Friday, January 6, 2012


Superstition: The Right Way

Haven’t scrawled out your resolutions yet? It might be time to pick up the good book. The Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions (1996), by David Pickering, I mean — it's full of ideas to help you become the person you want to be in 2012. Auld lange syne.

1. Looking for a better love life?

Dumb Cake – In the British Isles, a special cake that is prepared in complete silence so that it may be used for the purposes of divination. The ingredients of flour, water, eggs, and salt are mixed by one or more persons and then placed on the hearthstone, the upper surface of the cake being pricked with the initials of one of those present. If all is done correctly and in complete silence, the future partner of the person concerned will appear and similarly prick his or her own initials on the cake. Variants of the tradition suggest that it may only be performed at midnight on Christmas Eve, Halloween, or other auspicious dates and, further, that portions of the cake must actually be eaten by those wishing to know their future partners. In some regions it is stipulated that the petitioners must walk backwards to their beds after eating the cake, when they will be pursued by apparitions of their lovers-to-be.

2. Did you buy someone a cute handbag for the holidays?

Purse – Superstition has several pieces of advice to ensure that a purse (or wallet or handbag) is never empty. As well as keeping various good luck charms in it, the owner should make doubly sure that his or her purse is never totally empty since even one coin will attract others. Anyone who gives a purse as a present should slip a coin into it to get the new owner off to a good start; a length of string secreted in it will apparently have the same effect.

3. Do you have any worms?

Dropsy – Cures for dropsy, in which watery fluids collect in the tissues or in a body cavity, are among the least appealing devised by superstition. Back in the sixteenth century it was recommended that sufferers behead three earthworms, store their remains with sugar and licorice in jars of Holy Water for nine days. In Devon, meanwhile, a spoonful of toad ashes taken every morning for three days while the moon was waxing was once regarded as an infallible cure.

4. You don’t need to worry about your number, but if you still worry sometimes ...

Tomato – The tomato was once considered to a ‘scandalous’ food and was widely believed to have considerable power as an aphrodisiac. Alternatively known as the ‘love apple’, the tomato was actually prohibited in Puritan England in the seventeenth century and only came back into fashion some two hundred years later. In particular, single women were discouraged from eating tomatoes. Placing a big red tomato on the windowsill, meanwhile, is said to scare away evil spirits, and if placed over the hearth a tomato will promote prosperity of the household.

5. The 2012 sober grocery list: olive oil, needles, mortar and pestle, vinegar, eels.

Drunkenness – Superstition proposes numerous cures for this condition, many of which depend upon slipping something unappetising into the drink of the person concerned. These extra ingredients vary from owl eggs and a few drops of the drunkard’s own blood to the powder of a dead man’s bones and live eels. To sober someone up quickly the best remedy is to roll him in manure and make him drink olive oil, then force him to smell is own urine and bind his genitals with a vinegar soaked cloth. According to the Welsh, conversely, eating the roasted lungs of a pig enables people to go on drinking all day long without getting drunk. (See also, Heather.)

6. Love your magic Hairpin.

Hairpin – Because of its association with hair, the humble hairpin is not without magical significance. Finding a hairpin promises making a new friend; losing one is more ominous, suggesting that an enemy is close at hand. If a hairpin works its way loose in the hair this is taken as an indication that someone has that person in their thoughts — though in Germany this may signify the end of a love affair.

7. Be pain-free in the new year.

Cramp – Superstition advises that the pain of cramp can be alleviated by always carrying on one’s person or secreting under one’s pillow certain animal bones. These vary from the knee joints of a hare to the fin bone of a haddock and the knuckle bone (or ‘cramp-bone’) of a sheep, which must never be allowed to come in contact with the ground or it will lose all its power. Garters of cork or eelskin are reputed to be equally efficacious, while some people have been known to carry a mole’s paw wrapped in silk or to sleep with a piece of a brimstone in their bed for the same purpose. Others have favoured wearing of ‘cramp rings’ fashioned from metal taken from old coffins, especially if these had been blessed by a monarch (the last English monarch to bless such rings was Mary I). Alternatively, reciting the following charm should keep the pain at bay ‘Cramp — be thou painless! As Our Lady was sinless when she bore Jesus.’

8. Quitting smoking? Save your ashes.

Ringworm – According to Scottish tradition, ringworm can be cleared up by rubbing ashes over the affected area of skin three mornings in a row before breakfast and intoning the following rhyme:

Ringworm, ringworm red,
Never mayest thou either spread or speed;
But aye grow less and less,
And die away among the ash.

9. Modify spiders.

Gout – Modern medicine has made gout largely an ailment of historical curiosity, but sufferers once had only superstition to turn to. Cures ranged from putting toenail clippings and a few hairs from the affected leg into a hole in an oak, which was then sealed with cow dung, to eating the powdered head of a red gurnard (a fish) or wrapping the foot in deerskin and applying to it a spider whose legs had been carefully removed.

10. Want to get healthier? Commit to walking more.

Prostitute – Superstition claims that it is lucky to meet a prostitute in the street, especially early in the morning, in which case the rest of the day’s business will turn out well. Prostitutes are, however, less welcome on board ships, where their presence is said to provoke storms. (See also, Pancake.)

11. If you hope for love, children, and/or better sleep ...

Lettuce – Since Roman times the lettuce has been credited with a wide range of magical properties. Eaten in large quantities at Roman banquets because it was supposed to prevent drunkenness and at wedding celebrations because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, it was subsequently used in various love potions in medieval times. A further superstition had it that young women who ate plenty of lettuce would have little trouble giving birth (see Childbirth), though an English variation warns that too many lettuces in a garden will prevent a woman having children at all. Wild lettuce is used to treat insomnia and headaches, among other minor ailments.

12. Don’t waste your cash on Proactiv.

Blackhead – A blocked pore leading to spots or other skin blemishes as suffered by many a teenager and post-adolescent despite recourse to soaps and other medication. Superstition suggests its own remedy for the problem, recommending afflicted persons to wait for a sunny day and then to crawl three times through the arch made by a bramble rooted at both ends, ideally moving in an east-to-west direction: if done correctly, the spots are sure to vanish.

13. Sanctioned stealing.

Breasts – A woman suffering from sore breasts is recommended in the Devon superstition to go to a church at midnight and purloin a little lead from a stained glass window. This lead should then be shaped into a heart and worn around her neck to bring relief to her condition. (See also Baby; Sex.)

14. If 2011 seemed unlucky, let spiders — again — invade your things and face.

Spider - Superstition generally regards spiders as lucky, though many people regard them with loathing and even fear. In legend, spiders are said to have saved the lives of the infant Christ, Mohammad, and Frederick the Great, in Christ’s case by spinning a web at the entrance of the cave in which the Holy family was hiding from Herod’s soldiers, thus making it appear that no one had passed by recently. Tradition insists that it is most unwise to kill a spider, as one ancient rhyme makes clear:

If that you would live and thrive
Let the spider run alive.

This notion probably dates from medieval times, when spiders in the homes helped to keep down the numbers of flies and thus reduced the risk of disease. Killing a spider will, superstition adds, only cause it to rain or, according to the Scots, result in crockery breakages before the day is over.

Although the idea of a spider dropping on to one’s face from a ceiling may be viewed with horror by arachnophobes, it is supposed to be very lucky. Similarly, if a spider is seen running over a person’s garments this constitutes a promise of a new set of clothes (as does the sight of a spider actually spinning a web). If kept in the pocket or a purse, the tiny red money spider, meanwhile, will similarly attract money to the person concerned.

Folk medicine has many uses for the spider. Eating a live spider in a pat of butter is highly recommended for anyone fearing an attack of jaundice, while a spider eaten in an apple or in jam or treacle will ward off fever. Various other remedies for a range of ailments such as ague (aka fever) involve suspending one or more live spiders in a small bag around the neck until they are all dead. Spiders’ webs also have their uses in medicine, being rolled up into pills and then swallowed to alleviate fever, asthma, and whooping cough. (See Cobweb.)

Previously: A Very Special Junk Shop Gift Guide.

Libby Alexander runs a pop-up flea market in Chicago.

48 Comments / Post A Comment

Jolie Kerr

1. Yesssssssssssssss
2. A copy of this book might be in my Amazon cart
3. I'm making red sauce as part of tonight's date meal and so now I know that tomorrow night will be spent lurking around churches, purloining
4. Yessssssssssssss

Jolie Kerr

Also so much AWWWW for this one Finding a hairpin promises making a new friend because isn't that so true of Our Hairpin????


@Jolie Kerr I had one when I was in high school. It was the hootiest.


hmmm...this is really interesting@j


I love it when I buy a vintage purse on eBay and the seller slipped a single penny in there. People can be cute sometimes.


Don't mind me, I'll just be over here, crawling through these brambles.

Reginal T. Squirge

@rayray For real. I'm willing to give it a shot. It's not like any other acne treatment/old wives' tale has ever worked in my life ever.


@rayray @ReginalTSquirge@twitter The scratches on our faces might keep 'em all down for a while?


@rayray This comment is really putting pressure on my "purse lips to stop oneself from laughing out loud at the office" technique.

The Lady of Shalott

I bought myself a gorgeous bag for Christmas and had my mom wrap it up, and she managed to slip some coins in there. Presto.

Also, I am literally the most superstitious person I know and I STILL cannot abide letting spiders run around. Especially the huge hairy ones. I'll sacrifice the dishes and/or rain.


@The Lady of Shalott Well you could switch spiders for beetles, regarding the rain. That was the superstition I heard most often, and makes most sense - usually because if you see black beetles crawling about it's going to be a little damp anyway.


"Dumb Cake" is my new "juicebox."


Sorry, folks, I'm still team Kill It With Fire as far as spiders are concerned.


Hence the "getting a new set of clothes" when a spider walks on your garments.



Honestly, if someone said, "Bebe, you are going to die, unless you eat this live spider," I would actually have to think about it. I mean, I'd probably do it, but I'd try to get them to knock me unconscious first. You can swallow while unconscious, right?


@Bebe I think it can be massaged down your throat, like when you give a dog a pill.


@Bebe Wait, I know how this goes... then you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and then a cat to catch the bird to catch the spider, then a dog to catch the cat to catch the bird to catch the spider, then a dog to catch the cat to catch the bird to catch the spider, then a cow to catch the dog to catch a cat to catch the bird to catch the spider.

I don't know why you would swallow a cow to catch a dog, but you know how nonsensical superstitions can be.


@Bebe Bebe! I named my parents dog Bebe because she is French. A French Bulldog. So it's OK if I picture her as the face behind your comments right? She is somewhat of a diva and would probably have a hard time swallowing a live spider herself.

For reference:



Seriously, you guys are getting me in trouble at work. Plz to stop being so funny?

Or I guess I could wait until I get home to ... never mind. Just, totally crazy thought not even worth finishing.


losing one is more ominous, suggesting that an enemy is close at hand. If a hairpin works its way loose in the hair this is taken as an indication that someone has that person in their thoughts

oh, jesus, oh fuck, I have so many enemies and they are all thinking about me. I have to buy a new paper of pins every few weeks if I want to keep on putting my hair up and they come in sets of what, a hundred? A million? That's how many enemies I have.


Oh man, it's a good thing I don't live in Puritan England, because I loves me some tomatoes.


@Megan Patterson@facebook Meanwhile, in the same time period, my ancestors over in decidedly-not-Puritan Italy were going, "No tomatoes? What else is there to eat?"


Wait, so is #1 only effective if your future lover is a ghost? or Santa? How does s/he magically appear at your fireplace? I am much more down with the one that tells you to eat the cake.


@SarahP If it's done at times of years when people are out visiting, and everybody knows the tradition, it might work.

fondue with cheddar

@SarahP But the ingredients are flour, water, eggs, and salt. THAT'S IT. It doesn't sound like a tasty cake.


@jen325 I think it might be less dessert-cake and more "cake as a descriptor of the object." Like a cake of soap? The material's bread, but if it's not baked in a loaf-pan, ye olde tyme people might have described it differently and just figured everyone would know what they were talking about.

fondue with cheddar

@wharrgarbl Maybe. Cake-as-we-know-it beats the pants off bread any day, though.

Now I really want some cake. Also Cake.


Actually gout is pretty common , getting more so, and not just for the mens.

fondue with cheddar

@catfoodandhairnets My coworker just had gout!


My grandma used to make something like a dumb cake, with variations:
1) You weren't even allowed near the kitchen while it was baking or cooling, and if you HAD to go to the kitchen, you had to tiptoe and be as silent as possible.
2)You were supposed to eat it before bed with nothing to drink, and the person you were supposed to marry would hand you a glass of milk or water at some point in your dream.


My mom would tell me that if I slept with rose petals underneath my pillow that I would dream of my future husband. I still try it sometimes, or every time I get a rose.




Others have favoured wearing of ‘cramp rings’ fashioned from metal taken from old coffins

Old coffins?? I wasn't aware that coffins had expiration dates that you could pilfer through after an indeterminate amount of time, never mind the bones of great grand-dad or anything.

no way

@ilikemints Maybe the practice originated in Germany, where it's common to reuse cemetery plots.

fondue with cheddar

A dumb cake, indeed. Where's the sugar? And frosting?


I'm intentionally misreading SECreting as secRETing all through this post - like, to secrete. So I'll be secreting animal bones under my pillow tonight. Because I am a witch, and a shape-shifter.


What if I lose the hairpin but then find what I presume to be it in my own hair a day or two later? Then what?


One of my boyfriend's friends acquired a clutch at some kind of 20-dollars-for-all-you-can-wear-out-of-the-store sale at a local vintage place. She didn't open it until she got home, whereupon she discovered that it contained a perfectly mummified dead mouse. So, naturally, she closed it and tossed it in her closet, gifting it some time later without ever re-opening it to remove the mouse. I think she may have wrapped it in one of her old bathing suits. That's got to be good for something, I figure.

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

I'm good enough at baking to be able to do it in complete silence :(

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

um. i mean *not*

not good at it, ugh

[much like my commenting...]


@Bus Driver Stu Benedict With you on that. I have noticed that most tasks I don't do so well are accompanied by a lot of talking, usually to no one in particular.

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

Also, this might explain something about certain behaviors et les salades.


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