The position of a bed has significance in many cultures, although opinions seem to be evenly divided as to whether the bed should be aligned north-south or east-west for best results; perhaps a better idea is to go with the opinion that the bed should point in the same direction as the floorboards, rather than go across them. In Chinese Feng Shui, a bed which is arranged so that the sleeper’s feet point towards the door is unlucky; this is known as the Coffin position, but can be cured with the addition of a crystal between the bed and the doorway. A bed which is cut across by overhead beams is also unlucky as it cuts through the life energy; red tassels should be hung on the beams to correct this.
It is also considered unlucky to get out of bed in the morning on a different side to that on which the bed was entered the night before; anyone who does so will have a bad temper all day and is said to have .got out of bed on the wrong side’.
To our ancestors, candles were often the only source of light, and the way a candle burns is often considered portentous. If the candle-flame burns blue and dim, it is considered a sign that a spirit is passing, although in some places a blue flame indicates frost on the way. A bright spark in the wick means a letter for the person nearest the candle, or sometimes the arrival of a visitor. Weather was also foretold by candle-flame; a flame which flickers and wavers when there is no breeze or draught means windy weather is on the way, whereas a candle which will not light easily indicates rain.
It was deemed unlucky to light a candle from the hearth. Candles should also be blown out before they burned out, for if they were allowed to gutter out in the candlestick it was said that a sailor would die at sea. To snuff a candle out accidentally was an omen of a wedding. Three candles should never be lit from a single match or taper, and to have three candles burning in one room was very ill-omened, although in some parts of Britain it foretold a wedding. In other places people who sat together in a room with three candles lit would quarrel.
It was considered unlucky to leave a candle to burn in an empty room (a superstition which probably originated in the practical fact that it would waste the candle!) However, a large candle was often left burning through the night of Christmas Eve in order to ensure prosperity, warmth and light throughout the coming year; this custom has its origins in the pre-christian festival of Yule. Candles were used in spells by our ancestors, as they still are today. A lover could be called to visit by thrusting two pins into a lit candle and reciting a charm over it.
The front door in some districts was rarely used except on special occasions, but as the symbolic and ceremonial entrance it was the center of a number of traditions. A bride must always leave by the front door, both going to the ceremony and leaving on the honeymoon. When moving into a new home, it is considered wise to enter for the first time by the front door, to ensure that life in that house will not be unhappy.
After a death, the front door was often left unlocked until the burial of the body, lest the soul of the dead person be confused and unable to leave the house. During the funeral, the coffin was carried out of the house through the front door, which was then left open until the mourners returned after the burial in order that the person’s spirit might come and go freely.
Before the introduction of electric and gas heating, the hearth was the symbolic (and often literal) center of the house. In ancient times the fire burnt in the middle of the main room, where it served for cooking and heating and symbolically stood for the source of life. In ancient times the fire was never allowed to go out; the phrase ‘a desolate hearth’ also meant an abandoned house, a scattered family, lost kinfolk. A bride would be led to the hearth of her new home and the fire-irons put into her hand to symbolize her new status as mistress of the house.
In Scotland and Ireland the open peat fires were often ritually raked at night; this was a complicated ceremony involving the division of the embers into three separate parts with a small heap in the middle, each of which had a peat laid in it, the whole thing then being covered with just enough ashes to keep the fire quiet without extinguishing it. Generally performed by the woman of the house, this ritual was intended for protection of the entire household and sleeping family, symbolized by the subdued fire.
It is still often considered unlucky to poke someone else’s fire without permission, unless one had known the householder well for at least seven years. Until the last century it was also considered in some parts of Britain to be unlucky to give fire, or even a light, out of one’s house on New Year’s Day; if fire was given it was said that a death would follow within the year.
The behavior of a fire in the grate is the source of many omens. If the fire burns all on one side, or falls into two heaps in the grate, a parting is foretold; if it will not start in the morning it foretells quarres in the house, and quarrels are also foretold from a spluttering piece of coal. A coffin-shaped piece of coal flying out of the fire and into the room foretells a death, whereas a cradle-shaped (oval) piece means a birth. If the flames are bluish, or very high, it means that frosty weather is coming. A cluster of bright sparks at the back of the chimney means good news on the way, and dull sparks means bad news.
In previous centuries a knife was a very personal possession, carried at all times by its owner and used for hunting and work as well as cutting food. A steel knife was regarded as being protection against fairies and curses; a house could be protected by a knife being thrust into the door and a baby protected by a knife stuck into the headboard of its cradle. A knife could also be thrust into the mast of a boat for luck, although the word ‘knife’ was never spoken at sea.
If two knives are crossed accidentally at the table it means bad luck or quarrels unless one of the knives is immediately straightened. A knife falling to the ground means the arrival of a male visitor. A knife with a white handle could be used to divine whether the inquirer’s future spouse would be fair or dark; the knife was spun round, and if it came to rest with the handle pointing towards the inquirer, the spouse would be fair; if the blade pointed at them, the spouse would be dark.
The most common belief about knives is that a knife given as a gift will sever the love or friendship between giver and recipient; a knife should never be taken without something being rendered in exchange, generally a penny or other small coin.
Some days are considered badly-omened for doing laundry; clothes should never be washed on New Year’s Day, since this was once thought to ‘wash one of the family away’ or to cause a death or parting of someone in the family. Laundry was generally done at the beginning of the week, and therefore washing on a Saturday was considered the mark of a bad housewife.
In Wales it was considered a bad omen to spill water on the way from the spring or well to the washtub; it is also unlucky to splash water about too freely during the washing, or for the laundress to make her own clothes very wet. It was once said that if an unmarried girl got wet while doing the laundry, her husband was bound to be a drunkard.
The most common mirror superstition is that to break a mirror means seven years’ bad luck. It is also considered unlucky for an actor to look into the mirror over another actor’s shoulder, or to allow a baby to look at itself in a mirror before it is a year old. The most unlucky omen of all is to look into a mirror and see no reflection; this is said to be a certain omen of death.
Mirrors were once covered after there was a death in the house, since it was thought that if someone saw their reflection at such a time, they or another person in the house would die soon afterwards. Brides are also supposed to avoid seeing themselves in their wedding clothes before the ceremony, lest something happen to prevent the marriage taking place; this superstition is often got around by having the bride leave off the veil, shoes, jewelry or some other essential part of the wedding costume.
Being made of iron, nails were once used in many charms and spells. The Romans once drove nails into the walls of houses as an attempt at warning off the plague, and also thought that epilepsy could be cured by driving a nail into the piece of ground the epileptic had fallen onto in a fit.
In Britain it is considered lucky to find a nail in the road, especially a rusty one; it should be picked up and taken home. Nails carried in the pocket or placed somewhere in the house guard against bewitchment and the evil eye, and during the hysteria of the Burning Times it was considered a sure test of witchcraft to drive a nail into the footprint of the suspected person. If really a witch, it was thought that he or she would be compelled to return to the spot to remove the nail.
In mediaeval times a cure for toothache was to scratch the gum with a nail till it bled, and then to drive the nail into an oak tree. In Cheshire, nails were used as part of a binding ceremony involving a group of people. A group would go together to a wooded area away from their homes and would drive a nail into a tree, swearing to keep their vow for as long as the nail was there. It could not
be withdrawn without the consent of all of them, but once it was removed, they were all released from their vow.
Like knives, scissors as a gift were also considered to cut the bonds of friendship and love, and must be given only in exchange for a small coin or other token.
Scissors were also used like knives as a charm against evil; a pair of scissors could be thrust into the door for protection, or opened to form a cross-shape and laid on the threshold. To drop a pair of scissors by accident is unlucky, and the person who dropped them should never pick them up; another person should always be asked to do this. Scissors which fall point downward foretell a death in the neighborhood, unless their owner is a dressmaker, in which case they mean an order for plenty more work to come.
To drop a spoon is generally said to mean that a child is about to visit the house. A spoon which falls with the bowl downwards means a disappointment, but if the bowl is uppermost it means a surprise on the way. Two teaspoons in a saucer means a wedding; if they are in the saucer of a girl or young woman, they mean that she will marry twice.