Monday, August 18, 2008

Historical Origin of 7 Superstitions

Drawing of black cat with yellow eyes

We often hold onto superstitions in a blind and rather stubborn fashion despite evident knowledge of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. We label superstition as child play and fancy, yet secretly cross fingers or knock on wood.

It’s not easy to dismiss something that has been practiced for several centuries. Superstitious beliefs did not just pop up overnight but have gradually evolved and been transmitted from generation to generation. They make up a large part of our culture and are resistant to the many onslaughts of reason.

Probably most of us engage in superstitious acts once in a while. When someone praises me, for example, I cannot help but look for a piece of wood to knock on. When a mirror breaks in our house, I am filled with worry and count down the next seven years of bad luck coming my way.

But how did these superstitious beliefs evolve; what was their starting point? And why are certain random seeming acts considered an omen of bad luck? Here is a list of seven popular beliefs and their historical origin:

1) Walking under a ladder brings bad luck. The reason is simple; the ladder and the wall come to represent a triangle and, as such, it becomes a symbol of God, the Holy Spirit and the Son. Entering that triangle demonstrates disrespect towards holiness and leads to bad luck.

2) The previously mentioned knocking on wood comes from pagan beliefs of good spirits living in the woods. They can be found in trees and all wooden material. By knocking on a wooden surface they are supposedly released and can come and protect you from envy and harm.

3) Spilling salt is a sign of misfortune because of the history of salt. It used to be a highly sought-after and very expensive commodity. It was also used for medicinal purposes. So wasting it would have been a capital offense. Let alone that people at one point used to get paid in salt and hence the word sal-ary.

4) Why is Friday the 13th a day of misfortune? Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and he was surrounded by 12 disciples with one of them out to betray him. Noah's flood supposedly started on a Friday; Adam and Eve were apparently expelled on one such day. Also whenever 12 witches get together, their 13th member is the devil himself. And then there's good old Jason ...

5) You should not open umbrellas inside the house. Umbrellas were used not only to protect against rain and sun rays, but also to ward off evil spirits outside. Opening them inside was a sign of disrespect.

6) Black cats are a sign of bad luck. This belief also has Christian origins. The Egyptian goddess Bast's symbol was a female black cat. Christian priests who wanted to wipe out her influence once and for all, claimed that black cats cut you off from God and block the entrance to heaven. Also during the witch hunt, black cats were believed to be personifications of other more experienced witches.

7) And finally, breaking a mirror brings you seven years of bad luck. This goes back to the Romans who thought that the reflection of the self also contained the soul. When mirrors broke, a part of the self was thought to be harmed. The good news was that Romans believed that you can recover from your "broken self," but you would have to be patient: For them life renewed itself every seven years.

So believe and follow them or dismiss them as folly, but superstitions have been deeply embedded in our cultural and religious psyche and heritage. In other words, they are not that easy to get rid off. And we can be on the safe side and give them some type of nod or acknowledgement. After all, there may be a kernel of truth in them or else superstitious beliefs would not have survived so long.

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