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Why are you so scared: the origins of 7 common superstitions


1st Jan 2015 Life

Why are you so scared: the origins of 7 common superstitions

The beliefs of our ancestors have left us with the fragmented legacy of superstitions that are quite frankly irrational. Let's explore the origins of our most common superstitions and gain some understanding of our history.

Black cats

Black cat crossing path

While in ancient Egypt cats were considered sacred (the goddess Bastet is shown with a cat’s head), in 17th Century England, King Charles I considered his luck to be up when his black cat died. It seemed very much that way when he was arrested for high treason the next day!

Cats crossing your path can be perceived as a good or bad omen depending on your point of view. But we're only interested in the bad...

Witches became despised during the middle ages. It was believed that black cats were familiars—a spirit taking the form of a domestic animal in order to accompany a witch. It was often the case during the Witch Trials, that animals were used as evidence—to prove that one is possessed would mean the certain death for the poor woman being trialed.

Some even believed it was the devil taking the form of a cat. A black cat crossing your path was perceived as the devil or some other evil spirit keeping a watchful eye on you. Although it would seem that between 1550 and 1650 black cats were far more unlucky for the women that possessed them than any onlookers.



Unlucky number 13


Widely regarded as unlucky, this superstition recurrs throughout history. The obvious story is taken from Christianity. At the Last Supper while sitting with 12 of his disciples, Jesus said that one of his followers would betray him. The 13th, Judas, did. 

Friday 13th is another much-feared date again many believe this stems from christianity—a garbling of Judas, the 13th disciple and Friday, the day Jesus was crucified. 

Many parts of Scandinavia consider 13 dinner guests as terrible luck. In Nordic mythology, 12 gods were invited to dine at Valhalla, but 13 arrived. The 13th was Loki, the god of strife and evil. Chaos ensued. The favourite god among them, Balder was killed. It's not too difficult to see the similarities between this pre-Christian myth and the biblical Last Supper.

Another potential origin could stem from the fascinating Mayans, whose calendar ends with the 13th Baktun (21st December 2012 to be precise), after this an apocalyptic ending was feared—and not just by the Mayans. There was a touch of anxiety lurking in the air as December 2012 approached. Many believed that this would be the end of humankind. There was even a film made about it.




Breaking a mirror

Breaking a mirror

Mirrors have long been revered among those with mystical interests. It's clear to see why. The mirror contains an image of ourselves, and that image is the closest we will ever get to a true vision of how we look.

In ancient Greece, people would consult 'Mirror Seers' to tell their fortune. The mirror was dipped into water and a the fortune seeker would be asked to look into the glass. Any distortions to the image would mean almost certain death to the individual.

The Romans took it one step further, believing that any distortion of their mirror image—particularly the one that occurs in broken glass—would bestow bad health. When you couple that with their belief that a person's health ran in seven-year cycles, it's not too difficult to put the two together and draw up a common superstition. Broken mirror? Seven years bad luck.



Spilling salt

Judas spills the salt

Some attribute our spilled salt superstitions to the image of Judas Iscariot knocking over a salt cellar in Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' (see above), but this itself is a reference to the bad omen, not the origin. 

The fact is that salt was very much prized in ancient times. Even the etymology of the word'salary' is rather salty: Roman soldiers were given special allowances for salt rations called salarium, 'salt money'. This also sheds some light on the term "not worth his salt". 

To spill the precious salt is, therefore, bad luck. As for the throwing over the left shoulder, the two are not mutually exclusive, they are separate superstitions that have merged over time. 

We need to travel back millennia to get to the route of this one. Around 3500 BC, the Sumerians would nullify any negativity bestowed upon them from the spilling of salt by throwing a pinch of it over their left shoulder. It caught on. The Egyptians started doing it, the Assyrians, the Greeks, and we still do it today.



Opening an umbrella indoors

18th Century Umbrella

There are two possible explanations for this superstition. The first involves ancient Egypt, where umbrellas were used to protect noble classes from the heat of the sun. To open an umbrella inside, or even in the shade, would cause great offence to the god of the Sun.

For the second explanation we don't have to look too far back. During 18th Century, umbrellas began to feature metal spokes, much like the umbrellas of today. Unlike the umbrellas of today, they were big, with clunky mechanisms. The obvious implication of this is that opening them indoors, in small spaces, led to injury and/or breakage of objects in close proximity.

Not only was it inconsiderate to open an umbrella indoors, it would cause arguments among those in close proximity. Bad vibes all-around!



Walking under ladders

Walking under ladders

If common sense were to prevail, walking under a ladder can be fairly risky business due to the unstability of the ladder, and any objects (or people) balancing on top of it. But all common sense goes out of the window when it comes to superstition.

In medieval times, ladders held an association with the gallows. To walk beneath a ladder was surely a sign that you were going to meet your end. But why? It all comes down to the mystical symbol of the triangle. When leaned against a wall, ladders form a triangle. To hang a person from ladders would place that person in the centre of that triangle creating a haunted space. 

Sticking with the theme of triangles, the Egyptians and Christians also had some negative feelings about ladders and the almighty triangle they created when leaned against a wall. Christians see triangles a representation of the Holy Trinity, to walk under a ladder was considered blasphemous. Similarly, the Egyptians had a thing about pyramids, to walk under a ladder would break the power of the pyramid.



Saluting Mr Magpie

Mr Magpie on his own

Greeting a magpie with the words, "Good morning Mr Magpie. How's your lady wife today?" may seem a little bizarre, but it is commonly believed that magpies are the harbingers of bad luck and this nicety will ward off any negativity coming your way.

Did you know, magpies mate for life? To see one lone magpie may indicate a very lonley bird indeed: One for sorrow, Two for joy. But never make assumptions! Acknowledging that Mr Magpie could have an absent wife may be enough to appease his foul temper. 

Why is Mr Magpie perceived as such a bad bird anyway? Magpies have very low morals and a complete disregard for material possessions. Yes, the magpie is a thief, renowned for stealing anything that blings: jewellery, coins—only the expensive stuff.


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