Alternative semiotics of footwear flinging

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Today's Doonesbury:

The backstory:

Among the commentary on the famous Iraqi shoe-chucking incident, this is the first one I've seen that points out the generally jocular and positive (or at least ironically negative) implications of footwear projectiles in western culture. More specifically, I haven't seen any mention in this connection of the "wedding shoe" tradition.

Here's how it used to be — "Throwing the wedding shoe", NYT 2/11/1887:

This custom of throwing one or more old shoes after the bride and groom either when they go to church to be married or when they start on their wedding journey, is so old that the memory of man stretches not back to its beginning.

Or E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898:

It has long been a custom in England, Scotland, and elsewhere, to throw an old shoe, or several shoes, at the bride and bridegroom when they quit the bride’s home, after the wedding breakfast, or when they go to church to get married. Some think this represents an assault and refers to the ancient notion that the bridegroom carried off the bride with force and violence. Others look upon it as a relic of the ancient law of exchange, implying that the parents of the bride give up henceforth all right of dominion to their daughter.

This seems to be connected to the idea that throwing old shoes is a way to bring good luck more generally — at least we find things like this couplet from Will Carleton's 1886 "How we fought the fire", in a list of the stuff that came out of a burning house:

Old shoes enough, if properly thrown,
To bring good luck to all creatures known;

And Robert Dixon's 1683 Canidia; or The Witches includes several references to such a superstition, e.g.

But throw an Old-shoe with a Spell,
Or nail a Horse-shoe cross the Cell,
'Twill drive away Devil or Man,
And let them hurt you if they can.

Or again

For good luck, throw after me an Old Shoe.

These days, I guess the residue of this tradition is just tying shoes to a newlywed couple's car, if that.

[See also James E. Crombie, "Shoe-throwing at Weddings", Folklore 6(3): 258-281, 1895, which cites the "time-honoured custom to throw an old show after anyone setting out on a journey to bring him luck", and quotes a couplet attributed to John Heywoods (1598):

And home againe hitherwards quicke as a bee,
Now for good luck, cast an old shoe after me.



  1. Faith said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    Until this century, by Jewish custom, a man who refused to marry his brother's childless widow was released from this duty by having a shoe flung at him. Just to recap that rather dense sentence, if a married man died without having had children, his wife and brother were supposed to get married. When the brother didn't want to the woman would release him in a special ceremony (halitza) that involved removing his shoe and throwing it at him. There is no way this can be construed as a positive message, it's interesting that shoes and marriage seem to go together in more than one culture.

  2. Cheryl Thornett said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    I believe that shoes have been found hidden in old houses in the UK. The presumption seems to be that this was either to draw luck or to avert evil.

  3. Lynne said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    I am sure I have read of a superstition about shoes and marriage. If you throw your shoe up in to a willow tree and the tree 'catches' it – you'll be married.

    I am about to move house, so very nearly all of my books are in boxes. Google books has a nice entry that is similar to my recollection:

    I had always thought of this as relating only to the willow, but the mention above of shoes and marriage made this come to mind.

  4. Bill Poser said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

    I have been assuming that the throwing of shoes in the Arab world is based on the fact that merely showing someone the sole of one's foot, shod or unshod, is insulting. Actually throwing the shoe is presumably just a more extreme version of this.

  5. Aaron Davies said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 8:10 am

    I vaguely recall a news story, from 2003, I suppose, about an Iraqi man beating a poster of Saddam with his shoe.

  6. Michael said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    re Faith's description of Halitza, here is the original from Deutronomy 25: Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.
    I.e., no throwing of shoe…

  7. jimroberts said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 10:21 am

    There is another relevant apssage towards the end of Ruth:

    4:7 Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel.
    4:8 Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe.
    4:9 And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech's, and all that was Chilion's and Mahlon's, of the hand of Naomi.
    4:10 Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day.

  8. Ian said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 3:14 am

    In The Gospel of Mark chapter 6:

    7 Calling the Twelve to him, he (Jesus) sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. 8 These were his instructions: "Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them."

    This sandal shaking act shows up I believe a few more times in the NT but its clearly a Semitic signal of disapproval and/or a curse.

  9. Claire said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    I fear this may be a bit late, and not quite so directly related, but this makes me wonder if there's more meaning to the shoes I've seen dangling from telephone wires than I had previously thought.

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