Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Right foot first

Luck ceremonies are found in every culture and frequently associated with setting out on a journey or new venture. Our forebears had felt serious reservation and much apprehension as to the misfortunes which may be set them when setting out on a journey. To avert this eventuality many strange customs have been documented. The phrase “putting your foot in it" or "now you have put your foot into it" came from the Greeks and originally meant luck, and not misfortune, as it does today.

Primitive people lived in fear of demonic possession and evil spirits were thought to enter the body through the extremities and unprotected orifices. Clothing like collars, cuffs and leggings all took on important symbolic meaning and protecting the feet was also considered important. Through the centuries the right shoe was thought to be fitted first and removed before the left, otherwise bad luck or a quarrel would ensue.

To the superstitious even the simplest happenings had significance so getting dressed in the morning was full of customs designed to appease the Gods and not raise their wrath. Pythagoras (569 - 475 BCE) wrote:

"When stretching forth your feet to have your sandals put on, first extend your right foot”.

He insisted all his followers do this for a day of good fortune.

In the play, Theaetetus written by Plato in 360 B.C.E., reference is also made to putting the shoe on the wrong foot which would add weight to the believe the ancients held feet as charged with supernatural powers.

Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) was very superstitious and always put his left shoe on before his right. However, after he faced a mutiny by his soldiers over pay and narrowly escaped being murdered, he vowed never to put his left shoe on first, again. Romans generally believed spitting on their right shoe before putting it on brought good luck.

Why preference was given to the right foot is unclear but the left foot was certainly considered a bad omen. In Jewish custom, the right side was the fortunate side and the right shoe was put on first for this reason. Often ornate customs were practiced including putting the right foot into the shoe without tying it, then pulling on the left sock. The left shoe went on and the right shoe came off. The right sock was put on before the right shoe, and then the shoes were tied. No rational explanation has ever been given to explain why the right foot contact would establish a good start but the Syrian philosopher, Iamblichus (250-325 AD), thought the choice of leading foot was a deliberate act of reverence by the faithful.

Although special in flair shoes (right and left) were not made until the late 19th century, the Romans considered putting the right foot in a left sandal as a bad omen. This may have been a simpler explanation as “breaking-in” non-specific sandals (no right or left) would entail some discomfort. The uninvited misfortune might foretell a tragedy or at least a disastrous day ahead.

Over a millennium and half later, the 17th century poet and satirist Samuel Butler (1612-1680) in his epic poem Hudibras, attributed the untimely demise of Augustus Caesar, with reference to him putting his feet in the wrong shoes.

"Augustus having by oversight
Put on his left shoe for his right
Had like to have been slain that day
By soldiers mutinying for pay."

The foot/shoe metaphor remained familiar to 19th readers and Lewis Carroll refers to it in, “Alice through the looking glass, when the White Knight laments in song about things that remind him of an old man:

"Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot into a left-hand shoe.
Or if I drop upon my toe a very heavy weight.”

The poem was a clever parody on Wordsworth’s ‘Resolution and Independence’ and may refer to unpleasantness which detracts from an otherwise perfect day.

There was one exception to the right first rule and was when it was unintentionally done on a Friday morning. Why remains unclear. Today putting shoes on the wrong feet is thought to foretell an accident to the feet.

Reviewed 30/08/2018