In Kazakhstan, East and West Meet in Ancient Superstitions

ASTANA – Every nation has its superstitions, which people follow in different ways. Some still believe in them, some think they are old and best left to history.

From a young age, children are taught by their elders about signs of good or bad luck. Most superstitions can be traced to ancient times and at some point became part of the culture. Their roots are forgotten and people often believe and practice them without knowing how they originated or what they really mean.

Since Kazakhstan is located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, many of its superstitions come from far-flung regions of the world. A lot of people here believe it is bad luck to take photographs of people while they are sleeping. Evgeniya Fedorova, a 27-year-old mother from Karaganda, follows this belief, though she does not know where the superstition arose. According to numerous resources, the idea that photographing sleeping people brought bad luck was spread in Europe in the 19th century, when there was a tradition of taking pictures of the dead as if they had just fallen asleep. It was believed that during sleep, a person is most vulnerable to the evil eye.

“My grandmother used to tell me that it is bad to take a picture of a sleeping person. Now that I have a little son, I don’t allow my husband to shoot him while he sleeps, because I remember my grandmother’s words and I think I believe that something bad could happen to my child,” said Fedorova.

Another popular superstition involves a black cat crossing the road, a common sign of bad luck in many countries. Black cats are associated with bad luck and it is believed this myth came from the times when horseback riders met black cats on dark roads. The animals were often scared and made sharp movements, causing the riders to fall and black cats became associated with evil spirits.

“When a black cat crosses my way, I usually say ‘zholseniki, bakhytmeniki,’ which means ‘the road is yours, but happiness is mine.’ I don’t even know who taught me that; I just remember always saying that whenever I see black cats. Actually, all of my friends and relatives do the same,” said Sabina Smagulova, a 25-year-old accountant at a local construction company.

Many superstitions in Kazakh culture are connected with the evil eye. It is believed little children are most frequently exposed to the evil eye, hence the tradition of “40 days after birth.”

For 40 days after a child is born, he or she is usually shown to no one except those closest to the family. According to pre-Islamic ideas, the feeling existed that during his or her first 40 days of life, an infant must be protected from evil spirits that might replace the baby. Parents light lamps at night, because evil spirits are thought to be afraid of fire and light. Once the days have passed, the ritual of “kyrkynan shygaru” is held for the newborn. Kyrkynan shygaru literally translates as “coming out of the 40 days.” The ceremony is carried out after a child reaches 40 days of age and is considered a second birthday. The essence of the ritual is the bathing of the baby in 41 spoonfuls of water, usually measured out with a new spoon purchased for the ritual. Participants of the ceremony are usually respected older and younger women. Forty-one coins (a symbol of wealth) and 41 kumalaks (pellets or beans symbolising a long and hearty life), are also thoroughly cleaned and put into water. Guests pour 41 spoons of water in the bowl while offering best wishes for the baby. It is believed they charge the water with their positive energy.

Participants take care to cover every part of the baby with water, as it is believed any parts missed out will be vulnerable throughout its life. After the bathing, women trim baby’s hair and nails. After the ritual, the coins, bowl and spoon are distributed among guests as souvenirs, so they could have in their house the same joy the birth of a baby brings.

Parents also often put black paint or soot on the child’s forehead when they go into crowded places: the practice is thought to thwart the evil eye by distracting potential evil-doers with the black spot. Special amulets with eyes on them, known as “kozmonshak,” which literally means “beads with eyes,” are also thought to help ward off the evil eye. Similar amulets have become popular among car owners, who hang them in their vehicles in the belief they will bring an “open road” and luck.

Kazakh culture is also rich with superstitions connected with bad spirits (“shaitans”). Refrigerators, closets and boxes in Kazakh homes should not remain open and everything should be cleaned after the evening meal or the house will attract bad spirits that can harm the owners. The roots of this superstition are unknown, but some people say they were created for educational purposes. Fearing the spirits, young girls were taught housework and cleaning skills.

“I do not think that I believe in any superstition. But now, when I am really thinking about it, I start realising how many of them I follow,” said Zhanna Akhmetova, a 33-year-old nurse at a local hospital. “The ones I can think of right now include first not eating from a knife. My mom used to tell me to never eat from a knife (in ancient times, a knife was used for spiritual rituals and also could be dangerous). Second, I was never allowed to clean a table with a paper towel or napkin. I was told that it leads to being poor. Another one, my mother never allowed me to put my bag on the floor. She used to say that something bad is going to happen. And if I come back home when I am in a rush, when I forgot something, I always have to look in the mirror.”

Several superstitions were spread throughout the world and believed by many people, like throwing salt over one’s left shoulder or knocking on wood for a good luck, the unlucky nature of the number 13, people making wishes when they throw coins into a fountain or see falling stars or the groom not seeing the bride in her wedding dress before the nuptials.

The origin of many superstitions remains unknown. Certain ones are related to religious beliefs of the period, while others were created to scare the younger generation and control their behaviour. In certain instances, they existed because of harsh times, such as not allowing people to cut their nails in the evening. Kazakhs did not have electricity and it was feared the nails would get into clothes or even food. Some superstitions have been passed through centuries and societies and reached the present totally transformed. Some vanished and others lost their original meaning, but superstitions remain as part of the cultural heritage of any society.



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