Monday, September 3, 2018

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Occupational Superstitions

An age old Hellenic custom was to burn old shoes, like incense, for luck. In modern Greece, this is still done to prevent naughty goblins from invading the home during Christmas time. Shoes in the Middle Ages were bequeathed to relatives partly because they were costly items but also because they contained the spirit of the deceased. Old shoes were frequently left in the roofs of old houses (concealed shoes) to fend off evil spirits. Superstitious people today still wear old shoes on Friday 13th for good luck.

Despite the ancients practice of burying their loved ones with sandals, By the Middle Ages undertakers were generally reluctant to bury people with shoes on. This may relate to the old practice of grave robbing as many yokels considered shoes taken from a dead man's feet were especially lucky. Some people believed touching the large toe of the deceased would save them from dreaming or being haunted by the ghost or apparition of the deceased.

In Welsh mythology there is a wind of death called the Gwynt-Traed-y-Meirw or “wind blowing over the feet of the corpses," and when it is felt by close relatives of a dying member of the family, it foretells their demise. Undertakers were careful to lay the dead out with their faces to the east for fear the wind from the west would blow over the feet of the corpses and bring a contagious disease into the parish. It is impossible to date this superstition but would appear logical to plague ridden countries with no ability to understand the transmission of disease.

(Video Courtesy: BBC Comedy Greats Youtube Channel)

Actors are very serious about superstitions and take great solace from the sound of squeaking shoes. If their shoes squeak on their first stage entrance, then that is considered very good luck. When they take their shoes off after a performance they hope the shoes fall flat on their soles as this is taken as another good luck omen. Thespians will not allow shoes to be put on a chair in the dressing room because that is considered bad luck.

Back in civvy street, when shoes repeatedly squeak this is taken by all to mean they were not paid for; and are either borrowed or stolen. Miners and fishermen are also very superstitious. Both at the mercy of the elements, everything was done not to tempt fate, so store was placed on foreboding omens. Yorkshire fishermen refused to go to sea if a crew member carried their boots over their shoulders. Boots were always carried under the arm. Fishermen were also spooked if they saw a flat foot print in the sand. Miners would avoid going to the pit if they woke up to find one boot had fallen over during the night.

Every sport has its taboos including playing darts. In England, the popular pub game was fraught with ritual. Many players brought their left foot to the floor marking (or Oche) and for luck, swung it left to right before throwing.

A top class striker in soccer, as in any other similar sport, needs not only to score when the opportunity presents but also when there is only half a chance. Scoring from the slenderest opportunity places an exclusive band of goal scorers far above the average striker. Players are however, by nature, very superstitious and will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their run of luck. A prevailing belief in the past was new boots needed to fit tightly and many well-known players wore them in the bath before allowing their new boots to dry on their feet.

Team mates are usually respectful of each other's rituals no matter how bazaar they may appear. Ritualistic behaviours usually start days before the game and many well-known players wear certain shoes and socks to the stadium. Some will even have a luck coin or other talisman in their shoe or carry a rabbit’s foot or lucky heather. Players will be careful to travel to the stadium observing all taboos as a means of not tempting fate. Many insist entering the changing rooms by walking through the boot room. The boot room is the epicentre of the club and traditionally where game strategy is worked out. Whether there is a belief that boots have ears and will magically influence the feet to perfect performance or the ambiance from the collected footwear in some way rubs off on the player is unclear. Even the greatest stars will personally polish their playing boots in preparation before a match. Sometimes alcohol (usually their favourite tipple) is dosed on the tips of their boots, for example, one boot is wiped with whisky and the other water.

The most intense time for ritualism is in the changing rooms. Washroom rituals are common but rigidly observed procedures are usually reserved to changing clothes. The manner the clothing is put on often becomes ritualistic. One of the most common superstitions is players not washing or changing their socks. This is frequently extended to not changing underwear. The ritual of putting on socks is common, with the left sock first before the right, or the right boot before the left are all well documented. Lacing boots can also become a ritual with players lacing and unlacing their boots multiple times before the game. Some players are known to put on socks and boots and nothing else well before the game. They sit quietly psyching themselves up to a peak performance. This might involve a nip of whisky or their favourite tipple to further concentrate their mind.

Desmond Morris reported the clothing of others could also become a focus to the superstitious. For example, some players needed to see their coach wearing socks of their lucky colour before they would take to the field. This extended to the shoes worn by the coach and the author described a ceremoniously fastened of the coach's shoe by one of the players as pre-match necessity before the team would leave the dressing rooms.

Bald players are sometimes used as lucky talisman and players will rub or kiss the shaved head of a teammate for good luck. Some players insist on eating just before taking to the field. The late Billy Bremner (former captain of Leeds United and Scotland) was well known for eating a plateful of baked beans just before every game. This was not entirely odd as the beans provided valuable protein and the tomatoes in the sauce prevented build-up of lactic acid in the player’s legs. Some players insist on being the last player out of the locker room when they are preparing for a match. Bobby Moore (West Ham and England captain) simply refused to come out of the locker room unless he was the last player to pull on his shorts before running out onto the pitch.

Even in the tunnel leading to the pitch players are ritualistic, some head or kick the ball a certain number of times or bounce it off the wall before running onto the field. Once on the pitch another set of ritual behaviour might take place. Many players touch the turf before crossing themselves, whilst others jump over the by-line. Players are seen sometimes taking their boots off and putting them back on again. Some even call for a new set of boots whilst others kiss their boots for luck. Players will roll the chewing gum they have been chewing into a ball and attempt to kick the ball and many strikers avoid shooting on goal during the pre-match warm-up. The absence of pockets in playing kits and restrictions on wearing jewellery on the field means much use is made of the boot to house lucky talisman or incorporate the names of their children on the boot (David Beckham)

In the case of the goal keepers their lucky paraphernalia are usually tossed into the back of the goal.

Boxers avoid new boots at a contest.

Gamblers are very superstitious and often wear their winning shoes to play or before they eat.

Reviewed 4/09/2018

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