Sunday, August 5, 2012

10 Common Superstitions And Their Origins

Superstitions—they're all around us, some dating back many centuries and others much newer in origin. We all believe in them to some degree even when we claim not to. Knock on wood…I know it's silly, but it can't hurt. We say it with a self-conscious chuckle while feeling ever so slightly foolish.

Superstitions are defined as beliefs that have no rational basis. None are based on fact but many are rooted deep in tradition/culture and history. Some are merely fun while others might have a much deeper impact on our life choices.

I recently came across a list I'd like to share with you of the 10 most common superstitions in today's society and their origins.

1) Friday the 13th—bad luck
The fear of the number 13 is one of the most common superstitions around, even to the point where hotels often omit the 13th floor and some airlines fly without a row of seats designated as the 13th row. Whether we believe or not, knowing that Friday the 13th is on the calendar for the month does give us a moment's pause. Even though we know it's silly, we still put forth a little more caution than usual on that day. The most popular explanation for the source of this superstition says that Judas was the 13th person at the Last Supper and Christ was crucified on Friday.

2) Itchy Palm—good luck
This one seems to have several variations, but the basic concept of an itchy palm generally refers to money. One variation says if the right palm itches you will meet someone new while an itchy left palm means money is coming your way. Another variation claims an itchy right palm means money coming in and an itchy left palm means money going out. Either way, do not scratch it unless you want to counter the effect. The only way to scratch without countering the effect is to use lucky wood or brass (but I have no idea what designates the wood or brass as lucky).

3) Walking Under A Ladder—bad luck
Common sense tells us not to walk under a ladder for our own safety because something could fall on us. But superstition has more complex reasons: the shape of an open ladder is a triangle which signifies life to some and if you walk through that triangle you are tempting the fates and may also awaken evil spirits living within the triangle.

4) Breaking A Mirror—bad luck
The common acceptance is that breaking a mirror brings 7 years bad luck. And by coincidence, 7 years is also how long it takes to fully rejuvenate the entire physical body. It's bad luck because the mirror was believed to be a reflection of the soul, therefore breaking it was the same as breaking the soul. You can counter the bad luck by taking the broken mirror outside and burying it in the moonlight.

5) Finding A Horseshoe—good luck
This is considered the luckiest of all symbols by some people, particularly if the horseshoe is found with the open end pointing toward you. If you are lucky enough to find a horseshoe, make sure you pick it up with your right hand. Then spit on one end, make a wish, and throw it over your left shoulder. Leave it where it lands. Some of the traditions say that the number of nails left on the horseshoe indicates how many years of good luck will be yours.

6) Opening An Umbrella Inside—bad luck
The obvious problem with opening an umbrella inside is that it can break things or even poke out someone's eye. There are also superstitious reasons behind this as well. In some places an umbrella that shades us from the deified sun is thought to be magical. To open that umbrella inside, away from the sun's rays, offends the sun god. It can also signify impending death or ill fortune for both the person opening it and also the people who live in the home where it happened.

7) Knock Twice On Wood—reverses bad luck
The origins of this superstition go back to a time when some cultures believed gods lived in trees. When asking a favor of these gods, the person would touch the bark of the tree. After the favor had been granted, one more knock would signify a thank you.

8) Throw Spilled Salt Over Your Shoulder—good luck
Throughout history, salt has been considered a valuable substance that purified and warded off evil spirits. Throwing spilled salt over your left shoulder drives away the lurking evil spirits lurking who are there to cause you misfortune.

9) Black Cats—bad luck
During the Middle Ages it was believed that witches kept black cats as companions, sometimes sending the cats out to do their bidding. Some people believed that the cats could turn into witches or demons after 7 years (7 being a number that shows up in many different superstitions).

10) Saying "God Bless You" when someone sneezes—good luck
You may think it's merely good manners, but blessing someone after he or she sneezes is a common superstition. In the 6th century someone who sneezed was congratulated because they were thought to be expelling evil spirits. When the plague swept through Europe in 1665, the pope decreed that everyone should be blessed when they sneezed since they were probably going to die.

So, in conclusion, remember: when you throw salt over your shoulder, knock twice on wood, or bless someone when they sneeze, you're making the world a safer place to live by vanquishing all those evil spirits.

Do you have any superstitions you adhere to in everyday life?


Maddy said...

My Italian MIL tries to explain throwing salt over your left shoulder to cancel out bad luck to my sons frequently, but to no avail. It seems this generation prefers logic and probability to superstition - I wonder how long these myths will continue into the future?

Samantha Gentry said...

Maddy: Yes, today's generation was raised with the logic of computers. I think taking the superstitions seriously, believing them to be truth, has pretty much gone by the wayside. But I think the fascination with the myth and its origins will be around for a while. If nothing else, it gives people something to talk about whenever Friday the 13th shows up on the calendar. :)

Thanks for commenting.

Margaret Fieland said...

Yes. In our family, if we find a penny face up (heads), we keep it because it's good luck. If it's face down (tails up), it's not, and we leave it. When I do this, I turn the penny heads up so it will be good luck for the next person.

Samantha Gentry said...

Margaret: I've heard the one about finding a penny being good luck, but haven't heard that it makes a difference if it's heads up or heads down. That's nice of you to take the tails up penny and turn it over so the next person can find it and have good luck.

Thanks for posting.