Superstitions Around the World


Travel is hard enough. You don't need bad luck on your trail, too. Keep the following facts in mind to avoid upsetting the locals—and to ward off the dark forces.

Some traditional funeral rites in Japan dictate that bodies be laid out with the head to the north, because many Japanese believe that is the direction souls go after death. Hotels often position beds to point east, south, or west, so the afterworld doesn't get the wrong idea.

It may surprise Americans to hear that in the United Kingdom it's considered lucky to cross paths with a black cat. But steer clear of crows or ravens—ill omens portending death and war.

The number 4 is considered inauspicious in much of East Asia. That's probably because the number sounds like the word for "death" in Japanese and Mandarin. The aversion is so strong that many hotels, hospitals, and office buildings skip the fourth floor entirely.

In most parts of the West, the number 13 is unlucky. But in Italy, the number 17 causes the most fear. The number 17 in Roman numerals is XVII. That's an anagram of VIXI, which in Latin (the parent of modern Italian) means "I have lived"—basically, "I'm dead." You're not likely to find 17 as a room number in a hotel in Rome or Milan. And as a courtesy to its passengers from Italy and other countries, Lufthansa has removed rows 13 and 17 from its airplanes.

Ireland is well known for its belief that a four-leaf clover brings good luck. But if you find the plant in a forest on a stroll, stow it away! As Jane Wilde, Oscar's mother, put it in a book about Irish folklore, he who has a shamrock "must always carry it about his person, and never give it away, or even show it to another," lest the luck run away.

In China, it's considered bad luck to stick your chopsticks straight up in a V-shape in a bowl of rice. They look too much like the incense sticks burned for the dead. Treat your chopsticks that way and some Chinese believe you'll be cursed with bad luck; others will just think you're disrespectful.

Presenting flowers as a gift can be a little tricky in Russia. An even number of like blossoms is used only for funeral arrangements. So show your undying love (or merely your thanks to a hostess) with 11, 9, or even 13 blooms—but never a dozen.

When going to the bathroom at night in Morocco, watch out for the bellowing Maezt-Dar L'Oudou, or Goat of the Lavatories, a kind of djinn, or spirit, that tends to inhabit toilets, baths, and other places where water flows down a drain. The beast comes out at night, from roughly 11:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. To help ward the she-goat off, lore suggests you chant "Rukhsa, ya Mubariqin" ("With your permission, O Blessed Ones").

In the northwest of Spain, traveling through lonely forests or roads at night can put you in a tough spot. If you visit the witch-haunted region of Galicia, you may see the Santa Compaña, a procession of dead souls wearing monks' habits, headed by a living figure carrying a cross, a bell, and a pot of holy water. Beware if you're asked to join the party of "announcers of death." That supposedly means you'll die soon.

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