A look at superstitions and why we believe in them.
Are you superstitious?
Superstitions are irrational beliefs. So why do 53 per cent of us (according to a 2009 forbes.com survey) admit to having some degree of belief in them? Many people who consider themselves rational, scientifically-minded still say 'bless you' when somebody sneezes or throw salt over their left shoulder. Why do these mini rituals have such a hold upon our daily lives?
Most superstitions date back hundreds, or even many thousands of years to times when scientific knowledge to explain events, such as the changing of the seasons, storms or a failed harvest, did not exist. So people looked to nature for signs with which they could try to make sense of the world around them. If the crops failed one year, a pair of birds nesting next to the harvest field might be blamed, so these creatures become known as birds of ill-omen, with a ritual or superstition devised for countering their supposed bad luck.
Although such beliefs sound silly now, without science to explain adverse events, superstitions were the closest people could come to understanding and trying to influence the natural world.
Superstitions are so deeply ingrained into the human psyche that even with the benefit of our increased knowledge of nature, a great number of us still feel the urge to incorporate at least some in to our daily lives. Today we think of superstitions as ways to bring good luck and to avoid bad fortune.
Using the idea of superstitions to 'think yourself lucky' can be empowering. For example, if wearing a certain ring or pair of shoes makes you feel lucky, then the power of your positive thinking may help to create good luck - or at least give you an optimistic outlook for the day. However, becoming obsessed with adhering to superstitions, like all obsessive behaviour, is a negative thing to be avoided. Treat superstitions lightly and you may be able to think your way to good luck.
Numbers The number seven is considered one of the luckiest. The Romans thought the body was renewed every seven years, there are seven divine beings of luck in Shintoism, seven heavenly virtues in Christianity. Seven is believed by numerologists to signify the perfect union of male and female aspects.
The number 13 is considered unlucky probably due to the shift from Paganism to Christianity. The old religion gave more significance to the Moon and the number 13 was sacred. Wanting to wipe out all trace of the old religion, the number 13 was shunned as unlucky by followers of Christianity.
Ladders Has the obvious practical explanation that if you walk under a ladder it may fall on you! More esoterically, the Egyptians placed ladders next to tombs to start dead souls on their climb to heaven - so walking underneath them might interfere with the journey of the dead. Also a ladder placed against a wall forms the shape of a triangle, which some people think represents the Trinity of Christianity (god, son and holy spirit) so it would be disrespectful to walk through the representation of the Trinity.
Mirrors In the past, people saw reflections as part of one's soul. So to drop a mirror and crack it was thought to break your soul in to pieces - clearly very bad luck! The idea of seven year's bad luck comes from the Roman idea that the body rejuvenates itself over this time period. So after seven years had passed the bad luck would be gone.
Cats The Egyptians worshipped cats as divine beings. Their feline goddesses were called Bastet and Sekhemet. Cats were admired for their grace and independent spirit and for the practical purpose that they kept rats out of the grain stores. With the rise of Christianity, Pagan beliefs became taboo. Cats were looked upon with suspicion and often associated with evil. Hundreds of cats were burned alive alongside 'witches' in the infamous witch-hunts of the 17th century. The idea that a black cat crossing your path is unlucky still survives, although the more enlightened will see it as a good omen.
Bless you One of the most popularly used superstitions is to say 'bless you' when somebody sneezes. This is a relic from the time when plague was an everyday threat and when there were no vaccinations to eradicate sickness. Sneezing could be a sign that a person is infected with a deadly disease, so it was hoped that the blessing would ward off ill effects for the person who sneezed and also for those around them.
Knock on wood It is likely that the superstition of knocking on wood dates back to a belief in the power of tree spirits. It's thought that the Druids worshipped the trees, as they respected the power of everything in the natural world. Perhaps they touched the wood of the tree during prayer to ensure a positive outcome. So when you knock on your kitchen table you are actually taking part in an ancient tradition of asking the spirits of the trees and forest to bless you.
Lucky charms An object of significance to the person who carries it, intended to bring good luck. In the past this might be a lock of your beloved's hair or a cross. Now it's just as likely to be your favourite red socks or best shoes. Carrying a rabbit foot for good luck may originate from the idea of rabbits as symbols of fertility.
Salt It was believed to be a magical substance because of its power to transform taste and preserve meat. So it was considered unlucky to waste the magic by spilling the salt. If you did knock a pot of salt over, it was believed to attract the attention of demons, so you had to throw the spilt salt over your left shoulder into the face of the lurking entity.