This week marks the arrival of the first Friday the 13th of 2015. For many of us, even the mention of this "unlucky day" brings a quiver of anxiety. We say it's hoo-hah, but a little voice in us whispers, "what if?..."
Superstitions retain surprising power today. Next time you're in a hotel, gaze at the elevator buttons: Chances are you'll find no 13th floor. Some surgeons won't operate on days they associate with bad luck. And weddings? From carrying the bride over the threshold to donning a bridesmaid's dress, nearly every nuptial rite is rooted in age-old superstition.
Superstitions are more than persistent irrationality. They connect us to our ancient ancestors and traditions. Here are history's 13 most enduring superstitions. Their origins may surprise you.
1. Breaking a Mirror
The ancient Romans believed that human life renewed itself in 7-year cycles (mirroring the cycles of the moon). Because a reflection was considered someone's "magical likeness" - or soul - it followed that if the reflected image got shattered, so did the next 7 years of a person's health. Mirrors inspire a wide range of superstitions. Victorian parents feared exposing infants to mirrors, believing that a mirror could trap their reflection and stunt their growth. Or, worse still, kill them by imprisoning their innocent souls. Even today, traditional Jewish families cover mirrors after the death of a loved one so as not to risk the departed soul wandering into the reflection, and getting lost on its way to eternity.
2. Knock on Wood
Knocking on wood for good luck is one of history's most enduring superstitions. It comes from thousands of years of mythology, folklore, and religious belief that trees were sacred. Ancient people, from Chaldea to Sumatra to the British Isles, believed that trees housed gods and nature spirits, who controlled the seasons. People would seek favors by lay hands on the trunk of a sacred tree. Yet many cultures also believed that evil spirits lurked in wood - and when "knocked on" a malevolent spirit or mischievous fairy could be shaken out like a bug on a blanket. Another source of wood as a symbol of spiritual power comes from the Cross of Jesus. Many Christians today will rub a wooden cross to offer penance or seek protection.
3. Walking Under a Ladder
Everyone knows that walking under a ladder is supposed to bring bad luck. The Ancient Egyptians believed that a ladder perched against a wall created a sacred triangle - and to walk beneath it disrupted its spiritual energies. Early Christians avoided the underside of ladders due to depictions of a ladder propped against the Holy Cross; some believed the devil lurked at the bottom. In ancient Asian societies, prisoners were hanged from the top steps of a ladder - and onlookers were forbidden to pass beneath for fear of encountering the victim's ghost. In France, convicts were forced to walk beneath the ladder leading to the gallows - the doomed man's final unlucky act.
4. Spilling Salt
For thousands of years, salt has been an object of magic and superstition. In the ancient world salt was a preservative, for food and for mummification, giving it a connection to immortality. In the European Middle Ages, village dwellers left a line of salt outside their doors believing that witches would be compelled to count every grain before entering. Of course, the ultimate bad luck is to spill your salt. Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper shows Judas knocking over the salt - a harbinger of his betrayal. To uncross yourself from spilling the salt you must toss a pinch over your left shoulder, blinding the demon waiting behind you.
It's rare to encounter someone who won't follow up a sneeze with a quick God-Bless-You! This practice, or something similar, is found around the world, from African Zulus to Florida Seminoles. The Romans used to say: "Jupiter Preserve You!" In early Christianity, people would follow their sneeze with the sign of the cross. But what could be so dire about a simple sneeze that it requires a holy blessing? Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans believed that the soul lived in the form of our breath. And a sneeze could expel the soul from the body. Throughout the plague years in Europe sneezing was a grave omen, hence the expression "nothing to sneeze all" when referring to a serious matter. All this wariness around sneezing foresaw what modern medicine would eventually prove: that the innocent sneeze spreads communicable diseases.
6. Opening an Umbrella Indoors
Dozens of superstitions surround the ordinary umbrella - both indoors and out. As with many modern conveniences, the umbrella was once a rare luxury owned by royalty, from Persia to Ancient China. They didn't use it to block the rain but as protection from the sun's rays - which some believed contained invasive spirits. Many people still shudder at opening an umbrella indoors - some believe that "bad juju" is expelled when an umbrella springs open inside a room. But this taboo has a more practical origin. The first rain umbrellas were very large and tightly sprung. To release such a contraption indoors could cause very real bad luck: Think of all the Victorian lamps, vases, and baubles that met a sudden end thanks to the reckless opening of a high-tension umbrella.
The luckiest of all good-luck charms is the horseshoe. The ancient Greeks invented the horseshoe not only to protect the feet of their horses but also to honor them as holy animals. To the Greeks, the horseshoe's design was sacred: the U-shape was associated with the crescent moon, historically seen as a symbol of fertility, new beginnings, and good fortune. The crescent shape held such mystical significance that cultures spanning the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, and Celts incorporated it into architecture, statues, depictions of gods - and began agricultural festivals on the appearance of a new crescent moon. Hanging a horseshoe outside one's home dates to the plague years in Europe, when it was believed to ward off illness. The practice stuck and "golden" horseshoes appear on homes and businesses around the world.
8. Jumping the Broom
Today, the African-American expression "jumping the broom" means getting married - but it comes from an old custom that the newlyweds literally jump over a broom to prove that one of them is not an evil double. In folklore found in both the European Middle Ages and traditional African cultures, vampires and wicked spirits were considered to possess obsessive-compulsive traits. Hence, a malevolent spirit would have to stop to count all the broom's bristles, exposing a sinister entity that attempted to disguise itself as the bride or groom. Even after the wedding, couples must be careful. In the West, the new husband carries his wife over the threshold, which the Romans believed was crawling with evil spirits, which his act of chivalry helps her avoid. And what about that bridesmaid's dress you just spent a bundle on? It too goes back to Roman days, where bridesmaids were supposed to distract evil spirits from the wife-to-be.
9. Rabbit's Foot
The "lucky" rabbit's foot is a must-have for every superstitious gambler or risk taker. Ancient people from the Aztecs to the Chinese ascribed magical properties to the rabbit, seeing it as a symbol of cunning and survival. German and Scottish folklore placed special emphasis on the rabbit's relative, the hare, which was considered capable of placing an "evil eye" on people (probably because it is one of the few animals born with its eyes open). The antidote? Obtaining the animal's hind foot. Carrying a rabbit's foot got popularized in the 19th century through the African-American magical tradition called hoodoo. Many actors, a famously superstitious lot, kept a rabbit's foot in their make up box. Rabbit's feet were once used to apply makeup - but lingered as a performer's good-luck charm.
10. Wrong Side of the Bed
We've all woken up on the "wrong side of the bed." Yet in the world of folklore and superstition, there really is a right and wrong way to get up in the morning. Traditionally, climbing out of bed on the left side has bad consequences. This stems from the Ancient Egyptian belief that "left side" belongs to the forces of death and destruction. Some modern hotel and casino designers even arrange guest rooms with the left side of the bed facing the wall, helping you rise on the side of luck. A European custom requires exiting your bed on the same side as you entered it, or else the cosmic circle of sleep will be disturbed, until the following night when the cycle can resume as normal.
11. Wearing Black While Mourning
The loss of a loved one creates sadness and confusion, which are a devil's playground for superstition. Many ancient cultures, from China to Persia, considered death contagious. People who were around the recently dead were supposed to be avoided. In Rome mourners wore black so others would know to stay away from them. Some believe that you should actually give away your colored clothes while mourning for a quick passage of sorrows. But be sure not to wear your mourning clothes beyond two years - or you risk a new tragedy. Another European custom holds that you should never accept a gift during your loss, or you'll soon find yourself grieving again. And if you wear mourning gloves be sure they are made of cotton - or your whole household could go to the grave.
12. Black Cats
Our love affair with cats began in ancient Egypt. Egyptians considered cats sacred to the gods - and, on a more practical level, as the perfect solution to keeping rats and mice out of grain supplies. Yet our relations to felines took a different turn during the European witch craze. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Europe's population exploded - with cats no exception: The animals were overrunning the continent and were widely seen as pests. In England, elderly or single women - the prime target of witch trials - were seen as caretakers of cats. So the legend arose that felines are the companions, or "familiars," of witches. What about the black cat? Another English tradition holds that Satan was thrown out of heaven into a blackberry bush, giving us malevolent associations with the color black - and the notion that black cats are an embodiment of the devil, a belief that also surrounds black dogs.
13. The Number 13
Was Apollo 13 cursed by its flight number? Should you avoid the 13th floor of a building? Do you need to watch your step on Friday the 13th? Fear of the number 13 is one of humanity's most enduring superstitions. Perhaps the earliest known origin of this superstition comes from ancient India, where it was considered unlucky for 13 people to sit together. In Nordic mythology, the evil Loki is the 13th guest at a banquet of gods - which ends in argument and violence. The most famous origin involves Judas Iscariot, the so-called traitor apostle, who was the 13th man at the Last Supper. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, which got linked to the number 13 for a day of unholy luck. Friday the 13th also marked the mass execution of the medieval Knights Templar. Following tensions with the Vatican, the Christian knights were all but wiped out beginning on Friday, October 13th, 1307. So deep is our fear of 13 that even today many hotels are designed without a 13th floor.
For more on humanity's most enduring superstitions look for the launch of our new web series, ORIGINS: SUPERSTITIONS - premiering (when else?) this Friday the 13th.