Day 961: Knocking On Russian Wood

originally published August 18, 2014

For those of us who actively seek out ladders under which to stroll, or who have completely forsaken blessing those who sneeze, superstition is a delightfully goofy window into the obsessive-compulsive static residue of the mind. What racist hoodoo has condemned genetically black-furred kitties to the bad-luck pile? Why does connecting one’s knuckles to a slab of dead tree ensure misfortune will be avoided? Does crossing my fingers in my Edmonton living room whenever Peyton Manning drops back into the pocket ensure a likely touchdown catch? Judging by my aching digits after last February’s Super Bowl, I’d say that’s a hearty no.

But as strange and inexplicably arbitrary as our goofy good-luck rituals may appear upon introspection, they would no doubt appear even more bizarre to an outsider. To demonstrate, I’m going to take the outsider’s approach and have a look at some of the traditional placations of imagined magic within the borders of our neighbor to the west (just past Alaska, of course), Russia.

Many of these superstitions are documented on, which appears to my untrained eyes to be a legitimate source. Others have been splashed onto a Wikipedia page with no reliable citation. So, any or all of these might be fictitious, but for the purposes of fuelling our xenophobic need to giggle at other cultures, we’ll just assume them all to be accurate and practiced by every living Russian citizen. That way we won’t feel so dumb for French-kissing the underside of our Molson Canadian cans to ensure our hockey team scores on a powerplay. Or whatever we do.

Russians get to work early on children’s self-esteem. It is considered an invitation to rotten luck if a stranger looks directly at a baby before that baby has reached a certain age (somewhere between two months and one year). If the stranger does make eye contact, complimenting the baby is an even greater transgression. One should instead say, “What an ugly baby!” And if you want to buy that ugly baby a gift, you’d best wait until after he or she is born, otherwise it’s bad luck. For someone. Maybe for the mother, maybe for you, maybe for the ugly baby.

If you’re planning a Russian dinner party (perhaps to celebrate the birth of someone’s ugly baby), don’t force an unmarried person to sit at the corner of the table. Doing so will ensure they will not marry for at least seven years. Also, if you’re passing a knife to someone, you’ll want to put it down on the table and allow them to pick it up. Handing it directly to that other person will signify that the two of you will soon get into a fight. Possibly a knife fight. Hopefully someone is carrying a spare, otherwise it’ll be a short fight.

Knocking on wood is a fate-appeasing gimmick that dates back to Germanic folklore, when one would utter something foreboding, then rap upon a tree to summon the dryads (apparently ample-bosomed tree nymphs) to protect against jinxes. In Russian tradition, the knock on wood must be followed up with three spits over the left shoulder, because that’s where the devil is. Obviously.

If you’re describing someone’s defect to another person – say, a scar, an unlanced boil or perhaps a particularly grotesque mouth herpe – it’s bad luck to demonstrate with hand gestures upon yourself or someone else. Just reenact the wound in mid-air. If you mess this up, you can counteract the bad energy by making a rapid hand-swoop toward the area and away from it, as though you are grabbing the negative mojo and tossing it aside. Alternately, you can use your hand to wipe the part of your body you’d contaminated, then blow away the evil. Be careful though – blowing that evil into a nearby Russian’s face might also be bad luck, in that he may punch you.

Naturally, the Russians have a number of superstitions surrounding vodka. The most blatant one – and the one that perhaps explains all the others – is that if you have alcohol, it must be consumed until it is completely gone. A glass should not be filled while in the air, but once filled and raised it should not be placed back upon the table until it has been drained into someone’s gullet.

Latecomers must drink a full glass as a penalty for their tardiness. And lest you forget that vodka is a social beverage, each gulp must be preceded by a clink of glasses and a toast. Don’t worry about the logical consequences of inebriation however; broken glasses are seen as a sign of luck, even if one finds oneself face-down in spilled hooch and prickly shards. The downside to breaking any of these superstitions is the intangible specter of “bad luck”. Honestly, I’m not certain how full-on societal drunkenness can hope to avoid a streak of nasty luck, but I’m not going to judge.

If a fork or spoon falls onto the ground, expect a female guest. If a knife falls onto the ground, expect a male guest. If you eat directly from a knife, you will be “angry like a dog”. If you eat directly from a knife, then drop the knife onto the ground, you will be angry like a dog at the male guest who will be dropping by, possibly because he rang the doorbell, which startled you into dropping your knife in the first place. If the knife falls through your foot, you had probably neglected to clink glasses with someone, and you should immediately engage the ugliest baby in the room in a knife fight.

If you happen across a bay leaf in your soup, that means you’ll be receiving mail from someone. Hopefully Russians are using fewer bay leaves in their soup recipes, since no one sends mail anymore. If someone sneezes when they’re telling you something, it means they’re telling the truth. Not sure if this would stand up in a Russian court of law. If your right eye itches, you’ll soon be happy; if your left eye itches, you’ll soon be sad. If both eyes are itchy, you might be allergic to whatever you’re eating. Better check for bay leaves.

If you trip with your left leg and you were born on an odd-numbered day, or if you trip with your right leg and you were born on an even-numbered day, you’ll need to ask someone to slap the corresponding hand in order to shoo away the bad vibes. If you happen to wear your shirt backwards, it means you’ll meet somebody new. However, if you open with an anecdote about how you wore your shirt backwards so that you’d meet somebody new that day, that person won’t stick around long, as they’ll think you’re an idiot.

If one of your ears are ringing, ask someone to tell you which one. If they guess correctly, you can both make a wish. If they don’t, then one of you will end up stabbed in the throat with a sharpened cow femur before the next full moon.

Okay, I made that last part up, but you get my point. Superstitions from other countries are quaint and silly, but they should really make you examine your own kooky habits to see where you’re belly-flopping into the pool of illogic, spewing droplets of irrationality everywhere. On the plus side, I no longer feel any remorse over my abandonment of saying “Bless you” after someone sneezes. Now I’ll just thank them for telling the truth.

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