Life on La Lune: French superstitions
If you thought (good and bad) luck didn't vary by location, think again.
We are all hard-wired for superstition and irrationalism, whether we like it or not. Some people resist better than others, but these things run deep.
I freely admit that I avoid walking on the cracks in the pavement; if I spill salt on the table, I throw a pinch over my left shoulder into the Devil’s eyes; and my lucky number is 7.
What we regard as bringing good or ill fortune varies according to country and culture. I noticed that the French (at least down here) regard Friday 13th as a lucky day and pile into the newsagent’s to buy lottery tickets. In the UK, it’s exactly the opposite. So I decided to do some research into French superstitions. Some of them are the same as ours, e.g. don’t walk under a ladder, finding a four-leafed clover brings good luck, touch wood while making a wish. Quite a few were new to me. Here are a few examples.
Things that bring good fortune
1. Nailing a horseshoe upside down over a doorway
In the UK we always turn horseshoes the right way up, i.e. so the rounded end is downwards, otherwise the luck runs out.
2. Treading in dog poo with the left foot
Now, as we all know, the streets of France are paved with the stuff, not least our local village (despite strategically-placed plastic glove dispensers for removing the offending items, which the people just ignore).
Recently, I entered the newsagents and realised that some hapless soul had unwittingly spread it all over the floor. I brought this to Mme B’s attention and another customer said, “Well it wasn’t me, but if it had been I hope I would have trodden in it with my left foot.” This seemed like a strange wish to me but, having researched it, I now understand. I don’t intend to put it to the test, though.
Things that bring bad luck
1. Putting the loaf on the table upside down
This indicates that you are inviting famine into the household.
2. A black cat crossing your path
Again, this is exactly the opposite of the UK version, where this presages good fortune. I can’t find the reason for this belief, except that black cats were believed to be incarnations of the Devil, witches’ familiars etc.
In Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat, set in France, the main character (herself a bit witchy) dances widdershins round a black cat that has crossed in front of her and chants:
Où va-t-i, Mistigri,
Passe sans faire de mal ici
I don’t know if this is a real incantation or if she made it up for the novel. The Internet is silent on the matter.
3. Lighting 3 cigarettes with the same match
Again, I can find no explanation, except that you’re likely to burn your fingers (especially with French matches, which seem to be of poor quality and, even if you can get them to light, burn down too quickly).
Commentator Paul has now kindly supplied the answer. He writes, “Three on a match is from WWI trench warfare. Striking a match alerted a sniper, 2nd on the match allows sniper to get distance to target, 3rd person on the match is shot…thus bad luck to be the 3rd person on a match.” Bad luck, indeed.
4. Inviting 13 people around the same table
In contrast to the Friday 13th superstition, having 13 guests around the table is bad luck. We had 13 guests last New Year’s Eve and had a great time. As midnight struck, our friend Michel told us the tale of a Parisian friend. She apologised for being unable to invite him for dinner, but that would have made 13 at the table. The day of the dinner party she phoned and said that someone else had dropped out so he could now come. Michel tactfully refrained from questioning the strength of her regard for him.
This is just a selection. I’m sure there are many more. Does anyone have any good examples?
Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer living in southwest France since 1997. As well as writing research reports and magazine articles she also blogs about France, aiming to show life there as it is, warts and all.
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