Sunday, October 1, 2023



"Knock on wood to prevent disappointment."

In many cultures, it’s a common superstition for people to knock their knuckles on a piece of wood to bring themselves good fortune or ward off bad luck.

Yet while the phrase “knock on wood”—or “touch wood” in Britain—has been part of the vernacular since at the least the 19th century, there seems to be little agreement on how it originated.

One common explanation traces the phenomenon to ancient pagan cultures such as the Celts, who believed that spirits and gods resided in trees. Knocking on tree trunks may have served to rouse the spirits and call on their protection, but it could have also been a way of showing gratitude for a stroke of good luck.

Yet another theory is that people knocked on wood to chase away evil spirits or prevent them from listening in when they boasted about their luck, thereby preventing a reversal of fortune. Christians, meanwhile, have often linked the practice to the wood of the cross from Christ’s crucifixion.

Other researchers consider knocking on wood a more recent phenomenon. In his book The Lore of the Playground, British folklorist Steve Roud traces the practice to a 19th century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood,” a type of tag in which players were immune from being caught whenever they touched a piece of wood such as a door or a tree.

"Always 'God bless' a sneeze."

In most English-speaking countries, it is polite to respond to another person's sneeze by saying "God bless you." Though incantations of good luck have accompanied sneezes across disparate cultures for thousands of years (all largely tied to the belief that sneezes expelled evil spirits), our particular custom began in the sixth century A.D. by explicit order of Pope Gregory the Great.

A terrible pestilence was spreading through Italy at the time. The first symptom was severe, chronic sneezing, and this was often quickly followed by death.

Pope Gregory urged the healthy to pray for the sick, and ordered that light-hearted responses to sneezes such as "May you enjoy good health" be replaced by the more urgent "God bless you!" If a person sneezed when alone, the Pope recommended that they say a prayer for themselves in the form of "God help me!"

The expression may have also originated from superstition. Some people believe that the custom of asking for God’s blessing began when ancient man thought that the soul was in the form of air and resided in the body’s head. A sneeze, therefore, might accidentally expel the spirit from the body unless God blessed you and prevented this from occurring. Some ancient cultures also thought that sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body endangering others because these spirits might now enter their bodies. The blessing was bestowed to protect both the person who sneezed and others around him.

Interesting facts:

Sneezes are an automatic reflex that can’t be stopped once sneezing starts.

Sneezes can travel at a speed of 100 miles per hour and the wet spray can radiate five feet.

People don’t sneeze when they are asleep because the nerves involved in nerve reflex are also resting.

Between 18 and 35% of the population sneezes when exposed to sudden bright light.

Some people sneeze when plucking their eyebrows because the nerve endings in the face are irritated and then fire an impulse that reaches the nasal nerve.

Donna Griffiths from Worcestershire, England sneezed for 978 days, sneezing once every minute at the beginning. This is the longest sneezing episode on record.

"Hang a horseshoe on your door open-end-up for good luck."

The belief in the magical powers of horseshoes has roots both in the ancient Greeks and Christianity. The Greeks believed that iron could cast off evil and that a horseshoe resembles a crescent, which they considered a symbol of fertility and good luck.

Early Christians adopted this pagan belief and turned a horseshoe into a talisman to protect them from evil, witchcraft and the devil himself.

In the British Isles, on the other hand, the horseshoe and its magical powers are related to the legend of St. Dunstan: Dunstan was a simple man, a blacksmith, in 10th century Britain. One night, the devil paid him a visit and asked him to put a horseshoe on his horse. Instead of putting the shoe on the horse, Dunstan nailed the horseshoe to the devil. In pain, the devil begged Dunstan to remove the horseshoe; however, Dunstan agreed but under one condition. The Devil had to promise to stay away from all houses with a horseshoe above their entrances. Thus, Dunstan became the Archbishop of Canterbury and was elevated to sainthood.

In the British Isles in the Middle Ages, when fear of witchcraft was rampant, people attached horseshoes open-end-up to the sides of their houses and doors. People thought witches feared horses, and would shy away from any reminders of them.

Conventional wisdom states that a horseshoe should be hung pointing up to keep the luck from running out.

Although the belief that a horseshoe had magical powers was transferred from pagan Greeks to Christianity, it has traces in other cultures as well.

In Ireland a bride used to bring a real horseshoe to her wedding for good luck. Greeks still use the horseshoe in their weddings to bring the couple good luck and lots of children. According to a Croatian belief, a horseshoe is put above a bed to keep those sleeping safe from nightmares.. In the British Isles in the Middle Ages, when fear of witchcraft was rampant, people attached horseshoes open-end-up to the sides of their houses and doors. People thought witches feared horses, and would shy away from any reminders of them.

"A black cat crossing your path is lucky/unlucky."

Many cultures agree that black cats are powerful omens but do they signify good or evil?

The ancient Egyptians revered all cats, black and otherwise, and it was there that the belief began that a black cat crossing your path brings good luck. Their positive reputation is recorded again much later, in the early seventeenth century in England: King Charles I kept (and treasured) a black cat as a pet. Upon its death, he is said to have lamented that his luck was gone. The supposed truth of the superstition was reinforced when he was arrested the very next day and charged with high treason.

Black cats are often a symbol of Halloween or witchcraft. In most Western cultures, black cats have typically been looked upon as a symbol of evil omens, specifically being suspected of being the familiars of witches, or actually shape-shifting witches themselves. Most of Europe considers the black cat a symbol of bad luck, particularly if one walks across the path in front of a person, which is believed to be an omen of misfortune and death.

The black cat in folklore has been able to change into human shape to act as a spy or courier for witches or demons. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, they brought with them a devout faith in the Bible. They also brought a deepening suspicion of anything deemed of Satan and were deeply suspicious of other Christians, including those of the Catholic, Quaker, Anglican and Baptist denominations. The Pilgrims viewed the black cat as a companion, or a familiar to witches, who were said to "use black cats as an integral part of their craft". These superstitions led people to kill black cats. There is no evidence from England of regular large-scale massacres of "Satanic" cats, or of burning them in midsummer bonfires, as sometimes occurred elsewhere in Europe. In the present day many Westerners, including Christian clergy, have black cats as pets, and very few people attach superstitions to them anymore.

In contrast, the supernatural powers ascribed to black cats were sometimes viewed positively; for example, sailors considering a "ship's cat" would want a black one because it would bring good luck. Sometimes, fishermen's wives would keep black cats at home too, in the hope that they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea.

By the way:

Vito Corleone's cat in The Godfather was his only animal associate and was seen sitting on Don Vito's lap while he sat in his office during Connie Corleone's wedding ceremony.

Behind the scenes, the cat held by Marlon Brando in the opening scene was a stray Francis Ford Coppola found while on the lot at Paramount. The cat was not originally called for in the script, and the cat with its purring muffled some of Brando's dialogue, and, as a result, most of his lines had to be looped.

The use of the cat in the scene has later been interpreted as representing the hidden claws beneath the Don's warm facade.

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