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Some superstitions are so ingrained in modern English-speaking societies that everyone, from lay people to scientists, succumb to them (or, at least, feel slightly uneasy about not doing so). But why don't we walk under ladders? Why, after voicing optimism, do we knock on wood? Why do nonreligious people "God bless" a sneeze? And why do we avoid at all costs opening umbrellas indoors?
Find out the origins of all these familiar customs, and more.
"It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors."Slide 2 of 19
"It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors."
Though some historians tentatively trace this belief back to ancient Egyptian times, the superstitions that surrounded pharaohs' sunshades were actually quite different and probably unrelated to the modern-day one about raingear. Most historians think the warning against unfurling umbrellas inside originated much more recently, in Victorian England.
In "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things" (Harper, 1989), the scientist and author Charles Panati wrote: "In eighteenth-century London, when metal-spoked waterproof umbrellas began to become a common rainy-day sight, their stiff, clumsy spring mechanism made them veritable hazards to open indoors. A rigidly spoked umbrella, opening suddenly in a small room, could seriously injure an adult or a child, or shatter a frangible object. Even a minor accident could provoke unpleasant words or a minor quarrel, themselves strokes of bad luck in a family or among friends. Thus, the superstition arose as a deterrent to opening an umbrella indoors."Slide 3 of 19
"It's bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder."Slide 4 of 19
"It's bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder."
This superstition really does originate 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, and Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (as exhibited, for example, by their pyramids). To them, triangles represented the trinity of the gods, and to pass through a triangle was to desecrate them.
This belief wended its way up through the ages. "Centuries later, followers of Jesus Christ usurped the superstition, interpreting it in light of Christ's death," Panati explained. "Because a ladder had rested against the crucifix, it became a symbol of wickedness, betrayal, and death. Walking under a ladder courted misfortune."
In England in the 1600s, criminals were forced to walk under a ladder on their way to the gallows.Slide 5 of 19
"A broken mirror gives you seven years of bad luck."Slide 6 of 19
"A broken mirror gives you seven years of bad luck."
In ancient Greece, it was common for people to consult "mirror seers," who told their fortunes by analyzing their reflections. As the historian Milton Goldsmith explained in his book "Signs, Omens and Superstitions" (1918), "divination was performed by means of water and a looking glass. This was called catoptromancy. The mirror was dipped into the water and a sick person was asked to look into the glass. If his image appeared distorted, he was likely to die; if clear, he would live."
In the first century A.D., the Romans added a caveat to the superstition. At that time, it was believed that peoples' health changed in seven year cycles . A distorted image resulting from a broken mirror therefore meant seven years of ill-health and misfortune, rather than outright death.Slide 7 of 19
"When you spill salt, toss some over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck."Slide 8 of 19