The word superstition is generally associated with the poor and uneducated in society. Yet, no matter our education level or income, we all have such folk beliefs. Superstitions specifically relate to supernatural causality, where one event cause another despite there being no natural link between them. From astrology to omens, prophecies, and otherwise, they are part of our everyday lives, though we rarely consider their odd origins.
Here are 9 of the most common – and most colorful – superstitions in the world today.
1. Knock on Wood
This practice has long been associated with avoiding tempting fate when making a boast or declaration related to luck. Its earliest origins go back to ancient European and especially Germanic folklore that held that supernatural entities lived in trees and could be invoked for protection. English traditions also concerned knocking on trees to hide communication from evil spirits, while Australian ones are associated with stating one’s will or intention. Similarly, one can knock on one’s forehead or just about anything in Indonesia and Malaysia to avoid bad luck, while wood is specifically used in Iran to prevent jinxing by the evil eye.
2. Seven Years Bad Luck
Many cultures view mirrors as dangerous, mainly due to their being supernatural portals. Some fear that a looking glass will steal part of your soul, so breaking one would be risky. However, ancient Chinese culture understood mirrors as protecting against evil spirits, who would be frightened by their reflections. The ancient Greeks used mirrors to divine the future, from scrying to communicating with the supernatural. When broken, though, one’s soul could be distorted, though the Romans added the notion that, due to the soul’s 7-year cycle of renewal, any resulting bad luck would be lost in time. Early American slaves were more preemptive – washing, burying, or grinding down the shards to cleanse the curse.
3. Don’t Walk Under a Ladder
While some track the bad luck associated with ladders to ancient Egypt, the more likely roots lie in Christianity. Walking through the triangle formed by a leaning ladder could specifically tempt fate by breaking the shape of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In England, on the other hand, ladders were often seen as ominous due to the once common practice of hanging criminals with a short drop from a ladder. Perhaps the simplest origin is most likely – that it’s best to avoid ladders because something could fall and hit you.
4. Opening an Umbrella Indoors
This superstition goes back to the 18th century and Victorian England in particular. At that point, umbrellas were still fairly new and had an unwieldy design of sharp metal spokes controlled by a stiff spring mechanism. As a result, they were difficult to control and hazardous indoors, especially when brought into one’s home by guests. Simply injuring someone or breaking a treasured object would be a bad omen. In many cultures, the clamor of an umbrella opening could itself upset a home’s guardian spirits and bring bad luck.
5. ‘God Bless You!’ versus “Gesundheit”
For many cultures, a sneeze is a sign of good fortune, with German, Spanish, Irish, and other responses translating as “health”. In contrast, Americans and Europeans offer a blessing due to a particular historical moment. During a plague in AD 590, Pope Gregory I ordered unceasing prayer and that anyone sneezing be blessed. This became customary and was passed on by the Pilgrims’ arrival in the United States. However, people feared invasion by evil spirits when sneezing as far back as AD 77, and early Romans worried a sneeze could release their soul. A blessing prevented both – and encouraged a quick recovery from illness.
6. Toss Salt Over Your Left Shoulder
Spilling salt has long been unlucky – with traditions found among the ancient Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Sumerians. In its earliest instances, salt was seen as a symbol of abiding friendship because it preserves and compacts substances. Spilled salt was then viewed as bringing enmity through a refusal of hospitality. Salt’s symbolic value also reflected its value for preservation, with its loss acting as an omen of bad luck. Later, salt would be associated with Judas Iscariot, although tossing a pinch over one’s left shoulder could nullify bad luck by driving away bad spirits or blinding the Devil.
7. A Black Cat Cross Your Path
Black cats are powerful omens in many societies. In ancient Egypt, the animals were revered for their association with the goddess Bast. Similarly, a black cat can be a sign of good fortune in Scottish, British, and Japanese culture. In Europe, these felines were once associated with witches and the Devil. However, they were also seen as bringing good luck, with King Charles I famously keeping a black cat until the day he was arrested for treason. For modern Europeans, the meaning can depend on direction, with Germans believing that a cat passing right to left is a bad omen, while one moving left to right brings good favour.
8. Hang a Horseshoe on Your Door
Horseshoes are good luck charms in many cultures but were first used as such by the ancient Greeks. There, iron was protected against the supernatural, so old horseshoes could be repurposed as wards against evil spirits. Different traditions called for placing the shoe with the point down to pour luck over visitors or pointing it upwards to catch good fortune. European beliefs also associated this symbol with keeping away witches and with St. Dunstan. While working as a blacksmith, he purportedly nailed a shoe to the Devil’s foot in order to force him to agree never to enter a house with such a symbol over its door.
9. Unlucky Number 13
Since many have triskaidekaphobia or the fear of the number 13, buildings, hotels, and airplanes avoid this number. Yet, its unlucky associations can be traced much farther back to the trickster god Loki, who was the 13th major deity in many stories from Norse mythology. His tendency to bring strife gave the numeral a bad reputation that was reaffirmed by association with Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper of Christianity and with the Zoroastrianism 13th day of the year, when evil runs rampant. However, 13 is also lucky in countries like Italy, and, in Judaism, 13 is the number of God’s Attributes of Mercy. Mesoamerican divination also views 13 more neutrally, as the number of important cycles of fortune and misfortune. The implications for this number are perhaps best reflected by the thirteenth tarot card of Death, which symbolizes change in all its forms.
As each of these examples reveals, practices like knocking on wood or avoiding the number 13 have their roots in folk belief. Understanding where they come from can thus help us appreciate the richness of superstition across cultures. Whether you believe these superstitions or not, understanding where they come from reveals their importance– in expressing the ineffable and making sense of our everyday lives.
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