If you’ve consciously avoided scheduling plane journeys, important meetings or special celebrations on this Friday the 13th, you’re not alone. Millions of people still alter their behaviour because of superstitions - or at least because ignoring them would seem to be ‘tempting fate’ or inviting bad luck.
One poll found that anxiety about Friday 13th being an ‘unlucky’ day is the third commonest of these beliefs in the UK - others include the superstitions that misfortune can be caused by breaking a mirror, walking under a ladder, or seeing a lone magpie. (See below for ‘top 10’ list.)
Statistics show that flight bookings plummet every time the ‘unluckiest day’ comes around. In January, when the last Friday 13th cropped up, the Daily Mail reported that one travel comparison website noted a 27 percent drop in bookings for the supposed unlucky day.
But perhaps the bray of a donkey should reassure a nervous traveller. According to staff working overseas for The Donkey Sanctuary, many people in other countries believe that it’s a good omen at the start of a journey. In fact, there are quite a few superstitions relating to donkeys, both in the UK and around the world.
• It’s good luck for a pregnant woman to see a donkey - it means her child will grow up intelligent and obedient.
• It’s lucky to see a dead donkey - and to attract the luck, you should jump over its body.
• Riding a donkey while sitting backwards, facing its tail, protects against toothache, snakebite, measles and other ailments.
The Donkey Sanctuary’s staff in Ethiopia describe a slightly more complicated version of the ‘donkey braying’ belief. Many Ethiopians say that if the donkey brays behind someone setting off on foot, it’s bad luck, but a donkey giving voice is in front of them is believed to bring good fortune.
Staff in Mexico say that in some villages they visit, people believe that a donkey can be cured of colic if it is touched, or ridden by, a woman who has a twin sister. Many people also believe that tying a red ribbon around their donkey’s neck will protect it against the effects of the ‘evil eye’ - illness or bad luck unwittingly attracted by someone looking at a person or animal in an envious or admiring manner.
An Egyptian employee reported a similar ‘evil eye’ story, concerning a man whose name meant ‘donkey foal’. He explained that his family had a sad history of children dying very young, so his mother named him after a humble animal in order to discourage any admiration or envy which could trigger the bad luck. (For the same reason, it’s also common for Egyptian mothers to dress their children in old clothes or put dirt on their faces, so as not to attract envious looks from other people.) The man liked his name and enjoyed telling people the story behind it.
But there are also negative superstitions relating to donkeys. A few months ago the charity’s staff in southern Ethiopia learned of a community who believed that letting a pregnant donkey give birth within the homestead would bring bad luck, or even death, to the family. They have been working with the community to help them see that there is no basis for this belief, and that in fact it makes sense to keep the mother close to home and give her extra care and attention as she gives birth.
Superstitions like this contribute to the general under-valuing of donkeys which is – unfortunately – common in many cultures. There is a widespread belief that donkeys do not feel pain and do not respond to veterinary treatment when ill. There are also many misconceptions about donkeys which lead to them being mistreated or neglected, for instance, that they are stubborn and stupid, and will not work unless they are beaten. A large part of The Donkey Sanctuary’s international work focuses on helping owners to understand their donkeys better, appreciate their work, and be motivated to care for them as well as their limited resources allow.
Here are the 10 commonest superstitions, relating to bad luck, in the UK (according to a poll by Warner Bros, 2009)
1. Breaking a mirror
2. Walking under a ladder
3. Friday 13th
4. Opening an umbrella indoors
5. A black cat crossing your path
6. The sight of a single magpie
7. Spilling salt
8. Placing shoes on the table or on the bed
9. Treading on cracks in the pavement
10. Walking over three drains