10 Things We Do Today Based on Ancient Superstitions
Even if you don’t see yourself as a superstitious person, there are seemingly benign actions that you do every day without thinking they are actually based on ancient superstitions. As we’ve struggled to survive over the past centuries, human beings have turned to superstitions to try and exercise control over things that just can’t be controlled. These superstitions, many of which were accepted as absolute fact by our ancestors, have trickled down to us as the little actions that we perform daily without really knowing why.
Now, we’re going to debunk some of the most common beliefs and practices that we have today that are actually based on ancient superstition.
1. Fearing Friday the 13th
So many people feel uneasy or fearful on Friday the 13th without really knowing why. There’s actually a formal word for this fear, paraskevidekatriaphobia.
The fear of Friday the 13th is actually fairly recent. The only evidence that supports this superstition begins in the latter part of the 18th century.
Many people believe that Friday the 13th is particularly unlucky because of the double-whammy of bad luck that comes from the number 13 and Friday as a day of the week. Jesus was crucified on a Friday, so many people already feel this day is spiritually cursed. Plus, many people fear the number 13 because of its connection with Judas as the 13th person at the Last Supper.
Combine those two fears, and you’ve got a truly terrible confluence of events that many people believe to be unlucky.
2. Avoid Lighting Three Cigarettes off One Match
Many smokers today will happily light two cigarettes off one match. However, they will categorically refuse to light a third cigarette off the same match. Instead, they spark up a fresh match to avoid the bad luck that comes with lighting three cigarettes off the same match.
The reason why people do this is because of a story from the Crimean War. Soldiers were advised that lighting a match while on duty was okay, as long as they didn’t share the light with two of their friends. The rationale was that the bright spark caught the enemy’s attention, the lighting of the second cigarette gave them time to aim, and the lighting of the third cigarette gave them time to fire.
This story was re-told until the Second World War. At this point, it had scared people so much that they started considering lighting three cigarettes off one match anywhere to be unlucky.
3. Cross Our Fingers for Luck
Many people today jokingly or seriously cross their fingers when they’re wishing for luck on an endeavor.
While this superstition has changed a lot over time, it goes back to the time of the early Christians. They used to invoke the cross as a symbol of good luck in all of their endeavors. If they were making a wish, a friend could show their support by crossing their index fingers with the wisher, forming the sign of the cross. In the Middle Ages, people also used to make a clenched sign with their thumb in between their middle and index finger as a protective sign against witchcraft.
The combination of the luck sign and the protection sign has trickled down to us as the common signal that we still use today. If we want someone to know that we’re wishing them luck, we can flash them a “fingers crossed”!
4. Wish on a Wishbone
A turkey’s wishbone has been considered a symbol of good luck since the Romans.
In the first century, family members and friends would fight over this potent good luck symbol. Each person would make a wish before taking a side of the bone and tugging. The person who came away with the largest portion of the bone was considered to have won the most luck. As such, they would see their wish fulfilled.
Now, we do the same action at holiday-time for the simple fun of winning the game.
5. Consider Bananas Bad Luck at Sea
It seems ridiculous that something as innocuous as a banana could become a potent symbol of bad luck when it’s brought on board a fishing boat. The truth is this superstition is less symbolic and more practical.
Banana peels are slippery. So, if they’re discarded improperly, they can easily become a hazard — especially if they get caught up in a mess of already slippery fish. On top of being slippery, banana peels produce methane as they rot and begin to ferment. Methane is a toxic gas, which can be hazardous in a contained space, like the hold of a ship.
Instead of explaining all this, many people have just resorted to saying that bananas are unlucky. As a result, banning them on board their boats.
6. Knock on Wood
Many people today will simply say “knock on wood” as a way of verbalizing their hope for good luck. This phrase came from the ancient Celts, who believed that gods lived in trees. The Celts would make a wish by knocking on a tree. When their wish was fulfilled, they would go back to the same tree and knock again to give thanks to that particular spirit or deity.
Christians later co-opted this phrase and associated the wood that they were touching or knocking on for luck with the cross where Jesus was crucified.
7. Say “Bless You” When Someone Sneezes
Throughout history, even the most innocuous of sneezes have been associated with illness and evil spirits.
Millennia ago, people believed that our souls were made of air and resided in our heads. Therefore, an intense sneeze could drive it out of our body. Only a quick blessing from God could prevent this from happening. So, people started saying “Bless you” to protect the person’s vulnerable soul.
When the Bubonic Plague was ripping through Europe, the disease spread so quickly that someone who was merely sneezing in the morning could be dead by nightfall. It’s believed that Pope Gregory I passed an edict saying that anyone in earshot of someone sneezing had to say “God bless you” after they heard it. This was because that person that was sneezing could be mere hours away from death.
8. Get the Chills When We See 666
Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia is the scientific word for fear of the number 666.
Many people associate the number 666 with the Devil without really knowing why. The number actually comes from a phrase from Revelations 13:18, which states “let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.”
Although there’s nothing written in the Bible to suggest that we should fear this particular number, horror story writers co-opted 666 as a plot device. A device that they’ve used to strike fear into the hearts of their characters. Since it’s such a common trope, people slowly began to associate the number with bad luck.
9. Avoid Breaking Mirrors
Mirrors have been associated with magical powers for as long as we’ve been able to see our own reflection. In the past, people would tell fortunes using a bowl of water or a mirror.
In the early days of the American South, people used to cover all the mirrors of the house when someone died. They thought that this act was the only way to avoid the deceased soul from being trapped inside the shiny surface.
This connection between mirrors and our souls could explain why so many people think its bad luck to break a mirror.
10. Avoid Walking Under Ladders
Besides the fact that walking under a ladder can easily cause it to move, throwing whoever is on it to the ground, many people believe that there are spiritual consequences for walking under a ladder.
In the past, people have attributed this belief to the fact that the ladder leaning against a wall makes a triangle, a three-sided shape which is a very potent symbol of the Holy Trinity. Breaking this image by walking through it is considered blasphemous.
Another reason why walking under a ladder is considered bad luck is because traditionally ladders have been used as a way for a condemned person to climb up to the gallows, where they would be hung.