Having owned a black cat for years, walked under my fair share of ladders and knocked on wood more times that I can count I am very much aware of how ingrained certain superstitions are in our culture. The funny thing is that most of the time the why of these superstitions has been forgotten. I recently came across a wonderful book at a yard sale called the Dictionary of Superstitions by David Pickering. It lists, alphabetically, a whole slew of good luck charms, cursed objects and everyday items, and goes into detail on the history and lore of how they came about. Here is a list of five superstitions you’ve most likely encountered in your life.
Don’t let a black cat cross your path — it’s bad luck! This myth goes back a long time as cats have almost always been linked to witchcraft and witches. It was said cats that were completely black without a trace of colour on them are a witch’s familiar or possibly even a witch herself. Having a witch cross your path is particularly unlucky as they might curse you with the evil eye.
As a clumsy child, I was instructed to always throw a pinch of salt over my left shoulder anytime salt was spilled. Traditionally spilled salt is said to make you vulnerable to the devil himself. By throwing the salt over your left shoulder you’re tossing it into the devil’s eyes, where it burns so much that he leaves before he’s able to whisper foul things in your ear.
We’ve been taught to say “bless you” after a person sneezes as a wish for good health. This dates back to Ancient Greek but was particularly prevalent during the Black Plague when sneezing was thought to be a sure sign of oncoming death. It was thought that when you sneezed your soul was trying to escape your body, or it had temporarily escaped and by saying “bless you” you were returning or trapping a person’s soul back inside of them. But not all sneezing was thought to be bad as this rhyme shows. “Sneeze on a Monday, sneeze for danger; Sneeze on a Tuesday, kiss a stranger; Sneeze on a Wednesday, sneeze for a letter; Sneeze on a Thursday, something better; Sneeze on a Friday, sneeze for sorrow; Sneeze on a Saturday, see your sweetheart tomorrow; Sneeze on a Sunday, your safety seek, The Devil will have you the whole of the week.”
A group of crows is called a murder whereas a group of ravens is merely an unkindness. If that’s not a bad omen for you, I don’t know what is. As you can probably guess, the sighting of a crow is extremely unlucky but a large group of the bird is a sure sign of imminent death. What number then constitutes a murder of crows? According to a rhyme said to be from the region of Essex: “One’s unlucky, two’s lucky; three is health, four is wealth; five is sickness and six is death.”
Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13):
Quite possibly the most far-reaching superstition, the number 13 is related to evil. It’s not entirely certain where this superstition came from, but it has been noted that there are strong ties to the Last Supper — the meal Jesus Christ ate before being crucified. Including Jesus and his 12 disciples, there were 13 men altogether. Judas, the bad guy who sold Jesus out to the authorities, was the 13th. In modern culture, street addresses often skip the number 13 and buildings go directly from the 12th floor to the 14th. The 13th tarot card in the Major Arcana is Death.
And so we have it! Five superstitions we encounter on a day-to-day basis. With so many ill omens and bad luck floating around it’s little wonder I haven’t yet won the lottery. I’ll just have to hold tight to my lucky rabbit’s foot, keep my fingers crossed and avoid any and all cracks in the sidewalk. That should do it.