Superstitious? Maybe You Should Be!

Design drawing, about 1895-1905. René Lalique. CMGL 127803.

Superstitions. Everyone has them, right? I remember, as a kid, hopping down the sidewalk, trying to skip the cracks while chatting with my best friend and dodging other walkers. It was hard work, but it saved my mom some back pain and made me the excellent multi-tasker that I am today.

I had no idea, though, that there were so many superstitions tied to glass until I started reading through The Rakow Library’s files on oddities and curiosities of glass.

Most of us are familiar with the seven years of bad luck you earn for shattering a mirror. But mirrors appear in lots of superstitions. Their reflective properties give them extra mojo, with some weirdly conflicting powers. They can ward off the evil eye or sometimes trap souls who should otherwise be progressing on to another realm after death. A couple of years ago I took a Halloween tour of a Victorian house. In the room with the coffin for a recently deceased family member, the mirrors were covered to prevent the deceased’s soul from getting sidetracked and caught. And almost any kid who has been at a sleepover will know the story of Bloody Mary. Say her name three times in front of a mirror and you will have the misfortune to bring a murderous witch to life. I don’t know if this actually works, because, well, I was a big chicken as a kid.

Mirrors could very helpfully, though, drive away evil spirits by scaring them with their own hideous images (I feel you, evil spirits. Never look in the mirror before a shower is my rule). For this reason, people in different parts of the world would decorate their clothing or headwear with small mirrors or wear mirrored jewelry. Of course, mirrors weren’t always made of glass. Any reflective material would work.

Habit de Marchand miroitier lunettier, about 1680-1700. Engraving by Nicolas de Larmessin, CMGL 166686.

Glass was used to make a number of protections against the ol’ evil eye, too. The idea of an Evil Eye whose stare can bring about all kinds of horrible troubles appears in many cultures and people often painted an eye on various objects to counter that of the evil glare. The battle of the eyes! These objects were obviously meant to be kept close, since they often appeared as jewelry, on pendants or bracelets.

Jewelry protected the individual, but the home needed a lot of protection from evil, too, and several types of glass guardians served this cause. The humble rolling pin, for example. Glass rolling pins were hung in kitchens, sometimes filled with salt or other protective herbs, to ward off witches and other evil beings. Likewise, glass walking-sticks (or canes) were hung above doors or in entryways as wards, to keep evil from entering the homes.  

Glass Rolling Pin (66.2.5)

But my favorite is the glass ball.  There are a number of these protective spheres in action around the house, gazing balls and witch balls in particular. Gazing balls were placed outside to take advantage of natural light. The way glass interacts with light is clearly one of its superpowers. The light they absorbed powered them up to fight back evil. People still decorate their gardens with gazing balls today.

Glass Witch Ball (62.4.37)

Witch balls are also still sold as decorations, but they were serious wards back in the day. They could be clear or patterned, filled with witch-fighting herbs, urine, fingernail clippings, or with colorful threads. The threads would form a pattern that would fascinate the witch. The witch would get lost following the pattern and be forever trapped in the ball. Presumably, the patterned witch balls were duplicating the effect of the threads.

There is something magical about glass and I’m not just saying that because I work at a glass museum. It is such a chameleon. Transparent, reflective, colorful, light amplifying, fragile, strong, round, flat, utilitarian, decorative. No wonder it has found its way into so many mystical practices over the years. And these are just a few of the superstitions glass plays a part in.

What superstitions involving glass have you encountered?

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