What is it about superstitions that has us avoiding walking underneath a ladder? Or, knocking on wood? Or, “God Blessing” a sneeze, even when you’re not a religious person? Most people understand that these superstitions date back to our ancestor’s attempts to explain existence and the world around them. They believed in the deep connection between all things in nature: people, animals, weather, etc… In order to keep the world rolling along in a favorable manner, our ancestors felt they had to placate these mysterious forces. Different superstitions arose that would dictate good luck and a positive destiny. Some of these superstitions have origins in mythology, and live on by being passed on from generation to generation. Some are so deep-rooted in modern societies that just about everyone gives into them at one time or another, even those who publicly claim they don’t believe in such things.
Even now, in the age of science, where we have literal volumes of facts to explain the world around us, these superstitions persist. Very few people can actually truthfully say they have never, ever, even secretly, held a tiny bit of belief in a few of these superstitions. Okay, so we know they aren’t real, and now we understand that despite this truth, they remain entrenched in our psyche. Where did they specifically come from? There are tons of superstitions still being followed around the world. I gathered fifteen of the most popular and wildly followed superstitions and researched them. Here are those fifteen wild superstitions we still follow and their real-life origins. They might just surprise you!
15. Finding A Penny Heads Up, Brings Good Luck
Generally remembered as, “Find a penny, pick it up; all day long you’ll have good luck.” Finding a penny, no matter which side is showing, is generally considered good luck. Some people believe that the good luck stems from finding it heads up. If it is tails up, you supposedly should pick it up, flip it over, and leave it for someone else to find. To not do so will bring you bad luck. Still others believe that a new bride should place a penny in her shoe to ensure they have a blissful and prosperous marriage. The origins for this superstition may have begun in ancient times when possession of precious metals was believed to offer protection from evil spirits. When societies began forging these metals into coins, those who had more of them were clearly considered wealthy. This translated into good fortune, which may have contributed to the association with good luck in finding a coin, or penny.
14. It Is Bad Luck For A Black Cat To Cross Your Path
Many cultures hold black cats as powerful omens, whether good or bad. Ancient Egyptians revered all cats as divine, and they believed a black cat crossing your path was actually good luck. Later, in 17th century England, King Charles I’s beloved black cat died and he was heard to lament that his good luck perished with it. Of course, this was reinforced when he was arrested the very next day for high treason. However, during the Middle Ages, people throughout Europe held the opposite to be true. It was believed that black cats were the familiars, or companions, of witches, or sometimes the witches themselves in disguise. Therefore, a black cat crossing your path would be considered a bad omen and maybe a sign that the witch, or even a demon, was watching you. This belief came to America with the Pilgrims and has persisted in some form to this day.
13. Breaking A Mirror Will Bring Seven Years Bad Luck
We’ve all heard this one. It has its origins in ancient Greece where it was common for citizens to consult “mirror seers,” who would tell them their fortunes based on analyzing their reflections. It is referred to as catoptromancy, a form of divination utilizing water and a mirror. The mirror was dipped into the water and the person, possibly a sick person looking for his fate, would then be asked to look into the glass. If his image appeared distorted in any way, he would die soon; if clear, he would recover. In the 1st century CE, the Romans added to the superstition their belief that people’s health changed in seven-year cycles. Therefore, a distorted image that resulted from a broken mirror then became to mean seven years of misfortune and bad health. This was better than the alternative analysis, which was just an impending death!
12. Step On A Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back
It’s more than just a lyric from an old Devo song. Stepping on cracks in the pavement has long been believed to be a source of bad luck and misfortune. With origins dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the saying was originally much more racist. The original verse was something closer to, “Step on a crack and your mother’s baby will be Black,” or some derivation. Then by the mid-20th century, it became common to scare children by telling them that if they stepped on pavement lines they would be eaten by bears waiting around the corner for them. Sometimes the number of cracks stepped on indicated the number of bones your mother would break. Some modern versions have also added the belief that the cracks in the pavement lead directly to the underworld. If you step on them, the devil or his demons would be released to torment you and bring bad luck. Wild stuff!
11. It Is Bad Luck To Open An Umbrella Indoors
Some would have you believe this superstition has its origins in ancient Egypt. However, those superstitions about pharaohs’ sunshades were very different from the modern-day superstitions, and probably unrelated. No, many historians will tell you this caution against unfurling an umbrella inside is actually based in more recent times, in Victorian England. You see in 19th century London, modern metal-spoked umbrellas became more common and their clumsy, rigid, spring-mechanism made them a hazard to open indoors. An umbrella opening in a small room could cause serious injury to a child or an adult, or even damage fragile objects. Such accidents could initiate an unpleasant altercation, bad luck among family or friends. Consequently, this superstition gained popularity as a warning against allowing an umbrella to open indoors, thereby preserving the peace and a little Victorian dignity.
10. If You Walk Under A Ladder, You Will Have Bad Luck
Though the last example wasn’t, this superstition is believed to have originated over 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. You see a ladder leaning against a wall forms the shape of a triangle. Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (remember the shape of the pyramids). In ancient Egypt, triangles denote the holy trinity of the gods, and to pass through a triangle was blasphemous and a desecration. This belief lasted the ages and then, centuries later, followers of Jesus Christ adopted the superstition. They interpreted it after Christ’s death as something different. Because a ladder had rested against the crucifix upon which Christ died, it became a symbol of evil, disloyalty and death. To walk under a ladder would therefore become known as a way to invite disaster; bad luck indeed. Even later, in 1600s England, condemned criminals found themselves walking under a ladder on their way to the gallows.
9. A Rabbit’s Foot Brings Good Luck
I had one of these when I was a kid, don’t really know why, except that it was the thing to do… for luck. If you think about it, it is kind of grisly to carry around the appendage of an animal in your pocket. Consider for a moment, though, that in some cultures a rabbit’s foot is actually the severed foot of a dead witch who was killed in her familiar form. Rabbit’s feet have been a representation of good luck since around 600 BCE. This practice can trace its origins to the Celtics in England who would kill rabbits with certain traits that were believed to be beneficial to the bearer of the lucky talisman. Some believe it was even pre-Celtic hunters who introduced young males to the hunt by sending them out to catch a rabbit. After their first successful hunt, one of the rabbit’s feet would be removed and presented to the lad in a ritual to celebrate his passage into adulthood.
8. Knock On Wood To Prevent Disappointment
I don’t consider myself a superstitious person, but I have to admit I have found myself knocking on wood quite a few times in my life. Have you done it? Maybe you made a remark and didn’t want to jinx yourself, so afterwards you flippantly comment, “Knock on wood,” while simultaneously doing so? This may be one of the most widespread superstitions in the western world, and its origins are really a mystery. Some historians say it has its basis in the ancient religious rite of touching a crucifix when taking an oath. Others believe that among the poor peasants of old Europe, the superstition may have originated with the habit of knocking loudly to keep evil spirits away. Either way, the practice is still popular today, even if we really don’t know why we do it.
7. Crossing Your Fingers For Good Luck
This is another one that I have found myself doing from time to time. I’m not alone. Everyone has seen someone cross their fingers (the middle and index finger) to hope a wish comes true, to ensure good luck, or to offer courage and support. It is a very common practice. Some believe the practice dates back to the 14th century, some say it is even older; dating back to pre-Christianity. Back then crosses symbolized power and harmony. The middle of the cross embodied all that was good. People made wishes on the center of the cross to ward off evil spirits. This ritual evolved into the gesture of crossing your fingers for your own luck or someone else’s. Before the legalization of Christianity, making the sign of the cross to another person was a sign between Christians to identify each other. Now, crossing your fingers for luck is quite common practice (except in Asia, where it is considered quite rude in some locales).
6. A Four-Leaf Clover Is Good Luck
A four-leaf clover, or shamrock, is believed to be good luck mainly due to its rarity in nature. The chance of finding one is roughly 1 in 10,000. The origin for the superstition dates back to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. It is believed that when Eve was cast out of Eden, she took with her a four-leaf clover to remind her of paradise. Ever since, the shamrock has been a symbol of good fortune. If you ask an Irishman, they might tell you that the superstition began with Druid priests who used shamrocks in healing rituals, worship rituals, and to ward off evil spirits. In ancient Egypt, it was common practice to gift a newlywed couple a four-leaf clover to bless their marriage and to represent their eternal love. Today, each of the four leaves of the shamrock represents specific significance: faith, hope, love, and luck. Of course, they also say that the holder of a four-leaf clover will be able to see fairies! So, if nothing else, at least you’ll have that going for you.
5. Lucky Number 7
References to the number seven can be found throughout history in different religions, cultures, and civilizations. In the days before telescopes, only seven planets were visible in the sky, which could account for the fact that so many ancient religions adopted a pantheon of seven gods. This includes the ancient Romans, Egyptians, as well as the seven major chakras of Hinduism. Even in the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, it says that God created the world in six days, resting on the seventh, the Sabbath. King Solomon’s temple took seven years to build. In Kaballah, the seven-knot bracelet protects against the evil eye and negativity. Hebrews also believe that one sits shiva to mourn the deceased. Shiva literally means seven, the number of days required to mourn. Don’t even get me started on the New Testament: seven seals, seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven plagues, and seven virtues. Outside of religion: seven natural wonders, seven seas, seven continents, seven notes in a musical scale, seventh inning stretch in baseball, seven colors of a rainbow. It goes on and on. Its significance appears to be universal.
4. Friday The 13th
It’s called “triskaidekaphobia,” fear of the number 13, and it has its origins in Norse mythology. They say that twelve gods were invited to dine in Valhalla. Loki, the god of strife, showed up uninvited, raising the number to thirteen. A fight broke out as the other gods attempted to evict Loki, and in the fray, Balder, the most beloved among the gods, was killed. Scandinavians have since avoided 13-member dinners, and the fear of the number spread to Europe. In the beginning of Christianity, at the Last Supper, Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest at the table. Despite there being no statistical evidence that the number brings bad luck, the belief is so strong that many hotels, office, and high-rise apartment buildings do not recognize a 13th floor. You will also rarely find a 13th gate at an airport. An estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States alone are affected by a fear of this day.
3. Blow Out All Your Birthday Cake Candles In First Try
When you were a kid, didn’t you make a wish and then try to blow out all the candles on your birthday cake in one breath? I did. But do you know why? The tradition says that if you succeed, your wish comes true, but if it takes more than one breath, your wish is cancelled. They say this belief can be traced to the ancient Greeks who used the smoke generated by the candles on a cake as an offering to the gods. The myth states that Artemis, known as Diana in Roman mythology, asked for six wishes when she was born. One of her wishes was for chastity, out of which grew her being the protector of young mothers. As a tribute to her, cakes would be made and candles lit. The cakes were presented to the goddess on her birthday, the seventh day of Thargelion (somewhere around like May or June). Blowing out the candles in one breath would send the largest plume of smoke and was seen as homage to the goddess.
2. For A Happy Marriage, The Bride Needs Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
In the 1500s, the popular wedding chant became common: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue… and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” Did you ever know what it meant? Here goes. The old is to keep the bride connected to her past and her family. The new represents optimism for the marriage. The borrowed item usually belongs to a friend who is already in a happy marriage and is considered good luck. Something blue comes from ancient Rome where blue was the color of love and was adopted by Christians as representative of fidelity. The sixpence in the shoe? That was added by the Scots who believed that to place the coin in their shoe would assure luck in acquiring money. What about the wedding veil? It protects the bride from the evil eye, of course! Not seeing the bride before the wedding? Back when pre-arranged marriages were all the rage, many grooms believed their wives-to-be would see them and get cold feet, calling the whole thing off!
1. Always “God Bless”A Sneeze
In most English-speaking countries, it is considered polite to respond to a person sneezing by saying, “God bless you.” Some believe this has been occurring for millennia across the globe in numerous cultures, all basically due to the belief that sneezes force out evil spirits. Our particular tradition can trace its origins back to around the 6th century to a decree by Pope Gregory the Great. At the time, deadly diseases were running rampant throughout Italy; the first symptom of which was severe sneezing followed quickly by sudden death. Pope Gregory urged the faithful to pray for the sick, and decreed the now-common, “God bless you,” as a response to sneezes. Prior to that time, the more cheerful response was “May you enjoy good health.” However, these were desperate times and Pope Gregory wanted a more urgent response. In fact, if a person sneezed when alone, the Pope recommended they say a prayer for themselves, such as “God help me!” We are many years removed from those troubled times, but the practice has never ceased.