Wary of umbrellas, ladders, shoes and magpies, the AG team are a superstitious lot when it comes to ancient beliefs…

Garry Coward-Williams, editor

Why do some people throw salt over their left shoulder if they’ve spilt some? Why do they avoid walking under ladders and expect bad things to happen on Friday 13th? And why does specific a number of magpies become the harbinger of sorrow, joy or a secret never to be told?

Why do we feel the need to salute magpies to ward off bad luck? Picture: Alamy

I have to confess that I have engaged in following all of the aforementioned superstitions and others like knocking on wood and being wary of black cats, but I did draw the line at carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket.

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Why did I do these things? Because the environment I was brought up in was full of odd avoidances and rituals and so they became mine too. I remember my uncle being convinced that the old lady who lived in the stone cottage about a quarter of a mile behind our farm was a witch. Poor old Nelly Tully was avoided as though she actually had a broomstick and a pointy hat.

Many believe superstitious rituals are born out of fear of the unknown and that they were created to allow us to exert some influence on situations we can’t control, even though the rituals are irrational and have no founding in science. They are another quirky, fascinating element of human nature, passed on from generation to generation.

Partly believed, partly seen as harmless fun. It’s no trouble to knock on wood when you’re hopeful of a positive outcome, or be chuffed when you win the larger piece of wishbone on a chicken and are allowed a ‘wish’. I sometimes cross my fingers as well, just to give my wish a better chance of coming true!

 

Kathryn Wilson, features co-ordinator

I’ve got a theory about superstitions: it’s much easier to pooh-pooh them when things are going well in your life; it’s only when events take a turn for the worse that you start to worry that saluting that solitary magpie and avoiding the cracks in the pavement might – just might – stop them from getting any worse.

Walking under a ladder could get you an unintended hair dye – or worse Picture: Alamy

Of course, some superstitions have certain logic. Walking under a ladder where someone is painting does hold the very real possibility of ending up with a dye job you never ordered (although walking out into the traffic to avoid it is a lot more risky).

Ditto crossing on the stairs could prove bad for your health, especially if they’re narrow, while opening an umbrella indoors is just impractical.

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Superstitions are also contagious. If you live with someone who believes in the bad juju of certain numbers, then before you know it you, too, would never dream of booking a flight on Friday the 13th– in spite of the money you’d save.

Overall, though, taking the stoical rather than the superstitious route through life has worked for me so far, and I’m sticking with it. Fingers crossed, eh.

 

Ruth Hayes, gardening editor

We are a superstitious lot aren’t we? I don’t mind black cats (probably because we own one or, rather, are owned by one) but I do salute or nod to solitary magpies (‘hello Mr Magpie, I hope your family and friends are well’), make sure a gifted purse has a penny in it and won’t walk under ladders, which once earned me a mild rebuke from my clerical sister-in-law.

My main ones, however, are those handed down through the family.

Don’t forget salt for the Roman soldier – or the devil

When it coms to salt there’s ‘one for the pot, two for the pot, three for the Roman soldier’, the third being thrown over a shoulder to appease the ghostly warrior standing somewhere behind.

After all, enough can go wrong in the kitchen without having the shade of a disgruntled Roman legionary lurking around your worktops.

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The origins of this came from the time when salt was a valuable commodity and many soldiers were paid in it – hence the saying ‘worth his salt’. So woe betide you if you don’t ‘pay’ the soldier with a pinch of salt.

There is also the legend that Judas Iscariot knocked over the salt at the Last Supper (it’s depicted in da Vinci’s painting), and that Satan will steal your soul if you don’t pay him in salt, but I find the threat of a wrathful centurion more of an incentive, especially as we live next to a Roman road.

The other, stranger one, is never re-entering and leaving a house without sitting down. So if you’re on your way out, remember you’ve forgotten something and rush back inside to collect it, you HAVE to sit down, even for a second before leaving again.

I don’t know why, I don’t know its origins, but I always do it, even if it’s just a second on the stair.

And I never, ever place new shoes on the table or open an umbrella indoors.

 

Wendy Humphries, letters editor

When a bumble bee flies into your home, would you be waiting for a stranger to call? Or if you dropped a knife would you wait for someone else to pick it up?

These are just some of the bizarre superstition theories that governed my upbringing, aside from the usual ones such as throwing spilt salt over the shoulder or never putting up a brolly indoors.

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My 88-year old mother has many superstitions, inherited I think from her mum. It wasn’t that walking under a ladder was frowned upon, it was a definite no-no, as the story goes mother’s aunt walked under one and fell down a hole on the other side – ‘instant’ bad luck!

Superstition or not, Wendy loves her lilac

On reaching my teens, I realised that I didn’t have to live by the rules, after all, if I put a new pair of shoes onto a table, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I started to ignore them, and being a clumsy type, I’d unfortunately smashed a mirror and then seven years later broke another one – so I’d be in for a long stretch of bad times if I believed any of this to be true.

Then came the birth of my first child. Under no circumstances would the cot be allowed into the house before the birth. This is one that I adhered to and as my parents were buying these items for us, there really wasn’t any room for negotiation!

Every spring there’s one superstition that I can’t let go of – ‘never cut lilac and bring it indoors’, typical, I love the scent!

 

Janey Goulding, assistant editor

‘When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer,’ sang Mr Stevie Wonder. Following the wisdom of his funky classic Superstitions, we can all benefit from a frank assessment of our more peculiar habits in dealing with portents of doom.

Some superstitions I find easy to flout, especially if they involve stepladders, table corners and numerically challenged Fridays. But there are two superstitions I do observe, and I don’t think I can stop, because… well, basically, because it’s nice to be polite.

A mischief of magpies checking a sheep for parasites. Picture: Alamy

One is saying ‘Bless you’ to people who sneeze. It’s the decent thing to do, even if it is predicated on an obscure 6th century superstition. Whether or not someone is in the process of expelling evil spirits from their nostrils (and I guess I can’t rule that out), it’s only right to give people a bit of reassurance as they valiantly rustle around in their handbags or pockets for a tissue.

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But the big one is magpies – specifically, what I do when I see one. Few single birds come with this particular fear factor. Victorians were so alarmed by Pica pica, they nearly drove them to the same fate as the dodo.

There’s a real ‘death’ vibe surrounding magpies, possibly because in Medieval times they were known to be big scavengers, picking over the spoils of battlegrounds and gallows. Rumour also has it the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s ark, opting to sit on the roof swearing in the rain, as you do.

Given his inquisitive nature, the haggister has acquired a reputation for being a scoundrel and a rotter, purloining shiny objects like jewellery. Such scandalous behaviour has become synonymous with misfortune. But some of the legends are perplexing.

In Yorkshire, he is associated with witchcraft and locals are minded to make the sign of the cross. See one in Somerset, and you are advised to carry an onion for protection. And in France, they say evil nuns are reincarnated as magpies… The mind boggles.

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The collective noun for a group of chatter-pies is a ‘mischief’. On that note, magpies often mate for life, so seeing one alone suggests it has either lost its mate or hasn’t yet ‘got lucky’. In either case, some would have you think this singleton is thereby less inclined to advance your good fortunes – but blimey, let’s give the guy a break.

Thing is, I feel the magpie gets a bad rap – and I’m not alone. The Romans celebrated them for their intelligence and their ability to use tools and work in teams. In Ancient Greece, the magpie was sacred to Dionysus, god of the grape harvest (one of my favourites).

Native Americans believed he was a sacred messenger, and that wearing a feather was a sign of fearlessness. In China, a singing magpie is said to bring domestic bliss; indeed, he was the official ‘bird of joy’ for the Manchu dynasty.

So I think the best of my feathered friend. Some might salute, or say ‘Good morning, captain’, or ‘Hello Mr Magpie, how is your wife today?’ or even ‘Hello Mr Magpie, how is Mrs Magpie and all the little magpies?’ But I don’t like to assume he might have a family, and he might be grieving for a lost love. So I prefer to discuss the exciting business of the day, like what’s new in the feeder tray, or how many evil nuns he might have known. Because it’s the right thing to do. Especially if he sneezes.

 

Lesley Upton, features editor

I don’t think I’m very superstitious, but there are two things I won’t do. The first is open an umbrella indoors and the second is to put shoes on a table.

I’ll walk under ladders, travel on Friday the 13thand won’t panic if I break a mirror, but the umbrella and shoes seem to have been instilled in me by my parents.

I think opening an umbrella indoors is mainly down to practical reasons – the spokes of the umbrella’s frame could prove dangerous and even blind someone, so I presume that’s why it’s known to be unlucky.

Putting shoes on the table is unlucky, and a tribute to dead miners

It seems that the shoes on the table comes from the mining industry. If a miner died in the pit, his family would leave his boots on the table as a tribute. That’s why it’s associated with death.

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However, one superstition that I remember well is that the colour green is unlucky – mainly because my mother always said that she became seriously ill in her 40s because she had a lime-green coat.

I also worked with someone who would never use a Ziploc bag with a green band across the top when he wanted to keep documents together, as he said it was unlucky. And I know some people won’t buy a green car.

Some stories state that green was thought to be a colour that belonged to forest spirits or fairies, and as they held this colour in such high regard they would be hostile to anyone else who wore it.

Another story, based on the superstition that to wear green is to bring about death, is linked to arsenic.

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In 1778 Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist, used arsenic to invent shades of green that he called Scheele’s Green. It was later used in the manufacture of wallpapers and fabrics, and while Scheele knew arsenic was toxic he never expected anyone to eat wallpaper or clothes.

However, what he failed to notice was that when submerged in water – during washing – the clothes gave off a poisonous gas. Many people became ill and some even died.

Also, if a room became damp, wallpaper would give off a poisonous gas. Legend has it that this is what killed Napoleon Bonaparte after a sample of the wallpaper from St Helena, where Bonaparte was exiled, was found to contain arsenic.

 

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