By Hanna Sammanthan, GIS Student
Superstitions are as common as they are bizarre. Driving people to take precautions and stimulate fear where none is necessary. Not walking under ladders, avoiding certain numbers, and throwing salt over your shoulder are only a few of the hundreds of strange customs we have accepted as the norm.
But where did they come from? And why are they still in place if so many people don’t believe they hold any truth?
One of the earliest superstitions in human history is the fear of certain numbers. The common one you have probably heard of is the bad connotations to the number 13. People have grown to be wary around this number throughout history due to the horrid events that occurred when this number was related to the situation. For example, in Norse mythology, the thirteenth god is a vile trickster who enjoys inflicting pain onto humans and other gods alike. Another tale is that a witch’s coven has thirteen members. But it doesn’t stop there; there are a great number of historic events that support this superstition. For example, the mass arrest and execution of the knights templar took place on Friday the thirteenth. There were also traditionally thirteen steps to the gallows.
Although these are only a few of many tales surrounding this particular number, it’s easy to see why people of the past were convinced to steer clear of anything associated with it; mere coincidence wasn’t a good enough explanation back then.
Another superstition that lots of people have been exposed to is the one surrounding the myth of putting your new shoes on the table. I, for one, always thought the origins of this was to do with hygiene, but when researching about it in further detail, I learned of its rather disturbing roots. Coal miners’ deaths were extremely common between the 1850s to the 1914s in England; however, the fact that the bodies couldn’t be retrieved caused some problems as their family could not have a funeral. So as an alternative, they would put a pair of shoes belonging to their dead family member on the table. This custom has grown to the point that if anyone puts their shoes on a table it is a sign of death and bad luck.
On the other hand there are some superstitions that are beneficial and light hearted; for instance, wishing on birthday candles or even on dandelions. Nonetheless, these similar traditions come from extremely different time periods.
The dandelion wishing superstition comes from the 1800s. It is said that if a young child thinks deeply about the person they are attracted to and blows the seeds away, it is an indicator to whether or not that person likes them back. If the seeds fly far away from you, the person returns the affectionate feelings, and if the seeds remain, they do not.
Birthday cake candles date all the way back to the ancient Greeks. They had the belief that you must put an offering unto the altar of each god or goddess in order to earn their blessing. They decided to place candles into the baked goods they offered for the moon goddess, Artemis, because they thought it would make the gifts shine like the moon. It was also believed that if you blew out the candles while praying, the smoke would carry your prayers to the gods.
There are hundreds of strange traditions like these that seem odd when thought about in a lot of detail. The reason we pass on these superstitions is because they have become so embedded into our society that we do not question the origin or purpose. We have become so accustomed to strange superstitions, that it would be even stranger to live without them.
I think that most of these superstitions cause a lot of unneeded stress, but on the other hand, I also believe that without these odd precautions we are so used to taking, our society would be a very different place. In addition, if we do ignore these superstitions, we would lose a part of our culture that our worrisome ancestors had passed down to us. Perhaps in the future, something that we think is commonplace will become an unnecessary superstition with an unclear origin.