The root of the word ‘superstition’ is Latin and means ‘to stand over in awe’. It relates to an irrational belief that defies a logical explanation. Many primitive beliefs date back a thousand years and more. They were originally created to try to overcome fear of the unknown and the loss of control over life and death events. Many people believed that the future was influenced by ordinary, everyday mistakes and that the future could be foretold by carefully watching simple actions of daily living. These odd ideas were deeply embedded in the minds of people across the globe. Many superstitions in North America were taken by early settlers from Britain and Ireland. Once a belief becomes part of the tradition of a country, it is almost impossible to remove it.
Touching wood which is perhaps the most universal and ancient superstition. It probably formed in the early time of man’s development when trees were thought to be deities. Trees provided wood the fire, for warmth and cooking; a table and a chair; a bed and, of course, a coffin at the end of life. Trees provided shelter from the hot sun during the summer and fruit and nuts for the table in autumn. A branch could be made into a walking stick or a cudgel, for killing an animal for dinner or attacking an enemy. A shepherd’s crook was originally a branch used to hook sheep out of a waterlogged meadow and soon became a tool for delivering a new born lamb. Tall trees, such as firs were way markers for drovers’ routes and for pilgrims on their way to a place of worship. Is it any wonder that trees were venerated and that their wood was considered ‘lucky’?
Iron was another lucky substance as it was thought to ward off many types of evil. Before the days of iron, weapons and tools were made with stone and later with bronze. Iron was a much harder metal than either and was thought to have magical properties of protection. Horse shoes, made of iron, are thought to collect luck from heaven in their arms when placed at a doorway, providing the arms point heavenwards U and not towards the earth. There is a country saying “never pound a nail after sundown or you will wake the tree Gods”. There are several customs surrounding a blade which survive from ancient times. They say never give a knife as a gift or if you give a blade to a friend, he must give you money ‘to avoid cutting the friendship’.
Women were very superstitious in the home in ancient times. Egg shells were never thrown on the fire out of respect for the hens that would be insulted and stop laying if they knew their shells were not used for composting. Another belief was that if two knives were placed on the table across each other, that there would be an argument in the home unless someone uncrossed them. If the bread did not rise in the oven, it would be considered a disaster because the devil resided in unrisen bread. It is also said that if a white table-cloth is left on the table over-night that someone in the home would soon need a shroud. Above all, 13 people should never sit down together for a meal. Some think this superstition originated with Jesus being betrayed by Judas when Jesus and the twelve disciples met at the Last Supper. Some think that the superstition arose from Norse mythology when twelve gods met for a feast when the Spirit of Strife, known as Loki, appeared and started a quarrel which ended with the death of Baldur, the favourite of all the gods.
Many superstitions have developed from primitive religious thought. One of the most common superstitious beliefs still in circulation is that a broken mirror bestows seven years bad luck on the person who broke it. All broken glass is said to bestow ill will and the shards should be treated with the greatest respect if they are not to reach out and take revenge.
Actors are notoriously superstitious and think it unlucky for a woman to knit in the theatre. One should never wish an actor ‘good luck’ as this will bring ‘bad luck’. Cats and umbrellas are banned from the stage area and anyone except a stage hand was not allowed to whistle. If someone whistled in the dressing room, they would be asked to leave the theatre and enter again. The last line of a play is never spoken in rehearsals.
Pertaining to the USA sidewalk is a children’s ditty full of dark foreboding sufficient to develop an obsession with watching their step: ‘Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back!’ Many children, when they find a lost coin in the street will keep it all day for luck, especially if it was found heads-up. The number 13 is especially revered with many buildings without a 13th floor and Continental Airlines avoids using a 13th row.
You might notice several similarities in superstitions throughout the world. Numbers, mirrors and ladders, feature in most world traditions as the poor, powerless country folk attempted to bring some power and control into their lives. Education has eliminated many of these customs from our culture as we now live in an educated society that requires demonstration, proof, argument and understanding, but still the tiniest lurking suspicion remains to shock us into primitive thought if a lucky or unlucky number comes our way!
Wendy Stokes is the author of ‘The Lightworkers Circle Guide – A Workbook for Spiritual Groups’ a handbook that explains how to facilitate a circle. It is published worldwide by O Books. ISBN: 978 1 84694 387 4 and available on Amazon and from all good bookshops. All royalties from this book are donated to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust that protects endangered species from extinction. Visit: http://www.wendystokes.co.uk