Picture Credit: “Happy Halloween (if a black cat lays under a ladder, does that negate all bad luck?)” by LouevilBelle is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation” or “an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.”
The British Museum website introduces (at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/membership/events/ancient-origins-modern-superstition) the subject of superstitions, asking: Do you touch wood for luck or avoid hotel rooms on floor thirteen? Would you cross the path of a black cat or step under a ladder? Is breaking a mirror just an expensive waste of glass or something rather more sinister?
Despite the dominance of science in today’s world, superstitious beliefs – both traditional and new – remain intact and surprisingly popular. The concept of superstition has existed for millennia, and some of today’s most popular superstitions had their beginnings in ancient Babylonia.
An explanation for why we cross our fingers stems from a pagan belief that spirits could be found at ‘crossings’, the idea being that by simulating a crossing with one’s fingers, a good spirit could be invoked to help make a wish come true.
Boudicca (or Boudica), queen of the Iceni people of Eastern England, led a major uprising against occupying Roman forces. She was said to have released rabbits onto the battlefield before a battle started so she could predict whether or not she’d be victorious. The relevance of a rabbit’s foot bringing good luck is not known. Like most superstitions, it’s a case of being aware of what people said and going along with it just in case it were true.
One horseshoe-related superstition says that if you sleep with a horseshoe under your pillow on New Year’s Eve, you’ll have good luck throughout the forthcoming year, or that if you dream of a horseshoe, it means that good luck is on the way.
Whatever you believe, here is a list of some common superstitions:
- If you have an itchy palm, good luck is coming
- If you find a penny, pick it up (for good luck)
- It’s unlucky to walk under a ladder
- A black cat crossing before you can be a sign of bad luck (most of Europe considers the black cat a symbol of bad luck, particularly if one walks across the path in front of a person, which is believed to be an omen of misfortune and death) but in Britain, Ireland and Germany it is lucky to see a black cat – as long as it crosses your path from left to right
- A rabbit’s foot will bring you good luck
- Finding a horseshoe means good luck
- Bad luck comes in threes
- Don’t break a mirror or you’ll have 7 years of bad luck
- Cross your fingers for good luck
- The number 666 equals the mark of Satan – avoid it all costs
- Knock on wood for good luck, three knocks gets rid of bad luck
- Make a wish on a wishbone
- It’s unlucky to put up an umbrella inside the house
- Friday the 13th is an unlucky day
- Tossing spilled salt over your shoulder brings good luck
- Seeing magpies can be good or bad, depending on how many you see (according to the rhyme): “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold and seven for a secret never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a bird that’s best to miss.
- Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (OUP, 1997) by Stuart A Vyse: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Believing-Magic-Superstition-Stuart-Vyse/dp/0195136349
- Superstition: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2020) by Stuart Vyse: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Superstition-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions/dp/0198819250/
- 55 of the Strangest Superstitions From Around the World: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/g4489/strangest-superstitions/
- 13 Common and Silly Superstitions: https://www.livescience.com/14141-13-common-silly-superstitions.html