Saturday, November 17, 2012

All About Greek Superstitions

I started off thinking I’d write a piece on the Goddess Athena, in thanks for her sparing my farm from the wrath of her namesake of a Nor’easter storm.  It struck me as unwise not to do so, which led me to thinking about superstitions and how there are no people I know of more superstitious than the Greeks.  So, with all due respect Athena, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for another slot.   This week it’s all about Greek superstitions, many of which are shared in different forms among other world cultures.  

Though I don’t consider myself superstitious, permit me a moment to say ftou, ftou, ftou, representing the Greek superstition of spitting three times to chase the devil and misfortune away whenever you talk about bad things.  Such as failing to properly thank a Greek god for saving your farm.  

On that segue here are some of the basic Greek superstitions, for which I wish to credit the assistance of
two websites, The Embassy of Greece and Susie Atsaides.

Without question the biggie is the Evil Eye.  In fact, many other Greek superstitions are designed to deal with risks presented by the Evil Eye.  It can strike at any time, and is taken very seriously. Educated, level-headed people believe in it, as does the Greek Orthodox Church (calling it Vaskania), and those with the “gift” for casting it away from those put upon by the Evil Eye are revered.

The process of casting away involves techniques passed down in secret from generation to generation and involves prayers coupled with a lot of yawning by healer and victim.  In these modern days, I’ve seen healers perform the process over cell phones, or respond without any sort of contact with the victim beyond an SMS or email plea for help. 

In a nutshell, the Evil Eye can be put on you, your children, your livestock or your fruit trees by anyone who looks at them with envy and praises them.  Envy is the big villain in this.

The number one defense against the Evil Eye is the little blue eyes ormati sold virtually everywhere in Greece.  Greeks drape them around their necks, wrists, rearview mirrors and in myriads of places in their offices and homes. It is the universal protector. All of which is attributed to the color blue that is said to reflect away evil.  I guess that means the eyes now offered for sale in other, “more fashionable” colors leave you open to being much more than just a fashion victim.

Some Greeks go so far as to say to be aware of blue-eyed people offering compliments, for that could be particularly dangerous.  I wonder if that would deter a Greek from the flattery of a Paul Newman look-alike or the baby blues of a modern day Grace Kelly?  Some how I think they’d simply opt for an extra mati or two and take the risk.:)

Garlic also works to ward off the Evil Eye.  Some carry a clove with them at all times, in their pocket or—as I’ve seen suggested—in their bra.  Garlic, along with onions, is also said to have great healing power if you’re feeling ill—perhaps over losing your shot at Paul and/or Grace to a whiff of your garlic stash.

If you want the evil eye protective quality of the garlic, without the scent, when someone gives you a compliment, mutter skorda(garlic) under your breath and spit on yourself three times. If you want real protection ask the person who gave you the compliment to spit on you too, though that may lead to an immediate reassessment of the person’s original opinion.  A word of caution: some say if a compliment is given to a child in your presence you should spit on the child.  I suggest asking the parents before attempting that kindness.

Another common practice for warding off the Evil Eye is a thorny-spiked cactus close to the front entrance to your home.  Be particularly careful is one if nearby should you choose to spit on someone else’s kid.

Some superstitions offer a conundrum. Bat bones are considered very lucky, but killing a bat (to presumably get the bones) is said to be very bad luck.

Crows, on the other hand are just bad luck period, as omens of bad news, misfortune, and death.  Guess Poe got it right.:)

If a Greek ever asks you for a knife, never hand it directly Put it on the table and let the other pick it up. Otherwise, superstition holds you two will soon be in a fight.

Another sure fight starter is if two people say the same thing at the same time.  Such as “I love Target: Tinos.”  The only way to avoid an imminent fight is for each to instantly touch whatever red they can find around them (like the cover of A Vine in the Blood, The Fear Artist or any of Michael Stanley’s covers) and say piase kokkino(touch red).

And never leave your shoes soles up; it’s very bad luck and even an omen of death.  But don’t fear if it should happen to you some day. Just say skorda (remember, it means garlic) and spit three times for good measure and you’ll be fine.

I understand the skorda whisper technique also works to ward off the bad omen of seeing a priest and black cat on the same day. Some say it whenever they see just the priest.

If you sneeze, that means someone is talking about you and there is a way to figure out whom that is.  Frankly, all I’m interested in knowing at such moments is who has a tissue or Claritin.

Greeks also believe money attracts money, so superstition requires you to never completely empty a purse, pocket, wallet or bank account.  I suspect that one’s being sorely tested these days.

But the superstition that I find most telling about the Greek attitude toward life is how they treat Friday the 13th.  Why ruin an otherwise perfectly good weekend with worries about a Friday of bad luck? So, they stick in the middle of the workweek. To Greeks, Tuesday the 13th is the bad luck day…possibly settling on a Tuesday for much for the same reason the US uses it as its election day—to keep the bad news away from spoiling a weekend.

Which brings me to the final superstition I want to talk about today. Salt.  Greeks sprinkle salt in a new house to chase away any lurking evil.  But that’s not the use of salt I find most intriguing.  It is believed that you can get rid of “unwanted human presence” by sprinkling salt behind them.  I think Americans should bear up arms of salt to cast behind any politician who dares to run for President before 2014. 

That’s all folks. Ftou, ftou, ftou.
Mati also come as cookies, courtesy of the Sparta (NJ) Public Library


  1. Such a fun blog post this week, Jeff. I've witnessed many a ftou, ftou, ftou around children over my decades in Greece. I'll have to remember the skorda, ftou...for when I encounter a priest. As for the carrying of garlic, I prefer to eat a steady diet of tzatziki, which keeps me covered most of the year. And although I'd hate to be responsible for being the one to "sas matiazo", may I wish you a lively, enjoyable and successful time at the Miami Book Fair today! Ftou, ftou, ftou sou!!!

    1. Thank you Jody for giving me the segue for why I took so long to respond to the many generous comments on this superstitious post. Since dawn this morning (or so it seemed) I've been at Miami Book Fair International having a wonderful time meeting old friends and creating new. I just had no time to check in on MIE. Sorry, but now I'm back and rip roaring ready to soon as the "wine" wears off.

  2. You've just discovered the perfect name for the innocent young heroine (or victim?) of your next mystery... Mati Skorda Ftouftouftou.


    1. You really made me laugh, Everett, because I had been struggling with a female name in my new book, and the bottom line truth is that your suggestion would have been perfect! But it's too late for that book so I think I'll have Ms.Ftouftouftou screwing around with a "King Tuesday the Thirteenth" character in the next one.:) And, yes, any resemblance to Mr. Rogers' iconic character from my children's growing up days is purely coincidental.

  3. I taught in an Italian neighborhood where curses and superstitions were taken very seriously. I was taught that it was imperative that someone suffering from a headache had to an obligation to family to learn if it was just a plain headache or the result of a curse. A bowl of cold water was placed on a sturdy table. An eye dropper was filled with oil and one drop was put into the bowl. If the oil didn't separate it was one kind of headache. If it did separate, it was the other. I could never test the theory because I could never remember which was which.

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    2. Hi Beth, so nice to hear from you! The Greeks have a similar olive oil test for the Evil Eye. If a drop of olive oil is deposited in water and floats, no problem. If it sinks, you have the Evil Eye. No idea at all how it works with balsamic vinegar.:)

  4. I am very superstitious, but I laugh about it. I loved this. I guess making sure you eat garlic every day would be a good fail safe, but might keep everyone away. There is a book around somewhere that talks of cultural superstitions. If not there should be :)

  5. A garlic a day keeps everyone away.:) I think your suggestion is terrific, Lil--and that you should write the book!

  6. Jeff, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Gods and Fates don't punish you for talking about them.

  7. Thanks, Stan, but don't worry. I'm sure that between your fingers and my garlic I'm covered. Ftou, ftou, ftou.

  8. This is fascinating, and some of it funny, though I'm sure Greeks don't think so.

    I can see carrying around beads, but garlic? Gosh, the social embarrassment this could cause if one flash a clove while in distress over a curse. Could it be used if one were cooking and ran out of garlic? The possibilities are funny to contemplate.

    I have what I thought were worry beads from Turkey, but they look exactly like the ones in the above photograph.

    And, speaking of the Evil Eye, Jewish people, especially older immigrants, also believe the Evil Eye casts its curses on babies, and on others, too. There are a lot of customs to ward off this curse, too.

  9. Thanks, Kathy. And many should be thankful I didn't get into the superstitions involving chickens.:)

    I agree with you that flashing one's garlic gloves in public could cause social embarrassment, depending of course on how noticeable your particular clove.

    Moving right along, it is said by some that Greeks developed their worry beads (called Komboyloi) to make fun of their Turkish occupiers prayer beads. Other say they derived from the Greek prayer rope.

    Whatever their origin, today komboyloi have no religious significance whatsoever and are made in just about every material and size you can imagine.

    And you're absolutely right about the Jewish tradition of the evil eye and flattering of babies. For years I thought my grandmother had a ribald nickname for my baby brother, Ken, because every time someone said how cute he was, she'd say "Ken a whore a."

    Jews may now laugh, while others run off to Wikipedia. [Ans. kenayhora is a Yiddish phrase meaning, "no evil eye."]

    Alav hashalom, Ken.