Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tales from the Nile

For centuries superstitions have been Egyptians’ daily companions, writes Mai Samih

There are three types of superstitions in Egypt. The first are the superstitions we have inherited from our ancestors, the ancient Egyptians. The second are the ones that have come from foreign conquests, even as far back as the Roman conquest in the first century BCE, and the third are modern superstitions that are the synthesis of ancient and more modern stories.
Among ancient Egyptian superstitions there are many that deal with children. For example, one says that a baby should not be bathed for the first two weeks after birth to protect him from the evil eye. Some people still hold this belief and dress their babies in worn-out clothes. Others go to extremes by putting earth on the cheeks of a newborn child to protect him from the evil eye or by drawing a small blue human hand on its head to prevent it from having cross eyes. This is still practised in some rural areas.
If a child is a girl, some superstitions hold that this means the parents will come into money. During the seboa, the celebration that takes place seven days after a child's birth as seven was a lucky number for the ancient Egyptians, a baby is shaken in a sieve to cleanse it from evil spirits. This is an originally ancient Egyptian tradition that has been practised by many Egyptians no matter what their religious background.

Other superstitions inherited from the ancient Egyptians have to do with behaviour in everyday life. One should never suddenly awake a person, for example, as this could separate the soul from the body. Cats were sacred animals to the ancient Egyptians, and they associated them with the goddess Bast, the goddess of the protection of women and children and fertility. As a result, cats were venerated and treated the opposite to the Western superstition that says you should worry if a black cat crosses your path. The opposite was true in Egypt.
However, if cats do not bring bad luck, owls do. Among the ancient Egyptians, owls were feared, and hearing one could be a bad sign.
Other originally ancient Egyptian superstitions are more practical. Women should throw salt over their left shoulders before cooking, for example, to ward off any evil spirits that may lurk in their kitchen. Shoes should never be left upside down as this way they are facing the gods, which could make them angry. Black magic was believed to cause failure in all fields of life, and as a result the ancient Egyptians wrote charms and spells on buildings, doors and tombs in an attempt to ward off spells.
The ancient Egyptians placed ladders in the tombs of kings because they believed that these could help them climb to heaven. For them, if a bird flies into the house, this could be an omen of death. If a bee flies into the house, this means a visitor will come. Don’t kill it, as if you do the visit will be unwelcome. If you have a painful ear, someone is talking about you in a bad way. If you have a nervous tick in the eye, this could mean bad news. 
Other superstitions related to events. If the bridegroom dropped the ring during a wedding ceremony, this could only mean the marriage would be a failure. The ancient Egyptians were among the first to use rings and bracelets to celebrate marriages, which they considered to be sacred relationships. To ward off evil spirits they used to break a piece of pottery behind a person they did not like or thought was evil. This still goes on today in some rural areas.
To spill coffee is a sign of good fortune. Knocking on wood is a way of calling good spirits to protect you from misfortune as the ancient Egyptian believed such spirits lived in trees. They also believed the colour turquoise was a sacred colour that could ward off evil spirits, which is why they made so many blue or turquoise statues of their gods. The scarab beetle was sacred for the ancient Egyptians, and it was also believed that it helped keep women fertile. A blue stone scarab was used as a good luck charm and still is today.
The ancient Egyptians used to celebrate birthdays on the exact day a person was born and never before it as this was believed to mean that that person would not live after it. They thought that snakes could be summoned by music, notably by playing the recorder or flute.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped animals because they saw them as related to the gods and the spirit world. They believed in black magic and wrote spells on amulets and charms that they would carry around with them. A man might write a love spell on a piece of papyrus, for example, and tie it to a lock of the hair of his loved one. If she found the spell, she would fall in love with him. If he could not get a lock of her hair, he might draw her face on a piece of ceramic and attach the spell to the drawing.
The ancient Egyptians also believed in prophecies and dreams that would be interpreted for them by temple priests, especially those from the Amon Temple who were believed to have knowledge of the future. Dreams were sacred and a means of communicating with the gods. 
Other superstitions inherited from the past that still exist today include the idea that you should never throw away your cut hair, especially not on the floor, because you will feel pain if someone steps on it. If you want your hair to grow fast, you should look for a generous person to cut it for you. You should never cut your hair before visiting a new mother as that could make her milk dry up. A newly shaved person should not visit a new mother for the same reason.
If you leave a warm seat, you may come into a fortune. You should never leave part of your drink not drunk when visiting a family as this could turn their daughters into old maids. Never leave a pair of scissors open, and never sew a black garment at night as this brings bad luck. If you put a pair of scissors under the pillow of a person suffering from nightmares, the bad dreams will stop.
Never wear other people's marriage rings, as this brings bad luck. Never tell anyone how much you earn if you want to avoid the evil eye. Do not count money as it could become useless. If a pregnant woman is not given what she wants, her baby could end up with an image of that thing on his body. Always step into homes or buildings with your right foot first, as this brings good luck. Never use the left foot.
Never let a black cat pass you, especially at night. If a man obeys his wife, this could mean that she is using black magic. Never kill ants in a mosque or a church as they are guarding these holy places. A blue human hand or blue eye can help ward off evil spirits and the evil eye. Some people also hang little sachets of salt around the necks of children to ward off the evil eye. Piercing paper dolls with pins can be a way of warding off envy and defeating enemies.
If a beetle is burnt in an abandoned house it will soon have inhabitants (a belief coming from the ancient Egyptians). Whether a day is good or bad will be determined by the first face a person sees. The sound of an owl at night or a raven by day can bring bad luck.
If a girl wants to get married, she should pinch a bride on the knee. It is never a good idea to spray water on someone, especially a relative, as this means these people will never see one another again. After burying the dead, the ancient Egyptians used to spray water on the ground so the deceased could rest in peace in the afterlife. An old abandoned house is considered haunted, and the best cure for this is hanging an old shoe on one of its walls to bring happiness to its new inhabitants.
jin (genie) can marry human women and produce offspring. In the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert, it is believed that a bride to be should take a shower under a waterfall to have beauty and good luck. On the other hand, a girl who is in the habit of staring in a mirror at night will never get married and will go mad. The same goes for a girl who eats fish or drinks milk on Wednesdays.
According to the custom of nadr, if something good happens to you or a member of your family, you should give something to the poor. In ancient times, nadr was in the form of a gift to the gods as a sign of obedience and fear of their anger. Another traditional belief is in vengeance: family members must avenge deceased relatives in order to placate their spirits. This idea is still present in Upper Egypt, where it is called al-tar.

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