Irrational as they may be, we all have a superstition or two. Whether it's a lucky pair of pants or an aversion to Friday the 13th, superstitions are important to us because they give meaning to the often random nature of luck and put us in the driving seat of our destiny. Here we run through the surprising cultural histories behind some of the world's most common supernatural beliefs.
Black Cat Auditions In Hollywood by Ralph CraneLIFE Photo Collection
1. “Knocking on Wood”
Indo-European, Celtic, or possibly British
Any list of superstitions would have to begin with arguably the most well-known and universal superstition: ‘to knock on wood.’
The actual origins, and even meanings, of the phrase are as varied as the cultures which use it, with some suggesting roots in the Indo-European or Celtic belief that spirits good and bad resided in trees who could be either called upon for protection or chased away by knocking on their home, and others (particularly Christians) linking the practice to the magical power of the wooden Crucifix. Most likely among the different theories, historians have attributed the superstition to a 19th-century British children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood” in which young players claimed immunity from being tagged by touching the nearest piece of wood. Adults picked up on the habit and the phrase (the British still say “touch wood” today), and the rest is history.
As with many superstitions, there are subtle variations and sometimes not so subtle varying origins. Italians ‘touch steel’ rather than wood, perhaps more related to iron horseshoes; Poles and Russians touch unpainted wood, Turks knock twice, Latin American knock on wood with no legs (i.e. chairs). It’s best to memorize them all before traveling.
The Postman's KnockThe Postal Museum
2. “Throwing Salt Over Your Shoulder”
European/Christian, ancient Roman
Perhaps the next most common superstition, at least in the West, involves tossing salt over one’s shoulder. Like ‘knocking on wood,’ this superstition also involves the idea of ‘warding off evil’ - in this case, the Devil himself. In Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot, is portrayed as having accidentally spilled salt. Since Judas was associated with doing something bad, the argument goes that, ipso facto, so was salt, and throwing it over your shoulder would blind the devil waiting there.
Since, in other versions of the superstition, “Old Scratch” was thought to reside just over your left shoulder, ready to tempt you, the salt was thrown to the left.
Still, others say that the sheer value of salt alone in ancient times led to the belief that to spill it was to incur bad fortune (like among Romans), requiring a corresponding ritual or act of penance to prevent worse loss from occurring.
Mural painting with the scene of the Saint Supper by La Seu d'Urgell workshopsMuseu Episcopal de Vic
3. “Walking Under a Ladder”
European/Christian, possibly Egyptian
The superstition of not wanting to walk under a ladder also has roots in Christian symbolism: the “Holy Trinity” of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit led to an association of the number three with something sacred. The triangle, with its three sides, came to be regarded as sacred as well, and a ladder of course forms a triangle, so, naturally, to walk under that ladder would be to destroy the sanctity of the Trinity and thus incur punishment.
The ladder’s resemblance to a gallows also didn’t help matters, nor did the fact of the obvious danger of something falling from it.
Finally, the Egyptians apparently thought that one might accidentally spot a god going up or down on a ladder and so avoided it. Must have made building all those tall pyramids difficult.
The Heavenly Ladder: illustration from a Klimax manuscript Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
4. “Broken Mirror”
Ancient Greek/Roman, European, etc.
The belief that a broken mirror brings bad luck most likely has its origins in the simple fact that reflections of ourselves are uncanny and often unnerving (particularly on a “bad hair” day), so humans have long had bad associations with them. Take, for example, the Greek myth of Narcissus, or the idea that a crack in a mirror would somehow break its charm or trap one’s soul.
It was the ancient Romans, however, who contributed the notion that a broken mirror would bring seven years of bad luck, since it was believed that only poor health would cause a mirror to crack, and the number seven was seen by the Romans as the number of years required to complete a full life-cycle of sickness and renewal. As a result, a broken mirror meant you were headed toward a death-spiral that might take seven years to pull yourself out of! But, then, those same Romans felt you could prevent that horrible outcome by gathering the broken pieces of the mirror and burying them by moonlight, so should we really trust them about all the bad luck stuff?
Broken Mirror by Lee, YongbaekKorean Art Museum Association
5. “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back”
African and European folklore
Another superstition involving something cracked or broken being associated with bad luck is the superstition of “stepping on a crack” as foretelling, or even causing, harm to a family member. As with mirrors, cracks—in the earth, on a sidewalk, or almost anywhere—have long been seen as portals to the realm of the supernatural, for both good and ill. To step on those cracks might be to invite or release unwelcome spirits into the world ready to do one harm.
By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection
6. “Lucky Pennies”
Ancient Roman, English, American
The idea that finding a penny would bring good luck also originates in folk beliefs—in this case based on the idea that metal, regarded by many ancient cultures as quite valuable, was sent by the gods to protect those whom they favored. Pennies being made from metal, find them and you’ll have good fortune. But, be careful: some say the luck could break either way, and that if you find a penny tails up, you should turn it over and leave it for the next person or you’ll actually have bad luck.
Small silver coin of Septimius Severus by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives
7. “Lucky Horseshoe”
Ancient Roman, Celtic/British Isles, Europe
Another object commonly thought to be lucky is the horseshoe. Earliest origins of the horseshoe’s function as a good luck charm reside in its vulval shape (seen upside down) and the invocation of the pagan moon goddess Diana and her ‘sacred vulva’.
As with pennies, metal being seen as both valuable and magical, iron in particular was thought by early Europeans as something capable of warding off evil spirits. And, as with the Romans and the lucky number seven, horseshoes frequently featured seven nail holes.
The most famous story of a horseshoe bringing good luck, however, refers to the story of Saint Dunstan, who apparently worked as a blacksmith prior to attaining sainthood. The story goes that, one day, the Devil rode into Dunstan’s shop requesting new shoes for his horse. Dunstan, recognizing the Devil, played it off nonchalantly, and, rather than nailing the shoes to the horse, nailed one to the Devil's foot instead. In agony, the Devil agreed never to enter a house with a horseshoe nailed above the door if Dunstan would simply agree to remove the shoe.
HorseshoeOriginal Source: http://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/manz/exb/Early_Paiute/Ranching/MANZ3021_horseShoe.html
8. “Friday the 13th”
Like the number 7 for the Romans, magical significance has been attached to the number 13--but this time, it’s unlucky rather than lucky. The number 12 has frequently been seen as positive (12 months of the year and 12 signs of the zodiac, for example, or 12 days of Christmas and 12 tribes of Israel), naturally making its nearest neighboring number to the north negative.
Like other superstitions surrounding the Last Supper, the 13th is also seen as unlucky because, once again, the Great Betrayer, Judas Iscariot, was the 13th member of the dinner party that led to Christ’s crucifixion. Dude couldn’t catch a break! In addition, on Friday the 13th of October 1307, King Philip IV of France arrested and put to death hundreds of the Templar Knights.
The last Supper by Alonso VázquezMuseo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla
9. “Black Cats”
Though cats have often been associated with good luck rather than its opposite and were even worshipped as gods in Ancient Egypt, things took a turn for the worse for our dark-colored feline friends sometime around the Dark Ages when, in 1232 AD, a papal bull by Pope Gregory IX declared them an “incarnation of Satan”, according to People magazine.
Things only went downhill for black cats from there, with people of the Middle Ages burning them in bonfires on Holy Days like Shrove Tuesday, the first Sunday of Lent, and even Easter, and with the Puritans in America connecting them to the practice of witchcraft. Also, the color black has long been associated with evil and death, which didn’t help matters for our furry friends who had the misfortune of being born the color of night.
Black Cat Auditions In Hollywood by Ralph CraneLIFE Photo Collection
10. “Fingers Crossed”
Western Europe, Pagan & Christian
The superstition of crossing one’s fingers bringing the lucky “finger-crosser” good luck comes from pre-Christian, Pagan times in Western Europe, when the practice of making a cross with your own and the index finger of another person was thought to concentrate the forces of good spirits and to seal a pact or a wish with the fellow-crosser.
Over time, people realized they could simply bless their own wishes by crossing first their two index fingers, and then later simply the index and middle fingers of one hand, which is what we do today.
Another narrative pins the practice on early Christians, who would greet and identify one another in secret with various symbols like crossing the index fingers, touching thumbs, etc., (though this explanation doesn’t have the virtue of accounting for the association with good luck).
By Hank WalkerLIFE Photo Collection
11. “Chewing Gum at Night”
Have you ever had an irrational fear of accidentally consuming dead flesh? Well, in Turkey, it is thought that, after dark, chewing gum is magically transformed--like the mogwai in the movie Gremlins who turn into the titular monsters if they eat after midnight--into the flesh of the dead.
Bubble Gum King, Andrew Paris by Cornell CapaLIFE Photo Collection
12. “The Number of Four”
As we’ve seen with numbers like thirteen and seven, numbers are frequently assigned different magical significance or status depending on the culture in question. For the Chinese, the number “four” is a no-no, due to the similarity in its pronunciation, in Chinese, to the word for “death.”
Handheld video game:Little Professor by Texas InstrumentsThe Strong National Museum of Play
13. “Writing Love Letters to Juliet Capulet”
In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the male member of the doomed pair of lovers was known to frequent the foot of Juliet’s balcony in order to send up his nightly entreaties and missives of love. At the ‘Casa di Giuletta’ in Verona Italy, where the ‘Capuleti’ family supposedly lived at ‘Via Capello 23,’ visitors can write their own love letters to - and even rub the right breast of the nearby statue of Juliet. This is all done in hopes of earning her favor like the Romeo of long ago, even if the pair themselves were not so lucky.
14. “Curse of the Evil Eye”
Mediterranean and Middle East
It's a common belief—spanning the Mediterranean, Middle east and South Asia—that's been held for thousands of years that to achieve too much success would be to invite the anger or inspire the envy of the gods, who would then smite the unfortunate individual with a reversal of fortune. In response to the fear of this curse, people across the ancient Mediterranean began fashioning amulets and beads with an image of an 'evil eye', sometimes referred to as nazars, which would then help ward off that horrible, untoward fate.
Nazar boncuk amuletMucem
15. “Tucking Thumbs in Inside of a Cemetery”
Like the fear of the word “four” in China hinging on the similarity, in its pronunciation, to the Chinese word for “death,” the Japanese similarly tuck in their thumbs when in a cemetery visiting the graves of dead relatives. This comes from the connection between the Japanese word for “thumb” and its meaning as the “parent finger”. To tuck in one’s thumbs in inside a cemetery, then, is to protect one’s parents from death.
Free Japan Essay by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection
16. “Giving Yellow Flowers”
Like numbers, colors have frequently been assigned symbolic significance, like black being seen as the color of bad luck and red the color of passion. In Russia, yellow flowers in particular are seen as problematic as they are thought to represent infidelity, separation, or even death!
Flower Still Life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the ElderThe J. Paul Getty Museum
17. “Sweeping Feet”
If you happen to be on a cleaning spree in Brazil, you will want to steer clear of brooms. Or at least be careful. South Americans believe that if your feet are swept over by a broom you will remain single for the rest of your life. The curse can be broken, if you immediately spit on the broom. The exact origins of this superstition are unknown, but legend has it that a woman who cannot keep house, does not a good wife make.
By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection
18. “Itchy Palms”
Depending which palm of yours begins to itch, you may find yourself in the Caribbean with a bit of extra spending money, or in the red. It is a common belief that an itchy left palm means you will owe money soon, whereas an itchy right palm means money is coming your way. There is an explanation that might tell us why such a distinction. The left hand seems to hold passive energy, and the right hand active energy which symbolically could explain the coming in and out of money.
Artists' Hands Grid Continuum: Ed Ruscha by Rena Small (American, b. 1954)USC Fisher Museum of Art