SUPERSTITION IN POLAND:
A GUIDE TO GOOD LUCK AND BAD LUCK OMENS
By: Charles Black
We all know that superstition is a part of the human experience, and as such is present in many shapes and forms all over the world.
When it comes to western superstitions, though, a little research will show that the origin of many contemporary magical beliefs can be found in the rituals and mythologies of Slavic peoples.
Poland, storied as it is among Eastern European nations, holds the key to the source of many such beliefs.
These range from the simple, ‘everyday’ ones that many tend to hold almost as second nature, to the intricate legends that gave birth to today’s pop culture monsters.
In this piece, I shall be covering a bit of everything. Standalone beliefs and those associated with concrete occasions, such as meals, weddings, or special dates in the calendar.
The majority of them can be classified either as omens and augurs. That is actions or occurrences signaling the future occurrence of a negative or positive event, respectively.
A few others are more ritualised belief concerning actions perform specifically to attain good fortune.
Basic tenets in Poland
Gingers and Falsehood Superstition in Poland
Gingers is a common name for people with red hair and very fair skin, usually extensively freckled.
The concept of gingers lacking a soul is a bit of a cliché in the west. The majority appearances in pop culture media are intended to be humorous.
Poland possesses a slightly less radical –and fortunately increasingly uncommon- belief regarding gingers. Namely, that people of such complexion tend to be dishonest or treacherous.
The belief itself originates from the troubled history the Polish nation had with its neighbors.
As Slavic peoples rarely if ever display this hair color. It was a dead giveaway of a foreigner. In medieval times was more often than not considered to be up to no good.
As mentioned before, though, this belief seems to be on its way out. Unfortunately, though, a ginger might still find him or herself getting odd looks if visiting more rural areas.
No such thing as a freebie
Here is an interesting current of superstitious thought that remains alive and well in modern Poland.
It concerns the giving of gifts of a certain nature and their effect on interpersonal relationships.
In essence, the following gifts represent bad omens unless the receiver makes a symbolic payment in return.
A single 1 grosz (the Polish name for cents/pennies) coin may be sufficient.
Gifting Shoes Superstition in Poland
Gifting shoes, for example, is believed to be an omen of separation. It could be considered a tool to be used by the receiver to walk away from one’s life.
If payment for them is received, however, then the curse is reversed.
The shoes will instead be tools with which the receiver will walk throughout life alongside the giver.
This belief is particularly emphasized when gifting shoes to a significant other.
Gifting Knives Superstition
Knives hold a similar standing.
Gifting a knife without receiving payment will cause the blade’s edge to cut the bonds tying said people together.
Some people prefer to never make such a gift altogether, regardless of whether or not payment is received.
Gifting Watches Superstition
Watches and clocks hold an interesting contrast with their perception elsewhere.
In the west a watch, usually gold, makes for a popular retirement gift. The gold watch signifies new beginnings regarding the retiree entering a new part of his or her life.
In Poland, however, a gifted timepiece is believed to begin a countdown of sorts.
In the case of a watch, a countdown until the receiver leaves the giver’s life, that is cuts the ties.
A countdown associated with a clock, such as one to be placed on a mantle or mounted on a wall, is much worse. This countdown ends with the receiver’s death.
In both these cases, the symbolic payment overturns the curse. Include a small coin with the gift and the timepiece is said to symbolise happy times ahead. The counting goes ‘up’ instead of ‘down’.
Gifting a Wallet Superstition
Finally, there is the curious case of the wallet.
In this case, it is the giver who, before presenting such gift, must place a coin inside. The coin signifies an augur of good financial fortune for the receiver.
Failing to do so is believed to constitute an omen of financial ruin. Even sellers, from crafts markets to retail spots in malls, will do so when completing a sale.
Toast, and toast right
The toast made when imbibing an alcoholic beverage in company is a universal concept. Just about every language has a specific word for it.
In most of these cases, said word or words are related to health.
In this regard, we understand the act of toasting as wishing good health either upon someone in particular or just the circle in general.
Poland, one of the two nations with a claim to having invented vodka (the other of course being Russia) takes toasting quite seriously.
Custom dictates a separate toast be made for every new beverage consumed.
This is required whether the setting is a bar, a house party or a special event.
Said toast need not be a big one, with a simple na zdrowia (literally: on health), with or without the clinking of glasses, sufficing in most cases.
To not do so amongst Poles is considered rude and distasteful, though not by itself unlucky.
The unlucky element, rather, concerns what is drunk. Toasting with water, or more widely, any non-alcoholic beverage, is considered a bad omen.
Those who are abstaining from partaking in beer, wines or spirits in favor of a soft drink should abstain from joining in toasts.
The most commonly accepted negative consequence of toasting without alcohol is reversing the purpose of the toast, hence bringing ill health to the drinker.
More humorous interpretations, especially among the young, claim that a spiritless toast, or even toasting without drinking at least a sip, to bring ill sexual health.
This implies a ‘dry spell’ or a period without orgasms.
Marriage and family
R is for luck
Marriages occur at any and all times of the year, either in pompous, painstakingly organized parties or simple civil ceremonies.
Poland’s attitude towards marriage remains fairly traditional when compared to many European countries. Couples marrying comparatively young and church services are frequently involved.
In this regard, tradition dictates that the month in which one chooses to celebrate nuptials is an important factor in determining the newlyweds’ future.
Concretely, that marrying in months without the letter ‘R’ in them is a bad omen for the couple.
This leaves them with half the calendar to choose from, thankfully spread across all four seasons: Marzec (March), Czerwiec (July), Sierpien (August), Wrzesien (September), Pazdziernik (October), and Grudzień (December). Who wants a freezing January wedding anyway?
On to the actual day of the wedding , we can find a couple different traditions. This starts even before the newlyweds pronounce the famed “I do”.
Firstly, one stemming from the times before women were part of the workforce.
The bride would keep a coin in each of her shoes, as a manner of ensuring her husband would always be able to provide for her.
The next one makes its appearance right after being formally wed by the priest, as the couple make the way out of the church.
Specifically, it is held that the one to take the first step out of the temple’s threshold will be the one in charge of the relationship.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the rather matriarchal nature of Polish society!
Then we have the meal at the reception.
A little token of salt and bread is placed on the couple’s table, as a manner of wishing that they will never lack sustenance.
Once everyone has taken their seats, the couple offers a toast to the attendees to thank them for their presence.
The toast most commonly performed with vodka, either plain or the many flavored variants one can find in Poland.
Upon simultaneously imbibing, they toss the empty shot glasses over their shoulder, with the intent of shattering them.
The more pieces the better, as the shards are meant to represent the years of happiness ahead.
Should the glasses fail to shatter, it is the best man’s job to come to the rescue by quickly stomping on them!
Family Superstition in Poland
As mentioned before, the attitude of Polish society towards marriage and family remains generally very traditional.
Children often quickly follow a wedding.
The famed fable of a stork bringing in a new baby actually finds its origins in Slavic tradition.
In Poland, for example, the bird is not said to bring the baby per se, but rather to function as an augur.
Seeing a stork mid-flight and calling out to it is a symbol of good luck. It is a prediction that the wife will become pregnant shortly.
As the entrenched Catholicism of Polish society would let one guess, the concept of godparents is still very much the norm.
It is rather rare for Polish children to not be baptised, even if their parents are not particularly religious.
One old fashioned superstition is that the role of godmother should not be taken by a woman who is expecting a child. A pregnant godmother risks the loss of her own baby.
The rationale behind such belief is rather obscure. The most commonly agree upon reason relates to the theoretical obligation of a godparent. That is to say, caring for their godson in the event of the parents’ demise.
In this regard, the risk to the pregnant woman’s baby arises from the covenant entered upon by accepting to become a godmother.
The pledge signifies offering protection to another child before one’s own.
This superstition is less common in urban areas, but it is still regularly observed in rural areas.
Babies vs Crones: Red ribbon shields
As mentioned before, Slavic folklore and mythology has played a significant role in the creation of pop culture monsters. Among those, the witch, or crone, is one of the most famed.
Crones are said to be sages who can provide help and protection to those who ask for it, but very seldom for free.
Much like in western tradition, crones are believed to derive their powers and sustain their unnaturally long lifespan by the consumption of children, and in particular infants.
A way to protect one’s baby against the influence or potential harm intended by witches is by the use of red, silky ribbons.
At home, lightly tying one around a newborn’s waist, with the knot around the navel, is said to protect him or her against bad influences and dark spirits.
Outside the home, where dangers grow, a ribbon is also tied to the stroller, usually to the handle, with a flowery knot.
This functions as a sort of shield to ensure the baby’s safety when out and about discovering the world.
Christmas traditions in Poland
A lot of people celebrate Christmas regardless of whether or not they are practicing Christians.
The occasion may be a little more than an excuse to take some time off to eat a large meal with friends and family and decorate the household.
Poland is no exception to this, although the way Christmas celebrations occur is somewhat more traditionalist in its following of Catholic beliefs.
This may even be the case when the hosts or guests are not particularly orthodox.
Carp Traditions and Superstitions in Poland
Bottom feeders to rake in the cash!
First of all, much as during Lent and for the same reasons, no meat is consumed during Christmas Eve (called Wigilia in Polish), with the exception of fish.
Several different fish dishes may make an appearance, but none is as important as carp.
Carp is traditionally purchased alive a day or two before the occasion. It is slaughtered immediately before preparation.
Now, granted, carp is not a particularly tasty fish. In fact many Poles will only take a small bite of it.
The presence of carp owes more to a ritual of a financial nature.
Keeping a single scale of the slaughtered carp in one’s wallet is believed to attract money in the upcoming year.
The host will always make sure to have one on hand for each expected guest.
The Twelve Dishes for Christmas in Poland
As for the meal itself, the preparation of twelve different dishes is customary.
The exact amounts varying depending on the number of guests expected, but always meant to significantly exceed demand.
These twelve dishes represent the twelve apostles of Jesus.
The dishes include different preparations of fish, herring being the most common.
Also often served are mushrooms, usually battered.
The traditional Polish dumplings called pierogi are very popular and tasty.
They are stuffed with cheese, potatoes, cabbage or spinach, served either boiled in a bit of broth or fried with caramelized onion and a dollop of sour cream.
Cakes, cheesecake and a crumbly apple pie by the name szarlotka, are also part of the Christmas meal.
Making sure to taste at least a bit of each dish brings good luck, and ensures the guest will not go hungry in the coming year.
As an additional way to honor the birth of Jesus, it is common practice to place a small amount of hay under the tablecloth before setting up the table.
This tradition is a reminder of Jesus’ humble beginnings and birth in a manger.
One common cornerstone of most organized religion is charity. The Polish brand of Roman Catholicism is no exception to it.
Thus, at dinner time, it is customary to leave an empty seat at the table. All plates and cutlery arranged, to make room for an unexpected guest.
Hospitality is greatly valued in Polish households.
Should they show up, the old adage the more the merrier usually applies, with the guest happily wined and dined by the host.
A little clue of who exactly might show up can be acquired if any of the diners happens to accidentally drop an eating utensil to the ground.
A dropped knife indicates the unexpected guest will be male, whilst a dropped spoon beckons the presence of a woman.
A dropped fork means it could be either, or perhaps even both.
Occupation Superstitions in Poland
Certain occupations have very specific superstitions attached to them, making them lucky or unlucky not in their practice, but rather to those who happen upon it.
The well-known bitter winters of Eastern Europe created the necessity of every household, from the humblest to the most splendid, to have one or several hearths, along with their corresponding chimneys.
This made the craft of chimney sweeping a demanded, somewhat profitable endeavor.
In this regard, two opposite superstitions came to be associated with them.
The first one, which is still observed by many people, concerns spotting one such person at work.
Basically, if one happens to gaze upon a chimney sweeper at work, one must grab hold of a button.
This is usually a shirt button. Hold one’s grasp on the button until getting home, which is believed to bring good luck.
Conversely, in older times, when a chimney sweeper came to one’s area in search of work, it was considered a way to avoid bad luck to grab hold of him.
Holding on to him was to make sure one’s chimney was the first to be swept, whilst the man remained clean.
This follows a metaphorical interpretation of the inevitable consequences of the trade:
The soot and dust in which a chimney sweeper would be covered after working for the neighbors was a prediction of bad luck if brought into the house.
Modern techniques and equipment have made the trade a lot cleaner, and so this belief is held in lesser regard compared to the first one.
Nuns in caftans, lone or in odd numbers
In a nation as Catholic as Poland, it would not be a stretch to believe religious symbols to be a positive thing. This could be they crosses, churches or the men and women who devote their lives to God.
Though this is generally held true, a curious exception applies to nuns.
Coming across a lone nun, or an odd number of them, provided they are wearing their habits, is considered to be unlucky.
One should recite a quick prayer to avoid bad luck after having such an encounter.
Conversely, an even number of nuns is a symbol of good luck. Yet a prayer is nonetheless recited, only this time in appreciation for the good omen.
This superstition also has a relationship with the one about chimney sweepers. The curse brought by one can be broken by an encounter with the other, e.g., seeing a chimney sweeper at work on a roof and holding on to your button until you see a nun, or viceversa.
Good luck augurs in Poland
Have you noticed how some people have a tendency to use excessive amounts of salt when cooking?
In Poland it is humorously believed he or she is distracted by thoughts of love. Thus, being a prophesy of incoming good luck in the romance department.
Porcelain > Mirrors Superstitions
It is commonly held in many cultures, including Poland, that breaking a mirror signifies bad luck.
The opposite holds true for porcelain, the making of which is an entrenched tradition in the country.
In essence, accidentally shattering porcelain is a symbol of good luck.
Each piece of the accidentally broken porcelain represents a year of good luck to come.
Bad luck omens and Superstitions in Poland
If you forget something at home…
As many other superstitions in this list, this one has to do with omens of death.
The way it goes is as follows: You may be leaving home for the day, whether it is to head to work, school or any other of your regular daily activities.
You realize you have forgotten something and find yourself needing to come back to retrieve it. In that case you must avoid leaving home immediately after. Sit down for a moment.
The exact amount of time varies, some people claiming as little as ten seconds counted out loud.
Others prefer to be on the safe side and make it a whole ten minutes, whenever time constraints allow.
The rationale behind this is that the devil itself is responsible for you forgetting things. Something he causes in an effort to disrupt your plans and put you in harm’s way once you leave your house again.
The concept of what exactly constitutes ‘harm’ in this case varies from person to person. It is anywhere from believing the day will be unsuccessful, to outright putting you at risk of deadly occurrences.
At any rate, if a Pole has an exam or an important meeting at work and realises he or she has forgotten something at home, ten seconds is a small price to make sure things don’t go awry!
Bags on the ground, money up in smoke
This one is fairly simple and regularly observed out of habit by plenty of people.
Essentially, placing one’s bag on the ground when sitting down at a place such as a café or restaurant is a symbol of bad luck, signifying that money will be lost by the bag’s owner.
And no, we are not talking about the possibility of having it stolen. That in itself is a fairly uncommon occurrence in most of Poland.
We are rather talking metaphorically.
In this case, that treating one’s belongings so carelessly invites the universe to, let’s say, redistribute them.
Thus, many people will place their handbags, backpacks, briefcases or rucksacks either on the table itself or on an adjacent empty chair.
This is if a hanger of some sort is unavailable.
Mind you, the jury is still out regarding the type of bag we would have to place on the ground, such as a suitcase or a large shopping bag.
Popular consensus seems to indicate wheeled bags are exempt from this, perhaps by the buffer provided by the wheels between the contents and the ground.
No corners for maidens
A belief that is alive and well is that single women should never sit at the corner of a table when eating. This signifies they will not be able to find a husband.
Of course, the modern woman might not particularly mind, and perhaps some would even do so willingly!
Never across doorways
This superstition is one of the most universally followed ‘basic’ ones.
Shaking hands across doorways, especially when saying farewell, is believed to be extremely unlucky. It is an omen of impending death for the person being offered the handshake.
Hence, most people will either avoid the handshake and respond simply with a nod or a quick word.
Alternatively they may step onto the same side of the threshold as the person saying goodbye before accepting the handshake.
Spit out the bad thoughts
When speaking of bad scenario that could possibly happen to someone else, some will immediately spit over their shoulder. This is done to expel the bad thoughts and ensuring they don’t come to pass.
Example: “He’s driving at night in the snow? He ought to be careful, he could crash” *spit*
Spitting is considered poor manners in urban environments.
This tradition is mostly confined to rural areas, but very much observed by older people.
Pagan traditions remain alive in Poland, though limited mostly to underground circles in the southern regions of the country.
This is perhaps somewhat surprisingly due to both the overwhelming influence of Catholicism and communism’s well-known policy of religious suppression.
To close up, here are some of the most commonly held superstitions in pagan circles:
The foraging and consumption of wild, hallucinogenic mushrooms as a ritualized religious experience.The offering of tributes to forest deities as a sort of thanks for allowing hunting and foraging in their protected ground.
This can be as simple as placing a foraged mushroom on a rock in the woods, or, in the case of a hunt, the heart of the hunted animal.
Doing so is said to gain one the favour of the Leszy, ancient forest deities in Slavic folklore, said to watch over nature and punish those who abuse it or endanger it.
Thanking a dead animal. In essence, before the butchering and/or preparation of an animal carcass, the cooks take a moment to thank it for its sacrifice, thus ensuring the meal will be nourishing and healthy.
Avoiding the placement of mirrors directly in front of one’s bed. Looking glasses have many magical attributions in pagan folklore, many of which depict them as portals to other worlds.
In this sense, the avoidance of such practice is related to the ‘feet first’ euphemism for death, and is believed to be an omen of such an occurrence.
Written by: Charles Black