Superstitions are bizarre; most of us can’t explain where they come from, but almost all of us carry a good number around with us in our day-to-day life.
Can you remember the last time you touched wood for good luck? Right. What about if someone asked you to explain how tapping the arm of your POÄNG had anything to do with what the future holds in store? Stumped?*
The truth is, even if many people like to think they don’t take superstitions that seriously, they still hold sway over lots of people’s behaviour...Friday 13th marked a drop by 38% in UK house sales in 2019, compared to the days around it.
Meanwhile, a 2014 poll by ‘British Religion in Numbers’ revealed that 21% of Brits firmly believe that breaking a mirror will earn them seven years bad luck.
But bad luck is better than being haunted by your ancestors, right? For the vaguely superstitious among us, read and take heed of these superstitions around death and the afterlife from around the world.
*(It comes from an ancient Celtic belief that the Gods lived inside trees, so knocking on wood could call benevolent deities to your rescue, by the way)
The number ‘four’ has the power to strike fear into the hearts of the superstitious in many East Asian cultures. In Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and a number of other regional languages, the number ‘four’ sounds just like the word for ‘death’.
It is strongly advised not to mention the number four around a sick person, and four is normally skipped when numbering floors on lifts, military vehicles and houses- lest it bring ill will to anyone passing by.
Until 2019, Nokia even avoided releases in Asia featuring the dreaded number four, “as a polite gesture”.
The practice is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece, where coins on the eyes were to be used by the dead to buy their passage from the Ferryman into the Underworld. The practice has pursued over the years, though apparently with less religious significance than it had for the Greeks.
Perhaps the reason for its endurance is purely practical: pennies are often close at hand, and just the right shape and size to weigh the eyelids shut.
If a body is to stay in the home for any length of time, while funeral arrangements are made, it may be less distressing to ensure the eyes are closed. In the past, it was believed that open eyes signified the dead could be ‘eyeing up’ someone to go with them.
There is an enduring superstition in some Western households that mirrors in the home should be covered up while a family is in mourning. Some people believe that the soul of the deceased remains in the family home in the days after death, and mirrors have the mysterious ability to trap it there.
Others say that mirrors act as liminal doors between parallel universes, and if the dead were to catch a glimpse of their loved ones, they would decide not to leave.
In the Jewish community, the practice of covering mirrors is still common during Shiva, the mourning period. The purpose is more moralistic that superstitious: it is to prevent the mourners from being distracted by their material appearance or to indulge in vanity during bereavement.
Among some South African Xhosa women who use traditional healers, there is a superstition that an African Lily planted in a glass of water can predict the health of an unborn child.
The pregnant woman obtains the plant from the healer, or sangoma, and drinks water from the jar in which it’s planted each day of her pregnancy. If the lily wilts before the child is born, it is said the baby will die.
In many cultures across the world, a howling dog is taken as an omen of death. In Mexico, the superstition has its origins in pre-Colombian cultures such as the Aztecs, who believed that a black dog would guide the dead through the dangers of the Underworld.
Today, a dog howling at night is said by some to be a sign that someone has died, while across the country, local folklore tells of evil sorcerers taking on the form of a black dog to carry out their malicious deeds.
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