The Greek word for superstition is ‘δεισιδαιμονία’, the English translation of which is literally “fear of demons.”
Every culture accumulates superstitions – serious or half-serious, irrational beliefs relating to supernatural rituals performed to ward off ill fortune, bring good luck, foretell the future, heal, or prevent sickness and accidents.
In ancient Greece however, you took omens and signs of potential calamity and ill-fortune deadly seriously. In these ancient times where the universe was thought to be ruled by diverse gods and divine forces, superstitions were often personal tools to keep the health and wealth of oneself and one’s family safe in a dangerous, potentially chaotic environment.
These days superstitions are mostly about luck – attracting good fortune and avoiding having it turn against us. Many people probably regard most superstitions with slight scepticism, but chances are they still go along with them ‘just in case.’
So here is a list of some of our favourite Greek superstitions…just to be safe!
Mati (the evil eye)
The evil eye is believed to be a curse that is given by a glare that has negative intentions. Any negative emotion can cause the evil eye (mati) curse, such as anger or even jealousy or it can be brought on by receiving a compliment. It is believed that bad things happen to the person who has received the curse, from minor ailments such as headaches to misfortunes such as a string of ‘bad luck’ or even death in extreme cases.
To protect against such curses, people wear charms in the shape of an eye (also called a mati). In some parts of Greece, it is believed that those with blue or green eyes are especially able to give the curse to another person, which is why mati symbols and talismans are depicted as a blue eye.
Other techniques to ward off the mati include making a spitting sound three times, throwing salt over the shoulder or using garlic, which is thought to protect against evil. For those times that it may be inconvenient to conceal a bulb of garlic on your person, remember to repeat the Greek word for garlic ‘skorda’ three times should someone give you a compliment.
To remove the curse, the receiver usually asks an elder woman (yiayia, mother, thea) to recite a secret prayer to the Virgin Mary.
Garlic – even in the walls and over doors
Greeks believe that garlic has the power to keep evil away. Apart from warding off the evil eye, garlic is also believed to protect against evil spirits and demons, therefore it is common for some people to carry a clove in their pockets.
In Greece you often see braids of garlic, or large garlic heads hanging over the entry to homes, restaurants, businesses and stores. Some people even go so far as to insert bulbs of garlic into the wall cavities prior to plastering when constructing a building or home, in keeping with this age-all Greek superstition that garlic has the power to keep evil away.
Spitting to bring good fortune
Spitting, or more specifically, making a spitting sound ‘ftou ftou ftou’ three times to represent the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), is believed to protect against the curse of the evil eye.
It is not rare to also hear someone say ‘ftou ftou ftou’ when they hear about another’s misfortune to protect themselves or their loved ones from the same ill fate.
People are commonly heard to make the spitting sound to protect babies and children from any harm.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear the spitting sound in all kinds of situation.
Fishermen spit on their nets to ensure a good catch, and brides as they glide down the aisle in their beautiful wedding gowns are ‘ftou, ftou, ftou-ed’ upon all the time, to keep the devil at bay.
Never hand someone a knife
Greeks believe that people should never place a knife directly into another person’s hand if they want to remain friends, as doing so will end the friendship. Instead, the knife should be placed on the for the other person to pick it up themselves.
Never give perfume as a gift without receiving a coin in return
According to Greek superstition, it is taboo to give someone perfume as a gift as it is thought that doing so is a sure-fire way to ruin any kind of relationship. It is said that the perfume will attract an outside party, causing the breakup of relationships.
So, for those who can’t imagine life without their best friend, or if you don’t want to break up with your love, don’t give perfume as a gift.
Instead, the recipient of the perfume must provide the gift giver with a coin in exchange for the perfume to successfully counteract the impending doom of the relationship!
Salt is powerful
If you ever have an unwanted guest to your home who just won’t leave, never fear! According to Greek superstition, sprinkling a pinch of salt behind their back will see them on their way. And a pinch of salt thrown as they leave will ensure that they won’t return. It is also said that salt sprinkled in the doorway of each room of a new home before moving in will drive out any evil spirits should they happen to be lurking about.
Sleep with koufeta (sugared almonds)
Koufeta are the well-known sugared almonds that are often given as Greek wedding favours. According to tradition in Greece, the egg shape of the almond represents fertility and the new life which begins with marriage. The hardness of the almond represents the endurance of marriage and the sugar symbolises the sweetness of future life.
Tradition has it that if a single woman places the bag of koufeta from a wedding under her pillow before sleeping, she will dream of the man she will marry.
According to an old superstition, sneezing is thought to mean that someone is talking or thinking about you.
For those curious enough to find out who that person is, ask the nearest person to give you a three-digit number. Then you simply add each digit together and find the corresponding letter in the alphabet, and the result provides you with the first initial of the person thinking about you.
Never toast with coffee
When drinking alcohol, whether it be wine, ouzo, beer or tsipouro, a typical toast in Greece is “ya mas” meaning “to our health”.
But one thing you should never do is ‘cheers’ with coffee, which is said to bring bad luck.
Smoked cross on doors
Those who have visited the home of a Greek friend may have noticed a smoked cross on the door frame or on the ceiling above the door. This is because many believe that making a cross sign on the head of the entrance with the Holy Light candle’s ash from the Easter Eve midnight mass will bring good fortune to the household.
No leap year weddings
Just like in many other countries, Greek couples will avoid getting married on a leap year. Indeed, weddings (and even engagements) celebrated during a leap year are thought to end badly, either by a divorce or even the spouse’s death.
Steal plants if you want them to grow
Did you know that if you have ever taken a cutting from a plant and tried to root it without success, it’s because you didn’t steal it.
Greeks believe that plants and flowers will only take root and grow if they are stolen. In fact, if you would like some cuttings from their plants (which are also stolen cuttings), they will actually tell you to come back later to steal them.
You cannot be gifted a cutting from a stolen plant as it is believed that their giving-plant will die. So, if you discreetly cut off a piece of the desired plant and take it home without telling the owner it will root easily.
Bread is Holy and has magical powers
There are a number of Greek superstitions about bread.
You often see yiayias in villages make the sign of the cross over a loaf of bread before slicing it. This is because Greeks believe that bread is a gift from God – a belief that originates from the bible. This is also why many villagers would never ever never throw away any bread as it is considered bad luck.
Also, many Greeks are superstitious about who is to eat the heel (end piece) of the bread loaf. It is believed that young single women should eat it so that their future mother-in-law will like them.
Salt, eggs and bread must not leave your home after sundown
If someone comes knocking at your door after the sun has gone down asking for salt, eggs or bread you must not give it to them.
Doing so will bring bad luck to your house according to Greek superstition, which goes so far as to say that people with bad intentions will actually specifically pay you a visit after sunset to to ask you for these items so that they can try to hex your home.
So, if someone stops by wanting these items you need to invite them in to let them eat them inside, but you must never give them to be taken outside of your house after the sun has gone down.
If you want to give a guest some food or a ‘doggie bag’ to take home, and you know that they will be leaving your house after dark, leave the items outside of the front door before the sun goes down and then it is safe for your guest to take with them when they are ready.
“Filaxta” – talismans and amulets
Filaxta, are Greek amulets, talismans, or charms that re believed to have the power to ward off the evil eye. Usually seen pinned to babies, or children’s clothes, filaxta are also carried in the pockets and purses of older people.
Called “Baskania” by The Greek Orthodox Church, small pieces of cloth are sewn into tiny sachets, embellished with beads, or the sign of the cross, filled with cotton wool soaked in holy oil, which has been blessed by a priest, or pieces of olive branch or basil, that has been used in some religious ceremony, performed by a priest.
If your right palm itches you will soon be receiving money from somewhere. If your left palm itches, it means that you will soon be forced to give money to someone or for something.
It’s good luck to spill coffee
If you happen to spill your coffee, you might hear Greeks calling out “youri! youri!” which means “it’s for good luck!”
This is because Greek superstition says that if you spill your coffee it means you will soon good fortune of some kind, usually monetary.
Never leave scissors open
Always close a pair of scissors once you have finished using them. Putting scissors down with the blades open is an invitation for people to talk about you – and never in a good way.
Never leave your shoes lying on their side
Never leave your shoes lying on their side, always place them sole-side down. Shoes left on their sides mean bad luck – some even say death.
Never leave your slippers sole-side up while you sleep
If you want to have children, then be careful not to leave your slippers sole-side up while sleeping as this is a sure way to remain childless, according to Greek folklore.
Write the name of the one you love on the soles of wedding shoes
When attending weddings, unmarried girls write the names of their loved ones, or the name of the boy they have their eye on, on the soles of their shoes.
According to Greek folklore, if the name has not worn off the sole of the shoe by the end of the day, then the wearer may be hearing their own wedding bells. Maybe this is why young Greek girls always seem to be treading so very carefully at weddings.
Always enter and leave a house by the same door
When visiting someone, always leave from the door through which you entered – failing to do so may break up a romantic relationship.
Touch red to avoid a fight
Greeks believe that when two people speak the same words at the same time it is a sign that the two will get into an argument. To avoid the fight, they must immediately touch something that is red (piase kokkino).
Don’t eat straight from the pot
Never eat straight from the cooking pot, always put your food on a plate to eat it. Greek superstition says that eating straight from the pot will mean that you will have bad weather on your wedding day.
Bat bones are actually lucky. (Can you believe it?)
On some Greek islands bat bones have historically been considered to be lucky, hence they are carried around in pockets and purses to attract good luck.
Finding a means by which to acquire the bat bones however, can be quite problematic, as its also believed to be very unlucky to kill a bat.
Try to avoid seeing a priest walking down the street
Everybody loves a Greek priest but, as revered as they are, it’s thought to be a bad omen to see one in the street so if you do, you must look away quickly.
If you can’t avoid a priest out and about on the streets, whisper the word “skorda” (which means “garlic”) to effectively deflect any bad omens.
Plant cacti outside the door
Greece has the perfect climate for cacti, and they are often seen planted in the ground or in pots at doors or entrances to Greek homes. This is because a cactus is considered to be a spiky, prickly doorman, keeping evil spirits and demons away from the house.
Crows are a bad omen
In ancient Greek mythology, the crow was a symbol of the occult, or witchcraft so to Greek people, crows represent a bad omen, bad news, misfortune and even death.
If a Greek person sees a crow they are likely to say; “sto kalo, sto kalo, kala nea tha mou ferris” which means “Go to the good, go to the good and bring me good news”
By saying this, they send the crow on its way, with instructions not to return without good news.