Superstitions and their origins

  • Do you believe in superstitions?
  • Are there certain people, places, things or events that are lucky or unlucky?
  • Do you believe in ghosts or spirits from another dimension?
  • What are some superstitions from your culture?

These were a series of introductory questions to a lesson I gave last week based on (yep, you’ve probably guessed it)…superstitions.

In return, I got a whole variety of weird and wonderful responses.

One of my favourites was a New Year tradition here, whereby it is considered lucky to don yellow underwear and run around the house with an empty suitcase. Quite how this creates luck I am still unsure, but the image of yellow underwear -wearing Chileans racing round their houses with empty luggage as the clock strikes 12 is comical nonetheless, and seems a good a way as any to ring in the New Year.

Besides this interesting custom, I also got the ‘normal’ superstitions that are so familiar to us in England.

Black cats, fear of the number 13, no open umbrellas inside, throwing salt behind your left shoulder, tapping wood…

I instantly found it amusing, how seven and a half thousand miles across the world we share so many of the same cultures and traditions.

Of course, we live in a Global world and so the transmission of ideas and the hegemony of material goods is universal. In the 21st Century, it is not surprising that many people have iphones here, a Facebook account or a pair of Nike trainers.

But the universality of superstitions is slightly different. Many people in different continents knocked on wood long  before the digital revolution, threw salt over their shoulder before the industrial revolution, and were afraid to walk under ladders before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.

Why? How do simple gestures such as tapping wood manage to transcend class, religion, language, race, and national identity so pervasively and throughout so many years?

The answers, maybe unsurprisingly can primarily be found in religion and cultural exchanges. Below are the origins of a few of the most well-known superstitions:

Saying ‘Bless you’ after a sneeze

There are a couple explanations behind the origins of this one. The first has existed for thousands of years. It was believed that when you sneeze, your soul temporarily left the body and so it was considered good luck to wish some kind of good health upon the poor soul-less person. Here in Chile ‘salud’, which translates literally as ‘good health’ is uttered after someone sneezes. The modern day ‘bless you’ derives from Christianity. During the Sixth Century when the Plague was rampant, Pope Gregory I would ‘bless’ the sneezer, out of fear that they too were developing the illness. Whether or not this worked is debatable, but the tradition has continued to this day.

Fear of the number 13

Religion also lies behind this superstition, which is also known as triskaidekaphobia. 13 is considered such an unlucky number because Judas was the thirteenth disciple to be seated round the table during the Last Supper, immediately before Christ was arrested and crucified. Consequently, a fear surrounding this number has persisted until today. Some people will refuse to travel on Friday the 13th, and it is a common feature for high rise buildings to skip the thirteenth floor completely. One of my students who lived on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building revealed that the flats there were slightly cheaper. So, in her case the number 13 actually turned out to be pretty lucky.

Salt over the shoulder

Again, the meaning behind this superstition has evolved over time. Traditionally, salt was an expensive commodity, and was thought to have purifying powers by the Ancient Romans with the ability to ward off evil spirits.  This belief was similarly adapted by Christianity, clearly demonstrating the interlinking of different cultures and religions throughout time. A common Christian belief is that the Devil is lurking behind you; therefore, throwing salt over your left shoulder is a sure-fire way to blind and temporarily distract him. Makes a lot of sense when you think of it like that.

‘Touch wood’

‘Thank god the train is on time. Touch wood’. *Knocks on a wood of some kind, or failing that someone’s head*. The origins of wishing for some kind of good fortune, and then knocking wood immediately after derives from the Pagan worship of trees long before the arrival of Christianity or Islam. Many spirits were believed to inhabit trees. In some reports, these spirits were supposed to be evil; therefore, it was common practice to knock wood in order to scare them away and prevent them from hearing and sabotaging the wishes of the individual. Sneaky little buggers. Other theories suggest that the spirits were in fact ‘good’, and knocking wood was a way of enticing them to listen to someone’s wishes, or as a sign of gratitude once they had been granted. Either way, the influence of these spirits (good or bad) has gone much further than belief in them, as knocking wood is still a universal sign of wishing for luck.

Walking under a ladder

This one is also a little different, as it is believed not to have originated from Christianity, but from the Ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, which to the Egyptians symbolized the trinity of the gods. The sanctity of the triangle was also reflected by the shape of the Pyramids. Breaking this triangle by walking under the ladder was a sign of desecration and disrespect to the gods. The significance of the triangle was adopted by Christianity thousands of years later, again showing the continued importance given to the same symbols throughout time. For Christianity, the triangle was a representation of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; similarly breaking this triangle was viewed as sacrilege to a different God. And today, many people may not walk under ladders for practical reasons of safety; but many others will choose to walk around them for unknown but ingrained superstitious beliefs that date back to Ancient Egypt.

Nowadays, it is probably very rare for people to honour these superstitions because of meaningful religious or Pagan convictions. I could be wrong, but I’m sure that most don’t really believe that the Devil is leering over their left shoulder, and therefore feel it necessary to hurl a handful of salt at him. Instead these traditions, which have been performed by people for thousands of years in some cases, have become second nature to most- including those who have never read the Bible or attended a Church service in their life. Yet their universality and unexplained special role they play in the psyche of so many of us regardless of religion or race is quite a nice reminder that really, Chilean or English, Ancient Egyptian or modern- day Texan, we maybe have slightly more in common than we thought.



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