Superstitions and Beliefs

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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It is the fear of the unknown along with the insecurity of life that generates superstitious beliefs in humans.

Superstitions have their origins in the beginning of human civilisation and with it they should end. They make up part of the very essence of human intellect and there has never been a moment in human history where they haven’t been present.

They are a part of many acts in human life, whether a person is crude or highly educated, scientist, writer or artist.

They are always of a protective nature, respected to avoid evil or something unwanted.

Amulets, transformed into adornments and jewels, are exterior signs of superstitions. They are objects of defence to which the virtue of warding off evil and bringing good like has been attributed, such as a ‘fig sign’ (a fist with the thumb appearing between the index and middle finger), rue branch, orb, shell, or clover. The talisman has the same purpose as an amulet, but it is made specifically for a certain person and will only protect them.

To “protect” a person or residence, there are herbal baths and rituals that “purify” the environment.

Superstition is also the belief in the real existence of folkloric myths, such as the ‘saci’ (a type of Brazilian goblin), the ‘mula-sem-cabeça’ (headless mule), werewolves, witches and spells, and evil eyes.

There are beliefs that do not imply a fear of or protection from something evil, for example: draws during June festivals, eating certain food at New Years, children putting their teeth in milk on the roof to get strong teeth.

Superstitions connected to pregnancy and birth are the oldest and have great importance for people. Filipinos believe in a malign spirit that interferes in childbirth, making it difficult. Hungarians used to shoot over the head of the woman in labour to ward off evil spirits. In some African tribes was the belief that the pregnant woman should not be at a burial because the soul of the dead could be incarnate the baby. Among the Amazonian Indians, women, especially pregnant ones, shouldn’t assist in the preparation of curare (poison), can’t hold the catch from the hunt or carry weapons. They also can’t eat paca (a type of rodent), as they won’t be able to sleep.

There are an enormous number of known superstitions passed on from generation to generation in the daily lives of many people:

. scissors should not be left open for much time. It gives bad luck;
. a green grasshopper is lucky. Its appearance is a sign of hope;
. when accompanying a funeral you should not arrive at the cemetery before the coffin;
. stepping on the tail of a cat brings harm;
. you should not walk under a ladder or break a mirror. It gives bad luck;
. upturned slippers attract woe;
. putting a broom behind a door drives away visitors to the home;
. a child born with their hands closed will be miserly when they grow up;
. a child who plays with fire at night will wet the bed;
. when a child dreams that they are falling down a well it is a sign that they are growing;
. an itchy palm is not a good thing;
. leaving a suitcase open is a jinx, because it resembles a coffin;

There are also some superstitious people who wear the same kind of clothes, for example when their football team has an important game, so as not to bring bad luck. This is very common during the Football World Cup, as much for supporters as for players.

Recife, 11 July 2003.
(Updated on 8 September 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.


CÂMARA CASCUDO, Luís da. Dicionário do folclore brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Edições de Ouro, [ s.d.].
CARVALHO NETO, Paulo de. Folclore sergipano: primeira sistemática sintética e primeira antologia 1883 a 1960. Aracaju: Sociedade Editorial Sergipana, 1994. p.59-61.
LIMA, Maria do Rosário de Souza Tavares de. Uma pitada de folclore. São Paulo: [Ed. do autor], 1995.
VIEIRA FILHO, Domingos. O mundo das superstições. São Luiz: Departamento de Cultura do Estado, 1963.


Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Superstitions and Beliefs. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.


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