Many people, myself included, succumb to various superstitions. Practices like avoiding walking under ladders or touching wood to prevent bad luck have a wide range of origins from religious beliefs to old world common sense (umbrellas used to be very hazardous to open indoors). Here are some of the origins I find most interesting.
Salt has a long rich history is most cultures around the world. You can find it in nearly every kitchen worldwide. It is has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries. Due to how expensive it was to the Romans the word salary was born. It seems obvious that spilling anything so expensive would be frown upon. There is more to the story than just the price. Some cultures saw salt as a symbol of friendship and to spill it was to hurt that bond. In DaVinci’s Last Supper painting Judas is shown having spilled salt. This is likely where the idea that spilling salt was a bad omen. So what do you do to combat a bad omen brought on by spilled salt? You throw a pinch over your left shoulder to blind the devil who lurks there.
I have also know people who refuse to take salt directly from another persons hand, it must be placed on the table first. Some believe that placing a salt shaker directly in someones hand means you will get into a fight with that person. To others it is more serious meaning your relationship with that person will end completely.
Touching or knocking on wood to ward off bad luck is very common in the US and Europe. If wood is not available some people knock on their heads just in case. Wood has been a sacred symbol to ancient religions since the beginning of time. Many of these religions believed that spirits lived in trees and touching or knocking on the trees would call upon them for protection. There is also a theory that the custom is tied to christians touching the crucifix when taking an oath or that the loud knocking should would scare off evil spirits.
Cats have been seen as both a good omen and a bad one. The color associated with good or bad changes depending on the culture. Egyptians revered all cats of any color. In Japan it is said to be lucky for a single woman to own a black cat. In Great Britain black cats are considered so lucky that they are given as bribes. The idea that black cats are bad luck is likely to have started in the middle ages when people believed they were familiars or witches in disguise. It was later believed that these cats were the devil and that if one crossed your path the devil was watching you. I have a hard time believing the devil could hide behind such cuteness.
The Number 13
Triskaidekaphobia is the formal name for fear of the number 13. It is so common to avoid the number 13 in the US that most high rise buildings do not have a 13 button in their elevators. This is another superstition related to the last supper where there were 13 people seated at the table and Judas was the 13th to be seated. A similar situation happens in Norse mythology where Loki is the 13 member seated at a dinner between the gods and causes the death of the god Balder.
Hearses & Cemeteries
I have often felt like I should do something when seeing a hearse or passing a cemetery, but I couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps it steams from hearing the old rhyme “never laugh when a hearse goes by or you will be the next to die”. Turns out that it’s common for people to touch a button when they see a hearse or hold their breath when passing a cemetery. Some believed that if you breathe near the dead you might inhale a soul. The most cautious in Victorian society would hold their breath and lift their feet when a hearse went by. Perhaps that’s where the habit of touching a screw and lifting your feet when driving over railroad tracks originates. Why people chose to touch or hold buttons is unclear. However the origins of these superstitions are pretty obvious, people fear death.