Succour From The Saints: The Peaceful Co-Existence of Superstition and Religion

Were finally back with another in-house blog article — the first one after our relaunch as Superstition Sam! In this short essay, we’ll be exploring some examples of charms and lucky figurines of saints, including new contemporary superstitions trusted by theists and atheists alike. And to show you that you don’t need to fear (because Superstition Sam is here), we’ll briefly touch on the history of the word ‘superstition’ as well, notably its evolution from an instrument of religious oppression into comforting personal rituals.

Painting of a man dressed in a cleric's cloak kneeling and looking up to a floating figure of the baby Jesus, with book and a sprig of lilies next to his knees.
Santo Antonio de Padua, by Francisco de Zurbarán (~1630). Public Domain.

First of all, what is superstition? That is a question that we have asked ourselves plenty of times! These days, it can essentially be said to be a unique, personal ritual, learned either from family or culture, and adapted into our daily lives in hopes that luck will be on our side and things will go well. In other words, it’s an illusory sense of control in an otherwise very chaotic and uncontrollable world. And we say, all the better, since according to studies in the field of psychology, superstition may actually improve performance and self-confidence (University of Cologne, 2009) — and we all know we need a little bit of that right now, surely? Whether it’s a football player tapping the ground three times, a student using their lucky pen for an exam, or even a job candidate wearing their favourite shirt for an interview — when used moderately and in good fun, superstition can be a tool that contributes to our well-being and mental health. But it hasn’t always been seen that way, and in some places around the world, it still isn’t.

Due to its troubled history, ‘superstition’ is a word that still strikes terror in a lot of people. To try and put it very succintly, it all began with the Ancient Greeks and the word deisidaimonia (δεισιδαιμονία), meaning “scrupulousness in religious matters”. Though, be surprised! Because according to Oxford Reference, deisidaimonia had actually started out as a complimentary term at first, interpreted more closely as ‘someone who pays attention to details’. But not all Greeks were sharing in that sentiment and soon the word gained a pejorative character, as expressed by Aristotle’s successor, the philosopher Theophrastus. He argued that deisidaimonia frankly just meant cowardice and fear of the gods, and mocking those who put a little extra ‘sugar and spice’ into their daily lives, Theophrastus went so far as to jest:

“The Superstitious Man is the kind who washes his hands in three springs, sprinkles himself with water from a temple font, puts a laurel sprig in his mouth, and then is ready for the day’s perambulations.”

Theophrastus, 4th Century BCE

This honestly sounds like fun! But consequently, by the time the Ancient Romans came along, deprecating people who performed personal rituals was already ‘a thing’, and so the word superstitio was established, used to make a superlative comparison between the superior “religious practices recommended by the elites” (Vyse, 2019) and those of the ‘uneducated peasantry’ — thus, cementing superstition as an instrument of classist oppression and eventually, colonialist as well. Here, we would fast forward to the period of Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, ocurred shortly after the two southern European countries began their expansion and transatlantic slave trade. With more cultures being dragged into the fold in this imperialist way, the concept of superstition further degraded into one of “bad religion”, to clearly stamp out beliefs that were not in accordance with the ruling classes — and countries.

For instance, if we look at the tenets published by the Portuguese Catholic church in the 16th century, we can see how they are very demonstrative of how anything and everything in this period suddenly became an offense ‘to god’ — or rather the ruling elites! — plainly, in an effort to keep ‘the peasantry’ under control. Case in point, something that we do today without second thought, like drinking to someone’s good health [“nem dee a alguma pessoa a comer ou beber… para querer bem”, don’t give to anyone food or drink to wish them well], or more relevant to this article: praying to charms of saints [“nem levem as imagens dalguns sanctos”, don’t carry images of saints]. Furthermore, while Germany and Scotland (to name a few) were focusing on witchcraft alone, the Portuguese Inquisition somehow decided to go much further, and persecute all who would not convert to Catholicism — making the discrimination umbrella much larger. Regrettably, if you were to comb the public records of the Inquisition, you would find that many of the people who were sentenced were so because they were Jewish, as well as being “New Christians”, Cristãos Novos. These were people who had recently converted, either from Judaism or an African tradition, and were reported to the clergy for allegedly ‘practicing Catholicism wrong’. Truly, it must have been a terrible time to have any sort of lucky ritual, even if very personal or innocuous, since neighbours were also encouraged to report you if you did anything out of the ordinary, like say… throw a party (the case of Ana Dias, in Madeira).

Fast forward again to today, and thankfully it is clear to see that despite all of the Inquisition’s efforts to stamp out practices such as praying to charms of saints, in the end, the Portuguese just told them to stuff it, basically. Contemporary Portugal absolutely adores their saint lore and superstitions now, such as the multiplying June festivals that were once upon a time dedicated to Midsummer, but were transmuted into the realms of Saint John, Saint Peter, and one of the nation’s favourites: Saint Anthony of Padua. On the 13th of June for instance, Saint Anthony’s Day, country grannies veritably ‘rush’ to watch the “Brides of Saint Anthony“: a long day of ceremony at Lisbon’s largest church transmitted live on TV, with multitudinous couples getting married at the same time. And why? Because it is said that getting married on Saint Anthony’s Day is good luck. And so, the line between religion and superstition is blurred… My own granny at one point hoped that one day I would get married on the 13th of June, and advised me to carry various charms of Saint Anthony, like the ones below, on my wallet at all times — under penalty of getting the ‘colher de pau’. I’m joking!

A photo of a Saint Anthony prayer card to find lost things, and metal charm to attract a partner.
Credit: Superstition Sam.

Well, just try travelling to the Sanctuary of Fatima in central Portugal to see what I mean. There are shops — endless shops — selling figurines, prayer cards and charms of every saint you can possibly imagine. But more generally, belief around the world these days is that, if you have an issue, most likely there is a saint for that. These would be called ‘Patron Saints’, and they usually also have a day of the year assigned to them, just like Saint Anthony. Patron saints can protect anything, from people with certain ailments to specialised artisans, and even entire nations! For instance, this week the Irish will be celebrating their patron saint, St Patrick on the 17th of March. In fact, Ireland now has two patron saints, as St Bride got her own public holiday on February 1st, officially making this the first Irish civic day named after a woman. Elsewhere in the British Isles, the English shall also be celebrating their own patron, St George on April 23rd, while Wales had their St David’s Day earlier this month on March 1st. And let’s not forget about the Cornish, who had a pasty with miner patron St Piran on March 5th. Gah! Confused with so many saints? No worries, you can always consult this Everyday Book by William Hone published in 1825, telling you which saint day is which!

Regarding patron saints of professions, there is for instance St Dunstan (patron of blacksmiths, which we talked about last month here), St Francis of Sales (patron of writers and journalists, hello), and one of our personal favourites: Saint Helen of Constantinople, who has a very curious story indeed. She was divorced from the Roman emperor Flavius Constantius after the birth of their son, the Emperor Constantine (the first to convert to Christianity). And it is said that Helen opted for a life of seclusion and wisdom instead of remarrying, meaning that she had the freedom to travel as a Judaeo-Christian scholar in the 4th century CE, devoting herself to a hobby like… finding the locations and symbols of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, as you were. Except that she did find them, as the tale goes — and unearthed them, supposedly making her one of the very first ‘archaeologists’ in the world! And not only that, but she is also said to have broken these relics into fragments (such as Christ’s cross left in Golgotha), which were later sent to holy places across Europe, thus effectively inventing Archaeology and the very first Christian ‘Good Luck Charms’, all at the same time! Go, Helen!

Illuminated manuscript with St Helen praying to the cross, from an Italian Antiphoner (c. 1490 – c.1510) stored in the British Library.

As for patron saints of ailments, examples are: Saint Dymphna, patron saint of mental health and insomniacs; or Saint Aggripina, patron saint against bacterial infections — because, why not — and that is not even one of the strangest protections from saints out there! As for Saint Anthony, who we already mentioned earlier, the reason why he is associated with all matters of love in Portugal is because he is the patron saint of… lost causes! Meaning that, additionally, you can also pray to dear Anthony of Padua to find misplaced objects. Useful, if you are neurodivergent! But speaking of being lost, another one of our favourites is St Christopher, who is the patron saint of travellers. That is because superstition says that carrying a medal of St Christopher shall ensure safe travels to wherever you go. Especially if the journey takes place across rivers and oceans, as St Christopher was said to have safely ferried many disabled people across a stream — for which the baby Jesus kindly rewarded him.

Photo of a medal of Saint Christopher carrying Jesus across the water, as depicted in the German show Dark.

Now, seeing as St Joseph’s Day is coming up on March 19th — which is also Father’s Day in Portugal and elsewhere — we couldn’t help but to explore one last tale: the superstition that burying a figurine of Saint Joseph upside down on the ground outside your house should help you sell it. Just like in the Sanctuary of Fatima, we had a look on various online sellers and found endless — endless, I tell you! — kits of Saint Joseph, complete with plastic figurine and prayer card to get succour from the saint towards navigating the tear-inducing property market. And curiouser and curiouser, some people claim… it really works? At least, according to user reviews of a prominent online sales website (starting in Ama- and ending in -zon, *shudders*), one of which said: “A friend told me to plant this guy upside down to sell the house. House was on the market for seven months (thanks covid) – but in the week that I planted it, three offers came in. Maybe this isn’t a superstition?”

But how did superstition end up connecting the carpenter St Joseph to the blasphemous real estate business, and how far back can that be traced? First off, from what we found, the belief seemed more widespread in the United States, so we combed through a North American newspaper and magazine database for clues. There were all sorts, from business journals that swore hands down Saint Joseph is the patron saint of real estate; as well as small local newspaper pieces that believed he is truly the “last resort” for a property that just won’t sell. Obviously, one thing all of these articles had in common, as is often the case with superstitions… they had no sources to back it up. Annoying, yes — but it is good to be aware that unlike history, superstition can travel through word-of-mouth alone, interpreted differently by every single person that hears it (Hood, 2009). That makes things complicated for researchers indeed, but all it takes is perseverance — and a generous pinch of salt! — and, eventually, we came across the oldest article in the database mentioning St Joseph. Dated from just 1990, the piece finally claimed that all this saint-burying business began thanks to a modest 16th century nun, Saint Teresa of Avila. She was a prolific writer and, luckily for us, produced her own biography. Now, it wouldn’t be so hard to find that she would often describe Saint Joseph as her own personal patron saint, regularly answering her prayers — notably, whe she sought a new monastery for herself and her Carmelite companions. We’ll explain further with her following quote:

“Once, when I was in one of my difficulties, not knowing what to do, unable to pay the workmen, S. Joseph, my true father and lord, appeared to me, and gave me to understand that money would not be wanting, and I must hire the workmen. So I did, though I was penniless; and our Lord, in a way that filled those who heard of it with wonder, provided for me. The house offered me was too small,—so much so, that it seemed as if it could never be made into a monastery,—and I wished to buy another, but had not the means, and there was neither way nor means to do so. I knew not what to do. There was another little house close to the one we had, which might have formed a small church. One day, after Communion, our Lord said to me, I have already bidden thee to go in anyhow.”

The Life of St Teresa of Jesus, Written by Herself (1870 English Translation)

This seems… plausible, at least! But you might have noticed that there is still one riddle left to solve, as there is nothing in Saint Teresa of Avila’s biography suggesting that this very contemporary recipe to sell a property (deserving of WikiHow instructions and everything) must include a buried figurine. When did that start, and how? Could it be that it all began in the 80s due to her renewed popularity and subsequent proclamation as the first female doctor in 1970, or…? But gosh, look at the time! This article is getting really extensive, not to mention you might wish to research this yourself, so we will just leave you with a wild and funny suggestion. Remember Saint Helen of Constantinople, the first person to unearth Christian relics? Do you think someone who liked Saint Teresa heard Helen’s story and thought “Hey, why don’t I put this Christian effigy back in the ground instead of taking it out…?” And hey, presto! — a new superstition was born? You never know!

Photo of a Saint Joseph carved from wood. Credit to Karl Raymund Catabas on Unsplash.

Admittedly, superstitions can be made up by someone trying to sell you something — quite literally, since we’re selling a house here — just like the tale that wedding rings are worn in your left ring finger because it’s got a vein connected to the heart. Very romantic indeed, and Saint Anthony would be proud, but that has already been dismissed as a sort of ‘jeweller’s con’, since modern biological knowledge proved the vena amoris doesn’t exist. Wah, wah! But in our modest opinion, what does it matter if estate agents concocted this during a property market boom? Didn’t we read at the beginning of this article that superstition can improve self-confidence? Wasn’t that seller really happy they got three offers for their house? Perhaps… it is more likely that all that St Joseph is doing is providing people with the conviction to speak to scary estate agents or prospective buyers directly and assertively?

In summary, we know that superstitions may well be just a placebo for the mind, even those associated with saints. After all, superstitious credence can be explained through human psychology and magical thinking, such as the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (Hood, 2009) — which basically means: “Well, if I did A while doing B, and that made B work, then surely B worked because of A, right?” In other words, a perceived law of cause and effect, where superstition reduces the stress of being quite out of control in this topsy-turvy world, making the unpleasant more bearable and increasing self-confidence. No longer a synonym of “bad religion” for both theists or atheists alike — when used in moderation and very personally, does it really matter, as long as it ‘works’?

And now that you studied all the theory, go on and have some fun sharing your superstitions with us at #Superstitiology, and our pals at #OfDarkAndMacabre, #BookwormSat and #BookChatWeekly on social media, for this week’s (13/03/23 to 19/03/23) non-exclusive collaborative theme:

“Snakes, Ships & Sheep – Spring Stories From The Insular Celts”!

Thank you for reading!
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Further Reading:

Bailey, M. D. (2017) Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies : The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. New York: Cornell University Press. Accessed via JSTOR [].
Crawford, D. (1993). St. Joseph in Britain: Reconsidering the Legends, Part I. Folklore, 104(1/2), pp. 86–98. Available HERE.
Crawford, D. (1994). St Joseph in Britain: Reconsidering the Legends. Part 2. Folklore, 105, pp. 51–59. Available HERE.
Gentilucci, R (1860). ‘Favours Bestowed by Saint Joseph on Saint Teresa’ in The Life of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, pp. 307. Available HERE.
Gilmour, P. ‘Saint Joseph gets buried in his work’ in U.S. Catholic, vol. 63, no. 3, Mar. 1998, p. 7. Accessed via Gale General OneFile [].
Hardwick, P. ‘Time to sell a house; might try St. Joseph for a little help’ in Mississippi Business Journal, vol. 40, no. 13, 30 Mar. 2018, p. 7. Accessed via Gale General OneFile [].
Hood, B. (2009) Supersense: From superstition to religion, the brain science of belief. London: Constable.
McCrimmon, K. ‘Need help selling your home? Saint isn’t your average Joe Catholic lore: bury statue, close deal’ in Rocky Mountain News Denver, CO, 4 Jan. 2003, p. 4. Accessed via Gale OneFile: News [].
‘St. Joseph statues used to sell homes’, in UPI Archive: Domestic News, 24 Sept. 1990. Accessed via Gale General OneFile [].
Vyse, S. (2019). Superstition: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Please Note: Our articles are written for entertainment purposes only, as superstitions and folklore in general do not constitute adequate professional or medical advice. Please use your own personal judgement if you would still like to attempt to replicate any superstition or folk remedy. And if there is anything in life that is troubling you, please do seek your local mental health support team ♡