The years that span from 1558 to 1603, Queen Elizabeth I's reign, are generally regarded by scholars as the Elizabethan Era. By most accounts this was an extremely prosperous time in England. The Elizabethan Era was a golden age for English poetry and literature. William Shakespeare was revolutionizing English theater, and England was expanding its overseas territory through exploration. Most Elizabethans saw the world as a vast place, ruled over by spirits of good and evil. To maintain balance between these forces many Elizabethans participated in the creation and practice of superstition.
Today many children play a game called Ring Around the Rosy. During the game a song is sung with the phrase "pocket full of posy." Unbeknownst the most children singing it, the song is based on an Elizabethan superstition. Many Elizabethans believed that carrying flowers in their pockets would protect them from the plague. Elizabethans also commonly believed that burning scented wood and carrying bouquets offered plague protection.
Today it is reflexive for many Americans to say "God bless you" after someone sneezes. The custom is generally regarded as simple good manners, but in the Elizabethan era it was considered important protection against demonic possession. Many Elizabethans believed that when they opened their mouths in preparation for a sneeze the devil could enter their bodies. When Elizabethans said "God bless you" after someone sneezed, it was to exercise that potential demon. They believed it would be impossible for a demon to stay in a physical space where a Christian blessing was being given.
Omens for Luck
Luck was a very important concept in a world without 21st century science to explain many day-to-day happenings. The Elizabethans were constantly on guard for things that could potentially bring them bad luck. Common acts that were avoided for this reason included stirring a pot counterclockwise, spilling salt or leaving a door open behind you. Today many people regard having a black cat cross their path as an omen of coming misfortune, but for the Elizabethans cats of all colors were seen as prediction of bad luck. Many common Elizabethan acts that were thought to bring about good luck are no longer practiced today. Some good luck omens included touching a man who was about to be hanged and having a cow exhale on you.
Spitting into a Fire
One particular Elizabethan act intended to bring about good luck is still discussed today. Many Elizabethans believed that spitting into a fire would bring good luck their way. The exact origins of this act are not known, although fire was regarded as being good for luck, so it's possible that spitting into fire simply evolved as a way to safely interact with it. The Elizabethans also regarded running water as good luck.