Why we ask this peculiar question in the headline? Because it is relevant! Christmas and New Year have just gone by, and if you washed your laundry between these two holidays, you condemned a close relative to an untimely death. This strong belief was held by my mom for all my life – as was the thought that saying Happy Birthday to someone before the actual date would reverse the well-wishes and bring bad luck onto them. Superstition and traditional myths are a common occurrence around the globe, and Germany makes no exception, no matter how reasonable, straightforward and hands-on Germans appear in public.
Don’t break a mirror, it will mean bad luck for you for seven years. A broken cup, on the other hand, translates to “shards bring fresh luck” (Scherben bringen Glück), so that’s a good thing. If you toast each other with a drink, make sure your eyes connect, as looking to another direction while saying “cheers” might ruin your sex life for years to come. And yes, that’s a thing in Germany: The word “prost!” (cheers!) carries more weight than you would imagine. Spilling salt on the table? Be fast to throw some bits of it over your right and left shoulder to make sure the devil loses your trail. And if you ever shake hands across someone else doing the same, you are doomed (although I wasn’t quite able to establish what price has to be paid for this kind of mistake).
Interestingly, one source of German superstition seems to be an unlikely one: a century-old guide on manners, authored by a nobleman called Adolph Freiherr von Knigge. His work on proper behaviour has influenced Germany strongly, which in the light of current conspiracy theories might be especially exciting. Knigge was a Freemason and leading member of the order of the Illuminati, back then a society striving for enlightenment, deeply opposed to all forms of superstition. There is some irony in the fact that many of his suggestions for good manners turned into the basis of superstitious ideas.
It is, on the other hand, not completely surprising. The word “superstition” has changed its meaning in the course of history: In ancient times, the Latin word “superstitio” was used to describe rituals and practices that didn’t fit in with the dominating religion or opposed the myths and customs of the ruling classes. The German word “Aberglaube” documents this meaning quite well; it translates to “opposing belief”. The Catholic church branded heathen and pagan traditions as superstition whenever it couldn’t absorb them, as they did with Easter or Christmas.
Today, with natural science being among our strongest belief systems, it can be difficult to distinguish between traditional knowledge and superstitious myths. This rift becomes obvious in matters of health and well-being, even medical questions. Valid alternative methods of healing clash with useless pseudo-therapies or trends like the anti-vaccination movement. In Germany, this has been addressed for decades by allowing alternative practitioners (Heilpraktiker) to work with patients after sitting a demanding general health exam. Homeopathy, Acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicine, even Yoga and Ayurveda are on offer. This approach reduces the risk of damage caused by poorly educated healers.
This article would not be complete without mentioning the most likable form of superstition: The personal lucky charm. The German name for it is wonderfully descriptive: “Glücksbringer” literally is a thing that brings luck.
When it comes to the choice of these talismans, Germans aren’t much different from the English, though: A horseshoe on the wall keeps bad luck away, shaking hands with a chimney sweep brings good luck, a mistletoe will keep witches at bay (and allows you to kiss your sweetheart underneath), and finding a four-leaved clover is a sign that good things lie ahead.
Many of these old-fashioned ideas aren’t necessarily superstitious, but rather a sign of their times: The olden days tended to be hard and full of risks, making for example a chimney sweep a necessity for survival in houses that relied on burning wood for heating and cooking.
The number one lucky animal is the pig. From medieval times on it symbolises good fortune and wealth. Whether as piggy bank, marzipan pig, key chain or in the proverb “Schwein gehabt” (literally you had pig – you were lucky!) the pig is omnipresent in German language and culture. And not only there: Today is the official start of the year of the pig in the Chinese lunar calendar, showing how interconnected the world is, even when it comes to traditional matters like this.
Why carrying a rabbit’s foot should be helpful, on the other hand, remains a bit of a miracle; even more curious, as this tradition is found in cultures around the globe from China to South America, even before they were in touch with each other.