Just My Luck by Dr D A C McNeil

The other day I came across a copy of The Dictionary of Superstitions in the Loughborough Library. I thought to myself that this may provide some material for an article which the good lady had told me would be a good thing to write. The trouble was that it was quite a thick book and the space I have for an article is limited. So, select a few topics – but which? I thought of a few and concentrated on those. Next, do not assume that everyone everywhere attaches the same importance or meaning to that topic. And, finally, written records are not always the clearest way of recording superstitions. Many entries in the dictionary date at the earliest from 1600; before that it was all word of mouth, and no clear unambiguous records exist. The dates given below are those of the records in the dictionary.

The next thing I had to sort out was – what exactly is a superstition? The number 13 is a good place to start. The actual symbol has no meaning in nature, otherwise aluminium (the thirteenth element in the periodic table of elements) would self-destruct, and then each one above it as that element inherited the number from the previous holder. Would we be in trouble – no iron, no gold, no atomic power stations… I could go on. So, we must do a mental projection onto a thing or an idea which we then believe will influence the future course of our lives for good or ill.

The association of 13 with ill-luck is an easy association through the Christian religion. At the last supper Christ and his 12 disciples sat at the table. Within a short space of time one of them was dead, and this was echoed in a quote from 1787. In 1711, however, it was believed that if a pregnant woman was one of the thirteen, a safe birth was assured. It is the avoidance of this number which is the more spectacular – we all know of hotels that refuse to number floors and/or rooms thirteen; houses that are numbered in the sequence 11, 12,12A,14 and so on. In Hove in 1955 someone refused to pay a bill of 13/-, though the dictionary does not record if the number was the sole reason. Parnell, the Irish separatist, was lodged in room 13 of a hotel on a visit to England for negotiations, was furious, and blamed the Tories. Did you know that Princess Margaret’s birth registration was put off for 24 hours to avoid the thirteenth of the month?

Then there is the more practical purpose behind a superstition, as for example not walking under a ladder when there is someone on it working, least you be hit by any falling object. All well and good, but a condemned man at Tyburn walked under one on his way to the gallows in 1855, and in 1873 the good people of Lincolnshire seemed to believe that the mere act of walking under a ladder condemned the perpetrator to death. By 1932 the idea of the holy trinity had leaked in as an explanation. To avoid its effects you either spat 3 times through the ladder (1831, note the date) or crossed your fingers until you saw a dog (1932)

Black cats are lucky if they cross your path unless you were a fisherman in the Shetlands in 1882 (though you could spit at it (1909)), yet in Scarborough a fisherman’s wife would keep one so that he would avoid the perils of the deep. It is lucky to meet one unless it turns its back on you (Somerset 1922) and you must never drive one away (1913). The head of a black cat, burnt to ashes, cured blindness in 1607 and its blood cured shingles in 1712. Yet in 1602 it protected you from an evil spell cast by a witch. Whatever happened to the idea of a ‘witch’s familiar’?

At the opposite extreme is the elderberry. Christ’s cross was made of elder-wood (1853), and Judas hanged himself from the elder, a belief from 1961. Applying an elder rod to the bottom of a naughty boy would stunt his growth (1875). A sick baby had been in a cot, it is said, for which one of the rockers had been made of elder-wood (1889), whilst the wound from an elder tree was fatal. In Oxfordshire in 1985 it was declared the witches’ tree. No wonder that when I was a small boy and collected a bunch of elder flowers for my mother she threw them out of the house immediately.

Yet elder is not all bad. It cures whitlows, warts, epilepsy, deafness and saddle sores according to various testimonies, protects you from witches (1656) and lightning in Suffolk. I do not recommend experimenting with the last unless you are well insured or are a long way from the storm. There was, of course, some link to pagan worship that caused its unpopularity. So, to be on the safe side, do not burn it, and if you cut any branches you must apologise at once (1970). According to the records, in 1885, you must go further if you live in Whitwick. You must bow three times to the tree and say ‘Old woman, old woman, give me some of your wood. And when I am dead I’ll give you some of mine.’

‘At length did cross an albatross…instead of a cross, about my neck the albatross was hung.’ - words from the Rhyme of the Ancient mariner, as written by Coleridge in 1798. The poem sums up superstition in that the albatross came ‘every day for food or play’ to the mariners’ call. When the ancient mariner shoots it he is first blamed for killing the bird, then, as the ship moves out of the mists and snow, he is congratulated for killing the ‘bird that brought the mists and snow’. Apparently, in 1956, the Daily Express decided that seamen had a long history of dreading albatrosses solely on the evidence of Coleridge’s poem. True, the call of seagulls was deemed unlucky (1886) and they were thought to contain the souls of departed seamen, according to witnesses in Sussex, Liverpool and London (1969); there is a long history of fascination with the storm petrel (Mother Cary’s chicken); but it was news to all seamen, past and present, that they had long feared albatrosses. In 1959 there had been a case where an albatross had been blamed for the misfortunes that befell a ship carrying it. Such stories could be the start of a superstition.

I must place on record that, on 13th March I purchased a house whose number is 13. It has not fallen down yet, though I have not owned it for 13 years. My father turns in his grave.

So why do we make these projections? I have no idea.