Russians are a superstitious lot. You may not learn it in your Russian course, but beware: you will not be popular with a Russian host if you whistle in their house, or try to say good-bye or shake their hand over the threshold!
Are Russians superstitious?
Sometimes (mainly when I fix my Russian lessons for Friday the 13th!), students ask me - are Russians superstitious? And if so, are Russian superstitions similar to English ones? The answer is, yes and yes. Russians are superstitious. Most people will laugh if you ask them about superstitions, but… we do not like it when a black cat crosses our path, or when the first person we meet after leaving the house is somebody carrying an empty bucket. And a woman may be quite shocked if you give her a dozen roses!
It’s quite sad to believe this stuff at a time of high technology and globalisation but these things are so deeply rooted in our subconscious mind that they are hard to ignore. Some superstitions are as old as Time itself, going back to Pagan beliefs. They say that the tradition of touching wood for luck comes from our ancestors worshipping tree spirits, for example.
So, here is a list of common Russian superstitions. Hope some of them will hopefully make you smile!
For Good Luck
It’s good luck to break a dish.
If a fly gets into your soup, you’ll get a gift or a treat.
It’s good luck to see a pig in the street. (When did you last see a pig in the street, in the literal sense of the word?!)
It’s good luck to meet a funeral on the way.
For Bad Luck
If a black cat crosses your way, it’s bad luck.
If you meet a woman carrying an empty bucket (walking towards you) it’s bad luck.
If you spill salt, there will be a row in the house.
If you break a mirror, it’s bad luck. Do not look into a broken mirror.
Do’s and don’t’s
Do not whistle in your own or someone else's house. If you do, you (or the owner of the house) won’t have any money.
Do not give sharp things (knives, scissors) as gifts. You can see where this superstition comes from - these items can be used to injure someone.
If you get an animal (a kitten, etc) as a present, you should give a kopeck (token sum of money) for it.
Do not greet anyone or say good-bye to anyone across the threshold. If you do, you will fall out with this person. I must say, this one is always observed. Even in the business environment, people do not shake hands over a threshold.
Do not accept or give anything across the threshold.
If you give flowers to someone, always give an odd number (i.e. three, five, seven, etc) An even number of flowers (i.e. four, six, etc) are given to a dead person at the funeral.
Do not celebrate your birthday in advance of the actual date. You may not make it!
Do not return into the house once you’ve started on the way. But if you do have to, then look into the mirror. Otherwise you’ll have a bad luck on the way.
Unmarried people should not sit at the corner of the table – if they do, they will never get married.
General superstitions - "if"
If you sneeze while saying something, you are telling the truth.
If a fork or a spoon falls on the floor, you’ll shortly be visited by a woman (because in Russian a fork and a spoon are feminine). If a knife falls down, you’ll be visited by a man. (A knife is masculine).
If a cat washes his/her face, you’ll have guests soon.
If the right eye is itching, you’ll be laughing, the left one – you’ll be crying.
An eyelash coming out – you’ll have a gift.
If your lips are itching, you’ll be kissing.
If your right palm is itching, you’ll receive some money, and if the left one is itching, you’ll have to give money away.
If your nose is itching, you’ll be drinking.
If your ears or cheeks are burning, somebody is talking or thinking about you.
If you have an attack of hiccups, somebody is talking about you or cursing you.
If you do not recognise someone when you see them or call them on the phone, this person will get rich.
If your parents are alive, do not walk around in one shoe – you’ll lose a parent.
A couple of jokes about superstitions
A Hedgehog comes to an Owl, saying, “Owl, you are a wise and well-educated bird, please tell me, a simple little animal, why is my nose itching all the time?” The Owl says, “It means you’ll go to a party and drink a lot tonight.” “And why are my eyes itching?” “That’s bad news! You’ll be crying.” “And why is my tummy itching?” “Listen, Hedgehog, go and wash yourself!”
A hundred-year old man has broken a mirror and looks very pleased about it. “Why are you so pleased?” people ask him. “You’ll have seven years of bad luck!” “But it means I’ll live another seven years!”
When you need to knock on the wood you suddenly discover that the whole world around you is made of plastic and aluminium.
The most terrifying superstition of all – a black cat breaking a mirror with an empty bucket!