The Origins of 7 Common Superstitions
Halloween is coming up soon and what better time to talk about superstitions than a holiday focused on spirits and symbolism. Whether you're superstitious or not, discovering the origins of these common beliefs is a fascinating look at religion and human psychology. So enjoy!
Friday The Thirteenth
The fear of Friday the thirteenth and the fear of the number thirteen are both so common that they each even have their own psychological names, paraskevidekatiaphobia and triskaidekaphobia, respectively. But who ever decided that one number is unluckier than any other or why it's particularly bad for the thirteenth day of the month to happen to fall on a Friday? As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons behind the superstitions surrounding the mystical number.
In Christianity, there were thirteen people at the Last Supper, including Judas who has been rumored as being the last person to sit at the table. In Viking lore, Loki was the thirteenth god and in the story of Norna-Gest, when uninvited guests showed up at an infant's birthday party, bringing the number of guests up to thirteen, the last of the guests cursed the child. Even ancient Persians were weary of the number thirteen because they believed the twelve constellations of the Zodiac would each rule the earth for a thousand years, but after the cycle ended (in the thirteenth millennia), the sky and earth would collapse into chaos.
Interestingly, the fear of Friday the thirteenth is actually a relatively recent development. In fact, historians have found no evidence that anyone ever had talked about "Friday the thirteenth" until the 19th century and the earliest mention of the evils of the date were seen in an 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossini. Even then, the myth didn't really get going until the 20th century, when Thomas W. Lawson's novel Friday, the Thirteenth became a best seller. After the book became a household name, so did the stories about how unlucky the day was.
In reality, the idea of Friday the thirteenth being unlucky is most likely a result of the fact that both Fridays and the number thirteen are both considered unlucky. Friday has been considered unlucky since at least the 14th century, as Chaucer mentioned the superstition in The Canterbury Tales. The most likely reason for people to consider Fridays unlikely is that according to scripture, Jesus was crucified on a Friday. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine that people decided that if Fridays are unlucky and the number thirteen is unlucky, then any time the thirteenth occurs of the Friday, it's really unlucky.
The fear of Friday the thirteenth is still very common. In fact, around 19 million Americans are affected by a fear of the day and many are so scared that they refuse to leave their house on Friday the thirteenth. Accordingly, the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute estimates that businesses lose around $850 million ever time the date rolls around on the calendar.
Breaking A Mirror Causes Seven Years Bad Luck
When I was a kid, I was told that this superstition came about because in medieval times it would cost an average person seven years to save enough money to buy a mirror. As it turns out, this is bull hockey and the origin of the superstition is a lot more spiritual and a lot older than the one I was told.
The Romans were the first people to create glass mirrors. They also believed that their invention had the potential to steal part of the soul of the person using it. If a person's reflection were distorted while using a mirror, then their soul would be corrupted and trapped as a result. Fortunately, the Romans believed your soul could be renewed –after seven years time. Until that point though, the person would suffer from bad luck since they did not have a whole, healthy soul to fight off evil.
If a person wanted to shed their bad luck a little sooner, there were a few methods to free your soul including grinding all the pieces of the mirror into a fine dust or burying the pieces under a tree during a full moon. While these options seem a little challenging, they still seem way easier than waiting seven full years to get your soul renewed.
Image Via eeekays photography [Flickr]
Knock On Wood
Here's one that never made sense to me. After all, how is taping on wood going to prevent you from jinxing yourself? As it turns out, the logic behind the superstition makes a lot of sense when you learn the beliefs of those who originated it.
This expression comes from Pagans, who believed that all living materials were imbued with spiritual properties, including trees. When they were cut down though, the spirit inside the tree would die and become hollow. It was at this point that evil spirits, like sprites, could take over the item and concoct ways to ruin the plans and hopes of people in the area. Fortunately, if someone knocked on the wood, it would drive away the malevolent spirits and prevent any potential misfortunes from occurring.
Image Via Larry He's So Fine [Flickr]
While most Western cultures consider black cats to be bad luck, many areas of the UK consider them to be a good omen. In fact, it's likely because the Pagan groups from these areas considered them to be good luck for so long that early Christians started spreading stories of the cats being evil. Specifically, these stories often tied black cats to witches, which makes a lot of sense given that they also accused Pagans of being witches.
Image Via DrL [Wikipedia]
Walking Under A Ladder
This has always seemed like the most rational of the more common superstitions. After all, if you walk under a ladder, you're pretty likely to have something fall on your head from the top of the ladder. But that's not the only reason that walking under a ladder is considered to be unlucky.
As it turns out, early Christians felt the triangle was a sacred sign that represented the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When a ladder was pushed against a building, it would form the shape of a triangle, and thus, by walking under it, you were breaking the triangle. This was such a bad thing to do that early Christians would often label anyone who walked under a ladder to be a witch in league with Satan –and that could be even more dangerous than having a hammer fall on your head.
Image Via Alastair Thompson [Flickr]
Throwing Salt Behind Your Shoulder
Most people know that it has historically been considered bad luck to spill salt, largely because it was considered so valuable in olden times. There is also a story that says Judas spilled salt at the Last Supper, making the act even more unlucky. That being said, it seems strange to remedy the bad luck by throwing more precious salt behind your left shoulder. There is a reason for that, though. That's because in olden times, it was frequently said that the devil was always sitting just behind your left shoulder. When you wasted something as valuable as salt, it was important to keep the devil at bay by either blinding him by throwing salt in his eyes or by placating him by giving him an offering of salt. Whether you're trying to hurt the devil or buy him off, it seems that throwing salt in his direction is a good way to get him off your back.
Image Via Domiriel [Flickr]
Lucky Rabbit's Foot
If you've ever thought it was a bit gruesome to carry around the foot of a rabbit for good luck, consider the fact that some cultures say the rabbit's foot is actually the foot of a dead witch who was killed while in her familiar form.
Interestingly, rabbits feet have been a symbol of good luck since at least 600 BC when Celtic people in England would kill rabbits possessing certain attributes that were seen as beneficial to the bearer of the lucky charm. While there is no documented evidence to show one way or another how this tradition got started, some folklorists believe it was started by the pre-Celtic hunter clans who introduced young males to hunting by sending them out to catch a rabbit. On their first successful attempt, one of the rabbit's hind feet would be removed and awarded to the boy in a ceremony that celebrated his journey into manhood.