More likely than not, you have some superstitious beliefs, whether or not you realize they are common superstitions. If not, you have at least heard of some of the common superstitions that have worked their way into mainstream culture. Have you heard that you should not walk under a ladder unless you want bad luck, or that certain numbers are lucky or unlucky? Superstitions have roots that often go way back in history and attempt to explain something out of our control. Often they justify luck or explain fate. Some of these common superstitions from around the world may not be new to you, but you may be surprised by the history behind them.
Beware of Walking Under a Ladder
Most people are probably familiar with one of the most common superstitions that it is bad luck to walk under a ladder. This belief has a few different origin stories, but can be dated all the way back to Ancient Egypt. Back then, it was considered unlucky to walk under a ladder that was leaning against a wall because the shape it made was a triangle, which was a sacred symbol to them (this is also why pyramids were triangular). Walking under the ladder and therefore breaking the triangle, was believed to disrespect the gods and bring you bad luck.
Centuries later, this superstition is found again in England, where a ladder would be leaned against the gallows where criminals were hanged. It is believed that criminals were walked under the ladder before being hanged, but it could just be that ladders were associated with the gallows and that is why walking under ladders became associated with bad luck. Either way, no one wanted any of that sort of bad luck, so walking under a ladder became a big no-no and one of the long-standing common superstitions people still follow today.
Do Not Sweep Your Floors at Night
Some common superstitions seem to come up in cultures all over the world. The belief that you should not sweep your floors at night is one of them. This superstition comes up in Mexico, the Philippines, India, and a number of African countries, if not more. Depending on the culture, the belief surrounding these common superstitions has slight variations. Usually, it is believed that sweeping your floors at night will bring bad luck, cause you to lose your wealth, or mean that you are sweeping away your blessings.
All of these beliefs are pretty similar and probably come from the fact that it is dark at night and comes from a time when electricity did not exist or was scarce, so this makes sense. If you sweep the floor at night, you might knock something over in the dark or sweep something up that you do not see, which means you have lost those items and need to replace them (which costs money). Another thought is that you should be resting at night rather than sweeping or working around the house. Rest equals good health and good health leads to wealth, or at least the ability to go out and put in a day’s work and make money.
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Black Cats are Good or Bad, Depending on Where You’re From
Many common superstitions from around the world involve cats, especially black cats for one reason or another. But whether these common superstitions mean you are lucky or unlucky depends on where you are. For instance, in Ancient Egypt cats were sacred. They were seen as symbols of the gods. They were often linked to protection and even fertility. So typically in Ancient Egypt, anything having to do with a cat – both black cats and otherwise – was seen as a good or lucky sign.
Other positive common superstitions specifically about black cats include the belief in Welsh folklore that owning a black cat brings good luck to a home. In Japan, it is believed that you will be lucky in love if you see a black cat. In parts of Europe, sailors would bring a black cat on board a ship to bring good luck to the voyage. And in France, seeing a black cat means something magical is going to happen.
However, most people are probably more familiar with the common superstitions about black cats being bad luck. It is commonly said that if a black cat crosses your path, you will have bad luck. This belief has survived since the middle ages when people in many parts of Europe believed that black cats were the companions of witches or sometimes even witches in disguise. It was not just bad luck for a black cat to cross your path, it was thought to be a sign that the devil was watching you.
Apparently, this belief crossed the ocean with the early European settlers and the link between black cats and witchcraft still exists in American common superstitions today. It is still so prominently believed that black cats are bad luck, that many animal shelters have a harder time adopting out black cats than any other cats.
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Do Not Let the Evil Eye Get You
One of the common superstitions from around the world that everyone might not be as familiar with is the belief in the evil eye. The evil eye is basically a curse that is cast by a look from someone. This curse causes the person who received the evil eye to have something bad happen to them. It is sort of like black magic. Sometimes this can mean some sort of minor misfortune like losing something, not being able to sleep, or some other sort of bad luck. Other times, it is believed that it can lead to serious misfortune in the form of a disease, a serious injury, or even death.
The belief in the evil eye is deeply rooted in history and comes up in quite a few cultures around the world. It can be found in ancient Greek and Roman writings as well as in Jewish, Islam, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. It is even mentioned in the Bible. The common superstitions that involve the evil eye are used to explain why something bad happens to someone without any real explanation.
Since the evil eye is a curse that can befall anyone at any time, common superstitions also involve ways to protect yourself from the evil eye. For example, babies in many Latin American countries are given a good luck charm called an azabache to protect them from the evil eye.
Other cultures have amulets or talismans that are worn or put up in a household to ward off the evil eye. A common one is a hamsa, a palm-shaped amulet that often has an eye in the center of the palm. They are also referred to as the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Mary, and the Hand of the Goddess, depending on the culture. Hamsas are found in Jewish, Arabic, Moroccan, and Middle Eastern traditions, to name a few. Across cultures, the hamsa symbol is believed to bring good fortune and protection to those who wear or bear it.
Beware of the Number 13
Common superstitions surrounding the number 13 are pretty widely known throughout Western cultures. Many people avoid the number at all costs. Friday the 13th is believed to be an unlucky day in some countries (although in Spain, Tuesday the 13th is considered an unlucky day). Many buildings in the United States do not have a 13th floor and many hotels and hospitals avoid having rooms with the number 13.
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So where do these common superstitions and the aversion to the number 13 come from? A few stories from folklore and religion predominantly found in Western cultures explain the origins. A story in Norse mythology describes a banquet held in Valhalla where 12 gods were in attendance. Loki, the god of mischief, crashed the party as the 13th guest. Some chaos ensued, as happens whenever Loki is involved, and Balder, the god of light, joy, and goodness, was killed. Later, the superstition is further spread through the story of the Last Supper, where Jesus ate with and washed the feet of his disciples. The 13th guest to arrive is believed to be Judas, who ultimately betrays Jesus, leading to his death.
….and the Number 4
In contrast, the number 13 is not a concern in many Asian countries. Instead, the number four tends to be avoided at all costs across a number of East Asian countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. That is because in China the word for the number four sounds very similar to the word for death. In other Asian countries, the word for the number and death is the same.
Because of this, common superstitions in this part of the world include not having fourth floors in buildings (like not having 13th floors in the United States) and not including the number four in phone numbers, the names of businesses, or even on license plates – it is impossible to get a license plate in Beijing with the number four.
Birds Can Bring Good Luck or Bad, Depending on the Bird
There are all kinds of common superstitions having to do with birds. Some mean good luck, while others mean bad luck is coming. Black-feathered birds like crows, ravens, and magpies are often linked to bad luck and death in many cultures. That may be in part because this group of birds are omnivores and, depending on what is available to them, will hunt insects, amphibians, small mammals, and are even known to eat dead animals.
In Greek mythology, crows and ravens (each bird appears in different versions of the stories) were a symbol of Apollo and were believed to be his messengers in the mortal world. In one story, Apollo sent a white raven (in other versions it is a crow) to spy on his lover, Coronis. After learning from the raven that Coronis was having an affair, he had Coronis killed and turned the raven black out of anger, which is why they are black today.
Both crows and ravens remain symbols of bad luck in countries like Korea and the United Kingdom – remember reading Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven in high school?
People in the United Kingdom believe that the number of crows you see determines whether or not they are bad luck. That is because of a nursery rhyme that dates back to the 1600s. There are slightly different versions of this rhyme, but one published in the Dictionary of Superstitions by Oxford University Press goes like this: One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for birth, five for rich, six for poor, seven for a witch, I can tell you no more. This is likely the reason people in Ireland, Scotland, and England believe seeing a single crow or magpie brings bad luck.
In some Native American folklore, the crow was often depicted as a trickster, while in others they were seen as advisors or spirits of wisdom. Along the way somewhere, like black cats, crows were linked to witchcraft and believed to be bad omens. Maybe calling a group of crows a “murder” does not help their reputation! But apparently, that term is more poetic than scientific, based on common superstitions about crows – a scientist or ornithologist would call it a flock.
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Watch Out for Spilled Salt
Among common superstitions that people still follow and have no idea why is that you should throw salt over your shoulder if you spill salt while you are cooking. The assumption here is that spilling salt is bad luck, but throwing a little over your shoulder erases that bad luck.
Surprisingly, there is a long history of superstition when it comes to salt. According to a Norwegian superstition, a person will shed as many tears as will be necessary to dissolve salt that has spilled. One similar English belief says that every grain of salt spilled represents future tears. In France and the United States, people throw a little spilled salt behind them in order to hit the devil in the eye and temporarily prevent him from making mischief.
The belief that spilling salt brings bad luck probably comes from the fact that in ancient times, salt was highly prized and highly valued. The word salary comes from the term “salt money.” Roman soldiers were given special allowances for salt rations called “salarium” which translates to salt money, which is the origin of the modern word “salary.”
It is interesting how many common superstitions carry from one culture to the next across the world. It is even more interesting that even though many things can be explained with science and a better understanding of how things work, people still firmly believe these common superstitions. Now, next time you avoid a ladder, throw a little salt over your shoulder while cooking, or avoid any major decisions on Friday the 13th, you will at least know where those things came from and why people started doing them. Who is to say that a little help with good luck is a bad thing anyway?
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