I remember my grandmother’s panicked reaction to my nearly knocking a large mirror from a wall as a child. It wasn’t the cleanup or the possible injury she feared from it shattering to the floor. It was the fate of her granddaughter, strapped with seven long years of bad luck that would ensue from a broken mirror. When it happened, my nana set the mirror aside, hugged me tight, wiped the nervous perspiration from her nose, and walked me to her kitchen to find something sweet to eat. I’ll never forget it.
Italian culture is rich with superstitions, both good and evil, and many of them pervade everyday life, such as tossing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder to ward off bad spirits. Some are rooted in ancient history, based on religious beliefs or communal rites. Others were spawned and passed on simply to encourage prosperity or to discourage strife. No matter their derivation, most of them carry on throughout generations, as it may be safer to believe in them than not.
Here is a list of the most commonly held Italian superstitions, along with a handful mixed in that my family has uniquely observed. Take a moment to consider your own routines, and you just might find that time-honored superstitions influence your family’s behavior.
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers
The number 13 is lucky in Italy. Unlike Americans who are weary of it, especially on Friday the 13th, in Italy the number is thought to bring prosperity and abundant life. My father and brothers all wear a thin chain of gold bearing a lucky number “13” around their necks, which they never remove.
On the contrary, Italians take heed of the unlucky Friday the 17th (just like this year’s April 17, 2015!) When 17 is written in Arabic numerals, it represents a man hanging from a noose, and when written in Roman numerals XVII, it’s rearranged letters VIXI meaning “I have lived” inscribed on ancient tombstones, is thought to tempt death.
The Evil Eye (Malocchio)
The Evil Eye, thought to be a curse cast upon one by another bearing envy or jealousy, is an ancient superstition, but still carries significant weight. My husband’s grandmothers both recited prayers before bed to ward off any possible malocchio cast upon members of their families. The curse was generally thought to be one of ill tidings wrought upon a person or household, but many contrive it to mean a curse against one’s “manliness.” In other words, if a man was cursed by the evil eye, his potency was in jeopardy, and he ran the risk of his lover straying. Aside from grandma’s prayers, there’s another remedy against malocchio…
Related to this is the hand gesture known as the mano cornuta, where one extends the pinkie and index finger upwards, to curse another or to imply that another’s mojo has been compromised. Pointed down, the gesture wards off the curse.
• Itchy palms is a sign that one will soon come into some money.
• If you drop a fork or a spoon, unexpected company will soon pay a visit.
• Gift a new broom to newlyweds, for sweeping away evil spirits from a new home, in which sprinkled salt in the corners of the dwelling will also serve to purify it.
• If you gift someone a wallet or purse, always put a coin in it.
• It’s good luck to hear a cat sneeze.
• Spotting a spider at night signals an impending windfall.
• Finding a button signals a new friendship is coming.
• Throw your cracked dishes and worn pots and pans out into the driveway/street to ring in the New Year, as in out with the old and in with the new, ensuring prosperity and vitality in the new year. (This custom/superstition is one my grandparents brought with them from Italy and passed along to my parents. Though interesting and fun, I’ve never heard of it elsewhere.)
• Another New Year superstition is eating green grapes at the stroke of midnight, also ensuring prosperity through the new year, also passed on from my grandparents and parents, and also unique.
• Don’t spill salt or olive oil, for fear of bad luck. If you do, toss a pinch a salt over your left shoulder, or rub a dab of oil behind each ear.
• Never open an umbrella inside the house, which is also bad luck.
• Never gift anything sharp (scissors, knives, or a hatchet) as the giver may later endure hardship.
• Do not gift white lilies to an elderly person, as this surely hastens his or her demise.
• A loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else one may suffer the wrath of God.
• Birds in the house bring bad luck (either in the form of a pet, an accidental entry, mere feathers, or even a painting.)
• A single person should never let a broom touch his feet when another is sweeping, or else he will never be swept off his feet and therefore never marry.
• It’s bad luck to let a black cat cross your path.
• Never put a hat on the bed because, hearkening back to the times when a priest would remove his hat upon calling on a sick bed, it invites illness, sleeplessness, or death.
• Never place a bed to face the door, as it’s reminiscent of a coffin in a church.
• Never raise a toast with a glass of water, and don’t cross arms when clinking wine glasses.
• Never follow an empty hearse, as you are riding in death’s wake. But, you’re safe if the hearse is already carrying a coffin.
• Killing a spider is bad luck.
• Never trim your nails on a Thursday.
• Never start a journey or get married on a Friday or Tuesday.
• Be careful to never break a mirror, as it guarantees 7 years of bad luck.
While the above superstitions are the most common or endearing to me, the list is surely limitless. Also, I feel pretty confident about killing a big, hairy spider any day of the week, as the consequences of keeping it alive would most surely be worse. So, be sure to take these with a grain of salt (over your shoulder.)
While Italian superstitions may seem strange or silly to some, our family embraces them as another way to immerse in our culture and to connect with other generations. Be sure to take a moment, and I’m sure you can think of a few of your own. In doing so, tocca ferro (touch iron, as the Italians do,) may you benefit from an abundance of buona fortuna!