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Knock on Wood: Superstitions and Their Origins

Recently, I've been thinking about how random our superstitions really are. When did black cats get such a bad rap? And why is walking under a ladder a bad idea? So I decided to risk my luck and delve into the histories of our strange beliefs.
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Ever since, well, forever, we’ve been trying to make sense of our chaotic world with explanatory stories and rules. Something bad happen? Maybe it was that mirror I broke last week. Having a really horrible day? Every Friday the thirteenth must be full of evil spirits waiting to harm us. While there are various theories about exactly when and why these sorts of ideas started, I found some historically based and highly entertaining tales that shed some light on how we’ve spun our superstitions. 

Friday the Thirteenth
Some claim this supposedly cursed day has biblical roots, with good reason. Adam and Eve’s booting from the Garden of Eden went down on a Friday, as did Noah’s flood and Jesus’s crucifixion. Okay, so they’ve got the whole Friday thing covered, but what about the number thirteen? Some historians credit our favorite crew from The Da Vinci Code, the Knights Templar, for this day’s particularly ominous vibe. 

We’ve been fretting over this day since October 13, 1307, when the king of France seized and threw hundreds of knights in dungeons, including their last grand master, Jacques DeMolay, according to Dungeon, Fire, and Sword, a book about the Knights Templar during the Crusades. Starting on this day, DeMolay was held and tortured for seven years and ultimately burned at the stake. Legend has it that before his execution, DeMolay cursed the Pope and the king to die within the year. They did. Does his curse live on? 

Witches on Broomsticks
Speaking of being burned at the stake …where’d the whole image of hat-wearing women riding their cleaning equipment come from? The first witches were pagans, a word whose origin actually means villager, rustic, and civilian, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Original witches were just that—country people. Sorta like country dwellers are today (no offense), they were a little slow when it came to fashion trends. While city folk quit donning the once-fashionable pointy black hats we now associate with Halloween, the country crew kept on wearing them, and pretty soon, the people and the hats were synonymous (kind of like cowboys and cowboy hats are). As for the broomstick, that image has historical roots as well. Country folks in the middle of their harvest ritual were often seen—you guessed it—hopping up and down on brooms in the fields. Guess we added the flying part later. 

Bless You!
Sometimes it seems like I can’t sneeze without hearing at least three “God bless yous.” But seriously—why do I need to be blessed? The phrase most likely dates back to our British roots, to the plague during the Middle Ages. One of the first signs of the deadly disease was sneezing, so thoughtful friends would issue a “God bless you” to sneezers before quarantining them and hightailing it in the opposite direction. In fact, the superstition-abiding Brits believed that saying it not only gave recipients an extra blessing before their impending death but also stuffed their soul back into their body, since a little bit of it tries to escape with every achoo

Salt over the Shoulder
All you’ve got to do is watch the Food Network for half an hour to see someone atone for spilled salt by tossing a little over his left shoulder. Why the need to dirty the kitchen floor? This superstition could have biblical origins—I ran across some online claims that Judas spilled salt during the Last Supper, but I couldn’t find any real proof. What we do know is that the seasoning was a precious commodity in the Middle Ages and was also used for medicinal purposes. People who spilled such an important substance earned the wrath of evil spirits who apparently approached from behind and to the left. Tossing some salt crystals in that direction struck those mean spirits in the eye, turning them away. 

Black Cats
I’ve always wondered about this one. Why black? Why cats? Turns out, 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 your path, chances were good that a witch had her eye on you. 

Knock on Wood
We knock on wood to keep something bad from happening when we think we might’ve jinxed ourselves. Why does wood have power over our fates? 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. So whether we want a good thing to keep going or want to stop a bad thing from happening, we can make our request to the wood spirits by rapping our knuckles on the nearest piece of wooden furniture. 

Broken Mirrors
Before mirrors as we know them were even invented, people thought that reflections were actually glimpses into our souls; by looking at their reflections in a lake, people were taking a peek at their inner persona. According to TriviaLibrary.com, a really mean thing to do was to distort someone’s reflection in water by splashing it or throwing a rock at it—doing so would affect the person’s soul and leave him or her with nasty luck. When real mirrors came into play around the time of the Romans, people took this belief further, figuring if they broke a real mirror while looking at their reflection in it, they were probably doing some serious damage. The Romans believed that the human body was physically rejuvenated every seven years, so that’s how long they figured it would take to get over this serious soul crushing. 

Beware of Umbrellas Indoors
When I was younger, my grandma would always urge my sister and me to keep our umbrellas outside. Problem was, we liked our polka-dot umbrellas and kept bringing them into the house. I thought her claim that umbrellas indoors would bring us bad luck was nothing more than a scare tactic, but this one goes back further than my grams. Though some skeptics are still debating its origins, many people attribute this superstition to Akhenaten. In a course on ancient Egypt that I took as a college undergrad, we learned about this scandalous pharaoh, who attempted to change his kingdom’s polytheistic religion to a sun god-worshipping one. He built a ton of temples with no roofs, so subjects could feel the sun’s rays as they worshipped. People who opened umbrellas to protect themselves from those hot rays (we’re talking Egypt here) were denying the sun god’s blessing and were obviously blasphemous. 

Walking Under a Ladder
Yet another superstition we can thank those Egyptians for. In the ornate and complex tombs they built for the dead (the rich ones, at least), the Egyptians would always leave a ladder for the deceased to climb out on as they began their journey to the afterlife. This led to the idea that ladders were gathering places for the dead trying to move on to the next realm, and that walking under them meant getting in their way and incurring their anger. 

Obviously, most of our superstitions reflect a fear of the unknown in some way and give us a feeling of control in otherwise chaotic circumstances, however illogical these superstitions may actually be. Tracing their origins does give them less credence, but we’re clearly still a pretty trusting group. Eighty percent of high-rises don’t have a thirteenth floor, most airports lack a Gate 13, and some countries don’t even include the “unlucky” number in their lottery. As for me, I like to think of myself as a realist, but you still won’t ever find me on a plane on Friday the thirteenth.

 

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