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Italian Superstitions

by Oksana Lyon

An interesting, but often underrepresented, facet of each world culture is its views towards superstition and the occult. Italians have quite a few superstitions. Some pertain to life and death, while others cover relationships like marriages like friendships. Some are extremely vague, warning only of fortune and misfortune, while others are more specific, giving up at least a general idea of what we will face. Here are a few superstitions specific to Italy.

1. Friday the Seventeenth – While Americans may find themselves acting more cautious on Friday the 13th, Italians act the same way on the 17th. The fear surrounding the number comes from the way it is written in Roman numerals (XVII); an anagram that means, “I have lived,” and that can be found on many ancient tombstones. Due to its deathly implications, many Italians choose to avoid it.

2. The Number Thirteen – For superstitious Italians, the number thirteen is considered a lucky number… except for at the dinner table. This myth can be traced back to the Last Supper, when Judas was the final apostle to arrive, bringing the guest count to thirteen. When you arrive at a dinner party, make sure to count the number of people sitting with you, and watch your back. One of them might betray you!

3. Marriage & Noses – If you’re single, not only do you have to worry about how many people you’re dining with. You also have to be mindful about where you sit. If you sit down at the corner of a table, you can kiss your marriage prospects goodbye. If you manage to find yourself a better seat, make sure that you don’t say the same word another person does at the same time they say it, as that can also ruin your chances of marrying. However, in that case, you can get them back if you touch your nose immediately after it happens. If you can still get married after that, watch out for brooms. If one brushes your feet, even by accident, you can’t get married.

4. Spilling – Spilled olive oil, salt, and wine are thought to bring ill fortune, as there was a time when they were expensive luxuries. If you happen to spill, rub a drop of oil behind your ears, toss some salt over your shoulders, or dab some wine behind the ears of everyone present.

5. Toasting – For such a simple action, this one comes with several caveats. For example, you cannot toast with water; it is cheaper and less flavorful than wine, and therefore toasting with it is thought to be bad luck. You must also avoid crossing arms as you clink glasses, making eye contact during the toast, and setting your glass down before you’ve taken a sip of your drink (which, remember, cannot be water).

6. The Evil Eye (malocchio) – They say that looks can kill. Malocchio is an Italian superstition that holds that a jealous look can physically harm whoever receives it. In order to counteract malocchio, one must shape their hand like a horn (le corna) and point it downward behind their back, but some Italians simply wear a horn-shaped necklace (such as a cornicello).

7. Touch Iron – This one is similar to “knock on wood.” When you say something that might bring about misfortune or jinx you, you must say “toccare ferro.” The phrase is an abbreviation of a longer phrase, “toccare ferro di cavallo” or “touch horseshoe.” Keeping with the theme of bad juju-fighting jewelry, some Italians carry iron or horseshoe charms.

8. Lampposts – If you’re walking arm-in-arm with a friend and come across a lamppost, be sure to walk on the same side of it instead of splitting up. If you separate, it could bring about the end of your friendship.

9. Black Cats – In Italian culture, just like in American culture, black cats are thought to bring about bad luck, mostly due to their association with witchcraft. However, hearing a cat sneeze brings about good luck. So, if you hear a cat sneeze but haven’t seen it yet, say “felicita,” but don’t look for it!

10. Sharp Objects – If someone gives you a sharp object as a gift, you have two options. You can prick them with it, or you can give them a coin in return. If you do not do either of these things, it might bring about the end of your friendship!

11. Beds – It is thought that, if you put photos of loved ones on your bed, something bad will happen to them. Hats, clothes, hangers, hairbrushes, and shoes should also be kept off beds, and the beds themselves shouldn’t face the door because they resemble the way a coffin is positioned in a church.

12. Leaning Tower of Pisa – Looking forward to graduating? If you go to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it might never happen! Legend has it, if you are a college student and climb to the top of the tower, you’ll never graduate. There is a similar tradition in Bologna.

Whether you’re superstitious or not, it’s interesting to think about how different cultures interact with superstition: the beliefs, the mythology behind it, and the suggested ways to take advantage of or counteract whatever it brings.


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