April 6, 2013

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X-Files - Greek And Cypriot Superstitions, Rituals And Beliefs

What frightens us, what makes us laugh, what makes us love, what makes us upset and why do we believe the things we do? People are indeed an enigma, and no two are alike, yet for some, superstition binds them in a web of fear. Ever wonder where superstitions first originated?

Why do we throw salt over our left shoulder for luck and why do we turn the other way when we see a black cat crossing our paths? Do we know why we believe in superstitions? Is it a habit, or is it something that we were taught to do?

What causes some people to believe in what others may think is silly? Can there be some true medical or physiological reason behind superstitions? What are some things people can do to ease their fears tied to superstitions? Can beliefs in superstition get out-of-hand? Are superstitions cultural?

These and many other questions will be answered today, as Hellas frappe opens the X-Files on Greek and Cypriot superstitions.

For as long as humans have been making sounds and instruments, magical methods have been created in the attempt to control the forces of nature and the life and death matters of daily existence. Good and evil befall us without rhyme or reason. We imagine spirits or intelligible forces causing our good and bad fortune. We invent ways to placate them or direct them.

While many people do believe that some supernatural phenomena are real, almost all of us recognize that at least many of these superstitions aren't really real. But wait a minute, if they aren't real then why do we react the way we do and feel better for doing so after that?

Certainly this has a lot to do with the power of the mind, but we are not sociologists, or anthropologists here at HellasFrappe and we certainly never mastered the psychology so we can't really offer scientific reasoning, the only thing we can conclude is that we believe the things we believe in because they have been around for many generations. This is an important factor because the things we believe in have been passed down to us from mother to daughter, and from father to sun. There was never any scientific reasoning behind these beliefs, because quite simply people were less educated and could not understand certain phenomena.

For instance, mirrors show reflections or shadows fall when light is coming from the opposite direction. Tens of hundreds of years ago this could not be explained without science, so the people at the time concluded that reflections and shadows are part of their soul. That is why they considered it unlucky when a glass or mirror was broken because they believed their soul would get harmed. So people, breaking mirrors were considered harmful and unlucky.

There are of course some exceptions to some of these superstitions such as the evil eye. For some odd reason throwing a couple of drops of olive oil into a plate with some water and chanting some words makes the person across the room feel better. But do we feel better because the olive oil is trapping this evil eye, or do we feel better because our subconscious is telling us to stop feeling sick? This we cannot answer because the power of the mind itself is an enigma. Besides, if we did that, then we wouldn't be operating a blog, but a mental health clinic.

As Greeks, we know that almost every action we make (or don’t make) could quite possibly have an indirect consequence on how the rest of our life plays out.

Every culture has their fair share of superstitions. Some are common among parallel societies, while others remain unique within a specific country and certainly the Greek culture is surrounded with superstitions.

So here are a few unusual Greek superstitions that you may or may not have heard of.
  •     EVIL EYE - Probably the most famous superstition of all is the evil eye. Belief in the evil eye is ancient and widespread; it occurred in ancient Greece and Rome and is found in Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures, being particularly prevalent today in the Mediterranean and Aegean. Think back to when someone complimented you, and then you developed a painful headache. The belief is complex, but the idea is that if you act in such a way that people begin to envy you, their thoughts of envy will bring about the ‘evil eye’ and begin to bring misfortune into your life or make you feel dizzy and ill. Where does it come from? The origin of the concept is ancient but it’s present in ancient Greek texts such as those of Plutarch or Aristophanes. Others argue that it has roots in evolutionary psychology and the need for no one individual to become too proud and ostentatious, which may explain its prevalence in areas far beyond the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s such an ancient belief, however, that no one really knows for sure. To ward off the Evil Eye you can wear blue beads as a necklace or bracelet, or get someone to chant a mystical prayer. This is an issue over which Greek Church and folklore are both united and separated. They are joined in their belief that the curse of the evil eye exists, but divided on how it can be warded off or tackled.  The Greek Orthodox Church has recognized the evil eye since the establishment of the faith. The church calls it Vaskania (pronounced Vas-ka-nee-a) and has a special prayer made especially to help cure those who have fallen under the curse. As for the prayer that is designed to alleviate the symptoms, the priests were insistent in their belief that it should be done by a member of the church rather than a layman. Common practice in Greek society has it that people are taught the prayer by a priest and will use it themselves to 'treat' cursed friends and relatives, sometimes even over the phone. Some believe that for a woman to be able to do the prayer she must be taught it by a man.
  •     SNEEZING - If, on the other, you sneeze, somebody is talking about you, or at least that's what an old Greek superstition claims. If you want to find out who it is then begin listing names. If saying one name stops the sneezing, then that is the person that is talking about you. If that doesn't work, ask someone for a three digit number (three for the Holy Trinity). Add the numbers. If the number is higher than the number of letters in the alphabet - 24 in Greek, 26 in English, add the digits. Using the resulting number and counting such that A or a is 1, B or b is 2, etc., find the letter indicated by the number. This will be the first initial of the person talking about you. And if all else fails and you can't figure it all out, then just spit three times on your chest to avoid the evil eye, or our advice would be to take some flu medication.
  •     ITCHY HANDS - An itchy hand says that you will be receiving or giving money. If your right hand is itchy, you will receive money, but oh boy if your left hand is itchy then get ready to pay some hefty bills. If on the other both hands are itchy then you will both give and receive money. Roots of favoring the right side can be seen in the Orthodox Church, where the Son of God sits to the right of the father.
  •     SPITTING - Some people spit because they have a build-up of saliva, but in Greece many people spit to ward off evil. For instance, when someone hears bad news, they might spit on themselves three times to stop the possibility of anything bad happening to them. They don't actually use saliva in the process, it's more of a "Ptew, Ptew, Ptew." Some people who believe this might even raise their shirts and spit between their clothes towards their chest. Greek fishermen also spit into their nets to allow for a good catch. If someone compliments a Greek, to avoid the evil eye they may spit onto themselves, and may say to the person "ptew, ptew, ptew min me matiasis", which basically says, "I'm spitting on myself so that you do not cause the evil eye to come upon me." Spitting is believed to be very effective against the evil eye. We also see it in Greek-Orthodox religious rituals. During a baptism, the priest will blow into the air three times to glorify the Trinity, and spit into the ground three times at the devil. The practice of spitting three times is believed to come from this.
  •     GARLIC - A clove of garlic can also protect wearers (and send vampires running - lol). Some people even keep garlic in their pockets (hope they are wearing cologne). Garlic is believed to ward off demons and evil spirits.
  •     SALT - In Greek superstition salt has great purifying powers and can be used to ward off demons and evil spirits. And this can be done simply by throwing it over your left shoulder. In some areas of Greece, new homes are "purified" from evil by sprinkling salt to remove any demons or lurking evil spirits, but did you know that salt can also be used to remove unwanted guests? Salt can either be sprinkled on their chair or thrown behind them, but be careful that your guest does not see this because if they do then the power of the salt is weakened, or so the superstition says. Another claim is that salt should be covered at night. If the moon or the stars shine upon the salt, whoever carries it will develop warts or a rash on their body.
  •     CROWS - Crows are considered omens of bad news, misfortune and death. When you see or hear a crow cawing, you say "Sto Kalo… Sto Kalo…. Kala Nea na mou Feris" which loosely translates to "Go well into the day and bring me good news". Crows, and their raven cousins, have always held a spot in mythology as the symbols of occult knowledge and power, wisdom, and, above all, war. Associated with the other world, war, and death, perhaps from their macabre attendance on the battlefield, these birds have accompanied such mythological figures as the Norse God Odin, the Greek god Apollo. Perhaps because of their connection with war and death, crows have generally been seen as symbols of ill fortune.
  •     SAILING - Even Greek seamen have their own superstitions. It used to be an ill omen to start a voyage on certain days of the week. Friday was one, the origin of this being that the Crucifixion took place on a Friday. Other days are the first Monday in April, believed to be the birthday of Cain and the day on which Abel was killed; the second Monday in August, thought to be the day on which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed; and December 31st, the anniversary of the day on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Another omen was that if the cargo being brought on board heeled the ship to steer board, or starboard, storms would blow; but if it heeled to lead board then the voyage would be successful.
  •     GIFT OF COLOGNE – In Greece it is customary that when you give someone the gift of cologne that they must first give you a metal coin in return or you will be cursed with bad luck. Also, if a couple gives each other cologne or perfume and does not gift a metal coin, then they are in danger of breaking up!
  •     MONEY - Greeks believe that money attracts money, so never leave your pockets, purses or wallets completely empty and never completely empty out your bank account. Always leave at least a couple of coins. It is also considered good luck that when you give a gift of a wallet or a purse, that you put a coin or two in it before giving it to the recipient.
  •     FISH - Fish are believed to be wise and knowledgeable. But the Church also sees the fish as a revered symbol of silence. Fish don’t speak or make noise. Perhaps some of you have seen the sign of the fish in your own church, as many non-Orthodox religions also use its symbolism with the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ ΙΧΘΥΣ- "Ichthis", which means fish and also the Greek term for the zodiac sign of Pisces. But it also has a deeper meaning. If each letter is taken individually, you will see its religious significance.
  •     OREGANO - As well as being used for medicine and flavoring, the oregano herb was used in ritual and traditional ceremonies. In Roman and Ancient Greek wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom were crowned with oregano laurels and considered this as a must so that they can have a long and happy life. Oregano was also used in ancient funerals and was grown around tombs and on graves.
  •     SHOES - Overturned shoes (soles up) are considered to be bad luck and even omens of death. Never let your shoes lay upside down. If you accidentally take them off and they land soles up, turn them over immediately and say ‘Skorda (garlic)’ and a spit or two won’t hurt either.
  •     TALISMANS – FILAXTA - Talismans or ‘Filahta’ are regularly used in Greece and worn by many, many people, especially children. Most commonly you will see these charms pinned to the backs of small children’s and infant’s clothing. But you will also find that many elders carry them in their pockets, wallets and/or purses or have them discretely pinned to their clothing as well. They are used to ward off the evil eye. There are numerous items that are used for Filahta, or what the Greek Orthodox Church calls Baskania. Of course, there are the simple gold crosses or medals of Saints, and evil eyes and beads, but there are also small pieces of cloth sewn into sachets, holding an array of mysterious contents. These sachets can be filled with pieces of olive branch or basil that have been used by a priest in some ceremony, dirt from the grave of a Saint or maybe burnt candle shavings from a Church altar. Anything can be used for these charms, but the rule is that it has to be something from holy ground or something that has been blessed. Any one item or a combination is sewn into a very small, triangular sachet and sometimes adorned with beads in the sign of the cross.
  •     TOUCH RED - It might be considered a form of ESP or maybe just coincidence, but sometimes two people have the same thought and speak the same words at the same time. Take for example two girlfriends going out shopping together and stopping to admire a dress in a window. They both say the words "that’s beautiful" and presto, they get the sudden urge to touch red. The Greeks believe that this is an omen and that if these two friends do not touch red right then and there they will surely get into a fight.
  •     TUESDAY THE 13 - The Greek "Friday the 13th" Alternative. Indeed different from Western cultures, Greeks consider the Tuesday the 13th unlucky.
  •     WHOPPING COUGH - In the days before vaccinations, Greeks believed that donkey’s milk should be given to a child infected with whooping cough. According to old wives tales, there is some kind of substance in the milk that cures the illness.
  •     CURSE OF A PARENT - It is believed by some that a curse of a parent will take effect as it will fall on the ears of God, who will pull his protection away from the disrespectful child. This in Greek is called a “Parahorisi". There are two forms of Parahorisis one is for the good as is the case with gifts from God such as being able to see Prophesy (St. John the Evangelist), smell myrrh (Jacob) etc.  And the other form of Parahorisis is the feared form which can result in the worst case Possessio.
  •     BAD ENERGY - Regardless of whether they consider themselves religious, many Greeks believe in something beyond the reach of the Orthodox Church, or bad energy, and it is usually caused by people thinking about you in a negative way. If they envy you, or talk behind your back, they will send you bad vibes, which can make you feel stressed, give you headaches or an upset stomach. If you want to prevent it from happening to you, wear a light-blue eye or some stone of the same color. Or you can have an elder (preferably female) pray for you so that this bad energy can be released into the cosmos. (Silly, but effective).
  •     DOGS - Greeks thought dogs could foresee evil. A howling dog at night means bad luck or somebody close to you will be very sick or worse.
  •     OWLS - Owls have carried a mixed bag of superstitions. The ancient Greeks revered owls and believed them sacred to Athena. Affiliated with the goddess of wisdom and learning, the owl was considered wise and kind. But somewhere in time, the owl's reputation plummeted and hearing the hoot of an owl is now associated with bad luck. To counter evil owl power put irons in your fire. Or throw salt, hot peppers or vinegar into the fire, the owl will get a sore tongue, hoot no more, and no one close to you will be in trouble. When you hear an owl, take off your clothes, turn them inside out and put them back on. (You might not want to do this if you are in public - lol). But here is the best part, considering you are a single female, when an eligible groom eats roasted owl he will be obedient and a slave to his woman.
  •     PEACOCKS - A peacock feather has an evil eye at the end. In Greek mythology Argus said a hundred eyed monster was turned into a peacock with all its eyes in its tail. Guess that is why Greeks think twice about brining a peacock feather indoors for decoration since they are very unlucky.
  •     SWANS - A swan's feather, sewed into the husband's pillow, will ensure fidelity. In ancient Greece, the swan was dedicated to Apollo, the God of music, which may account for the belief which has developed that when one of the birds is dying it, sings, thus giving rise to the expression "swan song". Actually the bird makes its usual hissing sound, but there is still much faith in the belief that when one of them lies its head and neck back over its body during the daytime then a storm is on the way.
  •     HORSESHOES - There is no greater symbol of better luck than finding a horseshoe with the open hoof space facing toward the fortunate discoverer. No ill omens seem to be connected with this particular superstition. Even if a person merely dreams of finding a horseshoe, good luck will come to him or her. Today, it is not quite as easy to find a discarded horseshoe as it was in the days before the automobile became the principal means of transportation, so perhaps the horseshoe is even luckier in the twenty-first century than it was in the past. Also, keep in mind that the last letter in the Greek alphabet, Omega, is shaped like a horseshoe, and perhaps the ancient Greeks used reverse psychology when they tacked a symbol of "the end" on their walls to protect themselves from diseases such as the plague. On the other hand, the Romans must have thought the horseshoe was an able defender against the terrible disease, because from what we know they followed the Greek custom of placing horseshoes on their walls.
  •     BASIL - Hippocrates used to prescribe basil as a treatment for heart, nausea and constipation. The ancient Greeks believed that putting a spring of basil in the hands of the dead would open heaven’s gates for them. Basil is also used in the Greek Orthodox Church for the preparation of the holy water. Even today, many Greeks take their pots full of basil to church for a blessing or to give them as a gift. The Greek name for basil is “Vassilikos” which means “royal”, and it has always represented health and prosperity for Greeks. There is also the superstition, still palpable among Greeks, that if you keep a pot with basil at the entrance door of your house you will have lots of luck and money (this is questionable, but you certainly will not have a problem with mosquitoes and flies!).
  •     PERFORMING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS - The cross sign is made in the church, before meals and sometimes when paying a compliment in order to ward off the evil eye. When Greeks talk about something terrible that has happened, they might also do the sign of the cross. If they pass by a church they will also perform the sign of the cross, regardless if they are walking or travelling by bus, car or driving a motorbike.
  •     DRIED FLOWER WREATHS - The wreaths are put on the front door on May 1st of every year (or international Labor Day), and they have supposedly fallen off at the end of the summer when they are all dried up. The reason behind this ritual or superstition is so that all can enjoy a bountiful harvest. Also, in ancient times this was a kind of measurement of time.
  •     SMOKED CROSS ON DOOR - After midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday, all church goers will receive the Holy Light back to bless their homes. Before entering their homes they will make a cross sign at the head of the entrance. This is believed to bring good health and fortune to all family members.
  •       BREAD - Bread is considered a gift from God. It has roots from the bible story, Sermon on the Mount, of how Jesus Christ fed thousands with the fish and the bread. The older village women always make the sign of the cross over a fresh loaf before slicing it. No bread is ever thrown away. If it is not eaten in some way or another, it is fed to the animals - chickens or pigs, and even dogs, as it would be a sin for it to end up in the garbage and has to be consumed by some living creature. And even though this might sound silly, if the Greeks are obligated to throw out stale bread, they kiss it before placing it into the rubbish bin as a sign of respect. Also, eating the rough ends of the bread loaf means that your mother-in-law will like you.
  •       CACTUS - No Greek home would be complete without at least one cactus positioned somewhere near the front entrance. (Usually this would be in a huge "Feta" tin or garden pot). According to old wives tales, the cactus proudly wards off the evil eye from all the property.
  •       KNIVES - Never hand someone a knife. It is believed that you first have to set it down and allow the person who is asking for the knife to pick it up themselves. If you don't there is a Greek superstition that says that you will get into a fight with that person.
  •        OLIVE LEAVES - The olive leaf is a key character in Cypriot superstitions. If you manage to get off the beaten track in Cyprus and experience some village life, you will probably come across the custom of burning olive leaves. Olive leaf burning is again done to defend you against the evil eye. A member of the family burns the leaves in a pot and waves smoke towards you to protect you. So if you are having a run of bad luck you may want to give this a try! If you spend New Year’s Eve in Cyprus, you will also notice Greek Cypriot wreaths made from olive leaves hung on people’s doors. Cypriots hang the wreaths believing that they will bring a blessing from St Basil.
  •       LOUKOUMADES - During the Greek Orthodox epiphany celebrations when Loukoumades (small little doughnuts) are prepared, it’s traditional to toss the first one from the frying pan onto the roof of the house. The reason for this is to appease any evil spirits who may be skulking around the home. (Lol)
Luckily for Greece, as well as Cyprus, there are also many ways to get luck on your side. Drinking the last drop of beer or wine out of a carafe means that you will get married, if you spill coffee into the saucer under the cup, you will become rich and if you smash a piece of pomegranate fruit at the beginning of the new year will allow you to expect for good things to happen. Superstitions are primitive instincts that will continue to lurk in the back of our minds no matter how intelligent or practical society we are. Besides, why condemn beliefs which are etched into our culture and heritage?

Greece and Cyprus will forever remain superstitious. We know that superstition has given us delusions and illusions, dreams and visions, etc. We also know that science has given us all we have of value, for it is the only "civilized" form of belief, but nonetheless we continue to believe in various superstitions nonetheless. The reason for this is, that science might of clothed the naked, fed the hungry, lengthened life, given mankind electricity, pictures and books, ships and railways, telegraphs, engines, computers, satellites, and it even destroyed the beliefs in monsters, phantoms, and all the winged horrors that fill the savage brain ... But why oh why can’t it alleviate the symptoms of the evil eye?

Certainly this is puzzling.

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