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Thursday, November 19, 2009


 A superstition is "a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason, knowledge, or experience." Often folk beliefs deemed irrational, some superstitions have been called "old wive's tales." The words is derived from classical Latin superstitio, literally "a standing over," hence "amazement, wonder, dread, especially of the divine or supernatural." (Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989.)

Superstition is attested in the 1st century BC in writings by Cicero, Livy, and Ovid as the meaning of an
unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic, especially foreign or fantastical ideas. But, by the 1st century AD, it came to refer to "religious awe, sanctity; a religious rite" more generally. (Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 1996)

Superstitions still represent a means for coping with circumstances that people can’t understand or are unable to control. Sailors, fisherman and others who face death on a daily basis often have superstitious traditions or actions that they follow to keep them safe. Whether these actions actually work or not is not the point, it’s the comfort that these superstitions bring that is significant.

In modern society, superstitions are prevalent among certain people such as athletes, actors, and students. For example, athletes may decide that they have to perform a certain ritual, like turning in three circles before leaving the locker room or wearing a certain pair of lucky socks to insure their success. Who has not heard of the following common practice of actors? Thespians do not wish each other good luck before a play, as that is conceived to have the opposite effect; instead, they tell each other to "break a leg."

Welcome to the world of some common superstitions.

1. Spilling Salt

It is considered bad luck to spill salt, but the superstition most associated with this activity is not the act of spilling, but what comes next. To prevent the bad luck from settling on the salt spiller, the person who did the pilling is required to toss some of the spilled salt over his left shoulder. This very specific action is supposed to act as a shield, but it must be done immediately for its benefits to take hold.

Spilling salt was considered bad form long before it was considered bad luck. In ancient times salt was an expensive and useful commodity. Wasting salt, therefore, was frowned upon, and so some suggest that the admonition of spilling salt being “bad luck” came about as a way to stop the careless from wasting a precious spice.

What of throwing the salt over the shoulder- and why the left shoulder so specifically? Some Christian beliefs held that the Devil resided over the left (also known as the Sinister) side of the body, looking for an opportunity to invade. Spilling salt, seen as an invitation for the Devil to do his nasty work, needed to be accounted for- tossing salt over the left shoulder put it square in the devil’s face, just as he was on the attack.

2. Walking Under Ladders

The early superstitious thought is that to walk under a ladder, and through this Holy Trinity, expressed disbelief in the trinity and placed one in league with Satan. Walking through the triangle created by the ladder, ground and wall was considered sacrilegious. Performing such an act, especially in early Christian times, could have gotten one labeled as a witch. Thus, it could be extremely dangerous to be caught walking under a ladder.

A person who walked under a ladder had defied God. Should he have forgotten and did so, he had to quickly cross his fingers or make a wish. Another version of forgiveness was to walk back under the ladder in the opposite direction, thus erasing the mistake and offering the sinner another chance. Or, some believed one must spit through the ladder rungs three times to be safe.

In addition, in Medieval times, people were hanged from ladders before the invention of gallows. Walking under one represented a person's own execution. Their ghosts lingered in such places of capital punishment.

Another possible explanation also related to the medieval gallows. A ladder was placed against the gallows so that after a public hanging, the body could be cut down. If a person happened to walk under the ladder as this was happening, he could be hit by a dead body being cut down.

3. A Groom Seeing a Bride Before the Marriage

This superstition seems grounded in practicality. Until relatively recently, brides were considered the property of their father. Their futures and husbands could be arranged without their consent. The marriage of an unattractive woman was often arranged with a prospective groom from another town without either of them having ever seen their prospective spouse. 

In more than one instance, when the groom saw his future wife, usually dressed in white, for the first time on the day of the wedding, he changed his mind and left the bride at the altar. To prevent this from happening, it became "bad luck" for the groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding prior to the ceremony.

Another cure for this offense was known as a "shotgun" wedding. And, by the way, a bride should never choose a redhead as a bridesmaid as she will steal the groom. 

4. Breaking a Mirror 

As a mirror is a reflection of a person, it had been thought to represent the window to one's soul; therefore, breaking it damaged the breaker's soul and was thought to bring 7 years of bad luck. The damaged soul actually brought down the bad luck for the person's carelessness.

Greeks would use a glass bowl to read a person's future. If, as happened on occasion, the bowl fell and broke, the fortuneteller figured that was a sure sign something bad was coming his client's way (and certainly bad luck for the fortuneteller's income). The Romans, who are said to have believed that life renewed itself every seven years, added the notion of a seven-year cycle for that "cracked" soul to heal as "time heals all wounds." The number "7" was often associated with portentous events.

To "undo" this, a person could gather the shards of glass and bury them underneath the moonlight or deposit them in a south-running stream (This got a person only seven hours of bad luck). Or, the offender could immediately spin around in a counter-clockwise direction three times to confuse the spirits and reverse the bad luck. Or, he could grind the shards into a fine powder that prevented any more reflections from being seen in the damaged mirror.

5. Crossing Fingers For Luck

One theory goes that during the various times when Christianity was illegal, the crossing of fingers was a secret sign for Christians to recognize each other.

Another theory suggests that the sign pre-dates Christianity, when it was believed that benign spirits dwelt at the intersecting point of the cross, as in the Solar Cross (four divisions within a circle representing the four seasons and marked by the solstices).

A change of emphasis may have begun during the so-called "Hundred Years War" between France and England (1337-1457). An archer would cross his first and second fingers, pray or wish for luck, and then draw back his longbow string with those same fingers.

In Europe, the sign was made by two people; the first to make the wish and the second to support it. Linking their fingers firmly would squeeze and energize the spirits into beneficial action.

Crossing fingers certainly dates back to the Middle Ages when fears about the devil and his witches were common. Making the sign of the cross, a powerful symbol, was thought to keep evil at bay and invite blessings and protection. It evolved into a gesture of good luck that is still used today.

6. Knocking On Wood

The spoken expression "knock on wood" is still used to express a desire to avoid "tempting fate" after making some boast or speaking of one's own death. Knocking on wood for luck may well have 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.

Origins are largely unknown and disputed, but many cultures used the custom. One origin is claimed by the English. The druids, who lived in what’s now Great Britain (and built Stonehenge), worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wood. Whenever the druids said something about good or bad fortune, they’d knock on the wood to perk up the spirits to work in their favor.

Others claim the term actually got its start among North American Indians, and later the Greeks, who admired the oak tree as a sign of strength. Both cultures believed the tree was a place where the gods lived as indicated by the fact that oaks trees were more often struck by lightning than other trees. The Indians, in particular, felt bad luck in battle or in their harvest would result if they boasted about themselves. To prevent that from happening, they would knock on the oak tree.

And, others believe a form of this tradition evolved into a game kids played in the early 1800's called Tiggy Touch Wood. In the game, children could not be tagged if they were touching wood.

If no wood is available some people will knock on their head.

7. Getting Out of Bed on the "Right" Side

To arise from the left side of the bed will supposedly put people in a sour mood and will subject their entire day to misfortune. People are said to be correct when they get up from the right and step first on their right foot.

The Romans thought the left side to be the "evil one." A citizen entered a friend's home with his right foot forward. Some wealthy families even hired a "footman" to insure proper entry of all guests. The English word sinister (meaning wicked or evil) is derived from the Latin word meaning "left side."

If people erred and awoke from the wrong side, they had to walk backwards until they returned to bed and could begin again.

8. "God Bless You" Following a Sneeze

Virtually every country around the globe now has its own way of wishing sneezers well. This is good example of how old superstitions can change their meaning, but still stick with us.

Ancient man believed that his breath was also his soul or "essence of life." When God made man, he "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." A rapid departure of that breath--a sneeze--was the same as expelling life from one's body. Also, it left a vacuum in the head which evil spirits could enter a person's body.

Some people believed that a sneeze caused the soul to escape the body (not leave a vacuum in the head) through the nose, so saying "bless you" would stop the devil from claiming the person's freed soul.

Still others started regarding the sneeze as a sign that the soul was giving them an omen, which some interpreted as lucky, others as unlucky. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians considered the sneeze a kind of internal oracle that warned them in times of danger and foretold future good or evil. Sneezing to the right was considered lucky; to the left, unlucky.

During the time of the Black Plague, Pope Gregory I the Great passed a law requiring people to say "God bless you" when somebody sneezed; this was said to prevent the spread of the disease and to help the sneezer recover or eventually end up in Heaven.

9. Finding a Four-leaf Clover

The superstition that the finding of a four-leaf clover can bring good luck is so old that its origin is lost in antiquity. One of the oldest legends has it that Eve, upon being ejected from the Garden of Eden, took a four-leaf clover with her. Because the clover was a bit of green from paradise, its presence in one's own garden came to be looked upon as an omen of good luck.

Some say the actual superstition came from Ireland since the shamrock was supposedly used by St. Patrick as a means to convert Celts to the Christian religion. The three leaves symbolized the Holy Trinity. Somebody who managed to find a shamrock with four leaves was very lucky because he or she was in addition imbued with God’s grace.

According to some traditions, a young woman seeking a husband should go in search of a four-leaf clover. If she was fortunate enough to find one, she was to eat it. The first unmarried man she encountered after eating the clover would be the one she would wed. Another tradition of gaining a husband or wife was to find a four-leaf clover and place it in one's shoe first thing in the morning. The first unmarried member of the opposite sex encountered that day would be one's future spouse.

And yes, the 5-leaf clover exists. It is a mutation like the 4-leaf clover that does appear occasionally, but less common than the 4-leaf clover. There are 6, 7 and other multiple leaf clovers that sometimes occur. The 5-leaf clover is said to bring extra luck and money to the finder.

10. Black Cat Crossing a Person's Path

This is another legend with ancient roots—Egyptian, to be exact. One of the ancient Egyptian goddesses, Bast, was a black cat. When the Romans conquered Egypt, they encouraged their soldiers to eradicate all the godless demons that made up Egypt’s religion—including black cats. (They also destroyed many of the people who kept them as pets, but that’s a whole other story.)

So, what about the whole crossing-our-path thing? Later on, in the Middle Ages, people believed that witches had the power to turn themselves into black cats, so if one crossed a person's path, chances were good that a witch had her eye on him. From there, the superstition went as far as belief that the black cat was a demon in disguise trying to cut off a person’s access to heaven.

It was only unlucky for a black cat to cross a person's path. However, if a black cat approached but did not cross, it was considered by many as a good omen. The tail of a black cat was considered lucky in that it was a remedy for any type of eye difficulty. People actually used to cut the tail off to rub on troubled eyes.

King Charles the First of England owned a black cat. He believed this cat to be lucky and was so afraid of losing it he had it guarded day and night. Coincidentally, the cat died the very day before Oliver Cromwell's parliamentary troops came and arrested the king. Shortly after, King Charles was taken to the scaffold and beheaded.

To reverse the curse of a black cat crossing a person's path, the person had to first walk in a circle, then go backward across the spot where it happened and count to 13, chanting a line from the Bible. 

To reverse the curse of a black cat crossing your path, first walk in a circle, then go backward across the spot where it happened and count to 13, chanting a charm or line from the Bible.

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