Tag Archives: Russian Superstitions

Five Petal Lilac

Context:

The informant is my father. He is a 55-year old white male and spent the first 26 years of his life in the Soviet Union (Moscow). He, like many others in the USSR was raised as an atheist, and his whole family (including himself) has a background in the sciences; therefore he is a very logical, analytical individual. 

The following conversation took place as a part of a larger conversation about Russian folklore during a road trip from Southern Utah to Las Vegas.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

“A silly superstition that was common among students – though it was mostly my family, my mother, that did it often, kind of as a joke but kind of not – was that you take lilac – a flower with four petals and on rare occasion you find one with five petals- and it was considered that if you find a lilac with five petals right before an exam then you’ll perform well.”

Analysis:

This was the only piece of folklore my Dad could think of when asked about folklore surrounding school or university superstitions or legends. While I’m sure there was more that he couldn’t remember, he pointed out that because he was surrounded by young, non-superstitious people studying subjects in the STEM field, it may also just be the case that there was less folklore to spread because of the logical, evidence-based nature of the scientific field.

Russian Superstitions

The 26-year-old informant was born in Russia, but moved to the U.S. at a young age. During his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, he was a teaching assistant for a Russian folklore class and found these pieces of folklore to be particularly interesting or representative of Russian culture.

On shaking hands:

“One superstition is you’re never supposed to shake hands with someone across a threshold or doorway. It’s said to lead to separation and falling out, because you’re like, wishing to never see that person again. So that’s pretty common. Pretty much all Russians follow this rule.”

On whistling:

“Another sort of weird superstition is that you shouldn’t whistle–especially indoors, like ever, because it’ll lead to you losing all your money and having bad luck. It used to be this belief that the wind is bad. Like a bad demon-type creature, and in ancient pagan belief. The wind whistles, so by whistling, you’re inviting the wind demon into your house.”

 

These superstitions are interesting because they involve things that are quite common in the U.S. In fact, most Americans wouldn’t think twice about where they shake hands with someone or if they’re whistling indoors. It definitely highlights the slightly irrational ideas behind superstitions when you hear superstitions from other cultures that aren’t your own. However, all superstitions play a part in culture and thus contribute infinitely to it.

Russian Drinking Custom – Toasting

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she said when I asked about her step-daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.

 

Informant: “Drinking is really big in Russian culture—you probably know that. We have a lot of family dinners and there is always drinking, of wine or vodka. Guest will bring wine or the host will bring out their favorite wines. My parents actually have a whole spreadsheet of the different wines in their wine closet. Since drinking is so much a part of Russian culture, there are traditions that go along with it. The biggest thing I can think of, I think, would be toasts. Like, there are certain traditions of what toasts you say in what order. Second toast is usually for the host. The first toast is always for the occasion you are gathered for, and second for the host. The third one is for those who are at sea.”

 

Interviewer: “Are there lots of people at sea…?”

 

Informant: “No. We say ‘at sea’, but it’s really more a reference to those who are not with us—either dead or not the at the dinner table.”

 

Interviewer: “Hmm, that’s really interesting that the toast for people not at the table is the ‘at sea’ toast. Do you have any idea why that is?

 

Informant: “No, I don’t know. I mean, drinking culture was a big think in Russia in general. And I guess originally there may have been a lot of traders? Or people at sea? What I think is so distinct about Russian drinking is this tradition of you can’t drink unless you toast. You have to validate your drinking with a toast.”

 

Thoughts:

What my informant said about toasts being a way of validating drinking stuck with me. I feel like a lot of folklore, or festivals and rituals, at least, is centered in validation—validating customs already set in place, validating a relationship or new union to be had, validating a new stage in a person’s life, validating one’s entering adulthood, etc. What is sometimes seen as merely paying homage to an earlier time, or to a certain religion one follows, usually has more influence than that.

 

When I asked my informant about why the third toast is said for those “at sea”, when no one I know of her family is actually off at sea, it seemed like the first time the informant had really been considering the question. This illustrates the tendency not to question the traditions and the folklore one grows up with, contrasted with the tendency many people have to critique or ridicule other traditions and folklore, ones the criticizing individual hasn’t grown up with. This speaks to the us them mentality that we see quite often with folklore—one example of the mentality’s presence is in practical jokes, a form of folklore that often serves as an initiation, or a demonstration of the tightness of one group and the outsider-ness of the one being pranked. However, it is worth noting that in the person being pranked, they are many times being initiated into the group of the pranksters…

 

For a slightly different interpretation of the third toast, see an article in the New York Times from 1995:

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/08/world/moscow-journal-glassy-eyed-etiquette-a-guide-to-russian-toasts.html.

Don’t Whistle Away Your Money

My informant, KM, explained that Russians believe it is bad luck to whistle under a roof because you are whistling your money away.  This is a very strong belief in Russia.  KM learned this superstition from her Russian American friend and roommate.  Thus, no whistling occurs in KM’s home.

KM saw this superstition in the motherland when traveling in Russia in the summer of 2012.  KM was was on a USC trip with eighteen American students.  KM and her travel companions were walking outside on a street that was under construction.  The sidewalk on which they were walking had overhead scaffolding–basically a roof outdoors.  One of KM’s friends began to whistle when walking beneath the scaffolding and immediately received dirty looks from the Russian passersby.  KM later realized that her friend was receiving stares from the Russians because he was whistling under a roof.  My informant then told her friend and the whole group that whistling under a roof is bad luck.

This belief demonstrates that money is important to Russians and not to be whistled away.  It suggests that Russians do not have a care-free attitude towards their money.  It also demonstrates that Russians have a strong belief in their superstitions.