Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Peacock Feathers and The Scottish Play: Bad Luck Superstitions and Their Historical Origins

 

In the words of Michael Scott: “I’m not superstitious but I am a little stitious.”

While October is the time when the veil between our world and the next is at its thinnest, we find ourselves doing certain things all year round to avoid any bad luck from that realm. We cross our fingers for luck, we make a wish at 11:11, and we aggressively search the grass around us for four-leaf clovers. All of this is done to bring good luck to us and to ward off the bad. But there are also actions that CAUSE that bad luck. So today we’re taking a look at the history of some common superstitions.

 

1.       Breaking a Mirror – According to the superstition, breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck upon the individual. On our tour floor at Clermont there are 24 mirrors. That means if they were somehow to all break, we would find ourselves cursed with 168 years of bad luck. Most likely because we had brought down the wrath of our Curator. But where does this superstition come from? The fear


most likely goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It was a common belief at the time that the image you were seeing in the mirror was actually a reflection of your soul. Therefore, seeing it cracked and distorted was deeply terrifying to people. And to break it completely would bring misfortune. But why 7 years? We can thank the Romans for that, too. They believed that life was split into 7-year phases or ages and that 7 years was the amount of time it took for life to renew itself. So, you need to wait those 7 years for your soul to heal. Or you can just break the shards so completely that they never reflect anything else. That apparently works too.

 

2.       The Number 13 – For Robert the Builder, 13 was a lucky number. Okay, technically 13,000 because that’s how many acres of land he inherited but bear with me. Anyway, the number 13 actually represents misfortune and danger to many others. Lots of hotels don’t even have thirteenth floors because of the superstition. And it’s another superstition that can be traced WAY back. In the Bible, Jesus is seated at dinner with his twelve disciples when he reveals that one of them will betray him. This, of course, is Judas Iscariot who could be regarded as the thirteenth person at the table (Jesus + 12 Disciples), making number 13 unlucky. The superstition also has its roots in Norse mythology. According to the story, 12 gods gather for dinner at Valhalla. But then Loki (it’s always Loki) crashes
the party. Not only that, but he tricks one of his fellow gods into shooting an arrow at Balder, a deeply beloved god. Balder is killed and the entire world mourns. Once more, Loki ruins everything. One other potential explanation for triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) is that it is a number you cannot nicely divide. 12 is awesome – you can divide it by 2, 3, 4, and 6. 14 has the decency to be divisible by 2 and 7. Heck, even 15 is divisible by 3 and 5. But 13. That pesky 13 will ALWAYS leave you with a remainder.

 

3.       Peacock Feathers – This one is a little more obscure but since the Livingstons owned a peacock named Solomon it seemed fitting to include. Solomon was an odd choice for a pet. He was not very bright and, according to Honoria, not very friendly. But they still loved him. The rest of the world has a confusing relationship with the birds. For some, they are regarded as unlucky and for others they


represent peace and harmony. The first reason why peacocks make some people uneasy is that their feathers look like eyes. This may seem beautiful, but it also brings to mind “The Evil Eye”, which supposedly represents the eye of Lilith, a demon. If you believe that, seeing a bird strutting around with several eyes on its feathers might be a little disconcerting. The feathers also came to symbolize bad luck for many Eastern European countries in the 13th Century because the conquering Mongolians often wore them. Peacocks also came to be regarded as unlucky by Christians. They might be birds, but something about their heads didn’t sit right. Bartholomaeus Anglicus put it best in the 13th Century when he wrote, “and as one saith, he hath the voice of a fiend, head of a serpent, pace of thief”. For a religion that views the serpent as a bringer of evil, something was scary about a bird with a vaguely reptilian head. All of these fears contribute to the fact that, while gorgeous, real peacock feathers are virtually never seen onstage in costumes or furniture. The potential misfortune just isn’t worth it. Which leads me to my next superstition…

 

4.       Macbeth – The Livingstons own several complete works of Shakespeare. But even if they didn’t this would’ve made the list because I’m an actress. The superstition states that bad things will happen if you utter the name Macbeth in a theater. Unless you are actually performing Macbeth, you call it The Scottish Play. This is a theatrical superstition so ingrained in us that many theater folks never say the name at all. But why is this play supposedly cursed? The first strike it has against it is witches. A play featuring witchcraft in the year 1606 was bound to raise some eyebrows. When Shakespeare wrote it, he was appealing to the current monarch, James I, who very much believed in witchcraft. However, the


use of incantations onstage frightened the general public. And apparently offended real witches, causing them to curse the theater the play was being put on in. This “curse” is rumored to have caused the sudden death of the original Lady M. Not only that, but subsequent productions supposedly were doomed to have injuries, fires and, in one instance, the prop dagger replaced with a real one which killed the actor playing Duncan. In New York in 1849, Edwin Forrest (American) and William Charles Macready (English) were both playing Macbeth at nearby theaters. Their rivalry got so heated that a riot broke out and 20 people were killed, 100 more injured. As time goes on, it seems like the curse of Macbeth becomes similar to the chicken and the egg: is it actually cursed or did a few random bad things happen, causing people to be so nervous that they cause accidents that they then blame on the play? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter to me – I’m still not saying it.

 

5.       Black Cats – If you’ve ever toured Clermont, chances are you’ve heard about Alice Livingston and her multitude of pets. She owned at least 20 different breeds of dogs. We also know she had least a few cats. Her daughter, Honoria, went on to own several cats as well. But did the Livingstons ever own a black cat? Truthfully, we can’t be sure but there’s no photographic evidence that they did. So, did they


view black cats as unlucky? And how can such adorable creatures be evil? Once again, we’re heading back to the Middle Ages. At that time, cats became associated with witches because oftentimes women believed to have magic abilities also had cats. And black cats = black magic. None of this is scientifically sound (obviously) but for centuries black cats were believed to be familiars and often put to death along with accused witches. And as time wore on, they


became known as harbingers of death. The general idea was that animals with dark coats were evil. Think of the attitude towards ravens and crows. Black cats were no different. If one sat on the bed of your loved one, that was a sign of their impending doom. People began to believe that a black cat crossing their path was bad luck while a white cat was good luck. Even today, black cats are adopted less frequently than cats of other colors. Of all the superstitions on this list, this is the most ridiculous. Because LOOK AT HOW CUTE THEY ARE!



 

 

And now that you’ve gotten cat pictures - thank you for joining me on this journey through superstitions. And remember: no stepping on cracks, walking under ladders, or opening umbrellas indoors.

Man, there’s a lot to keep track of.

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