As is the way of such things, it started me down a whole warren of research rabbit holes. What’s not to like? At least for a blogger like me, rooting around for something to write about.

Where does “touch wood” come from?

I assumed that “touch wood” must be ancient, perhaps dating from pre-Christian times when sacred groves of trees were venerated.

Shades of the wonderful Asterix and his Druid, Getafix. (That’s a classic example of the humour of Asterix’s brilliant English translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The original French name was Panoramix which isn’t nearly as clever, I don’t think.)

According to Wikipedia, I was sort of right about the Celtic history of touching wood (or knocking on wood) as a kind of protective magic to turn away misfortune. The proper term is, apparently, apotropaic. (No, me neither.) However, there’s a later Christian explanation, relating to the wood of the cross. And an even more modern derivation, from a game of tag called “Tiggy Touchwood”.

Personally, I prefer to stick with the Celtic origin theory. “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood” seems to be in common use in loads of countries which might suggest that it is very old.

I rest my case 😉

Superstitious, moi?

I suppose I have to admit that I do use “touch wood” in a superstitious way. It’s the I-don’t-want-to-tempt-fate bit, isn’t it? And even in the 21st century, we tend not to want to tempt fate.

What about other superstitions? Like crossed fingers? Am I guilty of them, too?
Are you?

The guy shown in this image seems to be going for the double. Wood and crossed fingers. Superstitious in spades, I’d say.

Don’t think I’m that bad. Fingers crossed…


Silver gilt salt cellar, Venice, c 1570

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Salt has always been vital in human society. And so superstitions have grown up around it. It’s bad luck to spill salt, for example. And if you do, you should pick up a little of the spilled salt and throw it over your left shoulder. (That’s where the devil is waiting, so they say.)

This superstitious idea is definitely old. It can be traced back to at least ancient Rome, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Brewer’s also says that it was customary to throw a handful of salt on top of the mash when brewing, in order to keep the witches away. Must have worked. I haven’t found any witches in the beer lately. Have you?

The salt was also a sign of distinction. A fine salt cellar, like the Venetian example shown here and dating from 1570, would be on the top table near the host. Honoured persons would sit between the salt and the host, ie above the salt. Lesser folk were seated below the salt. The further you sat from the salt, the less important you were. So everyone was forced to know their place.

Salt and friendship

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress by Phillips, 1813

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress (Phillips)

Eating someone’s salt means receiving hospitality and it creates a bond between host and guest. In Arab culture especially, a guest who has eaten his host’s salt must not speak ill of him or do him any harm. It would be a dreadful offence to break that trust. In The Corsair, Byron referred to salt in this context as:

                                             …that sacred pledge,
Which, once partaken, blunts the sabre’s edge

Many cultures, especially Slavic ones, but others too, offer bread and salt as a welcome to guests. It is said that the Russian soldiers who invaded Ukraine were told to expect to be welcomed with bread and salt. They got a nasty shock when they received bullets instead.

More superstitious beliefs: black cats…

smirk on a black catA black cat crosses your path. What do you do?

In some cultures, a black cat is bad luck; in others, good luck. And sometimes, it depends whether the cat is coming towards you or going away. In England, and some Germanic cultures, black cats were generally associated with witches and bad luck. The cats were assumed to be the familiars of the witches, or even a shape-shifting witch herself.

But we don’t believe in witches now, do we? Surely if we meet a black cat, we just stroke it?

…walking under ladders…

A ladder is across the pavement in front of you. Do you walk under it, or round it?

To quote Punch from back in 1881:

It is considered unfortunate by some people to go underneath a ladder. These are the people on whom workmen have dropped pots of paint and molten lead. Others consider it unfortunate to pass outside a ladder. These are they who have stepped off the pavement into the road and have been run over by traction engines.

English-speaking people are apparently the most superstitious about ladders. The origin of the superstition isn’t very clear. It may be because a ladder against a wall looks like a gallows. Alternatively, it could be related to the ancient Egyptians, pyramids, and the risk of offending sacred gods. You pays your money and you takes your walk—under or around as you choose.

…breaking mirrors…

Breaking a mirror is seven years’ bad luck, isn’t it?

It was the superstitious Romans who started that one, apparently, according to the astrology website mirrorhistory  Here’s its explanation:

The length of the prescribed misfortune came from the ancient Roman belief that it took seven years for life to renew itself. If the persons looking into the mirror were not of good health, their image would break the mirror and the run of bad luck would continue for the period of seven years, at the end of which their life would be renewed, their body would be physically rejuvenated, and the curse would be ended.
… The luckless who accidentally breaks a mirror, and does not wish seven years of ill-luck, must take all the pieces of the mirror and bury them in the moonlight, or take all pieces and throw them into running water, or pound the broken mirror into tiny pieces so that none of them can reflect anything ever again.

So now you know what to do with those bits of mirror glass, don’t you?

…and the number 13

I can’t resist including the superstitious beliefs around the number 13, partly because I’ve learned yet another new word via my researches. Fear of the number 13 is triskaidekaphobia.

Great word, isn’t it?

And fear of the number 13 appears everywhere. Not just the phobias about Friday the 13th, either, though there are lots of those. Quite a few hotels have no room 13. Perhaps even no floor 13. If you were allocated room 13, would you ask to change it?

I hope I’m not superstitious enough to do that, but…


Your turn…

Do you have superstitious habits you’re prepared to admit to? Do you touch wood, or cross your fingers, or even run from black cats? Or is it something totally personal to you, like the tennis player who believed he had to wear the same pair of (unwashed) socks throughout a tournament or he’d lose. Yes, quite. Some superstitions go a bit far, don’t they?

Joanna Maitland author


14 thoughts on “Superstitious? Who me? Nah (touch wood)

  1. Liz Fielding

    You must not put new shoes on a table? My daughter, who I tried not to fill with the superstitions passed on to me, (clearly unsuccessfully) was quick to tell her eleven year old daughter to move her new birthday hi-tops just this weekend! And I won’t do laundry on a Sunday. Got that one from my mother. And I leap to uncross knives…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Goodness! Didn’t know the shoes one, or laundry on a Sunday. Had vaguely heard of crossed knives but, generally, you’re way ahead of me on the superstition front, Liz.

  2. lesley2cats

    All of the above! And those Liz has mentioned, shoes on the table, crossed knives, dropped knives (or gloves)- if you do that, someone else must pick said glove or knife up, and you mustn’t say thank you. White Rabbits, of course, and greeting single magpies: “Morning, Mr Magpie!”, Then there are the theatrical ones, Never whistle on stage – there’s a practical reason for that – don’t quote from or mention by name the Scottish Play, always change into costume and apply make-up in exactly the same order before each performance… I’ll stop now. Thank you, Joanna. I really enjoyed that. (Oh, and black cats – if one crosses from right to left in front of you it’s good luck, but left to right it’s bad luck.)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Made me laugh, Lesley. I was going to include the dropped glove but the blog was already too long. Unlike you, I’m not qualified to talk about theatrical things, though I did know the first two you quote. Didn’t know about doing stuff in the same order. That’s a bit like the tennis player and the socks, I reckon. On the black cats, I didn’t put that bit in because there is some dispute about which way is which. No doubt you have it right.

  3. Louise Allen

    I automatically toss a pinch of salt over my left shoulder if I spill it – no conscious thought involved. My paternal grandfather, a real old Hertfordshire peasant, would never throw food scraps on the kitchen range fire – they’d go straight to the devil. As for ladders, under or around – I do a risk assessment!

  4. Elizabeth Anna Bailey

    My mother, coming from the Middle East, was ultra superstitious and inculcated us with some habits I still find myself doing. Several of those mentioned, including salt over shoulder. But the major one is if anyone pays you a compliment, you have to drive out the devil by spitting three times and making the hand of fatima (open palm facing the person with fingers spread). Otherwise, something bad will happen to you because of the evil eye! Crazy, I know. Right up to before dementia kicked in, she would melt solder in a pot on the stove, throw it into water and “read” the signs of whatever shape came out – another way to keep your luck. Of course, she was a successful clairvoyant, so no surprise she believed in so many superstitions.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Wow, that’s quite a list, Liz. Not sure how well the compliment response would go down in Brit culture, either.

  5. Sophie

    Mostly I’m pretty indifferent, but I have noticed that I suddenly become a lot more superstitious when one of my nearest and dearest is in some sort of trouble. Even then, I don’t quite believe – it’s definitely the Better Not Take Unnecessary Chances principle.

    My mother’s version of the laundry one was “Wash on a Friday and you’ll wash someone away,” Liz.

    One that I learned from a friend at college, though, has stuck for all times, really because it’s such a creepy idea. We were going out and a button came off my coat. “I’ll sew it back on as long as you keep talking while I do,” said Sue. “The only reason you sew clothes on a silent person is because it’s their winding sheet.” Ever after, if anyone mended a ripped hem for me a dance, for instance, I would prattle like a maniac until they’d finished. Still do.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Gosh, that sewing thing is news to me, Sophie. Your first para reminds me of Pascal’s wager. Only his was about belief in God. He said you might as well wager on God’s existence and believe in God. If there was a God, you’d be fine; if it turned out there wasn’t a God, what had you lost? (I’d say integrity but that didn’t occur to Pascal, I don’t think.)

  6. Liz Fielding

    I’d forgotten the glove one. If my mother dropped one she’d always say “Do you want a surprise?” An invitation to pick it up, but no thank you.

    1. Joanna Post author

      In my neck of the woods, you could pick up your own dropped glove provided you trod on it first. No idea how that arose except I wonder whether it has anything to do with throwing down the gauntlet?

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