Culture and History
September 27, 2023
The human love of superstition is as old as time and a worldwide phenomenon. In France, many believe that laying a baguette upside-down will bring down a curse on those who eat it. In Texas, USA, it is said that pointing at a grave will cause your finger to rot. In Canada, it’s considered bad luck for sailors to wear grey gloves. Below we explore some popular Ukrainian superstitions to be aware of during your time in Ukraine.
When visiting a friend’s house in Ukraine, many consider it unlucky to pass an object over the doorway. It’s best to wait until you are indoors to hand over gifts or shake hands. Historically, the threshold of a house has been regarded as the space between two worlds, the world of the home and the world beyond, engendering practices to protect the threshold from negative forces. In ancient Ukraine, the ashes of ancestors were sometimes buried under the doorstep of the house to provide protection. In order not to disturb them, the customs of not passing objects over the threshold or sitting on the doorstep evolved.
Spaces within the home are also significant. In early Ukrainian tradition, the corners of the home were divided into “good” and “bad”. The good corners were decorated with icons and ruschnyk (hand-embroidered towels), while bad corners were left empty. This custom has evolved to include corners of the table. The tradition holds that unmarried people who sit at the corner will not marry. So, if you want to marry, avoid sitting at the corner of a table!
Travelling in Ukraine, you may hear the expression, “Don’t whistle - we’ll have no money!” One of the most common Ukrainian superstitions is that whistling indoors will bring financial misfortune. For some people, this rule applies only in rooms where there is a religious icon. According to Ukrainian folk belief, whistling summons evil spirits who steal from anyone present.
The belief that whistling attracts spirits is shared by many cultures. In Greece, some believe that whistling at night attracts evil spirits, who will steal your voice forever. Likewise, many sailors believe that whistling on board challenges the wind and will cause a storm. These beliefs reflect the idea that whistling is an unnatural form of communication or the language of spirits. A more practical explanation is that whistling can distract you from the task at hand - a sure way to lose money if you’re at work!
Many in Ukraine consider that spilling salt augurs a family scandal or argument. Historically, salt has been considered a symbol of prosperity to be offered to guests with bread. If a guest spilled the salt, it was considered disrespectful and could lead to a quarrel.
Superstitions concerning salt abound worldwide. Salt, or “white gold”, has long been a precious commodity and was used as a form of payment in antiquity. In his famous painting The Last Supper, which captures the moment when Jesus reveals his forthcoming betrayal, Leonardo da Vinci painted Judas knocking over the salt. This led to an association between salt and the devil. In the UK and the US, if someone spills salt, it is customary to throw it over the left shoulder to protect from evil. Why the left shoulder? The left shoulder is commonly believed to be where the devil sits. Throwing salt over your left shoulder will blind him.
Some Ukrainians believe that if you eat from a knife, you will become an angry person. Historically, the knife was considered a sacred and magical object that could protect from harm and evil spirits. Forged by blacksmiths who were believed to possess mystical creative powers, disrespectful treatment of the knife could anger the spirits, making a person aggressive. Belief in the knife’s power to cause dissent is associated with the knife’s capacity to divide, also reflected in the Ukrainian tradition that knives or sharp objects should not be given as presents. The concept of the knife as a tool that causes division is also reflected in the Chinese proverb, “one slash, two parts.” In addition to this fascinating folklore, it’s worth considering that if you eat from a knife, you may injure your mouth.
All birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated in Ukraine with the exception of the 40th, particularly for men. This superstition arose because of an association between the number forty and death. Traditionally, the bodies of the deceased were checked for imperishability on the fortieth day and this marked an important time of ritual mourning.
As well as sharp objects, receiving a watch as a present is believed to bring bad luck. This superstition is believed to originate in China, where a watch was presented as an invitation to a funeral. Some Ukrainians believe that the gift of a watch is bad luck because the hands of the watch represent sharp objects. However, if you receive a watch as a present, bad luck can be averted by giving a coin to the person who offers the gift. This creates the impression that you have bought the watch yourself.
The concept of the threshold as a space between worlds is also significant to another Ukrainian superstition. It is considered unlucky to return home without having fulfilled your intended task, as the road to achieving it has been broken by movement between the two worlds. However, bad luck can be undone by looking in a mirror, which will restore your initial positive energy. It’s interesting to note that recent research upholds the idea that changing location negatively affects memory, and therefore task performance.
It is traditional to sit down at home before a long journey. Long journeys entail leaving the familiar and safe world of the home to enter the unknown, outside world. It is believed that sitting down before a journey will ensure that nothing bad happens on the journey, and the traveller will happily return home.
This tradition is also connected with the Ukrainian folklore figure of Domovyk, a house spirit who lives under the stove or in the roof and protects the house and its inhabitants. Domovyk, although usually invisible, can be seen by children, pets, and those who treat him well. If you depart suddenly, Domovyk may try to follow you, leaving the home unprotected. Sitting down creates the impression that nobody is leaving, ensuring that Domovyk will remain to look after the house in your absence. A different interpretation is that the tradition of sitting gives time to reassure and say goodbye to Domovyk. Strangely, research indicates that 25% of motor accidents occur within three minutes of leaving home. Sitting down to gather your thoughts before a journey is a sensible way of preparing for the journey ahead.
The belief that you should not take the rubbish out after sunset has two possible origins. The first is that taking rubbish out after sunset may look suspicious to prying eyes, causing rumours that you have something to hide. The second concerns the belief that evil spirits operate in the period between sunset and dawn. Taking the rubbish out after dark exposes a person to these forces, which may also enter the home and stay overnight. A third argument is that you’re more likely to be attacked if you’re staring into your bin in the dark!
This tradition holds that if a piece of cutlery falls from the table, a guest will arrive. If a knife falls, the visitor will be male. If a spoon falls, expect a female. This belief derives from past times when the family ate from the same bowl with their own spoon. On Christmas Eve, after eating, kutia (pounded wheat with raisins, poppy seeds, nuts and honey) is left on the table for the whole night with the spoons of family members who have died to remember and honour them.
We hope you enjoy the connections you make during your time in Ukraine. Learning about a different culture is one of the many benefits of volunteering. You can visit our current volunteering opportunities here.