Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March she said,
Or we shall have to tell
The way you died
A strange demise
On your way to rot in hell

That was the opening stanza of a poem I composed more than three decades ago, back in 1973, for a high school English class assignment. (And I still have a copy of it today.) I not only received an “F” on the project but my parents were called in for a conference because I submitted a piece of paper with the word “hell” on it. My mother was scandalized, but my dear old dad was more bothered by the fact that I was talking about this specific date.

The Ides, as a date, is a concept which dates back to the Roman empire and beyond, denoting the fifteenth day of March, May, July and October. They were all set aside for pagan festivities, but the 15th of March took on a permanent connotation of doom and bad luck. (Just ask Julius Caesar, who found the date to be extremely unlucky – at least for the few minutes it took him to bleed out.)

My father was always a very superstitious man, and it wasn’t just about March 15. He would, as much as possible, avoid leaving the house on any Friday the 13th. He informed me, as a child, that if a black bird landed on the window sill and looked in at you then you very well might die, become ill, or have something else horrible befall you. We lived out in the country where there were a ton of crows and starlings, so you can imagine the trauma I felt walking past windows most days.

The list went on and on. We have native American blood on both sides of my family and a lot of these things were stories that were passed down from generation to generation. Even in an age of enlightenment, it’s amazing how much of that baggage carries over and affects the real lives of modern man. I think one of the strangest ones came from my grandmother on the occasion of my moving into my first apartment. She told me in a conspiratorial tone that the very first time I crossed the threshold into the new residence I needed to walk in backwards. Why? Because it would make “them” think that you were leaving, rather than moving in, and “they” wouldn’t stick around and bother you any more. She never really elaborated on who “they” might be.

I always find stories like these intriguing, though they seem to be fading away in the 21st century. Please feel free to share any of your own superstitions or ones you’ve observed in friends and family. Do you avoid picking up a coin on the ground if it’s tails up? Have you ever thrown salt over your shoulder? Does dropping a spoon on the floor hold any special significance for you? We’re a curious breed, we humans.

6 Comments

  1. I absolutely never pick up a coin that falls (or rests) on the ground, tails up … I do turn it on its head, so that it will be good luck to he/she who does.

  2. My mother and grandmother subscribed to the whole series of cutlery superstitions which said that dropping various utensils meant that various types of visitors would be dropping by (I don't remember what the specific implications of knife, fork, or spoon were.) I don't think they actually took it seriously, it was just something you said when you dropped an item while setting the table.

    There was also something that signalled that someone was talking about you- if I remember correctly, it was ringing in the ears. Come to think of it, I guess this means people are constantly talking about me since I suffer from tinnitus!

  3. I remember one where if you did not believe in the proper invisible man, you would be tortured forever after you died. My mom was big on that one.

  4. It is funny the way some of these things survive today when we should all know better. I moonlight as a musician and have my small superstitious rituals before a show, all in spite of the fact I'm aware they can't possibly have any real bearing on the performance.

  5. Ah…I love superstition! I love the lore and the tradition and the ritual around such things. It always surprises me a bit, though, to realize that there are people who actually believe such things. In particularly, religious superstition is totally fascinating; I used to call myself an “aesthetic Catholic”, because I find the tradition and rituals so intriguing, even though I'm an athiest. I throw salt over my shoulder — but only because I relish the excuse to make a mess. I believe in karma — but not in a religious or superstitious way, more like a you-get-my-back-I'll-get-yours sort of thing.

  6. Yes, I love superstitions, even if I don't really “believe” in them. I think they're part of our culture (whatever one's culture) and provide a richness.

    I also think that knowing superstitions allows us to be more aware of our surroundings…. For instance, I've never heard the one about black birds looking at you through the window and you'd become ill, or die, or have something horrible happen to you… But I could see that a black bird (or any color for that matter) might fly to a window for warmth…. and if the weather is getting colder then you would want to bundle up to prevent coming down with a cold. And you'd certainly want to be careful of any ice that might be on the sidewalk… So when superstitions make us more aware of our environment and actions, then they are helpful!

    On another superstition, which I have heard… about not walking under ladders…. I think that is a good superstition to illustrate what I mean. Even if you don't believe in that superstition walking under a ladder is still dangerous. A worker on the ladder may drop something on you, or you may bump against the ladder and something may fall off…. So when I approach a ladder I don't cross under it for those reasons (and generally there's plenty of room to go around it) but I still look for potential hazards and walk around it accordingly. Not because I'm superstitious, but because I use the superstition as a way of being more aware of what is happening (or could happen) around me.

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