by Victor Parachin
Julius Caesar dreaded dreams; Peter the Great was terrified to cross a bridge; Dwight Eisenhower kept a lucky gold coin in his pocket; Michelle Kwan wears a Chinese good-luck charm she received from her grandmother.
In spite of advances in learning and science, superstitions continue to be a part of our heritage. Although most people would agree that superstitions are irrational, most people adhere to a few cherished superstitions. One explanation offered by psychologists is that superstitions are comfort gestures much like comfort food. They give people a sense of control over some of life’s dangers. Here are some popular superstitions and how they originated.
The most widespread superstition around the world concerns the belief that the number 13 is unlucky. Many high-rise buildings omit numbering a floor as 13, going directly from 12 to 14. In France, a house is never issued address 13. National and international airlines skip row 13.
Technically, fear of the number 13 is called “triskaidekaphobia.” One source for this superstition comes from ancient Norse mythology. Twelve gods were invited to a great banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the god of strife and evil, appeared as the uninvited thirteenth guest. In the struggle to evict Loki, Balder, one of the most popular gods, was killed. Others believe the origin of 13 as unlucky comes from the last supper. There, Jesus had a meal with his 12 disciples (making 13 total at the table). Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, was the first to leave the table and later hanged himself. After the last supper, the superstition began to grow and expand. In some places, a superstition says that if 13 eat together, the first to leave the table will die before the year ends. Interestingly, at a dinner including royalty, the royal guests are always the first to rise from the table. Because of the superstition, no royal dinner ever has a table of 13.
The umbrella is an ancient device first used in Egypt 3000 years ago. Those intricately designed umbrellas were made of papyrus and peacock feathers and were used as protection from the sun. Rain was rare in Egypt and considered a great blessing. That opening an umbrella indoors brought bad luck probably originated in 18th century London where it rained frequently. Those 18th century umbrellas were stiff, rigid, metal-spoked devices with clumsy and unreliable spring mechanisms. Carelessly opening one indoors could seriously injure a person standing nearby or shatter an object. Thus, the superstition was probably developed as a warning against opening an umbrella inside a residence. Today, the superstition has evolved indicating that an umbrella taken to work on an overcast day assures a dry day. On the other hand, an umbrella left at home on a cloudy day assures there will be a downpour.
This is an odd superstition and certainly not a “lucky” one for the poor rabbit whose life is sacrificed. This, however, is a very popular superstition in America with some ten million rabbit feet sold yearly, twice the number sold in Europe. Originally, it was the hare, not the rabbit, which was believed to bring good fortune. In many pagan societies across Europe, the hare was revered and viewed as sacred because it was nocturnal. Often seen only by moonlight as a silhouette, the belief arose that the hare had magial powers. As a result, the hare was worshiped. After Britain officially became Christian, pagan symbols and customs were banned. However, many Britons began secretly carrying a hare’s foot hidden in a pocket or purse. Later, when rabbits were introduced to Britain from Europe, the rabbit’s foot, which was more easily obtained, took over from the hare’s. The foundation for this superstition is the fact that these two animals are among nature’s fastest-breeding animals. Because the hare and the rabbit became symbols of potency, the superstition spread that the rabbit or hare could convey extraordinary powers to one who possessed a foot.
The cat underwent an unfortunate transformation. It was revered and worshiped by ancient Egyptians but when Egypt fell to Rome (58 BCE) the gods of Egypt began to vanish. As Christianity became more powerful in Roman culture, the cat – particularly a black one – became a symbol of Satan. During the Christian dark ages it was strongly believed that cats were demons in disguise. At this time, the dread of cats, especially black ones, rose to the level of paranoia. In spite of this, many abandoned alley cats were frequently fed by lonely, poor, older women. As hysteria about cats rose, many of these poor and homeless women were accused of being witches, practicing “black” magic, and their cats were guilty by association. Thus, to have a black cat cross your path was considered a most serious omen.
April Fools’ Day
This is such a common superstitious custom that today many newspapers, radio, and television stations participate by staging or reporting some amusing hoax on April 1. While there are a variety of theories as to the origin of April Fools’ Day, history strongly suggests it comes from France in the early 16th century. At that time, New Year’s Day was observed on March 25 because it heralded spring. This was a festive time when parties were held and gifts exchanged. In 1564, under pressure from the Catholic church, which objected to new year’s parties detracting from the solemn season of Lent, King Charles of France proclaimed that New Year’s Day would be moved back to January 1. Even though that act put France in union with other European countries who followed the more accurate Gregorian calendar, many French citizens were annoyed by the change and resisted it. They continued their parties and gift exchanges on April 1. An increasing number of citizens, however, began to play jokes on these French conservatives by sending them foolish gifts on April first and by sending invitations to nonexistent parties. The French pattern of playing pranks on April 1 came to be viewed as a harmless, festive activity and spread all over Europe and into America.
The custom of avoiding walking under a ladder contains practical advice. Walking under a ladder could subject a person to injury from a falling tool or falling paint. However, the superstition has little to do with practical advice. Like other superstitions, the ladder underwent a transformation. Among Egyptians, the ladder was highly regarded and a symbol of good luck. Many Egyptian pictorials feature a ladder illustrating the ascent of the gods. Ladders were placed in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaoh’s to help them climb heavenward in the afterlife.
After the rise of Christianity, the ladder came to be viewed more negatively because a ladder rested against Christ’s cross. The space under a ladder came to be seen as an area under the domain of evil. Thus the ladder became the symbol of evil, betrayal, and death. Eventually, the notion of walking under a ladder meant a person was inviting misfortune and tragedy. Another explanation for this superstition is connected with criminals and the death penalty. In some countries executioners quickly made a gallows by propping a ladder against a tree. After the hanging, no one would walk under the ladder for fear of meeting the victim’s ghost or of encountering the same fate themselves.
Victor Parachin lives in Oklahoma.