World's Weirdest Superstitions
Trip planning involves researching where to stay, eat, and sightsee, but it can also be eye-opening to read up on local superstitions to glean deeper cultural knowledge about a destination and avert some potentially embarrassing gaffes.
Every culture has its quirks, and customs steeped in local history and traditions continue to be passed down through generations. While noticing teens skipping around to avoid certain manhole covers in Sweden or Spaniards making wishes while popping grapes into their mouths strikes us outsiders as odd, locals don’t think twice.
Some weird superstitions have become more widely adopted, turning sites into tourist attractions. Long lines of folks wait for a chance to kiss Ireland’s Blarney Stone or stick their thumbs into a column at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia for its supposed healing powers.
Such beliefs often emerged out of a desire to influence what was, essentially, uncontrollable. “While the modern world has removed many of the dangers faced by previous generations, the fundamental human concerns about health, relationships, and fortunes remain,” observes Dr. Karl Bell, senior lecturer in history at England’s University of Portsmouth.
In other words, while we may no longer fully believe in superstitions, we often cannot help but play along, whether that means avoiding a fourth-floor hotel room or making a grand romantic gesture by fixing a padlock to a bridge.
While the habits vary from one country to the next, we all want to improve our luck—especially in love.
Love Letters to Juliet, Italy
The courtyard in Verona where Shakespeare’s star-crossed heroine Juliet Capulet supposedly resided has become a shrine to true love. Visitors grab the right breast of the bronze statue of Juliet for luck in love. It’s also popular to write messages to Juliet and use gum to stick them to the walls. Too popular, actually—concerns about defacement of the historic city center prompted the introduction of a fine in late 2012; that love note could now cost you as much as $600.
Mind Your Flowers, Russia
Russian culture is rife with superstitions, and reading up pre-trip can be wise. Whistling in a home is verboten, as it is believed to bring bad luck (and is considered rude). When gifting someone flowers, make sure it is an odd number of stems—no dozen roses—because even numbers of flowers honor the deceased. Further, yellow flowers symbolize infidelity and are considered a relationship curse.
Menem Shall Not Be Named, Argentina
Former president Carlos Menem, often blamed for the country’s debilitating economic crash in 2001, is considered a living curse. Many Argentines avoid saying his name and instead will substitute the alias “Mendez” into their conversation. If someone were to say “Menem,” women will typically touch their left breast and men their left testicle to ward off the bad luck. In 2011, the press even photographed one man shaking Menem’s hand while his left hand touched near his pants zipper.
Cry-Babies at Sensoji Temple, Tokyo
Holy incense from Tokyo’s oldest temple is believed to carry healing powers; those who are aching and ailing will take some to rub on areas of trouble. The Japanese temple also hosts an annual superstitious, centuries-old contest called Naki Sumo that serves as a prayer for a baby’s health. Two opposing sumo wrestlers in a ring hold babies born in the prior year and try to make the other’s baby cry.
Rubbing the Intihuatana Stone, Peru
At Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sites, the Intihuatana Stone is aligned with astronomy and the sun’s patterns. Shamanic legends say certain sensitive people can peek into the spirit world when they rub their forehead against the stone—whose name translates poetically to “Hitching Post of the Sun.”
Grapes on New Year’s Eve, Spain
Perhaps it’s no wonder that grapes are considered good luck in a country that yields some of the world’s best vintages. People often make a wish when eating them, and at midnight on New Year’s Eve, it is a widespread custom to eat 12—representing good luck for each month of the upcoming year. Some Spaniards also superstitiously toss a bucket of water out the window to symbolize cleansing at the start of a new year.
Grooming Practices, India
If you need a haircut while in India, don’t expect to make a Tuesday appointment. Hindu barbershops are closed because superstition dictates hair should not be cut then. Cutting your nails after dark, whatever the day, also is considered bad luck. And when interacting with locals, be sure to pass everything with your right hand, from keys to food at the table. It’s a common courtesy that developed since locals would typically use their left hand to wash up after using the bathroom.
Padlocks of Love, Bridges Worldwide
To show their devotion, couples chain locks to Ponte Milvio in Rome, a mass behavior that became such a nuisance that the mayor levied a fine in late 2012. In Greater Taichung, Taiwan, lovers chained padlocks on a particular bridge crossing a train track, a site designated for demolition that locals rallied to move and preserve. In Serbia, girls loop padlocks on Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) to protect their lovers, a practice inspired by a World War I tale. And Russian newlyweds choose to festoon locks on tree-shaped iron structures along Moscow’s Luzhkov Bridge.
Kissing the Blarney Stone, Ireland
The word blarney came to mean flattery because of the grand tales surrounding the stone’s powers. Its past can be traced back a millennium, during which people have constantly bickered over its ownership. The bluestone block eventually became a symbol of eloquence, persuasiveness, and good luck (though different legends persist as to why). Hoping for those gifts to rub off on them, visitors line up to kiss the stone, which is more challenging than you might realize. Blarney Castle employs staff to help you get into the necessary upside-down position.
Looking Out for Manhole Covers, Sweden
Some Swedish manhole covers bear the letter K, which stands for kallvatten (clean water) but is also widely believed to stand for kärlek, love. The other half has an A for avloppsvatten, meaning sewage, but interpreted as a symbol for avburten, signaling heartbreak or bad luck in love. You can guess which ones locals hop around to avoid touching. They say the bad luck can be reversed if the person who accidentally treads on an A receives three pats on the back—though it must be happenstance.
Rubbing Victor Noir’s Tomb, Paris
The late French journalist’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery gets a similar treatment as Juliet’s bronze statue in Verona. Touching the groin area of the statue topping his grave is said to bring luck in love and fertility. The reposed statue has a prominent crotch area, and countless rubs from visitors have changed its shade. In 2004, officials fenced it off to protect it from “lewd rubbing,” though some intrepid visitors still go for it.
Two Magpies Are Better Than One, United Kingdom
Whether it is fur or feathers, black animals seem tied to superstition around the world. In the United Kingdom, spotting a single magpie (a close relative of the crow) is considered bad luck. It’s believed you can stave off the negativity if you acknowledge its presence and salute it. Two magpies? You are fine. Legend also claims that if six ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will collapse.
Making a Date for Eight, China
Chances are the hotel you stay at in China or Japan will be missing a fourth floor. Four is considered unlucky as it sounds like the word for death in both languages. Understandably, four also is avoided in hospital floor and room numberings. The number eight, however, sounds like the Chinese word for fortune; 888 is considered a jackpot number, and many try to time important life events like marriages to dates that include eight. Case in point: officials scheduled the Beijing Summer Olympics to begin precisely at 8 p.m. on 8/8/2008.
Keeping Travel to Yourself, Senegal
Much superstition in Senegal and also many parts of Africa relates to a belief in the existence of evil or devil eyes. As the belief goes, there is no knowing who possesses the nefarious sight, but even your best-laid plans are destined to be botched if such a person becomes aware of them. As a result, high-level officials and vacationing families alike will often refrain from talking about any possible upcoming travels.
Thumb Turning at the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Inside this Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum stands a bronze-plated column with a smooth, thumb-deep hole at about eye level. After rumors circulated that Emperor Justinian cured a troublesome headache after touching the column, it developed a reputation for healing powers. Folks wait for a chance to rotate their thumbs clockwise in a full circle in hopes of having their wishes granted. You might spy someone wearing a charm with concentric blue and white circles resembling an eye. The symbol is common throughout Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria; people hang them in homes and businesses or wear them as protection against the evil eye.
Honoring los Muertos, Mexico
Using skeletons as Halloween decorations originated in Mexico, with the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Family members and friends honor the dead by assembling elaborate altars and spreads, including the deceased’s favorite foods—spirits not treated adequately will supposedly seek revenge. Tourists can look for altar displays in restaurants and businesses and join in the festivities many towns stage.