Colombia is a sancocho of superstitions … a thick soup of legend, lore, and large tales. How did things get this way?
The first Colombians wandered into the Western Hemisphere from Asia during the Ice Age. Chasing bison and woolly mammoth, they migrated south. They squeezed through the Panama isthmus. They settled for good in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Or maybe (another theory!) the first Colombians paddled ashore from somewhere out in the Pacific. They brought Polynesian eyes, features … and folklore … to the Andes and the Amazon.
However they arrived, indigenous tribes like the Muisca, Kogui, Huitoto, Zenú, and dozens of others concocted beliefs, tales, whole cosmologies.
Then came Columbus.
Not long after the Italian-born explorer stuck a flag in the sand of the Bahamas in 1492, boatloads of Spaniards, with their blended European/Moorish blood and culture, imported new folklore. Old World superstitions married those of the New World, and for the next five centuries Africans, Celtic peoples, Germans, Italians, gringos, and most every other ethnicity on the globe added pinches of their own unique beliefs to the Colombian stewpot.
Many superstitions resemble those elsewhere in the world. Colombians knock on wood. They mistrust number 13. People make the sign of the cross to protect against airplane crashes or the curses of witches.
I serve up 20 superstitions here to help Paste readers get lucky in Colombia … but since 20 are so few, remember to cross your fingers for extra juju when you get here.
1. Colombian women, perhaps the most highly evolved and awesomely developed creatures on earth, will never, ever, under any circumstance, place a purse on the floor. Their money might run away. Colombianas always hang purses from a hook or place them at a safe height on a shelf or table.
2. Colombians have no ruby Tuesdays … only black ones. Superstitious citizens won’t start a long trip or take a flight on Tuesday. Some won’t launch a project on Tuesday … or plan a wedding or hold any important ceremony. Tuesday is unlucky—the unluckiest day of the week. And Tuesday the 13th? Ufff! It makes Friday the 13th in the USA feel like all unicorns and cotton candy.
3. Never use a broom at night. Nighttime sweeping stirs up bad luck. But if you want unwanted guests to leave your house, simply place a broom upside-down behind the door. Those visitors will skitter away like cockroaches fleeing boiling water.
4. A red wallet attracts money. Also, Colombians never want a wallet to be completely empty. I know a person in Bogotá who carries an American dollar folded in one corner of her billfold. Why? So if she spends every peso, the wallet’s still not empty. (Yankee dollars are mostly just green pieces of paper in Colombia … unless you’re in a duty-free shop at an international airport.)
5. Colombians have many superstitions about salt and sugar. Some families ask a priest to bless a container of salt … and then they scatter salt beneath a mattress to ward off bad dreams and evil spirits. At table, bad luck follows if you pass a salt shaker directly to another person. (You just place the shaker close enough for the next person to reach it.) If salt spills, sprinkle sugar over it to prevent bad luck. Some merchants spoon out a little sugar in front of storefronts to draw customers. Finally, if Colombians hear a noise on the roof at night, it might be a witch. To avoid curses, one should call out an open window, Come back tomorrow for sugar or salt! Adios, witch!
6. As in the U.S., breaking a mirror in Colombia causes bad luck. Here, though, worse luck follows if you look at yourself in the shards. Mirrors can also keep rain away—I attended a school event here under threatening skies. Two mothers of students in the class took compacts from their purses and placed them on a picnic table, mirrors to the heavens. The logic? If the sky sees itself ugly, it will try to look prettier. (It never rained that day.)
7. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have an entire mythology. Women wear yellow lingerie for luck. (If a man’s underwear is yellow, he’s had an unattractive accident.) At the stroke of midnight, revelers gobble 12 grapes. Some Colombians roll a suitcase around the block in the first minutes of the new year … it means travel and adventure ahead. A glass of champagne with gold in it—a ring or earring—brings good luck. On New Year’s Day, dried lentils in a pocket means money for the next 12 months.
8. Colombians who wear their pajamas inside out (or backwards) invite witches.
9. Never fight over a seat on a plane or a bus and then take the disputed seat. Something bad will happen to the person who sits there.
10. Never open an umbrella inside a house. What happens? Oh, the roof falls in. That’s all.
11. After you put on pajamas at night, never under any circumstances change back into street clothes and leave the house. If you do, something very, very bad will happen.
12. If a ghost scares you, get under a cow. You’ll be safe there. (Free milk, too.)
13. Superstitions swirl around Holy Week, the seven days before Easter. First, and maybe worst, sex in Holy Week brings bad luck. On the other hand, it’s easier to find lost treasure then, thanks to the influence of the moon. But beware! In Holy Week, those who bathe in a river after a certain hour turn into mermaids.
14. If you have a bad dream, tell it to someone. Otherwise, it will come true.
15. A big black moth in the house means someone close to the family will die.
16. On the other hand, the first person to spy a spider inside the house will have good luck.
17. A store on a fashionable street in my neighborhood sells lapel pins and tie tacks with a curious symbol resembling an open eye. It’s superstition jewelry – the symbol wards off the evil eye from a witch or a person wishing ill will.
18. On the wedding day, a groom must never see his bride in her white gown before she walks down the aisle. Also, a bride who doesn’t want rain on her wedding day has two options: She can carry eggs to the nearest convent, or she can lay two forks crosswise at the reception site. She’ll never get married at all though, and neither will any unmarried man, if a broom touches their feet when a room is being swept.
19. Horseshoes inside a home bring good luck. Aloe in the house also keeps away bad energy (and small furry flying mammals called vampire bats).
20. Black cats, like gatos negros everywhere, bring bad luck—unless it’s New Year’s Eve, and they wear yellow lingerie. Then they’re purrrrfectly lucky.
Photo: Lennart Takanen, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.