Popular Superstitions and Their Origins

September 9, 2013

black cat

It is only natural for people to fear what they don’t understand and because of the many fears of our ancient ancestors we have acquired their superstitions and the rituals they practiced as protection against those unknown fears.

By my nature, being a disgustingly analytic and logical person, once I clear away the fog of mystery and accept the proof of something then that is it, because you see for me my greatest fear is ignorance.

Of course most of the superstitions from our ancient past have long since been dismissed as unnecessary or just plain ridiculous. However, what I find truly amazing is the fact that in spite of overwhelming proof many superstitions are still religiously practiced today by people who appear to be both sane and intelligent. Which brings me to my own theory as to why this maybe so.

I have long been of the opinion that the two greatest tools of organised religion has always been ‘Ignorance and Fear’ and therefore what better way to exploit people than instead of helping them to conquer and understand those fears you do the complete opposite and use them to exploit.

Here follows a small list of some superstitions and where they got started.

Friday the 13th I can think of many reasons as to why poor old Friday got its bad reputation. For instance did you know that in Roman times Friday was execution day? Possibly one of the reasons why the story of Christ’s crucifixion is said to have happened on a Friday,(just not at Easter, but that’s another story).
However it does lead me neatly into how the early Christian leaders zeroed in on Friday and made it into the villain of our calendar. Although I suspect their reasons have a more to do with our pagan ancestors and the fact that many Pagan Gods and Goddesses were worshipped on a Friday.

But, just in case the faithful didn’t quite get the message our religious leaders continued to blacken Friday’s reputation with a few more apocryphal facts such as it was on a Friday that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit and so they were ejected from Paradise. Noah’s flood supposedly began on a Friday; the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday; so and so forth.

For the diehards who were still not convinced Friday was branded as the Witches Sabbath and of course now for the coupe de gras let’s bring in the number 13 and if that doesn’t keep the faithful honest nothing will. This we can most definitely lay at the feet of those early Christian. They claim there were thirteen people at The Last Supper. Judas, the betrayer of Christ, was the thirteenth guest. It is also the Christians who claimed that there were thirteen in a coven, twelve witches and one devil. (There were no witches before the Christians came along) and so the combination of the two, Friday and the 13th, was deemed as the unluckiest day on the calendar.

God Bless You Part historical part medical this one but both have their roots firmly planted in the religious soil. Originally our ancestors believed that a sneeze expelled evil spirits from the body but as you can imagine the Christians soon put a stop to such silly notions. There more scary idea was that your very soul could escape your body though a sneeze but if someone said “God Bless You,” immediately your soul was recovered. What happened if you were alone when you sneezed or there was an absence of a kindly person to bless you is not explained. ( not uncommon when dealing with superstitions).
Later in the sixth century when plague took a serious hold in Europe, sneezing violently was a warning that the unfortunate person might well have caught the plague. The Pope at the time passed a law requiring the faithful to bless the poor person sneezing with the words “God Bless You” presumably leaving out the part “You is Gonna Die,” as they legged it in the opposite direction.

Black Cats Like poor old Friday get a bad press again because of those pesky early Christians spreading nasty rumours about Witches and their familiars. All witches had three things a broom a cauldron and a cat, in themselves fairly innocent tools of any household in olden times; unless of course you also happened to be female, elderly, probably a spinster and had a wart on your nose. If your cat happened to be black you really were top of the church’s ‘shit list’ when a scapegoat was required, nothing like a good old fashioned burning to keep the local female populace humble and in check.

Back then black cats were believed to be the companions of witches and after 7 years, the cats would turn into witches themselves. So, needless to say no one wanted to cross paths with a future witch. Again, I can’t believe anyone really took it too seriously because why are black cats still around ? Surely if you don’t want a dearth of witches around you kill the stupid cat before it reaches its seventh birthday.

Spilling Salt Legend has it that Judas spilt salt during the last supper, although this can’t be proven. I’ve looked at that painting for ages and I can’t see any supporting evidence for this allegation. Seems to me if your name’s Judas ….!

Of course way back then salt was very precious and an expensive luxury so to spill it was considered a bit naughty. However by the time the religious nut jobs got their hands on the issue we have the devil sitting on your left shoulder so when you spill salt, you have to throw it over your left shoulder and into the devil’s eyes to ward off evil. Proof positive for me that there really is no devil, trust me, throw salt in my eyes, and if I have a three pronged fork to hand guess where it will end up?

Breaking a Mirror This hoary old chestnut is another one that won’t go away, even today if someone breaks a mirror their first thought is that they have just earned themselves seven years bad luck. My own father on his Twenty-Eighth wedding anniversary managed to get into his after dinner speech that he couldn’t remember breaking four mirrors.

In ancient times it was believed that our reflection represented our other worldly self, (soul to the religious) this is why so many pagan beliefs and rituals take place in or close to water If your reflection was disturbed by wind or a ripple in the water this was a very bad omen and so to break a mirror it is harmful to your soul.

Knock on Wood or ‘Touch Wood’ I doubt many people know why they do it, but I can all but guarantee if someone is overheard in conversation to be boastful or overly optimistic about something yet to happen it will be followed by the phrase “Touch Wood.” Alternatively “Knock on Wood” which the person saying it must knock twice on wood. (More difficult today in our plastic world, but I guess there is always our own heads)! After all no one want to invite bad luck or to jinx the event do they?

Way back in Pagan times our ancestors believed trees were the homes of the gods. So if you needed a bit of help or some good luck, they headed off to the nearest wood and made a wish to a tree. To complete the ritual they would touch or knock on the bark, this represented the first “knock.” The second “knock” was to say “thank you.”

Walking Under a Ladder to me not doing this is just plain common sense, for all sorts of reasons, such as the ladder could fall while you are under it. Or something heavy may descend from on high. However the origins of the superstition are much older than that. Firstly you have to stand back and look at the shape the leaning ladder represents.

If you see a Triangle you are half way there a triangle was one of those mystical shapes considered a symbol of life. This may possibly be based upon the shape of the female pubic area as a representation of Mother Earth giving birth. To walk through any triangular shape, was therefore considered to be tempting fate.

Lucky Rabbit’s Foot This is one is a ‘No Brainer’ and one of mankind’s oldest superstitions dating back before history itself. Here we need look no further than the Pagan festivals of Spring, to Ester, Goddess of Spring whose symbols of fertility are the Egg and the Rabbit. Ever wonder about the origins of Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny ? Look no further, nothing to do with Christianity, religion or anyone getting nailed to anything. Easter is, was a celebration of the coming of Spring and re-growth, OK there was a lot of fertility going on as well, probably why the religious church leaders high jacked it an turned it into something completely different. However old habits die hard and so carrying a rabbit’s foot and touching it every so often was thought to provide good luck, good crops, lots children, and prosperity, although not for the rabbit.

Opening an Umbrella Inside This superstition is slightly more modern and probably comes from the notion that an umbrella could be considered as protection from life’s storms. Therefore if you were to open one indoors your local protecting spirits might think you felt their protection was no longer good enough and they would abandon you and your house would become.

Leaving a hat on a Bed. Not sure how hold this one is but I suspect it has a lot to do with beds looking like coffins or being the last resting place of many. In the military there is a custom of bearing the dead back carried upon a shield with the soldier’s head covering lying on their chest. In modern times we often see the coffins of the fallen adorned with the hat on top of the coffin as it carried.

That’s it for now these are but a few of the more common superstitions many dating from ancient rituals taking over by the early religions for their own ends and still practiced by many people to this day.

Personally I don’t believe in any of them however common sense dictates that I do not walk under any ladders and the only black cats that scare me are Panther size.

Hands up all those who have worked out that this coming Friday is the 13th?


12 Responses to “Popular Superstitions and Their Origins”

  1. Jim Sellers Says:

    I know there is something natural and Pavlovian about superstitions when I watch my dog respond a certain way when I do or say something. He assumes he is a) in trouble and cowers or b) about to get a treat and sits with the cute head turn thing. I have my own superstitions such as I hate talking about something that is going to happen until it does. That is based on reality as I have had projects or things cancelled or taken away at the last minute several times.
    That doesn’t change the fact that I would get pissed at my ex-girlfriend for leaving knives on the floor that she dropped or doing some weird hand thing when she passed a hearse.
    As for the religious stuff, Merlin you know that’s how they work.It is easier to build on the existing beliefs than to change them.

    • merlinfraser Says:

      In addition to my previous comment I am no animal expert but as a pet owner I know dogs can and do react to us in ways we might interpret as almost supernatural.
      Of course I also believe that they are superior to us in many ways including their interpretation of our invisible body language even our moods. We as animals give off invisible messages all the time, locked into our own world often shrouded by our electronic toys we as a species have lost most of the instinctive senses our fellow creatures rely upon for survival.

  2. P.a. Shannon Says:

    As Always Merlin, you hit the nail on the head. It just goes to show, most people do not do their research. Being an overly curious person, I find it hard NOT to learn about what life gives us. I knew about all of the superstitions,( except the origin of the knock on wood thing), and that’s basically why I’m not superstitious, I can’t condemn those who are however, unless it goes too far. More than anything, I think most people, in their innocent ignorance just have fun with it,

    Like I said, researching and learning is the best tool.


    • merlinfraser Says:

      Hi Pat, I don’t condemn either I just try to spread the word in the hope that people will learn and understand, then go forth and make up their own minds instead of blindly following those who spread false religions. I am sure many people just say things out of habit rather than belief, but I have heard there are many who will not go to work this coming Friday, make serious decisions or travel, now that level of fear frightens me.

  3. merlinfraser Says:

    Thanks for stopping by Jim, I know exactly how organised religion works what I don’t understand is why so many people still put up with it surely it’s not rocket science that it is a con ?

  4. Great insights into superstitions Merlin. It amazes me how so many people still hark back to them, there’s even a list of catastrophes for dropped cutlery and such. There are Gypsies on both sides of my family and my parents would always burn hair from haircuts and toenail clippings. Strange but true.

  5. Raani York Says:

    I just LOVE this post, Merlin. I’m sorry I haven’t read it earlier… apparently there was some trouble with WP notifications for 2 weeks – and I was so busy I couldn’t go and visit every single blog. But I’m happy I read this!!
    Thanks for sharing!
    I shared your post too – all over the place. 🙂

  6. Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment, I first came across people’s belief in superstitions when researching prehistory for our Pagan past, yes it really is that old and has its origin in the fear of the unknown.

    Many come from the mistaken belief of reprisals from bad tempered Gods that may have been angered by a certain action.

    I believe it is this fear that other humans exploited when they invented religion, after all what is religion other than the fear of annoying one big God and ending up in hell.

    If that does not define superstition I don’t know what does.

  7. Hey There Raani, no need to apologise I know you are a busy lady and I appreciate you stopping by whenever you have a spare moment.

    Thanks too for helping spreading the word, you have no idea how fed up I am answering the question ” Who the Hell is Merlin Fraser !”

  8. ” Surely if you don’t want a dearth of witches around you kill the stupid cat before it reaches its seventh birthday.” – Merlin I am surprised you didn’t realise that by committing an act of murder on a black cat you would in fact be creating a spiritual being who would then have no choice but to haunt you until the day you join it. Have a little mercy! – at least on yourself.
    I totally enjoyed this post btw. Thanks.

  9. merlinfraser Says:

    Hi Lesley,
    Long time no chat…

    How could you think that I have anything but kindly thoughts for cats, black or otherwise, even although they are mostly egotistical ungrateful little fur balls….

    Without the cats who live next door and treat my place like their outside toilet my poor dogs would die of boredom !

  10. Hɑrd time atttempting tto subscrіbe – Is ɑny person else
    having trߋuble? Excxellent read though!

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