The Elephant in the Room

Me with my Nan, aged about 4

Dear Readers, as I passed through Camden Passage in Islington today, I paused for a moment to look at one of the last few stalls that is still selling antiques (mostly it’s cafés and hairdressers and delicatessens these days). There was a very fine china elephant, mostly white but with green and blue and orange details, and for a second I was tempted. But then I heard the voice of my Nan in my ear.

“Don’t have an elephant in the house! They’re unlucky!”

Well, clearly a full-sized live elephant would be a problem, but I remembered that Nan had an aversion to elephant representations of any kind. I’d never thought about it before, but today, as I walked to Angel tube, I wondered why a woman who lived in the East End of London for her whole life was convinced that a china elephant could be unlucky. Had she heard about the story of the white elephant given by the Emperors of India to people that they wanted to bankrupt? A white elephant was a sacred animal that demanded the finest food and special care, and so it was, to mix a metaphor, a poisoned chalice of a gift. Nan was not so picky though. She loathed elephants of any colour.

But it wasn’t just elephants. The colour green was unlucky too, to the extent that when Mum bought me a green corduroy coat with faux fur trim (well, I was twelve, and it was 1972), she shook her head, closed her eyes and sighed deeply.

“I just hope you don’t both regret it”, she said, which rather took the pleasure out of it for both of us.

And holy moly, here it (more or less) is. It’s now trendy. You just have to wait long enough.

Practically the same as my coat when I was 12 (From

Nan also worried about putting new shoes on the table (even still in a shopping bag, in their box), and bringing lilac into the house. Many plants are supposed to be unlucky if brought indoors ( I still need to do my list of ‘unlucky blooms’ that I promised a long time ago) but Nan was singularly unpleased with lilac. On one occasion some poor soul brought her a bunch of the stuff, and she grabbed it and threw it straight to the dustbin, while the visitor looked at her slack jawed.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she  asked brightly, as if nothing had happened.

There was a whole palaver about what to do if someone dropped a knife. The dropped knife should never be picked up by the person who dropped it, which meant that if you were on your own you had to skedaddle round the object until someone else came in, or you could risk your future and the future of all your loved ones and pick it up yourself. I was often not sure if Nan had the psychic equivalent of CCTV though, because she’d often fix me with her beady eye, Ancient Mariner-style, and ask if there had been any ‘accidents’.

And finally, the worse thing that could happen was for water to be spilled, because that meant as many tears as the volume of water that had been wasted. On one occasion the twin tub washing machine backed up, resulting in a flooded kitchen, and I remember my poor mother shedding plentiful tears in a kind of superstitious terror.

My Nan was a very persuasive woman and although this all sounds completely irrational now that I’m 63, I remember how strongly Nan believed in her superstitions. How anxious and fearful she was if someone did something that she believed would incur the wrath of those malicious factors that hovered around, waiting to pounce! And, to be frank, she had had a desperate life: her two little boys died at less than two years of age, one of scarlet fever and one of diptheria, she had had a late miscarriage, she had nearly died giving birth to my mother who was less than 3 lbs at birth, her husband had left her, her mother was in a wheelchair, her sister was learning disabled, and her other sister had gone mad. Superstition is a way of trying to negotiate with powers that are beyond our control, and I know that Nan was just trying to protect us from the terrible things that she knew happened in the world.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Nan was also thought of by the wider family as a bit of a white witch – she could charm warts, and she was said to have healing hands that could take away pain. She believed that she knew when storms were coming, and, when we finally got a telephone, she would often tell us who was about to ring before the first trill. We accepted all this, as we did all of the superstitious ‘rules’ that we were supposed to abide by, and even when, as a teenager, I started to get a lot more sceptical, I would still hesitate before I put my platform shoes on the table, and might reject a green teeshirt in favour of a blue one because who knows? Better not to tempt the devil, and definitely don’t upset Nan.

I have no idea where these superstitions came from, and I would love to know if you’ve come across them in your own families, or if you have any extra ones to add. Do you ever still falter in the face of a superstition, even though you know it’s ridiculous? If so, you’re not alone. My house is still elephant-less.

18 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. sllgatsby

    My mother believed that elephants were lucky, as long as they pointed east, so every time she moved, she’d unpack all her elephant figurines and point them west.

    I still can’t help knocking on wood when someone predicts something aggressively positive.

    My mother always shook/threw salt over her left shoulder if she spilled some.

    I want to see a pic of 12 year old you in your unlucky green coat!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah that’s an interesting take on the whole elephant thing! And I still knock on wood sometimes, and throw a pinch of salt over my shoulder. It’s amazing how these things linger! I wish I had a photo of me in my coat, but they mostly show me in Oxford bags and platform shoes 🙂

    2. sllgatsby

      Whoops, I meant east! Although it would be funny if she purposely pointed them in the not-lucky direction!

      I would totally love to see the pics of you in Oxford bags (no idea what that is) and platform shoes.

  2. Anne

    What a shame your Nan had an aversion to elephants – such wonderful creatures they are, but she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know that. I have a row of elephants carved from ebony and one from stone in our sitting room. I can happily assure you that no curses or bad luck has come with them. I had a great aunt who was very superstitious, especially about salt spilling, and have a close relative who anxiously makes sure that no hair from her brush escapes for fear it may be caught and used by someone for malevolent means (who can tell where that comes from?). On the other hand, I am often able to tell who is calling before even looking at the phone screen, and have an uncanny ‘sense’ that my children might need me in some way – even though they are scattered very far from me now 🙂

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      She didn’t have an aversion to them as animals, but just didn’t want representations of them in the house – I agree that they are wonderful animals! And yes, spilled salt had to be thrown over the left shoulder because that was where the Devil lurked. And I’m sure the thing about hair/nail clippings etc goes back to ideas about being able to curse someone if you could get hold of part of their ‘person’. I suspect that people who are very close to one another do have some kind of psychic bond, it would be interesting to see if anyone is ever able to scientifically prove it…

  3. hanorah21

    My mother thought new shoes on the table were unlucky, too. Also, peacock feathers in the house were out and having just three candles lit were a definite no no. Many other superstitions too. Some still linger in me.

  4. Witchofanothercolour

    Green is the colour of the fae, so unlucky to wear it and A) Have them spirit you away or B) Attract their displeasure.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thanks so much for this! The aversion to green was something that I could never get to the bottom of. I suspect it had been embedded in our family for generations.

      1. hanorah21

        As children we would chant, ‘Blue and green should never be seen unless you’re and Irish queen.’


    it would be easy to avoid having elephants in the house, but not so easy to skirt round some of those superstitions. One day at work on the 31st I turned the page of our calendar onto the new month so we could all see our shifts for the week. There was a gasp of horror when someone walked in and saw what I had done ‘You must not turn a calendar till the month has started.’

  6. Revolution Rosy

    I remember my grandmother once gave my mum a little pairing knife with a wooden handle, and insisted on giving her a five pound note along with it – she said it was bad luck to give someone a knife unless you also gave them money at the same time. Also when she gave me a purse fo my 12th birthday she put some money in it, because she said it was bad luck to give someone an empty purse or wallet.
    The other main one I remember was that it’s bad luck to first see the new moon through glass!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah there’s a lot of stuff about knives, isn’t there – my mother-in-law also has a thing about scissors, which should never be given as a gift because it meant you were ‘cutting the friendship’ – maybe your superstition comes from the same thing! And yes, Nan also believed that you should never give a purse without putting some money in it. The biggest taboo of all in our house though was breaking a mirror – everyone really believed the thing about seven years bad luck.

  7. Jo

    So familiar. All of these were part of everyday conversation in my grandmothers house.
    And the same grabbing the lilac incident happened to me when I left a bunch for my in-laws when they returned from holiday. Not only that, the pram for our baby was brought into the house before the baby was born and (terrible sin), it was GREEN! What a clueless daughter in law I was.

  8. Trevor Lawson

    From a review by Fergus Fleming of Peake’s Progress, which I read many years ago. This incident was unforgettable. “In 1939 Mervyn Peake inveigled his wife-to-be, Maeve Gilmore, to his room in Battersea. It was a damp, run-down place on the first floor with few facilities. But it had a bed, which was the important thing. In the middle of the night, however, they were woken by noises from beneath, and when they lit the candle they saw the floorboards were moving. Peake leapt up, and threw back the rug to reveal a trapdoor. He threw that back too. While they were asleep a circus had moved into the ground floor, and an elephant was scratching its back against the beams. For the rest of the night they fed it buns.”


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