5 Common Superstitions and Their Ancient Origins

5 Common Superstitions and Their Ancient Origins

Superstitions are a weird thing. They are present all over the world and countless people believe in them, but they are not the same worldwide. Surely, if any of them were true, then they would have a universal meaning. But just the opposite happens: something which supposedly brings you good luck in America will bring you bad luck in Japan.

1. Black cats

Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab via Wiki Commons

The common domestic cat is beloved worldwide and probably constitutes around 50% of the entire internet…unless it’s black. In that case, it is an omen of bad luck that some people avoid like the plague. This belief is not shared worldwide. Even today, Celtic mythology proclaims the arrival of a black cat at your home to be a sign of prosperity.

However, throughout most of Western civilization, a black cat is an evil omen which signals that something bad is about to happen. This negative perception is oftentimes attributed to the black cat’s association with witches. The black cat was a familiar or even the witch in disguise. Even before this, though, during the Middle Ages black cats were considered to be the incarnations of demons and, unfortunately, frequently killed for this reason.

Black cats as symbols dates back to ancient Egypt. Back then, all cats were revered and thought to be a sign of fortune and good luck, specifically if one crossed your path. It’s pretty hard to tell exactly when the changeover from good to bad took place, but through many parts of the world (particularly in England and Asia), black cats have remained a sign of good luck.

2. The Number 13

Elevator Missing 13

Throughout history, there is no number more feared than 13. In fact, it even has its own phobia called triskaidekaphobia. This belief is so pervasive that companies would skip 13 or use an alternative number when labeling products. This is most common in hotels where the 13th floor is sometimes omitted. It is either skipped entirely or labeled something else such as 12B, 14A, M (13th letter) because there are people who genuinely refuse to stay on the 13th floor of a building.

If you thought that the origins of 13 as a bad omen are religious, you are correct. The number has a symbolic value in many religions such as the age at which a boy becomes a man in Judaism. However, it is Christianity where the number is most prominent. It is said to be an unlucky number after the Last Supper where the 13th guest turned out to be a traitor.

It would appear that 13 was considered unlucky in Nordic mythology, as well, before Christianity. There is a Norse story similar to that of the Last Supper. The gods were gathered in a hall (12 of them) and Loki, the god of strife, crashed the party and attacked the group, becoming the 13th attendee.

3. Spilling Salt


Going back to the Last Supper, it is said that spilling salt has become a bad omen after Judas spilled it during the supper. Indeed, that is how the scene is portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting: Judas is the 5th person from the left and he can be seen knocking over the salt with his elbow.

However, it is more likely that the origin of this bad omen goes farther back and is more trivial. Throughout most of history, salt has been a valuable commodity therefore it would make sense for people to consider it bad luck whenever salt was wasted. Not only that, but the idea of throwing salt over your shoulder in order to avoid bad luck was around since back then. Ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Egyptians all considered it bad luck whenever salt was spilled.

This belief was later passed on to the Greeks and the Romans who also valued salt highly. In fact, the word salary comes from salarium, a Latin word which was the first official term used to describe employment in exchange for goods and financial compensation. Although this isn’t certain, many experts believe that the name comes from the fact that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (among other goods such as gold) or that they were given an allowance to purchase salt, hence the expression “being worth his salt”. Whatever the truth might be, it is clear that they prized salt quite highly.

4. Horseshoes

Photo Credit: Aischmidt via Pixabay

Photo Credit: Aischmidt via Pixabay

Horseshoes have quite a confusing meaning. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad depending on how they are positioned. Sometimes they always work as a good luck talisman, other times they ward off evil spirits only if they are nailed to the door.

It is clear that this object holds a lot of symbolic meaning.  However, originally it wasn’t the actual horseshoe that brought good luck, but rather the material it was made of – iron. Similar to salt, iron was a valuable commodity so many things made out of iron were considered to be lucky or good at warding off evil spirits: horseshoes, knives, fences etc.

Over the years, horseshoes have maintained their powerful symbolic meaning, but it has evolved differently all over the world. In America, a horseshoe is good luck only if it pointing up because it prevents the luck from falling out. In other places, though, it’s exactly the opposite – the horseshoe has to be pointing down so the luck falls on you. Furthermore, in other places the position is completely irrelevant. What matters is that you found the horseshoe (didn’t buy it) and that it’s not a new one. In that case, you receive good luck every time you touch it.

5. Ladders

Photo Credit: Mykl Roventine via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: Mykl Roventine via Wiki Commons

You really shouldn’t walk under ladders. It’s not safe. You might knock it over or even just move it a bit, potentially causing harm to yourself or (more likely) someone climbed on top of it. However, the reason why this activity is considered bad luck is far less practical.

There are many ideas as to why this superstition exists. The most pervasive hypothesis is that a ladder placed on the ground and leaning against a wall forms a triangle which is a symbol with deep religious meaning and breaking it would bring bad luck. In Christianity, the triangle can be a symbol of the Holy Trinity so this could explain why this notion is so widespread, but the superstition is likely to be older than that. Other civilizations also placed great value on the triangle as a symbol, particularly the ancient Egyptians.

Another potential source for this superstition is not as sacred. Back in medieval times, the ladder was a symbol of the gallows and, since people were hanged there, it obviously wasn’t considered a very lucky place. Therefore, someone who walked under a ladder was expected to meet his fate at the gallows.