Iona Opie and
Moira Tatem, editors,
A Dictionary of Superstitions
(Oxford, 1989)

Did you ever wonder what a hairy caterpillar cures?

Do you know why you should never consider giving a pair of scissors as a gift to a friend? What bad luck accompanies walking under a ladder, and is there a countercharm?

The answers to these and a large pile of other silly questions can be answered in A Dictionary of Superstitions, a hefty tome filled with esoteric wisdom carried down through the ages. Folklore enthusiasts in particular will spend a few cheerful hours browsing through this book ... but rest assured, this is a book for casual perusing, not for serious reading. It is arranged like any other dictionary, although the entries are considerably longer than average. (The entry on walking under ladders, for instance, continues on for more than a page.)

The editors explain in the preface that their goal was to organize the broad topic of superstitions -- including divinations, spells, cures, charms, signs and omens, rituals and taboos -- in one volume. That's a heck of a task, but don't think they combed the world for every strange custom. Rather, they explain, the dictionary assembles those superstitions "from Great Britain and Eire which survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a preponderance of the everyday, domestic beliefs with which most readers will be familiar."

Arranged alphabetically by central subject, each entry contains a chronological series of quotations showing the development of belief. Quotations are culled from a variety of literature, diaries and letters, local histories, journals and newspapers.

The introduction notes that superstitions are largely based on folklore passed down through generations. But even the simplest of superstitious practices, like tossing salt over one's shoulder, was severely frowned upon -- officially, anyway -- by the Christian church, which claimed that "the belief in any power but that of the Christian God was superstition." But folklore, it continues, consists generally of knowledge passed down from person to person which is not "officially" recognized. Most supersitions have roots in unauthorized or outmoded religions; thus, Christians view pagan practices as superstition, while Protestants view Catholic rituals such as the rosary to be superstition as well. "Today," the editors add, "even a belief in God can be called superstitious."

And yet it seems to be human nature to assign meaning to coincidences and things which appear as portents and omens. At the same time, however, belief in many superstitions declined as rationalism spread in the 17th and 18th centuries, and many today are remembered only as figures of speech. How often, the editors ask, do people say "Touch wood" or "Cross your fingers" without putting words to action?

But enough of their essay on superstition. The fun of this dictionary comes from opening it randomly and reading whatever pops into view. There's a host of information here for the learning!

For instance, we learn on the first page that secretly rubbing a wart against the body of a man who has had an illegitimate child will cure the wart. A few pages on and we discover that a young girl is thinking of her sweetheart if her apron strings come untied, but if the same happens to a married woman, bad luck is on its way. Here's a useful warning: sleeping all night in a beanfield will bring nightmares or else the sleeper will wake insane.

Do you worry about people saying unkind things about you? Then don't have your clothes mended while you're wearing them. Do you have an upset stomach? Swallow live frogs! For seafarers, nailing a horseshoe on the vessel's foremast would prevent witches and warlocks from hindering the voyage. A lot could be learned about family relations, apparently, from the state of a daughter's dress. According to folklore, if her petticoat is longer than her dress, her father loves her more than her mother does.

Completely silly stuff? Quite likely. But so what? Superstitions have lived in our imaginations for so long, it seems a shame to let go of them now. A Dictionary of Superstitions is a fun book to keep handy, to page through when you have a few minutes to kill.

For the record: "Hooping-cough may be cured by tying a hairy caterpillar in a small bag round the child's neck, and as the caterpillar dies the cough goes." [Editor's note: But it's not very nice for the caterpillar!]

"It is unlucky to give a pair of scissors to a friend, as the friendship will be cut thereby."

"It is unlucky to walk under a ladder; it may prevent your being married that year. ... When you pass under a ladder you must spit through it, or three times afterwards. ... When you walk under a ladder don't speak until you see a four-legged animal."

[ by Tom Knapp ]