Don’t Be So Superstitious! – Part One

October 30, 2014


Are you superstitious? Do you jump that crack in the sidewalk or maybe toss some salt over your shoulder when you want to ward off a bit of unluck? In that case you might have the heebie-jeebies, or you might just be a little strange. Don’t worry, superstitions are rooted in history, and they all have a back story. In part one I’ll take a closer look at some of the origins of these superstitions. Hey, we’ve all done them once in a while.

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Adam Fagen/flickr

Knock On Wood – This superstition is commonly used after we say something we hope doesn’t come to pass, such as, “I’ve never lost my wallet—knock wood.” The origins are ancient, probably starting back in Greece or with Native Americans. These cultures regarded trees as places where the gods lived. It’s believed that if a person boasted of some sort of success, such as in battle, they would knock on the wood to calm the god contained inside so they wouldn’t be angry about the boast. Another origin could have originated from Christians who touched wooden crosses to ask forgiveness from some misdeed or to ensure safety from or against a particular misfortune.

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Four-leaf clover – The origin of the four-leaf clover is believed to come from the Druids of the British Isles, an ancient Celtic priesthood. They held rituals in oak groves that involved collecting rare four-leaf clovers and mistletoe. It was believed that these things could help the Druids see into the future. The Romans tried to eliminate Druidism as did the Christians. This may have elevated their cult status even more, thus putting the four-leaf clover into a mythical status. The religion ended when the Celts were Christianized, but the clover’s shape as a cross probably helped further its status. The rate of finding a four-leaf clover in the wild is 1 in 10,000. That Druid ritual would have been one time-consuming affair.

Black Cats – Don’t cross a black cat’s path or you’ll get bad luck. Sure cats seem to urinate on everything and are sometimes moody as hell, but they have been revered throughout history. The Egyptians kept them as honored pets and would often mummify them, as did people in the Far East. After the Medieval Ages the cat population increased around the time of fear over witches and witchcraft. A stray black cat was just naturally associated with some evil power, and since black magic and a black cat seem to go together, an irrational fear was formed. France even started to try to eradicate the felines in the 1600’s after England had been swept up in black cat mania. What was the cure from folklore if you happened to cross the path of a black cat? Walk in a circle, go back to the spot where the black cat crossed your path, and count to thirteen. The poor black cats couldn’t catch a break.

Walking Under a Ladder – This one is pretty simple—walk under a ladder and you get bad luck. If you just had to walk under a ladder, you were supposed to cross your fingers, spit after going under, and then don’t talk until you saw a dog. But where did this craziness come from? In ancient Egypt, ladders were actually considered good luck. Ladders were found in tombs, believed to allow pharaohs the ability to climb to heaven. In addition, the triangle represented the trinity of the gods, hence the pyramids. It was believed that if a common person walked under a triangular arch they were committing an act against the gods. Think of it as trampling on their turf. A ladder against a wall would form this type of space, thus a no-no to go under. Christians kept the superstition going. A ladder against the crucifix represented those that killed Jesus. The ladder came to be a symbol of death and evil. Even in England in the 1600’s, criminals about to be hanged had to walk under the ladder of the gallows while executioners walked around it.

In part two, I’ll check out four more superstitions and their origins. In the meantime, watch yourself.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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