MAX CRYER is a well-known writer, broadcaster and entertainer. In a long career, he has been a schoolteacher, a compere and television host, as well as a performer on the opera stage in London and in cabaret in Las Vegas and Hollywood. He has discussed aspects of the English language on nationwide radio in regular sessions over 20 years. Now a full-time writer living in Auckland, he has written many books, including Is It True?, The Cat’s Out of the Bag, Every Dog Has Its Day, Who Said That First?, Love Me Tender, The Godzone Dictionary, Preposterous Proverbs and Curious English Words and Phrases.

Also by Max Cryer:
Is It True?
Curious English Words and Phrases
Preposterous Proverbs Who Said That First?
The Godzone Dictionary
Love Me Tender
Every Dog Has Its Day
The Cat’s Out of the Bag


and why we have them


Max Cryer


First published 2016

Exisle Publishing Limited,
P.O. Box 60-490, Titirangi, Auckland 0642, New Zealand.
‘Moonrising’, Narone Creek Road, Wollombi, NSW 2325, Australia.

Copyright © Max Cryer 2016

Max Cryer asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Except for short extracts for the purpose of review, no part of
this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any
form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of New Zealand.

Print ISBN 978-1-925335-17-0
ePub ISBN 978-1-77559-285-3

Cover and text design by Nick Turzynski, redinc. Book Design, Auckland


The author thanks Paul Barrett, Graeme and Valerie Fisher, Steve Jennings, Geoffrey Pooch and Ian Watt for their assistance in the preparation of this book. Special thanks too to Carole Doesburg and Richard Webster.


Since time immemorial, mankind has believed in two kinds of power. There was always the earthly power of muscle, spade and spear. But there was another kind of power — a power perceived by many to reside in unseen or unknown forces, and with an influence on daily life almost equal to the more obvious muscle, spade and spear.

The usual inspiration for the unseen or unknown forces was the vast territory which people saw when they looked upwards — the world ‘above’. Thus, with some contributions from the unseen world ‘below’, in earlier centuries a large number of behaviours, rules, possibilities and probabilities came into being — all relying on mysterious powers beyond human endeavour. They are called superstitions, and they deal with the feared, the powerful and the socially enhancing (or restricting).

Such ‘powers’ were not always benign. While it is true that they could bring very welcome outcomes (though this is difficult to prove), various other acts or incidents were deemed to bring bad tidings. But knowledge of the ‘powers’ often helped avoid the unwelcome — as did knowledge of a prescribed antidote. Medical and scientific knowledge had some status — but it was not necessarily available to the masses, and was itself often aligned with those same unseen powers.

Religions both ancient and modern brought formalised order to the awareness and effectiveness of unseen powers. Their hierarchies brought respectability and prescribed channels for both faith and hope, and many superstitions were gently brought under their canopy, without diminishing religious integrity. For example, within the Christian message the splashing of water onto a baby or the ringing of bells — both superstition-based –— were only small details which were absorbed into the more deeply orientated faith.

Pinning down the origins of superstitions can be baffling. There is seldom a straightforward explanation. Unlike epigrams, quotations, proverbs and literary allusions, superstitions often grow without visible ancestry. Communicated by word of mouth and community participation, spread by travel and passed on through generations, the origin of many is simply lost in time or place — and variations over time. By their very nature, superstitions exist in a non-verifiable limbo … and the version your grandmother taught you might vary from what your neighbour’s grandmother taught her.

Among the thousands of known superstitions, an impressive number deal with either luck or romance. Encouraging and hoping for good luck and good fortune, as well as avoiding bad luck and poor fortune, form the basis for many superstitions governing human behaviours and actions. And predicting romance drives another large number of ‘rules’ about events and rituals to establish recognition of future marital happiness — or otherwise.

In the contemporary world, where massive technology and information lie at the end of a tapping finger, superstitions are no longer fashionable. Many indeed seem unlikely to the point of being bizarre. But a surprising number of ancient superstitions are indeed alive and well and observed daily by thousands of people. These are now known as ‘customs’. The dividing line between a ‘superstition’ and a ‘custom’ is often very thin. Not all customs are superstition-based, but in many cases one can slide into becoming the other, with its origin forgotten.

The person who boasts no belief at all in superstition, who wouldn’t bother tossing spilled salt over the left shoulder or avoid walking under a ladder, nevertheless happily wears a wedding ring on the third finger, puts candles on their child’s birthday cake, clinks glasses before a toast and says ‘touch wood’ when speaking of something they hope will happen. All of those are 100 per cent superstitions.

The underlying reasons for Diwali, Pesach and Ramadan still survive, as they do for Christmas and Easter. But minor ‘pagan’ superstitions have attached themselves to the Christmas and Easter festivals and become ‘customs’, amplified into massive and ruthless commercial exploitation. The ancient symbolism of decorating eggs to indicate that spring brings new life to the world, and the entirely apocryphal myth that a kind old man in Turkey threw gold coins down a chimney to help a poor Turkish family, have both been expanded into huge profit-making avalanches centred on sugar, fat and gift-giving. Thus myths and minor superstitious attachments to a more serious faith can become commercially imperative ‘customs’, encouraging high spending!

Consider the following:

These descendants of ancient talismans or fears are now frequently accepted into everyday life. They and many of their companion superstitions with less survival appeal are examined here.

Max Cryer


Based on Latin super (above) + stare (to stand), joined together
as superstare — ‘standing over’.

This came to signify:

• dread and excessive fear of unseen forces, based on ignorance;

• beliefs considered incompatible with truth or reason;

• irrational faith in powers believed to be above the concept of the known earth, and thus known as ‘supernatural’.



Saying this out loud is intended to summon up strong supernatural forces, though usually in a joking way, or in the context of showbusiness ‘magic’. There has been unresolved scholastic confusion about its origin and purpose. The word emerged not long after the time of Jesus’ birth, apparently as a charm against fevers. Some ascribe it to Hebrew, others to the more specific Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke). Etymologist Eric Partridge hovers between Aramaic and the equally possible Greek ‘Abraxas’ — an ancient mystical word whose seven letters represent the seven classic planets, and also the name of a Greek god with snakes for feet. The Oxford Dictionary says that the origin is ‘perhaps’ the Greek version. The truth is, nobody knows. Whatever its ancient mystical applications in whatever language, the word is nowadays regarded as a gimmick. The OED, ever pragmatic, dismisses it as ‘a pretended conjuring word, gibberish’.


Who knew? There is an ancient belief that a woman who constantly carries an acorn about her person will successfully delay the process of ageing (hers, not the acorn’s). This belief relates back to the long and sturdy life enjoyed by the oak tree … though the antiageing process magically brought about by the acorn apparently refers only to the woman’s health and vigour. No version of the superstition asserts that the acorn has any influence on the woman’s looks. True, an ancient oak tree is a mighty example of longevity, but its best friend couldn’t say it looks young …

But from Norse mythology comes the story of how Thor found safety from thunder under an oak tree. From this grew a superstition concerning the safety value of acorns: namely, that an acorn kept on the windowsill will prevent lightning from striking the house. This is believed to be the origin of the acorn shape often used at the ends of curtain or Venetian blind cords.

Fresh acorns are credited with solving another quite different matter: when crushed into mush, some juice oozes out, which can be swallowed as a cure for drunkenness!


Recreational fishing and fishers doesn’t spring to mind as a nourishing area for superstitions to grow, but they do. Depending on their locale and culture, fishers can practise the following:

See also spitting; bumble bee.


In the fantasy world of superstition, the range of available aphrodisiacs is prolific. Over the centuries a wide catalogue of suggestions has accumulated, recommended to ease road bumps in the path of love/sex. At various times, the following have been vouched for:

leeks, apples, asparagus, potatoes, mandrake plants, dried lizards, truffles, tomatoes, bull testicles, artichokes, parsnips, cinnamon, salt, oysters, turnips, nutmeg, ginger, powdered rhino horn, lettuce, marigold flowers, pepper, onions and — cabbage!

Other less straightforward candidates include:

Some Moroccan men believe that eating an egg every morning for forty days leads to improved sexual performance. Or — if you’re more stoic — in some circles dried periwinkle flowers mixed with powdered earthworms has been highly recommended.


There is no mention of apples in the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve, but the misperception persists that disaster struck them when one was eaten. In parts of America, if there is sunshine on Christmas Day, this foretells that the apple crops will be generous the following year. Watch out, however, if the trees bloom before autumn — this means someone’s death is near. For the unwed, many superstitions exist to help foretell their future, and one featuring an apple is intriguing. Peel an apple in one long continuous strip, then throw the peel backward over the left shoulder. When it falls on the ground, the shape made by the peel will be the initial of the thrower’s future wife or husband.


April Fool’s Day

For centuries, the ‘New Year’ celebrations had been observed on 1 April, although the real civil and legal new year was marked on what would now be 25 March. But that was Lady Day, during Holy Week, hence the delay to a week or so later.

When the Gregorian calendar was adopted (the one we have now) the New Year occurred on 1 January, but legend tells that peasant folk in Europe were not always keen on this change. In festive array, they would turn up at their neighbours ready to party, jokingly trying to convince them that 1 April was still the New Year. This amiable trickery spread and became an adventure in testing the patience, alertness and humour of anyone and everyone.

But a belief has crept in that the fooling has to stop at midday: bad luck will come to anyone who tries to perpetrate an April Fools trick after 12 noon.


Although innocently hanging on the kitchen door, the humble apron has more power in superstition than one might think. For instance, putting it on back to front by mistake will bring good luck. But remember — if it’s been put on the correct way and things start going astray during the day, taking the apron off and putting it back on deliberately back-to-front, will reverse the day’s rhythm and calm will be restored.

As a bonus, anyone wearing an apron when getting their first glimpse of a new moon should immediately make a wish, then rapidly take the apron off and put it on back-to-front. This ensures that the wish will come true.


Antihistamines might help, but in their absence, the superstitious can provide three other remedies to help bring relief:

  1. In ancient Rome the advised cure was to eat 20 crickets soaked in wine.
  2. Cornish folk recommended rolling cobwebs into a ball, then swallowing it.
  3. Lost in time, a sure cure was believed to be to drink foam from the mouth of a donkey.


baking bread at Christmas

It seems unlikely to occur during a modern Christmas, but a diligent householder baking bread at Christmas (and believing in superstitions) is protecting the household from accident, misfortune and fire for the following year. Furthermore, the baker who abides by superstition will believe that bread baked on Christmas Day, when crumbled into hot water, will help cure dysentery and diarrhoea.

See also bread.


The ceremony of giving a baby its name dates back to what are known as pagan times. A new-born baby was vulnerable — its body and soul could be invaded by evil spirits and witches. Protection was acquired by being sure the cradle contained some garlic, iron and salt, and having a naming ceremony.

When the baby’s name was decided, it was kept totally secret. Even the child itself was not addressed by the name, in case some passing witch learned the new baby’s name and was able to cast spells against it. Naming ceremonies took place as soon as possible, with ritual incantations and purified water.


In spite of extensive advertising claims to the contrary, most men afflicted by baldness find the condition irreversible. An America superstition claims that baldness can be delayed by cutting the existing hair very short, then singeing the cut ends. Another superstition claims that when a man starts to go bald, he can slow the process by stuffing cyclamen leaves up his nose. And sprinkling parsley seeds on the head three times a year is also believed to help.

Three other cures have come down to us from ancient traditions — albeit two of them might be rather difficult to obtain:


In later centuries, versions of the ‘baby naming’ ceremony were absorbed into the newer Christian event also known as baptism or christening.

See also christening.


It’s usually not difficult to grow, but apart from its delicious usefulness in cooking, superstitions claim that basil has somewhat ambiguous effects on your life. The ancient Greeks considered it brought bad luck — and could also cause hatred. Italians, on the other hand, saw it as representing love.

In some parts of India a leaf of basil was placed on someone recently dead, as it would help the departed one’s spirit to reach the afterlife. But in frightening contrast, herbalist Thomas Culpepper (1563) reported an ancient French belief that if one sniffed the leaves of basil, a scorpion would grow inside your brain! However, if you actually want a pet scorpion, just place basil leaves under a pot plant — and a scorpion will grow there (instead of inside the brain).

Although there is no known evidence, the belief persists that when Herod’s stepdaughter danced for the head of John the Baptist, and was awarded it, she kept the head in a bowl of basil leaves — to avoid the smell. (By the way, the name Salome for Herod’s stepdaughter is not in the Bible at all. Nor is there any mention of her dancing with seven veils.)


Besides giving their flavour to cooking, bay tree leaves have had a busy history. To ancient Romans the bay tree symbolised victory and its leaves were a protection against evil — especially witches and ghosts. Winners were crowned with it, and its branches adorned houses to bring good luck. Placed beneath a night-time pillow, bay leaves were believed to help bring pleasant dreams, and some leaves carried about in one’s clothing would continue to fend off evil spirits.

A bay tree planted near a house would ward off infections, and there was a bonus belief that lightning would not strike a bay tree but would divert away from it. The Roman Emperor Tiberius is reported to have always donned a crown made of bay leaves when thunderous weather threatened, in order that any lightning would be diverted from his royal person. Tiberius died when he was 78, not from lightning, but reportedly after being smothered by enemies.


For those who are unmarried, a superstition might offer some help. It concerns ‘turning’ or ‘making’ a bed each day:

If one day you would be wed, Turn your bed from foot to head.

Married or not, the superstitious abide by the belief that whatever side of the bed you get into at night is the side you must get out of in the morning. Not doing so will cause disruption. In fact, the belief resulted in the saying that someone disgruntled ‘got out the wrong side of the bed’. (However, any potential disruption caused by inadvertently getting out on the ‘wrong’ side can be averted by putting one’s socks on the right foot first, then the left.)

The jury is still out on the ancient and vexed superstition regarding getting out of bed ‘backwards’. One school of thought decrees it to be bad luck, but the opposition says it is good luck. It’s probably best avoided by getting out of bed frontwards.


A recurring belief among superstitions is that noise drives away evil spirits. Long before the establishment of Christian churches, the sound of bells and other created noises were used to defeat the attentions of unwelcome and bad spirit beings. Those who believed witches could fly on broomsticks were sure that the sound of bells caused witches to fall off.

A form of this belief transferred to the use of bells in churches during the early centuries of Christianity, and the not uncommon use of smaller bells being rung during the actual service. Another belief was that the pealing of bells during thunderstorms would help prevent damage. Sociology author E. M. Leather reports an eighth-century church blessing whereby bells were to protect people from ‘the shadow of phantoms, the assault of whirlwinds, the stroke of lightning, the harm of thunder, and the injurie of tempests’.

See also toast; New Year’s Eve.

best man

At a wedding, the ‘groomsmen’ and their leader, the ‘best man’, originally protected the bride from any marauding rival of the groom’s who wished to capture and deliver her to the aforementioned rival.

Another way of protecting the bride was for the best man and groomsmen to wear a small bunch of flowers and herbs, in order to ward off any lurking evil spirits who had designs on upsetting the wedding ceremony. The foliage was worn on their left side, near the heart — and from the old superstition the ‘custom’ remains in the men’s floral ‘buttonholes’.


The belief that a person’s life and fortune, ill or otherwise, is governed by the conjunction of the stars at the hour, day and month of their birth still has many flourishing survivors. Constant features in magazines and newspapers acknowledge this.


Unrest is felt in many households if a bird should fly in through an open window, then fly out again. It is the signal that a family death is imminent. Outside the house, anyone hit by bird droppings (and who hasn’t been?) can choose between two superstitions:

  1. Expect bad luck in the near future.
  2. Good luck will now come to you.

Take your pick.


A simpler belief is the ancient superstition which focuses on the day the birth takes place. There is a difficulty in taking it seriously, as it all depends on which side of the International Date Line you live. One person’s Monday birth could be another person’s Sunday or Tuesday elsewhere. There are a dozen variations on the prediction, the most frequently heard being:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day
Is blithe and bonny, good and gay.

The evolution of language has cast a different perspective on Sunday’s child.

birthday cake

Historically, birthdays haven’t always been celebrated as they are now. In some cultures, women’s and children’s birthdays weren’t celebrated at all. But now that they are, the custom of the cake with candles is following a ritualised superstitious belief from ancient Greece.

Other cultures have celebrated birthdays by roasting an ox — or something smaller for those less wealthy. But among the many gods and goddesses worshipped by the Greeks was Artemis — goddess of the moon. Her birthday was celebrated by preparing round cakes like a full moon. And because the moon glows with light, the cakes were decorated with lighted candles on top, so the circular glowing cake resembled the moon. A parallel superstition was that by blowing out the candles, the smoke would go upwards carrying a wish to the moon.

Over thousands of years, the ancient connection between the moon and its governance of wishes has faded away, and sometimes birthday cakes are no longer round. However, the cake with glowing candles to be blown out, accompanied by a wish, has survived as a custom, even if the superstition behind it is seldom acknowledged.

black cats See cats

Black Friday

Severe apprehension affects many people when the 13th day of a month falls on a Friday. Those sensitive to superstition find the combination particularly nerve-wracking, as it combines the bad vibes already existing about any Friday with the number 13.

The ‘Friday’ part of the equation is difficult to explain. While it is popularly believed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, there is absolutely no evidence that this was the case. The Bible doesn’t come anywhere near designating the day, and close study and complex reasoning applied to the biblical texts can only come up with Wednesday, Thursday or Friday as the possible crucifixion dates. Nevertheless, in spite of the scholastic confusion, a widespread assumption exists that Friday has an aura of evil, because of the possibility that Jesus was crucified on that day.

Although Friday and 13 separately have their own quotient of superstitions, the two components appeared not to combine until the middle of the nineteenth century. The composer Gioachino Rossini was known to regard both Friday and 13 as unlucky. After he died in 1868, the biography published the following year noted that his death had occurred on Friday the 13th. This was the first known coupling of the two factors.

In the following decades, the bad odour of the conjunction appeared to have taken sufficient root for T. W. Lawson’s 1907 novel, Friday the Thirteenth