The Providential Shoe

Amongst the many items purportedly bringing good luck and most frequently found on charm bracelets, in cars, and games, is the humble shoe. The shoe, especially the left shoe, particularly if it is old, has been considered a luck-bringer since way back in time and is most significant in terms of the wealth of curious beliefs surrounding it.

In the past the majority of people possessed only one pair of shoes, which was worn over a period of many years and only re-soled when necessary. Consequently shoes were perceived as becoming ‘charged’ with the soul essence of their owners and seen as imbued with propitiatory or protective qualities – hence ‘bringing luck’. Tennyson expresses this in his ‘Lyrical Monologue’:

For this thou shalt from all things seek

Marrow of mirth and laughter;

And whereso-er thou move, good luck

Shall throw her old shoe after.

In modern society, throwing an old shoe after someone might be considered a dangerous act, but in the past, this action was invariably seen as providentially serendipitous. Hence, the ancient Romans used to throw their sandals after wedding processions for good fortune. In England, raining down shoes on newlyweds on their wedding day was regarded as fortuitous, as the following rhyme indicates: ‘There is nothing like well-worn leather to propitiate fate’. In Yorkshire, a custom called ‘thrashing’ was prevalent until only a few decades ago. It signified pelting newlyweds with shoes on their return from church after the wedding ceremony. Similarly, a tradition in Turkey encouraged all guests to touch the bridegroom with their sandals after the ceremony. 

Formerly, it was also customary in many European countries for brides to throw their right shoe, instead of a bouquet, a tradition that must have been painful for some guests! Whoever managed to catch the thrown shoe was assured to be happily married soon. Another wedding custom was to tie old shoes and boots to the newlyweds’ departing carriage or car to ensure a lucky future for them. This tradition is still found in certain parts of Europe and the U.S. but is generally dying out. 

Although the shoe is perceived as a symbol of luck at weddings, its original connection to matrimony had no link to good fortune. Throughout the ages, the shoe symbolised domestic authority and ownership. Therefore, Anglo-Saxon marriage custom required the bride’s father to present one of his daughter’s shoes ceremoniously to the groom. This action symbolically transferred the authority he once held over her, giving the groom full command over his new wife. As a token of submission to her husband, the bride was required to receive a tap on the head with her husband’s shoe after the marriage ceremony. The shoe therefore also embodied a transfer of ownership of the bride from her father to her husband. In Ireland, an ancient ceremony formerly performed whenever someone was elected to office, was to throw an old shoe over the person’s head to signify authority.

Similar customs can be found in the Middle East, where shoes or sandals were once given or exchanged as confirmation of a sale and regarded as a symbol of authority. Amongst Jews, the exchange or delivery of a shoe was the token of confirmation of an agreement or contract: ‘Now this was the manner in former times in Israel [...] for to confirm all things, a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel’.49 

In Western society, the chief act of investiture is linked with the head –the ‘crowning’ of a monarch, ‘saluting’ with respect, or the ‘capping’ ceremony connected with graduation. Amongst Moslems, Hindus and Buddhists in the East, however, uncovering the head is replaced by uncovering the feet in mosques and temples and, on solemn occasions, to denote respect. The shoe in these cultures is regarded as a symbol of dignity and authority, hence to uncover the feet signifies humility and servitude. In ancient Egypt, the bride and groom customarily wore only one sandal, each on the opposite foot, during the betrothal ceremony. However, at the wedding ceremony, neither of the newlyweds wore sandals. This is depicted on Tutankhamen’s golden throne chair, discovered in his tomb in the Valley of Kings and displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. 

The Old Testament refers to ‘loosing the shoe’ as a mark of respect: ‘And the captain of the Lord’s host said unto Joshua: Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy’.50 Another example of ‘loosing the shoe’ in biblical times was connected to widowhood. A widow customarily married her dead husband’s brother. If, however, contrary to convention, a widow was refused in marriage by her husband’s surviving brother, she asserted her anger and independence by ‘loosing his shoe from off his foot and spitting in his face’.51 Called the Halisa Ceremony this procedure had to be enacted in front of the rabbi, who then gave her permission to marry again, this time, a man of her choosing. By formally unstrapping her husband’s brother’s shoe, the widow renounced a union with him.

In Europe, shoes were once popularly used in divination to see one’s future husband by throwing them over one’s shoulder on New Year’s Eve. Alternatively, they could be placed in the form of a ‘T’ at right angles to one another before going to bed to enjoy glorious dreams of one’s future spouse. A bridegroom had to pay particular attention to his shoes during the wedding ceremony, taking care to leave the buckle of his left shoe undone or the laces untied, to prevent the secret influence of witches on his nuptial night. To prevent nightmares, shoes were placed one ‘going in’, one ‘going out’, at the door, or they could be placed in the form of a cross at the side of the bed. Great care, of course, was taken, when putting shoes on, not to start with the left foot. To put shoes on a table was always considered taboo – today for hygiene – as this symbolised a hanging. Therefore, shoes on the table were linked with bringing bad luck, and the saying ‘to die in one’s shoes’ refers to someone dying on the scaffold. 

As good luck charms, old shoes when burned, were believed to drive all contagion from a house and to prevent infections from diseases and fevers. In seventeenth-century England, a sure cure for tonsillitis and haemorrhoids was to burn a well-worn old shoe to white ashes. These were then mixed with lard and rubbed on the afflicted part for several days. Burning old shoes was also thought to protect women and their newborn babies, when they were at their most vulnerable, from being abducted by fairies. An interesting parallel is found in rural Rajasthan in India, where women possessed of spirits are still made to drink out of old shoes in order to be ‘cured’ and accepted back into society.

Is it not amazing to note how an unassuming, common object such as a scuffed, scruffy, old shoe comes suffused with such a wealth of symbolic meaning, tradition, and custom?


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