People and cultures fascinate me. Why do they do the things they do? What scares them, what makes them laugh, what makes them love, what makes them upset? People are an enigma, and no two are alike, yet for some, superstition binds them in a web of fear. I wonder where superstitions originated and why they started. I throw salt over my left shoulder for luck and when I see a black cat crossing my path I turn the other way. I don’t really know why I do these things, I guess it’s a habit, I also suppose that is what I was taught to do, and I honestly worry about what would happen if I didn’t. These and many other questions will be answered today, as Hellas frappe opens the X-Files on Greek superstitions.
No matter what culture you belong to, you have some sort of superstitions. Greece, being an old, old culture has quite a few. For as long as humans have been making sounds and instruments, magical methods have been created in the attempt to control the forces of nature and the life and death matters of daily existence. Good and evil befall us without rhyme or reason. We imagine spirits or intelligible forces causing our good and bad fortune. We invent ways to placate them or direct them.
While many people do believe that some supernatural phenomena are real, almost all of us recognize that at least much of the time these superstitions aren’t really valid. But if they aren’t valid, then why do we react and do the ritual anyway?
I guess part of the reason seems to be because most of these superstitions have been around for many generations. For example, mirrors show reflections or shadows fall when light is coming from the opposite direction, could not be explained without science, so the ancient people concluded that reflections and shadows are part of their soul. They considered it unlucky when a glass or mirror is broken; they believed their soul will get harmed. So people, breaking mirrors were considered harmful and unlucky
- EVIL EYE – Probably the most famous superstition of all is the evil eye. Belief in the evil eye is ancient and widespread; it occurred in ancient Greece and Rome and is found in Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures, being particularly prevalent today in the Mediterranean and Aegean. Think back to when someone complimented you, and then you developed a painful headache. The belief is complex, but the idea is that if you act in such a way that people begin to envy you, their thoughts of envy will bring about the ‘evil eye’ and begin to bring misfortune into your life or make you feel dizzy and ill. Where does it come from? The origin of the concept is ancient but it’s present in ancient Greek texts such as those of Plutarch or Aristophanes. Others argue that it has roots in evolutionary psychology and the need for no one individual to become too proud and ostentatious, which may explain its prevalence in areas far beyond the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s such an ancient belief, however, that no one really knows for sure. To ward off the Evil Eye you can wear blue beads as a necklace or bracelet, or get someone to chant a mystical prayer.This is an issue over which Greek Church and folklore are both united and separated. They are joined in their belief that the curse of the evil eye exists, but divided in how it can be warded off or tackled. The Greek Orthodox Church has recognised the evil eye since the establishment of the faith. The church calls it Vaskania (pronounced Vas-ka-nee-a) and has a special prayer made especially to help cure those who have fallen under the curse. As for the prayer that is designed to alleviate the symptoms, the priests were insistent in their belief that it should be done by a member of the church rather than a layman. Common practise in Greek society has it that people are taught the prayer by a priest and will use it themselves to ‘treat’ cursed friends and relatives, sometimes even over the phone. Some believe that for a woman to be able to do the prayer she must be taught it by a man.
- SNEEZING – If, on the other, you sneeze, somebody is talking about you, or at least that’s what an old Greek superstition claims. If you don’t know who it is, you may try to figure out by listing names. If saying one name stops the sneezing, then that is who is talking about you. If that doesn’t work, ask someone for a three digit number (three for the Holy Trinity). Add the numbers. If the number is higher than the number of letters in the alphabet – 24 in Greek, 26 in English, add the digits. Using the resulting number and counting such that A or a is 1, B or b is 2, etc., find the letter indicated by the number. This will be the first initial of the person talking about you. And if you don’t know who is talking about you, spit three times on your chest to avoid the Evil Eye.
- ITCHY HANDS – An itchy hand foretells that you will be receiving or giving money. If you’re right hand is itchy, you will get money. If you’re left hand is itchy, you will give money. If both hands are itchy then you will both give and receive money. The right hand is luckier then the left hand, and so you receive with the right and give with the left. Roots of favoring the right side can be seen in the Orthodox Church, where the Son of God sits to the right of the father.
- SPITTING – Greeks spit to ward off evil. Upon hearing any bad news, a Greek may spit on them self three times to stop the possibility of anything bad happening to them. They don’t actually spit on themselves. They say “Ptew, Ptew, Ptew.” Very little spit is actually produced. Some people who practice this may raise their shirt and spit between their clothes towards their chest. Greek fishermen spit into their nets to allow for a good catch. If someone compliments a Greek, to avoid the Evil Eye they may spit onto themselves, and may say to the person “Ptew, Ptew mi me matiasis”, which basically says, “I’m spitting on myself so that you do not cause the Evil Eye to come upon me.” Spitting is believed to be very effective against The Evil Eye. Priests may even spit in the Greek Orthodox Church. During Baptism, the priest will blow into the air three times to glorify the Trinity, and spit into the ground three times at the devil. The practice of spitting three times is believed to come from this.
- GARLIC – A clove of garlic can also protect wearers. Many people keep garlic in their pockets. Garlic is believed to ward off demons and evil spirits, who are believed to fear it. One response to a compliment, especially coming from a blue-eyed person, is for a Greek to spit, to ward off potential evil.
- SALT – In Greek superstition salt has great purifying powers and can be used to ward off demons and evil spirits, simply by throwing it over your left shoulder. New houses can be purified by sprinkling salt to remove any demons or lurking evil spirits, but did you know that salt can also be used to remove unwanted guests? Salt can either be sprinkled on their chair or thrown behind them, but be careful that your guest does not see this because if he or she does then the power of the salt is weakened, or so the superstition dictates. Another claim is that salt should be covered at night. If the moon or the stars shine upon the salt, whoever carries it will develop warts or a rash on their body.
- CROWS – Crows are considered omens of bad news, misfortune and death. When you see or hear a crow cawing, you say “Sto Kalo… Sto Kalo…. Kala Nea na me Feris” which loosely translated means, go well into the day and bring me good news. Crows, and their raven cousins, have always held a spot in mythology as the symbols of occult knowledge and power, wisdom, and, above all, war. Associated with the other world, war, and death, perhaps from their macabre attendance on the battlefield, these birds have accompanied such mythological figures as the Norse God Odin, the Greek god Apollo. Perhaps because of their connection with war and death, crows have generally been seen as symbols of ill fortune.
- SAILING – It used to be an ill omen to start a voyage on certain days of the week. Friday was one, the origin for this being that the Crucifixion took place on a Friday. Other days are the first Monday in April, believed to be the birthday of Cain and the day on which Abel was killed; the second Monday in August, thought to be the day on which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed; and 31 December, the anniversary of the day on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Another omen was that if the cargo being brought on board heeled the ship to steer board, or starboard, storms would blow; but if it heeled to lade board then the voyage would be successful.
- BAT BONES – Bat bones are considered to be very lucky. Some carry a small bit of the bone in their pockets or purses with them where ever they go. The only problem is getting the bone as it is supposed to be very bad luck to kill a bat. Greek Islanders believe quite the opposite. They think that bats are unholy creatures and should be avoided at all costs, and would never dream of carrying a piece of one as a talisman.
- GIFT OF COLOGNE – In Greece it is customary that when you give someone the gift of cologne that they must give you a medal coin in return. If they refuse to do so then your relationship will be at risk.
- MONEY – Greeks believe that money attracts money, so never leave your pockets, purses or wallets completely empty and never completely empty your bank account. Always leave at least a coin or two. It is also considered good luck that when you give a gift of a wallet or a purse, that you put a coin or two in it before giving it to the recipient.
- PLANTS – If you have tried to take a cutting and root it without success, maybe you are doing something wrong. Greeks believe that in order for a cutting to root, it has to be stolen. You have to nonchalantly cut off a piece of the desired plant and take it home without telling the owner. According to superstition, it will root easily.
- FISH – Fish are believed to be wise and knowledgeable. But the Church also sees the fish as a revered symbol of silence. Fish don’t speak or make noise. Perhaps some of you have seen the sign of the fish in your own church, as many non-orthodox religions also use its symbolism with the Greek letters ‘ ΙΧΘΥΣ ΙΧΘΥΣ– ‘Ichthis’, translated means fish and is the Greek name for the zodiac sign of Pisces. But it also has a deeper meaning. If each letter is taken individually, you will see its religious significance.
- OREGANO – As well as being used for medicine and flavouring, the oregano herb was used in ritual and traditional ceremonies. And in both Roman and Ancient Greek wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom were crowned with oregano laurels. In death, oregano was grown around tombs and on graves.
- SHOES – Overturned shoes (soles up) are considered very bad luck and even omens of death. Never let your shoes lay upside down. If you accidentally take them off and they land soles up, turn them over immediately and say ‘Skorda (garlic)’ and a spit or two won’t hurt either.
- TALISMANS – FILAXTA – Talismans or ‘Filahta’ are regularly used in Greece. Most commonly you will see these charms pinned to the backs of small children’s and infant’s clothing. But you will also find that many of the older people carry them in their pockets and purses or have them discretely pinned to their clothing too. There are numerous items that are used for Filahta that are thought to guard you from the Evil Eye or what the Greek Orthodox Church calls Baskania. Of course, there are the simple gold crosses or medals of Saints, and evil eyes and beads, but there are also small pieces of cloth sewn into sachets, holding an array of mysterious contents. These sachets can be filled with pieces of olive branch or basil that have been used by a priest in some ceremony, dirt from the grave of a Saint or maybe burnt candle shavings from a Church altar. Anything can be used for these charms, but the rule is that it has to be something from holy ground or something that has been blessed. Any one item or a combination is sewn into a very small, triangular sachet and sometimes adorned with beads in the sign of the cross.
- TOUCH RED – It might be considered a form of ESP or maybe just coincidence, but sometimes two people have the same thought and speak the same words at the same time. Take for example two girlfriends going out shopping together and stopping to admire a dress in a window. They both say ‘That’s Beautiful’ simultaneously. Greeks believe this to be an omen that those two persons will get into a fight and they say to ‘Piase Kokkino’ or ‘Touch Red’ to avoid the argument. Both persons have to touch something that’s red, right then and there. Any item will do, clothing, food – anything.
- TUESDAY THE 13 – Different from Western cultures, it is Tuesday the 13 of the month that is considered unlucky in Greece and not Friday the 13.
- WHOPPING COUGH – In the days before vaccinations, Greeks held that donkeys’ milk should be given to a child infected with whooping cough. According to the old wives tales, there is some kind of substance in the milk that cures the illness.
- CURSE OF A PARENT – It is believed by some that a curse of a parent will take effect as it will fall on the ears of God, who will pull his protection away from the disrespectful child. This is called in Greek a “Parahorisi”. There are two forms of Parahorisis one is for the Good as is the case with gifts from God such as being able to see Prophesy (St. John the Evangelist), smell myrrh (Jacob) etc. The other form of Parahorisis is the feared form which can result in the worst case Possessio.
- BAD ENERGY – Regardless of whether they consider themselves religious, many Greeks believe in something beyond the reach of the Orthodox Church: bad energy and it is usually caused by people thinking about you in a negative way. If they envy you, or talk behind your back, they will send you bad energy, which can make you feel stressed, give you head aches or an upset stomach. If you want to prevent it from touching you, wear a light-blue eye or some stone of the same colour. If you do not you need to have an older woman pray for you to release you from the bad feelings. The contents of the prayers are secret. They are only supposed to be transmitted from mother to daughter when both are in an advanced stage of life. `
- DOGS – Greeks thought dogs could foresee evil. A howling dog at night means bad luck or somebody close to you will be very sick or worse.
- OWLS – Owls have carried a mixed bag of superstitions since time immemorial. The ancient Greeks revered owls and believed them sacred to Athena. Affiliated with the goddess of wisdom and learning, the owl was considered wise and kind. But somewhere in time, the owl’s reputation plummeted and hearing the hoot of an owl is now associated with bad luck. To counter evil owl power put irons in your fire. Or throw salt, hot peppers or vinegar into the fire, the owl will get a sore tongue, hoot no more, and no one close to you will be in trouble. When you hear an owl, take off your clothes, turn them inside out and put them back on. You might not want to do this if you are in public. But there is one superstition that’s good – good for us women that is. Any man who eats roasted owl will be obedient and a slave to his wife
- PEACOCKS – A peacock feather has an evil eye at the end. Argus, the Greek legend, says a hundred eyed monster was turned into a peacock with all its eyes in its tail. Never bring a peacock feather indoors for decoration as they are unlucky.
- SWANS – A swan’s feather, sewed into the husband’s pillow, will ensure fidelity. The swan was dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god of music, which may account for the belief which has developed that when one of the birds is dying it, sings, thus giving rise to the expression ‘swansong’. Actually the bird makes its usual hissing sound, but there is still much faith in the belief that when one of them lies its head and neck back over its body during the daytime then a storm is on the way.
- HORSESHOES – There is no greater symbol of good luck than finding a horseshoe with the open hoof space facing toward the fortunate discoverer. No ill omens seem to be connected with this particular superstition. Even if a person merely dreams of finding a horseshoe, good luck will come to him or her. In the modern world, it is not quite as easy to find a discarded horseshoe as it was in the days before the automobile became the principal means of transportation, so perhaps the horseshoe is even luckier in the twenty-first century than it was in the past. The last letter in the Greek alphabet, Omega, is shaped like a horseshoe, and perhaps the ancient Greeks used reverse psychology when they tacked a symbol of “the end” on their walls to protect themselves from the plague. The Romans must have thought the horseshoe was an able defender against the terrible disease, for they followed the Greek custom of placing a horseshoe on their walls.
- BASIL – Hippocrates used to prescribe basil as a treatment for heart, nausea and constipation. Ancient Greeks believed that putting a spring of basil in the hands of the dead would open heaven’s gates. Basil is used also in the Greek Orthodox Church for the preparation of the holy water. Even today, many Greeks bring their basil plants for a church blessing or give them as a gift. Greek name for basil is “Vassilikos” which means “royal”, and it has always represented health and prosperity for Greeks. There is also the superstition, still palpable among Greeks, that if you keep a pot with basil at the entrance door of your house you will have lots of luck and money.
- MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS – The cross sign is made in church, before meals and sometimes when paying a compliment in order to ward off the Evil Eye. When Greeks talk about something terrible that has happened, they might also do the sign. If they pass a church they will also do it, regardless if they are walking or travelling by bus, car or driving a motorbike.
- DRIED FLOWER WREATHS – The wreaths are put on the front door on the 1st of May, and supposedly fall off at the end of the summer when they are all dried up. Thus it is a kind of measurement of time, which is believed to be an ancient custom that has survived.
- SMOKED CROSS ON DOOR – After midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday, all church goers will have taken a candle with them in order to bring the Holy Light (brought from Jerusalem) back to bless their homes. It is smoked into the front door entrance and is believed to bring good health and luck to the family members.
Luckily for Greece, there are also many ways to get luck on your side. Eating the end of the bread means that your mother-in-law will like you. Drinking the last drop of beer or wine out of a carafe means that you will get married, if you spill coffee onto the saucer under the cup, you will become rich and if you smash a piece of Paradise Fruit at the beginning of the new year will allow you to expect for good things to happen. Superstitions are primitive instincts that will continue to lurk in the back of our minds no matter how intelligent or practical a person we might be. At the same time, how can we condemn beliefs which are etched in our heritage?
Our culture will forever remain superstitious. We know that superstition has given us delusions and llusions, dreams and visions, etc. We know that science has given us all we have of value. It is after all the only civilizer. Right? I mean it has freed the slave, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, lengthened life, given us homes and hearths, pictures and books, ships and railways, telegraphs and cables, engines that tirelessly turn the countless wheels, and it has destroyed the monsters, the phantoms, the winged horrors that filled the savage brain… but why can’t it alleviate the symptoms of the evil eye?
Hmmmmmmm I wonder…