The Sybil’s Dictionary of Omens & Signs

This is a companion page to the Game of Changes, taken from the guide to omens used in HEIR TO RUIN and THE FLAG CARRIER’S WAR anthology.

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The word omen is well known to signify a sign, good or bad, or a prognostic. It may be defined to be that indication of something future which we get as it were by accident, and without seeking for. A superstitious regard to omens seems anciently to have made very considerable additions to the common load of infelicity. They are in these enlightened days pretty generally disregarded, and we look back with perfect security and indifference on those trivial and truly ridiculous accidents which alternately afford matter of joy and sorrow to our ancestors. Omens appear to have been so numerous, that we must despair of ever being able to recover one-half of them, and to evince that in all ages men have been self-tormentors, the bad omens fill a catalogue infinitely more extensive than that of the good. An extensive set of omens has been taken from what first happens to one, or what animal or person one meets first in the morning, or at the commencement of an undertaking—the first-foot, as it is called. To stumble has been universally held to presage misfortune. Some semblance of a reason might be found for this belief, inasmuch as stumbling may be supposed to indicate that that self-possession and conscious courage, which are in themselves half a victory over circumstances, are lacking—the want of them, therefore, being half a defeat; but in most cases the interpretation seems altogether arbitrary. The dread of a hare crossing the path seems to be widely prevalent; while to see a wolf is a good omen. This feeling is probably a remnant of warlike times, when the timid hare suggested thoughts of cowardice and flight; while the bold wolf, sacred to Odin, was emblematic of victory. The character of the hare for being unlucky is also connected with the deep-rooted belief that witches are in the habit of transforming themselves into hares. That to meet an old woman is unlucky, is another very general belief, arising, without doubt, from the same causes that led to their being considered witches. In some places, women in general are unlucky as first-foot, with the singular exception of women of bad reputation. This belief prevailed as far back as the age of Chrysostom. Priests, too, are ominous of evil. If hunters of old met a priest or friar, they coupled up their hounds and went home in despair of any further sport that day. This superstition seems to have died out, except in the case of sailors, who[20] still consider the clergy a “kittle cargo,” as a Scotch skipper expressed it, and anticipate a storm or mischance when they have a black coat on board. This seems as old as the prophet Jonah. Sneezing, likewise, has long been looked upon as supernatural, for this reason, that it is sudden, unaccountable, uncontrollable, and therefore ominous. The person is considered as possessed for the time, and a form of exorcism is used. A nurse would not think she had done her duty, if, when her charge sneezes, she did not say, “Bless the child,” just as the Greeks, more than two thousand years ago, said, “Zeus protect thee.”
One general remark, however, it is important to make in regard to omens. An omen is not conceived to be a mere sign of what is destined to be—it is conceived as causing, in some mysterious way, the event it forebodes; and the consequence, it is thought, may be prevented by some counteracting charm. Thus the spilling of salt not only forebodes strife, but strife is conceived as the consequence of the spilling of the salt, and may be hindered by taking up the spilled salt, and throwing it over the left shoulder. Perhaps half the superstitious beliefs that yet survive among civilized and Christian communities group themselves round the subject of love and marriage—of such intense interest to all, yet so mysterious in its origin, and problematic in its issue. The liking or passion for one individual rather than any other is so unaccountable, that the God of Love has been fabled blind; it is of the nature of fascination, magic, spell. And then, whether happiness or the reverse shall be the result, seems beyond the reach of ordinary calculation. All is apparently given over to mystery, chance, fortune; and any circumstances may, for what we know, influence or indicate what fortune’s wheel shall bring round. Hence the innumerable ways of prognosticating which of two or more persons shall be first married, who or what manner of person shall be the future husband or wife, the number of children, etc. It is generally at particular seasons, as at the Eve of St. Agnes, and Halloween, that the veil of the future may thus be lifted.
The observation of lucky and unlucky days was once an important matter, and was often the turning-point of great events. It is now mostly confined to the one subject of marriage. In fixing the wedding day, May among months and Friday among days are shunned by many people, both in educated and uneducated circles; for in this matter, which is the exclusive province of women, and in which sentiment and fancy are in every way so much more active than reason, the educated and uneducated are reduced to a level. We will give a large collection of omens, with their interpretation, having selected from all the best works on the subject, and will begin with “Good and Evil Days”:
1. In an old MS., the writer, after stating that the most learned mathematicians have decided that the 1st of August, the 4th of September, and the 11th of March are most injudicious to let blood, and that philosophers have settled that the 10th of August, 1st of December, and 6th of April are perilous to those[21] who surfeit themselves in eating and drinking, continues as follows, assigning reasons why certain days should be marked as infelicitous:
“We read of an old Arabian philosopher, a man of divers rare observations, who did remark three Mundayes in a year to be most unfortunate either to let blood or begin any notable worke, viz., the first Munday of April, ye weh day Caine was borne, and his brother Abell slaine; the 2d is the first Munday of August, the which day Sodom and Gomorrha were confounded; the 3d is the last Munday of December, the which day Judas Iscariott was borne, who betrayed our Saviour Jesus Christ. These three dayes, together with the Innocents’ Day, by divers of the learned are reputed to be most unfortunate of all dayes, and ought to be eschewed by all men for ye great mishaps which often do occur in them.
“And thus much concerning the opinion of our ancient of dayes. So in like manner I will repeat unto you certain dayes yt be observed by some old writers, chiefly the ancient astrologians, who did allege that there were 28 dayes in the yeare which were revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the good Joseph, which ever have been remarked to be very fortunate dayes either to purge, let bloud, cure wounds, use merchandises, sow seed, plant trees, build houses, or taking journies, in long or short voyages, in fighting or giving of battaile, or skirmishing. They also doe alledge that children who were borne in any of these dayes could never be poore; and all children who were put to schooles or colledges in those dayes should become great schollars, and those who were put to any craft or trade in such dayes should become perfect artificers and rich, and such as were put to trade in merchandise should become most wealthy. The dayes be these: the 3d and 13th of January, ye 5th and 28th of Feb., ye 3d, 22d, and 30th of March, the 5th, 22d, and 29th of April, ye 4th and 28th of May, ye 3d and 8th of June, the 12th, 18th, and 15th of July, ye 12th of August, ye 1st, 7th, 24th, and 28th of September, the 4th and 15th of October, ye 13th and 19th of Novr., ye 23d and 26th of December. And thus much concerning ye dayes which are by ye most curious part of ye learned remarked to be good and evill.”
2. “Astronomers say that six days of the year are perilous of death; and therefore they forbid men to let blood of them, or take any drink; that is to say, January 3, July 1, October 2, the last of April, August 4, the last day going out of December. These six days with great diligence ought to be kept, but namely [?mainly] the latter three, for all the veins are then full. For then, whether man or beast be knit in them within seven days, or certainly within fourteen days, he shall die. And if they take any drinks within fifteen days, they shall die; and if they eat any goose in three days, within forty days they shall die; and if any child be born in these three latter days, they shall die a wicked death. Astronomers and astrologers say that in the beginning of March, the seventh night, or the fourteenth day, let the blood of the right arm; and in the beginning of[22] April, the 11th day, of the left arm; and in the end of May, 3d or 5th day, on whether arm thou wilt; and thus, of all the year, thou shalt orderly be kept from the fever, the falling gout, the sister gout, and loss of thy sight.”
3. May has its fatalities; the notion that to be married in it is a bad omen is as old as the age of Ovid. This is not disregarded in the present day, which will explain the great number of marriages that take place late in April.
It is remarkable that among the thirty-three sovereigns who have sat on the English throne since William the Conqueror, although each of the eleven months has witnessed the accession of one or more, the month of May has not been so fortunate—none having ascended the throne within its limits.
4. Friday is not now generally considered an unlucky day, although many still hesitate before starting on a journey or getting married on Friday. The following facts, derived from history, show how little we have to dread “the fatal day:”
“On Friday, August 21, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed on his great voyage of discovery. On Friday, October 12, 1492, he first discovered land. On Friday, January 4, 1493, he sailed on his return to Spain, which, if he had not reached in safety, the happy result would never have been known which led to the settlement on this vast continent. On Friday, March 15, 1493, he arrived at Palos in safety. On Friday, November 22, 1493, he arrived at Hispaniola, in his second voyage to America. On Friday, June 13, 1494, he, though unknown to himself, discovered the continent of America. On Friday, March 5, 1496, Henry VIII. of England gave to John Cabot his commission, which led to the discovery of North America. This is the first American state-paper in England. On Friday, September 7, 1565, Melendez founded St. Augustine, the oldest town in the United States by more than forty years. On Friday, November 10, 1620, the May-Flower, with the Pilgrims, made the harbor of Province Town, and on the same day they signed that august compact, the forerunner of our present glorious constitution. On Friday, December 22, 1620, the Pilgrims made their final landing at Plymouth Rock. On Friday, February 22, George Washington, the father of American freedom, was born. On Friday, June 16, Bunker Hill was seized and fortified. On Friday, October 7, 1777, the surrender of Saratoga was made, which had such power and influence in inducing France to declare for our cause. On Friday, September 22, 1780, the treason of Arnold was laid bare, which saved us from destruction. On Friday, October 19, 1781, the surrender at Yorktown, the crowning glory of the American arms, occurred. On Friday, July 7, 1776, the motion in Congress was made by John Adams, seconded by Richard Henry Lee, that the United States colonies were, and of right ought to be, free and independent.”
5. “Nail gifts” are white specks on the finger-nails; which, according to their respective situations, are believed to predict certain events, as indicated in the following couplet, which is[23] repeated whilst touching the thumb and each finger in succession:
A gift, a friend, a foe,
A lover to come, a journey to go.
Sometimes the augury is expressed in positive terms; as,
A gift on the thumb is sure to come:
A gift on the finger is sure to linger.
This mode of prognostication is of long standing. Melton, in his “Astrologaster,” a very old work, giving a catalogue of many superstitious ceremonies, tells us that “to have yellow speckles in the nailes of one’s hands is a greate signe of death.” In Reed’s old plays we read:
“When yellow spots do on your hands appear,
Be certain then you of a corse shall hear.”
6. Sneezing has been held ominous from times of the most remote antiquity.
The comet of 590 was, according to some authors, the occasion of a custom, which is extensively diffused among all the nations of Christendom. In the year of this comet a frightful plague prevailed, which was alleged to be due to its influence. While the malady was at its height, a sneezing was frequently followed by death; whence the saying, God bless you! with which, since that time, sneezers are saluted. St. Austin tells us that “the ancients were wont to go to bed again, if they sneezed while they put on their shoe.” Aristotle says: “Sneezing from noon to midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky.”
7. The custom of throwing an old shoe for good luck over or after the bride and bridegroom, upon their leaving the church, or the home of the bride, after the wedding, has, of late years, been as it were revived. It is, unquestionably, one of those demonstrations of good wishes which find their way in the commonest modes of expression. But, it is not confined to weddings; the propitiation extends to all prospective views of good fortune.
It is related that an English cattle-dealer desired his wife to “trull her left shoe arter him,” when he started for Norwich to buy a lottery-ticket. As he drove off on his errand, he looked round to see if she practiced the charm, and consequently he received the shoe in his face, with such force as to black his eyes. He went, and bought his ticket, which turned up a prize of £600.
8. The horse-shoe has been, from time immemorial, considered a protection from witchcraft and other ills; and has been nailed at the entrance of dwellings, to prevent the entrance of witches.
Butler, in “Hudibras,” makes his conjurer chase away evil[24] spirits by the horse-shoe; and Gay, in one of his Fables, makes a supposed witch complain:
“The horse-shoe’s nailed, each threshold’s guard.”
Nelson the great English admiral, was of a credulous turn, had great faith in the luck of a horse-shoe, and one was nailed to the mast of the ship Victory. “Lucky Dr. James” attributed the success of his fever-powder to his finding a horse-shoe. When a poor apothecary, he was introduced to Newbery, of St. Paul’s church-yard, to vend the medicine for him. One Sunday morning, as James was on his way to Newbery’s country-house at Vauxhall, in passing over Westminster Bridge, seeing a horse-shoe lying in the road, and considering it to be a sign of good luck, he put the shoe into his pocket. As Newbery was a shrewd man, he became James’s agent for the sale of his fever-powder; whilst the doctor ascribed all his success to the horse-shoe, which he subsequently adopted as the crest upon his carriage. (See 62.)
9. Cauls are little membranes found on some children, encompassing the head when born. This is thought a good omen to the child itself, and many believe that whoever obtains it by purchase will be fortunate and escape dangers. The caul is esteemed an infallible preservative against drowning, and is much sought after by sailors.
10. Salt falling toward a person was considered formerly as a very unlucky omen. Something had either already happened to one of the family, or was shortly to befall the persons spilling it. It denotes also the quarreling of friends. It is thought, however, that the evil consequences arising from spilling salt may be averted by throwing a little of the salt over the left shoulder, or immediately eating a pinch of it. In the “British Apollo,” published in London, 1708, we find the following in relation to the superstition:
“We’ll tell you the reason
Why spilling of salt
Is esteemed such a fault;
Because it doth everything season.
The antiques did opine,
’Twas of friendship a sign,
So served it to guests in decorum;
And thought love decayed,
When the negligent maid
Let the saltcellar tumble before them.”
11. The casual putting the left shoe on the right foot, or the right on the left, was thought in old times to be the forerunner of some unlucky accident. Scott, in his “Discovery of Witchcraft,” tells us: “He that receiveth a mischance will consider whether he put not on his shirt wrong side outwards, or his left shoe on his right foot.” Thus Butler in his “Hudibras”:
“Augustus, having b’ oversight,
Put on his left shoe ’fore his right,
Had like to have been slain that day.
By soldiers mutiny’ng for pay.”
[25]
Similar to this is putting on one stocking with the wrong side outward, without design; though changing it alters the luck; and if you accidentally put on any garment wrong side out, and make a wish before changing it, the wish will come true.
12. To arise on the right side is accounted lucky. In the old play of the “Dumb Knight,” published 1633, Act iv., Scene 1, Alphonso says:
“Sure I said my prayers, rose on my right side,
Washed my hands and eyes, put on my girdle last;
Sure I met no splay-footed baker,
No hare did cross me, nor no bearded witch,
Nor other ominous sign.” (See 27.)
13. When the nose itches, it is a sign that you will have company visit you the same day. In Melton’s “Astrologaster,” No. 27, it is observed “that when a man’s nose itcheth it is a sign he shall drink wine;” and in No. 28, that, “if your lips itch, it is a sign you shall kisse somebody.”
14. The nose falling a-bleeding appears, by the following passage from an old play, to have been an omen of bad luck:
“How superstitiously we mind our evils!
The throwing down of salt, or crossing of a hare,
Bleeding at nose, the stumbling of a horse,
Or singing of a cricket, are of power
To daunt whole man in us.” (See 27 and 40.)
15. Washing the hands, says Grose, in the same basin, or with the same water, that another person has washed in, is extremely unlucky, as the parties will infallibly quarrel.
16. Candle omens are very numerous. Melton, in his “Astrologaster,” says: “If a candle burne blue, it is a signe that there is a spirit in the house, or not farre from it.” A collection of tallow, says Grose, rising up against the wick of a candle, is styled a winding sheet, and deemed an omen of death in the family.
A spark at the candle, says the same author, denotes that the party opposite to it will shortly receive a letter. A kind of fungus in the candle, observes the same writer, predicts the visit of a stranger from the part of the country nearest the object. Others say it implies the arrival of a parcel. (See 59.)
Dr. Goldsmith, in his “Vicar of Wakefield,” speaking of the waking dreams of his hero’s daughters, says: “The girls had their omens too; they saw rings in the candles.”
17. In the “Secret Memoirs of the late Mr. Duncan Campbell,” published in London, 1732, the author says: “I have seen people who, after writing a letter, have prognosticated to themselves the ill success of it, if by any accident it happened to fall[26] to the ground; others have seemed as impatient and exclaiming against their want of thought, if through haste or forgetfulness they have chanced to hold it before the fire to dry; but the mistake of a word in it is a sure omen that whatever requests it carries shall be refused.”
18. If two spoons are accidentally placed in a cup or saucer at table, it signifies a wedding will soon take place in the family.
19. To have a picture drop out of its frame, or to have a precious stone or any ornament drop from its setting while wearing or using it, is a bad omen.
Stow, in his Chronicle, relates that the silver cross which was wont to be carried before Wolsey fell out of its socket, and was like to have knocked out the brains of one of his servants. A very little while after came in a messenger, and arrested the cardinal before he could get out of the house.
20. The removal of a long-worn ring from the finger was thought unlucky in Elizabeth’s time; for the Queen, in her last illness (says Baker), commanded the ring to be filed off her finger, wherewith she was so solemnly at first inaugurated into the kingdom, and since that time had never taken it off; it being grown into the flesh of the finger in such a manner that it could not be drawn off without filing.
21. There is an omen called “Setting the New Year in,”—that if the kindly office is performed by some one with dark hair, good fortune will smile on the household; while it augurs ill if a light-haired person is the first to enter the house in the New Year.
22. It is a very ancient superstition that all sudden pains of the body, and other sensations which could not naturally be accounted for, were presages of somewhat that was shortly to happen. Shakspeare alludes to this in the following lines from Macbeth:
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
23. In olden times, the cat sneezing appears to have been considered as a lucky omen to a bride who was to be married the next day.
24. Small spiders, termed money spinners, are held by many to prognosticate good luck, if they are not destroyed or injured, or removed from the person on whom they are first observed. In the “Secret Memoirs” of Mr. Duncan Campbell, in the chapter of omens, we read that “others have thought themselves secure of receiving money, if by chance a little spider fell upon their clothes.” (See 33.)
25. It is extremely unlucky, says Grose, to kill a lady-bug, a swallow, robin redbreast, or wren. There is a particular distich, he adds, in favor of the robin and wren:
“A robin and a wren
Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”
Persons killing any of the above-named birds or insects, or destroying their nests, will infallibly, within the course of the[27] year, break a bone, or meet with some other dreadful misfortune. On the contrary, it is deemed lucky to have swallows build their nests in the eaves of a house, or in the chimneys.
In an old pastoral published in London, 1770, the following occurs:
“I found a robin’s nest within our shed,
And in the barn a wren had young ones bred.
I never take away their nest, nor try
To catch the old ones, lest a friend should die.
Dick took a wren’s nest from his cottage side,
And ere a twelvemonth past his mother dy’d.”
26. It is deemed very unlucky to hear a screech-owl at night. “If an owl,” says Bourne, “which is reckoned a most abominable and unlucky bird, send forth its hoarse and dismal voice, it is the omen of the approach of some terrible thing—that some dire calamity and some great misfortune is at hand.” (See 56.)
This omen occurs in Chaucer:
“The jelous swan, ayenst hys deth that singeth,
The oule eke, that of deth the bode bringeth.”
The following lines occur in the old pastoral before quoted in 25:
“Within my cot, where quiet gave me rest,
Let the dread screech-owl build her hated nest,
And from my window o’er the country send
Her midnight screams to bode my latter end.”
27. It has always been considered a very bad omen to have a hare (see 14), sow, or weasel cross your path when going on a journey or to business. Melton, in his “Astrologaster,” says, that “it is a very unfortunate thing for a man to meete early in the morning an ill-favored man or woman, a rough-footed hen, a shag-haired dog, or a black cat.” Shaw, in his “History of Money,” tells us that the ancient Scots much regarded omens in their expeditions; an armed man or a wolf meeting them was a good omen; if a woman barefoot crossed the road before them, they seized her and fetched blood from her forehead; if a deer, fox, hare, or any kind of game appeared, and they did not kill it, it was an unlucky omen. We gather from a remarkable book, entitled “The School-master,” published in London, 1583, that in the ages of chivalry it was thought unlucky to meet with a priest, if a man was going forth to war or a tournament.
The following superstitions among the Malabrians are related in Phillips’s account of them, published in 1717: “It is interpreted as a very bad sign if a blind man, a Bramin, or a washerwoman meets one on the way; as also when one meets a man with an empty panel, or when one sees an oil mill, or if a man meets us with his head uncovered, or when one hears a weeping voice, or sees a cat or fox crossing the way, or a dog running on his right hand, or when a poor man or a widow meets us on our way, or when we are called back.” (See 37.)
Gaule, in his “Mag-astromancers Posed and Puzzel’d,” holds[28] it as a vain observation “to bode good or bad luck from the rising up on the right or left side (see 12); from lifting the left leg over the threshold, at first going out of doors; from the meeting of a beggar or a priest the first in a morning; the meeting of a virgin or a harlot first; the running in of a child between two friends; the justling one another at unawares; one treading upon another’s toes; to meet one fasting that is lame or defective in any member; to wash in the same water with another.” (See 15.)
28. To walk under a ladder portends disappointment.
29. To comb your hair after dark is also a sign of disappointment.
30. If a young lady loses her garter, it presages that she has an inconstant lover; therefore, O lady, when thou hast this ill augury, look about thee, and become the happy possessor of two strings to thy bow, or, what is the same thing, two beaus to thy string.
N. B.—Rich or very good-looking young ladies may treat the above with disdain.
31. If you sing before breakfast, it denotes that you will cry before supper.
32. To drop a dish-cloth, duster, or any cleaning cloth, signifies the arrival of one or more visitors.
33. If a spider, in weaving his web in some high place, comes downward before your face, you may look for money from some unexpected source. (See 24.)
34. If you make a rhyme involuntarily, before speaking again make a wish, and it will be fulfilled.
35. When you sleep in a strange bed, remember your dream and tell it before breakfast. Observing these precautions, the dream will probably come to pass.
36. To break a needle while making a garment, is a sign that the owner will live to wear it out.
37. If you return after starting on a journey, it signifies bad luck. (See 27.)
38. To remove a cat, with a family when changing residence, will bring bad luck.
39. If a vacant rocking-chair is rocked violently, the next person who sits in it will be in danger of being ill within the year.
40. It is a lucky sign to have crickets in the house. Grose says it is held extremely unlucky to kill a cricket, perhaps from the idea of its being a breach of hospitality, this insect taking refuge in houses. The voice of a cricket, says the “Spectator,” has struck more terror than the roaring of a lion.
The following line occurs in Dryden’s and Lee’s “Œdipus:”
“Owls, ravens, crickets, seem the watch of death.”
Melton says that “it is a signe of death to some in that house where crickets have been many yeares, if on a sudden they forsake the chimney.” (See 14.)
41. It is said that a married person will not get rich until the wedding clothes are worn out. It is also said to be a sign that[29] one will fail to get rich who tries to see to work between daylight and dark.
42. It is a bad omen to postpone a marriage after the time positively appointed.
43. If your right ear burns or itches, it is a sign that some absent person is speaking well of you; your left ear burning, signifies that you are being spoken ill of.
44. The superstition has become almost universal, that the ticking of a little insect called the “death-watch,” presages the death of some one in the house.
“How many people have I seen in the most terrible palpitations, for months together, expecting every hour the approach of some calamity, only by a little worm, which breeds in an old wainscot, and, endeavoring to eat its way out, makes a noise like the movement of a watch!”—Secret Memoirs of the late Mr. Duncan Campbell, 1732.
The following witty account of this superstition, by Dean Swift, furnishes us with a charm to avert the omen:
——“A wood-worm
That lies in old wood, like a hare in her form,
With teeth or with claws it will bite, or will scratch,
And chambermaids christen this worm a death-watch,
Because, like a watch it always cries click;
Then woe be to those in the house who are sick;
For as sure as a gun they will give up the ghost,
If the maggot cries click, when it scratches the post.
But a kettle of boiling hot water injected
Infallibly cures the timber affected;
The omen is broken, the danger is over,
The maggot will die, and the sick will recover.”
45. If a knife, scissors, or any sharp-pointed instrument is dropped, and stands, sticking in the floor, company may be expected.
46. The right hand itching is a sign that the person will shake hands with a stranger; the left hand itching is a sign that money will be received soon.
47. If you sing during any meal, it is a sign you will soon be disappointed.
48. To cross a funeral procession is an ill omen.
49. To find a pearl in an oyster betokens good fortune.
50. To break a looking-glass foretells death. Grose tells us that “breaking a looking-glass betokens a mortality in the family, commonly the master.” Bonaparte’s (Napoleon I.) superstition upon this point is often recorded. “During one of his campaigns in Italy,” says M. de Constant, “he broke the glass over Josephine’s portrait. He never rested till the return of the courier he forthwith dispatched to assure himself of her safety, so strong was the impression of her death upon his mind.”
51. To find a trefoil, or four-leaved clover, implies good luck; a five-leaved clover, bad luck. Melton, in his “Astrologaster,” says that “if a man walking in the fields, finde any foure-leaved[30] grasse, he shall, in a small while after, finde some good thing.”
52. If four persons cross hands while in the act of shaking hands, it indicates that two of the party will soon be married.
53. If three unmarried persons having the same Christian name meet at table, it is a sign that one of the three will be married within a year.
54. To be startled by a snake is a sign of sickness.
55. When thirteen persons sit down together at table, it is a sign that one of the party will die within a year. Fosbroke, in his Encyclopædia of Antiquities, states that “thirteen in company was considered an unlucky number by the ancient Romans;” but he does not give any classical authority for this statement.
There is at Dantzic a clock, which at 12 admits, through a door, Christ and the eleven, shutting out Judas, who is admitted at 1. But is not the belief older than the clock? The iniquity of Judas may have led him to be considered the thirteenth at the Lord’s Supper; and his self-destruction may have given to the number thirteen its fatal association.
It has, however, been explained away by M. Quetelet, in his work on Probabilities as follows: “If the probability be required, that out of thirteen persons, of different ages, one of them, at least, shall die within a year, it will be found that the chances are about one to one that one death, at least, will occur. This calculation, by means of a false interpretation, has given rise to the prejudice, no less ridiculous, that the danger will be avoided by inviting a greater number of guests, which can only have the effect of augmenting the probability of the event so much apprehended.”
This belief obtains in Italy and Russia, as well as in England. Moore, in his Diary, vol. ii., p. 206, mentions there being thirteen at dinner, one day, at Madame Catalani’s, when a French countess, who lived with her up-stairs, was sent for to remedy the grievance.
“Lord L(ansdowne) said he had dined once abroad with Count Orloff, and perceived he did not sit down at dinner, but kept walking from chair to chair; he found afterward it was because the Narishken were at table, who, he knew, would rise instantly if they perceived the number thirteen, which Orloff would have made by sitting down himself.” (See 63.)
56. If a dog bays under your window at night, it portends sickness or death.
Shakspeare ranks this among omens. In the play of Henry VI., he says:
“The owl shrieked at thy birth; an evil sign!
The night-crow cry’d, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempests shook down trees.”
57. The howling of dogs, says Grose, is a certain sign that some one of the family will very shortly die.
[31]
The following passage is in the “Merry Devil” of Edmonton, 1631:
“I hear the watchful dogs
With hollow howling tell of thy approach.”
58. If you break your shoe-string, look out for your sweetheart, for she will bestow her love upon a stranger.
59. A flake of soot hanging at the bars of the grate, denotes the visit of a stranger, like the fungus of a candle, from the part of the country nearest the object.
Dr. Goldsmith, in his “Vicar of Wakefield,” among the omens of his hero’s daughters, tells us “purses bounded from the fire.” In some parts of England, the cinders that bound from the fire are carefully examined by old women and children, and according to their respective forms are called either coffins or purses; and consequently thought to be presages of death or wealth.
A coal, says Grose, in the shape of a coffin, flying out of the fire towards any particular person, betokens their death not far off.
Cowper alludes to this superstition in the following lines in his “Winter Evening:”
“Me oft has fancy, ludicrous and wild,
Sooth’d with a waking dream of houses, towers,
Trees, churches, and strange visages express’d
In the red cinders, while with poring eye
I gazed, myself creating what I saw.
Nor less amused have I quiescent watch’d
The sooty films that play upon the bars,
Pendulous, and foreboding in the view
Of superstition, prophesying still,
Though still deceived, some stranger’s near approach.”
60. To drop a slice of bread, with the buttered side down, is a sign that a visitor will come hungry.
61. To eat up all the food which is on the table at tea-time, is a sign that the morrow will be a fair day.
62. In olden times it was not considered a good omen to find money. Melton says that “it is a sign of ill-luck to find money.” We have seen superstitious people, at the present day, keep for luck any piece of money they found, but Greene, in his “Art of Cony-Catching,” a very old work, tells us: “’Tis ill luck to keep found money.” Therefore it must be spent. Mason, in his “Anatomie of Sorcerie,” 1612, enumerating our superstitions, mentions as one omen of good luck, “if drink be spilled upon a man: or if he find old iron.” Hence it is accounted a lucky omen to find a horseshoe. (See 8.)
63. The ancients thought there was luck in odd numbers. In setting a hen, says Grose, the good women hold it as an indispensible rule to put an odd number of eggs. All sorts of remedies are ordered to be taken, three, seven, or nine times. Salutes of cannon consist of an odd number. Notwithstanding these opinions in favor of odd numbers, the number thirteen is considered very ominous.

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