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5 Common Superstitions: Where and Why These Magical Myths Originated

As spooky season came to its climax last Sunday, October 31st, let’s take a look at some of the common superstitions that people hold! While this season of magic and witchcraft comes around only once a year for the general public, superstitions add a little bit of magic to everyday situations.

Black Cats

As a self-proclaimed cat lady, it certainly hurts my heart to know the bad reputation these little kitties get. The idea that a black cat crossing your path brings bad luck originated in the thirteenth century. In the papal bull, “Vox in Roma,” Pope Gregory IX declared the connection between cats and witchcraft, associating them with Satan. In order to quash the threat of these heretics, both women accused of being witches and cats alike were tortured and killed by the Catholic church and its devotees. As a side-note, this ruthless persecution of cats is thought to have contributed to the spread of the bubonic plague since there weren’t enough cats to control the populations of rats and mice. Karma perhaps?

This association of cats with witchcraft and Satan led to the belief that black cats bring bad luck (though no one really knows how things evolved into targeting black cats specifically). After all, a black cat that crosses your path might be sent by a witch to do you harm, or even worse, the devil himself in disguise. Even if it’s not as extreme, we still see people believing that black cats give bad luck, like when one crashed the Giants-Cowboys NFL game in 2019 and caused the Giants to lose. Though, I’d still accept bad luck from a furry little witch’s familiar if it looks that cute! 

opening an umbrella indoors

When I was a child, I was often told to wait until I’m outside in order to open my umbrella and get under it. I thought that it was impractical, since the point of an umbrella is to shield you from the rain, but if you have to go outside before opening it, then by that time you’ve already gotten wet! However, I later learned that I was told not to do this because opening an umbrella inside brings bad luck

This superstition has both practical and mystical roots. Modern umbrellas were first used in 18th-century London and they were much bigger and more dangerous than the umbrellas we use today. Opening up one of these umbrellas indoors could cause damage to household items or harm to other people. As superstitions tend to be more effective than general warnings, the notion that opening an umbrella inside brings back luck spread and caused people to think twice before opening this dangerous item within their house. However, I did also mention that this superstition has its mystical roots as well. In Ancient Egypt, umbrellas built from papyrus and feathers were seen as holy items and used to shade nobility. These umbrellas were crafted in honor of the goddess Nut, who was thought to have wrapped the sky into the shape of an umbrella to protect the Earth. For that reason, anyone who was not a noble and stood in the shade of an umbrella would become a beacon of bad luck. Another theory suggests that opening an umbrella indoors and away from the sun’s rays offends the Sun God, Ra, and has negative consequences.

Friday the 13th

Now, not everyone has a bad image of Friday the 13th. Growing up, the date was always something fun and exciting since it seemed like a mystical day and the film series by the same name was widely popular, making it sound even cooler. After discovering the variety of events that are held on Friday the 13th such as parties, shows, and (of course) cheap flash tattoos, I have almost no negative opinion of the date. Nevertheless, the negative connotation of Friday the 13th does exist, warranting the creation of two words that express the fear of this date: friggatriskaidekaphobia and paraskavedekatriaphobia.

No one really knows how Friday the 13th became an unlucky day, but it most likely has to do with the negative associations with the number thirteen and Friday. In Western culture, the number twelve represents completeness, therefore making its successor a disruption to this completeness. In Norse mythology, twelve gods sat at a table together, when Loki, the god of mischief and disorder, interrupted the meal and became the thirteenth in attendance. Mirroring that story, in the biblical telling of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot was the thirteenth guest as well as the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Similarly, the concept of Friday being unlucky likely also comes from Christianity; on a Friday Jesus was crucified, Cain killed Abel, and Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Put these two unlucky dates together and, voilà, you’ve got Friday the 13th!

walking under a ladder

Of course, there is a practical reason for this superstition. Obviously, if you walk under a ladder, there is a chance for the ladder to fall on you or for someone to drop something on you from atop the ladder. Still, there is more to this superstition than just that. In Ancient Egypt, it was believed that the space in between the ladder and the wall was home to spirits; walking through this space would anger these spirits and result in negative consequences. In Christianity, the number three, as well as the shape of a triangle, is sacred because it represents the Holy Trinity. Thus, walking under a ladder and “breaking” the Holy Trinity is seen as blasphemous and has the possibility of attracting the devil. 

However, fear not! There are some things you can do to counteract the bad luck—some suggest making a wish as you walk under the ladder, walking backward under the ladder again, saying the words “bread and butter” while walking beneath the ladder, or even crossing your fingers and keeping them that way until you see a dog. While these might save you from the repercussions of walking under a ladder, it’s probably easier to just avoid doing it in the first place!

broken mirror

This superstition is my personal favorite on this list as I am a firm believer in it! I have always been very careful to not break any mirrors because it is said to bring seven years of bad luck. This superstition originated in the Greek and Roman empires and came from the belief that one’s reflection represents one’s soul. For that reason, breaking a mirror would equate to destroying your own soul. Not only that, but the Romans also believed that mirrors were devices that the gods used to observe their souls, and breaking a mirror would cause the gods to curse the last person whose reflection they saw. The reason why the result of this is only seven years of hard luck (instead of lifelong misery) is that the Romans also believed that the soul is renewed every seven years. So, while breaking a mirror might bring bad luck, you’ll only have to endure for about seven years. Of course, if you can’t wait this long, there are solutions! Some of the most popular alternatives to taking seven years of bad luck are burying the broken shards under the moonlight or throwing them in running water, but some other solutions that may be more environmentally friendly include throwing salt over your shoulder, spinning clockwise three times, or touching one of the shards to a tombstone. Though, even if you don’t believe it will bring bad luck, breaking a mirror is still dangerous and can cause injury. 

As a fairly superstitious person myself, I love hearing about all sorts of superstitions and how they originated. Personally, it’s fun to think that these simple occurrences can add a little magic to my everyday life. I think that whether you believe in superstitions or not, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid things that may bring negative consequences. And who knows, maybe being more superstitious will bring you a little luck as well! 

Other References (not linked):

Hastings, C. (2021, August 13). Why is Friday the 13th unlucky? the cultural origins of an enduring superstition. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/why-friday-13-unlucky-explained/index.html

Kaye, D. (2021, March 18). Spilled some salt? learn more about common superstitions and their origins. Scary Mommy. https://www.scarymommy.com/common-superstitions/

Lauren. (2020, August 7). Is walking under a ladder really bad luck? Ladders UK Direct. https://www.laddersukdirect.co.uk/latest-news/post/is-walking-under-a-ladder-really-bad-luck

Markovsky, B. (2021, June 29). How did the superstition that broken mirrors cause bad luck start and why does it still exist? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-did-the-superstition-that-broken-mirrors-cause-bad-luck-start-and-why-does-it-still-exist-162889

Mulvania, A. (n.d.). 18 superstitions from around the world. Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/18-superstitions-from-around-the-world/QQIyTWmzJ9QvLg

My name is Averielle (pronounced like av-ree-el) and I’m 21 years old. I’m a third-year at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, studying Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies, and Portuguese. My passions lie in traveling and learning about other cultures and languages, and in my free time I enjoy drawing, photography, journaling, and writing letters to penpals :)
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