A group of friends sit around a table. Scratch Scratch Scratch. “Ah, me nose is itchy”, says one. A few light punches are exchanged, and all is well again.
Did you understand this exchange? Do you actually believe that an itchy nose is the sign of an impending fight, and that a mock fight should be carried out to ensure that the bad luck is done with?
Do you remember who first told you this was true, or is it something you have picked up, like so many of us, through school yard antics or around the family dinner table – and carried on into adult life?
How many others can you remember, now you’re thinking about it?
Itchy palms are a sign of money to come. Itchy knuckles, another fight. Itching on the temples and you’ll soon have cause to weep, while if your eyebrow should need a bit of a scratch, you’ll soon be drinking whiskey.
Perhaps those last two are connected.
But it’s not all about the itching. A gap between the two front teeth is the sign of a beautiful singing voice, and if the mouth is wide, there’ll be a great strength in it too. There is a vein that connects the third finger of the left hand directly to your heart – making it the most logical place to wear your wedding ring. “One for sorrow, two for joy…”, counting magpies to see what fates they foretell.
And indeed, waving to them respectfully to ensure they don’t bring any bad fortune down on you. A spot, or worse, a black spot, on your tongue was a sign of telling lies; the suspicious parent would often be heard to tell a child to “stick out your tongue ’til I see if you’re lying”. Should you spill the salt, you must throw a pinch over your left shoulder to get rid of the bad luck. A bride will have ill fortune through the marriage if she gets married on a Monday, or a Friday, or if she wears green. Also if it rains on the wedding morning, a glass or cup is broken, the ring is dropped, or she is licked by a dog. If your ears are ‘burning’ , someone is talking about you. This early warning system has been further refined – should it be the right ear that feels inexplicably warm all of a sudden, you are being praised, but if it is the left ear, the talk is bitter and full of malice.
In Ireland, the word for superstition is Piseog, but it means much more than simple sayings and quaint beliefs. We’re not talking Wicca here, and it wasn’t even really called Witchcraft in Ireland. Just, ‘the Old Ways’, or similar.
A charm, a spell, a superstitious practice – anything connected with magic – is deemed a piseog, pishog or pisreog in the old stories.
Those who carry out the practices were known as Piseogaí. These people could provide the beneficial charms and cures, they could counter any malicious piseogs that were placed upon a family or an individual, or they could be the ones who did the placement.
A classic one is connected to May Day morning, the turning of the year at Bealtaine from winter into summer, and so a time for changes. A malevolent person could go out on this particular morning and mix rotten produce into your farm – to try and turn your luck. This could be rotten meat in the haystacks, or rotten eggs in through the soil… either way the imagery is clear, and unless the foulness was found your luck would turn. Of course the sensible farmer would have already taken precautions against this type of shenanigans, and deployed one of the many available counter charms to turn aside ill intent in plenty of time for the big day.
May Day was also a time for beneficial changes – washing one’s face in the sun kissed dew on this morning was said to ensure fresh beauty throughout the year. Who needs expensive lotions when dew drops are free?!
These folk beliefs, or superstitions, may seem silly to us now, thinking about them in the cold harsh light of modern science and technological advancement – but they are reflective of our psychological needs, of how we as humans have thought, felt, and interacted with the world around us, and with each other. Though we can perhaps figure out a certain logic as to how or why some of them started, it is not rationality that has ensured their survival, it is repetition.
When something is done again and again, down through the generations, it becomes not a superstition but a tradition, and those are held on to. A link to the past, connection through the generations, common ground from which each new family builds their own rituals. Maybe the old Piseogs avert the bad luck, and bring about the good luck… maybe they don’t.
But before you decide either way, it might be wise to bear in mind the old Irish saying – “Ná dean nós, agus ná bris nós”.
Don’t make a custom, and don’t break a custom.
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