An Early Warning: Superstitious Origins

With October just around the corner, believers beware! October is the month when ancient Pagans believed evil spirits walked the earth and the dead returned to their homes. Myths of ghosts, witches, vampires, and the like flourish. This October, one of the most fearful superstitions will occur—Friday the 13th.

Superstitions are a belief something terrible will happen when there is no factual basis to believe it will. They still abound in every culture in modern-day history. Did you ever spill salt and toss a pinch over your shoulder, stay home on Friday the 13th, or go out of your way to avoid crossing the path of a black cat? What was the reason behind such bizarre, superstitious behaviors? During my research, I discovered the roots of superstitions are grounded in mythology, folk tales, and early Christian religious beliefs. So let’s dig into the origins of some of the more common superstitions.

An Early Warning From Common Superstitious Origins

Friday 13th – Should we really have a fear of the number 13? 

This is the most feared day of the year and date in history. This dire belief is so infamous and widespread that it affects millions of people as they avoid their daily routines to prevent calamities. The financial impact is in the millions. Even the number 13 is an unlucky number. Many high-rise buildings do not have a 13th floor. The upside of this superstition is that it only occurs every 212.35 days and always in a month that starts on Sunday. 

How did such a fearful superstitious fear arise? This is where this particular superstition gets interesting. It seems there is no origin. Some historians speculate the date is connected to disastrous biblical events and Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting. Judas Iscariot was the 13th guest, and the crucifixion occurred on Good Friday. Another possible source is Norse mythology about another dinner and a 13th guest, a god, with deadly intentions. 

Some cite the origin was due to the downfall of the Knights Templar. The Templers, known for their distinctive white mantels with a red cross, gained popularity during the Crusades. Legends have swirled about this wealthy, powerful, mysterious order for thousands of years. Not only were the Templars recognized for their fighting skills, but they built a network of banks, becoming the forerunners of the modern-day banking era. King Philip IV of France, in debt to the Templars, wanted their money. On Friday 13, 1307, many Templar Knights were arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake. As with all good conspiracies, the truth remains murky. What did emerge was an unlucky date, Friday the 13th.

Broken Mirror

Break a mirror, and it’s seven years of bad luck. A belief that reflected images, even in a pool of water, revealed the person’s soul to the gods dates back thousands of years to the Greek culture. Breaking the reflection would bring down the wrath of the gods. The Romans built on the superstition as mirrors gained popularity and added the seven years. The Romans believed the body renewed itself every seven years. Maybe they thought this was a way to fool the gods. There is, however, a possible remedy to avoid the seven years of bad luck from breaking a mirror. Bury the pieces under the light from a full moon.

Spilled Salt

Salt has long been an icon of superstition dating back to ancient Rome. Salt was a valuable commodity. As a preservative, it represented immortality. Salt was placed in a coffin to protect the soul of the deceased. Spilling salt was a sign of bad luck, even bringing about an attack of the devil or evil spirits. As a protection against misfortune, a pinch of the spilled salt was tossed over the left shoulder with the right hand to blind the eyes of the waiting devil. The left shoulder was viewed as the weaker side, more vulnerable to an attack. Some historians believe the superstition began with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Judas is depicted as having knocked over a salt cellar. While this may have influenced the perpetuation of superstitious thinking, it’s doubtful it was the origin. 

Knock on Wood

How many times has someone said, “Knock on wood,” in the course of a conversation, following it up with a rap of knuckles on a wooden object? A way to avoid tempting fate that has been handed down from the ancient Celtics. People believed spirits lived in trees. Tapping the wood may have been a way to awaken the spirits for protection or to express gratitude for good fortune. Another origin credits the superstition to the wood in Jesus’s cross. According to some historians, the more practical explanation is a game, Tiggy-Touch-Wood, played by British children in the 19th century. Touch the wood to keep from being captured.

Black Cats

A black cat crossing your path is a sign that bad luck is headed your way. The mystique of black cats stems from medieval times. They were part of the folklore of witches, witchcraft, and black magic. Black cats were viewed as familiars, demons or evil spirits in disguise to help a witch. A black cat crossing your path would mean an unwanted encounter with the devil. In the 13th century, a pope declared in a church document that black cats were an incarnation of Satan. During the Salem witch trials, black cats gained even more notoriety when they were killed along with their owners, the so-called witches. In Halloween lore, the black cat has become a familiar symbol. There is, however, another side. In some cultures, a black cat is a symbol of good fortune. A benevolent animal or a supernatural evil creature? An interesting question.

Walking Under a Ladder

Misfortune from walking under a ladder is one of the most common superstitious beliefs. Of course, common sense would dictate it is downright dangerous. Setting aside the practical reason, I discovered several intriguing origins. The earliest origin dates back to ancient Egypt and their belief in the power of pyramids or triangles in everyday parlance. The shape was sacred, representing a trinity of gods. A ladder formed a triangle. On one side was the ladder, the structure it leaned against the second side, and the ground connecting the two, the third side. Walking under the ladder was a sacrilegious act, angering the gods. 

During my research, I discovered a number of the more popular superstitions were tied to Western culture, Christian beliefs, and biblical references. The next origin dealt with the ladder propped against Jesus Christ’s cross, becoming a symbol of betrayal and death. As with the Egyptians, the ladder was considered to represent the Trinity. To walk under it was a sinful act, never to be forgiven. 

Next, the gallows entered the picture. During the Middle Ages, hangings were a common form of execution. Many historians claim a ladder leaning against a wall resembled the gallows. There is no denying ladders were an essential part of a hanging. Not only was the ladder used for the prisoner to reach the rope, but the executioner used it to remove the body. This particular tale had the added value of a ghost. The deceased’s spirit took possession of the area inside the triangle formed by the ladder. Whoever walked under the ladder was destined to be hanged. Perhaps this myth arose from a practice of making prisoners walk under ladders on the way to the gallows. Whatever the origin, the belief that walking under ladders meant a bad omen or even death has continued into modern times. 

Whether you believe or not, staying on the right side of a superstition is always safe. I wonder if knocking on wood would help if a black cat crossed my path. Maybe carrying a lucky charm, a rabbit’s foot, or four-leaf clovers would be better—a thought for another day.

I’m always “On The Hunt” for new stories. If you have a question or a comment, please let me know.

Anita Dickason

Anita Dickason

Anita Dickason is a retired police officer with a total of twenty-seven years of law enforcement experience, twenty-two with Dallas PD. She served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer, advanced accident investigator, tactical officer, and first female sniper on the Dallas SWAT team.

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