A pinch of salt, rabbits, and knocking on wood: Learn the surprisingly ancient histories of these common superstitions.
The number 13
Fear of the number 13 is perhaps one of the most well-known superstition. In fact, triskaidekaphobia (the phobia’s official name) hits at least 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to history.com. One of the earliest myths surrounding unlucky 13 was due to a clerical error, where the 13th law was omitted from one of the world’s oldest legal documents—the Code of Hammurabi. Then there’s Judas Iscariot, the 13th guest to arrive at the Last Supper. A similar occurrence took place in Norse mythology when the mischievous god Loki was the 13th member of a dinner party in Valhalla, upsetting the balance of the 12 gods already there.
Carrying a rabbit’s foot
This belief stems from the ancient beliefs of totemism—the spiritual connection between animals and humans. If a tribe believed they descended from rabbits, it wasn’t unusual for them to carry around parts of a rabbit’s body—particularly the feet. The foot is also a phallic symbol that represented increased fertility, a bountiful harvest, and good fortune, according to howstuffworks.com. Celtic tribes believed that rabbits could speak with underground gods and spirits thanks to their burrows—another reason why carrying a rabbit’s foot could bring luck.
Find a four-leaf clover
According to Scientific American, the chances of finding a four-leaf clover are one in 10,000, making the find a lucky thing in and of itself. But the luck of the clover dates back to Adam and Eve, according to howstuffworks.com. Legend has it that as Adam and Eve were leaving the Garden of Eden, Eve plucked a four-leaf clover as a souvenir. Another theory dates back to the ancient Celtic world when it was believed that four-leaf clovers would help ward off evil spirits. There was also a medieval theory that possessing this lucky plant allowed one to see fairies.
Wearing black for mourning
While you might not think twice about it, wearing black stems from superstition: According to HuffPost, many ancient cultures actually considered death to be contagious, and it was wise to avoid someone who had recently been around a dead person. In Rome, wearing all black was a way to let everyone know you had been in the presence of death.
Breaking the “wishbone”—the furcula of a turkey, duck, or chicken—comes up at Thanksgiving, but people have been making wishes on poultry bones since around 700 B.C., according to howstuffworks.com. The Etruscans believed that birds could tell the future, and drying out and then stroking the bone could grant the power of foresight and make wishes come true. When Romans adopted this superstition, they began cracking the bones in half to spread the luck. Eventually, breaking the bone became the act that granted wishes.
Dating from eras in which salt was tough to get and very expensive, spilling it was terribly unlucky. It might signal relationship troubles, a bad omen, or an invitation for the devil to wreak havoc in the house. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” marks this superstition by depicting a spilled shaker at Judas Iscariot’s elbow. Fortunately, there’s a quick fix: Simply toss some salt over your left shoulder, which is where the devil waits. It gets into the devil’s eyes and blinds him from seeing the salt you spilled.
Knocking on wood
This common and persistent habit originated with ancient pagan cultures that believed spirits and gods resided in trees; knocking on a tree could summon protection. And then there’s the opposite theory—that knocking on wood scared evil spirits away. However, British folklorist Steve Roud believes that the origin is more recent: Knocking on wood for good luck traces back to a 19th-century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood,” where children were only “safe” in the game when they were touching wood.
When Celtic tribes began migrating to what is now Northern Europe and the British Isles around 400 B.C., they blamed any bad luck—cows that wouldn’t give milk, chickens that wouldn’t lay eggs—on the local elves and goblins. Believing that the local fairies feared the iron weapons of the invaders, the Celts hung horseshoes over their doorways to ward off the spells of evil creatures.
Stepping on cracks
You might think “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” has been around about as long as sidewalks—but it’s actually much older. The superstition comes from European- and African-American folklore: Cracks signify an opening between this world and another. Stepping or standing on a crack brings bad luck or health issues to yourself or a family member. And that’s not all: Cracks in walls allow spirits, ghosts, and fairies to enter your house; if there’s an ant colony in a crack and you step on it, get ready for rain; and if you see grass growing in cracks, the next winter will be a bad one.
Wishing on eyelashes
You can thank 18th-century Britain and Ireland for all of the wishes you’ve made on lost eyelashes. A version from Shropshire, England recommends that if an eyelash falls out, you put it on the back of your hand, make a wish, and throw it over your shoulder. If it flies off your hand, your wish will come true. (If it’s still there, too bad.) Another approach popular among Cornish schoolgirls was to place the eyelash on the tip of her nose or the back of her hand. If she can blow it off, her wish will come true.
Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit
Why some people insist on saying “rabbit” once, twice, or three times when they wake on the first day of the month has a murky origin. While it may go back as far as the luck association with rabbit feet, according to People, the first known documentation of this superstition can be found in a 1909 edition of the quarterly scholarly journal Notes and Queries and notated in A Dictionary of English Folklore. But apparently, FDR swore by the habit and the kids’ channel Nickelodeon revived the superstition in the ’90s with “Rabbit Rabbit Day” on the last day of each month, reminding children to say it the next morning.
By Brittany Gibson