Background to some superstitious beliefs
Superstitions have been with us for a long time - the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese and indeed most ancient civilisations have recorded a fear, or avoidance of certain acts, things, people or animals for fear that harm will befall them. Additionally, there are many references throughout time and culture, to charms and cermonies to ward off evil or bad luck.
Some superstitions can be tracked back for generations, and I have listed some of those most common in the West, below:
(triskaidekaphobia, literally, fear of 13) - This may possibly be down to the biblical references to the number '12' - a number which was considered to be complete, good. In addition, Jesus Christ was betrayed when there were thirteen sat at table for the Passover supper. In Europe and the USA, very few buildings have a thirteenth floor, and many are the streets in England with the number '12a' in its stead. No civilised host would seat 13 at a table - I have even had a restaurant booking refused because I wanted a table for thirteen!
- Unlucky 13
Contrast this with the Japanese fear of the number four - the pronunciation of which sounds like a word for 'death'.
Oh, and why is Friday the Thirteenth so unlucky? Well, back to Christianity - Jesus was crucified on a Friday. There are other suggestions, notably that the Knights Templar were arrested at the behest of King Philip IV of France, on Friday, 13th October, 1307. Given that they were tortured (in some cases to death), no surprise that Friday 13th was considered unlucky by some.
Lucky Black Cats
Cat superstitions feature in many places. In the UK it is considered lucky if a black cat crosses your path, in other parts of Europe, similar beliefs abound - cats walking toward or away from you may signify bad or good omens in different cultures. In some areas, cats were associated with witches, who kept them as familiars. Witches wore black... black + cat = bad luck.
Walking under ladders
In most places, this is going to bring bad luck. There is perhaps an element of common sense in this - after all, there could be someone working above you with paint, tools or other objects subject to the law of gravity! One suggestion as to the origin of this one is that those holding seige ladders were the most likely to be caught if burning oil were poured down the walls of a castle being stormed. Convincing argument...
Another suggested origin lies in the Trinity doctrine, both the Christian and ancient Babylonian faiths having triune gods. Ladders, you see, form the three sides of a triangle with floor and wall - to break this would be to violate the sanctity of a religious tenet. Bad luck from the gods would follow!
Knocking on Wood
Knock on wood for good luck. As Druidic/Celtic tradition dictated, trees were sacred - many other cultures have faerie creatures living in or associated with them. Knocking on the tree was performed as part of a ritual to call on the gods for assistance, guidance or support. The tradition lives on, although in my neck of the woods, knocking on one's own head seems to suffice, should there be no handy timber product.
This is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck! In many places, one's image or reflection was said to contain the soul, hence many cultures' reluctance to allow photographs to be taken. Breaking the mirror caused spiritual trauma and hardship. Many peoples suggested that looking at your reflection in water was bad luck, as any ripples would distort the image. Narcissus fell prey to that one, all right.
It is said that if you spill salt accidentally, it allows the Devil to possess your soul. A far cry from the days when salt was such a precious commodity that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (salarium - salary). To break his power over you, a pinch of salt thrown over the shoulder would make him sneeze, and relinquish his hold. Some say that the left shoulder is best, others the right. They all make the assumption that Old Nick is coming at you from behind.
A good luck thing, for a change! We are back to the Druids, who believed that a four-leaved clover would allow them to see into the spirit world, and avoid wicked demons. They did of course have more and better ways of seeing things.
Don't put shoes on the table
Just like my Grandmother used to say. This will surely bring disharmony to your household. Little surprise there - someone had to polish that table, you know! I also heard tell that the hobnails in boots, scratching the surface would allow sadness into the heart of the family. Shoes should also never be stored upside down.
Birds in the house are a harbinger of death. A robin in the house means that one of the family will die - many are the birds whose singing outside a house is a sign of disaster too, like the whipporwill, for example.
Said to the victim of a sneeze, this pharse will ward off evil and guarantee good health. The Devil (again) was able to get to you whilst your mouth and nose was open. So why not during a yawn? Well, the Black Death was in part responsible for this one - sneezing was one of the symptoms of this plague, and anyone would do well to keep out of reach of a sneezing person. Asking for God's blessing on the sufferer (presumably whilst running away) was the least anyone could do. (The nursery rhyme Ring Around the Roses illustrates the fear that people had of this dread disease.) Gesundheit!
Not surprisingly nowadays, given the health risks, but lighting them is surrounded by superstition, too. It was said (during WWI) that taking the third light from a match would get you shot. As well it might, as an enemy sniper has time to take a bead on you and BANG!.
There's another one that tells of a sailor dying if you light a ciggie from a candle. Apparently sailors often sold matches to supplement their incomes (or with smuggled tobacco, possibly!). Lighting a cigarette from a candle was denying them income from match sales.
Thanks gnarl for the cigarette ones, and smartalix for the Templars.
If anyone knows of more superstitions, with their origins, please /msg me, I will include them and credit you!