My flatmates and I got into a huge argument the other night because I asked, “What should we do about the toilet spider?” You see for the past three months or so we’ve had a spider living in our toilet (note for the North Americans reading, the toilet is a room which contains only a toilet. The bathroom is separate where the bath and sink are located). Apparently Ilmira hadn’t noticed the spider in the toilet this entire time, but since she’s very scared of spiders, she is now angry that neither of us told her about it for three months and now she will be too scared to use the toilet at night. And Angelina hadn’t wanted to tell Ilmira about it for precisely that reason.
Now, as a reasonable person, I suggested that we kill the spider so that we can all move on with our lives, but this was apparently the wrong thing to say. “You can’t kill a spider in Russia!” They told me. “It’s bad luck! We’ll have winter until June!” To make a long story short, we all ended up on the floor with them trying to pin me back as I sprayed the toilet spider with Windex and then tried to bash it to death.
As it turns out according to Russian superstition, spiders are the watchers of the house and killing them will bring bad luck to you. Russian people take their superstitions very seriously, actually, and in my opinion it’s one of the biggest cultural differences between the West and here. Once I was speaking with some of my students who claimed not to believe in superstitions, but they told me that once on their way home from school a black cat had walked across their path in front of them, so they had to go a few blocks out of their way to find a new path home! And that’s for a ‘nonbeliever’!
So I’ve been trying to collect different superstitions to share with you.
Birthdays and gifts
There are a number of superstitions about birthdays and gift giving in Russian culture. First of all, you should never celebrate your birthday early. Even someone wishing you Happy Birthday the day before is seen as bad luck. It’s OK to celebrate late, though. You also should definitely never give a present early (also as a side note, Russians don’t open presents in front of you. They take them home and open them privately later).
You should also never give a watch or clock as a gift. One of my roommates says that it’s because it’s a bad omen that the receiver won’t have much time left, but the other says it’s because it means the receiver is always late. Either way, don’t do it. Also you should never give someone a gift or money over the threshold of a house. Either both of you stand outside or both of you stand inside.
Even numbers of flowers are seen as only for funerals or grave sites, so if you ever give someone flowers, make sure it’s an odd number. Oh and apparently, a person shouldn’t celebrate their 40th birthday. I don’t know why, but just don’t do it.
There are also some weird superstitions about babies. A newborn baby shouldn’t be seen by anyone except the immediate family for forty days. Parents, grandparents, and siblings are OK, and I believe cousins should be as well, but much further and it’s bad for some reason. I’m not sure how doctors and nurses are handled…
Also a young baby (the ages vary depending on who I talked to but some say up to two years and some said around nine months to a year) shouldn’t be complimented by a stranger. A stranger can say a compliment but then must immediately say the equivalent of “Psych!” in Russian. Or the stranger could say something like “Oh what an ugly baby!” instead. Sometimes mothers will place a dot on their baby’s head to show that it’s too young to be complimented.
As mentioned, spiders are seen as watchers of the home in Russia, but they’re not the only ones. There are also little elves called domovoy that live in your house and protect it. Some people leave offerings for their domovoy of milk or some certain foods. And if you’re too messy or disrespectful, the domovoy might start messing with your belongings when you’re not looking.
Also cats are seen as the owner of everything inside of a home and dogs are the owner of everything outside. I guess you can ask them to pay your mortgage.
A big one that has gotten me in trouble a lot is that you’re not allowed to whistle indoors. If you do, you’re seen as whistling everyone’s money away. I never even realised how much I whistle until I was told I can’t do it. Russians will be very angry if you absent-mindedly start whistling. Leaving an empty bottle upright on a table is also seen as letting money escape. Bottles should be placed on the floor as soon as they’re finished, or at the minimum, they can be placed on their sides.
Going over to your neighbours’ to borrow something is, to my mind, a hallmark of quaint America, but in Russia make sure you don’t go to borrow salt. This means you will quarrel with them in the future. I believe other pie ingredients are safe though.
Not necessarily about “journeys” but just whenever you’re going somewhere including just to the shop or to work. As mentioned, the same superstition of black cats crossing your path being a bad omen exists in Russia. Also if you leave your house but realise you’ve forgotten something, it’s better to just keep going without it, or else it’s a sign your journey will be calamitous. But if it’s important and you absolutely must go back for something, you can soften the amount of bad luck by looking into a mirror and sticking your tongue out at your reflection before you leave again.
If you’re leaving on a long journey, you should have a moment of silence and reflection. Just before you leave, someone may say, “Let’s sit for a moment.” Then together the journeyer and those seeing him/her off will sit and reflect, before the journeyer says “OK, let’s go.”
Some of my students told me about this, but my flatmates didn’t know about it. They said that you shouldn’t sleep in view of your own reflection (i.e. don’t have a mirror within sight of your bed), because while you’re sleeping, your reflection will try to come into your body and steal your life. Also it will inflict you with bad nightmares.
Russians also believe in dreams of the future, well kind of. They believe that dreams had on the night between Thursday and Friday might sometimes be premonitions of the future. But not all dreams on that night. And there’s no way to tell between future premonitions and average Thursday night dreams, so I’m not really sure what the point is.
If you ever find yourself in the forest and spot a cuckoo bird you can ask him, “Cuckoo, how long will I live?” And the number of times the cuckoo calls is how many years you have left in your life. Now to me, this is a bad investment, because I’ve never heard of a bird calling more than a handful of times in a row. So you’re probably looking at like somewhere between 3 and 10 years of life expectancy, right? It’s better to find some animal that will repeat itself several dozen times in a row like at least fifty and ask that animal.
So those are all the superstitions I managed to collect. I’m sure there are many more, and, as you can see, not even Russians know all of them or have different variations on the rules or outcomes. Personally I find it kind of charming at times, but it’s also frustrating other times when you get shouted at for some random offense and the only reason why you shouldn’t do it is because ‘It’s bad luck’.
Oh and if you’re wondering about the toilet spider, I glimpsed him scrambling around this morning, so I guess he’s still watching over our home.