Many of us use expressions like “knock on wood” so we don’t “jinx” ourselves or avoid walking under a ladder. But why? Where do these superstitions customs and ideas come from?
Europe in the Middle Ages was a notoriously superstitious era, but the belief that forces, animals and inanimate objects can exert supernatural influence on our lives seems to be part of the human condition.
Whether its the luck of the Irish or unlucky 13 our culture seems to nourish these idiosyncratic behaviors and beliefs. Most of these superstitions no longer carry the weight they centuries ago as they have become more popular culture artifact than mark of Cain.
In a world that often confounds logical explanation illogical superstitions continue to fill a comforting niche and at least give us the illusion of control.
15. Black Cat Appreciation Day
August 17 is Black Cat Appreciation Day. It is a modern attempt to counteract centuries of suspicions, folk tales and misunderstandings. In cultures as disparate as Britain and Japan black cats are widely considered to be symbols of good luck. But interestingly, black cats are also often believed to bring bad luck.
They are often associated with witches or of even being witches in altered form. Many of us are familiar with the common belief that a black cat crossing your path is an omen of bad luck. However, in some folk tardiness it is considered a sign of good luck.
14. Red Ink
American school children often associate red ink with their teachers’ scrawls of red ink on their assignments. In Asian cultures the color red is often associated with death. From this fact some specific superstitions have arisen including the belief that writing a person’s name in red ink invites that person’s death.
But after the person is deceased it is customary to write the person’s name in red ink such as in the family register. People believe that the red ink will drive off evil spirits and clear a path for the loved one to enter the afterlife.
Although Western culture does not share the specific suppression about red ink and names, red is often thought of in negative or sinister terms such as being associated with demons and Satan and alarms, emergencies and blood.
13. As Luck Would Have it
The origins of coins such as pennies being lucky for those who find them or possess them are unclear. One theory is that the superstition is intertwined with the semi-mythical discovery and use of metallurgy to produce coins and other metal goods.
Whatever the origins however, coins of all shapes, sizes and materials have been associated with luck and chance. Flipping a coin to decide a matter is a long standing tradition as is throwing pennies in a fountain. The simple act of picking up a penny and being rewarded with good luck appears to have no definitive origin.
However there is an important distinction between finding the penny face up or face down. The first promises good luck while the second bodes ill.
12. His Eyes Have all the Seemings of a Demon
The fact that a group of crows can be referred to as a murder of crows should tell us someone about the way these black birds are regarded. The superstitions around black crows or ravens are a little complicated. Seeing one crow is is very bad, but two crow means good luck. If you see three crows together it means someone in your family will soon die.
Ravens have a worldwide cultural importance in folklore and mythology. Almost without exception they are seen as bad omens, as harbinger of evil and death. These negative associations are usually thought of as being largely due to ravens’ black plumage. If true, this reflects an even older instinct to associate the color black with the particular dangers and fears humans experienced during the long, dark nights of prehistorical times.
11. The Numbers Speak for Themselves
In the 21st century you’d think people would discount the importance of unlucky numbers like the much maligned “13.” You’d be wrong however, because builders still skip naming a floor with this number – “12” comes after “11” without any explanation. There are a lot of other numbers besides 13 that are considered superstitious.
Many people are aware of the ominous connotations surrounding “666” in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, but the exact reason evil came to be associated with this particular three digit number has likely been lost to history. In China, “666” is considered to be a lucky number that is freely displayed.
Trepidation surrounding this number has been so intense and longstanding that there is a recognized condition known as hexakosioihexekontahexphobia.
10. Do You Feel Lucky?
Like many things associated with the Irish people, the phrase “the luck of the Irish” is a bit ironic and a sad. You’d think being thought of as naturally lucky would be a good thing, but in the case of the Irish nothing is simple. The phrase seems to have originated in 19th century America during the California gold rush.
Irishmen who struck it rich in the gold fields were thought of as lucky as opposed to talented, hard working or intelligent. It was a back handed compliment instead of a good natured moniker. But considering Ireland’s long, tragic history, being derided for luck is pretty far down on the list of woes for the denizens of the Emerald Isle.
9. Lucky Number Seven
References to the number “7” being auspicious date back to ancient times and appear in cultures all around the world. Some researchers have speculated that the original motivation for attaching good fortune to “7” was that before telescopes were invented only 7 of our solar system’s 9 planets were visible with the naked eye.
Regardless of the original reason civilizations as disparate as the Greeks, Indians and the Japanese held “7” in high esteem. Even today it has a special place in our culture with such customs as baseball’s 7th inning stretch and 7 wonders of the world. One rare exception is in Chinese culture. The Chinese sometimes associate “7” with death.
8. Knock, Knock. Who’s There?
Knocking on wood to ward off bad luck probably goes back to prehistoric times when primitive man was trying to ward off evil spirits. Irish folklore specifically connects the action to thanking Leprechauns for some supposed act of kindness. The Celts believed, as many pagans did, that spirits lived in trees and needed to be appeased by knocking on trees.
One theory speculates that when Europe changed from paganism to Christianity the knocking on wood was transferred to touching crosses made of wood. Knocking on one’s head when no wood can be found is a recognized modern variation on this superstition, but it a recognition that we don’t take it seriously anymore.
7. Where do Cats go After 9 Lives?
The idea that cats have not one, but nine lives goes back at least to the Middle Ages. Some researchers believe the number “9” came to be important in this regard because in Christianity it is the total of the “trinity of trinities.” However, other researchers point as far back as ancient Egypt for the origin of this superstition.
There was a cat-headed goddess and by extension cats were elevated to near deity status themselves and treated with great care and reverence. According to one version of the myth the Egyptian creator god and 8 other original gods were the reason 9 became important.
Early versions of this superstition claimed that only black cats had 9 lives, but eventually all cats were thought to have this attribute.
6. Paranormal Activity
“Ouija” boards are trademarked by the Hasbro Corporation, but they are also known as spirit boards or talking boards and these names clearly reflect their association with superstitions. Although they have been around for a long time, the Ouija boards only became linked with the occult at the beginning in the 20th century.
An American spiritualist named Pearl Curran popularized it as a divining tool during World War One. Currant believed or at least had other believe that she could speak to the dead using a board.
Some Christians and other religious groups consider Ouija boards to be blasphemous and are to be condemned. Some going so far as to say the boards are tools of Satan and should be destroyed.
5. Rabbit Foot Blues
Rabbit feet as charms or amulets has been a feature of pagan history going back several thousand years, but a more recent connection can be made as well. It seems rabbit feet made their way into North American folklore by way of African folklore where the appendages are believed to have an important connection with the bones of the dead.
Rabbit Foot Blues is a blues album with music about the supposed connection between rabbit feet and the dead. Depending on the specific tradition the rabbits must be killed be a certain kind of person or killed in a certain place such as a cemetery.
Popular culture as always recognized the irony of luck being associated with a dismembered alien appendage – after all it wasn’t luck for the rabbit.
Friday the 13th falls on the Gregorian calendar at least one time every year, but it can happen as many as three. This particular day probably began being associated with bad luck in the Middle Ages. Christians came to believe that some of the events leading up to Good Friday and the crucifixion of Jesus were intertwined with the number “13.”
Although the exact origins of this superstition are unclear, it is taken seriously enough that the trepidation surrounding it has a scientific designation: triskaidekaphobia.
Today it is not taken quite so seriously and many peoples’ undressing of Friday the 13th has come from the hit horror movie franchise that includes 12 films as well as television programs and books. But even though it is a popular culture phenomenon, the ominous date still has a hold over some people who refuse to fly or participate in other activities.
3. Dream Weaver
The power of dreams likely goes back as far as the beginning of humanity. Primitive peoples believed dreams were messages sent by the gods to foretell the future or provides instructions. Even when gods were not specifically invoked dreams were often associated with premonitions that were taken quite seriously.
Even by ruler throughout history would act on their dreams going to war or deciding on some other course based on their dreams. usually some form of priest or witch doctor would claim the ability to read the strange dream images for the lay people and so held considerable power.
Different cultures across the world interpret the dream images in different ways, but they often delivered bad news.
2. Sign of the Cross
In Western culture the cross is most associated with Christianity, but this wasn’t always the case. In pre-Christian pagan times cross shapes were often referred as symbols of power and unity.
During the early Christian era, before the Roman Empire embraced it, Christians might have crossed their middle and index fingers as a secret sign to identify themselves to other believers. Over the centuries as man has changed the meaning of the gesture has changed with him.
Just as common as the belief that it can bring good luck is the belief that it can be used to absolve one of telling a lie. This last superstition seems to be particularly popular with children.
1. Millionaires don’t use Astrology, billionaires do
Industrialist J.P. Morgan is credited with saying “Millionaires don’t use Astrology, billionaires do.” This flippant remark illustrates that our culture has a complex relationship with the Zodiac. No one wants to admit to believing it, but we are reluctant to discount it entirely.
Constellations made up of distant stars have been a source of wonder and mystery for much of mans’ history. The system of constellations is known as the Zodiac and is the basis of the pseudo science Astrology. Astrology was thought of as an actual science centuries ago, but was gradually replaced by astronomy.
The Judeo-Christian tradition was also instrumental in undermining this traditional source of pagan knowledge. What has remained is the belief that understanding the different signs of the Zodiac can provide valuable insights into a person’s life.
Although it is no longer taken seriously, by most people, millions still read their daily horoscope looking for useful information about their future.