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Are you up with your left foot again?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Left foot sculpture from the 4th century BCE. The object is from Egypt
Left foot sculpture from the 4th century BCE. The object is from Egypt | Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Greco-Roman texts provide a great deal of information about the ancients’ views on religious matters, many of which refer to very mundane matters. Often the superstitions of ordinary people from two thousand years ago are present and very popular superstitions. How many people have not stood up at least once with the famous “left leg”? Or vice versa, he ascribed his happiness to his right foot, as did the Germans and the English in their proverbs (“Auf rechten Füssen ist gut stehen” tudzież “Let’s get off on the right foot this year”)?

Belief in the negative effects of starting the day with the wrong side has an ancient origin and refers to the ancient belief that the left side is inferior and should be avoided when taking action1.

Bad luck brings not only standing up with your left foot. It was bad luck for a merchant with Metamorphosis to start his journey, and he sold merchandise from under his nose, hoping for a big profit (Apul. Met. I 5.5). Not only the left leg but also the left hoof, could bring bad luck. Lucius, the main character of the first surviving ancient tale of “cloak and dagger”, was turned into a donkey. As an animal, he follows a group of bandits who curse him as the culprit of their failures. They claimed that the animal had exposed itself to them by “entering the yard with its left hoof” and thus brought bad luck to the whole gang (Apul. Met. VI 26.1)2. Also, crossing the threshold could herald bad luck, which some ancients feared like fire. Trymalchion, the rich man, who had invited the main characters of Satiricon Petronius to a feast, confessed to similar fears. Trymalchion had placed a slave in front of the entrance to the dining room, whose main task was to warn the guests from entering the doorway with his left foot (Petr. Sat. 30.5). As much as Trymalchion seems to be superstitious on the surface, the main characters of the story also felt a great deal of discomfort at the thought of crossing the door with their left foot.

Such convictions also affected the greatest figures of the Roman Empire, among whom Octavian Augustus, the aristocratic ruler, is a vivid example. He complied with many recommendations resulting from the interpretation of signs, including avoiding putting a left sandal on a foot in front of a right one (Suet. Aug. 92.1). Also, Vitruvius makes us realize how many people were afraid of the consequences of doing something with the left foot. He expressed this in his famous work On Architecture recommending that the builders of the temple should have an odd number of steps. Thanks to this procedure, the right foot, which starts entering the temple, will also be the first to leave the platform. This is an obvious attempt by the architect to prevent a situation in which a person entering a holy place would enter it with his left foot, thus bringing bad luck (Vitr. III 4.4).

The left side, including the left leg, was generally considered inferior, and it was natural to avoid it when undertaking any endeavours by the ancients. This type of belief has been present for centuries and attests to the superstition of many people of antiquity. And at the same time about ours, since despite the later religious changes and the development of science, we know very well what grandma will ask us when she sees that we are in a bad mood.

Author: Radosław Domazet (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • A.P. Wagener, On "Putting the Best Foot Forward", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 66 (1935), s. 74-7
  • Apuleius Madaurensis, Metamorphoses. Book I, text, introduction, commentary W.H. Keulen, Gruningen 2007, s. 156-7

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