Why is Friday 13th 'unlucky'? Why do people kiss beneath the mistletoe? And why might we make a wish when tossing a coin into a fountain? We may think that as a society we have outgrown beliefs in evil spirits and lucky amulets, but in fact, says historical novelist Karen Maitland, most of us are still practising some of the superstitions of our medieval ancestors, without even knowing it
Here, Karen Maitland explains the history of 10 weird, but common, superstitions that persist today – from ‘touch wood’ to tossing the bride’s garter…
Evil spirits lurk in Brussels sprouts
Do you dread the annual ritual of preparing the mountain of Brussels sprouts for that family Christmas dinner, painstakingly cutting a cross in every stalk before you toss them in the pan? Why do we do that? People claim we cut a cross in the bottom to help the sprouts cook better, but you don’t find them served like that in most restaurants.
Without knowing it, you may be following a superstition dating back to the medieval times, when it was believed that evil spirits or tiny demons hid between the leaves of lettuces, sprouts and cabbage. These spirits could enter anyone who swallowed them, making the person ill or at the very least giving them stomach ache. So before cooking, a cross was cut in every sprout or cabbage to drive the evil spirits out from the leaves.
That is, the fear of the number 13. It was thought the origin of unlucky 13 came from the Christian belief that 13 people sat down at the Last Supper and Judas was first to leave the table to betray his master, Jesus. So for centuries, hosts avoided having 13 people seated round a dining table, convinced that the first person to leave would die within the year. Indeed, 16th-century witch-hunters often tried to claim there had been 13 people at a gathering – proof that the accused were witches in league with the devil.
But fear of 13 predates Christianity. The ancient Romans believed that 13 was a bad omen, foretelling ill-fortune and death. The Vikings also hated 13, because in Norse mythology a banquet was held for 12 gods at which the trickster, Loki, appeared uninvited, like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, and as a result the beloved god, Balder, died.
Toss a coin and make a wish
Visit any famous pool, wishing well or fountain, and you’ll see modern coins glittering at bottom. In ancient times, pools and wells were thought to be home to water spirits or deities, and offerings to them were thrown into the water to ensure fertility or success.
During the medieval period many ancient sacred springs became associated with saints who replaced the water spirits. People still came in the hope of finding cures or good fortune and, just they had in pre-Christian times, brought offerings to the saint, usually in the form of a bent pin or coin. If you install a wishing well today people will still throw coins into it.
Tossing the bride’s garter
Many brides wear a lucky garter under their wedding gowns. In ancient times, bridal garments were considered blessed, and the bride would have all her clothes ripped from her by the guests on the wedding night as everyone tried to snatch a piece. Gradually attention focussed on the bride’s garter-ribbon – a symbolic of sexuality and fertility.
In medieval and Tudor times, unmarried men fought for the bride’s garter to ensure they would be the next to find a beautiful and fertile wife. Bachelors even mobbed the bride as she stood at the altar, throwing her to the ground and ripping the garters from her during the wedding ceremony. The church protested, and the custom evolved to the groom removing the lucky garter from his new wife in the bridal chamber and tossing them down from the window to the waiting men below who shouted words of encouragement.
Many of us still say ‘touch wood’ when talking about future plans, even if we don’t actually perform the action: “It’s supposed to be finished by Friday, touch wood”.
It is one of mankind’s oldest and most enduring fears that if we talk about any good thing, something will happen to curse it. Lurking spirits or demons will jinx our success, or a jealous neighbour might curse us with the evil eye.
The wood we used to touch would have been from one of the sacred trees – oak, ash or hawthorn – because the spirits of those trees were thought to have the power to protect us from the evil eye or demons. Today, any wood will do – people even touch wood-effect plastics.
‘She’s giving me the evils’
A remark often heard in Eastenders, meaning someone is glaring at the character as if they wished them harm. From ancient times, nearly every culture around the world has believed that certain people have the power to cause their victim to have an accident, fall ill or die just by looking at them with malice.
Years ago, if you thought you had an evil eye but didn’t want to hurt anyone, you were advised to let your first glance in the morning fall on a tree or shrub that would consequently wither and die – a great excuse for your gardening failures.
To protect yourself against someone ‘overlooking’ you with the evil eye, you could spit, cross your fingers, carry iron, wear a red thread, or, as they do in many parts of southern Europe today, wear a blue bead or the image of an open hand.
Holy-stones or hag-stones
Pebbles or small stones with a natural hole through them are frequently used as key rings or hung up near doors and windows for decoration. But this is more than just a convenient way to keep track of your keys – historically, such stones were thought to have powerful protective properties.
Keys were attached to holed-stones to guard the locks they fitted against robbers trying to break in, and to prevent evil spirits entering through the keyhole. The combination of iron and stone was thought to protect against all kinds of ill luck. Holed-pebbles were also hung near the doors of houses and animal-byres to protect the entrances from witches and demons.
Back in Roman times, the wedding cake was made from wheat, fruit, nuts and honey – symbols of wealth and fertility. The cake was broken over the bride’s head to ensure a fertile and prosperous marriage, and the guests scrambled to pick up the crumbs of good luck, which is why even today small pieces of wedding cake are sent to guests who can’t attend.
Some modern brides are returning to the medieval custom of having a stack of individual cakes instead of a single large one. Originally these were fruit buns, heaped up in high stack, which the bride and groom had to leap over without toppling if they wanted to ensure a happy and fertile marriage.
By Tudor times, the stack had transformed into a single tiered cake that the bride cut, usually with the groom’s hand over hers, in the belief that if the bride didn’t cut the first slice, the marriage would be childless.
From Saxon times, if mistletoe was hung over the door or above a hearth, it was a sacred oath that the host would not kill his guests, even if they were mortal enemies, and would defend them against attack for as long as they remained beneath the mistletoe. The mistletoe pledge was often used at times of great feasts, like the winter solstice, when fights could easily break out after heavy drinking.
According to Greek myth, the twin berries of mistletoe are the testicles of Uranus, which were severed and fell into the sea, becoming the blood and white foam from which Aphrodite was born. In Norse legend, mistletoe was dedicated to Frigga, also a goddess of love, so we kiss under the mistletoe, removing one berry for each kiss, till no berries remain and kissing must cease.
The Devil’s meat
In the 1st Millennium AD, the weekly feast dedicated to the Viking god Odin was a very lively and popular communal celebration in Britain and Scandinavia, and the church found it almost impossible to stop people enjoying it. In AD 732, in an attempt to wipe out the practice, Pope Gregory III instructed Boniface to forbid the highly-prized food that was at the heart of this ‘pagan’ festival – horsemeat.
The church declared that horsemeat was the Devil’s meat, and anyone eating it was sacrificing to pagan gods. The belief grew up that those who ate this ‘heathen’ meat would be struck down by sickness or cursed with terrible misfortune. Perhaps this deep-seated superstition is one of the reasons the British still find the concept of eating horses hard to swallow.