If a black cat crossing your path makes your day, and spilling salt gives you the heebie jeebies, you’re not the only one – we’re a nation obsessed with archaic rituals
Words: Simeon De La Torre
Brace yourselves. It’s 31 October. The ‘sexy witch’ costumes have been stripped from shelves, there is a bandage shortage in chemists across the country and David Cameron lookalikes have never been busier. We joke. Sort of. But it’s an odd time of year, particularly when you consider that we choose to wear odd costumes, carve out the insides of overgrown fruits, and tell horrific ghost stories to pre-school children.
Halloween is a hybrid really; a mix of pagan and Christian festivals but both merge on the idea that disguising yourself with masks and outfits would mislead spirits who were in the mood to wreak revenge on those who wronged them in life. Carved turnips (and, in America, pumpkins) were used to ward away the evil spooks. And ghostly tales? Well, that’s clearly child cruelty.
But in an age of smartphones, science and reason, our continued connection with the irrational hexes and jinxes of yesteryear is a curious contradiction. Women are more superstitious than men – a 2003 University of Hertfordshire survey found that 51% of women considered themselves very superstitious compared to 29% of men. Superstition is strongly linked to lack of control, and therefore it’s easy to see how women who have historically had little say over their destinies, gave credence to these beliefs.
According to a 2010 survey, 14million adults in Britain regularly go out of their way to carry out peculiar tasks that they believe will bring them good luck (or ward off bad). Four out of every 10 grown-ups will make an effort not to walk on cracks in the pavement, while a third of us refuse to put up an umbrella in the house, or believe that a broken mirror will bring bad luck. Reassuringly (we think), six in 10 know that superstitions are unlikely to come to anything – it seems we carry them out anyway ‘just in case’. But where do they stem from? And is there any truth at all in our ancestors’ rather strange habits?
The ebony feline has a chequered past. In the UK and Ireland, they’re generally regarded as good luck if they cross your path. In Scotland, a strange black cat at your front door indicates future prosperity. In fact, captains of ships preferred black cats on board “for luck” and fisherman’s wives would keep a black cat in the house until their husbands returned from sea. The Romans considered cats sacred and perhaps that belief kept favour in the British Isles, even after Caesar’s empire collapsed.
But on the Continent, life was a little different. Black cats were regarded as shape-shifters, and minions of witches. And if they crossed your path, death or ill-fortune came your way. Such was the fear in western and southern Europe surrounding the humble dusky housecat, that during the Middle Ages they were rounded up and burnt on midsummer bonfires. This led to an explosion in the rat population, which, of course, brought the bubonic plague. Which certainly was bad luck for all involved.
Few can claim to not giving a second thought to this inauspicious date when it rolls around (three times in 2012), and it’s believed that 60 million people worldwide suffer from a fear of the day – known as paraskevidekatriaphobia. Not surprisingly, the day is tainted due to Christian theology. Friday was the day on which Jesus was crucified, and 13 is the number of people present at the Last Supper (Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th member of the party to arrive). The Old Testament has also got issues with Friday, it being the day when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and the Great Flood began (different week). Plus it’s also claimed that 13 is the number of turns required on a hangman’s noose – anything less lacks the might to snap a neck.
“There was some research recently published in the British Medical Journal that looked into the rate of car accidents on Friday 13th, compared with the Fridays before and after,” says Dr Richard Stephens, who lectures in superstitions at Keele University. “There were actually fewer cars on the road and it seemed like people were changing their behaviours.” The thinking seems to be, better to be safe than sorry.
Another superstition with its roots in Christianity – and specifically, the Last Supper – spilled salt at the dinner table is apparently a bigger deal than minor condiment calamity. Judas Iscariot is to blame once again, and if you consult da Vinci’s celebrated painting of Jesus’ final meal, you can see that he’s knocked the salt cellar over with his elbow. Thus, spilled salt has ever since been associated with treachery and lies.
However, as any superstitious woman knows, you can counteract the negative effects by throwing a pinch over your left shoulder to ‘blind the devil lurking there’.
Walking under a ladder
When it comes to the origin of this oft-encountered superstition you can opt for either a trusty Christian belief, or a Richard Dawkins-style practicality. The latter? Something may fall on your head. The former? According to the Glasgow Science Centre, the triangular shape made by a ladder leaning against the wall and above the ground evokes the Holy Trinity and therefore, by walking through the triangle you are being disrespectful to God (committing a desecration). However, if you’ve wandered under one by accident, you should walk back underneath it, saying a prayer as you do so.
Opening umbrellas indoors
When you’re looking for a place to dry a wet umbrella, this somewhat frustrating superstition flies in the face of reason. In 2009, the Glasgow Science Centre found that it actually dates back some 5,000 years to the Ancient Egyptians. They used umbrellas (or parasols) back then protect themselves from the sun, and opening one indoors was perceived as an insult to Ra the sun god. The punishment? No, not rain; the usual – terrible luck. “This is an almost ingrained belief that began in days of poorer education and yet passes down through the generations for thousands of years,” says Dr Stephens.
Breaking a mirror
Back in the glory days of TFI Friday, Chris Evans stuck two fingers up at superstition by obliterating a mirror with a bowling ball. And while we’ll never know if his subsequent years in the media wilderness were the price he paid for such folly/ bravery, there’s no doubt that a mirror breaking is seen by many as a portent of seven years’ bad luck (or at best a niggling feeling of dread). The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all believed that when a person looked into a mirror, their soul would transfer into the reflection – and it followed that if the glass was broken as they looked into it, the soul within it would also be harmed. The cure: bury the pieces, or run them in a stream.
The superstition has evolved over time, and by the early 1800s a broken mirror was said to signify the death of a family member or friend. Thankfully, this was eventually downgraded and the first reference to someone smashing a mirror getting seven years’ bad luck dates from 1851.
Shoes on a table
Another of the superstitions in our list that is driven by mortal fear as opposed to good fortune, leaving shoes on a table is said to either a) invite death into the house or b) bring into the house the bad luck associated with an executed criminal. And given these two supposed possible outcomes it’s hardly surprising it remains in our national psyche as the ninth most common superstition in Britain (according to a 2010 survey). “People tend to hang on to superstitions when the ‘stakes’ are high,” says Dr Stephens, “and if it’s an outcome that they could have no possible control over.” Like death.
The back story is that after criminals were executed by hanging, the noose would be loosened, their bodies would lower and their boots would tap on to the wooden surface below. Thankfully, even if you do invoke the curse, it will be lifted when the person who placed the shoes on the table removes them.
According to a survey in 2010, touching wood is one of Britain’s most common superstitions and it’s one of a select few that have become an almost everyday habit (along with ‘making a wish’ and ‘crossing your fingers’).
Its origins, however, are unclear. According to some, it derives from a Pagan belief that malevolent spirits inhabited wood, and that if you talked about a hope for the future you should touch (or knock) the nearest piece of it to prevent the spirits from hearing – and subsequently scuppering your plans.
Others claim it harks back to a sect of monks who wore large wooden crosses which they tapped to ward away evil, while yet another scenario is that it’s a curious hangover of a 19th-century children’s game like ‘tag’, called Tiggy Touch Wood.
There’s an element of association with superstitions,” says Dr Stephens. “If it ‘works’ for you once, you’ll do it again.” So, even if we know realistically we’re not going to be plagued by bad luck if we walk under a ladder or open our brolly indoors, we’re certainly not going to start taking the risk.
Are you superstitious? Or are there any strange rituals you adhere to? Let us know in the comments section below