Sunday, 25 August 2013

What is Your Superstition?

Holy Trinity Church in Hull
Have you ever thrown salt over your shoulder after you've spilt some salt? Do you ever walk round a ladder leaned up against a wall rather than walk under it? Do you ever say "bless you" to someone who sneezes?

We do this more often than not without thinking, a natural response to a situation we are faced with and if you do these things, you are superstitious. Where do you get the habit from? Almost certainly as children from your parents.

I had a fascinating discussion with a friend's mother last night and as our common ancestors come from a fishing community in Hull called 'Hessle Road,' we started to exchange what we knew about fishermen's superstitions from the now defunct and once mighty trawler fleet.

Although superstitions include all manner of practises, rituals, cures, taboos, including working with charms, omens and signs, it touches virtually everyone today and yet some superstitions are many centuries if not millenia old.

Why do we have them, to ward off bad luck, or bring ourselves good luck? How often do you say "touch wood," or "crossed fingers" when you are making a decision or making a wish? We still laugh (some of us take it seriously) at Friday the thirteenth or putting up an umbrella in a house.

Local Yorkshire historian Dr. Alec Gill MBE has written extensively about fishermen's superstitions and many of those he writes about were subject of my discussions last night. 

Some of the popular ones were than the men did not wash on the day of sailing lest he should be washed overboard, or wave him goodbye in case a wave should wash him overboard or how about this one: the fishermen's women must not whistle because this would whistle up a storm 'A whistling woman and a crowing hen brings the Devil out of his den.'
Trawler memorial at a disused lock entrance in West Hull

The trawler itself was always referred to as a 'she' (more of a tradition than a superstition perhaps) and a brush was never left on deck in case the ship would be swept away. Green was never worn at sea - green is followed by black - widow's weeds. The salt was never passed at the ship's meal table, 'pass the salt, pass sorrow,' and the tea pot was never emptied once the ship set sail, it was always on the go.

Fishermen never took money to sea. If they went to sea skint, they would have a good and successful trip. I can recall my grandfather, who was born on Hessle Road talking about kids scrambling for money when the sailors threw their loose change into the air for the expectant and waiting children prior to setting sail.

Of course the Church (of England) thought superstitions were the inventions of the devil or steeped in heathenism. It is interesting that in an attempt to bring pagans into the fold of the church in the early days, the symbols of paganism could be found on church decorations such as Green Men, holy and ivy, the god of wine Baccuss and other heathen regalia.

A Green Man carving at the top of a column at Alkborough Church Lincolnshire Courtesy of Wikipedia and photographer SiGarb
Ironically, it was accepted practise endorsed by the Church for Bible's to be fanned in dying men's faces, communion wine should be used for whooping cough and women could bathe sore eyes in baptism water. In fact the use of rosaries and decking of houses in winter with holly and ivy were accepted by the Church yet were superstitions of course.

The list of superstitions is huge and endless including a whole raft around animals, but I would be interested if anyone has any modern superstitions that you use, for example, not shaving before playing a football match, or wearing a certain item of clothing as good luck?

What are your superstitions?

Chat soon


*Recommended reading: A Dictionary of Superstitions, Opie and Tatem by Oxford University Press; and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Ed. Evans, by Cassell.


  1. Funny how Christians always call their belief system 'religion' but other people's beliefs 'superstition'.

    Maybe fishermen had a lot of rituals for warding off danger because they were closer to nature than most people. When you're out in a small fishing boat, the sea is every bit as big and powerful and easily angered as any god you'll find in a book.

  2. I don't think I have any. A quick poll of the family noted that as a hat wearer, it makes them, and at least one neighbour uncomfortable if I chuck it on the dining table. They don't know why though.

    I wonder how many past superstitions have over time have become custom and tradition?

    We are familiar and social creatures, and custom binds social groups. We may well have become more educated and rational in the uk, but tradition links us to our ancestors, even though the acts, for many no longer hold a means of protecting us from the fear of the unknown?

    Just thinking. That's why I remove my hat from the table :-)

  3. Hi Chris
    A good point about Christians and of course you are absolutely right, I guess many fishermen felt closer to God on so many occasions where their lives were at risk - they are so far from any help at all.

    Hi Wheelie
    There is a well known supersition against the leaving of a hat on a table but I cannot find the origin, there are also others like wearing a hat in church (or not - for a woman considered unlucky not to wear one) and leaving one on a bed (brings death to the household). I never leave one on a table nor shoes which represent the dangling feet of a hanged man - how riduculous - but it sticks with us. I like to think it's just unhygienic.

  4. I don't have any superstitions. As far as walking under a ladder goes, I think it is good common sense not to...particularly if someone is on it. :)

  5. I don't have any superstitions. As far as walking under a ladder goes, I think it is good common sense not to...particularly if someone is on it. :)

    1. Hi Linda
      thanks for leaving a comment - entirely sensible in my view!