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Are You Superstitious?

Many of us would probably immediately answer “no” to the above question since the term “superstition” has been described as a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a certain action, thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like. However, it is true that most of us have grown up, if not believing in them, at least have heard about some of the more well-known superstitions.

Do you remember that lilting little rhyme, “Find a penny, pick it up; all the day you’ll have good luck?“  It is thought that the superstition concerning the penny may have derived from ancient times when it was thought that possession of any metal would bring a person good fortune. There are actually a few beliefs associated with the penny to include whether the penny has its head or tail facing up when found. Some believe that picking up and keeping a heads-up penny will bring good luck, while others believe one must then pass it on to someone else that same day for good luck to follow. If the found penny is tails-up the finder should turn it over and leave it for the next person, for if they keep it they will surely have bad luck. And, to ensure a happy and prosperous marriage a bride should wear a new penny in her shoe on her wedding day – and you can always think back to the “penny loafers.”

It has been estimated that at least 10 percent of our country’s population has a fear of the number 13 and that more than 80 percent of our hi-rise buildings do not have the 13th floor while the majority of hotels, hospitals and airports avoid using the number 13 for their rooms and gates. And some fear Friday the 13th to the extent that they will not travel or marry on that day. This numeral fear is sometimes attributed to the arrival of the 13th visitor who was, in the case of the Bible, Judas Iscariot to the Last Supper and in the case of ancient Norse lore, the treacherous god Loki, to a dinner party of the gods in Valhalla. It is also worthwhile to note that in much of Asia it is the number 4 that is feared thanks to similar sounds for the Chinese language words for “four” and “death.”

Most in ancient times believed that a mirror captured part of a person’s soul and reflected it back so if the mirror were to be broken one's soul would be trapped inside damaging it and causing spiritual hardship; however, taking the pieces outside and burying them in the moonlight could avoid this misfortune. The “bad luck” associated with breaking a mirror was to last for seven years, one reason given for that was that the Romans thought the body regenerates itself every seven years. But, most likely the real reason that breaking a mirror was considered 7 years bad luck is that when mirrors were first made they were so expensive that breaking one could mean having to serve 7 years in indentured service to the owner who probably could not afford to buy a replacement.

While walking under a ladder is considered to be a cause of bad luck it could also be a dangerous thing to do, especially if someone is on the ladder. One reason given for the bad luck is that hangmen used a ladder to hang people on the gallows and walking under the ladder could cause the hangman to look your way, i.e. “Death would notice you.” Another suggestion regarding the origin is religious in nature in that the ladder forms a triangle as does the Holy Trinity and walking through the triangle is considered blasphemous and could attract the devil. To reverse your luck you can make a wish or say “bread and butter” as you walk under the ladder. Of course, you could just walk around the ladder!

Going back as far as 3000 BC cats were highly esteemed animals (even if they were black) until the middle-ages in Europe when they became associated with (so-called) witches. The American Pilgrims believed that a black cat crossing one’s path meant their connection with God, and thus their entry into heaven was blocked. The belief that “familiars” of witches were often cats was perpetuated during the Salem witch-hunts when it was also thought that the witches could turn themselves into black cats to be able to stealthily roam neighbourhoods spreading bad luck.

In case you were unaware some belief that their guardian angel sits on their right shoulder while the devil when he visits, perches upon their left shoulder. Therefore if one happens to spill salt they should immediately toss some of it over the left shoulder into the eyes of the devil to distract him from evil intentions. On the other hand, it was also thought, when it was considered a valuable item, that tossing salt over the right shoulder was an offering to one’s guardian angel in thanksgiving for their protection.

During the 1700s wood was considered to be full of luck and good spirits so when someone was looking for a little good luck or wished to continue the good fortune they were experiencing they would often touch or knock on wood. One origin associated with this belief relates to the wood of the Christian cross. Another way people believe they will ensure good luck or prosperity is to cross their fingers. This may have originated during the Hundred Years War when archers would cross the middle and index fingers, the same as those used on the bow, and pray for good luck. It is also possible that this originated during a time when Christianity was unacceptable and practising Christians would identify themselves to other Christians with hand signals, one of which involved crossing the middle and index fingers and touching them to the thumb to create the sign of the fish, a symbol of Christianity.

It seems to be automatic today to say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. The phrase was originally attributed to Pope Gregory the Great who was known to say it when a person would sneeze so as to seek protection from the spread of the disease during the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague (Black Death) was responsible for killing one-third of the human population in the late 1340s. Sneezing was thought to cause the soul to escape and the heart to momentarily stop so the blessing was also a way to welcome the person back to life.

Superstitions continue to be passed down through generations with some of them seeming to be more widespread. I have been in homes where a horseshoe has been nailed over a doorway (with the arms facing up) to bring prosperity to all within. And it is still common for some folks to carry a rabbit’s foot (or some other talisman) for luck and in some cultures, women will carry a rabbit’s foot to increase their chances of becoming pregnant. Even today you may still hear people say “bread and butter” or “salt and pepper” when they are walking together but are separated by someone or something, so they may remain “united.” Be honest - do you really think that you absolutely do not subscribe to any superstitions at all?  

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