Ideas of luck and superstition vary among cultures around the world
What is considered lucky and what can bring misfortune? According to USC Dornsife faculty, cockroaches and eggs are perceived as bringing good fortune, while black cats can be an omen of bad luck. Oh, and always remember to lay your chopsticks across the bowl, rather than sticking them in upright. Composite of images by Matthew Savino.

Ideas of luck and superstition vary among cultures around the world

From cockroaches to geckos, numbers to colors, superstitions vary dramatically from culture to culture. For this Friday the 13th, USC Dornsife faculty trace what we share and how we differ in what we believe brings us good luck — and bad. [7 min read]
BySusan Bell

This Friday, some people will be so paralyzed with fear, they won’t even get out of bed. That’s because it’s Friday the 13th, and that has a lot of people, especially in Western cultures, feeling anxious.

Things get so bad for some people that there’s even a recognized psychological disorder: triskaidekaphobia — fear of the number 13, said USC Dornsife’s Tok Thompson, associate professor (teaching) of anthropology.

The fear of the number 13 is so pervasive in Western culture that many hotels and offices omit the 13th floor, he noted, while airports in Western cities don’t have a 13th gate.

Lucky days, unlucky days

However, in other cultures, no one turns a hair when Friday the 13th rolls around. In Chinese culture, it’s the number four that causes worry when scheduling big events like celebrations or business openings, says Brian Bernards, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures and comparative literature. Four (si) is a bad luck number because the sound of the word is very similar to the word for death in most Chinese dialects, including Mandarin and Cantonese, he explains.

As in Mexico and much of Latin America, Cubans follow Spanish tradition when it comes to superstitions. There, it isn’t Friday the 13th that’s unlucky, says Ivette Gomez, assistant professor (teaching) of Spanish, but Tuesday the 13th.

“For example, no one in their right mind will pick such a date to get married,” said Gomez, who was born and raised in Havana.

But where does our anxiety about Friday the 13th originate? Thompson says that while it’s an unlucky number in Biblical tradition because it’s connected with the Last Supper, it’s also connected to women’s magic, witchcraft and time.

“We find a lot of resonances in cultures that had lunar-solar calendars,” he said.

“We know that Friday was associated with witchcraft in medieval Europe. The number 13 has been associated with the moon and the fact that we have 12.41lunations per solar year. So this 13th month became overlaid with negative attributes — it wasn’t complete, regular; it was mysterious.”

This is in sharp contrast with Thailand, where Bernards pointed out, every Friday (Wan Suk) is generally auspicious because it sounds like “day of happiness” or “enjoyment.”

In similar fashion, in China the 8th (ba) of the month, is highly favorable because eight sounds similar to fa, the word meaning to generate or create, as in create wealth or amass a fortune. Associated with progress and development, it’s a day to try to conclude deals and hold meetings, while during the lunar new year it’s a tradition to give money in red envelopes in quantities of eight, or to hold weddings.

“In Western cultures, three is the magic number — everything, from the Holy Trinity to three little pigs, tends to be organized in threes,” said Thompson.

Coincidentally, there are even three kinds of superstitions, as Thompson explains — interpreting signs (a black cat), magic superstitions (actions you take to try to increase your luck) and conversion superstitions, such as placing the shards of a broken mirror under running water to wash the seven years of bad luck away.

Even though global structures and motifs of superstitions can be very similar, cultural meanings and resonances can be very different, Thompson said.

Navigating a Chinese dinner party

While some superstitions are pervasive in many traditions — think black cats and walking under ladders —— others are more rooted in particular cultures.

If invited to someone’s home for dinner in China, there are a number of important symbols that are key to understand in order to navigate the occasion successfully and avoid offence.

To get off on the right foot, don’t offer your host a clock or an umbrella as a gift.

“The word for “clock” (zhong) sounds like ‘end,’ like you are giving someone, or sending someone to, their end or death (song zhong),” Bernards explains. “This is similar to giving an “umbrella” (san), which sounds like “parting” (san), so you are essentially suggesting that you will never see them again.”

Also — very important — do not use white wrapping paper for a gift or offer white flowers, as it’s generally associated with mourning.

When considering what to wear for a celebration, avoid sporting all white for the same reason, as well as all an black outfit  — considered malevolent and associated with death — and opt for red, the most auspicious of colors, as blood symbolizes life. 

At dinner, it’s considered unlucky to leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice bowl — they look like incense in ashes in the altar at a tomb, Bernards advises. Lay them across the top of the bowl instead.

If it’s New Year, your host may well serve fish, which are considered auspicious for their association with bounty and surplus. If you spill some rice at dinner, don’t expect your host to sweep it up in case he sweeps away all his good fortune.

As you walk home after dark, don’t whistle — you will attract ghosts, Bernards warns. If you spot an owl or hear it hoot, that’s bad luck because they symbolize imminent disaster or death. However, if a cat crosses your path, you needn’t worry — cats in China are generally considered to be good luck; their association with wealth originated in Japan but has been adopted in Chinese culture.

New Year’s grapes, haircuts and the evil eye

If you’re walking in Havana on New Year’s Eve, you’d better be careful, warns Gomez. When midnight strikes, the custom is to throw a bucket of water out of the doorway or from the balcony to get rid of all the bad things from the previous year.

In Spain, it’s the custom to eat 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve to bring good luck for the coming year, said Sarah Portnoy, associate professor (teaching) of Spanish.

Whenever Cubans open a bottle of rum, they purposefully spill the first few drops on the floor to obtain the blessing of “the gone ones” (good spirits), Gomez noted.

“We also consider it unlucky to rock an empty chair — beware, death is close if you do. Opening an umbrella under the roof of your house is also considered unlucky, as is placing your purse on the floor, you’ll run out of money as a result,” she said.

To protect babies from mal de ojo (evil eye), Gomez said, many Cubans hang an azabache — a piece of the mineral jet attached to a ribbon.

Indeed, using an amulet to ward off the evil eye occurs in many cultures, including Jewish and Mexican traditions, throughout the Arab world and into Central Asia, Portnoy said.

In Thailand, it’s unlucky to get your hair cut on a Wednesday, a holy day, as shaving your head is associated with mourning, Bernards notes. “Also, don’t sleep with your head pointing west, as that’s where the sun sets, symbolizing ending,” he said of Thai superstition. “Sleeping like this will bring bad dreams.”

Each day of the week in Thailand has an associated auspicious and inauspicious color: For example, red is lucky on Sunday but unlucky on Monday, whereas green is lucky on Wednesday but unlucky on Saturday, Bernards said. Though these associations are associated with Theravada Buddhism, they are derived from Hindu cosmology.

Eggs and oranges are auspicious foods to have on hand in Thailand. But if you hear a gecko during the day — that’s a bad omen.

Why do we believe?

In rural Russia, Thompson says, cockroaches were traditionally considered a good omen, while black is a lucky color in Ethiopia, where it is associated with rich soil.

Thompson, who comes from a long line of fishermen, grew up with the idea that it’s unlucky to whistle at sea in case you “whistle up a storm.”

Lisa Bitel, Dean’s Professor of Religion and professor of religion and history, notes the age-old links that have existed between superstition and the major religions.

“Today’s popular culture tends to blame the European Middle Ages for whatever superstitions we still suffer,” she said. “It wasn’t so long ago that spells, curses or the use of ritual words and objects to defend against demonic forces were common and integral to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”

But why do we continue to believe in superstition and the idea of good and bad luck?

“Because it’s fun, there’s an aesthetic and a social quality to them and we think, ‘What’s the harm?’” Thompson said. “And finally, people think they might just be true.”