Superstitious customs and beliefs are surprisingly common in the modern scientific era and Italy certainly has its fair share of unusual ones. Most superstitions are based around the concepts of luck, death, fortune telling and other aspects of life which cannot necessarily be proved or explained using the evidential scientific method.
For this reason many people who do not practise superstitious beliefs consider superstitions to be irrational. Nonetheless, even in secular societies large numbers of people still act in superstitious ways, adopting the beliefs of previous generations and incorporating them into their daily lives.
Superstitions And The Modern World.
Superstitions have both practical and supernatural elements. For example, there is a saying that it’s ‘bad luck’ to walk underneath a ladder. Whether or not there is scientific evidence for this statement, even the least superstitious people would agree that it’s not sensible to walk underneath a ladder in case something were to fall onto you!
Superstitions are largely non-religious in nature which is why many secular people still hold onto these beliefs. However, there are also superstitions that are originally religious in nature which have survived in a more secular way.
For instance, one of the widest held superstitions in the Western world involves black cats. In some societies seeing a black cat cross your path is a sign of good luck while in others it represents an ill omen! It’s thought that the superstitions surrounding black cats originate from their traditional association with witches and demons. Both of these concepts are essentially religious in nature but have percolated into the secular culture of the modern world.
Most Popular Italian Superstitions.
Italy is an ancient and diverse culture that has passed down customs, traditions and unusual superstitions through the generations; all of which have added to the remarkable tapestry of modern Italian society. Although superstitions are not generally religious in nature, and for many centuries were strictly forbidden by the Catholic church, in Italy they have persisted and seeped into the daily lives of the people.
Of course, many Italians do not take superstitions particularly seriously but they still honor them and try to avoid bringing themselves or others bad luck by overlooking a long held custom. Many foreigners and Expats find some of the surviving superstitious practices in Italy confusing and strange. However, if you want to fit into society without raising eyebrows you need to know about the local superstitions to avoid offending the natives!
The Number 17 And Friday 17th.
In many parts of the Western world, particularly in the United States and parts of Europe, Friday the 13th is universally considered to be an unlucky day. However, in Italy it’s Friday the 17th which is considered to be an ill omen.
The reason for this superstition is fairly obscure and related to Roman numerology. The number 17 is written as ‘XVII’ in Latin numbers. The number ‘XVII’ can be rearranged to create the word ‘VIXI’; which means ‘I have lived’. This is considered to be extremely bad luck because it is a past tense phrase and implies that the speaker of the statement is no longer alive!
Therefore, in Italy many streets do not have a number 17 and hotels often choose not to have a room number 17, simply skipping it and going from number 16 straight to number 18.
Don’t Spill Oil Or Salt While Seated At The Table.
While you’re in Italy you need to be very careful not to spill any olive oil while you’re at the table. For example, if you’re sprinkling olive oil onto your salad or food and accidentally spill some on the table it will be seen as an ill omen.
This is because olive oil was considered to be a luxury good during the era of the Roman Empire and so spilling oil was seen as wasteful and unlucky. The superstition stuck and is still widely practiced to this day.
Similarly, spilling salt during a meal is also seen as bad luck. This is because the word ‘salario’ in Italian, which means ‘salary’ in English, originates from the word ‘sale’, which means ‘salt’. As a result, spilling salt is superstitiously related to losing money and ill fortune in business.
There are also other negative associations with salt that make spilling it bad luck. For instance, when the Roman army would conquer a city they would often cover the fields in salt to stop their enemies from being able to grow crops.
For all these reasons you should never spill salt or olive oil while you’re in Italy!
Don’t Let A Broom Touch Your Bare Feet.
One of the more unique superstitions in Italy is the belief that if a broom touches your bare feet it will mean that you will never get married! Italian mothers who were sweeping the floor of their house would scold their daughters and tell them to ‘pick up your feet’ so the broom won’t accidentally brush past their feet; otherwise the daughter would never be married.
This also applies even if you accidentally brush your own foot with the broom – so be very careful when sweeping up the house and certainly avoid brushing the broom over other people’s feet!
This superstition is thought to originate from the idea that if a woman was sweeping the floor and brushing over other people’s feet it was a sign that she would make a bad wife and consequently wouldn’t make a good wife in the future.
Eat Lentils On New Year’s Eve.
A common superstitious custom in Italy is to always eat lentils on the 31st December and the 1st January. It is said that eating lentils, or ‘lenticchie’, will make you rich! This is because lentils are thought to look like coins and so the more of them you eat at the start of the year the better your financial fortunes will be in the year to come.
In many parts of the Western world there is a superstition that believes if you’ve done or said something which may bring you bad luck then you can say ‘touch wood’ to avert it! Similarly, in Italy, if you’re worried that you might have done something to attract bad luck then Italians will say ‘Toccare ferro’, or ‘touch iron’. Then you should touch something made of iron and your good luck should be restored!
It’s an ancient tradition in Italy, and Europe more generally, to hang an iron horseshoe outside the door of a house to ward off evil spirits, witches and ill fortune. The ‘ferro’ in the saying ‘Toccare ferro’ represents the iron horseshoe, or the ‘ferro di cavallo’ in Italian.
Therefore, even if you don’t have a horseshoe nearby you can just touch a piece of iron instead. This is why many Italians carry an iron charm with them to help to keep them safe from bad luck.
The Evil Eye.
The evil eye, or ‘malocchio’, is a superstition which says that ill intentioned looks can bring bad luck to the person they are aimed at. For example, if someone looks at you with jealousy or envy in their heart they can bring bad luck to you! To ward off the ‘evil eye’ Italians will make a sign with their hands called ‘le corna’, or ‘horns’ in English.
To make ‘le corna’ you put up your little finger and index finger out and point your hand downwards. Alternatively, you can wear an amulet called a ‘cornetto’ to keep you safe from evil eyes, even if you don’t notice them being directed at you.
Don’t Break A Mirror!
In Italy it’s very bad luck to break a mirror, no matter how small it is or if it was done accidentally. Breaking a mirror is said to bring you 7 years of ill fortune and if a mirror cracks on its own the superstition says that you will lose a close friend.
However, it doesn’t end there! If a mirror breaks near to a photograph of a person who is still alive this may cause them to die. This is because in previous centuries it was believed that a mirror could capture the soul of a person that looked into it and so if it broke it could damage their soul and cause them to die.
These superstitions are widely held in Italy. In fact, thespians and actors will never bring a real mirror onto the stage for fear that it might get broken during a performance and give the whole audience bad luck.
Don’t Open Your Umbrella Indoors.
The vast majority of Italians keep an umbrella holder outside of their house to protect themselves from the bad luck that is brought to them if they open an umbrella indoors. Bad luck will follow even if it pops open by accident while you’re in the house – so it makes sense to keep all the umbrellas outside! The type of bad luck you may experience can vary from losing your job, losing your home to finding yourself in the midst of a natural disaster.
This superstition is thought to originate in Ancient Rome when it was believed that any one who opened an umbrella inside was disrespecting the sun god; something which would inevitably bring bad luck to the perpetrator. Another reason for its emergence seems to be that poor people would sometimes use umbrellas to help plug up holes in their roof which led to the belief that it can bring financial troubles to those who ignore this superstition.
13 People At A Table.
Although the number 13 is not generally considered to be unlucky in Italy it is always bad luck to have 13 people sitting at a table together. The belief that 13 people at a table together are unlucky originates in the story of the Last Supper when the 13th person to sit down at the table was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
Never Walk Under A Ladder.
As one of the world’s most widespread superstitions, the reasons for it vary from place to place. In Italy the superstition appears to originate in Egypt and only later migrated to the Roman Empire. The ladder, which makes the shape of a triangle, represents a sacred symbol and so out of respect you should not walk underneath it.
Later, as Catholicism came to dominate Roman culture the triangular shape of a ladder against a wall represented the Holy Trinity. Therefore, walking beneath a ladder was seen as disrespecting the sacred nature of the Holy Trinity.
Of course, in practical terms, it’s always wise to avoid walking under a ladder in case something accidentally falls onto you.
Cats – Both Good And Bad Luck.
If a black cat crosses your path then it is thought to be a sign of bad luck to come. This dates back to the Middle Ages when black cats were associated with witches, demons and the devil. However, another lesser known reason for the superstitions surrounding cats in general is that their eyes would frighten horses at night.
It’s not all bad luck though when it comes to cats in Italy. There is another superstition that says if you hear a cat sneeze it’s a sign of good luck to come!
Making A Toast With Water.
To make a toast in Italy you usually say ‘Salute’ or ‘Cin cin’ while raising a glass. However, when you’re making a toast you should never do so with a full glass of water. Instead, make sure you use a glass of wine or other type of drink to bring good luck instead of bad.
You also need to remember to tap the bottom of your glass on the table after you’ve made the toast before you take the first sip. This is also said to ward off bad luck and so should always be observed at special events.
Another superstition relating to toasts in Italy says that it’s bad luck to clink glasses with anyone if your arms are crossing in between you. These types of superstition are especially important at big events like weddings where everything should go right to ensure good fortune for the newlyweds.
Get Out Of Bed The Right Foot First!
When you get out of bed in the morning it’s important to do so in the right way; otherwise you could open yourself up to serious bad luck all day. First thing in the morning, as you get out of bed you should always place your right foot on the floor first. Starting the day by putting your left foot on the floor first is considered very bad luck indeed.
This may be because the word for ‘left’ in Italian, ‘sinistro’, is also the word for ‘sinister’. It could also be a reference to the ‘left hand path’ which in some Christian theology refers to following the devil and demons instead of God.
Either way, when you wake up in the morning try to remember to start the day with your right foot first.
Superstitions Still Play A Major Role In Italy.
Despite the scientific understandings of the modern world superstitious beliefs still play a surprisingly central role in the life of Italy. The mysteries of fate and fortune have led people to look for explanations in the supernatural as a way to soothe their fears and worries.
Consequently, even if people don’t always take superstitions particularly seriously they are still likely to observe these old traditions in their daily lives. Italy is a more superstitious country than most of its European neighbors and so it’s good to be aware of this aspect of the culture so you can fit in better while you’re in the country.