It did get me thinking, though: where do superstitions like that come from? I can understand that many of them were probably, originally, just practical – e.g. walking under ladders makes you a prime target for beaning with a hammer; opening an umbrella inside the house is a good way to poke someone's eye out – but black cats and Friday the 13th? What's the big deal?
Wikipedia was no help, so I decided to do some proper research**. In true scientific fashion, various conflicting theories are tossed around as fact; ancient times and Druids and African myths are discussed; old, forgotten religions, misunderstandings and Biblical misinterpretations are sagely touted as the true origins – all of which led me to conclude one thing: nobody has a frickin' clue.
And then there are the contradictions. The number 13 is considered around the world to be unlucky. Again, there are various theories about the origin of this. (Some say it is because 13 is the supposed number in attendance at the Last Supper – the 13th being Judas Iscariot. Because of this, the Victorians considered it unlucky to have “13 at table” and the superstition surrounding the number developed from there. My personal favourite myth about the number 13 is that if you have 13 letters in your name, you will have “the devil's luck” – all because Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Theodore Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert de Salvo each have 13 letters in theirs.) However, in Italy, 13 was long considered to be lucky, and it was 17 you really wanted to avoid. Black cats are another problem. In Egypt, the cat was seen as a protector and was quite often worshipped; the Egyptians also believed a cat's eyes caught the setting sun's rays and held them safe until morning came. In the West, though, cats were associated throughout history with witches and, as such, if one crossed your path, you were in for a run of bad luck at the witches' hands.
It's obvious that, throughout the ages, superstitions have become muddled and mingled beyond recognition. So why do they persist?
As I doubt very much that there is a scientific basis for any of these beliefs (e.g. I'm pretty certain the fabric of Lewis Hamilton's lucky underpants does not actually have special properties that make him drive faster), I'm left to conclude that their powers, whether real or imagined, operate solely on the mind.
This conclusion is further reinforced by the number of superstitions attached to important or emotionally-charged events, like weddings. In addition to the aforementioned "three times the bridesmaid, never the bride", we also have doozies like "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue", "it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the ceremony" and "whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to get married" (I'm living proof that that one isn't true). Did you know it's the best man's duty to protect the groom from bad luck, and the bridesmaids are there to act as decoys for the bride, so the evil spirits don't know who to attack? No? Well, for goodness' sake, whatever you do, don't get married on a Saturday!
Monday for wealth
Of course, this is also an example of where, over time, superstition has spilled over into tradition. I'm not really one for following traditions. I often get vibed at for not saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.
“But you're supposed to do that, aren't you? Aren't you...? Everybody does...!”
Betcha thought you were just being polite, didn't you? Nope – the legends say that you must bless the person because either: (a) a sneeze indicates evil spirits leaving the body; (b) the heart stops beating during a sneeze and you need to bless the sneezer to get it going again; or (c) sneezing is a sign that the person may have caught the black plague and, by blessing them, you can hopefully stop them from dying. Funny, I always thought it just meant you had dust up your nose.
We all know the ones about breaking mirrors and walking on cracks in pavements, but how about these:
- If you have a bad cough, make a sandwich with one of the hairs from your head (the bread must be buttered), feed it to your dog and tell him, “Eat well, you hound, may you be sick and I be sound.” I wonder how that would go down with the Humane Society these days.
- A ringing bell means that a brand new angel has received its wings. Heaven must be getting crowded by now.
- If you can manage to catch a leaf as it's falling on the first day of autumn, you won't catch a cold all winter. (Does this also work for Swine Flu?)
- Dropping a fork means a man is coming to visit. I don't know who you get if you drop a spork. Maybe Captain Kirk. Or Eddie Izzard.
If you hold to any of these superstitions, at least they won't be much of a bother to anybody around you (with the possible exception of your dog), but there is one superstition that causes a heck of a lot of annoyance and bother to other people: chain letters. Honestly, the amount of chain mail I have failed to pass on should have made me the unluckiest person on the planet by now-- although...this failure could explain why my one true love has never declared his undying adoration for me. [Note to self: forward a couple of chain letters at first opportunity.]
If you're in the mood for testing a seasonal superstition, how about trying for a kiss under the mistletoe? It's supposed to mean harmony and fertility, and a young lady standing under the mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed, or she may miss her chance of getting married the following year. I have yet to experience a mistletoe kiss, but I'm told it can work quite well in lieu of a good pick-up line. It can also get you a black eye.
Whatever you think about the subject, you've got to admit that human beliefs and superstitions are an interesting kettle of fish, and the reasoning behind most is more baffling than Kanye West's continuing popularity.
Now, I'm off to conduct a round of experiments, to document what happens when you find a four-leaf clover whilst walking under a ladder, or when you place a hat on a bed whilst wearing a rabbit's foot around your neck. I have a feeling the results may be inconclusive, at best.
Oh, yes – and if you immediately pass this article on to 30 friends, you will have all your heart's desires brought to you on a silver platter by a tall, dark and handsome man***.
** i.e. Google
*** Unfortunately, Johnny Depp was not available for this service at the time of publication.