Home  »  Curiosities in Proverbs  »  Superstition in Proverbs

D.E. Marvin, comp. Curiosities in Proverbs. 1916.

Superstition in Proverbs

(See Fortune and Luck in Proverbs.)

After a dream of a wedding comes a corpse. (English).
It was a common superstition of olden times that when anyone, particularly lovers, dreamed about marriage, death and disaster were sure to follow.
To dream about a wedding always “denotes the death of some near friend or relation, with loss of property and severe disappointment.”—Old English Chapbook.
“To dream you are married is ominous of death and very unfavourable to the dreamer; it denotes poverty, a prison, and misfortune.”—Old English Chapbook.

A gift on the thumb is sure to come; a gift on the finger is sure to linger. (English).
This proverb does not refer, as is often supposed, to presents that may be received or withheld, but to some impending good or evil. “Gift” was a colloquial word that was applied in mediæval times to the white spots that sometimes appear on the finger nails.

  • “Specks on the fingers, fortune lingers;
  • Specks on the thumbs, fortune surely comes.”
  • It was the custom of people in olden times to count the white spots that they saw on their nails and touch them one after another, beginning with those on the thumb and proceeding to those on each of the fingers. As this was done the counter would say, “Gift—Friend—Foe—Sweetheart to come—Journey to go.” Sometimes “Letter” was substituted for “Sweetheart to come.”

    A hair of the dog that bit you. (English).
    “To take a hair of the same dog.” (English). To take more of the liquor that intoxicated you.”

  • “Early we rose, in haste to get away;
  • And to the hostler this morning, by day,
  • This fellow called: ‘What ho! fellow, thou knave!
  • I pray thee let me and my fellow have
  • A hair of the dog that bit us last night—
  • And bitten were we both to the brain aright.
  • We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass,
  • And so did each one each other, that there was.’”
  • John Heywood.
  • Another and older meaning was that when a person had been bitten by a dog it was desirable to secure one of the animal’s hairs and place it on the wound for a cure.

    A king reigns on land, in half-filled-up tanks reigns the water sprite. (Assamese).
    The water sprite is an evil spirit that is supposed to haunt the swamps and marshes and lead people astray.

    A man had better ne’er be born as have his nails on a Sunday shorn. (English).

  • “Cut them on Monday, cut them for health;
  • Cut them on Tuesday, cut them for wealth;
  • Cut them on Wednesday, cut them for news;
  • Cut them on Thursday, a new pair of shoes;
  • Cut them on Friday, cut them for sorrow;
  • Cut them on Saturday, see your sweetheart tomorrow.”
  • Old English Rhyme.
  • A serpent unless it devours a serpent grows not to a dragon. (Latin and Greek).

    A Sunday child never dies of plague. (French).

  • “A child of Sunday and Christmas Day
  • Is good and fair, and wise and gay.”
  • Bush natural; more hair than wit. (English).
    Meaning that when a person has a large quantity of hair on his head he is deficient in intellect.
    Shakespeare refers to this superstition in Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act III, Scene 1) when he makes Launce say: “More hair than wit? It may be; I’ll prove it. The cover of the salt, and therefore it is more than the salt; the hair that covers the wit is more than the wit, for the greater hides the less, what next?”

    Cross a stile and a gate hard by, you’ll be a widow before you die. (English).

    Don’t wash the inside of a baby’s hand; you will wash his luck away. (American Negro).
    The above saying is one of many current in Tidewater Virginia, given by a writer in the Southern Workman (Hampton Institute) for November, 1899. Others are as follows: “Don’t leave the griddle on the fire after the bread is done; it will make bread scarce.” “Don’t sweep dirt out of the door after night; you will sweep yourself out of a home.” “Don’t step over anybody’s leg; it will turn to a stick of wood.” “Don’t comb your hair at night, it will make you forgetful.” “Don’t be the first to drive a hearse, or you will be the next to die.” “Don’t shake the tablecloth out of doors after sunset; you will never marry.” “Don’t sweep a person’s feet, it will make him lazy; so will hitting them with a straw.” “Don’t whip the child who burns another; if you do, the burnt child will die.” “Don’t measure yourself; it will make you die.” “Don’t lend or borrow salt or pepper; it will break friendship. If you must borrow it, don’t pay it back.” “Don’t kill a wren; it will cause your limbs to get broken.” “Don’t pass anything over a person’s back; it will give him pains.” “Don’t pour out tea before putting sugar in the cup, or some one will be drowned. Some say it will drown the miller.” “Don’t kill cats, dogs, or frogs; you will die in rags.” “Don’t move cats; if you do, you will die a beggar.” “Don’t meet a corpse, or you will get very sick before the year is out.” “Don’t point at or speak of a shooting star.” “Don’t count the teeth of a comb; they will all break out.” “Don’t lock your hands over your head.”

    Dry bargains bode ill. (Scotch).
    An allusion to an old Scotch custom of ratifying a bargain with drink.

    Eat cress to learn more wit. (Greek).

    Friday is a cross day for marriage. (English).
    See Fortune and Luck in Proverbs: “He that laughs on Friday will weep on Sunday.” Probably taken from the old English rhyme:

  • “Monday for wealth,
  • Tuesday for health,
  • Wednesday the best day of all;
  • Thursday for losses,
  • Friday for crosses,
  • And Saturday, no luck at all.”
  • Happy is the bride the sun shines on, and the corpse the rain rains on. (English).

  • “While others repeat:
  • Your praise and bless you, sprinkling you with wheat;
  • While that others so divine,
  • Bless’d is the bride on which the sun doth shine.”
  • Robert Herrick.
  • He was wrapp’d in his mither’s sark tail. (Scotch).
    “He was lapped in his mother’s smock.” (English).
    There is an old Scotch superstitious custom of receiving every male child at birth in its mother’s shift, believing that by so doing it will be made acceptable to women in after life, so that when a man is unpopular among women people say, “He was kept in a broad claith; he was some hap to his meat, but none to his wives.”

    If in handling a loaf you break it in two parts, it will rain all the week. (English).
    It is an old superstition that if an unmarried woman is placed between a man and his wife at a social gathering, or permits a loaf to be broken by accident while it is in her hands, she will not be married for one year.

    If skin-spots come, our wants will be supplied. (Marathi).
    If the skin becomes discoloured or if moles or other blemishes appear on the cheeks it is a good sign.

    If the cow snore, the cow-house will fill; if the bullock snore, the master will die. (Marathi).
    Mr. A. Manwaring suggests that the last part of this proverb may imply that the bullock is weak and therefore not able to work and support its master.

    If thou seest a one-eyed person pass by, turn up a stone. (Arabian).
    “The people of Cairo turn up a stone or break a water-jar behind the back of any person whom they dislike, just on his leaving them, hoping thereby to prevent his return; this is a kind of incantation. The term one-eyed here expresses a person disagreeable on any account. The Arabs regard a one-eyed man as a bad omen, and nobody wishes to meet him.”—J. L. Burckhardt.

    In the home the wife is supreme, in the ditch reigns the water sprite. (Assamese).
    The water sprite is supposed to preside over tanks, drains, ditches, etc., and sometimes draws down helpless victims and destroys them.
    “By digging a drain you have brought the evil sprite closer.” By digging a drain near your house you enable the evil sprite to come closer to you. (Assamese).
    “The king reigns on land, in half-filled-up tanks reigns the water sprite.” (Assamese).

    Keep a wall-eyed horse and be ruined. (Urdu).

    Kiss the black cat, an’ ’twill make ye fat; kiss the white one, ’twill make ye lean. (English).

    Malisons, Malisons, mair than ten, wha harries the queen of heaven’s wren. (Scotch).
    Malisons—i.e., curses or maledictions.
    “The wren, being able to fly higher than any other bird, secured the coveted fire from heaven and started on her earthward journey, but in her descent her wings began to burn, compelling her to intrust her precious burden to the robin, whose feathers also burst into flames as his breast still shows. The lark, coming to the rescue, brought the prize in safety to mankind on earth. In some parts of Brittany it is said that the wren brought the fire from the lower regions and that her feathers were scorched as she passed through the keyhole. On this account the wren, together with the robin, the lark, and the swallow as fire bringers, are regarded as sacred and the robbing of their nests as an act of horror. In some of the French provinces such crimes are believed to be punished by the destruction of the offender’s house by lightning. Another superstition is that the fingers of the offending hand will shrivel away and drop off.”—Margaret Coulson Walker in Bird Legend and Life.

  • “The robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen.
  • The martin and the swallow are God Almighty’s bow and arrow.” (English).
  • “The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen,
  • The spink and the sparrow are the de’il’s bow and arrow.” (English).
  • In Ireland the wren is regarded as under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, and the saying, “The little wren, our Lady’s hen,” is common.
    Notwithstanding the respect that is generally paid to the wren, the bird has had a bad reputation. In Norse mythology she is a malignant fairy, and among the superstitions of the Isle of Man there is one that she lures men into the sea by her songs and charms, particularly on Christmas Day, and then causes them to be drowned.
    There is an old tale that when St. Stephen was awaiting his execution the men who were appointed to guard him fell asleep, whereupon the Saint determined to take advantage of the fact and escape, but on starting to go a wren flew in the face of one of the guards and awoke him. It is because of this tale that on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th) the young men on the Isle of Man go about carrying little biers decorated with flowers, evergreens, and ribbons, on which lies a dead wren. When carrying this bier they make a pretence that it is heavy and act as though it required all their strength to hold it up. With this burden they go about singing.

    Marry in Lent and you’ll live to repent. (English).
    The English church has always discouraged marriage during Lent, and ill luck has always been thought to follow marriages that take place during the month of May.
    See Fortune and Luck in Proverbs: “May chets, bad luck begets.”
    It is a common belief in Russia that marriage engagements made at Eastertide brought wealth; at Ascensiontide, health; at Whitsuntide, domestic peace; and at Trinity, a large family.

  • “When Advent comes do thou refraine,
  • Till Hillary sett ye free againe
  • Next Septuagesima saith thee nay,
  • But when Lowe Sunday comes thou may,
  • Yet at Rogation thou must tarry
  • Till Trinitie shall bid thee marry.”
  • Old English Register Rhyme.
  • Misfortunes come on horseback and go away on foot. (French).
    “Misfortunes come on wings and depart on foot.” “Misfortunes seldome come alone.” (English). “Misfortunes come by forties.” (Welsh). “Ill comes upon waur’s back”—a great misfortune is sure to follow another that is greater. (Scotch). “After losing, one loses roundly.” (French). “A misfortune and a friar are seldom alone.” “One misfortune is the eve of another.” (Italian).
    “Whither goest thou, Misfortune?” “To where there are more.” “Whither goest thou, Sorrow?” “Whither I am wont.” “Welcome, Misfortune, if thou comest alone.” (Spanish Saying).

    Remove the gate of thy stable to another side. (Arabian).
    This advice is said to be given when a house is reputed to be in danger from the evil eye. The owner, at such times, usually walls up his gate and opens a new one on another side, thus diverting the baneful influences of an enemy who may have an evil eye.

    Sowing fennel is sowing sorrow. (English).
    This proverb is thought by some to be purely American, but it was brought to New England by the early English settlers.

    The axe which cuts the tree is not afraid; but the woodman makes a sacrifice to his head. (Yoruba—West African).
    The axe is not afraid of the evil spirits that inhabit the tree, but the woodman is afraid lest the evil spirits should cause the axe to injure him, so he offers a sacrifice to the good genius that resides in his head before striking a blow at the trunk.

    The dog’s death approaches when he eats the bread of the shepherd. (Persian).
    It is also said, “The dog’s death approaches when he sleeps in a mosque.”

    The first snail going with you, the first lamb meeting you, bodes a gude year. (Scotch).

    The night is no man’s friend. (German).
    Though the night furnishes rest and refreshment for the wearied body and gives strength for the duties of the day, yet in Northern mythology it has always been regarded as hostile to men. Etymologically “night” is the “dead” time, when men in sleep seem to part from life for a season and become oblivious to all its interests.

  • “Night, sable goddess! from her ebon throne,
  • In rayless majesty, now stretches forth
  • Her leaden sceptre o’er a slumb’ring world
  • Silence, how dead! and darkness, how profound!
  • Nor eye, nor list’ning ear, an object finds,
  • Creation sleeps. ’Tis as the general pulse
  • Of life stood still, and Nature made a pause;
  • An awful pause! prophetic of her end.”
  • Edward Young.
  • There goes a witch! There goes a witch! If you are no witch you will not turn around. (Oji—West African).
    “If the cap fit, wear it.” (English). “He that excuses himself accuses himself.” (English, French, Italian). “Who excuses accuses.” (Dutch). “Who covers thee, discovers thee.” (Spanish). “An excuse that is uncalled for becomes an obvious accusation.” (Latin Law). “He does it who takes it to himself.” (Latin).

    The thirteenth man brings death. (Dutch).
    The belief that evil is in some way connected with the number thirteen is common in many places. In Scotland thirteen is called the “De’il’s Dozen”; in Florence and Rome it is omitted in numbering the houses; in Italy it is not used on theatre boxes nor in making up lottery lists; in India the thirteenth year is ominous; in Persia the people refrain from pronouncing the number, and in Turkey it is seldom referred to in conversation.
    Where this foolish dread of the number thirteen originated is unknown. Many people think that it came from the fact that thirteen men sat at the table when the Lord’s Supper was first celebrated in Jerusalem and that Judas was the last to take his seat among the disciples, but there is no evidence that he was the last; furthermore the superstition existed long before the Christian era. Loki, the Principal of Evil in Norse mythology, was reckoned the thirteenth of the Æsir or Demigods. The thirteen Valkyrs or Vergins waited at a banquet in Valhalla when Balder was slain by a contrivance of Loki.
    The place where thirteen is most dreaded is at the table, as is indicated by the Dutch proverb above quoted. As there is constant danger that a dinner party may include thirteen people, superstition shows its foolishness by a provision by which evil consequences may be averted, for it is held that when the time comes to leave the table all may agree to rise together and thus prevent any calamity.
    In the chapel of the Tridinium Pauperum, adjoining the Church of St. Gregory at Rome, is a marble table on which is an inscription giving the following story: Pope Gregory the Great, it declares, was in the habit of entertaining twelve poor men every morning at breakfast. One day Jesus appeared as one in need and sat with the other men at Gregory’s feast. As he made the thirteenth beggar at the meal the number could no longer be followed by evil consequence and from that time it became a sign of good luck.

    They that marry in green, their sorrow is soon seen. (Scotch).
    See note on the proverb: “Yellow forsaken and green forsworn, but blue and red ought to be worn.”
    According to an old Scottish custom, everything that was green was regarded as out of place at a wedding. Even green vegetables were forbidden, for it was believed evil was sure to result if the colour was anywhere to be seen. Beside the above proverb the Scotch said, “Blue is love true, green is love deen.”
    The superstitious dislike for the colour, particularly in a bride’s dress, was not confined to the Scotch. The following old English rhymes indicate a like prejudice:

  • “Green is forsaken, and yellow is forsworn,
  • But blue is the prettiest colour that’s worn.”
  • “Green’s forsaken, yellow forsworn,
  • Blue’s the colour that shall (or must) be worn.”
  • “Those dressed in blue, have lovers true,
  • In green and white, forsaken quite.”
  • “Blue is true, yellow’s jealous,
  • Green’s forsaken, red’s brazen,
  • White is love, and black is death.”
  • “If you love me, love me true,
  • Send me ribbon, and let it be blue;
  • If you hate me, let it be seen,
  • Send me a ribbon, a ribbon of green.”
  • “Yellow, yellow, turned up with green,
  • The ugliest colour that ever was seen.”
  • “Married in white, you have chosen all right;
  • Married in gray, you will go far away;
  • Married in black, you will wish yourself back;
  • Married in red, you’d better be dead;
  • Married in green, ashamed to be seen;
  • Married in blue, you’ll always be true;
  • Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl;
  • Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow;
  • Married in brown, you’ll live out of town;
  • Married in pink, your spirits will sink.”
  • There is a devil in every berry of the grape. (English).
    This proverb is said to have originated in Turkey and shows how general is the belief that intoxication is produced by Satan.

    They that meet across the nose, will never wear their wedding clothes. (English).
    “If your eyebrows meet across your nose, you’ll never live to wear your wedding clothes. (English).

    Though he should gain a kingdom, he would not move on a Thursday-eve! (Bengalese).
    A taunting reference to anyone who refuses to begin a journey on a certain day because of a superstitious dread of evil consequences.

    To change the name and not the letter, is a change for the worse and not the better. (English).
    In the Middle Ages many young women discouraged the friendship of men, the initial letter of whose names was the same as their own, superstitiously fearing lest friendship might lead to marriage which would be sure to bring unhappiness.

    When the cock crows before the door, somebody is coming. (Mauritius Creole).

    When the right eye throbs, it’s mother or sister coming; when the left eye throbs, it’s brother or husband coming. (Italian).
    Eye superstitions were general in the Middle Ages when a belief in the “evil eye” kept people in constant fear lest they should become subject to its influence. It was common, for example, for Spanish mothers to put a cord of braided hair taken from a black mare’s tail about their children’s necks and attach thereto a small horn tipped with silver, as a protection against the baneful effect of a glance from someone who might possess an “evil eye.”
    Among the many proverbs about the eye that have come down to us from the past may be found the following: “My right eye is twitching,” which indicated the approach of some desired or expected person. (Latin). “Left before right, you’ll cry before night.” “Left eye cry, right eye joy.” “Left or right, brings joy at night.” (English). “The evil eye can see no good.” “Woe to an evil eye.” (Danish). “The eyes of the hare are one thing and the eyes of the owl another.” (Modern Greek).

    Yellow forsaken and green forsworn, but blue and red ought to be worn. (Scotch).
    See notes on proverb: “They that marry in green, their sorrow is soon seen.”
    In mediæval days yellow and green were regarded with aversion. Yellow was particularly disliked, because it was thought to indicate jealousy, inconstancy, and adultery. It was, however, not only permitted but esteemed in blazonry, where it stood for love, constancy, and wisdom; and in Christian symbols, where it was regarded, when of a pure or clear tint, as symbolizing the possession of brightness, goodness, faith, and fruitfulness. When, however, it was of a dull tone, it stood for faithlessness, deceit, and jealousy.
    In France, yellow was daubed on the house doors of traitors and bankrupts, who were called “Yellow Boys.” In Spain, executioners were clothed in either red to symbolize the shedding of blood or in yellow to show that they were the representatives of the law against treason. In some countries Jews were required to dress in yellow to indicate that they were held responsible for the betrayal of Jesus Christ. Slaves were also frequently obliged to be clothed in the same colour to show that they were under bondage.
    There is a tradition that Judas had red hair, and artists were in the habit of representing him in their paintings as clothed in old dingy yellow garments.
    If red hair was disliked, yellow hair was held in aversion. He on whom nature had bestowed hair of that colour was regarded as ill favoured and almost deformed.