The history of common superstitions
Do you know the history of common superstitions, like fear of a black cat?
Even people who claim they have no superstitions are likely to do a few things they cannot explain. A superstition is a behavior that has no rational basis or history or a history that is long-lost. Here are some common superstitions that non believers and believers alike still seem to hang onto.
Superstitions Based on Predictions
- Red sky at night, sailors' delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning: This may actually have some basis in nautical observations. Clouds enhance the color of sunsets and sunrises. The red morning sky foretells a day of possible bad weather. Evening clouds may pass during the night.
- It's bad luck to walk under a ladder: Again, a bit of reality. Something can fall on you, even the ladder itself.
Superstitions from the Ancient World
- Knock wood: Knocking wood for luck may well come from times when people believed that trees served as the homes for protective spirits or gods. Since trees are so firmly rooted in the earth, knocking wood may have had the additional aspect of intensifying a wish.
- An itchy hand means money's coming (or leaving): This probably came from times when money was scarce enough that holding it was a noticeable experience.
- See a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck: Especially popular when a penny bought a loaf of bread, a sack of grain or a pitcher of ale.
- Heads for good luck, tails for bad luck: Especially when coins showed the faces of ruling monarchy, it was an easy step to the idea that face up meant the spirit of the ruler looked favorably on your wish or bet.
- Carry a rabbit's foot for luck: Whoever had a rabbit's foot had probably also had a good rabbit dinner. The great fertility of rabbits and their large litters gave rabbits a somewhat magical air before Biology 101.
- Black cats bring bad luck: For centuries cats were associated with the dark side of magic and possessed of nine lives and serving as mediums for witches. Modern cat owners will tell you that few cats are completely black, the color of witchcraft. Having one cross your path was a sign of evil spirits.
- Drop a knife/spoon/fork, and company will come: The best guess for this belief lies in centuries-old standards of hospitality. Travel was dangerous, and folk traditions of all kinds emphasize the importance of welcoming strangers. Surely the aroma of a meal in preparation would likely draw a friend or traveling stranger, and at mealtime utensils were most likely subject to being dropped.
Superstitions About Rare Experiences
- Finding a four-leaf clover is lucky: If you've ever searched for one, the rarity could certainly be thought to mean something.
- A sudden shiver: This is said to mean that someone is walking on your grave. In a small town with a small graveyard, one can picture it happening.
- Warm or itchy ears: This is said to mean someone is talking about you. Again, in a small community, that might be.
- Sneezing: Don't let the soul escape. The origins of the German invocation, Gesundheit!, and the automatic English response, Bless you!
Superstitions About Common Mistakes
- Break a mirror, bring seven-years' bad luck: For centuries glass in any form was handmade, expensive and precious. Coating the back of a glass with silver to create a reflection increased the cost. A poor family might save for years to own a mirror.
- Spilled salt brings the devil: Salt was precious long ago and used to preserve and season food. Wasting something precious might be regarded as a sin of carelessness. That's why bad luck is neutralized by throwing a pinch of salt over the shoulder and into the devil's eyes. The devil is said to stand behind the left shoulder, which is a reflection of ancient and varied superstitions about right and left body parts.
Superstitions That Defy Explanations
- Step on a crack, break your mother's back: One hopes quite desperately that someone was just fishing for a jump-rope word that rhymed.
- Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home; your house is on fire, and your children will burn: If this is the case, why are we so cheerful when we recite this superstition?
Whatever the basis of superstitions they provide a wonderful window into a world where people struggled to understand and interpret the meaning of the world around them, leaving us insights into how they lived and what they cared about.