Death superstitions provide a common theme throughout folklore. It’s hardly surprising. Before the advent of modern medicine and health and safety, communities may have felt more at the mercy of life’s whims. Following superstitions gives an element of control.
I’ve covered death superstitions around cemeteries, but these are some more general areas of ‘best practice’ to try and avoid a death in the family!
Don’t break a mirror
I know it’s more usual that breaking a mirror brings bad luck. According to Bergen, Beauchamp and Newell, it brings 7 years of bad luck in north Shropshire, and it’s even more unlucky to keep the broken pieces. Though in Wellington, it was believed that breaking two more mirrors would cancel out the first breakage!
The ‘7 years’ period actually dated back to the Romans. For them, life renewed every 7 years, including the soul. Breaking a mirror damaged the soul it reflected at the time.
The contradictions appear early, since early American folklore recommends immersing the pieces in water for seven hours. Not just any water – it had to be flowing south.
Alternatively, you could grind the pieces into a powder, so bury the broken pieces. Either way, the mirror couldn’t reflect anything any more, and would cancel the bad luck.
But elsewhere, to break a mirror is a sign that there will be a death in the family before the end of the year. In Switzerland, it was said that the last person to look into the mirror will die first.
Babies under a year old just shouldn’t look into a mirror at all.
Weekinweird.com add two more death superstitions relating to mirrors.
- If a mirror falls and breaks, someone in the house will die soon.
- Those who see their reflection in a room where someone has died recently will soon die themselves.
Be careful with your scissors
According to Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud (2000), if you drop scissors and the points stick into the floor, it’s a sign of impending death.
According to Igglesden, it’s even worse if a seamstress drops her scissors, as it means she’ll soon get an order for mourning wear (1932).
Whereas in Greece, if you leave open scissors on a table, it means that Michael (the Archangel) has opened his mouth to take the soul of a family member.
Though in many places, scissors are hung above or beside a door so their blades fall open, thus stopping evil creatures from coming in!
Try to avoid sitting with twelve other people
Having thirteen at a table is generally noted as being bad luck. But Bergen, Beauchamp and Newell note that in Somerville, MA., the person who gets up first won’t last the year.
Even J. K. Rowling perpetuates this particular death superstition – in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Professor Trelawney notices there are already twelve at the table in the Great Hall, she tries to leave. She protests, saying, “Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!”
By contrast, in Brookline, MA., the last one to sit won’t die that year.
In Germany, the folklore varies. The unlucky victim can be the youngest, the last to sit, the first to eat (or get up), whoever sits under a mirror, or whoever seems downcast. Best not to sit with twelve others just to be on the safe side.
The Thirteen Club was created in the 1880s to try and debunk this superstition. It had over 400 members by 1887, including Theodore Roosevelt.
Some believe the superstition dates to the Last Supper. The story could be even older; in Norse mythology, 12 gods arrive at a banquet. Loki intrudes, making it 13, and the beloved Balder dies as a result of Loki’s trickery.
Don’t carry tools through the house
In Mansfield, OH., it’s the hoe that becomes the unlucky harbinger of death.
If you do carry a hoe, you can reverse the bad luck by carrying it out again while walking backward. Alternatively, take it back out of the door you came in.
In the UK, it was more likely to be the axe, or any sharp tool – and it only applied if you carried it on your shoulder.
Avoid making plants bloom out of season
Bergen, Beauchamp and Newell note the blossoming of fruit-trees out of season as being a sign of impending death, as is leaving a single fruit after gathering the rest.
But in Oldenburg, Germany, the blooming of a fruit-tree, or a rose, in autumn means someone in the house is not long for this world.
It’s clear that there are no doubt good reasons for some death superstitions. As for the fruit, some berries in particular are susceptible to moulds or bacteria after their natural season. Coming up with a superstition as to why people shouldn’t eat them was an easy way to avoid the illnesses associated with the fruit.
But over to you! What death superstitions have you heard?
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Bergen, Fanny D., Beauchamp, W. M. and Newell, W. W. (1889) ‘Current Superstitions. I. Omens of Death’ in The Journal of American Folklore, 2 (4), pp. 12-22.
Igglesden, Charles (1932) Those Superstitions, London: Jarrolds.
Simpson, Jacqueline, Roud, Stephen (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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