The Origins of the 13 Most Common Superstitions

Friday the 13th is not just a movie about a guy in a hockey mask with demonic rage issues . It is a real fear for some people. Common superstitions (and their origins) might not be based in reality, but when people believe in something so powerfully it doesn't seem to matter. Whether it is avoiding walking under ladders or crossing paths with black cats to blessing someone when they sneeze, some of these superstitions are so much a part of our lives we don't even know why we do it.

While some of these superstition origins come from religious thoughts, some come from a practical place. Afterall, it's probably a good idea not to open an umbrella in cramped spaces, whether it's bad luck or not. What are the origins of the most common superstitions?

This list has the top 13 common superstitions and their origins. If you were wondering how these common superstitions grew to be well known, and practiced, this list has the answers.
Photo: JoeBenjamin / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

  • Black Cat Crossing Your Path

    Black Cat Crossing Your Path
    Photo: Russ Allison Loar / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Though cats have been adored for ages by many ancient peoples including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Aunt Mildred, having a black cat cross your path is supposed to come with horrible consequences.

    In the US, the thinking behind this may have started during the Puritan witch hunts. Witches were thought to be able to communicate with certain animals and make them do their bidding. The cat was the chief among those "familiars." A black cat was thought to be the worst as it was said to be demonic. Therefore, seeing a black cat meant that the devil was watching you.

  • Opening Umbrellas Indoors

    While some of these superstitions could be considered a little crazy, some are actually quite practical. Really, one should never open an umbrella indoors. Not because of bad luck, but because it could seriously hurt someone.

    There is a thought that this is actually where the superstition came from. The introduction of the mechanical umbrella happened in the Victorian Era in England. The first versions of it were made with stiff steel poles that, when opened indoors, could cause major injuries like cuts and possible eye loss.

    While that might be the case, the superstition goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians who also had umbrellas, though back then they were made of feathers and papyrus, meant for blocking the sun instead of the rain. If you were to open one indoors, where there was no sun, it was considered an offense against the sun god, Ra, who might curse you for it.

  • Broken Mirrors

    While we all know that broken mirrors are a pain to clean up, it's the threat of the seven years of bad luck that keeps most of us from carelessly knocking them over.

    Some people believe the reason breaking a mirror causes all those years of bad luck comes from an age when mirrors were considered luxury items and the cost of replacing a broken one would be equal to seven years of a peasant's salary. The superstition actually extends back quite a bit further back to the Romans.

    In Roman times, a mirror was used to divine the future of whoever looked into it. If such a mirror broke, it meant the person would face tragedy or even sudden death. Romans also believed that the human body completely renewed itself every seven years, so if you broke a mirror, you would face seven years of bad health.

  • Hat On Bed

    There are so many different things to do with hats indoors, from removing them as a sign of respect, to where to place them. It is a common thought that if a person places their hat on the bed, something horrible will happen to them.

    On reason for the superstition is that in earlier times, hats on beds could spread lice. Another is that a priest will always wear their hat indoors except for when they have to change into their vestments to perform final rites on the dead, so putting a hat on a bed seems to foretell death.

    Either way, it's just good manners to place your hat anywhere but the bed.

  • Walking Under Ladders

    Even though it's always tempting, everyone knows that walking under a ladder is cause for some very. very bad luck. The origin of this practical myth comes from a few different sources depending on who you believe.

    When a ladder is placed against a wall it forms a triangle, one of the holiest Egyptian symbols. The thought was that if one walked underneath a ladder they would break the symbol and anger the gods. This concept was taken to later by the Christians, but instead of the triangle, they called it the Holy Trinity. However, the consequences were the same. In the middle ages, walking under a ladder also resembled the gallows, so people avoided doing it out of fear of summoning their own hanging.

  • Knock on Wood

    What do you do if you say something out loud that you want to come true? You knock on wood. It's strange, but of all the superstitions on this list, this is one of the ones that is still most commonly done reflexively.

    The reason that people knock on wood comes from the pagan belief that good spirits lived in the trees. In order to get something that you want, ask for protection, or show gratitude, you were to knock on the tree to communicate with the spirit. On the flip side, some people believed that you knock on wood to ward off bad spirits. Christians saw the wood as a symbol of Christ's cross.

    Other people argue that the superstition goes back to a 19th century children's game where kids would knock on wood (a building, door, or tree) to keep themselves from being "caught" in tag.