From black cats to breaking a mirror, superstitions are extremely prevalent in our society. Simple, everyday objects, animals, or activities are said to bring about terrible misfortune. But why? Where did these superstitions originate from? Many of the most common superstitions can have their origins traced back to mythology or other forms of folklore, while others have basis in simple practicality. The history of these superstitions is fascinating and not something that you would think about without research. However, the more you learn the context behind a particular superstition, the more logical the origin of the belief is. I never would have guessed the origin of the following superstitions, but now that I know, it is completely understandable how they came into being.
Black cats are one of the most common symbols of Halloween, and as most people know, they are seen by some as being bad luck. But where did this superstition come from? In fact, black cats’ association with luck goes back throughout history. However, they didn’t always represent a bad omen. In fact, cats were worshiped by the Ancient Egyptians for their association with the gods. But over time, the perception of black cats changed, and they began to be associated with the devil. In a church document written by Pope Gregory IX in 1233, black cats were said to be an incarnation of the devil. This change in perspective was likely due to the shifting view of witches in that time, for black cats had long been associated with witches. In many forms of folklore, cats were shown as familiars, who assisted witches with their magic. Black cats were most commonly associated with witches, perhaps simply because of practicality. A cat that blends into the night shadows will be more effective at hunting mice or other vermin than a white cat that stands out. Before the paper written by Pope Gregory IX, witches were seen as being helpful, often brewing ‘potions’ that many people purchased to improve their health or daily lives. However, the church eventually began to see witches as being a competition for the faith of the people, and declared them to be evil. From then on, witches and anything associated with them were seen as bad. Seeing a black cat cross your path was interpreted as a witch having sent her familiar after you, which implied to people that they would be cursed by a witch. This association with witches and curses persisted, so much that black cats have continued to be associated with witches and bad omens for almost 800 years.
Walking Under A Ladder
Another one of the most common superstitions is that walking under a ladder will bring bad luck. Now, this superstition does have a practical application: It is rather stupid to walk under a ladder. Ladders tend to have people on them, and those people might be working. Walking under a ladder creates a risk of something heavy being dropped on your head, which could severely injure or even kill you. So the bad luck associated with ladders is understandable in that regard. But that explanation is boring, so what about the explanation more rooted in fable? Well, it so happens that there are multiple different possibilities for the origin of this particular superstition. One common theory is that in Ancient Egypt, it was believed that the triangle created by the ground, ladder, and wall formed a space where evil spirits would reside. Another theory is that a ladder against a wall had a similar appearance to the gallows, and people were naturally uncomfortable with anything that resembled such a morbid object. Yet another possibility is the belief that the triangle formed represents the Holy Trinity, and walking through the triangle would be interfering with it and was, therefore blasphemous. Whatever the reason for the superstition, the fact remains that walking under ladders may not be the wisest of decisions, whether you believe in various forms of folklore or just practicality.
This superstition is more specific to a particular profession, which you may not know about unless you are involved in the performing arts. It is considered unlucky to say the name of the play by Shakespeare titled ‘Macbeth’ (unless you are rehearsing or performing that particular play) while you are inside a theater. Instead, it is referred to as ‘The Bard’s Play’, or more commonly, ‘The Scottish Play’. The reason for this superstition is that even since the play was first shown, various tragedies have plagued performances of Macbeth. In 1606, right before the first performance of the play, one of the main actors died unexpectedly. In a later 17th century performance, one of the actors was fatally stabbed during the show with a real dagger instead of a prop. Additionally, in 1947, an actor named Harold Norman was killed during a stage fight when it got out of control. Apart from the various deaths associated with Macbeth actors, there have been multiple cases of riots from audiences, frequently resulting in injuries or deaths. In essence, Macbeth has long been associated with bad fortune, so most performers don’t want to bring similar luck to their own play. Some believe that the cause of these various misfortunes stemmed from Shakespeare writing legitimate spells into his script when a group of witches was conversing. However, it is equally probable that these unfortunate events were simply a matter of coincidence. Nevertheless, this superstition will likely persist simply due to tradition.
Whistling is seen as a cause of bad luck both in theaters and on ships. Nautically, whistling on a boat was said to be issuing a challenge to the wind, and the wind would respond by increasing its gusts. This would most likely bring a storm the way of the sailors. Storms were a great misfortune to befall a ship, because of how dangerous they could be to both the boat and the crew, so whistling was generally avoided unless being used specifically to communicate. Sailors used to use various whistles to signal the hauling of ropes and other tasks on the ship, which ties into the theatrical application of the superstitions. Similarly to walking under ladders, the superstitions of whistling in the theater had more practical origins. Stagehands were often former sailors, so they would use whistles to signal set changes just as they signaled nautical tasks. Because of this, whistling inside a theater during a performance when one wasn’t attempting to communicate could result in sets being changed when they weren’t supposed to be. It could also result in injuries from falling set pieces or other objects that were being lowered by the stagehands. On ships, whistling was seen as bad luck more because of tales and custom, whereas in the theater, it was more based on safety. Regardless, whistling on a ship or in a theater is likely to get you frowned at.
Opening Umbrellas Indoors
One of the more confusing superstitions, and one of the ones that is most prevalent in my family, is that it is bad luck to open an umbrella inside. Like many other superstitions, this has basis both in practicality and in legend. In Ancient Egypt, umbrellas were seen as unlucky for any other than the royal family of pharaohs, because they blocked out the rays of the sun. The sun was seen as holy due to its association with the ruler of the gods, the sun god Ra. Another belief is that opening an umbrella upsets the spirits of the house (for some unknown reason), resulting in them withdrawing the protection they usually provide and causing misfortune to befall one’s house. However, when it comes to practicality, umbrellas are rather large and bulky, with metal spines that are a bit unwieldy. Opening an umbrella in an enclosed space can result in smacking someone in the face with the spokes or knocking over vases and other household objects. Whether opening an umbrella inside will bring the wrath of household spirits or simply result in a bit of destruction of property, it is best to wait to open the umbrella until you walk out of the door.
Friday the 13th
Many people are familiar with the concept of Friday the 13th being unlucky. The origin of the superstition of the number 13 dates back to ancient times, while the aspect of Friday is a (relatively) recent addition. In Norse mythology, there was a banquet held with 12 of the gods in attendance. The trickster god Loki then arrived unannounced, making him the 13th guest. During the banquet, he tricked the blind god Hodr into killing his brother Baldur with a dart made of mistletoe. This marked the number 13 as being unlucky and foretelling doom. This superstition was reinforced in biblical stories, where the 13th guest of the Last Supper was the guest who betrayed Jesus. This cemented the number 13 as being a foretelling of evil. Fridays are also seen as evil in biblical stories, as the day was thought to be the day that many of the tragedies of the Bible occurred (such as the day Noah sailed on his ark). Since both Fridays and the number 13 were seen as being unlucky, it stood to reason that the combination of these would be even more unlucky. This superstition was later brought to more attention in various books (and later movies) that showed Friday the 13th as being the date of some large misfortune. In short, both the number 13 and the day Friday have had various associations with evil throughout legend, and the combination of the two has led to an understandable wariness of anything occurring on Friday the 13th, much to the misfortune of those with such a birthdate.
Breaking a Mirror
Seven years of bad luck from breaking a mirror – a superstition that many people have heard of at least once, even if they don’t remember it off the top of their head. But where did this superstition originate from? According to the University of South Carolina, it started back in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks believed that one’s reflection in a pool of water was a reflection of one’s very soul. This belief passed to the Ancient Romans, who were the first ones to invent the mirror made of reflective metal. They believed that mirrors were a way for the gods to observe their soul, and thus, it was considered extremely disrespectful to damage a mirror, being an offense to the gods. Because of this offense, the gods would curse the perpetrator with bad luck. However, once mirrors began being made out of glass, the belief shifted to include the fact that the body would be renewed after seven years. This is where the ‘seven years bad luck’ aspect came into play. After seven years of the gods’ displeasure causing a person misfortune, their normal luck would return. There is another possibility about the origin of this superstition, and it is also linked to the concept of mirrors reflecting souls. It was thought that if the mirror reflected the soul, the breaking of a mirror would cause the soul to shatter, resulting in bad luck from a damaged soul. The origins of this belief are less traceable to any particular historical period, though it is likely it also came from the original Ancient Greek belief. Regardless of its origin, the next time you are carrying around a mirror, make sure you aren’t likely to trip and drop it.
Another somewhat common superstition is the belief that spilling salt is bad luck. In contrast, throwing a pinch of that salt over one’s shoulder is a way to mitigate that bad luck. Like many superstitions, this belief has basis in both practicality and legend. In a painting of the Last Supper done by Leonardo da Vinci, there is a container of salt that has been spilled near the image of Judas, the person who would later betray Jesus in biblical stories. Because of this, it is possible that the concept of spilling salt became associated with dishonesty and evil. However, the origin of the misfortune of spilling salt can also be traced back to simple pragmatism. In ancient times, salt was a very valuable commodity, hence the word ‘salary’. ‘Salary’ shares a root with the word ‘saline’, indicating its connection with salt. This is also where the phrase ‘not worth one’s salt’ came from, meaning that the work someone did was not worth the value of the salt they were paid. Long ago, people used to be paid with salt in addition to whatever currency or trade they used in their culture. Thus, since salt was extremely valuable, spilling it was considered a waste and not something that one ever wanted to do. In modern times, however, salt is less scarce, so it isn’t as tragic of a waste if you accidentally spill a bit of salt while baking, not taking into account any biblical associations with evil. However, salt is a pain in the ass to clean up, so perhaps try not to spill any simply to make your life easier.
Whenever my grandmother bought gloves for anyone in my family, she would require that the recipient pay her one dollar in exchange for the gloves to prevent it from being a true gift, else it would bring bad luck. This superstition about giving gloves being bad luck is relatively common in the United Kingdom, though the precise origins of this belief are uncertain. Gloves do have ties to various customs in history, such as the practice of a knight wearing a lady’s glove under his helmet. Another such custom occurred when a woman would drop a glove deliberately in the hope that a suitor would come pick it up for her. According to my late grandmother, giving gloves as a gift brought bad luck because gloves were a parting gift. Taking this into account, it can be inferred that the giving of gloves as a gift is bad luck because of the custom of the knights described above. If a lady gave a glove to a knight, it was a farewell gift, given with the knowledge that said knight would never return. Thus, as gloves were archaically given as a parting gift, it can be inferred that people came to associate the giving of gloves with final farewells. So if you want to give your friend a gift, make sure that they aren’t superstitious before giving them a pair of gloves.
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