Origins of Popular Superstitions
Written by Han Slater
Spooky season is approaching, and some of us have already begun. I am an avid Halloween fan and enjoy watching horror-themed content. Nothing is wrong with wanting a good scare, nor is there anything wrong with embracing the fall weather. However, before movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999), Carrie (1976), Get Out (2017), Halloween (1978), or The Hills Have Eyes (2006) were haunting our dreams, stories passed down for generations cursed our sleep and made us wary of the things that go bump in the night. Tales of old are what warn us of potential dangers that lurk in the night but are also filled with ways to ward off such hazards. Most old stories are meant to urge little ones into bedtime or keep them out of trouble, like the tale of Santa Claus bringing presents to good children and coal to bad children. However, some have religious origins, cultural customs, or traditions so far back that we are unsure precisely where they came from or why they stood the test of time. I should tell you, reader, that this is not meant to be a serious article but rather a thought-provoking but fun article in lieu of Halloween. So, with Halloween in mind and the tone set for this article, let us begin looking at some common superstitions.
- Opening an umbrella indoors is a prime example of Santa Claus because this omen was to get people to exercise good manners. However, it was considered dangerous to children and adults and potentially hazardous to objects in the vicinity of an individual attempting to close an umbrella inside. This was a sign of ill will.
- Walking under a ladder: This one is an exciting omen. It should be common not to walk under a ladder because you could get severely injured. However, this superstition originates from Ancient Egypt. Triangles were believed to represent the sanctity of the Gods and their temples; therefore, if one were to walk under something that resembled this, you were desecrating the space and the Gods. Christians adopted and modified this ideology; a ladder rested against the crucifix and became a symbol of wickedness and death, and criminals in the 1600s were forced to walk under ladders on their way to the gallows.
- Crossing paths with a black cat: Now, this one is an exciting superstition because I personally love cats of any shape, size, and colour. However, this one is still something that individuals are taught as a bad omen because the meaning is if you were to cross paths with a black cat, death would follow you. In some stories, the cat will kill you if the cat crosses your way in front of you. In addition, however, a family member will be killed if it crosses your path behind you. Now, this symbol of a black cat could be viewed as bad luck because black cats were believed to be witch familiars during the witch trials of the 17th century.
- The number 13: A different superstition because it is a number and has been associated with many other things in human history. Such as Apollo 13, Friday the 13th, floor 13, and even recently, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. Some popular origins of this myth include Norse mythology and Christian beliefs.
- Breaking a mirror: I am sure everyone is familiar with or has heard of the idea of breaking a mirror and having seven years of bad luck. This omen originates from Ancient Greece! Grecians believed that looking into a mirror after it was bathed in water could predict the health of a sick individual. If the mirror cracked after it was washed in water and the sickly person looked into it, that meant they would die from their illness; however, if it did not crack, they would survive their disease. The Romans adopted this idea and altered it because they believed the cycle of one’s health would change every seven years. The notion then became if you were to look into a washed mirror and it cracked, you would have lousy health for seven years.
- Knock on wood: This omen is hard to pinpoint where it originates. There is speculation this superstition comes from knocking on wood, as in the cross from Christian ideology. However, it could also arise from medieval times when peasants would knock on wood to ward off evil spirits.
Some fascinating origins to consider when investigating other superstitions, but they are also entertaining to see how humanity explains different things in history. I hope this was engaging for you, reader, as it was for me. Finally, I wish you a happy spooky season!
Cannon, A. S. (1984). Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from Utah. United States: University of Utah Press.