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Superstitions: Where Do They Come From?

Updated: Jan 20

Dear FCI,


With it being Friday the 13th, it occurred to me: why do we “fear” Friday the 13th? The number 13 is considered unlucky to the point where buildings don’t have a labeled 13th floor, but why do we associate this number with misfortune?


Why do we cross our fingers when we want something to come true? Why do we wish upon a star? There’s no scientific proof claiming a star shooting across the night sky can grant a wish, yet some of us believe it. This is the very definition of a superstition, and people have similar superstitions all over the world. Some superstitions have even become cultural norms and are surely something to look in to when you’re traveling.


I’d like to share with you all some superstitions I have come across while traveling—I’ve done the background research on them too. Why do we have these superstitions and where do they come from? Well, read on… if you dare.


 

Lucky Pennies

Finding a penny heads up on the ground is said to grant you a day of good luck. This notion dates to the ancient Romans, who regarded metals as having great value. They believed metal was sent to them by the Gods to protect those whom the Gods favored. Pennies, being made of metal, were said to grant the finder protection and good fortune.


Finding a lucky penny on the ground.

However, on the flip side, finding a penny tails side up is thought to cause ill fortune and one should turn over the penny so the next finder can reap its benefits.


 




Step on a Crack, Break your Mother’s Back


Cracks in the sidewalk may invite unwanted spirits.

This superstition originates from African and European folklore. It was believed that cracks in the earth, whether it be sidewalks, cracks in asphalt or anywhere on the ground for that matter, were portals to the supernatural realm. Humans stepping on cracks may invite or release unwelcome spirits into the human world and do one, or one’s family member, harm.


While stepping on a crack will not actually break your mother’s back, it’s renowned enough advice to stay away from those earthly fissures.




Knock on Wood


You may bring up a worst-case scenario in conversation, but to ensure it doesn’t happen to you or the person you said it to, you knock on the surface closest to you and say, “Knock on wood!” However, there is debate over where this peculiar cautionary action started.


Knocking on wood bring good luck.

Some say it started with the Celts, who believed spirits resided in trees and could be called upon for protection or chased away by knocking on their home. In the Medieval period, Christian churches claimed to have pieces of Jesus’s cross and church officials said that knocking on the wood would bring good luck.


While Americans may knock on wood, or surfaces in general, Italians knock on steel and Russians and Poles touch unpainted wood instead of knocking. Regardless of surface or hand gesture, the meaning is still the same.



Friday the 13th


For most Americans, Friday the 13th is regarded as the unluckiest day. The number 13 in general is regarded as unlucky and has been as such for hundreds of years. There is much folklore regarding the superstition of Friday the 13th, and its exact origin isn’t clear but there are some theories. In Christianity, 13 is seen as unlucky due to the Great Betrayer, Judas Iscariot, who was the 13th member of the dinner party before Christ’s crucifixion. It is believed that having 13 guests was said to be a bad omen, and that it was courting death.


Friday the 13th is regarded as the unluckiest day for most Americans.

In addition, in ancient times, 12 was considered a perfect number: 12 months in a year, 12-hour half days, etc. Some believed that since 12 was so perfect, the following number, 13, was sure to be lacking and unusual. In addition, in October, on Friday the 13th of 1307, King Philip the IV of France arrested and put hundreds of Template Knights to death.


Friday the 13th signifies bad luck in Western culture, enough so that iconic horror films were created regarding the concept. Unlucky? Maybe. Unsettling to think about? I think so.



Crossing your Fingers


When you wish for something to come true, you may cross your fingers—we even have an emoji for it. But why do we do instinctively do this? This gesture dates to pagan times in Western Europe. Two people would make a cross together, each person using their index finger representing one portion of the cross. They believed this would concentrate the forces of good spirits and seal a pact or wish of those creating the cross.


Does crossing your fingers really make wishes come true?

Over time people realized they could simply create the same signal with their own fingers; at first using both index fingers on opposite hands and eventually using two fingers on one hand, the middle crossing over the index.



Broken Mirrors


Broken mirrors resemble breaks in people's health or souls.

Breaking a mirror or having a mirror break in front of you is not a good sign. The Ancient Romans believed that mirrors contained fragments of our souls.


Therefore, a break in a mirror meant someone’s health was in jeopardy and death was lurking close behind. The bad luck and/or bad health was believed to last 7 years, as that’s how long the Romans believed it took for a full life cycle of sickness and renewal.


 




Throwing Salt over your Shoulder


Spilled salt should be thrown behind your left shoulder to ward off misfortune.

This superstition can get a little messy, but you may want to follow it when you understand how it started. Some say that since salt was regarded so highly in ancient times, the act of spilling it required an act of penance (throwing it over your shoulder).


Early Christians and Europeans believed that spilling salt would cause bad fortune. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, Jesus’s betrayer is portrayed as having accidentally spilled salt.


The Betrayer is portrayed as spilling salt, as that action is a bad omen.

The Betrayer is associated with evil acts, and da Vinci added this element as spilled salt was a bad omen that was thought to bring the devil. The only way to protect yourself after spilling salt was to toss it behind your left shoulder, as that’s where the Devil was thought to be standing. The salt would blind the Devil and reverse the misfortune.


I guess the overall lesson for this one is don’t spill the salt.



Wishing Upon a Star


Shooting stars are signs that the Gods are actually listening to us.

Shooting stars are quite the sight and often when we see one, we make a wish. This all started with a Roman astronomer named Ptolemy who theorized that the presence of shooting stars meant the Gods were peering down from the sky and were open to granting our wishes.


It was believed that the Gods had to open a rift between the physical realm of earth and sky and the supernatural or divine world to watch over humanity. Shooting stars slipped through that divide in the process, so if one was seen in the night sky, the Gods were watching.


 


As you can see, the origins of superstitions vary, but they are incredibly interesting! The small mannerisms, beliefs and actions we perform have been retained for hundreds of years and some have been adapted from culture to culture over time. Superstitions are little quirks that humans hold by and to me, it’s part of what makes being in the world special.


Well, that’s it for now







Are you superstitious? What superstitions do you believe in?


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