To Spit for Luck and Health

In the past, breath and spittle were thought to contain soul-substance. Hence, to breathe or to spit on someone or something conveyed a magical effect. In various European cultures, spitting when making an oath was in the past considered as binding as swearing on the Bible. Ritual spitting is one of the most ancient creative actions, which is why spittle was once traditionally used in religious ceremonies, in exorcism rites, and for curing the sick. Because spitting was equated in indigenous societies with the ejaculation of semen, women were disallowed this practice. 

In modern Western societies, spitting is perceived as an offensive, dirty habit. However, universally, it was once regarded as a charm against enchantment – a trusted safeguard, offering protection against fascination and evil. Pliny the Elder recommends: ‘It acts as a charm if a man spits in his urine; similarly if he spits in his right shoe before putting it on, or when passing a place where he has encountered some danger’.187 During the name-giving ceremony in ancient Rome, it was customary not only to sprinkle the child’s head with water, but also to wet it with spittle. This was believed to avert evil. Similarly, in Scotland it was once deemed necessary that a priest also use spittle when christening a child. Amongst many African tribes the custom prevailed that a child to be named be spat three times in the face to protect it in later life. Some Turkish mothers still believe in the efficacy of spitting in their infants’ faces to avert the influence of the evil eye.

Celtic and African kings were known to spit ritually towards the four cardinal points during annual mid-summer cleansing celebrations, thereby raising the protective Earth forces and creative energies over their land for the new season. Today, various African, Asian, and Middle Eastern societies, still harness the power attributed to spittle. The African Swazi peoples observe this practice annually during the sacred rite of Incwala, the mid-summer festival of regeneration.188 The South African Zulu spit on the ground during an electric storm to avert being struck by lightning. They also spit to expel evil and anger and at funerals to say farewell to the departed without bitterness. 

In Islamic North Africa, spitting is used for ritually transmitting virtue or the passing of baraka, meaning ‘blessing’. As spittle was believed worldwide to partly contain one’s soul, spitting out propitiated the forces governing fate. In spitting, a person was believed to release a little essence of their soul, which then became a sacrifice to the deities, guaranteed to attract divine favour. Hence, one could spit out for luck or in defiance and as a challenge. Spitting could be an injurious act, and to spit behind someone’s back was believed to bring that person bad luck, a custom prevalent amongst many European people and other parts of the world. In Africa, to spit deliberately over the left shoulder in anger is to invoke a curse. Another custom we are still familiar with is spitting for luck. For this reason, it is still customary amongst Greeks and Turks to spit at the bride and groom after a marriage ceremony. 

It is a very curious habit that when working men prepare to do something requiring great strength or fight, they invariably begin by spitting in their hands. Spitting on the hands seems to give the idea of courage, although to spit on the fist before a fight, on a coin or a dice, even on the right shoe when setting out for a journey, is an ancient notion meant to bring luck by warding off evil. 

Spitting out was thought to protect not only against evil forces, but also against contagious sicknesses. This is confirmed in Natural History by Pliny the Elder: ‘We are in the habit of spitting to repel contagion’.189 Similarly, the ancient Greeks spat three times into their bosoms at the sight of a madman. Spittle was also considered effective in the healing process, and the curative powers of spittle have been advocated throughout the ages. The most well-known examples come from the New Testament: ‘And they brought unto Him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech [...] And he took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers into his ears, and He spit, and touched His tongue; [...] and saith unto him Ephatha, that is, Be opened’.190 Fasting spittle was especially considered efficacious in curing various eye diseases, preventing scarring, curing rashes, and removing warts. The Roman historian Tacitus attributed to the Emperor Vespasian the act of restoring sight to a blind man with fasting spittle. 

Many people will automatically spit on an insect bite to obtain relief. In her book, Africa through the Mists of Time, Brenda Sullivan relates that African herbalists and diviners still customarily spit medicines over their patients in the belief of hastening a cure.191


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