The very idea of a superstition seems strange if examined closely. It seems to be the case that humans developed the practise and belief of superstition to explain the order of nature and human life that in years gone by was, scientifically speaking, a mystery. There was, and in some places still is, a belief that nature and the world’s objects had a fundamental connection with spirits and the spirit world, and the need to keep on the ‘good side’ of these forces or keep them in alignment was an understandable progression. These rituals seeped into the general psyche worldwide, and developed into what we know nowadays as superstitions.
Superstitions exist today having been passed on, generally by word of mouth, from generation to generation. Although we’re living in a society unprecedented for its scientific advancements and reliable knowledge of how the world works, superstitions are still widespread and widely believed. Many of us barely question our day-to-day superstitious rituals; most of us wouldn’t think twice about crossing our fingers in the hopes that something good will happen, although it’s an odd and seemingly random practice (incidentally, experts hold that the habit came from creating the sign of the cross with one’s fingers to invoke the help of the Christian God).
Although common sense is generally the pervasive force in societal structures and habits, there’s still evidently a place for superstitious rituals and beliefs. In looking at ten of the world’s most common superstitions, and the origins of each one, we’ll leave it to our readers to decide if these are reasonable and reassuring, or needlessly ritualistic and compulsive.
10. Knocking on wood
Depending on your beliefs, the custom of knocking on wood — or even of simply saying “knock on wood” — is employed following either a particularly positive or negative statement. The superstitious belief behind this ritual is that you may have tempted fate by referring to the particular happening, be it good or bad, and knocking on wood will help to counteract it. It’s believed that this seemingly entirely arbitrary practise stems from the ancient notion that good spirits live in trees, which offer healing and wisdom to the willing recipient. By knocking on wood, we are allegedly calling on these spirits for protection, either of our good fortune, or against our bad.
9. Photography with the power to steal your soul
The superstition that photography steals the soul has evolved in numerous different forms around the world, but it’s widely agreed to have initially stemmed from the idea that mirrors steal the soul. As such, given that a photograph displays essentially what a person would see in a mirror, it follows that a camera would be equally if not more perilous for the soul. When cameras were first popularised they were a revolutionary technology that was mistrusted and even feared, which contributed to the growth of this superstition. Of course these days, with selfies and photo check-ins at every possible opportunity, it’s clear this superstition is no longer universal. However, the absolute belief that photographs can and do steal the soul is still prevalent in many societies today; some Native American and Aboriginal societies are adverse to photography for this reason.
8. Salt, spilling and tossing
There are two main superstitions around this condiment: one is that it is bad luck to spill it, and the other is that to counter this bad luck, you should toss some of the spilled salt over your left shoulder. The exact origins of this superstition are unclear, but many academics believe it stems from the fact that to spill salt was just plain ill-advised before it was bad luck. In years gone by salt was an expensive commodity, so to spill and thus waste it would never have been a good thing. As to why the spiller should throw a pinch of salt specifically over their left shoulder, it’s a long-held Christian belief that the devil sits on one’s left shoulder, waiting for an opportunity to invade the person. By throwing the salt over the offending shoulder, we ward off the devil’s potential invasion opportunity as a result of the salt spillage. And we make ourselves look a bit bizarre at restaurants in the process…
7. Walking under ladders
The superstition that it’s bad luck to walk under ladders seems a straightforward one: there is a danger that a person on the ladder will drop a paint pot, bucket, or themselves on you, and failing that there is also the possibility of the ladder itself collapsing. However, one reported origin of the superstition is a lot less logical and a lot more intriguing: the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity makes the number three sacred, with a triangle being by extension also sacred since it has three sides. A ladder against a wall makes a triangle, and to walk through this is, symbolically, to break the Holy Trinity – which is naturally assumed to be bad luck.
6. Something old, new, borrowed, and blue
The wedding superstition of the bride needing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to ensure good luck is a well-known one. The rhyme was often recited in the Victorian era, with the addition of “and a silver sixpence in her shoe”. The idea was originally that the bride would collect each item from a friend or family member, and served the tradition of handing down what were often valuable items or family heirlooms. The old symbolises continuity; the new, optimism for the future; the borrowed, borrowed happiness (oddly); and the blue, purity, love and fidelity — all a nice addition to any wedding day.
5. Black cats
The superstitions around black cats vary depending on your specific beliefs; some people believe that a black cat crossing their path is good luck, while others believe that the same thing is a jinx. The conflicting beliefs around the black cat’s effect on a person’s luck may stem from the different ideas surrounding cats over the course of history: in ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped and revered, so to have one cross your path would be good luck. Conversely, black cats are often associated with witches and frequently depicted as their familiars, therefore they would bring bad luck.
A primarily positive superstition is that of the horseshoe. It’s widely believed to be good luck to find a horseshoe with the open hoof-space facing towards the founder, although stumbling across horseshoes nowadays is much less common than it was in the pre-automobile days. It is also a superstitious tradition to count the number of empty nail spaces around a horseshoe to determine how long the counter in question has before they will marry, become rich, or have good fortune bestowed upon them.
3. Wishing on a star
Almost more of a tradition than a superstition, wishing on the first star of the night is a favourite among kids and big kids alike. The more common tradition is to wish on a shooting star, which comes from the legend that shooting stars are caused when gods, taking an occasional interest in human affairs on earth, lean over the edge of heaven and knock a few stars down; as such, at these times humans can take advantage of the brief rift between heaven and earth and ask the gods for a favour. Another myth suggests that shooting stars are ascending or falling human souls, or the souls of angels or demons.
2. Breaking mirrors
One of the best-known superstitions worldwide is that breaking a mirror will bring you seven years of bad luck. The idea of the fragmentation of a reflection was bad luck long before mirrors were invented; years ago, if people’s reflections in pools or ponds looked distorted it was thought to be unlucky, given that the reflection was believed to hold the key to the soul. The idea that to break a mirror brings seven years bad luck comes from the Roman idea that the human being entirely regenerates every seven years.
1. Friday the 13th
At number one is the enduring phobia surrounding the number thirteen. The notion that the number is unlucky is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that most buildings don’t even have a thirteenth floor – hotels, too, tend to go straight from room number twelve to room number fourteen, and some cities even skip the thirteenth street. These days we generally favour Fridays but the day was traditionally believed to be an unlucky one, most widely believed to be so because Jesus was crucified on a Friday; as such, Friday the 13th has long been believed to be an unlucky day.