Superstitions are funny things. They're found in every culture, and within those cultures, these old wives tales are well known by virtually everyone. But that's where the knowledge train typically ends. While everyone knows certain superstitions, hardly anyone can tell you where they came from.
They have to come from somewhere, though! Even if they aren't grounded in science, superstitions are rooted in everything from anecdotal experiences to religion.
One particularly curious wives tale involves itchy palms. According to some people, an itchy left palm means money is coming your way, while an itchy right palm means you're about to lose money. Others believe the same thing, but with left and right reversed. There's also the belief that scratching your itchy palm on wood will guarantee good fortune.
The general agreement is that these various beliefs stem from a few pre-Christian European groups, predominantly the Celts and the Saxons. To untangle these origin stories, you guessed it, we're breaking it down element by element.
First, there's the itchy palm superstition popularized by the Saxons. Saxons are the Germanic tribe that famously went on to form the first united Kingdom of England with the Angles during the fifth century. In their culture, rubbing one's skin on silver was a sure cure for any topical diseases. This ultimately turned into the superstition that an itch meant silver was coming your way.
When the Saxons landed on British soil following the Roman desertion of the island, their culture and superstitions understandably ended up melding with the local cultures. This is where things get interesting.
In Celtic traditions, touching wood was a superstition in itself that was meant to guarantee good luck. The Celtic pagans thought that evil spirits lived in wood, so touching it after mentioning your hopes for the future helped ensure the spirits wouldn't hear your hopes. Ever knock on wood after wishing for something? This is the explanation behind that superstition.
But back to itchy palms. When the Saxons met the Celts, their two superstitions got mixed together over the years. Eventually, people on the British Isles (where Celts and Saxons lived) started to believe that the only way to itch a scratchy palm without undoing its good luck was by scratching it on wood.
The reverse-palm superstition, which says only an itchy left hand guarantees money, can be traced back to the Roma people's fortune telling tradition. In palmistry (the art of palm reading), the left hand is receptive, while the right hand is the active one. An itchy left palm, therefore, could indicate receiving money and an itchy right palm could indicate actively giving it away.
Ultimately, we have to go with good ol' Merriam-Webster's definition of superstition: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation. AKA superstitions are irrational and not really grounded in any proven truths.
But it's always fun to trace the roots of commonly held beliefs. It's like a little history lesson, with an emphasis on the culture of common folk rather than war dates and selfish kings. Plus, even if a superstition won't actually help you get ahead in life, it definitely won't hurt your chances. And who doesn't want a midweek pick-me-up in the form of an itchy palm and dreams of a monetary windfall?
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