Superstitions About Our Hair and Nails
by Mary-Anne Alvaro
A host of superstitions from a myriad of cultures spring from the most common and most mundane aspects of human existence. Anything and everything that grows seems to have had much meaning assigned to it. This installment looks at some of the superstitions surrounding the care and maintenance of two very common natural growths – hair and nails. Here are more excerpts from my copy of “A Dictionary of Superstitions” (edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, published by Oxford University Press). All that follows is directly quoted. The sources date back through the centuries and where possible, the dates of publication are included. The superstitions themselves, however, date back farther than their publication dates. Most are western beliefs and come from England.
About Red Hair
This old Irish superstition was submitted by one of our visitors, Jamie, of Warsaw, Kentucky:
In ancient Ireland if a traveler was to happen upon a woman with red hair he must turn around and start his journey all over again. The superstition comes from the legend of the goddess Macha who was said to have cursed the men of Ireland for nine generations with horrible pangs (like labor.)
The curse was not unwarranted of course. While in human form and pregnant the king of the land forced her to race against his fasted horses (for her husband had boasted of her speed) lest he be killed. She begged for sympathy and received none from the warriors in the crowd who were eager to see the sport. She won the race but the stress caused her to give birth to her children in the field. This is still known as Emain Macha (Macha’s twins.) For causing her this pain she cursed the men of Ireland except the hero Cucculain and her own children. When war came to the land only Cucculain could fight.
Macha as it turns out, had red hair.
Being a red head myself I find it a little unfair, but ever if I were in Ireland who knows who would turn tale from me…. Jamie :)
A correction from a visitor
I was looking through your listing of superstitions (my left hand was itching like mad – editor’s note – a left hand itching is supposed to mean money coming)) and stumbled upon your superstition about red heads. Most of the story of Emain Macha is correct, except a couple of important details.
1) Macha raced a stag – the swiftest in Ireland not a horse.
2) Cuchallain was the only member of the Red Branch to not have any facial hair, thus was not considered a “man” in the full definition. If you read the Cattle Raid of Cooley, it will give you the full details of the incident. The labor pains (or menstrual cramps) that the men suffered through were to last 9 days and leave them completely incapacitated.
I know that most sources of tales and superstitions are incomplete at best, and I don’t mean to correct you, but you might want to read the book “The Story of the Irish Race” by Seamus McManus. He did a fantastic job of tying together fairy tale and reality. FYI – I am not only surrounded by red heads (fiance, mother and little cousin, but we are all Irish as well. Thank you for your time, Caroline
Hair and Nails to Harm
The scientists tell us that viruses producing illness are transmitted either through the air or through physical contact. Apparently, our ancestors had a different take on the subject.
As far back as AD77, and prevalent through the 1500’s and 1600’s, we find this recipe: Take the parings of the toe-nails and the finger-nails of a sick person, and mix them up with wax…then stick this wax, before sunrise, upon the door of another person… Highly criminal, if they really do thus transfer diseases from one person to another!
In 1830, – In a remote part of the Highlands, an ignorant and malignant woman…meditated the destruction of her neighbour’s property, by placing in a cowhouse…a pot of baked clay, containing locks of hair, parings of nails, and other trumpery…. The formidable spell is now in my possession.
Hair and Nails to Heal
It seems, not only can one send one’s disease to another through hair and nail clippings, but, more significantly, these can be used to “take away” the illness. In fact most of these ancient folks were less concerned with giving their illness to another than with lifting their affliction from themselves. How did they do it? Well, hair and nails…..
1866 – In Sunderland, the crown of the head is shaved and the hair hung upon a bush…in the firm belief that the birds carrying it away to their nests will carry away the cough along with it.
1590 – A criminal trial took place – the accused being both indicted and accused of being a witch by virtue of having taken the hair and nail clippings of their sick brother, wrapping in cloth and burying in the ground to cure the brother of his illness. We hope the brother was cured after all that….
1887 – Ireland – Clipping of the hair and nails of a child tied up in a linen cloth and placed under the cradle will cure convulsions.
1874 – The parings of the nails and the cuttings of the hair, and ashes from the four corners of the hearth, were put three times round the crook (iron pothook). A cock was buried alive along with these on the spot where the victim was first seized with the disease (epilepsy).
So, now we know, we can send an illness to another or send the illness away, with the clippings of our hair and nails. But, it doesn’t end here.
The Right Day for Cutting
It seems that choosing a day to cut your hair or nails will bode for you in the following way:
Cut them on Monday, you cut them for health;
cut them on Tuesday, you cut them for wealth;
cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for news;
cut them on Thursday, a new pair of shoes;
cut them on Friday, you cut them for sorrow;
cut them on Saturday, see your true love tomorrow;
cut them on Sunday, the devil will be with you all the week.
There are a few variations on that rhyme, but in all circumstances, cutting on Sunday is cutting for evil. Ah, imagine what they would have thought about Sunday shopping!
The Right Age for Cutting
Lest you think this is where it ends, I have more for you.
“If the finger or toe nails of an infant are cut previous to the age of 12 months, it will prove a thief in mature age”
So, what were they to do, let the nails and hair grow wild for the first year of life? Oh no, to that we have this advice:
“Mothers and nurses beware; and mind you continue the good old-fashioned custom of ‘nibbling’.”
1865 – The poor woman assigned as a reason for their propensity to pilfer and steal, that their mothers must have cut their nails before they were a year old. She always bit her babies’ nails.
1851 – I always, when I cut the nails of my children, let the cuttings fall on the open Bible, that they may grow up to be honest.
1882 – - A gardener’s wife having an infant in arms with long hair…was desirous of improving the child’s appearance by cropping it, but as it is said to be unlucky to cut a baby’s hair, she gained the desired end by biting it off with her teeth.
And finally, remember this….
1678 – Friday’s hair and Sunday’s horn goes to the dule (devil) on Monday morn.
1824 – But alas! Who can look into fate’s book of laws? Mr. Lowe would have married Miss Cundy; He lost her and only because, he cut his toe nails on a Sunday!
1851 – - Friday cut hair, Sunday cut horn, better that man had never been born!
So now we know. Funny thing about these superstitions, some fragment of them carries forward into the future generations. I know many people who are familiar with the edict to “never cut their hair or nails on Friday or Sunday.” Until now though, they didn’t know why.
And if you’re feeling stuck by old patterns, old beliefs and ideas, Get a Reading. Our psychics may have the insight you’ve been reaching for….