Home Language HacksItalian 17 Weird Italian Superstitions Italians ACTUALLY Live By

17 Weird Italian Superstitions Italians ACTUALLY Live By

Avoid the 'malocchio' (evil eye) with these must-know Italian superstitions PLUS how to protect yourself! 🌶️

by Michele
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Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Carry a peperoncino charm to ward off the evil eye
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The Italian culture has many beliefs passed down from generation to generation and even though many of them may seem absurd to an outsider, they are taken more or less seriously by natives! There are plenty of strange Italian superstitions, irrational beliefs and practices that all aim to ward off bad luck. In fact, despite a long and deep Catholic tradition, certain pagan rituals in Italy have persisted over time, shaping well-known customs that all Italians, whether they believe in them or not, recognize.

That’s why, if you’re taking a trip to Italy and don’t want to be cursed by the “malocchio” (evil eye), there are a few common Italian superstitions that you need to know or at least be aware of!

But what exactly is a superstition and where does this term come from? The first use of the Latin word “superstitio” is traced back to the 1st century and it was found in the writing of the historians Livy and Ovid. This term carried a negative meaning and it indicated the unreasonable and excessive fear of the gods as opposed to the good and reasonable worship, the “religio”. Later in time, the term “superstio” was applied to the outlawed religious cults in the Roman Empire.

Nowadays many superstitions have lost (almost) any contact with religion but they’ve become a significant part of the culture and form the basis of many Italian life rules.

Whether it comes to things to avoid doing, or practices to do “per scaramanzia” (to ward off bad luck), or jinxes to ensure that good fortune comes your way, in this guide you’ll discover 17 strange Italian superstitions that are taken very seriously, particularly in the south of Italy and among older generations.

Vediamole insieme! (Let’s have a look at them!)

1. Friday 17th

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Friday 17 is an unlucky day

While in some countries Friday the 13th is considered a bad omen, Italy has its own date that you should be fearful of, it’s Friday the 17th. This means you’ll very rarely find the number 17 on Italian planes, streets, or in hotels, just to give a few examples.

If you’re wondering, why number 17? Well, you should know that the Roman number of 17, XVII, is an anagram of VIXI, meaning “I have lived”. Some consider this a bad omen as the use of the past tense implies that death is just around the corner, and therefore it stands for bad luck.

2. Spilling oil and salt

When you’re in Italy, you should be careful when pouring olive oil on your salad, you don’t want to be cursed by spilling it! This superstition comes from the fact that as far back as the days of the Ancient Roman Empire, oil was considered a luxury so if you spilled some, it would be money wasted. That’s why nowadays the act of spilling oil is considered to bring bad luck.

A similar superstition is spilling salt on the table. In ancient times, salt was invaluable. The word “salario”, meaning “salary”, is derived from “sale”, meaning “salt”. The rarity and the consequently high cost of salt gave rise to a number of beliefs in the ancient world. Among the ancient Romans, sprinkling salt on the ruins of conquered cities meant preventing them from flourishing again (as salt makes the soil infertile).

3. Careful when you sweep the floor!

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't sweep your feet

So many times have Italian mothers (while cleaning the house) told their daughters: “Pick up your feet, I’m passing the broom, otherwise you’ll never get married!”. If you are a single woman with hopes of meeting your Principe Azzurro (Prince Charming), be careful around brooms! It is believed that if you or someone else accidentally brushes your feet with a broom while sweeping the floor, you will never get married!

This belief originated in the olden days when a woman who inadvertently touched her feet with a broom was considered to be bad at housework and, consequently, a bad future wife.

4. Starting the year with lentils

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Eating lentil on New Years Eve and New Years Day

Another Italian tradition is to eat lentils (lenticchie, in Italian) on New Year’s Eve and January 1st. While lentils might not look like a typical Italian dish, they carry a powerful meaning! Their coin-like shape represents money and is, therefore, a symbol of richness and wealth that you wish for the coming year. It is said that the more you eat the richer you’ll become, so eat up! Mangia! (Eat!)

5. “Toccare ferro” (Touch iron)

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Tocca ferro or Touch Wood

Just as with the story of numbers that bring bad luck (17 in Italy vs. 13 in other countries), Italians also like to differentiate themselves with regard to another kind of superstition!

In the UK, Australia, or the US, after saying something that might attract bad luck, you would typically say “Touch wood!”. In Italy, however, you should say “Tocca ferro!” and touch some iron instead! The “ferro” in the saying stands for “ferro di cavallo” (horseshoe) which in the past was believed to ward off the devil, witches, and evil spirits. This symbol can still be found nowadays as a lucky charm that Italians carry around to protect themselves.

6. The evil eye

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Carry a peperoncino charm to ward off the evil eyeAll cultures attribute great power to the human eye. The fear that the eye could carry negative influences has been associated from time to time over the centuries with cross-eyed people, gypsies, red-haired people, men who wore dark glasses, etc., often creating discrimination and racist prejudices.

The “malocchio” (evil eye) is the Italian superstition that even just a look, especially if caused by jealousy and envy, can bring harm to those it is aimed at. To ward off the evil eye Italians often use a gesture called “le corna”, horns (to do so, outstretch your pinkie and index fingers with your hand facing downwards to look like horns), or wear a lucky amulet shaped like a horn (“u’ curnicell” or “cornetto”).

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Giant Peperoncino in Naples, also called cornetto or le corna

7. Breaking a mirror

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Breaking a mirror is bad luckDropping a mirror and breaking it, no matter how tiny it is, is said to bring you seven years of bad luck. If the mirror cracks by itself, on the other hand, it means that the owner may lose a close friend. If the broken mirror is near the portrait of a living person, it means that person could die. This superstition is linked to an old belief that since a mirror reflects one’s own image, it could therefore also trap their soul. So when a mirror breaks, it breaks you as well.

This superstition is still very much alive today, even among theatre actors, who never bring a real mirror on stage to prevent it from breaking.

8. Never open an umbrella indoors

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't open an umbrella insideFor Italians, it is essential to keep an umbrella holder on the doorstep, outside the house. That’s because they don’t want the umbrella to accidentally pop open inside the house! As a matter of fact, opening an umbrella indoors may bring financial bad luck: it’s a sign that you may soon no longer have a warm and cosy roof to live under, or you will be hit by some sort of tragedy such as losing your job or experiencing a natural calamity.

There are two origins of this superstition. The first comes from ancient Rome, where umbrellas were used to protect against rain and sun. Whoever opened an umbrella in the house did not pay respect to the Sun God and so would risk bringing misfortune to their family. In the present day, however, umbrellas were often used to plug holes in the houses of poor people, hence the belief that opening them will bring a good deal of financial misfortune.  

9. Don’t walk under a ladder

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't walk under a ladderWhatever you do, never walk underneath a ladder! Walk around it, in front of it, behind it, but not under. This popular belief has a very ancient origin and has to do with the shape of an open ladder, the triangle. For the Egyptian people, the triangle was a sacred figure. Walking underneath a ladder meant breaking that sacred figure and attracting misfortune upon oneself. For the Christians the triangle represented the concept of the Holy Trinity and crossing a ladder meant breaking the sacredness of the Holy Trinity.

10. Black cats

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Beware of black catsOne of the most popular and perhaps most feared superstitions is the black cat. The roots of this superstition go back to the Middle Ages, when the black cat was associated with evil and witchcraft and therefore seen as bad luck. In Italy, this is true especially when it crosses your path!

So if a black cat crosses the street right in front of you and you don’t want to be cursed, slow down, stop and wait for the next car to drive on – jinx will hit those other poor drivers! This belief is also linked to horses which were frightened by the devil-like eyes of cats while travelling at night.

11. Making a toast

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't make a toast with water“Cin cin!” or “(alla) salute!”, is what you say in Italian when making a toast. Be careful though! Make sure to follow some important rules or you might attract some misfortune! According to Italian superstition, you should never raise a toast with a glass full of water, as it is considered bad luck. It’s also bad luck to cross arms with anyone as you clink glasses. Before you take the first sip after the toast, don’t forget to tap the bottom of your glass on the table!

Learn more about how to say cheers in Italian on different occasions without making a faux pas.

12. Thirteen at the table

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't have 13 people at a table, it's bad luckAnother thing to avoid is having thirteen people sitting at a table! Even though in general thirteen isn’t an unlucky number in Italy like it is in other countries, at an Italian dinner table it’s considered very bad luck. This superstition has its roots in religion and comes from the Last Supper, when Jesus’ traitor, Judas Iscariot, was the 13th and final person to be seated. So, if you find yourself at a table of thirteen, watch your back!

13. No hats on the bed

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't put your hat on the bedWhen you’re in Italy, don’t put a hat on a bed! According to tradition, when priests came to visit the sick on their deathbed to receive their final confessions, they would remove their hat and set it on the bed so that they could put on the vestments. This is how this superstition originated. A hat on the bed is associated with eternal rest and death!

14. Days of glory and days of gloom

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't get married on unlucky daysWant to get married? Make sure you cross off the “unlucky days” from your calendar first! There is a popular Italian proverb that says: “Di Venere o di Marte non si sposa e non si parte, né si dà principio all’arte” (by Venus or Mars, one neither marries nor departs, nor does one begin art). The origin of this saying is medieval and religious: in the Gospels, Friday is in fact the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and it’s reserved for penance. Whoever laughed on that day would be punished at the time of Christ’s resurrection on Sunday.

Tuesday, on the other hand, was already ‘unlucky’ among the Romans because it was dedicated to Mars, the God of war and discord. The division between good and bad days was already known in Ancient Rome, where a distinction was made between “dies fasti”, literally glorious or legit days (when justice could be administered) and “dies nefasti”, meaning ominous days.

This superstition is not taken so seriously anymore as nowadays people get married and go on holiday on any day of the week (unless, of course, it’s Friday 17th!).

15. Don’t celebrate your birthday before it happens

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Don't celebrate your birthday before it happensAccording to Italian superstition, you should never wish someone “buon compleanno” or “tanti auguri” (this is how Italians say for “happy birthday”), before their actual birthday. No, not even on the day before! The reason for this is not exactly clear, Italians simply believe that early wishes might jinx them. Same for the birthday celebrations: very rarely do people in Italy organize their birthday party in advance unless it’s the night before, which means you’ll wait until midnight to get together with your friends! Learn more about Italian birthday traditions here.

16. Left foot, right foot

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Being left-handed is considered sinisterWatch where you put your left foot! An Italian superstition says that when you get out of bed you should always place your right foot first and then your left one. It is no coincidence that the word “sinistro” in Italian means not only “left” but also “sinister”, as in shady, or obscure. 

As a matter of fact, the left side has always been associated with the devil. This is where the saying “alzarsi con il piede sbagliato” (literally: “getting up with the wrong foot”, which is the equivalent of the English idiom “waking up on the wrong side of the bed) originated from.

This also explains why it is common to use the right hand to shake hands, to exchange the sign of peace in church, and why left-handed children in the past were corrected by forcing them to write with their right hand, this is because the left hand was “the devil’s hand”.

17. Wishing someone good luck

Weird Italian Superstitions Italians - Wishing someone good luck with In bocca al lupoItalians sure have an original way to wish you good luck! The expression “In bocca al lupo” literally means “into the wolf’s mouth” to which, according to Italian custom, one must always reply with “Crepi il lupo” (may the wolf die). This idiomatic expression is as widespread as the most traditional “Buona fortuna” (good luck).

Nowadays, however, it is very common to reply to that wish with a simple “grazie” or “viva il lupo!” (meaning, long live the wolf!). This alternative interpretation of this expression stems from the fact that since wolf cubs are held in their mother’s mouths, they are actually protected and safe. So, wishing someone to be “into the wolf’s mouth” could also be interpreted as “I wish you well”.

Conclusion

Now you know the most common Italian superstitions you’ll need to be aware of. It might sound like there are lots of things in Italy to stay away from, but don’t worry, in most cases, there are remedies to reverse the spell!

Some of them include: jinxing gestures (like “le corna” – the horns – find out more about this in my guide to Italian gestures), carrying lucky charms and amulets like the “cornetto”, scratching genitalia, keeping red chilli peppers at your doorstep, and saying “in bocca al lupo” to wish someone good luck. 

Did you know that if you are walking outside and a pigeon poops on your head, it is a sign of good luck in Italy? Crazy, right? So, if this happens to you, don’t panic, something good will probably happen to you! ;-) For more tips, visit my guide on Italian culture to learn 18 weird things that Italian do that no one warns you about.


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17 Weird Italian Superstitions Italians Actually Live By


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