Popular myths in Latvia (and elsewhere!)

I’m always amazed at some of the urban myths and old wives’ tales that people here in Latvia and elsewhere believe. I’ve alluded to some of these at various times in the past. For example, in a previous post, I pointed out that Halloween owes its origins more to Celtic countries like Ireland than the USA, yet people still think of it more as an American festival. So many of these myths persist and people wheel them out without even thinking of whether they’re true or not.

1) “You’ll get fat if you eat after 6pm.”

A student said this one to me recently, inspiring this blog post. Her dietician told her to avoid eating after 6pm in order to lose weight. I nearly choked on my undietfriendly coffee. A calorie is a calorie regardless of the time of day you eat it. Your body also has the same power to process it at all times of the day. Here’s what a popular British weight loss site has to say on this:

“The latest obesity research evidence suggests that restricting food after a particular time in the evening has no effect on overall weight loss. What is important is that you have food throughout the day (including a breakfast) and stick to a daily calorie limit.”

It’s depressing though, that a dietician is giving such baseless advice to someone paying them.

2) Giving people even numbers of flowers can cause them to die early.

Alright. I’m exaggerating. However, in much of Eastern Europe people will shriek with horror if you try and give them 2, 4 or 6 flowers, which are traditionally given for funerals. “Are you trying to kill me?” exclaimed my ex when I once tried to give her four flowers. All I can say is, I’ve given more than one lady an even number of flowers in my time and they’re all still alive and kicking. On Valentine’s Day, it’s even customary in the UK and Ireland to give people 12 red roses, but if there’s research that shows that it affects life expectancy, I’ll stop my dastardly practices.

3) Jesus was an effeminate, pale-skinned, long-haired guy.

Okay, I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away. I’m an atheist and am doomed to spend my eternity roasting in hell like a shashlik (hopefully together with one.) That doesn’t mean that I can’t shake my head in bewilderment at the unlikeliness of the Jesus stereotype shown in photos like this one in Latvian churches and elsewhere:


Oh Jesus. If the great man even existed, where even to start? The beard is about the only bit that they probably got right.

Let’s start with his physique. The guy, according to the bible, was a carpenter. In those days that involved working with stone and marble as well as wood. In his pre-teenage years, he probably started a life of hard, physical labour which would have continued for the next 20 years. A life of heavy physical lifting, breaking up rocks and sanding them down by hand probably left him with a body that Arnold Schwarzie in his prime would have been proud of.

Next, the long hair. What’s with that? Making him look like a marijuana smoking hippy? Almost all busts of important people from that era showed them with short, closely cropped hair. In an era where people could easily be conscripted to the military, it also had advantages in hand to hand combat.

Augustus, the Roman emperor at the time

Augustus, the Roman emperor at the time

Besides the military stuff, then, as now, people would have followed the fashion of the rich and famous and it was very unusual then for men to have long hair. I suspect this comes from Medieval art, when long hair in men was becoming popular.

Lastly, his skin tone. Given where he was born and the outdoor life he is supposed to have led in a hot climate, it’s unlikely he looked like an Irish/Latvian person in mid-January. To me, it’s bordering on casual racism to make him look that way, as if an Arab-looking guy wouldn’t command the religious devotion of European people.

All in all, if he did exist, I think facially, he would have resembled the computer generated image below that researchers created a few years ago, combined with the guy below that.

1st century Jewish head reconstruction

1st century Jewish head reconstruction

Jesus in body, if not in spirit

Jesus in body, if not in spirit

4) The word fuck started as an acronym meaning “fornication under the consent of the king”

Now to a word that Jesus almost certainly didn’t use. The word fuck. Definitely one to approach with care. A whole musical genre, punk rock, owes its rise to the outrage caused by The Sex Pistols using it on a regional TV programme in 1976.

Years back I had a private student, a middle-aged, middle-class business woman, who insisted that I teach her all the swear words in English. Her rationale was that she watched lots of English films and needed to understand common swear words. After arguing with her, I relented and a colourful class resulted, even though it was highly surreal to be teaching an otherwise serious business person such words, which she dutifully jotted down in her notebook. In the class, I realised that, although taboo, it’s one of the most versatile words in the English language. It can be

i) a noun (“cool as fuck”)

ii) a pronoun (“he’s a stupid fuck-face”)

iii) a verb (for sexual intercourse)

iv) a phrasal verb (“to fuck up” , “to fuck someone over”)

v) an auxiliary verb (“quiet! He’s fucking sleeping!”)

vi) an adverb (“it was fucking great”)

vii) an adjective (“I’m fucked” i.e. in trouble or drunk.)

viii) a modal particle (“Just fucking move, will you?”)

ix) an interjection (“Fuck! I’ve lost my keys!”)

As a teacher, I don’t recommend the use of such words of course, and I would never use them (*cough*) but they exist in the language.

What is fucking strange are the various backronyms invented to explain its origins. For example on yahoo answers:

F.U.C.K simply means Fornication Under Consent of King. in the early years, i was told, that one had to obtain permission before that person could get it on with another.

For Unlawful Cardinal Knowledge
It was crime to have premarital sex so they use the acronym we all know.

The story goes that in older times, couples wanting to enjoy a bit of alone time together had to obtain royal permission and were given a sign with the acronym F.U.C.K on it, which they hung outside their door to dissuade nasty neighbours from reporting them. Not only is that against the rules of English (“by consent of the king” would be correct,) a king busy signing off these little permits for his horny subjects wouldn’t have any time to do anything else. In reality, as Time magazine point out in their history of it, the word seems to have come from older Germanic words for thrust or push, entering English about 500 years ago.

5) Organic food is healthier for you than non-organic food

A lot of people, including my students, unquestioningly seem to believe that a label saying “organic” makes the food healthier. In reality there’s little evidence that organic food is much healthier than non-organic. The Washington Post did a decent analysis of this and found that in terms of meat, eggs and diary products there’s no significant difference to health, no proof that organic fish is better and that the jury is still out on whether it makes a difference to vegetables. Stanford University’s research came to similar conclusions. There may be good environmental reasons for going organic and therefore paying double for a lot of stuff, but the health benefits are doubtful.

6) Irish is a dialect of English

I’m tempted to use the forbidden word in section four above when I hear this. For example, here’s a sentence from the start of the Irish Wikipedia entry on Latvia: “Is ball den Aontas Eorpach í. Tá beagnach naoi gcéad míle duine sa phríomhchathair.” Understand anything of that “dialect?” Nope, I didn’t think so. Irish is much older than English and belongs to a completely different language branch and, like Latvian, doesn’t have so many words of Latin origin (given that the Romans never made it that far in either case.) English has much more in common with French and Swedish and little in common with Irish.

By the same token, no Latvian isn’t a dialect of Russian either. I sometimes think of the relationship between the two as being like English vs Spanish. There are some common words and grammatical structures shared between the two, but they’re far apart otherwise.

7) Santa owes his image to a coca cola advert

A popular urban legend is that Santa comes from a clever coke marketing campaign in the 1930s, the company dressing Santa in coca cola’s colours, which stuck afterwards. For example at this link:

Santa is all about Coke. No joke. Fat and jolly Santa with the red suit and cap, thick black belt, sooty boots, rosy cheeks, luminous eyes and brighter-than-white teeth is the product of a genius advertising campaign created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. In previous incarnations, Santa wore no red suit.

It’s an interesting story, but doesn’t explain magazine covers like this one, 25 years before the coke ad appeared:


In reality, the Santa Claus image known today seems to have solidified in the early 20th century. Coke just used it, thereby popularising it.

8) Winters in Latvia in the past were much colder and snowier than now

I’ve often heard students lamenting the fact that the winters of their childhoods were, in fact, “more wintery” than now. In reality, a quick look at historical weather records for the past 30 years doesn’t show any great changes compared to today. For example February 1988, just one random month I looked at, was above zero for most of the month.

My own theory on this is that people just remember the more extreme times and milder winters get passed over. Add in a bit of natural nostalgia for the times when things were better (and they were younger) and you have a belief that doesn’t stand up.

Personally, I’ll thank Jesus when it doesn’t snow, as well as praying to him that people stop believing any old rubbish they read on the net.






20 thoughts on “Popular myths in Latvia (and elsewhere!)

  1. Jesus, Jesus was a fucking hottie 😉
    You forgot all the ridiculous marriage myths. Sit at the corner of a table and you won’t get married; if your cake falls on its side, you won’t get married, blah blah blah.

    • I was motoring away and thought of writing about them, but staying up till 4am to write about them all on a school night didn’t seem like the best of ideas! I’ll see what sort of traffic this one gets before I decide whether or not to do a part 2 later. These type of ones usually get more hits than the district ones, the common mistakes in english one still gets hits all the time and makes up half the blogs overall traffic! I have a part two for that in the pipeline, but no rush 🙂

  2. Good read! The Jesus thing has always perplexed me! How was a Mediterranean Jew so Fair! Def racism. The Santa thing was new to me. Good night from Serbia.

  3. #6 and #7 I don’t know a single Latvian who believes, and a couple I believe. The eating after six is because your metabolism speeds up when you are active, and in general a person is less active after 6. (Think of the French and their tiny dinners) And as far as eating organic, there is significant scientific research that ties ingesting pesticides to cancer, so although maybe organic fish is no different from the rest, organic strawberries are much better than the regular deal you buy here in the US. The rest I think are worldwide, not just in Latvia. But an interesting read, nonetheless.

    • Well, I did say “and elsewhere.” 🙂 The Santa thing, yes, not something Latvians would say, but something a lot of people elsewhere believe. The Irish as a dialect of English, though, is something that a lot of Latvian students have said to me. It’s mildly offensive, in the same way that dismissing Latvian as a dialect of Russian would be. I’m really not convinced about the no eating after 6 thing and a lot of dieticians aren’t either. I first thought about it when I lived in Spain. Lots of Spanish eat meals quite late, but are slimmer than northern Europeans, who eat around 5-630 pm. In Kazakhstan I regularly ate after 9pm, as I was working till then, and lost 5 kilos in a nine month period. Your body converts the food you eat into energy, regardless of when you eat that food. It’s how much you eat, not when you eat, that counts. The jury is very much out for me on organic food, there is no agreement that pesticides cause cancer and The Washington Post review I linked to found that with the possible exception of fruit and veg, there’s no proven health benefit.

  4. Regarding number 5, basic food is basic food. Same structure. However, organic food does not have the pesticides, fungicides, hormones, unknown chemicals, genetic modifications, to name a few differences. And there is proof that cancer, obesity, and childhood physical and psychological maladies are more prevalent today than prior to the introduction of the afore mentioned additives. The argument might be made that this is because of better reporting and documentation, but I’d rather eat organic than Frankenfood. I will say however, that if genetic modifications will allow food to grow in climates and locations where people are starving because normal crops will not, then by all means do so. I am not a fanatic on the subject; I am not going to go hungry if I can’t find organic, however I prefer natural food and am willing pay a premium for it when available. By the way, in the United States we had to create a whole new term – Certified Naturally Grown or CNG – because the government owns the word “organic” and the documentation required by the government has made it financially unfeasible for small farmer to use the word even if their product is in fact organically grown.

    • Thanks for the comments Richard. For me, there is evidence to suggest that organic fruit and veg may be better, but I’m still not convinced. I’d like to see more evidence either way. For meat, fish and diary products, the jury is still out and there is no agreement in the scientific community that the small levels of pesticides in non-organic food make a difference to human health. Regarding obesity, I think that’s more connected to the processed crap and sugars that people have been consuming in recent decades rather than the organicness of the food. If someone scoffs considerable quantities of organic steak and potatoes, they’re going to be fatter than someone who eats non-organic fruit and veg.

  5. Russian supersticions:
    – you can only bring an even number of flowers on a funeral. never give an even number to girls!
    – if you sit at the corner of the tabel, you wont get married
    – if you sit on a cold surface you will become infertile
    – if you see a black cat crossing the road, touch smth black on your clothes, otherwise you ll get bad luck
    – a woman walking past you with an empty bucket will bring bad luck
    – if you drop a knife during dinner, expect a male guest. if its a fork, expect a female guest
    – dont let your girlfriends wedding dress hang in your apartment for too long, or you wont get married
    – never give smb a knife, otherwise you will become enemies. if you want to give smb a knife, he has to give you back at least a symbolic amount of money
    – dont shake hands or accept mail/gifts over the treshhold or from someone who stands outside of your door. make sure he comes in first, this way he can prove that he is human and not a devil ( a devil cannot step over the treshhold)
    – dont shake a womans hand when you meet her, it will offend her because this way you treat her like a man. you ve got to give her a kiss or a hug if you are friends, otherwise just nod and say hello
    – if you give someone yellow flowers, it means you want to break up with them
    – red roses mean passionate love and white roses mean friendship
    – dont walk over a split in the concrete or other surfaces with your friend holding hands (you will become enemies)
    – never step over a child or he will stop growing
    – when a child celebrates his, lets say, sixth birthday, pull his ears six times to help him grow taller
    – if youre standing between two girls (or boys) with the same names, make a wish
    – and so on….. Im pretty sure since Latvians have got similiar superstitions, it must be a pagan thing

    • Russian superstitions would need a book to cover them, not a blog post! I think a lot of Latvian superstitions come from Russia, due to it being part of the Russian Empire for so long. Don’t say that if you come here though!

    • I seriously doubt that. a lot stuff came from russia, but Im pretty sure suprstisions are a pagan thing. I meet the same ones in too many completely different places. I love supersticions! but I only care about the positive ones, the luck bringers.

      • Most of them are indeed pagan, but they seem to have survived a lot longer in Russia and therefore by default in Latvia, which has been under Russian control/influence for most of the last few centuries.

    • I loved the Topfen Treatment one… I’ll get my cottage cheese ready! Yeah most superstitions cross borders. A fair amount of them have their basis in fact. For example, garlic to scare away vampires. Well, vampires fly around at night and suck blood, the other thing that does that is a mosquito and they definitely don’t like garlic. Similarly, weirdly enough, the superstition that if you stare into a mirror long enough in the dark or in poor light, you’ll see the devil… that has a certain basis in truth. Apparently if you do stare into a mirror long enough, you’ll slip into a semi-hypnotic state during which you’ll see distorted images. The brain will usually try and make sense of those and devils could well be one thing that they’ll associate those with.

  6. Good list! Having recently spent two weeks in Latvia, including the week of May 19 in Riga, when it was nice and warm, the one that drives me nuts is ‘caurvejs’ (draft/crossdraft/I don’t even know what the proper word is in English). I thought I – along with all the actors and audience – would faint in the one of the small halls at the National Theater, because there was no ventilation whatsoever. By the end of the play I could barely pay attention to the action on stage because I was so absurdly hot and uncomfortable.

    • Caurvejs would draught/draft in English. I was on the bus last week when it was +17, not exactly roasting hot, but not cold either and when I got on the bus, it was packed and like a sauna with all the windows closed. I opened two and this old granny gave me a grumpy look of hatred! Not only that, but often when I’m travelling, it’s not during the rush hour and the people on the bus are alcos or old people who don’t do deodorant or showers, so even if it’s only +5, an open window to let the stink out helps.

  7. I have no idea where the f word comes from. But out of some wild guess, I thought when two sweaty bodies bumping each other (with lubricated connecting members), then it would produce the sounds of “fuck.. fuck.. fuck..” 😈

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s