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Very Superstitious: Omens of Death & Misfortune From Around the World

eclipses used to be seen as omens of death

Many of us in the Northern Hemisphere view September as a necessary evil. It’s when summer chokes out its dying breaths in a series of ridiculously hot days in direct defiance of the autumnal equinox. Despite this hazy heat, people start looking forward to fall, anticipating seasonal beverages that invariably include pumpkin, chillier temperatures, and of course, Halloween. It just wouldn’t be a proper to kick off to spooky season without something macabre, so without further ado, we bring you omens of death and misfortune from around the world.

White Horses

white horses can foretell misfortune and are seen as a bad omen in some countries
It’s carrots or curses, baby!

White horses have enjoyed a special place in mythology from cultures around the world for centuries. And while they’re often associated with warrior heroes, saviors, and magic, they have also represented death and bad luck. For every unicorn and Pegasus, there’s a white horse carrying the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the midlands and southern counties of England people may feel the need to spit over their left shoulder when they come face to face with a white steed. And if you see a white dog in Lincolnshire, you need to stay silent until you see a white horse. In Sussex, any mysterious white animals who appear in the night mean death. Elsewhere in the country, if you dream of a white horse, beware —that’s a sign that the end is nigh.

Some of these sentiments traveled to the US, where in Maine, hearses drawn by white horses signify a death soon to come in the village. In Newfoundland, pregnant women should try their best to avoid looking at one, otherwise a troublesome birth awaits.

Throughout history, white horses have carried religious figures to, from, and around heaven, which may have something to do with the belief that the arrival of one in your field meant you were about to ascend (or descend, if you’re a jerk) to a new celestial plane.

The White Lady

the white lady haunts people from europe to the united states
Boo-ooooored. This cemetery is boring, guys.

The white lady would put any travel blogger to shame, as she’s been traversing the globe since time immemorial. The ghostly apparition of a woman clad in white has shaken people to their cores for centuries, and she almost always spells out tragedy. She’s been traced back to a popular medieval legend that spoke of a white lady who would appear in a home where a family member was about to perish.

Go to Brazil, and the Dama Branca is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. One Canadian legend claims that the spirit of a woman in a wedding dress haunts Montmorency Falls. She ended her life there after her betrothed died in battle.

Les Dame Blanches are supernatural beings of the French persuasion. They hide near caves, in mountains, and throughout forests, lurking in narrow passages, bridges, and fords. Passersby must dance or answer a riddle to continue on their way. Refusal brings punishment, whether she tosses you into thistles and briar or has you attacked by goblins, cats, and owls. In Germany, the Weiße Frauen play a similar role. Beautiful, enchanted, and usually bathing or brushing their hair in the sunlight, they often guard castles and treasure. Mortals try to break through their spells but are often unsuccessful. See what happens when you try.

Another legend of a German white lady hails from the town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück, where the woman in question was the wife of a stately prince. While he was away fighting in the Thirty Years’ War his lonesome wife took a wandering minstrel in as a lover. When the prince returned unexpectedly and caught them, his fury was swift. He drowned the minstrel in their moat and encased his treacherous wife behind a wall in their manor Haus Aussel. He left her with some food and water before returning to battle. The prince died in combat and the unlucky lady’s provisions ran dry.

After her death, she continued to haunt the manor. Later, when the house was renovated, a hapless builder tore down the wall encasing her corpse. The next day he fell from the roof, snapped his back, and died.

Haus Aussel in Germany where a white lady roams. Her spirit is an omen of death.
This house has “haunted” written all over it.

Looking Glasses

Many of us have heard that breaking a mirror portends seven years of misfortune. But the looking glass lore doesn’t stop there. On the East Coast of the United States, there are a handful of superstitions regarding babies. One claims that any infant who looks into a mirror in their first year of life will die. The same holds true if an adult holds the baby in front of one as well.

The practice of covering mirrors in the home of a deceased person was first recorded in Northern England in the late 1700s. This was to stop their soul from becoming trapped inside, else they might haunt the dwelling forevermore. Some people went the extra mile and covered mirrors in rooms with very sick people, which likely didn’t do much to lift their spirits.

And while you may enjoy the infinite reflections that arise when two mirrors face each other, those in Mexico and elsewhere are pretty sure you’re opening a doorway for the devil.

In ancient Greece, mystics used mirrors as a form of fortune-telling and divination, a practice called catoptromancy. These “mirror seers” would dip a looking glass into water before having a sickly person look into it. If the image was distorted, they were done for. If clear, all would be well.

Physical Experiences

ancient palmistry
Manicure goals.

Have you ever heard that when your ears are ringing, someone is talking about you? Well, some Americans believe it means there will be a death before the week is out. And when you shiver, someone is walking over where your grave will be.

Scottish poet James Hogg, known by his alias Ettrick Shepherd, alludes to the ringing superstition by referring to it as a “dead-bell.” He mentions that the peasantry in his country regarded this tinkling in the ears as a kind of secret message warning the demise of a friend or loved one.

According to the Japanese, sleeping with your head facing to the north is a bad omen, as that’s how their deceased are laid to rest. In parts of Africa, the ill-fated direction is west.

In places like Turkey, an itchy palm can be good or bad, depending on which hand it is. A tingly right hand means money is on the way, while the left foretells a financial loss. This may have to do with the belief that the left hand is receptive while the right is active. An itch on the left means new energy or services may enter your life — for a fee. The right alludes to services going out for payment in return.

Fire

seeing a coffin in a candle is an omen of death

Fire has entranced humans since the beginning of time. It has an incredible capacity for destruction, yet brings light and warmth to people in times in of darkness. Next time you sit in front of a burning fire and witness a crackle that sends sparks flying, take note of which direction the coals went. If they flew towards you, you’re done for. (At least in parts of the UK and New England; Germans and Czechs believe it means someone will visit.)

In Dorset, a smoldering fire that bursts into flames is trying to tell you a stranger will soon arrive. In Lincolnshire, death is imminent if an untended fire burns for a lengthy period. The people of Shropshire try to avoid turning over any coals when poking a fire, as that invites sorrow into the heart.

Bostonians know that to see a coffin in a candle is a token of death. The “coffin” refers to the black cinder that can sometimes form a separate flame and be snapped off. Don’t let that candle burn blue, either. The blue flame represents spirits coming to claim you. Dim flames can also be a sign of ghosts approaching. Why else would Brutus exclaim “How ill this taper burns!” when the ghost of Caesar appears in act four of Julius Caesar.

Water

water is at the heart of many superstitions and ill omens
#nofilter

Countless superstitions revolve around H2O, but one particularly stands out: never toast someone with a glass of water. In Greek mythology, the River Lethe was one of five that snaked through the underworld of Hades. Named for the spirit of oblivion and forgetfulness, all those who drank from the river forgot their earthly lives. According to the Aeneid, it is only once the dead have their memories erased that they can ever be reincarnated. If you were looking to toast those who have died, you’d do so with a glass of water to represent the river and their journey. Toasting a living person with water is just tempting fate.

Three Raps

if you hear three raps on the door, death has come knocking, a very bad omen
Helloooo? It’s Postmates.

An especially creepy ill omen, people from a host of countries fear three consecutive raps on the door, window, or wall. It means — you guessed it — someone in the family will die or is already dead. Scots believe the knocks must be heavy, deliberate, and dull. In Germany, knockings on the wall or in bed have a similar significance. It’s no problem if someone is on the other end, but if there is no one to be found, trouble awaits. Another superstition claims the raps mean bad news is on the way and will happen three days, weeks, or months from the moment of the first knock.

The idea is that Death itself is asking for admission. Or that its an evil spirit making a mockery of the holy trinity. Perhaps it’s both.

An Eclipse

If you didn’t understand it, an eclipse would be a frightening celestial event to witness. Throughout history, people of many cultures have thought them to be harbingers of misfortune. Impressively, Babylonian scholars were able to simultaneously fear lunar eclipses and track them, calculating when the next one would occur and preparing for it. They believed these events could foretell the death of a king. A ritual was put into place where a person was chosen to impersonate the king by dressing like him and sitting on the throne. The real king kept a low profile until all seemed safe. Then they killed the fake king and acted like nothing happened.

throughout history people have viewed eclipses as omens of doom
I said a king, not the king.

Solar eclipses were equally as unnerving. Many ancient cultures believed they were watching a giant deity eat the sun. The Chinese were sure it was a dragon, the Vietnamese, a frog; Norsemen knew they were watching a ravenous wolf. In Hindu mythology the culprit is not an animal but a demon called Rahu. After trying and failing to steal a sip of Amrita, the elixir of immortality, his punishment was beheading. That didn’t stop his disembodied dome from eating the Sun, but since he had no stomach, it came right back out again.

Nobody wanted a solar eclipse to happen, as it was clear evidence of an angry god or gods. To stave them off people across the globe did what any sane person would do — they’d bang pots and pans, scream, shoot arrows into the sky, hit drums, and make all kinds of noise to drive the monsters away. Imagine humans all over the world, who didn’t know the others existed, simultaneously making this most dramatic of scenes.

hands across america
Screaming starts in ten minutes!

Bad Omens Abound

There’s no end to the myriad omens of death and misfortune that have cropped up over the centuries and all over the world. Some have ancient roots while others are more recent, but they all share common themes that speak to our deepest fears. And just like luck can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, so, too, can a doomed destiny.

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