Bizarre Shoe Myths From History (Yes, They Exist)

by JR Thorpe

Today may famously be the Ides Of March, the day on which Julius Caesar met his sticky end for trying to take over a parliamentary democracy and make it into an imperial dictatorship — but for those of you who like your holidays a bit less stabby, there's still something to celebrate today: it's National Shoe The World Day. This annual event is partially run by Soles 4 Souls, a charity that helps people in poverty by distributing shoes to those without a single pair. The organization has distributed over 30 million pairs since 2006, all over the world. Giving shoes, according to the charity, protects people from disease, gives them economic opportunities, and raises their educational levels by keeping them in school. It's a worthy endeavor, and it's also a chance to examine something very weird: the strange human history of footwear and our beliefs about shoes.

Shoes have their own particularly peculiar route through human civilization; I've written elsewhere about the complicated history of the high heel, for instance, and the strange fact that they were likely introduced to Europe by Persian soldiers and noblemen on horseback, who wore beautifully heeled shoes in the 1500s to give themselves better grip on the stirrups. (The interesting aspect of this, of course, is that at the time, heeled shoes were considered the epitome of masculinity; it wasn't until later that women began to appropriate heels at the backs of their shoes as an attempt to assimilate some of that male power.)

But they've also become the centerpiece of a number of cultural beliefs, many of which are still evident in our behavior today — most notably in the habit of removing shoes before entering various holy places or private homes. So if we're going to shoe the world, let's get into the niceties of the world of shoes.

You'll Be Killed If You Put Your Left Shoe On Before Your Right Shoe

Remember how today is the Ides of March? That ties into this next fact., Caesar's successor, the Emperor Augustus — who, instead of restoring Roman democracy, simply made himself a more popular emperor so nobody would kill him — had a tremendous amount of superstition about putting the left shoe on before the right. Shoes in ancient Rome were highly varied and, among the higher classes, ornate; a beautiful Roman leather shoe with tooling and decoration that may date from around Augustus's reign was found down a well in Salzburg, Germany (what it was doing down there remains unclear).

A 19th century essay on the Romans and their shoes notes that the Emperor might have picked this up from the teachings of the Greek Pythagoras, who told all his followers to put their right shoes on first to keep their souls clean. (They also couldn't eat beans or touch white roosters.) Augustus, however, also had his worries on this front confirmed; the story goes that he put his left shoe on first instead of his right one day, and immediately faced a mutiny by his soldiers over pay. He narrowly escaped murder and would never put on a left shoe first again. It may be complete nonsense, but you have to admit — it's a little persuasive.

Shoes Can Protect From You Attack By Dogs (Or Curse You To Death)

Roman writer Pliny the Elder had a few recommendations about what to do with your shoes. He has an array of pungent methods for curing shoe-related injuries (blisters are cured by donkey fat, corns are treated with pig dung, and chilblains are treated by burning up an old shoe and coating the problem area with the ash, naturally), but he also notes one of the more intriguing superstitions of the time: a dog will never bark at anybody who carries a dog's tongue in his shoe. It was presumably a precaution used by burglars, but it's also part of a long tradition of shoe superstitions.

If you wanted to prevent bad luck or were going somewhere dangerous, Romans also believed that it was a good idea to spit into the right shoe before putting it on (again, always before the left shoe).

But the ancient Greeks also believed that a shoe could hold a lot of problems. It was thought that taking the shoe of an enemy and burying it under the foundations of a new temple would dedicate their soul to the "genius" of the place, and mean that they would die within a year.

Shoes Are Crucially Important For The Afterlife

Shoes were, in many historical cultures, deeply crucial to the success and happiness of people in the afterlife. Some Egyptian mummies have been found wearing shoes — including one with shoes famously resembling Adidas sneakers — and a 16th century manuscript mentions a belief among medieval Christians that they should give shoes to a poor man so that they themselves might wear them after death:

"When anyone dies, certain women sing a song to the dead body, reciting the journey that the deceased must go, and they are of the belief, such is their fondness [foolishness] that once in their lives it is good to give a pair of new shoes to a poor man; forasmuch as after this life they are to pass barefoot through a great land full of thorns & furze [gorse], except by the merit of the alms aforesaid they have redeemed their forfeit; for at the edge of the land an old man shall meet them with the same shoes that were given by the party when he was living, and after he hath shod them he dismisses them to go through thick and thin without scratch or scale."

However, the peak of style in this aspect likely comes from the ancient Chinese, whose practice between 206 BC and 420 AD was to give their emperor a pair of "Longevity Shoes" to wear into the afterlife and burn all the ones he wore while he lived. The shoes themselves were hardly slouches; they were made of pure jade.

Putting Coins In Your Shoes Can Ensure That Your Sex Life Will Be A Success

17th and 18th-century European beliefs about shoes and their potential for spiritual and magical havoc led to quite a lot of interesting charms and spells. At this time in this culture, shoes were expensive and highly symbolic things, so it stands to reason that they'd become magnets for collections of odd folk beliefs.

French brides would, for instance, put a coin in their shoes when they got married to prevent any witches from cursing their husbands with impotence. And on the saint's day of St Agnes, patron saint of young girls, English girls would be encouraged to do a charm: take dew-sprinkled sprigs of rosemary and thyme, put one in each shoe, place them on opposing sides of the bed, and recite a rhyme imploring St Agnes to make a future husband appear in that night's dream.

Shoe-based charms weren't just aimed at women, either. In 2016, a wall in Cambridge's St John's College was discovered to contain a man's shoe from the 1700s, likely walled up there for the protection of the person who ran the college.

Throwing Shoes At People's Heads Gives Them Good Luck

In Accessories Of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, fashion historians Katherine Lester and Bess Viola Oerke note the intriguing development of old shoes as tokens of good luck for marrying women in England over the centuries. Originally, they say, the fathers of Anglo-Saxon brides would give one of her shoes to her new groom; but the tradition evolved into the throwing of an old shoe at the couple as they departed the church, to give them luck in the future. By the 17th century, it became a gender-neutral way to give luck for everybody, and people would cheerfully request that footwear be thrown at their heads for good fortune.

The wedding tradition, though, lasted a long time; it showed up in Dickens' Great Expectations, after Pip's wedding, and a 19th century tradition in the Isle of Man held that if any of the old shoes thrown at the couple were picked up by a passer-by, the groom had to pay a "ransom" to get them back. Pelting the couple with confetti seems pretty tame by comparison, really.

In the modern world, shoes are seen as a way to step out of poverty, but it's worth remembering that they've gathered superstitions and weird beliefs for thousands of years, and that this is just the latest incarnation of the ways in which what's on our feet can transform our lives.