French superstitions

Hedging our bets

Because of spam, I’ve had to close comments on this post, which is a pity since it’s one of my most popular. However, if you want to make a comment, I’ve added a contact form below.

We are all hard-wired for superstition and irrationalism, whether we like it or not. Some people resist better than others, but these things run deep.

I freely admit that I avoid walking on the cracks in the pavement; if I spill salt on the table, I throw a pinch over my left shoulder into the Devil’s eyes; and my lucky number is 7.

What we regard as bringing good or ill fortune varies according to country and culture. I noticed that the French (at least down here) regard Friday 13th as a lucky day and pile into the newsagent’s to buy lottery tickets. In the UK, it’s exactly the opposite. So I decided to do some research into French superstitions. Some of them are the same as ours, e.g. don’t walk under a ladder, finding a four-leafed clover brings good luck, touch wood while making a wish. Quite a few were new to me. Here are a few examples.

Things that bring good fortune

1.     Nailing a horseshoe upside down over a doorway.

In the UK we always turn horseshoes the right way up, i.e. so the rounded end is downwards, otherwise the luck runs out.

2.     Treading in dog poo with the left foot.

Now, as we all know, the streets of France are paved with the stuff, not least our local village (despite strategically-placed plastic glove dispensers for removing the offending items, which the people just ignore).

Recently, I entered the newsagents and realised that some hapless soul had unwittingly spread it all over the floor. I brought this to Mme B’s attention and another customer said, “Well it wasn’t me, but if it had been I hope I would have trodden in it with my left foot.” This seemed like a strange wish to me but, having researched it, I now understand. I don’t intend to put it to the test, though.

Things that bring bad luck

1.     Putting the loaf on the table upside down.

This indicates that you are inviting famine into the household.

2.     A black cat crossing your path.

Again, this is exactly the opposite of the UK version, where this presages good fortune. I can’t find the reason for this belief, except that black cats were believed to be incarnations of the Devil, witches’ familiars etc.

In Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat, set in France, the main character (herself a bit witchy) dances widdershins round a black cat that has crossed in front of her and chants:

Où va-t-i, Mistigri,
Passe sans faire de mal ici

I don’t know if this is a real incantation or if she made it up for the novel. The Internet is silent on the matter.

3.     Lighting 3 cigarettes with the same match.

Again, I can find no explanation, except that you’re likely to burn your fingers (especially with French matches, which seem to be of poor quality and, even if you can get them to light, burn down too quickly).

Commentator Paul has now kindly supplied the answer. He writes, “3 on a match is from WWI trench warfare. Striking a match alerted a sniper, 2nd on the match allows sniper to get distance to target, 3rd person on the match is shot…thus bad luck to be the 3rd person on a match.” Bad luck, indeed.

4.     Inviting 13 people around the same table

In contrast to the Friday 13th superstition, having 13 guests around the table is bad luck. We had 13 guests last New Year’s Eve and had a great time. As midnight struck, our friend Michel told us the tale of a Parisian friend. She apologised for being unable to invite him for dinner, but that would have made 13 at the table. The day of the dinner party she phoned and said that someone else had dropped out so he could now come. Michel tactfully refrained from questioning the strength of her regard for him.

This is just a selection. I’m sure there are many more. Does anyone have any good examples? Please fill out the contact form below.

You might also like:

Friday 13th: lucky or unlucky for the French?
More French superstitions

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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18 Responses to French superstitions

  1. Jean says:

    A few more about cats –

    In France, thousands of cats were burned monthly until King Louis XIII, in the 1630s, halted the shameful practice.

    In the south of France, black cats are referred to as “matagots” or “magician cats.” According to local superstition, they bring good luck to owners who feed them well and treat them with the respect they deserve.

    In Normandy, seeing a tortoiseshell cat foretells death by accident.

    It is bad luck to cross a stream carrying a cat.

    • nessafrance says:

      There are many superstitions relating to cats. Why cats, particularly, I always wonder? I think it’s probably because people associated them with witchcraft and still do in places.

  2. Jean says:

    well a friend just told me that it is said that in the southern regions of France, if a young unmarried girl accidentally steps on a cat’s tail, she will have to wait twelve months before she finds a husband ! Though i could not really find an explanation to that!

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s a new one that I haven’t heard before. I looked it up on Google and could only find that it’s bad luck for anybody to step on a cat’s tail, maybe because the cat will turn round and scratch you. But I can’t find any explanation for the unmarried girl who does it having to wait 12 months for a husband. Perhaps your friend has some more information about it? I’d be interested to know.

  3. Elizabeth Robidoux says:

    My French Canadian Grandmother would say that if there was a lot of spider webs in someone’s house that meant that there was money coming it. I found that rather odd, so I asked my other Grandmother about it, (she was from French Canadian decent also). She said that in those days, most French Canadians were farmers and while the harvest was going on, and they were taking the produce to market, the housework didn’t get done because women were canning preserves to sell; the cobwebs gathered, that might have contributed to this superstition.

    • nessafrance says:

      What an interesting explanation. I haven’t heard of this in France at all. I would love to have this excuse for the cobwebs that festoon our beams, but can’t claim that the money is pouring in!

  4. phildange says:

    Hello Nessa . I happened to read your nice blog one more time and I thought about sending you an info like Paul did .
    13 at the table is related to the Last Supper, where one of the thirteen people was a traitor ( and what a traitor ! ) . It’s seen as a very bad and very sad occasion

    • nessafrance says:

      Hi and thanks very much for this explanation. It seems very likely that the Last Supper is the origin of this superstition – as you say, what a traitor!

  5. Phil says:

    The loaf upside down: A long time ago,the executioner had no salary. Instead, he had the right to take things in the shop (something he could grab in one hand), including food.

    So, bakers used to put a foal upside down to be save it for the executioner.
    That’s why you don’t put the foadl upside down.

    Usually, if someone do it we say that there will be an argument very soon (usually about superstitions… ^^)

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks very much for the explanation, Phil. I spent a long time trying to find out why this was the case but with no success, so I’m grateful for the enlightenment.

  6. Paul Diamond says:

    In Scotland, we have a Hogmanay (New Years Eve) tradition/superstition called “first foot” that my family still observes, even in Canada.
    Just before midnight, someone with dark hair has to leave the house and come back in after the stoke of midnight carrying a piece of coal.
    By coincidence as I recently discovered, the word Hogmanay is thought to be derived from the Northern French dialect word hoguinané apparently meaning a gift given at New Year.
    Undoubtedly a hold over from the “Auld Alliance” Scotland and France had for several centuries, due to our mutual antipathy towards the English ;-)

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks again for some interesting information, Paul. I’ve witnessed first footing in Edinburgh at Hogmanay but had no idea about the possible French origin of the word Hogmanay. The Auld Alliance has had a lasting influence down the centuries. A number of official titles date back to that time, I think, e.g. procurator fiscal.

  7. Paul Diamond says:

    3 on a match is from WWI trench warfare. Striking a match alerted a sniper, 2nd on the match allows sniper to get distance to target, 3rd person on the match is shot…thus bad luck to be the 3rd person on a match.

    • nessafrance says:

      Great, thanks very much, Paul, for supplying the explanation. I’ll copy it into the post. French matches must have been of better quality in those days.

  8. Per says:

    In Germany it is bad luck if a black cat crosses your path from left to right but good luck if it is in the other direction

    The Statistics Freak

    • nessafrance says:

      Hi, SF, nice to see you commenting for the first time. You can rely on the Germans to bring some precision to the matter. Presumably, a black cat crossing the Berlin Wall from West to East would have been going from right to left (politically, anyway, if not geographically) – was that such good luck for the cat?

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