Magpies, moths and memory loss: Korean superstitions

Every culture has their own superstitions; The British won’t put new shoes on a table, the French believe stepping in dog poo will bring them luck, and Indians refuse to get their hair cut on a Tuesday. Here are some of Korea’s most bizarre beliefs!

  • On the day of a big exam you shouldn’t wash your hair, as it will wash away everything you have learned. It’s also best to avoid ‘slippery’ foods like noodles or seaweed soup as they will cause information to slip away, and instead eat sticky foods like rice or sticky Korean candy.
  • It is said that if you give shoes as a present to your boyfriend or girlfriend they will break up with you and use the shoes to run away. If someone does give you shoes you should give them a tiny sum of money, like 100₩ (5p/10¢), so the shoes are considered a ‘purchase’ and not a gift.
  • Similarly, a woman should never feed her husband or boyfriend chicken wings, in case with a stomach full of wings he takes flight and leaves her. Especially if he’s wearing those new shoes.
  • It would seem that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t visit this part of the world. Instead lower teeth should be thrown onto the roof, to encourage the new tooth to grow upwards, while upper teeth should be thrown under the house to encourage the new tooth to grow downwards.
  • Don’t cut your nails at night, as Korean folklore says that mice will eat the clippings, become human and steal your soul. This one comes from the days before electricity so if you cut your nails at night, you wouldn’t be able to see to clean up, and the room would become dirty.
  • You should also avoid whistling or singing at night, as it can attract ghosts or snakes to your house. Apparently no one told our neighbour this one.
  • When moving house it is important to ensure that evil spirits don’t follow you to your new house. You should choose a 손없는날 (a day without uninvited guests), and moving companies often give a calendar for each month showing which days are ‘safe’ to move on. You shouldn’t sweep up before leaving the old house, because it tricks the spirits into thinking you’re still there, and by the time the new people arrive and clean the place, it’s too late for the spirits to find you.
  • In Korean culture the number 4 is considered to be unlucky, because the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ have the same pronunciation. In Korean elevators the button for the fourth floor is often labelled ‘F’ or sometimes missing altogether, and you should never give gifts in sets of 4.
  • White is the colour of mourning and funerals, so wearing white ribbons in your hair is an invitation for death. At funerals the name of the deceased was traditionally written in red, to ward off those pesky evil spirits, so writing the names of living people in red is seriously unlucky, and can even be taken as a sign that you want that person dead!
  • Many Korean girls believe that cutting their hair short will make them grow taller, and if you jump over a baby (not quite sure why you would!) the baby will always be short.
  • On a baby’s first birthday people often present them with a pencil, some string and money. Whichever one the baby goes for first is a sign of their fortune. If they reach for the pencil they will be a good student, the string symbolises a long and healthy life and the money, of course, means they will be rich.
  • If you see a crow or a raven when you leave the house in the morning it means you will have bad luck that day. However, if you see a magpie in the morning it’s a sign of good luck.
  • If you catch the bouquet at a Korean wedding you have six months to get married, or you never will. For this reason Korean brides usually choose one of their friends who is engaged beforehand to catch the bouquet.
  • Apparently if you touch a butterfly or a moth and then rub your eyes before washing your hands you will go blind. A similar thing is said for orange flowers.
  • And lastly there’s every foreigner’s favourite…fan death. The genuine belief that sleeping in a room with the fan running overnight will kill you. According to the South Korean government this silent killer claims around ten lives every summer. There are several theories behind this one, including hypothermia, the fan creating a kind of air vortex around you causing you to slowly suffocate, the fan motor converting oxygen into carbon dioxide, and my personal favourite, the blades chopping up the air molecules making them un-breatheable. I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. The origins of this myth aren’t very clear as electric fans had been used in Korea for 80 years before the first reported case of fan death, but some people think the government started this rumour as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time of limited supplies.
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