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Superstitions and their Origins

Superstitions and their Origins

Every superstition has an interesting story to tell, a story of when and how it originated, how it spread and turned into a tradition. Did you just say, all superstitions are fake? Well, that's what you say. But superstitions... they say something different...something you must listen to...So read on to know all that you need to, about superstitions and their origins.
Manali Oak
Superstitions. Are they beliefs that strengthen? Or are they faiths that blindfold? Do superstitions beef up a timid mind or do they weaken a brave heart? While most of them arise out of fear, some are meant to drive fear away. Superstitious beliefs are an outcome of ignorance and lack of rational thinking, but then they are beliefs after all. Beliefs become notions, then become opinions, and eventually begin to prevail in society.
Many of them stay for years, deep-rooted in the minds of common people while some are wiped off over time. Many superstitions become the basis of certain social customs and go on to become traditions. Such is the power of superstitions that they turn from being false beliefs to becoming strong notions, and the masses start following them. So what if they lack a rational standing? So what if they lack a logical base? Superstitions are beliefs. And beliefs don't need a reason. Or do they?
The Origin of Superstitions
The origin of superstitions can be traced to beliefs people held in the olden times. Fear about the unseen, less knowledge about the forces of nature and a lack of general awareness was the reason for the spread of certain beliefs in society. These beliefs might have lacked logic, but there was nothing that could convince people otherwise. There was nothing to prove how baseless the beliefs were. They were passed from one generation to another until there were some who put their foot down to disapprove them. Some superstitious beliefs became social norms. With passing time, some superstitions were rendered false, while others 'succeeded' in establishing themselves as truths!

The easiest and most obvious classification of superstitions puts them under two categories, namely good luck superstitions and bad luck superstitions. With most superstitions, there is some kind of symbolism involved; for instance a black cat, a dead bird, an open umbrella, the number 13 and spilled salt symbolize bad luck, while a falling star, a horseshoe, a rabbit's foot and the number 7 are popularly associated with good luck. Just the presence or absence of these things is believed to be lucky or unlucky. Is getting lucky or unlucky so easy?! Here we take a look at some of the most popular good and bad luck superstitions and their origins.
Good Luck Superstitions and their Origins
Lucky Horseshoes:
A horseshoe is one of the widely known good luck charms. It is considered lucky for its distinctive shape and function. The shape of a horseshoe, a typical U, similar to that of a crescent moon, is believed to bring good luck. Secondly, a horseshoe protects the horse, and is hence believed to protect humans too. Since making horseshoes is related to blacksmithy, which is considered to be a noble profession, horseshoes are also associated with nobility, and hence believed to bring good luck.

The origin of this superstition is interesting. There's this story of St. Dunstan, who once saw a devil and recognized it, and warned it never to enter a house which has a horseshoe hung outside. Superstition has that witches fear horses and hence horseshoes are believed to keep the witches away. Horseshoes have been used as protection from the evil in many European and Middle Eastern households. Thinking of hanging a horseshoe at your door?

What does Knocking on Wood mean?:
There's an age-old superstition behind knocking on wood. Where did it originate? According to Romans, good spirits lived in the trees. They believed that touching anything made out of wood could be used as the means to call these spirits and seek protection from bad luck. Touching wood or knocking on it would also mean acknowledging the good spirits and paying them respect. Some Christian scholars believe that the origin of the knocking on wood superstition is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on a wooden cross.

Lucky Rabbit's Foot:
A rabbit's foot is another widely known
good luck symbols and one of the oldest ones in use. Carrying a rabbit's foot (the left hind) is believed to bring good luck.

The origin of this superstition can be traced to totemism, a theory stating that every human has evolved from an animal. Rabbits, among other animals, have always been associated with fertility and prosperity. They are known for their swift and distinctly styled walking; wherein their hind feet hit the ground before their front feet do. Originally African-American, the tradition of carrying a rabbit's foot has spread to other parts of the world. Do you think, killing rabbits for their feet can bring us any good luck?

What does Finding a Penny indicate?:
You are definitely lucky if you find money. Finding a penny and picking it up is believed to bring a day of good luck. Finding a penny with heads up is considered luckier. It is believed that this penny should not be spent. Keeping it safe can bring you fortune. Any metal was considered God's gift to mankind. Finding any metal coin would therefore be considered lucky. What can a penny buy you today? Is finding one lucky then?

Lucky Little Ladybugs:
Ladybugs are considered to be symbols of good luck. According to an old tale, there was a time when there was massive insect infestation in the fields of European farmers. The insects were destroying all the crops. The farmers sought Virgin Mary's help in protecting their crop. Virgin Mary called upon ladybugs to help the farmers. The little ladybugs ate the insects away, and the crops were saved. Probably, this is how the ladybug superstition originated. It was from then that farmers started associating lady beetles with good luck. Do you think that little
ladybugs are lucky for you?
Bad Luck Superstitions and their Origins
Black Cats bring Bad Luck(?)
The origin of this superstition can be traced to ancient Egypt. Back then, their goddess Bast was a female black cat. Christians, at that time, wanting to eradicate all other religions from society, convinced people that black cats were demons. Thus, a black cat crossing someone's path began to be considered as evil, a barrier in one's way to heaven.

Interestingly though, in England, black cats are believed to bring good luck. Some believe that cats can see spirits and can hence guard you against evil spirits. In Yorkshire, black cats are believed to guide fishermen safely home. Are black cats really evil?

What happens when you Walk under a Ladder:
A ladder standing against a wall makes a triangle with the wall and the ground, a depiction of the Holy Trinity. So walking through this triangle would mean violating the Holy Trinity which was believed to invite God's anger. According to Tia Dawson, hangman used to hang people from gallows using a ladder. So walking under a ladder would supposedly cause hangman's eyes to turn on you, and death could be near. The origin of this walking under a ladder superstition stems from these beliefs.

Breaking a Mirror:
It is said that breaking a mirror can bring you seven years of bad luck. Do you think there's any truth in this proposition? The origin of this superstition stems from the belief that your reflection in the mirror represents your soul or your 'self'. Breaking of the mirror would cause this 'self' to break, indicating that bad luck is near. Interestingly, there's also a remedy to ward this ill luck away. Some believe that if the broken pieces are buried underground, bad luck can be kept at bay.

Why 7 years? It was believed that if you were guilty of breaking someone's mirror, you would have to be a servant in that house for seven years. It was in the times when mirrors were very expensive and rare, and breaking one meant spending a lot to replace it.

The Unlucky 13
Ancient Egyptians associated the number 13 with death, which later led to the fear of this number.

The widely known story behind 13 being unlucky is that of Last Supper. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus was the 13th guest at the meal. And how did the Friday the 13th superstition originate? Actually, it's just that the 13th day of a month falls on a Friday. There should be nothing scary about it. But with the many beliefs associated with 13th coming on Friday, this date has become a reason to fear.

Where did this superstition originate from?
The Last Supper again. The dinner had 13 guests, Judas was the 13th, and Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This made Friday the 13th an unlucky day.

Probably, the oldest association of ill luck with Friday is the story which says that Adam and Eve were forced to leave the garden of Eden on a Friday. Also, Eve is believed to have seduced Adam on a Friday, compelling him to eat the forbidden apple, and we all know what followed.

Biblical accounts state that Noah's flood began on a Friday.

Also, the Tower of Babel in Babylon, built in memory of the victory of humanity after the flood, was destroyed on a Friday.

King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests, subjected hundreds to torture and hardships, many even succumbed to death. The day the arrests were made, happened to be a Friday and the 13th day of October.

In Friday the 13th trivia, you will find several such accounts of mishaps, accidents and unfortunate incidents that took place on Friday the 13th. Are they mere coincidences? Or do Friday and 13 together spell misfortune?

Spilling Salt:
Something I had heard about spilling salt was that if you spill it, God makes you pick it up with your eye lashes. The superstition might have originated from the idea of discouraging wastage of salt by developing a fear about spilling it. Salt used to be expensive then. So, considering the spilling of salt as a sin was a sure way to make people more careful about its usage.

The roots of this superstition can be traced to the Last Supper. Some believe that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus had spilt salt during the supper. If spilling salt is believed to bring bad luck, throwing some over your shoulders to ward the bad luck away is advised as a remedy.

Birds and Bad Luck
Killing a sparrow brings bad luck, as these birds are believed to carry souls of the dead. It is believed that hearing an owl's cry is an indication that death or ill-luck will follow.
A bird flying into the house is believed to bring bad luck.
It is considered unlucky to have a white pigeon perching on a chimney.
Peacock feathers are considered as symbols of the 'evil eye'.
A robin flying in through a window is believed to presage death.
Old superstitions considered crows as the messengers of bad news.
Also, many birds are believed to symbolize certain virtues; for instance doves symbolize peace, robins are a symbol of good luck, and owls a symbol of wisdom.

These beliefs are superstitious, but some of them save the birds from being killed. Because certain birds are associated with certain virtues, people fear harming or killing them.

Opening an Umbrella Indoors:
Putting up an umbrella indoors, especially one which has not been opened outdoors, is believed to bring bad luck. In the olden times, opening an umbrella in the shade was considered as an insult of Sun God. Opening an umbrella indoors would also mean disrespecting the spirits in the house, as the umbrella opened for protection would imply that the shelter provided by the household was insufficient.

The superstition about opening an umbrella indoors originated from this idea. Superstition has that dropping an umbrella on the floor might indicate a murder in the house.
Itching, Twitching, Sneezing...
Itchy Palms
There are superstitions about many of such common human reflexes and behavior. Itchy palm superstitions for that matter; are so many and some even contradicting each other. Superstition says that you are going to lose money if your right palm itches, and that you can expect money in case of an itchy left palm.

Some believe it is the other way round; that is, left palm itching means that you will become poor, and an itchy right palm means that you will become rich.

They also suggest that scratching an itchy palm can mean losing money that you were going to get.

It is believed that rubbing the itching palm on wood or brass can help. This perhaps has to do with the touching wood superstition.

And it was also believed, that the flow of energy in the palm caused the itching, and the energy moving out was associated with losing money while the inflow of energy was associated with gaining wealth.

Not scratching an itchy palm probably came from the fact that some skin problem could be causing the itch and scratching could be harmful.

Twitching Eyes
Eye twitching is something we all are familiar with. In India, left eye twitching is considered bad omen while the twitching of your right eye is considered as a good sign.

In the Chinese tradition, this superstition is the other way round.

Africans believe in the twitching of one's lower eyelid as being a sign of impending sorrow.

The medical reasons behind left or right eye twitching are stress, lack of sleep, or eye problems. It's the twitching of muscles around the eyes. Linking it to bringing good or bad news is not right.

Saying "god bless you" when someone sneezes is one widely followed superstition.

You know how it originated? It was believed that the soul escapes the body for a short while when a person sneezes. 'God bless' is said to bless this soul that returned!

Your heart skips a beat when you sneeze. Its catching the beat again can qualify as being your 'soul's return'.
Superstitions about Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas
Halloween Superstitions

▸You know where the Jack-o-lantern originated from? It was from an old Irish custom to hollow turnips to protect candles from winds and keep them lit.

The idea of having one night or day when ghosts of the dead visit earth finds its roots in Christianity. It is this belief that the deceased in the family would visit, that led people to light candles and keep treats for the dead. The lit candles were believed to help the spirits find their way back to heaven.

Lighting candles or ringing a bell on the Halloween is meant to keep the ghosts and evil spirits away. Having some light around increases visibility in the dark. The lighting candles superstition might have originated from this. Sounds are often used as a protection against the dangers in the dark. The superstition of ringing bells has probably originated from this idea.

Do you know about the Halloween witches? They are believed to gather on Halloween, for a party hosted by the devil and it's believed that they cast spells on people. The early settlers who came to America brought this belief with them. Is it to scare the witches and ghosts away that you wear scary masks and costumes on Halloween? Wearing clothes inside out and walking backwards on meeting witches is believed to scare them away.

Thanksgiving Superstitions

One of the most widely known of the Thanksgiving superstitions is that of breaking the Turkey wishbone. Two people pull the Turkey's clavicle from opposite ends; the one who gets the bigger piece has his wish come true. Pilgrims who migrated from England introduced Americans to this custom.

The tradition can be traced further back to the Etruscans of 900-800 BC who had the custom of stroking a fowl or hen's collarbone and making a wish.

Romans are said to have adopted a major part of their culture from the Etruscans. And the pilgrims of England probably adopted the custom from Romans.

Christmas Superstitions

Being born on Christmas as also dying on Christmas is considered fortunate.

A plant flowering on Christmas, and snowing on Christmas are believed to be good omens.

The Yule log is considered lucky. Go through Christmas symbols and their meanings to find more about the symbolism associated with Christmas.

It is believed that Santa comes only after you are fast asleep. Where did this superstition originate from? Probably from the fact that Santa doesn't really exist! It's the parents/elders in the house who come in disguise of Santa and have to usher the kids to sleep so that the surprise is kept. Or is Santa real and prefers to come only after everyone's asleep?
Engagement and Wedding Superstitions and their Origins
Wedding Jewelry
▸ The engagement ring is worn in the ring finger. Do we know why? It was believed that the left ring finger is directly connected to the heart, making it the most suited finger for an engagement ring or a wedding band.

The Irish brought in the Claddagh ring, which consisted of three symbols, a crown that stands for loyalty, a heart that symbolizes love, and a pair of hands representing friendship.

What's the significance of diamonds in engagement and wedding rings? Back then, the Egyptians and Romans believed that diamonds possess supernatural powers.

The use of pearls in wedding jewelry has a superstition behind it. The Greeks believed that a bride wearing pearls would have a happy marriage.

The Wedding Gown and the Veil
The history of the white wedding gown is quite interesting. It was after Queen Victoria chose to wear a white gown for her wedding, that it became popular with commoners. White was also believed to be the symbol of virginity and purity.

The veil is believed to serve two purposes. One, it guards the bride against evil spirits. Two, it keeps the bride hidden from the groom until marriage, thus eliminating chances of his disapproval of the bride.

This sounds strange, but in the olden days, it wasn't custom for the bride and the groom to meet before the wedding. It was the time when families decided the marriage and feared that the groom may disapprove of the bride on seeing her, and thus arose the tradition of the bride covering her face with a veil.

When looking at superstitions and their origins, one should understand the difference between customs, traditions, and superstitions. Some customs root from superstitious beliefs, but not all of them do. Some do have a reason, which is misinterpreted at times, dues to which we begin to perceive them as superstitions. Some superstitious beliefs are accepted the world over while others are restricted to only some regions or cultures. There is a stark contrast in the superstitions across different cultures. In some cases, beliefs of the easterners contradict with those of the westerners. Superstitions prevail longer in communities lacking general awareness and education, as they lack the ability to reason and approve or disapprove of what superstitions make them believe.

But come to think of it, even 'the educated and the aware' cannot necessarily get over superstitions. We all are superstitious in our own small ways. We have these little notions of a particular color, number, object, or person being lucky for us. We believe these little things can do us good. None of us, I feel, is completely non-superstitious. How much ever we argue and reason against superstitious beliefs or boast of being 'rational', these superstitions remain to be what they strangely are... our little support systems.