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The Origin of Superstitions

Updated on October 30, 2012

We all know about them, those silly little quirks you practice in the hope that you will be able to ward off bad luck or summon up good. In particular, most southern and Black folk, as well as sports figures believe in them wholeheartedly. They all can be notorious for practicing some type of superstitious routine on a regular basis, regardless if it is putting on the same clothing the same way each and every time or cooking up some strange concoction to soothe his/her mate’s wandering heart. Yep, I’m sure you have heard a few.

“Step on a crack and break your mother’s back.”

“If you break a mirror you will get seven years bad luck.”

“Find a four leaf clover and it will bring you good luck.”

Have you ever stopped to wonder where exactly do these crazy notions come from? You’ll be surprised to learn that many of them originated in ancient history when medicine and science were in its infancy and people thought spirits, demons and magic were the cause of unpleasant occurrences. It is said these rituals grew out of our need to take charge of the unknown to consequently reduce the anxiety of day to day living. Funny thing is we are a lot smarter now, but we still seem to be just as anxious. We continue to cling onto these rituals and even go as far as to pass them down from generation to generation. Time will tell if we will ever fully discard our “security blankets”; so in the meantime, here’s a historical explanation for some of the most popular superstitions.

Better Knock, Knock, Knock on Wood

Knock on Wood

This practice originates from the Pagan era when people believed certain trees housed benevolent or mischievous spirits. Druid oak was considered sacred and holy, because it was believed to be a catalyst to either asking the spirits dwelling within the tree to bring you good fortune or a way to “encourage” the bad spirits to leave you alone. All you needed to do was knock to awaken them.

Walking Beneath A Ladder

Walking Under a Ladder

We all know the old adage… “It is bad luck to walk beneath a ladder”. This idea stems from the birth of Christianity. A ladder leaning against the wall or a folding ladder forms the shape of a triangle. In Christianity, the triangle is the symbol for the holy trinity – The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit, as well as for life. When you walk underneath a ladder you disturb (or destroy) the triangle which is considered blasphemous meaning it is an ultimate insult to God. Believers suggest the punishment for perpetrating this specific transgression is guaranteed bad luck.

Using an Umbrella Indoors

Opening an Umbrella Indoors

This is also considered an affront to a deity, the Sun God “Ra” of ancient Egypt. Yes, this belief goes all the way back to the days of sun worship. It is believed that opening an umbrella indoors is offensive because it thwarts the sun’s rays from touching you. It is believed committing this offense will result in great misfortune. What is so compelling and bizarre about this superstition is the fact that some form of umbrella actually existed this long ago. However, it does seem plausible when you consider the Chinese invented it (or the waxed parasol to be exact) over four thousand years ago.

Black Cat

Black Cat Crosses Your Path

Since the Middle Ages, cats have been associated with witchcraft. Folks believed that witches were capable of taking several forms, but preferred to disguise themselves in the form of the cat, attractive for its mysterious nature and fortitude in longevity (nine lives). If a pure black cat crossed your path, you were considered cursed because the cat’s trafficking opposite your direction was considered an automatic conjuring of a spell which promised tribulation and chaos in near future. Problem with this superstition is, as most cat owners are aware, it’s almost impossible to find a completely black cat making the matter somewhat moot.


Salt/Throwing Salt

Back in the days long before refrigeration, salt was valued for its “magical” preservation properties that kept food from rotting (mostly meats) and for its ability to extend the lifecycle of food for longer periods. During this time salt was hard to attain and extremely precious to keep, therefore making it a highly expensive commodity. Wasting salt signified a sin and the senseless act was the predicator of a pending bad omen. Salt was revered to such a great extent for its miraculous properties that it was also carried around in small satchels and utilized as a talisman (a lucky charm or trinket) to ward off evil spirits and danger. It is said that if salt is accidentally spilled, a pinch should be thrown over the left shoulder of the perpetrator to counteract the curse. By doing so, it means that you have just thrown salt in the devil’s eye (who incidentally was standing right behind you).


Other Symbols and Talisman

The Number “13”: Thirteen is considered unlucky, because it is also associated with events from early Christianity, specifically the Last Supper. Jesus, in the company of his eleven disciples, supped until the thirteenth and final guest arrived, Judas. Nuff said?

Rabbit’s Foot/Horseshoe: A Rabbit’s foot is considered lucky based on the fact that rabbit’s are extremely fertile and supernaturally proliferate. The horseshoe is considered another symbol of fertility because it resembles the shape of the crescent moon (when raised it supposedly increased fertility). These ideas can be traced back to the seventh century, BC. Carrying either talisman boosted the odds of getting pregnant.

A horseshoe also holds a different connotation as a talisman. It was also used as a charm to ward off witches as it is said that witches fear horses, thus the reason they ride a broom. In kind, it was also used to ward off the devil. This story resembles the story of the Passover, (the Jewish and Christian holiday celebrated in gratitude of the angel of death passing over the homes of the faithful). In this particular story, the devil goes to a farrier to have his sore hooves fitted with horseshoes. In exchange for his service, the farrier made the devil agree never to conduct his trickery in a place where a horseshoe could be seen nailed above an entrance.

Mirrors: Mirrors are considered to hold a portion of person’s essence or house one’s soul. When a mirror is broken, your soul is damaged for seven years (the number “7” relates to Roman numerology.)

“Bless You” Expression: This is a play on the mirror psychology indicating that your soul is as transient as a wayward sock once in the dryer. It is believed that when you sneeze you

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