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Published on Aug 29, 2013 in Featured Articles, News, North America

The Origin of Superstitions

Superstitions are common in all countries and all cultures. One of my readers asked me to provide them with the origin of some of our more common superstitions. I’m happy to comply and below are a number of superstitions along with their origins.

The number 13 / Friday the thirteenth. Superstition: The number 13 brings bad luck. This myth started in Viking mythology. If you’ve seen the movie Thor or The Avengers, you’ll be up on this. The story goes that 12 gods were asked to dine at Valhalla, a grand banquet hall in Asgard, the city of the gods. Loki, who was the god of strife and evil, went to this banquet and brought the number of attendees to 13. The other gods tried to throw Loki out and, in the process, Balder, a god that everyone loved, was killed. Therefore, the thought was to avoid the number 13. This story spread to the rest of Europe and gained traction with the story of the Last Supper where Judas was the 13th guest at the table. The fear of Friday the Thirteenth didn’t really start until the 20th century when Thomas W. Lawson’s book Friday, the Thirteenth became a best seller and the unluckiness of that day spread after that. In addition, since scripture says that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and the number 13 was also considered unlucky, putting both of these together made Friday the thirteenth a day when unlucky things could happen.

broken-mirrorBreaking a mirror. Superstition: It’s bad luck to break a mirror. In ancient times it was believed that a mirror confiscated part of a person’s soul and therefore reflected it. The Greeks, Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans all believed this. If you broke a mirror your soul would be trapped inside. Combine this with a belief during Roman times, when the glass mirror was first created, that a person’s body physically regenerates itself every seven years. It’s therefore said that you’ll have seven years of bad luck if you break a mirror. In addition, in the 15th century, glass mirrors were backed with silver coatings. They were, as a result, extremely expensive. If a servant broke a mirror while they were cleaning it they would have to spend seven years as an indentured servant in order to pay for it.

Walking under a ladder. Superstition: walking under a ladder will bring you bad luck. Walking under a ladder means that someone is working above you and is therefore the most likely spot where something will fall on your head from above. Also, early Christians thought that the triangle represented the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. A ladder leaning against a wall forms the symbol of a triangle. As a result, walking under a ladder means that you were breaking the triangle.

Step on a crack. Superstition: stepping on a crack will cause misfortune. There’s two prevalent beliefs. One is that cracks in the ground lead directly to the underworld and, if you step on it, demons will be released and bring you bad luck. The other version is the result of an old saying dating back as far as the late 19th century: step on a crack and break your mother’s back.3276781886_0664cab0d4_z

Black cats. Superstition: A black cat crossing your path will cause you bad luck and can be an omen of death. During the Middle Ages black cats were thought to be companions of witches, and even witches in disguises. When a black cat crossed your path it would block your connection with God and your entrance into heaven. American Pilgrims also believed this and promulgated this belief in the U.S.

Spilling salt / Throwing salt over your shoulder. Superstition: Spilling salt will bring a person bad luck. Spilling salt was considered bad luck because salt was a valuable commodity in olden times. In addition, it’s said that Judas spilled salt at the Last Supper (look at DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper) which emphasized this point even more. What comes as a surprise is that one of the remedies for bad luck is to throw this valuable salt over your left shoulder, a practice that dates back to the Sumerians in 3,500 B.C. This practice later spread to the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks. It was said that the devil was looking over your left shoulder. The throwing of salt would either blind the devil or make him happy by giving him some of this valuable commodity. In either case, it was meant to get the devil off your back. Lastly, the origin of the phrase not worth his salt was the Roman writer Petronius who wrote that Roman soldiers were given special allowances of salt rations called salarium, or salt money, the origin of our word salary.

Opening an umbrella inside. Superstition: Opening an umbrella inside will bring bad luck. Metal-spoked umbrellas were first introduced in eighteenth century Victorian England. These new umbrellas were very large and didn’t always work as advertised. Their erratic spring mechanisms made them dangerous to open indoors and they were hazards to both people and fragile objects in the home. Minor accidents were common, quarrels ensued, and it soon became bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.

Saying Gold bless you when you sneeze. Superstition: a belief that sneezing expelled evil spirits. In the sixth century A.D. a plague was spreading throughout Italy. The first symptom of this disease was chronic sneezing, which was soon followed by death. Pope Gregory the Great urged the healthy to pray for the sick with a response such God bless you, following a person’s sneeze. When a person sneezed alone they would say God help me.

Carrying a rabbit’s foot. Superstition: Carrying a rabbit’s foot will bring good luck. In the seventh century BC Celtic people in Great Britain would kill rabbits for the attributes they possess. These attributes were thought to pass on to anyone who held a lucky charm from the rabbit, normally the hind feet. In addition, pre-Celtic hunting clans would teach young males to hunt by having them catch a rabbit. When they caught their first rabbit the hind feet were removed and awarded to the boy that celebrated his journey into manhood. Also, rabbits were considered a talisman, or a magical object that would protect one from ill will. The rabbit’s left hind foot would benefit the owner with the powers of the rabbit.

Knocking on wood. Superstition: To knock or touch wood will ward off unlucky consequences and bring good luck. Knocking on wood three times after speaking of something good or lucky will ward off any evil spirits who might run it. There was a belief during ancient times that deities lived in trees and that knocking on the tree would acknowledge them and ask them to protect you against misfortune. The Celts, for example, believed this and that touching trees brought them good luck.

Crossing your fingers. Superstition: Crossing your fingers ensures good luck and prosperity. There are two probable origins. One is that during the Hundred Years’ War between France and Great Britain an archer, before he drew back his bow, would cross his middle and index finger, the same fingers he would use on the bow, to pray for good luck. Another possible origin is that before Christianity was legalized two Christians would identify each other by crossing their fingers or hands to form the sign of the fish, which symbolized Christianity.

Horseshoes. Superstition: A horseshoe is said to bring good luck and fortune. In ancient times the Greeks thought that iron warded off evil. Horseshoes were made of iron and, in the fourth century, were in the shape of a crescent moon, the Greek symbol of fertility and good fortune. This belief passed from the Greeks to the Romans and finally to Christians. In the Middle Ages, when witchcraft was a widely held belief, it was thought that witches feared horses. People attached horseshoes to the sides of their houses and doors to ward away witches. In addition, hanging a horseshoe in an upward position (“U”) will allow it to retain its power. While hanging it upside down means that its power will fall away and dissipate.

Four-leaf clovers. Superstition: A four-leaf clover is thought to bring good luck. Because of its rarity, the chance of finding a four-leaf clover is one in 10,000. Also, there’s a legend that when Adam and Eve were cast from paradise that Eve took with her a four-leaf clover as a remembrance. Each of the four leaves is said have a specific meaning: faith, hope, love, and luck. It’s also said to ward off evil and give the holder good fortune.

My thanks to Dorota Neff, currently studying for her master’s degree in history at Florida Gulf Coast University, for her input on the above.

Alan Refkin


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