March 13th lands on a Friday, just like last month. This piqued my interest and I decided to look into common superstitions and what their origins are.
My mother was a Pennsylvania coal miner’s daughter and she had so many sayings and superstitions. I don’t think she truly believed in bad luck or good luck, but she told the superstitions much like parents and grandparents pass on adages and folklore. On a whim a few years ago, I wrote a short story based on Mom’s folklore. I called it “I Itch” because it seems that my mother had a superstition for about every part of the body that itched. (Well, I take that back–there are a few places that itch that I won’t mention and that she had no saying for.)
A few of the itchy places and their reasons for doing so include:
- Nose–you will kiss a fool
- Ears–someone is talking about you
- Right hand–you will meet a new friend
- Left hand–you will receive money
- Feet-you will travel
My little story included all of these and at the end, I said, “And if you itch all over, you need a bath.”
While looking up superstitions, I found some of Mom’s itchy ones so they seem to be well-known. I wondered about Friday the 13th. Why that date?
Turns out, long before Jason and the slasher movies, Friday the 13th was considered unlucky. It is tied to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since tradition holds that Jesus and the apostles gathered for the Seder meal the evening before the crucifixion, the Passion of Christ occurred on a Friday since the meal would have taken place on a Thursday. There were 13 people present at the Seder meal, 12 apostles (until Judas left) plus Jesus. Therefore, Friday the 13th was considered unlucky. Mention of Friday the 13th being unlucky first appears in the written work in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
What about other common superstitions? Last month, I took a couple hundred pennies to work and put up a sign that read, “Lucky Pennies–Help yourself. Happy Friday the Thirteenth!” I decided to look up the reason why picking up a penny would be considered lucky. Here’s what I found:
“Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” This superstition probably goes back to ancient times when it was believed that finding metal was a gift from the gods.
The black cat was revered until the Middle Ages when black cats became associated with witches. Some believed witches could turn themselves into black cats. Having a cat cross your path and bad luck may have started in the 1500’s when people saw a cat cross the path of a woman and she was limping the next day.
Walking under a Ladder
There are several possible explanations for this:
- In medieval times, when people were going to their death at the gallows, it was believed that if you walked under the hangman’s noose, you would die.
- The ancient Egyptians revered the pyramids and if a ladder was against the wall, it resembled the shape of a pyramid. Walking under it “broke” the good “vibes.”
- After Christianity took hold in Europe, the ladder reminded people of the Trinity and to walk under it was considered blasphemous.
- Obvious, it is unwise to walk under a ladder since it could be dangerous. No one ever mentions the guy ON the ladder. Seems it could be really bad for him if someone jostled the ladder as they walked under it!
Breaking a Mirror Brings 7 Years Bad Luck
This superstition can be traced back to the Romans, who were the first to create glass mirrors. If the user broke the mirror, it meant that his or her soul would be trapped inside the glass. The Romans also believed that a person’s physical body renewed itself every seven years, so in seven years the soul would be fully restored to the body.
Lucky rabbit’s foot (Not for the rabbit!)
The belief of the lucky rabbit’s foot has probably existed in Europe since 600 BC amongst the Celts. The “donor rabbit” possessed certain attributes, had to be killed in a particular place and in a special manner. Rabbits were considered “shape changers,” with the ability to change into other animals or people. Carrying one around protected the person.
Opening an umbrella inside
In ancient Egypt, royalty had umbrellas to protect them from sunlight. The Sun God was a very powerful god. They felt it would offend the Sun God if they opened the umbrella indoors where the rays of the Sun God couldn’t reach them.
Step on a crack
Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Most of us know the old rhyme. Whether the rhyme is the cause of or a result of this superstition is uncertain. Of course, avoiding uneven sidewalk and cracks is probably a good policy if one wants to avoid tripping.
A widespread explanation of the belief that it is unlucky to spill salt is that Judas spilled the salt at the Last Supper. “The Last Supper” by Davinci shows the salt knocked over by Judas.
Salt was a valuable commodity in ancient times. A friend would not spill your salt since it was a symbol of friendship and trust.
Salt is also a religious symbol. Jesus referred to the “salt of the earth”.
The most common belief or “ritual” these days requires you to toss a pinch of the spilled salt over your left shoulder, into the face of the Devil who lurks there.
“Blow out the candles and make a wish”
Birthday candles have been around since ancient Greece who put candles on round candle to honor the moon goddess, Artemus. The cake represented the moon and the candles, moonlight. People came to believe that the smoke from the candles carried their wishes and prayers to the gods and also warded off evil spirits. Eventually, making a wish and then blowing out all of the candles meant your wish would come true.
What other superstitions can you think of? Whatever they are, they are simply that—superstitions!
Good luck to you all! Enjoy your Friday!
Now where did I put my lucky four-leaf clover?