Maria Ziółkowska was a Polish writer who wrote mostly teenage fiction and esperanto textbooks. Creepily, I have just learnt she died about three weeks ago and this is the second time this happens to me. Even more interestingly this little book is a slight detour from her normal repertoire as it’s a collection of musings about superstitions.
It’s full of all sorts of crazy. For example, do you know why Monday is supposedly a bad luck day? Except for the obvious, apparently, back in the day the Church anathemised anyone who dared to commit a serious crime (like a robbery, or murder) between the Wednesday sunset and Monday sunrise. The logical consequence of it was that most god-fearing criminals would put off their worst crimes until Monday. That’s why you should be more than careful on a Monday.
I’ve also learnt the etymology of the word ‘licho’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likho) which in currently in Polish means an unspecified sort of evil spirit or devil but was originally derived from the word describing an ‘odd number’. See, odd numbers are really bad for you. You should avoid odd numbers, and particularly 13, which comes after 12, the super-number.
The opposite of ‘licho’ is ‘cetno’, an even number and all things good. This word survived in Polish only in the name of the game ‘Cetno i licho’ (Cetno and licho), which is a sort bet which makes you guess whether the number of things held in someone’s palm is a an even or odd number.
There is also a whole chapter on sneezing and why we say ‘bless you’ (or ‘Na zdrowie’ in Polish) to someone who sneezed. There are many different explanations and hypothesis, going from Greek mythology to the Bible, from 6th century epidemics to a more recent use of snuff. However, my favourite story was the one not mentioned in this little book, but which I read in one of the books by Kopaliński (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C5%82adys%C5%82aw_Kopali%C5%84ski ). According to some Indian myths, sneezing is like your personal thunder, when the gods don’t want to scare the whole town, just you in particular.
Leukonychia, in Poland (apparently) known as 'nails blossoming' is usually a bad sign. Only the Polish and some other Slavs allow good luck if the white dots appear on the right hand, but on the left hand it is definitely not good. Generally, you should pay attention to your nails. And, for God’s sake don’t just throw your clippings anywhere. Ideally, keep them with you at all times so that they can be buried with you. If not, your ghost will wander the earth searching for missing nail clippings. You don’t want that – they might be difficult to find.
One of my favourite superstitions are those connected to names of things. A Polish proverb says: Don’t call the wolf in from the forest (which would have the English equivalent in: talk of the devil and the devil appears). It has the origin in the strong belief that calling things by its name can summon them. And that’s why we never call really horrible things by their name, like wolfs, bears, or Voldemort. As a matter of fact, the English word for a bear comes from the word which means ‘the brown one’, and the Polish word for a bear comes from the words ‘eats honey’ – they are both euphemisms used instead of the real words which were considered taboos. What were those real words? Well, God (or ‘licho’ as we say) knows now. So names are power. That’s why we all use some crazy screennames here. You don’t want someone to use your real name and cause you harm, do you? The gypsies are particularly careful with that. The famous Polish-Romani poet Bronisława Wajs went by Papusza (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronis%C5%82awa_Wajs). Not that it helped her much).
Another series of superstitions surround all things sharp, like needles, pins, axes, etc. Ziółkowska quotes a belief that you should never lend pins or needles. It most likely comes from the fact they used to be bloody expensive, so it was only wise.
Putting an axe, sword, dagger (depending where you’re from) by the entrance of your house would stop the evil spirits and all sorts of nastiness coming through.
It surprised me that Ziółkowska didn’t mention that you shouldn’t give knives as presents. Apparently it’s a complete no-no. When I moved at the age of 21, my grandma bought me a set of knives for the new place, but then insisted I paid her for them (a symbolic grosz – penny), so I don’t bring bad fortune upon myself. With all those superstitions one can hardly be blamed for developing an aichmophobia. I think that years of being a keen cook has finally cured me from it but once I threw up because one of my friends would not stop playing with his jackknife.
People who move a lot are not doing themselves any favours. And not to mention lefthanded people. I’m a lefty who has lived in quite a few countries already. My fate is sealed.
I could go on for hours about mirrors, bats, storks, salt, stye, throwing soil over the casket, dogs, cats, owls, whistling, knocking on wood (in Poland it additionally has to be unvarnished wood) but I will wrap this review with a threshold. There are various superstations regarding thresholds but probably the most wide-spread and common these days is the one about carrying your bride over the threshold. So what is so bad about thresholds then? Ha. Back in the day, that’s where they buried still births, unbaptized children, suicides, etc. and that’s where their ghost still hang out. The broom kindly carries his bride over the threshold so she doesn’t accidentally kick some vengeful ghost in the head. Now you know.
While I enjoyed all those little feuilletons I was often taken aback by the viciousness with which Ziółkowska attacks anyone believing in superstitions, horoscopes, prophecies, etc. It goes beyond a normal defence of rationalism; it smells of something personal. Maybe her fiancé left at the altar because a black cat crossed his path. Maybe her boss sacked her over something he read in his horoscope. Maybe a neighbour wouldn't lend her a needle when she was in need.