The Origins and Meanings Behind Our Most Common Superstitions
There are many traditions and rituals that we follow in our daily lives that we don't even stop to think about. While it may not be logical to behave in a certain way, something in the back of our mind encourages us to keep the tradition and ritual alive. These illogical rituals are also known as superstitions.
Definition of a Superstition
According to dictionary.com, a superstition is a belief that is "not based on reason or knowledge." It can also be an irrational fear.
However, not all irrational fears are superstitions. For example, the fear of heights, crowds, or the dark may not be logical but they aren't usually superstitious. But some of them, such as the fear of the number 13, can fall under superstitions.
Interestingly, many superstitions have a deep history that can extend back to ancient times. Here is the history, meaning, and origin of some of the most common superstitions.
If you spill salt you are supposed to throw a pinch of it over your shoulder to ward off bad luck, but why is that?
While speculations that salt was a precious commodity may have some validity, there may be even deeper, religious implications to the belief in spilling salt.
An examination of Leonardo Da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper, shows a canister of spilled salt by the arm of Judas, the disciple that betrayed him and led to his crucifixion.
According to Mail Online by Ticky Hedley-Dent, salt then became a symbol of betrayal and evil. Throwing the salt over your left shoulder (the side associated with evil) is supposed to blind the eyes of the devil that is waiting there to confront you.
Other religious traditions hold that the devil hates salt and it can be used to ward him off.
So Da Vinci himself may be responsible for our modern fear of spilling salt.
Friday the 13th
Many don't like the number 13 and will avoid it in all parts of their lives. Hotels have even been known to skip that number when they are numbering their floors, just to alleviate the fears of the superstitious. But where do these fears come from?
Some trace the fear back to the above painting of the Last Supper when 13 came to dinner and the outcome wasn't great for Jesus or Judas. But it turns out that, according to a 2009 Time magazine article by Claire Suddath, suspicions and fears about the number 13 can be found as far back as the code of Hammurabi. The number 13 is conspicuously absent from the code.
Another part of the superstition may have emerged in the middle ages.
During the crusades, according to History.com in an article by Jennie Cohen, King Philip had many of the French members of the Knights Templar arrested and tortured on October 13, 1307. Some hold that our fear of Friday the 13th stems from that day but modern references to Friday the 13th fears don't really show up in literature and other sources until a bit later.
According to the Time magazine article, Friday the 13th superstitions in America began to gain popularity after the publication of a 1907 book called Friday the 13th which featured a plot of a business man trying to crash the stock market.
Another resurgent of the Friday the 13th superstition came about in the 80's with the creation of the movie series of the same name featuring the mysterious and scary Jason who was born on, you guessed it, Friday the 13th.
Did you know that in some countries a black cat is considered good luck? In the United States though, a black cat crossing your path is considered to be a bad omen.
According to Hartz.com, our American fear of black cats stems back to our early, Puritan roots. The article "How Black Cats Came to Halloween," explains that in those times, black cats were associated with witches and the devil.
As we know from the Salem Witch Trials, the Puritans took their witch hunts very seriously. They even burned black cats on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) to rid the house of evil spirits.
Even though the witch hunts of the Puritan style are no more, the idea of black cats being associated with evil has persisted as a lingering superstition from a darker time in our history.
However, in places like Japan and Great Britain, black cats are considered good luck.
This is one superstition that is harmful as black cats have a harder time getting adopted even though they tend to have very friendly and loving personalities. Rescue organizations such as Black Cat Rescue in Boston are working to change the image and harmful superstitions surrounding black cats.
Stepping on a Crack
This superstition seems more muddled and there is more speculation than solid fact surrounding the superstition of stepping on a crack and its relationship to your mother's back health.
According to Smart Aleck's Guides, the rhyme can be seen in 19th and 20th-century children's poems and may have just been a convenient rhyme for skipping or jumping rope.
Variations of the rhyme (including ones with a racial undercurrent) developed over the latter half of the 20th century.
So a simple children's rhyme may have led to people walking awkwardly on the city sidewalk lest their inadvertent step makes their mother ill.
Mirrors are breakable items so it's only natural that one will get cracked or dropped and broken from time to time. So why do some believe that it automatically sentences you to seven years of bad luck?
It looks like we have the Romans to blame for that one.
According to Wisegeek.com the Romans actually invented the earliest mirrors.
Because it was such as strange creation, they believed that the reflection you saw not only represented you, it was also you in a sense in that a portion of your soul was trapped in the mirror world.
If the mirror were to break, your soul could possibly be trapped in this broken world and a broken soul, of course, equals bad luck.
The Romans also believed that the body went through a renewal process every seven years so that is why it would take seven years for your soul to heal from this tragedy.
Crossing Your Fingers
Superstitious people cross their fingers for luck or to absolve themselves when they tell a lie, but where does the idea of crossing your fingers come from?
According to Woman's Day Magazine in an article by Kathleen Davis, crossing your fingers may date back to pre-Christian times when people believed that the intersection of shapes were where spirits resided so they would create that intersection by crossing fingers (one finger from each person).
It is also commonly known that archers would cross their fingers for luck during the 100 years war.
The most common thought about crossing your fingers derives from the earliest days of Christianity when Christians were facing persecution. Fellow Christians would use the crossed fingers as a sign of Christianity and solidarity. However, like its predecessor, it was usually the crossing of one finger from each hand and not the single person gesture that we use today.
Crossing fingers while lying's origin is not clear and may stem from the same sources, needing a bit of luck to get away with the lie.
Knocking on Wood Immortalized in the Classic Movie, "Casablanca"
Knocking On Wood
If you are superstitious and you are talking to someone about your good fortune or how things are going well or working out, you may then say "knock on wood" or literally reach over and knock on a wooden table or door. This doesn't usually have anything to do with wood so where did this habit emerge?
According to Matt Soniak of MentalFloss, the idea of knocking on wood may have developed out of pagan religions that literally worshiped trees and believed that deities or spirits inhabited them.
They may have either been knocking on wood to keep the bad spirits from hearing about their fortune and reversing it or to thank the spirits for their continued good luck.
In most religions, pride is not considered a virtue and Soniak points out that not letting the spirits think you were too full of yourself was probably a good thing.
Walking Under a Ladder
While walking under a ladder might very well be a safety concern—after all, it could fall or objects on the ladder could fall off and hit a person walking under it—is there more than just safety at play here? Is it also a superstition?
According to livescience.com, the belief that walking under a ladder would bring bad luck could be traced back as far as ancient Egyptians.
Since a ladder leaning against a surface formed a triangle and triangles were sacred shapes to them, walking through that triangle was a sign of disrespect to the gods.
Christians later associated ladders with bad luck since one was said to be leaning against the cross during the crucifixion.
Cementing the belief in Europe was the practice of making those sentenced to death by hanging to walk under a ladder on the way to their sentence.
Birthday Cake Candles
Many of us try to blow out all the birthday candles on our cake in one breath, but why do we do that? What is the reason that blowing out the candles on the first breath brings us our wish but two breaths makes the wish null?
Believe it or not, the tradition of birthday candles can be traced back to the times of the Ancient Greeks who used the candles on a cake and the smoke created as a gift to the gods.
According to a July 2011 article from the Examiner by Benjamin Cloth, the myth stated that Artemis, Daughter of Zeus (also known as Diana in the Roman tradition) asked for six wishes when she was born (literally her birthday).
One of her wishes was for chastity but out of that grew her patronage over expecting and young mothers.
In a tribute to this goddess as she watched over the young mothers, moon cakes would be made and lighted candles added to the top. These cakes were presented to the goddess on her birthday which was the seventh day of Thargelion (a month somewhere around our modern May and June).
The icing on the cake, so to speak, of our modern tradition of blowing them out in one breath comes from the practice of blowing out the candles on the moon cake in one breath, sending the largest plume of smoke and an homage up to the adored goddess.
Superstitions Are a Part of Our Culture
Superstitions can be very much a part of society and culture. And while most of them are harmless, it is interesting to trace the sometimes very different origins of these weird practices.
If it's not hurting anyone and you're having fun, then there is nothing wrong with a little bit of connection to our past through the practice of superstitious rituals.
Which superstition still spooks you just a bit? Which one do you practice?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
What does "I dished up an extra plate" mean?
It means I gave them more than they asked for or were looking for. Usually, this has a negative connotation such as being extra mean or extra aggressive.Helpful 3
© 2014 L C David