An assortment of Greek superstitions, customs and traditions, some have regional origins.
The most commonly talked about ancient superstition in the Greek Isles. The evil eye can strike at any given moment. Perhaps there was an occasion that you were dressed up and someone told you how nice you look. A few minutes later you spilled coffee down the front of you, Or maybe someone told you how beautiful your new vase was and a while later it fell to the ground shattering in a thousand pieces. That’s the evil eye. To ward it off, there are a few different things you can do. You can buy blue charms shaped like eyes to ‘reflect’ the evil and they are worn on a necklace or a bracelet. Blue beads can also be worn instead of an eye. Blue is the colour that wards off the evil of the eye, but it is also commonly thought that blue eyed people are exceptional givers of it. So beware when a blue eyed person pays you a compliment, according to the superstition, it could be disastrous. Another way to ward off the evil eye is with garlic. There are rare instances when a single clove will grow into the shape of a small head of garlic. If you’re lucky enough to come across one, guard it well as it is the best thing to keep away the evil eye. You can carry it in your pocket, or keep it in a hanky in your bra. If you can’t brave the garlic, there is an alternative, When you get a compliment remember to say ‘Skorda (garlic)’ under your breath and spit three times on yourself. If you know the individual that is complimenting you, tell them to spit on you too. The Greek Orthodox Church also believes in the evil eye, and they refer to it as “Baskania”.
For some People bat bones are considered to be very lucky. These people carry a small bit of the bone in their pockets or purses with them where ever they go, although killing a bat is deemed to bring bad luck. Other People believe bats are unholy creatures and should be avoided at all costs.
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, as it would be a sin for it to end up in the garbage and has to be consumed.
The pomegranate is a symbol of happy times, fertility and prosperity in Greek folklore, and in some parts of Greece people take a pomegranate with them when they visit people on New Year’s Eve and smash it on the threshold, so that the household will have good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
No Greek home would be complete without at least one cactus positioned somewhere near the front entrance. In a big ‘Feta’ can or garden pot, a cactus with its thorny spikes, takes its place proudly warding off the evil eye from the property.
It used to be an ill omen to start a voyage on certain days of the week. Friday was one, the origin for 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 31 December, the anniversary of the day on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself.
Crows are considered omens of bad news, misfortune and death. When you see or hear a crow cawing, people say “Sto Kalo… Sto Kalo…. Kala Nea na me Feris” which loosely translated means, go well into the day and bring me good news.
The Gift of Cologne
In Greece it is customary that when you give someone the gift of cologne that they must give you a coin in return. If they refuse to do so then your relationship will be at risk.
Fish are believed to be wise and knowledgeable. But the Church also sees the fish as a revered symbol of silence. ΙΧΘΥΣ- ‘Ichthis’, translated means fish and is the Greek name for the zodiac sign of Pisces.
Garlic / Skordo
Greeks believe the power of Garlic to keep evil away. You may find braids of Garlic, or a large individual head dangling in the entrances of shops, restaurants and homes. It is thought that garlic not only wards off the evil eye but also keeps away evil spirits and demons. It is also common for some folk to carry a clove of it on their persons or in their pockets. A single clove as a head of garlic is the best, but very hard to find.
Never hand someone a knife. Set it down and let them pick it up, or else you will get into a fight with that person.
Greeks believe that Money attracts money, so never leave your pockets, purses or wallets completely empty and never completely empty your bank account. Always leave at least a coin or two. 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.
Even in these days of modern medicine, you can still find a few village women that strongly believe in the ‘Old Ways’ to cure many different ailments. Onions seem to be popular ingredients and their healing powers go way back in village Folklore. For colds and sniffles, you can grate onions and use them as a mustard plaster on the chest. To ease the swelling from a bad sprain, grate onions and mix them with a bit of Ouzo. Apply the paste to the swollen area and bandage it up. Leave it on overnight and by morning, the swelling should be gone.
Plants & Cuttings
If you have tried to take a cutting and root it without success, maybe you are doing something wrong. Greeks believe that in order for a cutting to root, it has to be stolen. You have to cut off a piece of the desired plant and take it home without telling the owner, according to superstition, it will root easily.
Greek Orthodox priests are very revered. When greeting one, it is customary to kiss his hand or ring in respect. But it’s considered a bad omen to see one walking in the street, and most people whisper ‘Skorda (garlic)’ under their breath.
In Greek Folklore, salt can be used to get rid of an unwanted human presence. If you have an unwanted guest in your home and you want them to leave, all you have to do is sprinkle salt behind them. The powers of the salt will chase them out. It is also customary to sprinkle salt in a new home before you occupy it, as the salt will drive any evil out and away from you and your family.
Overturned shoes (soles up) are considered very 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.
A Kallikantzaros (Kallikantzaroi ) are goblins in Greek folk tradition. They dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas, from 25 December to 6 January (from the winter solstice for a fortnight during which time the sun ceases its seasonal movement). Its name is possibly derived from “kalos-kentauros, or “beautiful centaur”. The Kallikantzaroi are creatures of the night. There were ways people could protect themselves during the days when the Kallikantzaroi were loose. They could leave a colander on their doorstep: if a Kallikantzaros approached for his evildoings, he would instead decide to sit and count the holes until the sun rose and he was forced to hide. The Kallikantzaroi also could not count above 2, since 3 is a holy number, and by pronouncing it, they would kill themselves. Another method of protection is to leave the fire burning in the fireplace all night so that they cannot enter through there. Legend has it that any child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of transforming to a Kallikantzaros for each Christmas season, starting with adulthood. The antidote: Binding the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or singeing the child’s toenails. In Greek, Kallikantzaros is also used for every short, ugly and usually mischievous being.
In Greek superstition, if you sneeze it means that someone is talking about you. If you want to know who it is, there is a way you can find out. Ask someone around you to give you a three-digit number. Count each digit together and then count down the alphabet. Whatever letter it falls on, is the initial of the person that is talking about you. For example, 534 is the number given. Add it together 5+3+4=12 . Count down the alphabet to ‘L’, which is the twelth letter. That is the first initial of the person that is talking about you. Because you never know if what they are saying about you is good or bad, it wouldn’t hurt to whisper ‘Skorda (garlic)’ under your breath, just to be on the safe side.
Greeks spit for a number of superstitious reasons, the most common is to keep evil away from you, for example, if you hear of someone speaking of misfortune or bad news and fear the possibility of the same thing happening to you, you would spit three times on your own person. Greeks say ” Ftise Ston Korfo Sou” or loosely translated, spit on yourself/your cleavage. it wards off the evil from coming to you. Spitting is also commonly used to avoid misfortune, so you don’t give the ‘evil eye’ to yourself or create a jinx .For example Greek fishermen will spit in their nets before lowering them into the sea to ward off evil and get a good days’ catch.
Talismans or ‘Filahta’ are regularly used in Greece. 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 of the older people carry them in their pockets and purses or have them discretely pinned to their clothing. There are numerous items that are used for Filahta that are thought to guard you from the Evil Eye 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 / Piase Kokkino
Sometimes two people have the same thought and speak the same words at the same time. Greeks believe this to be an omen that those two persons will get into a fight and they say to ‘Piase Kokkino’ or ‘Touch Red’ to avoid the argument. Both persons have to touch something that’s red immediately, like clothing or a piece of food.
Tuesday the 13th
Different from Western cultures, it is Tuesday the 13th of the month that is considered unlucky in Greece and not Friday the 13th.
Whooping Cough / Kokitis
In the days before vaccinations, Greeks thought that donkeys’ milk should be given to a child infected with whooping cough.
The Blessing / Curse of a Parent
“As long as you have the blessing of your parents it does not matter even if you live in the mountains.”
This is an indication of the value that is placed on the blessing of a parent towards a child in a child’s life. It is considered a very bad omen in one’s life if they lose the blessing of a parent.
In Greek superstition a curse of a parent is considered dangerous, especially a curse of a mother.
Traditionally Greek families tend to be very close, and there usually exists strong bonds between all members of the near family and the extended family. Greeks place a very high respect on elders and younger children will often call elders “Aunt” or “Uncle” who are not blood relatives out of respect.
Parents have an even greater respect placed upon them. It is customary for Greek children to ask the blessing of the parents, for example in marriage as to not have it is considered dangerous. The Greek Orthodox church places a great value in parents, and in the up bring of their children into a Christian life. In such, it is believed that disrespect towards a parent that has done a great deal for the child is considered shameful. Each man or woman is considered to have two fathers the physical father, and God. The same can be said indirectly that each man or woman has two mothers one being the patron saint of Mothers the Virgin Mary and your mother. Therefore disrespect of your physical parent is thought to transcend to disrespect towards God. This is where the superstition falls in. 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 is called in Greek 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. The other form of Parahorisis is the feared form which can result in the worst case Possession.
Either way it is believed by some that a curse will take effect if it said by a parent. For example if a parent curses a child to never be successful in their life, if the child never amounts to nothing it will be attributed to the curse.
The most dangerous curse is said to not be from a father but rather from a mother. The mother is said to have a special bond with the child as the child is carried in the mother’s womb for many months. If the mother curses the child it is believed that the child must have been extremely disrespectful, and will be punished. In fact, in no circumstance is disrespect towards a parent acceptable. It is believed that we can pay for disrespect in this life as much as in the next. God is said to be all seeing rewarding those who are righteous and punishing those who are not. In the case of disrespect towards a parent the punishment is said to come sooner, and then later as well!
The Good Bee (Folk tale)
Along time ago the Turtle, the Spider, the Wasp, and the Bee were all brothers. The Mother that they all shared became very sick and on her deathbed she called for her children. She was sure that all her children would rush to her side as she had been the best mother the world had ever seen. Ehen the Turtle heard of his Mother’s illness he said, “I’m to busy now I’m washing my clothes my Mother can wait.” Upon hearing this the Mother became very angry and threw a curse on him saying, “May you and all your descendants wear your washing board on your back.” In this manner the Turtle came to have the shell it wears on its’ back. When the Spider heard of his Mother’s illness he said, “I’m to busy now I’m weaving a great weave my Mother can wait.” Upon hearing this the Mother became very angry and threw a curse on him saying, “May you and all your descendants weave, weave and may you never create a weave that will last for time.” In this manner the Spider came to create beautiful webs that would not last the test of time. Webs that would always to be destroyed by passer by’s or a strong wind.
When the Wasp heard of his mother’s illness he said, “I’m too busy now I’m creating something in the mud.” Upon hearing this the mother became very angry and threw a curse on him saying, “May all you create turn into poison.” In this manner the Wasp cannot create anything that appears of value. When the Bee heard of his Mother’s illness he said, “Oh my poor dear Mother I must rush to her side she has been so kind to us.” The Bee at the time was baking bread and ran to his Mother with the flour still on his hands. The Mother upon seeing her only good child praised the Bee and from her heart she said, “May you and all your descendants create the sweetest products so that all may eat from you.” In this manner the Bee was blessed to create honey so that all may eat from its’ blessed hands.
Even before the wedding day is announced, the bride and groom must pick specific days on the calendar to make sure they harness all the best luck for their nuptials. The celebration of the krevati, the making of the marital bed, is a time to celebrate the couples purity and fertility. Mother-in-laws are always on the hunt to find a male toddler to throw on the bed so the bride can go on and produce many sons to keep the family name going.
Another way to make sure the bride bears healthy and happy baby boys is to get a groomsman to visit her house before the wedding, pick out a pair of her shoes and put money in them and put a shoe on her right foot and say three times ‘five sons and one daughter’ and then put on the other shoe while she kisses his hand.
Before entering the house, the mother-in-law hands the bride a plate of honey and the bride uses the honey to make three crosses on the door frame before entering the house making sure that the happiness and sweetness enters the house.
When organising the wedding, be sure to select your bridal parties using odd numbers – three, five and seven – for good luck.
The bride should never collect her wedding dress during the night and it’s bad luck to wear your wedding rings any time before the wedding. Its also bad luck to buy your engagement and wedding rings on the same day.
It is traditional for the koumbaro (Religious sponser) to shave the groom
When you leave your parents house, the bride should look back so that the children she and her husband have will take after her side for the family.
There is a part in the church service, were the priest talks about the woman being respectful of the husband. At that time the husband or the bride steps on each others foot to symbolise who in the partnership will be the dominant one.
The disko (tray) that the stefana (wedding crowns) are placed on in the church will be covered with koufeta (sugared almonds) if you sneak one home and happen to be single, pop it under your pillow, that night you will dream of your future husband or wife.
If you are lucky enough to be bridesmaid, write down the names of three suitors on the sole of your left shoe. As you dance the night away, one name will remain. He will be your Prince Charming.
Other Traditions and Customs
- People knock on wood or “move” from their place to avoid a jinx.
- Greeks threat of putting pepper in someone’s tongue when he or she is cursing.
- Greeks consider black cats as bad luck.
- Projecting your hand with your fingers open is considered very rude.
- Looking away when talking to someone is considered very rude.
- On New Years Eve people gamble for good luck.
- Never make a toast when drinking water or coffee.
- In Greece people twist a coin when faced with a dilemma.
- Mothers throw the baby teeth of their children on the roof, so that the new one grows strong.
- People in Greece celebrate both birthdays and name days.
- If you fall asleep under a cypress tree it will steal your brains.