Weird History
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Everyday Activities That Can Be Directly Traced Back To Pagan Culture

Updated July 3, 2019 14.4k votes 2.4k voters 124.5k views10 items

List RulesVote up the things you do regularly that make you an accidental pagan.

Links between holiday traditions and pagan culture are well established - and occasionally celebrated - but there are also a lot of misconceptions about paganism that make the word itself a bit taboo.

Paganism isn't something to be feared or shunned. In Latin, "pagan" was simply the word for villager or civilian. Religious connotations that developed during the Middle Ages made pagans into heathens rather than outsiders.

With all that in mind, there continues to be a pervasive presence of paganism in the modern world. There are numerous things you may be doing on a daily basis that are similarly tied to pagan practices and ideas. From wearing a wedding ring to just crossing your fingers for good luck, here are a few activities with pagan roots that you probably never gave a second thought.

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    Covering Your Mouth When You Yawn

    Covering Your Mouth When You Yawn
    Photo: Joseph Ducreux / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When you yawn, your first instinct may be to cover your mouth. This is something that can be traced to antiquity, most likely to the idea that opening one's mouth too far could invite disease. In the Roman world, doctors noticed infants were unable to cover their mouths when they yawned, something they connected with high infant mortality rates. Essentially, the yawn allowed life to escape.

    Adults who linked odd events and yawning may have also contributed to the practice. In one ancient Roman anecdote, a man witnesses a black dog yawn, and then is compelled to yawn himself. When he develops a fever the next day, he attributes it to the whole exchange. The demon or evil spirit that entered his body could have been avoided if he'd put his hand in front of his face. 

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    Knocking On Wood To Ward Off Bad Luck

    Knocking On Wood To Ward Off Bad Luck
    Photo: Joseph Martin Kronheim / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Knocking on wood to keep bad luck away - also referred to as "touching wood" - is also thought to have ties to pagan culture. Celts had strong ties to nature and believed there were spirits in trees. To knock on a tree and invoke the spirit residing within brought about healing and protection.  

    Another possible purpose of knocking on wood was to show respect and thanks to the spirits in trees. One more theory is that knocking on wood sent evil spirits away or created noise to keep evil spirits from overhearing the plans, thoughts, and wishes of humans. 

    Even after the introduction of Christianity, the practice of keeping evil spirits away never abated. It has been adapted to include activities like ear-pulling in Turkey and unique phrases like "touching iron" in Italy.

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    Wearing Jewelry

    Necklaces, bracelets, amulets, and other jewelry were all worn by pagan cultures to decorate the body. This was done for practical purposes and to demonstrate wealth. Viking men, for example, wore elaborate jewelry to indicate their social position. Women, too, adorned themselves in gold and silver. Brooches, rings, torcs, and pins were also common, sometimes featuring symbols in honor of gods like Thor and Odin. 

    Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans commonly wore jewelry with spiritual symbols. In Egypt, jewelry was buried alongside human remains for the journey to the afterlife. Amulets with heart-scarabs, the two fingers of Horus, and serpent heads have all been found in burial sites, indicating their purpose of protection in the next world.

    In the Roman republic, gold rings indicated political importance and were reserved for senators and nobles. When Hannibal defeated the Romans, he was said to have "sent to Carthage, as proof of his victory, three pecks [six dry gallons] of gold rings that he had pulled from the hands of the slain Roman knights and senators." 

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    Keeping Cats As Pets

    Keeping Cats As Pets
    Photo: Irwin J. Weill / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Keeping animals as familiars, or creatures that foster and even heighten spiritual and supernatural powers, has been practiced since antiquity. Cats, dogs, toads, and other small animals were thought to be inhabited by fairies and other spiritual creatures, making them a link between humans and the supernatural world. After the development and spread of Christianity, cats were especially associated with pagans, Satan, witches, the afterlife, and bad omens.

    Within pagan culture, keeping cats was all about maintaining a connection with nature. In some pagan rituals, individuals even dressed like familiars and wore animal masks. From the outside, however, this tradition of keeping cats came to be seen as a way non-Christians could change shapes, spy, and generally cause trouble. 

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