Jun 22, 2011

Italian superstition

Yes I am a slave of it.

Italians are–for the most part–superstitious. Southern Italians are known for their irrational credulous way of life. Also theater people are hugely superstitious. My Italian side of the family is mostly southern Italian; the rest is from the north, and all theater people. This means I have very superstitious blood running through my veins.

I've grown up with certain rules and unspoken regulations to ward off bad luck, and was also raised performing rituals to draw in good fortune. These are very difficult to lose, and I have a feeling I will inevitably pass on my superstition to my son.

Late in her life, my Nonna Titta–whom I've spoken about in this post–when scolded by my mother for having imparted upon us way too many superstitions, confessed that she had disclosed only a fraction of the myths she knew, in fear that they might make life impossible for us. Imagine!

As I mentioned, theatrical superstitions flow richly in my ancestry; and it appears these know no borders. I'll quote an article from Wikipedia that fits the Italian theatrical standard to a T.

"Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches' incantations. Outside of a theatre the play can be spoken of openly. There are several possible origins for this superstition. One is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and the more swordplay must be rehearsed and performed, the more chances there are for someone to get injured."

More common theatrical superstitions:

  • No real money should be used on stage. In a similar vein, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry.
  • A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night.
  • Gifts of flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
  • Peacock feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a setpiece. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers. This superstition in my family extends beyond the playhouse: no peacock feathers in the house.
  • The color purple is unlucky. This is said to date to the time when during Lent, theaters would be draped in black and purple. During Lent, patrons hardly ever went to the theater, this meant debt. And often hunger.
  • Instead of saying "break a leg," those who want to wish good luck to performers wish "merda" to them. Merda means 'shit,' and this wish is closely linked to the success of a play. When historically people would arrive by carriage, lots of people meant lots of carriages and horses, leaving behind piles of merda in front of the playhouse.

Here are some common superstizioni

  • Seeing a spider at night: a sure sign of monetary income.
  • Dropping things: someone is thinking of you.
  • When your nose itches, it's either "pugni o baci," punches or kisses.
  • Finding a button on the ground: a new friendship is on the horizon.
  • Dreaming of someone dying: you've just added 10 years to their life.
  • When a new moon appears, the minute you see it–doesn't matter if you're in the middle of the street, or in the company of strangers–there is a specific New Moon Incantation to be performed: "Benvenuta Luna che mi porti fortuna!" – Welcome, moon and may you bring me good fortune! This is to be repeated bowing respectfully at the lunar sliver 13 times with a coin in each hand.


  • Hanging paintings of birds in the house: feathers bring ailments.
  • Killing a spider (see Good Luck item #1)
  • Breaking a mirror: 7 years of bad luck.
  • Bed should never face the door: replicates a coffin in a church.
  • Giving a hankerchief as a gift: tears.
  • Crossing silverware on the table: strife.
  • Passing each other the salt hand to hand (without putting it down on the table): imminent fight between the two.
  • Hat on the bed: recalls a scene of imminent, or just occurred death.
  • Upside down loaf of bread on the table.
  • Spilling olive oil.
  • Spilling salt.
  • Seeing nuns.
  • Black cat crossing your path.
  • Walking under a ladder.
  • Crossing arms when shaking hands in a group.
  • Crossing glasses when toasting in a group.
  • Toasting with a glass of water.
  • Owls.
  • The number 17.
  • 13 people sitting at the table.


  • Never trim toe and finger nails on Thursday.
  • If you spill wine at the dinner table, wet your fingers and dab some behind every person's ear.
  • Don't start a journey, new project or get married on a Friday or a Tuesday.
  • Always look into the other person's eyes when toasting.
  • Have your hair cut during the new moon.
  • Never get a perm during your menstrual cycle.
  • Eat plenty of lentils on New Years' Eve.
  • Never sweep over the feet of an unmarried person, or they will never marry.
  • If you give a gift of a new wallet, always put at least a coin in it.
  • Always carry a corno portafortuna on you, wherever you go!


  1. Really enjoyed this post.Most of these superstitions have a sound base but some do seem bizarre! lol Angela

  2. I loved this post!! I have been fascinated for years by the Italian superstitions in the family, but I must admit you listed many I have never heard before. We would never give someone a gift of a knife or scissors. Very careful about how the loaf of bread is placed on the table. Put red ribbons on infants. Always say something derogatory about a child immediately after they have been complimented to ward off the Mal'occhio. Sure adds spice to life. I guess I can go trim my fingernails...it is only Wednesday! :-)

    1. Red ribbons on babies. Yes. Have heard of this one. Also babies only wear white socks and to say "God Bless " after praising a baby for being beautiful.

  3. Now I know from were I have these superstitions... I was born in Argentina but my grandparents were Italian!!! and I'm coursed with this!:) however, we said that Yellow is the bad luck color to wear on a play and you don't have to mention "serpents" or other reptils, we call them instead "la bicha" or "the bug" and the list goes on and on.... Thanks for sharing Lola!

  4. Very good! Most comprehensive list of Italian superstitions I've seen. I think you missed men touching their family jewels to ward off bad luck - which seems to be a northern Italian thing, possibly.

    Some of the superstitions are the same as those in the UK - black cats, walking under ladders, etc.

    Loved the 'merda' logic!

    Good stuff.

    All the best from Milan,


  5. Wow! I just learned so much! My husband's family is from Naples so I feel like I just learned more about their way of thinking than I have before! :)

  6. These are great- thanks for sharing!!

  7. Love this exhaustive list!

    I had no idea about the purple onstage (and on TV) until I showed up at my friend's house with two tops for my impending TV appearance 1 hour later - lavender and blueberry. She was mortified and luckily I was able to fit into something from her closet. Who knew!

  8. Thanks for this very informative introduction to Italian superstitions. It always makes me laugh to notice that there are no room number 17 in Italian hotels, while airlines and hotels in other western countries skip row, room and floor number 13. Must make life difficult for people with superstitious roots in more than one country.

  9. Do you ever feel you live a restricted life? LOL I could never do with all of those, but at a glance I am now: expecting a lot of money,expecting a fight with almost everyone I eat with and my ex husband is going to live forever.

    Itchy nose in my family means strangers coming. Dropping a fork means a woman coming, a knife a man, and a spoon a child. Dripping all your silverware probably means you should move asap.

    Great post.

  10. I have to admit, some of these affect me despite how irrational they seem. Even if they don't affect you, this is good to know in your dealings with others.

  11. Seeing nuns is bad luck?! That was almost everyday in Rome for us lol.

    I couldn't imagine memorizing this much bad luck let alone trying to avoid or perform acts against it!
    However, I did touch Juliette's boob in Verona so that must have counter acted it as I heard that too was good luck.

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  12. This is great, always great to know how to keep the evil spirits away, in what every language- merda!

  13. Well, crap (or should I say merda?) I just trimmed my fingernails last night! What evil will befall me?

  14. Ciao! I have Southern Italian heritage too. Most of these I never heard of but to be honest some of the few I have heard of I sort of believe.

    Thanks for sharing! Interesting post!

    Hope you have a great day!

  15. Love this! Growing up with an Italian nonna, I am also superstitious, even making up my own through the years. I learned about the color purple during a tour of the Teatro Regio in Turin. A slap in the face to superstition, the architect had the theater painted half purple and half red! My family in Sicily says single women should not sit at the corner of a table..it means they will never marry. I thought this only to be a Sicilian superstition, but I was shooed away from sitting at the corner in Puglia recently, too.

  16. Very cute!
    Yes Lady bugs are good luck..I believe that :) ,..

    and have u heard of this one? A female on her cycle should not be making tomato sauce. I know! , but true..she ruins the sauce.

    1. my mother's family will not allow anyone to help with canning tomatoes if on her cycle. Guess how many times that was used as an excuse to get out of all that work!

    2. Absolutely! My mom wouldn't even make mayonnaise during her period...

  17. Great article! loved reading it -although i hated being "reminded" of some of them I had forgotten!!!
    My rational/cartesian/logic side removes these superstitions, by my Italian upbringing has cemented many of them in my belief system... I still use "le corna" in many bad luck situations and I especially like passing on the good luck superstitions to others in the US.

  18. Great fun! The history of no theater during lent makes sense. A thought on purple: I seem to recall in Greek mythology that purple was the color of the gods, and wearing it or walking on it was hubris. My memory is unclear, but Agammemnon's story refers to this form of hubris.

  19. sono nata in portogallo ma di nonno ligure e mi sento molto italiana, e tuut queste cose che hai parlato mio nonno ci credeva, che bello. grazie

  20. Angela~
    I'm happy you enjoyed this!

    Wonderful additions!! ;)

    There's an Italian phrase that fits this: "Tutto il mondo è paese" meaning there are no borders!

    No the crotch-grab is very much a pan–Italian thing. And so is the female counterpart: the boob-sweep. I don't know how I missed mentioning them!


    You too, eh?

    Happy you enjoyed!

    The TV crew could have refused to film you! Unless the tops were low-cut, that is ;)

    Italian Notes~
    Tell me about it!! I'm worried about 13 AND 17.

    Thanks for making me laugh out loud!

    I know how irrational they are, but still...

    That's why when you see a nun, all you do is quietly 'pass' her to someone else, saying "tua" (yours).

    Ha, glad you liked this!

    They will probably grow very fast and you'll have to cut them again!

    La Vita è Bella~
    Thanks! And you too.

    I had heard about the corner seat not being good for single girls, but never really gave it much thought. Which explains why I'm still single... ;)

    Thank YOU!

    She can't make mayonnaise from scratch either, because it will never blend!

    Sorry to have reminded you of the bad ones, sorry!

    Interesting, thanks for the explanation.

    Che bello, grazie! Tieni vivo il suo ricordo con queste piccole cose!!

    Ciao a tutti

  21. This is great. I thought I knew all of the Italian superstitions...but you've taught me some good ones.

  22. Theresa~
    Oh, but I've omitted so many more!! ;) Like for example, always put on the left shoe first! Who knows why, but I always do it!!

  23. The crotch-grab is definitely Italian. Il Nonno faceva sempre lo scongiuro cosi', corna e toccati le palle. I must admit I do the same on occasion.

  24. I loved this post and even shared it on my blog! How fun! Reminded me of my own grandmother who had many of these!

  25. Andrea~
    It's fully accepted here, even by non-superstitious (they sometimes do it too); I don't know the reaction overseas... :)

    Bob & Rosemary~
    Thank you for spreading the mojo!! Hugs

  26. A wonderful post! Serbians have many similar superstitions like Italians, and some of them are based on logic. I am assured that Italians and Serbs have a lot in common, the most obvious thread being "death by draft" that tortures both of our nations:)
    You had me laughing for a while, and I thank you for the moment:)

  27. My Italian boyfriend and I just had the best time reading through this list.

    I have never laughed so hard when he told me about the "bull like hand gesture" you have in the photo. He said that women should put the gesture over their left breast first, and men touch their cojones first, all to ward off the bad luck!

    Then, the look on his face when I imitated an owl, he was panic stricken!

    Fantastic post! Grazie mille!!

  28. My wee darling Livia takes exception to the black cat superstition, as it has caused so much harm to those beautiful felines. I've had a series of black cats (my cousins had a black kitten when I was three, who grew to be a very large - and long-lived - tom). Renzo, my previous cat, lived to be 20 and 1/2, so his sombre tone was not unlucky for him. Both were rescues. I live in la Piccola Italia, Montréal, by the way.

    In some places, green is the unlucky theatre colour, probably because poison green was actally made from poisonous material.