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The curious history behind common superstitions

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At some point in your life, a friend or close family member has told you not to step on the cracks for fear of breaking your mother’s back. You’ve probably thought twice before stepping under a ladder or putting your shoes on the table.

Whether you’re superstitious or think they’re a hoax, we’re willing to bet you’ll be fascinated to learn how some of these superstitions began and the history behind them.

As you read this list, you’ll start to notice patterns. A lot of them date back to ancient roman beliefs or fears rooted in Christianity. Regardless of their origin, we’re willing to bet you might smile the next time you see a penny or tip the saltshaker over.


A broken mirror

In Ancient Rome, it was believed that mirrors contained pieces of a person’s soul. A mirror breaking meant someone’s health, safety and well-being were in danger.

Interestingly, the Romans also believed that an individual’s soul was regenerated every seven years. This explains why any harm, ill, or misfortune brought by the broken mirror expires after seven trips around the sun.

Today, mirrors are often associated with spirits and negative energy. For those who believe, breaking a mirror could potentially release an evil entity into the human world.


Keeping in line with the business of souls, both sneezing and yawning were believed in Ancient Rome and Greece to be incredibly risky in nature.

It was believed that a person could physically sneeze out their soul. The words “Bless You” were believed to offset this and return your soul to your body if it had managed to escape.

Umbrellas indoors

Umbrellas, in Ancient Egypt, were viewed as royal, and sacred. Handcrafted out of papyrus and peacock feathers; umbrellas were made to resemble the Egyptian Goddess of the sky. Their shade was reserved for the highest and most noble of royalty. It was considered blasphemy for a commoner to step into an umbrella’s shade.

It was unlucky to open an umbrella indoors because it was not serving its natural purpose and therefore could make a mockery of the God of the Sun.

See a penny, pick it up

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As a society, we have come to love the binary. By binary, I mean this or that. Black or white. Straight, gay. Boy, girl. Good and evil.

Across history, it has been believed that certain metals and other materials were God-given gifts. Copper came to be associated with good fortune and as such, so did pennies.

The original superstition stated that a penny found heads-up symbolized luck and fortune, however, a penny found heads-down meant quite the opposite.

Nowadays, depending on what story was passed down to you, most pennies are regarded as good luck regardless of which way they’re facing,

Black cats

The fear of black cats dates back to the mid 14th century. It was believed that black cats were associated with the devil and that they were contributing to the Black Death pandemic of the time. In fact, citizens would stop at nothing to exterminate the unfortunately colored critters at all costs.

Funnily enough, it is likely that the Black Death pandemic was spread through rats and other rodents. The mass slaughter of the feline population contributed to the incessant nature of the pandemic. Suddenly, there were no cats to hunt the rodents that were spreading the virus.

Walking under a ladder

Finding its foundations in Christianity, this superstition has to do with the number 3. When a ladder is placed against a wall, it forms a triangle.

The Christian religion states that there is one God who represents the holy trinity: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. As such, in early Christianity, the number 3 was considered a sacred and Holy number. Stepping through the triangle made by a ladder propped against a wall was seen as a breach of the Holy Trinity – which was deemed as a sacrilegious offense.

The number 13

The number 13 has come to symbolize fear and misfortune in popular culture, but you may be surprised that it finds its roots in Christianity and Norse mythology.

Firstly, in the New Testament of the Holy Bible, Judas was the 13th guest to arrive at The Last Supper. For those who may not know, Judas would then go on to kiss Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, identifying him to Jewish authorities who would later arrest him, try him, and crucify him.

Secondly, in Norse mythology, it is said that Loki – the god who introduced the world to chaos – was the 13th guest to arrive at a divine dinner party and consequently tricked a fellow god into shooting the god of joy with an arrow.

Spilling salt

We once again have Judas to thank for this one. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting “The Last Supper”, Judas is depicted knocking the saltshaker over. This went on to become associated with his betrayal and traitorship.

Since then, people have come to believe that throwing salt over your left shoulder in fact blinds the devil and stops him from being able to wreak havoc on your life.

Knock on wood

In ancient Pagan culture, it was believed that spirits, Gods, and other divine beings were held in trees and in nature.

Traditionally, people would knock on the trunks of trees in an attempt to awaken godly spirits for good luck, health, and prosperity.

More recently, as people have come to spend less time outdoors, the tradition has become to knock on any form of wood be it a counter, door, or desk.

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When Eve was banished from the Garden of Eden, it is thought that she plucked a four-leaf clover so she would always remember the time she sent there.

Statistically, the likelihood of finding a four-leaf clover is some one in ten thousand.


What superstitions did you have passed down to you growing up? Let us know if we missed any in the comments down below!

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