The History and Culture of Superstitions

A look at the myths which have shaped the lives of cultures around the world.


Ralph Daily from Birmingham, United States, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

More black cats than any other color are found abandoned on the streets, perhaps due to superstitions about them.

Everyone dislikes being told what to do. From a young age, we’ve been told to do this and that and to always follow the rules. Growing up we’ve all heard our parents or peers tell us not to open umbrellas indoors, to wish upon shooting stars, and to never walk under ladders. But have you ever taken the time to wonder just why we follow such rules and how they become so prevalent? 

Superstitions are widely held but unjustified beliefs and behave a certain way due to their fear of the unknown or faith in luck; such beliefs are often reinforced through repetition. Avoiding black cats is an example of a common superstition.

There is a longstanding history of superstition in our society. People find themselves unconsciously referring to them in folklore and other forms of entertainment. Even children practice them. A popular schoolyard game is to avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. The superstition arose that stepping on a crack will break your mother’s back. People who have already stepped on cracks would know that this isn’t true yet they still practice it so why is it that we follow such superstitions even though we don’t understand why we follow them? To understand, let’s look at a couple of commonly held superstitions. 

A popular superstition told to many children is to never walk under a ladder. According to this superstition, walking under ladders will give you bad luck. You don’t need to know its history to understand where it came from. Even without believing in superstition, you should know that walking under a ladder is an accident waiting to happen. When safety is concerned most parents will spread such superstitions to protect their children from engaging in dangerous behaviors.

Other superstitions are harder to understand and require some background knowledge, such as wishing upon a shooting star, unlucky black cats, and Friday the Thirteenth. 

If you ever leave the city and visit a more rural or even suburban area, you may be amazed at the vast expanse of stars. When a shooting star appears, you may be told to wish on it as some say it may become true. This superstition originated during the second century when a Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, suggested that shooting stars were actually stars that escaped whenever a god tore open space and was listening to your wishes. Ask anyone today why they wish on shooting stars, and they likely won’t tell you about the gods tearing through the sky. The answers you get will be more along the lines of a simple ‘it’s lucky. The fact that luck isn’t tangible making it harder to disprove and that people are more likely to believe what they want to hear makes it understandable why this superstition is so widespread. 

People also follow superstitions because of old folklore. Hearing these stories from a young age we have been conditioned to believe what we’ve been told. In the past umbrellas were not as advanced and were dangerous to open and close. There have been many accidents involved with opening umbrellas indoors which is why people have been told not to open an umbrella indoors. While technology has advanced and umbrellas have become much safer now this saying has lasted. Nowadays it is believed that opening umbrellas indoors will bring bad luck. 

Next is possibly the most well known creature embroiled in superstition. With sharp claws, golden eyes, and an aloof attitude, it’s the feared black cat. They were thought to be a witch’s companion and seen as omens of misfortune. Black cats are commonly seen as Halloween decorations because popular media has embraced the idea of black cats as symbols of evil or witchcraft. Some superstitious people go as far as spinning around three times every time they cross paths with a black cat to prevent the cat’s bad luck from rubbing off on them. Unfortunately, this superstition may have been why black cats have the highest euthanasia rates and the lowest adoption rates. 74.6 % of black cats are euthanized while only 10% are adopted. 

Perhaps the most famous superstition is that of Friday the Thirteenth. This day normally occurs one to three times a year and is notorious as a day of bad luck. Even now, fear of this day is so great that some people even develop paraskevidekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the thirteenth. Many people take extra care and caution on this particular day. 

There are many possible reasons for such a fear of this day, many fueled by Christianity. Biblically, the thirteenth person to arrive at the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot, was the one who betrayed Jesus. The day Friday is also unlucky in the Bible as it is the day that Jesus was crucified, the day Cain killed his brother Abel, and the day Eve gave Adam the apple in the Garden of Eden. 

Religious backing has also caused many to view thirteen as a very unlucky number. Many buildings in America and the United Kingdom have removed this floor, skipping from twelve to fourteen. In similar cases, Asian countries such as China, Korea, and the Philippines remove the number four in buildings. This is due to the words for four sounding like the words for death in many Asian languages.

In response to common superstitions, many people are willing to change their behavior and go out of their way to avoid or obtain something. In everyday life people will search up their horoscopes or knock on wood. On important occasions a person might choose to wear their lucky color or use a lucky pencil for a bit of extra luck. An extreme case would be the decline of airline tickets during this day in the U.S. and the U.K. 

The world is a mysterious place with much uncertainty and following certain superstitions normally doesn’t require too much time or effort. Following these practices gives people a peace of mind and makes them feel safer in unfamiliar situations. On the off chance something does happen, they will not feel regret over choosing to ignore a superstition. 

Looking at it from a psychological standpoint, people may associate these symbols with good luck and hence attribute any signs of good luck to them further reinforcing their beliefs. Superstitions are not inherently good or bad, it is the way we use them and whether we bring them to an extreme that decides their effects. Superstitions are a prevalent part of our lives and have influenced our decisions. Knowing their history can help us understand why a person might follow such rules. 

Superstitions are a prevalent part of our lives and have influenced our decisions. Knowing their history can help us understand why a person might follow such rules.