Sweet and Spooky Superstition Origins


Whether you’re the logical type who only knocks on wood at front doors, or wary individual who wouldn’t dream of scheduling a job interview on Friday the 13th, Halloween is a time when superstitions take center stage. No matter where you are on the superstitious-versus-skeptical spectrum, these beliefs can teach us a lot about history and culture. So here’s a little Halloween history lesson on the origins of six of the most-common superstitions.

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Fear of Friday the 13th

Fridays make most of us go “Woo hoo!” since it’s the end of the school or work week. But, for those who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia, Fridays are something to fear when they happen on the 13th day of the month.

Friday has long been considered bad luck because it is the day of the week Jesus died. In Britain and ancient Rome, Friday was also known as Hangman’s Day because it was usually when prisoners sentenced to death were hanged. Fear of the number 13, or triskaidekaphobia, can likewise be associated with Christianity because Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest at the Last Supper. Numerologists also say 13 gets a bad rap because it falls directly after 12, which is considered a complete number—there are 12 months in a year, 12 signs in the zodiac, 12 numerals on a clock, etcetera. So the number 13 is beyond complete, which is freaky, especially when it falls on a Friday.

It’s Bad Luck to Walk Under a Ladder

How can something so average be so intimidating? It’s scary enough to make most of us walk around—and not under—a ladder without even realizing it. Well, it all started in Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, the triangle—the shape formed by a ladder leaning against a wall—was considered sacred because it represented the trinity of the gods. So traipsing  through the triangle was blasphemous. Later, Christians adopted the superstition, applying it to the Holy Trinity. And because there was a ladder propped against Jesus’ cross, they equated a leaning ladder with betrayal and death.

Walking under a ladder is also thought to be bad luck because it resembles a gallows. In fact, criminals sentenced to death in 17th century England were forced to walk under a ladder on their way to the hangman. Finally, there are perfectly practical reasons for not strolling under a ladder, which could hold a handyman and heavy tools or wet brushes and buckets of paint.

A Black Cat Crossing Your Path Brings Bad Luck

This superstition seems to also have roots in ancient Egyptian culture, where people revered cats of every color and actually thought a black cat crossing your path was a harbinger of good luck to come. But black felines fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, when many thought the animals served as “familiars” of witches or were witches in cats’ clothing—certainly not something you’d want to cross. Puritans brought the belief to America, where black cats and witches are still seen as partners in Halloween decorations and Hollywood productions.

Knocking on Wood Helps Ward Off Bad Luck

“I haven’t failed a test this semester, knock on wood.”

“Yes! I found the perfect study spot no one else knows about yet, knock on wood.”

These days, we knock on wood after talking about some fortunate event or circumstance to keep their good luck going. The origins of this practice date back to a time when trees were worshipped or mythologized in many cultures. For instance, pagans in Europe practiced noisy rituals in the forest to chase evil spirits away and to keep those spirits from catching wind of good luck and turning it sour. Other tree worshippers laid their hands on a tree when asking for a favor from the gods that lived inside it or to give thanks for a run of good fortune. Over time, these superstitions have evolved into knocking on any wooden surface to keep bad luck at bay.

Finding a Four-Leaf Clover Is Good Luck

The common clover has long been seen as a sign of good things to come, with the Celts viewing it as a symbol of spring and rebirth. Later, Saint Patrick used it as a visual to explain the balance between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while converting people to Christianity across Ireland.

But the more rare four-leaf clover has an equally storied history. Druids, who were the educated class among ancient Celts, believed carrying one allowed them to spot demons and ward off evil spirits. Some even believe that Eve carried a four-leaf clover from the Garden of Eden when she left. So people who find a four-leaf clover today are carrying a little piece of paradise in their pockets.   

Breaking a Mirror Brings Seven Years of Bad Luck

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, are you bad luck after all?”

Sure, sharp shards of glass are dangerous, but why do some people believe breaking a mirror will bring bad luck long after the glass is swept away? The origin of the superstition dates back to the days when people thought mirrors provided a reflection of not just physical features, but your soul. So if you broke a mirror, you’d also do damage to yourself. Though seven is considered a significant and often lucky number in many cultures, it’s bad luck in this case because the Romans believed a person’s health ran in seven-year cycles. Therefore, it would take that long for your soul to repair itself and help you shed your shattered luck.

So if you plan to attend a Halloween party this year, be careful not to break any mirrors while donning your costume. If you do, maybe you should keep an eye out for four-leaf clovers to help turn your luck around.

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