10 Popular Superstitions and Customs with Historical Origins
Superstitions date back to as early as man’s attempt to explain nature and his very own existence. For ages, people have held the belief that nature and the objects associated with it hold a connection to the spirit world. In order to pacify these forces, customs and certain behaviors came into existence to dictate a favorable fate. These customs passed from generation to generation making their way to our modern lives. But even though the modern generation continues to entertain these superstitions, they are unaware of the origins as you will see from the surprising origins of ten most common superstitions.
1 God bless you!
In most cultures around the world, it is mandatory to say “God bless you!” after a person sneezes. Many English-speaking countries consider it a polite behavior. But this is a superstition that is believed to originate in the 6th century CE when a fatal plague engulfed Italy. Sneezing was observed to be a common symptom. This made Pope Gregory the Great urge citizens to respond to a person’s sneeze with “God bless you!”
Specifically, on February 16, 590 CE, Pope Gregory the Great ordained that prayers be held to fight this deadly disease. The plague seemed to be lethal to people who sneezed. The symptoms started with severe chronic sneezing followed by death. This made the Pope pass an order that the perky responses to a person’s sneeze like “May you get well soon” be replaced with “God bless you!”
Also, around the same time, people suffering from the plague were recommended to cover their mouths while sneezing. This was done as a precautionary step so as not to spread the disease. This, in turn, paved its way into modern civilization as a polite gesture.
Another popular belief that has contributed to the development of sneezing superstitions is that breathing defined a person’s soul. So when a person sneezed, it was portrayed as a swift release of the soul or its essence. To prevent any lurking evil entity from stealing the soul, each sneeze was followed by a “God bless you!”(source)
2 Spilling salt brings bad luck.
Historically, it is believed that spilling salt brings bad luck to a person. To counter the effect, people are known to toss some salt over their left shoulder. The origin of this superstition dates back to ancient times when salt was used as an ingredient in many practices and rituals. It was believed to be a powerful, magical substance in many cultures. Alternatively, some experts believe that this superstition arose from the time when salt was expensive, and Roman soldiers were given a salarium (salt money).
Petronius, the Roman writer, in his novel the Satyricon (published in the late 1st century CE) referred to a phrase that stands for “not worth his salt.” This phrase was utilized as a means to criticise Roman soldiers. These soldiers were provided with special allowances for salt rations referred to as “salarium” or salt money. Salarium is the origin of the word salary. Maybe this superstition just reflects back to the time when people prized salt.
Another popular belief associated with the origin of spilled salt comes from Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. Here, Judas is portrayed as the one who spilled the salt.
Around 3500 BCE, the Sumerians took a step at nullifying the bad luck caused by spilling salt. They believed that the Devil sits on God’s left side. Throwing a pinch of salt over one’s left shoulder, with the right hand, ensures that the Devil is kept off their backs.(1,2)
3 “Don’t blow your candles yet. You haven’t made a wish!”
Making a wish before blowing out the candles on a birthday cake doesn’t sound much like a superstition, but this tradition dates back to ancient Greece. Then, this tradition was followed while wishing favors from the goddess Artemis.
The ancient Greeks would bake large round cakes and put candles on top. This was done whenever they wished for a favor from Artemis, the Moon Goddess. In many ancient cultures, it was believed that the lingering smoke from the candles worked as a medium to transfer prayers to a god. The modern tradition of making a wish before blowing out the candles seems to have started with this belief.
There are many others that account the Germans for starting this tradition. Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf organized a festival on account of his birthday in 1746. The festival included a very large cake and as many candles as the count’s age. The Germans also had this tradition while celebrating birthdays of children in the 1700s.(source)
4 It’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
Opening an umbrella indoors brings bad luck to the person. The origins of this superstition are not agreed upon totally, but the majority believe that it can be traced back to the early Egyptian era. Egyptians believed that opening umbrellas indoors would offend the Sun God. Another theory points out that this superstition started upon the introduction of metal-spoked umbrellas.
Back then, umbrellas were majorly used to protect people from the sun and to ward off evil spirits. The use of an umbrella as a raingear was actually not prevalent. Opening it indoors was seen as a negative gesture that might offend the Sun God.
Another popular belief is that Nuit, the Egyptian goddess, enveloped the sky similar to a large umbrella. Hence, the Egyptian umbrellas were decorated with papyrus and peacock feathers to represent the goddess. Because of this religious significance, only the noble classes usually held them. The shadow formed by the religious umbrella around a person was considered sacred. If anyone, other than the nobility, stepped into the sacred shadow, it was considered blasphemous.
But a more logical origin was explained by Charles Panati, the scientist and author of the book Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. According to him, the origin of the modern day superstition can be dated back to 18th century London when waterproof umbrellas with metal spokes were introduced. These umbrellas were large in size and had clumsy mechanisms which posed hazards if opened indoors like an injury to a kid or breaking of a fragile object. This, no doubt, led to instances of angry arguments among family and friends. Hence, it became a superstition that brings bad luck to a household.(source)
5 A black cat crossing your path is a sign that something bad will befall you.
In modern days, a black cat crossing your path is considered as a bad omen. But the ancient Egyptians believed the contrary. In the Middle Ages, black cats were associated with dark and evil powers. This is what seemed to have been carried forward in the years to come.
The ancient Egyptians had deep respect and admiration for all cats, black or otherwise. It was here that the belief started that when a black cat (or any cat for that matter) crossed your path, it symbolized good luck. This reputation for cats was witnessed again in 17th-century England. Around that time, England was ruled by King Charles I who treasured his pet, a black cat. Upon the demise of the cat, the king lamented that his good luck was gone. The supposed superstition was reinforced when the very next day the king was arrested on charges of high treason.
But on the contrary, people in many parts of Egypt during the Middle Ages, associated black cats with witches and the Devil. So obviously, a black cat crossing your path was considered to be an indication that the Devil was upon you, hence, a bad sign. This belief seemed to have maintained its dominance over the years and was brought to America by the Pilgrims. This explains the association between black cats and witches that is prevalent to this day in the West.(source)
6 Wearing black attire during funerals.
The custom of wearing black attire during funerals dates back to the time of the Roman Empire. During this time, people would adorn dark togas (a loose outer garment) to symbolize mourning.
The trend of wearing black rose steeply during the Renaissance period and throughout the 19th century, especially for women. During funeral services and mourning periods, people close to the deceased wore everything in black from clothing and accessories to headdresses.
In the rural parts of the Mediterranean and the Latin America, widows have been known to adorn black for the rest of their lives. The related family members would wear black for an extensive period of mourning.
Another theory of the origin of this custom has a very different take. In many ancient cultures, death was considered to be contagious. It was a custom to avoid people who have been near dead people. So people were made to wear black so that others can easily spot and avoid them. Some cultures believe that people associated with a death should give away their colored clothes during mourning. This was done in order to have a quick passage for sorrows.(source)
7 A broken mirror gives you seven years of bad luck.
The superstition that is associated with broken mirrors existed long before glass mirrors were actually invented. Prior to mirrors, people used to observe their reflections in bodies of water. In case the reflection was found to be distorted, it was believed that tragedy would befall the person.
In ancient Greece, there was a form of divination known as Catoptromancy. Here, shallow bowls filled with water were used to predict the person’s future based on the reflection. A person’s reflection signified his soul. A distorted reflection was considered to symbolize an upcoming damage to the soul.
The belief that the bad luck caused by a broken mirror would last for seven years was universal. This belief arose from a Roman interpretation that the body of a person goes through a physical regeneration every seven years.
In Venice and Italy during the 15th century, glass mirrors were produced that had a silver coating at the back which made them very expensive. Only the wealthy could afford them. Servants of these wealthy people were assigned the task to keep these mirrors clean. If by any chance they broke the mirrors, the servants could never afford a replacement. The punishment would include them serving for a contract of seven years under the owner of the mirror.
8 Cross fingers for good luck.
Crossing the middle and the index fingers are a sign to ensure prosperity and good luck. In some cultures, people not only cross their fingers but also their arms and legs at the same time for a triple good luck. This custom was also followed by the Christian community to identify people belonging to the faith.
There are numerous theories in history that indicate the tradition of crossing fingers for good luck can be traced back to as far as the 14th century. Crosses were a symbol of unity and power in the pre-Christian era. The middle portion of the cross signified everything good, so people used to make wishes on the mid-intersection of the cross.
This tradition over time evolved into just crossing fingers between two people. One would make a wish with the other placing his index finger onto the first person’s index finger, thus making a cross sign. This would solidify the wish. Later, this further evolved to one person crossing his fingers to make a wish.
Another theory points to the war between France and England (the Hundred Years’ War). An archer would cross the same two fingers that he would use on the bow to wish for good luck at the war.
An alternate theory cites the early Christian era when several practitioners were tyrannized for their beliefs. In order to recognize fellow Christians, people created a sequence of hand gestures, one of which was making the sign of the cross. But there is no evidence that this custom led to fingers being crossed for luck.(source)
9 Knock on wood to avoid disappointments.
To touch wood or to knock on wood was performed to ward off any unlucky consequences, evil spirits, or to undo something that could bring bad luck. One also knocks on wood after saying something good in order to ward off the evil that might try to take the good away. Deities were believed to occupy trees and knocking on wood was seen as a way to acknowledge them.
The origin of this very common superstition is believed to date back to the Pagan era. It was believed that the deities lived in trees. Touching a wooden surface would acknowledge them and ensure that you get their protection during misfortunate events. It was also believed to be a thankful gesture to the deities for bringing good luck.
In Irish culture, touching wood is seen as a thankful gesture to leprechauns for good luck. The Greeks used to worship the oak tree as it was considered sacred to Zeus. When Pagan beliefs were incorporated into Christian beliefs, this superstition found its way to Christianity, and knocking on wood became to be associated with the Cross.
A Jewish version of this particular superstition takes one back to the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition. During this time, the Jews used to hide in synagogues (wooden prayer buildings). They designed a specific knock code to let people in. This saved the lives of many people, and subsequently knocking on wood came to symbolize good luck. By the 1900s, the British and the Americans had also adopted this ritual.(1,2)
10 The fear of the number 13.
There is a term that stands for fear of the number 13 – “triskaidekaphobia.” Apparently, at least 10% of the US population has a fear of the number 13. Across many cultures, the belief that the number 13 brings evil and bad luck is so strong that offices, hotels, and apartment buildings do not recognize a 13th floor. Some airports do not have gates numbered 13.
This superstition has its origins in an early myth that involved one of the oldest legal documents in existence, the Code of Hammurabi. The documents have been known to have deleted the 13th law from the list of legal rules. But researchers believe that the deletion was a mere clerical error that made one of the earliest translators to miss out a line of text.
Scientists and mathematicians have always considered the number 12 as a perfect number. The Sumerians developed the number system based on 12, a day has 12 hours, most calendars constitute of 12 months, etc. The number 13, following so closely to a perfect number, started appearing unusual to people. This fear of the unusual and unknown played a role in two important historical events that strengthened the fear of the number 13. The first event is the appearance of Judas Iscariot, the 13th guest at the Last Supper, who is the one that betrays Jesus. Another event follows the belief that evil was introduced into the world by Loki, the god known for his mischiefs and treacherous plots. He was the 13th guest to a dinner at Valhalla, thus upsetting the balance of the 12 gods already present.
On the contrary, the Chinese and the ancient Egyptians considered the number 13 to be lucky and that it brings good fortune. The Egyptians believed that there are 12 stages in a person’s life towards spiritual enlightenment. The 13th stage was the eternal afterlife. Death was not seen as something to be feared, but a place of high regard for the afterlife.(source)
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