Superstition: The Right Way

by Libby Alexander

Haven’t scrawled out your resolutions yet? It might be time to pick up the good book. The Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions (1996), by David Pickering, I mean — it’s full of ideas to help you become the person you want to be in 2012. Auld lange syne.

1. Looking for a better love life?

Dumb Cake — In the British Isles, a special cake that is prepared in complete silence so that it may be used for the purposes of divination. The ingredients of flour, water, eggs, and salt are mixed by one or more persons and then placed on the hearthstone, the upper surface of the cake being pricked with the initials of one of those present. If all is done correctly and in complete silence, the future partner of the person concerned will appear and similarly prick his or her own initials on the cake. Variants of the tradition suggest that it may only be performed at midnight on Christmas Eve, Halloween, or other auspicious dates and, further, that portions of the cake must actually be eaten by those wishing to know their future partners. In some regions it is stipulated that the petitioners must walk backwards to their beds after eating the cake, when they will be pursued by apparitions of their lovers-to-be.

2. Did you buy someone a cute handbag for the holidays?

Purse — Superstition has several pieces of advice to ensure that a purse (or wallet or handbag) is never empty. As well as keeping various good luck charms in it, the owner should make doubly sure that his or her purse is never totally empty since even one coin will attract others. Anyone who gives a purse as a present should slip a coin into it to get the new owner off to a good start; a length of string secreted in it will apparently have the same effect.

3. Do you have any worms?

Dropsy — Cures for dropsy, in which watery fluids collect in the tissues or in a body cavity, are among the least appealing devised by superstition. Back in the sixteenth century it was recommended that sufferers behead three earthworms, store their remains with sugar and licorice in jars of Holy Water for nine days. In Devon, meanwhile, a spoonful of toad ashes taken every morning for three days while the moon was waxing was once regarded as an infallible cure.

4. You don’t need to worry about your number, but if you still worry sometimes …

Tomato — The tomato was once considered to a ‘scandalous’ food and was widely believed to have considerable power as an aphrodisiac. Alternatively known as the ‘love apple’, the tomato was actually prohibited in Puritan England in the seventeenth century and only came back into fashion some two hundred years later. In particular, single women were discouraged from eating tomatoes. Placing a big red tomato on the windowsill, meanwhile, is said to scare away evil spirits, and if placed over the hearth a tomato will promote prosperity of the household.

5. The 2012 sober grocery list: olive oil, needles, mortar and pestle, vinegar, eels.

Drunkenness — Superstition proposes numerous cures for this condition, many of which depend upon slipping something unappetising into the drink of the person concerned. These extra ingredients vary from owl eggs and a few drops of the drunkard’s own blood to the powder of a dead man’s bones and live eels. To sober someone up quickly the best remedy is to roll him in manure and make him drink olive oil, then force him to smell is own urine and bind his genitals with a vinegar soaked cloth. According to the Welsh, conversely, eating the roasted lungs of a pig enables people to go on drinking all day long without getting drunk. (See also, Heather.)

6. Love your magic Hairpin.

Hairpin — Because of its association with hair, the humble hairpin is not without magical significance. Finding a hairpin promises making a new friend; losing one is more ominous, suggesting that an enemy is close at hand. If a hairpin works its way loose in the hair this is taken as an indication that someone has that person in their thoughts — though in Germany this may signify the end of a love affair.

7. Be pain-free in the new year.

Cramp — Superstition advises that the pain of cramp can be alleviated by always carrying on one’s person or secreting under one’s pillow certain animal bones. These vary from the knee joints of a hare to the fin bone of a haddock and the knuckle bone (or ‘cramp-bone’) of a sheep, which must never be allowed to come in contact with the ground or it will lose all its power. Garters of cork or eelskin are reputed to be equally efficacious, while some people have been known to carry a mole’s paw wrapped in silk or to sleep with a piece of a brimstone in their bed for the same purpose. Others have favoured wearing of ‘cramp rings’ fashioned from metal taken from old coffins, especially if these had been blessed by a monarch (the last English monarch to bless such rings was Mary I). Alternatively, reciting the following charm should keep the pain at bay ‘Cramp — be thou painless! As Our Lady was sinless when she bore Jesus.’

8. Quitting smoking? Save your ashes.

Ringworm — According to Scottish tradition, ringworm can be cleared up by rubbing ashes over the affected area of skin three mornings in a row before breakfast and intoning the following rhyme:

Ringworm, ringworm red,
Never mayest thou either spread or speed;
But aye grow less and less,
And die away among the ash.

9. Modify spiders.

Gout — Modern medicine has made gout largely an ailment of historical curiosity, but sufferers once had only superstition to turn to. Cures ranged from putting toenail clippings and a few hairs from the affected leg into a hole in an oak, which was then sealed with cow dung, to eating the powdered head of a red gurnard (a fish) or wrapping the foot in deerskin and applying to it a spider whose legs had been carefully removed.

10. Want to get healthier? Commit to walking more.

Prostitute — Superstition claims that it is lucky to meet a prostitute in the street, especially early in the morning, in which case the rest of the day’s business will turn out well. Prostitutes are, however, less welcome on board ships, where their presence is said to provoke storms. (See also, Pancake.)

11. If you hope for love, children, and/or better sleep …

Lettuce — Since Roman times the lettuce has been credited with a wide range of magical properties. Eaten in large quantities at Roman banquets because it was supposed to prevent drunkenness and at wedding celebrations because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, it was subsequently used in various love potions in medieval times. A further superstition had it that young women who ate plenty of lettuce would have little trouble giving birth (see Childbirth), though an English variation warns that too many lettuces in a garden will prevent a woman having children at all. Wild lettuce is used to treat insomnia and headaches, among other minor ailments.

12. Don’t waste your cash on Proactiv.

Blackhead — A blocked pore leading to spots or other skin blemishes as suffered by many a teenager and post-adolescent despite recourse to soaps and other medication. Superstition suggests its own remedy for the problem, recommending afflicted persons to wait for a sunny day and then to crawl three times through the arch made by a bramble rooted at both ends, ideally moving in an east-to-west direction: if done correctly, the spots are sure to vanish.

13. Sanctioned stealing.

Breasts — A woman suffering from sore breasts is recommended in the Devon superstition to go to a church at midnight and purloin a little lead from a stained glass window. This lead should then be shaped into a heart and worn around her neck to bring relief to her condition. (See also BabySex.)

14. If 2011 seemed unlucky, let spiders — again — invade your things and face.

Spider — Superstition generally regards spiders as lucky, though many people regard them with loathing and even fear. In legend, spiders are said to have saved the lives of the infant Christ, Mohammad, and Frederick the Great, in Christ’s case by spinning a web at the entrance of the cave in which the Holy family was hiding from Herod’s soldiers, thus making it appear that no one had passed by recently. Tradition insists that it is most unwise to kill a spider, as one ancient rhyme makes clear:

If that you would live and thrive
Let the spider run alive.

This notion probably dates from medieval times, when spiders in the homes helped to keep down the numbers of flies and thus reduced the risk of disease. Killing a spider will, superstition adds, only cause it to rain or, according to the Scots, result in crockery breakages before the day is over.

Although the idea of a spider dropping on to one’s face from a ceiling may be viewed with horror by arachnophobes, it is supposed to be very lucky. Similarly, if a spider is seen running over a person’s garments this constitutes a promise of a new set of clothes (as does the sight of a spider actually spinning a web). If kept in the pocket or a purse, the tiny red money spider, meanwhile, will similarly attract money to the person concerned.

Folk medicine has many uses for the spider. Eating a live spider in a pat of butter is highly recommended for anyone fearing an attack of jaundice, while a spider eaten in an apple or in jam or treacle will ward off fever. Various other remedies for a range of ailments such as ague (aka fever) involve suspending one or more live spiders in a small bag around the neck until they are all dead. Spiders’ webs also have their uses in medicine, being rolled up into pills and then swallowed to alleviate fever, asthma, and whooping cough. (See Cobweb.)

Previously: A Very Special Junk Shop Gift Guide.

Libby Alexander runs a pop-up flea market in Chicago.