Superstitions Explained - Knock On Wood + Spilled Salt

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Knock On Wood

If everything goes as planned, come June I should finally get my teaching degree, knock on wood.

Knock on wood? What an odd thing to say. What does wood and your knocking on it have to do with passing exams? Well, that's so I don't spoil that possible good future!

The origin of this idea goes back to the times before christianity, when paganism was the way of the people of Europe. Pagans then - and now - worship nature as being divine. To pagans, good (and evil) spirits are all around where there is life in some form or another, including in plants. More specifically: trees!

Druids believed trees contained spirits or gods, or even that the trees were divine themselves. Sometimes, trees could be oracles that predicted the future. Sometimes they were used in rituals. Either way, trees were a central part of their belief system.

Pagans thought about evil spirits and good spirits frequently, and wondered how they could influence them, protect from them or incite their favor. They believed they could scare evil away by making noise, such as knocking on wood, or that they at least couldn't hear them when you spoke of good luck and ruin it out of spite. Thinking each tree contained a spirit, they would also put their hand(s) on a tree to ask the deity within for something or to thank it for past good luck. So knocking on wood was mostly meant to protect them. Sort of a tiny ritual.

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As time went by, knocking on trees morphed into knocking on anything made of (unpainted) wood to even painted wood to the current idea that merely -saying- it will be sufficient to protect you.

This idea hasn't merely been around for a long time. It's also very wide-spread.

Here are some examples from wikipedia of different versions of this belief across cultures...

  • In ye olde England, it was believed evil spirits couldn't hear you when you knocked on wood (see druidism).
  • In Spain, touching wood is a means of asking for good luck.
  • Romania avoids evil by knocking on wood.
  • Bulgaria has a slightly altered version of this. They knock on wood to protect from the consequences of hearing bad news. In a hilarious twist, if there's no wood close to you, it's also allowed to knock on your own head.
  • In Poland, if you speak of something good, you knock on wood so you don't spoil it with its mention.
  • And in the USA, it's often said that the forefathers knocked on wood. This traces back to the weapons they used: rifles with a wooden handle that they knocked on to compress the black powder inside it, in the hopes of getting an accident-free shot.

These are some versions of this superstition. Want more? Read one of my other articles on superstitions to find out what other illogical things we believe and why!

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Have you ever said or heard used "knock on wood" in real life?

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Spilled Salt

Most people nowadays believe this superstition originated with Judas Iscariot spilling salt at the Last Supper, immortalized in paint by Leonardo da Vinci. This led to spilled salt becoming associated with lies and deceit.

But in truth, the origins lie deeper in history. In ancient times, think of the old Romans, salt was incredibly valuable. So it was only offered to people you'd trust and value a great deal, as a means of forming a long lasting bond (salt "preserves"). As it was so expensive, spilling it wasn't taken lightly. In fact, it was a downright insult, as you seemed to symbolically throw away the offer of friendship.

In later times, salt was also used in exorcisms. Hence, it wasn't only a religious symbol, but it offered real protection.

This is why nowadays, we throw salt over our shoulder. The old belief is there is an angel on your right shoulder, and a devil on your left. When you throw salt over your shoulder, you are blinding the devil. Some believe the very act of spilling the salt is even the angel warning you to the presence of evil.

But why the left shoulder, and not vice versa?

This is really a consequence of human nature. What's different has always been considered to be 'bad'. If you didn't fit in, you were at times even thought to be a demon yourself, or a witch. As most people have always been righthanded, those who were left-handed were wicked. It even shows in the old latin word for left: "sinister". So, evil would lurk on the left.

Your turn

Do you know of any superstitions and why we have them? Were you surprised to learn of "knock on wood" or "spilled salt" 's origin? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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