Where Did These Superstitions Come From?

Daniel Ganninger
March 20, 2023
black cat

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 bad luck? Don’t worry, superstitions are rooted in history, and they all have a back story. Here are just a few.

Black Cats

Don’t cross a black cat’s path, or you’ll get bad luck. Everyone knows that, but cats 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 1600s 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.

four leaf clover

Four-Leaf Clover

The origin of the four-leaf clover was believed to have 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 these things helped 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 realm. The religion ended when the Celts were Christianized, but the clover’s shape as a cross probably helped further its popularity. The rate of finding a four-leaf clover in the wild is 1 in 10,000, so good luck in finding one. That Druid ritual must have been one time-consuming affair.

knock on wood

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 on wood.” The origins are ancient, probably starting back in Greece or with the 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 of a tree to calm the god contained inside so the god wouldn’t be angry about the boast. Another origin could have originated from the Christians who touched wooden crosses to ask forgiveness from some misdeed, or to ensure safety from, or against, a particular misfortune.


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 not 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 because of the belief that a ladder allowed the pharaohs the ability to climb to heaven. In addition, the triangle a ladder made 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 Christ. The ladder came to be a symbol of death and evil. Even in England in the 1600s, criminals about to be hanged had to walk under the ladder of the gallows while executioners walked around it.

broken mirror

Broken Mirror, Seven Years Bad Luck

The origins of this superstition are believed to have begun in ancient Greece when people would go to see a type of fortune teller called a “mirror seer.” This person would examine a reflection and tell the person’s fortune, or misfortune, if it came to that.

The Romans put their own spin on the superstition since they believed a person’s health cycled every seven years. A broken mirror couldn’t reflect a clear image of the person, so it came to mean seven years of misfortune or bad luck.

spilled salt

Spilled Salt

Everyone knows this one. If you spill some salt, you have to throw it over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck. This one is rooted in ancient times, back to the age of the Sumerians more than 5,500 years ago.

Salt has always been a religious symbol (salt of the earth) and was considered a valuable commodity in ancient times. It’s believed that throwing salt over your shoulder wards off evil omens or smacks the salt into the face of the devil.

number 13

The Number 13

The fear of the number 13 is also known by the word triskaidekaphobia, but everyone knew that. It’s still very much ingrained in our modern culture. High-rise buildings don’t have a 13th floor (over 80% don’t), some airports don’t have a gate 13, and some hospitals don’t have a room 13.

The origins of this insanity can possibly be traced back to a Norse myth. Twelve gods decided to have a dinner party in Valhalla. Another unwanted guest decided to crash the party — Loki (yes, the same god from the Thor comics and the 13th guest at this party). Loki somehow got the god of darkness, Hoder, to shoot Balder, the god of joy. Balder kicks the bucket, and the earth is plunged into darkness. Sounds like fun, huh?

The Christians ran with it next, and the story fit nicely into the story of the last supper. Judas was the last disciple to show up, making the 13th guest. Judas betrays Jesus the next day — enough said. The Romans also got in on the act and believed covens were made of 12 witches with the 13th member being the devil, while the Egyptians believed there were 12 stages of life and the 13th stage was the afterlife, thus the association with death.

Another problem for the number 13 is that it comes behind 12. Twelve can be divided equally, was the number of the disciples of Jesus, the months of the year, signs of the zodiac, gods of Olympus, tribes of Israel, and members of a jury. To be 13 just doesn’t add up right. It’s believed that approximately 17 to 21 million Americans have a fear of the number 13, especially on Fridays.

Why is Friday the 13th considered a day of bad luck? For Christians, it is the day that Jesus was crucified on, and biblical scholars believe Friday was the day Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit. There is also another biblical belief that Abel was slain by Cain on Friday the 13th.


Good Luck Horseshoe

This is a common good luck charm and is believed to come from the fact that a horseshoe has seven holes (seven being a lucky number) and made of iron, which supposedly wards off evil spirits.

There is some disagreement on whether the horseshoe should face up or down. The up camp contends that this holds the luck in and protects everything around it. The down camp contends that the luck spills down on whoever is fortunate enough to walk under it. Which do you prefer? My preference would be that the horseshoe is secured well enough that when I do walk under it, it doesn’t have the chance to knock me out.

Want to learn about more superstitions? Here are some that come from life at sea, Strange and Fascinating Nautical Superstitions.