Are you superstitious? Do you cringe when someone knocks over the salt? Are you weary of the number 13? Well you are not alone. Many people around the world hold some form of superstition. From black cats to stairs superstitions come in all form, shape and sizes. However, where did they all come from? Today we’re going to try and answer that to the best of our abilities. So don’t wish us “Good luck” as we present to you these 25 surprising origins of today’s most popular superstitions.
Spilling salt has been considered unlucky for thousands of years. Around 3,500 B.C., the ancient Sumerians first took to nullifying the bad luck of spilled salt by throwing a pinch of it over their left shoulders. This ritual spread to the Egyptians, the Assyrians and later, the Greeks.
Hang a horseshoe on your door open-end-up for good luck
The belief in the horse shoe’s magical powers can be traced back to the Greeks, who thought the element iron had the ability to ward off evil. Not only were horseshoes wrought of iron, they also took the shape of the crescent moon. For the Greeks, the crescent moon was a symbol of fertility and good fortune.
Four Eleven Forty Four
The roots of this popular music superstition can be traced to the illegal lottery known as “policy” in 19th-century America. Numbers were drawn on a wheel of fortune, ranging from 1 to 78. A three-number entry was known as a “gig” and a bet on 4, 11, 44 was popular by the time of the Civil War. The stereotypical player who picked this gig was usually a poor African-American male, which explains why the use of the term «4-11-44» appears in many later blues and jazz recordings.
Knocking on Wood
Usually, when we speak of our own good fortune, we follow up with a quick knock on a piece of wood to keep our luck from going bad. But do you know where this superstition comes from? Many pagan groups and other cultures worshiped or mythologized trees. Some peoples used trees as oracles, some incorporated them into worship rituals and some, like the ancient Celts, regarded them as the homes of certain spirits and gods.
The number 13
Fear of the number 13, has its origins in Norse mythology. In a famous tale, 12 gods were invited to dine at Valhalla, the city of the gods. Loki, the god of strife and evil, crashed the party, raising the number of attendees to 13. The drama that followed between the attendants made number 13 a cursed number.
A wishing well is a term from European folklore (Germanic and Celtic tribes) to describe wells where it was thought that any spoken wish would be granted. The idea that a wish would be granted came from the idea that water housed deities or had been placed there as a gift from the gods, since water was a source of life and often a scarce commodity.
Bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder
This superstition originated 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, and Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (as exhibited, for example, by their pyramids). To them, triangles represented the trinity of the gods, and to pass through a triangle was to desecrate them.
Breaking a Turkey Wishbone
The Etruscans were the earliest civilization to live on the Italian peninsula, settling in between 900 and 800 BC and they were also the first to practice a form of divination involving a hen pecking at grains of corn scattered about in a circle divided into sections with letters. When the fowl was killed, the bird’s collarbone was laid in the sun to dry. An Etruscan still wishing to benefit from the oracle’s powers had only to pick up the bone and stroke it (not break it) and make a wish; hence the name “wishbone.”
Trick Or Treat on Halloween
This tradition can be traced back 2,000 years (and quite possibly much longer) to the Celtic belief that the spirits of the dead still remained present on our plane of existence, and required food and drink to be placated. Failing to leave out an offering was sure to invite the disgruntled spirits to cause mischief and ill fortune in retaliation.
Sign of the horns
The sign of the horns is a hand gesture with a variety of meanings and uses but most of us know it through Hard Rock and Heavy Metal music. However, its earliest use can be seen in India, as a gesture very commonly used by Gautama Buddha as Karana Mudra which is synonymous with expulsion of demons and removal of obstacles like sickness or negative thoughts.
Shoes on a table
An uncommon superstition is that bad luck will come to a person who places shoes on a table, whether in the form of a family argument, or risking death to a family member. It is believed that the superstition originates from new shoes originally having the soles affixed by hobnails, and that these would cause scratches on a new table if they had not already been worn down.
Lucky Rabbit's Foot
It is not uncommon for someone to carry around a rabbit’s foot for luck, and these can frequently be found in bins at the drugstore checkout or dispensed from gumball machines. The tradition made its way to the States with African slaves, and it is thought to be among the oldest traditions in the world, dating from around 600 BC.
Unlucky Friday the 13th
This superstition might appear to be related to the number 13 superstition but Paraskevidekatriaphobia as Friday 13th’s official term is inspired by Christianity not Norse mythology. It is believed that Jesus was crucified on Friday and the number of guests at the party of the Last Supper was 13, with the 13th guest being Judas, the traitor.
According to the old time radio presentation from the 1930’s, The Origin of Popular Superstition, this belief originated from the Saxons, who felt that rubbing diseased skin with silver would cure it.
Wishing upon a shooting star
First century Ptolemy theorized that shooting stars resulted from gods peering down on the Earth. Consequently, whenever someone saw a shooting star in the sky, they made a wish.
Crossing Your Fingers
This is probably the superstition that is most widely used today. Crossing two fingers (the middle and pointing fingers) on one hand as a sign of hopefulness or desire for a particular outcome comes from the Christian faith. It’s believed that when one crosses his/her fingers, evil spirits are prevented from destroying the chances of good fortune.
The Curse of 39
In some parts of Afghanistan, the number 39 is associated with a curse or a badge of shame as it is purportedly linked with prostitution. The origin of the number’s undesirability is unclear, but it’s widely claimed to have been associated with a pimp, allegedly living in the western city of Herat, who was nicknamed “39” after the registration plate of his expensive car and the number of his apartment.
“Break a Leg”
“Break a leg” is an idiom in theater used to wish a performer “good luck” (ironically, saying the actual words “good luck” is considered to be very bad luck). Several theories behind the origin of the phrase exist. The oldest and most probable theory takes us to ancient Greece where people didn’t clap in theaters. Instead, in order to show their appreciation for a performance, people stomped. If they stomped long enough, they would break a leg.
"God Bless You"
The phrase “God bless you” is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. In the sixth century, a bubonic plague epidemic gripped Italy. The first symptom was severe, chronic sneezing, and this was often quickly followed by death. Pope Gregory urged the healthy to pray for the sick, and ordered that light-hearted responses to sneezes such as “May you enjoy good health” be replaced by the more urgent “God bless you!”
The Black Cat
Many cultures believe that black cats are powerful omens. According to the ancient Egyptians a black cat crossing your way was a good thing while in Medieval Europe black cats were considered evil and best friends of witches.
Bad luck to open an umbrella indoors
According to Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati, when metal-spoked umbrellas started becoming popular in eighteenth-century London; their stiff, clumsy spring mechanism made them hazardous to open indoors. If opened suddenly in a small room, these umbrellas could seriously injure an adult, child, or even shatter frangible objects. Thus, the superstition arose as a deterrent to opening an umbrella indoors.
Ace of spades (The Death Card)
Despite some people insisting that the ace of spades representing death first originated in Medieval Europe the first time we meet the whole superstition historically is during the reign of “Murder Incorporated” in the 1930s, when two gangsters were assassinated and left with aces in their hands. Since then Ace of Spades has symbolized death and murder.
A Sailor Whistling
Whistling is considered to be bad luck to sailors and mariners. It is said that to whistle is to challenge the wind itself, and that to do so will bring about a storm. Another tale is that it has been considered bad luck ever since the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty; Fletcher Christian is said to have used a whistle as the signal to begin the mutiny against Captain William Bligh.
A broken mirror gives you seven years of bad luck
In ancient Greece, it was common for people to consult “mirror seers,” who told their fortunes by analyzing their reflections. As the historian Milton Goldsmith explained in his book Signs, Omens and Superstitions, divination was performed by means of water and a looking glass. This was called catoptromancy. The mirror was dipped into the water and a sick person was asked to look into the glass. If his image appeared distorted, he was likely to die; if clear, he would live.
The Thirteenth floor
Despite most people’s connection of the thirteenth floor with the number 13, it’s believed that this superstition derives from the era of the advent of early skyscrapers, where New York architectural critics warned developers not to exceed the height of the 13th floor. These experts insisted buildings rising above the 13th floor would lead to increased street congestion, ominous shadows and lower property values.