Health & Fitness

The itchy palm and other superstitions

Man rubbing
Man rubbing his hands. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK 

Qn: "What causes the itchy sensation in one's palm? Some people have even superstitiously claimed it is a sign that some money may be coming your way."

Your question takes us back to Roman times. If you are employed and receive a salary at the end of the month, you might wonder where the word salary came from. If you have not had reason to wonder, it is possible that you might like to know.

You might have heard the English expression “he is not worth his salt” and wondered why salt might be so important. What many might not know is that Roman soldiers were paid their dues not with money as you might expect, but with salt of all things.

You might be wondering where this is going, but first a little story. A Roman soldier worked hard and when he had done what he was employed to do, he received some salt. Because this was for doing work, he was paid a (salary) in salt and hence the word salarium. So the soldiers took home salt or in today's terms, took home a salary. A person not worth his salt did not get a salarium!

You might find this totally unrelated to your question on superstition and so let me explain one other old superstition.


When one spilled salt say by accident, he was required to throw a little of the salt over his left shoulder. That sounds rather silly today but in a time when salaries were paid in salt, this act of throwing salt was meant to remind one to be more careful in the way he treated salt.

Taken in this context we have an act that is clearly superstious today but has roots in the history of the Romans. Few people value salt in that sort of way and even fewer will believe that throwing some of it over the left shoulder will have a protective effect.

Some other beliefs are more difficult to explain and for some strange reason seem to last longer than others. A black cat crossing the road is a sign that one must turn back or he will face some unspecified misfortune. There is no truth in science about this type of superstition, but to date there are people who are terrified by the sight of a black cat on the way home.

There are many people who are not shaken by the sight of black or any other cat.

The other widely held superstition is about the prohibition of walking under a ladder. This particular belief is traced back to the ancient Egyptians who believed in the holiness of the triangle. Their pyramids are in this shape. A ladder placed next to a wall seems to assume a triangular shape that must not be violated in any way.

This rather romantic explanation seems to ignore the obvious alternative explanation that walking under the ladder can be dangerous because something might fall on your head. In the alternative, you might make the ladder fall accidentally and cause unintended injury. Whatever the case this superstition persists to this day.

Before we come to you and your itching hand, another story might set the stage for the answer to your question. In the sixth century AD, there lived a Pope by the name Gregory the Great. During his time, Italy was hit by a pestilence that caused many people to die. Like Covid-19 of today, one of the symptoms of the disease was loud sneezing. So, as soon as a person sneezed, the Pope ordered that those near him must utter the prayer “God bless you”.

The reason for the prayer was grounded in the knowledge that the person was sure to die. The cause of the sneezing was given as the evil spirits that were released by the loud sneezing! Today we know that droplets released by a sneeze can travel at 200 kilometres per hour as they spread the virus that could cause Covid-19.

So, for the Pope it was an evil spirit while for us it is the coronavirus. Same disease perhaps and similar methods of limiting spread. It would seem that the more things change the more they stay the same.

In partial answer to your question therefore, superstitions are beliefs of a people that are held in the absence of scientific proof. Prior to the pestilence in Italy the correct reaction after a sneeze was, “may you enjoy good health”.

This was changed in the face of certain death by the Pope who recognised the power of the evil spirit and hence the new prayer for the person to receive blessings.

As you can see, not all superstitions are the same or similar in different times and cultures but all are united by the absence of science in their existence.