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The Origins of Superstitions and Lucky Charms

All around the world, many people still believe that the supernatural intervenes in everyday life. Where do these ideas come from?

The Origins of Superstitions and Lucky Charms

Worldwide, one in every 10 people is afflicted by triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13. Estate agents find houses numbered 13 hard to sell and even a house numbered 12a may have a horseshoe hung at the threshold. This supposedly waylays evil because the Devil moves in a circle and the gap in the horseshoe will make him turn back.

Friday 13th is believed the unluckiest of all days. Although fewer people choose to drive their cars on that day, a 1993 study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that the number of car accidents on Friday 13th is higher than on other Fridays. The doom associated with 13 is a superstition that probably stems from the Last Supper of Jesus with his 12 disciples, one of whom – Judas Iscariot – would betray him. The link with Friday comes from Christians remembering this event on Good Friday. From the same origin there arose the belief that if 13 people sit down at table, one of the assembly will die within the year. On Friday, 13 October 1307, King Philip IV of France had every member of the Knights Templar arrested on charges of heresy. He aimed to seize their wealth and therefore had them tortured to extract confessions of an extreme kind, including idolatry.

In the ancient world, numbers were the keys to understanding the universe and its magical forces. They were also culture-specific. In Babylon, where the numbering system was based on 60, the numbers from one to 60 were deemed blessed of the gods. In ancient China odd numbers, considered to be female, were believed to be luckier than even numbers, which were male.

One, the indivisible number of divine unity, two, the link between God and man and between a pair of humans, and three, the number of the Holy Trinity, have long been regarded as lucky. Four, especially in the form of a four-leaf clover, means perfection but is unlucky for the Chinese because it sounds like the word for death.

Both the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians thought seven (the sum of three and four, both propitious) to be lucky because it was the number of the sacred planets. In the Bible, it is significant that Noah led seven pairs of all clean animals, one pair of every unclean animal and seven pairs of birds into the ark. When the flood subsided, God, who had created the world in seven days, sent a redeeming rainbow with seven colours.

Worn for good fortune

The ancient Egyptians wore lucky charms or amulets as a protection against death and evil spirits. One of the oldest was the ‘eye’ of Horus, a sky god who took the shape of a falcon. His right eye represents a falcon’s, including the ‘teardrop’ sometimes seen below it. Horus was called on by his mother Isis to destroy her wicked brother Set, and lost his eye after a series of battles with Set. When the eye was restored it was believed to have special powers. The eye symbol was also known as a ‘wadjet’, a deity with links to the Sun. Representations of the eye were made of precious metal and endowed its wearer with the strength of the life-giving Sun. Babies, and even valuable livestock, were given amulets for protection. Today’s christening gifts are a remnant of this practice.

Amulets or talismans, worn as bracelets, necklaces, rings or even belts, are usually made of gold or silver, jewels or semi-precious stones. The five-pointed ‘wizard’s star’ was popular in medieval times. It was emblematic of the mysteries of the universe and believed to strengthen the soul. For the traveller, wearing an image of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, is lucky. According to legend, the saint once offered to carry a child, who then became heavier than any other burden. He later revealed himself as Jesus.

Talismans for the home

To propitiate spirits that protect the household, the skull of a human or animal – especially a horse – would be embedded in the walls when a house was built. Many ancient cultures believed it would ward off evil or illness, and its resistance to decay reflected a hope that the home would endure. Grotesque faces, still used in African countries and in Mexico, are also believed to ward off evil spirits.

The ‘weak point’ in a house is the keyhole, through which evil can enter or fairies steal a newborn baby, so keeping a key in the door is a safety precaution. This also explains why breaking or dropping a key is meant to be unlucky. Windows or ‘wind eyes’ are also vulnerable points. A multi-coloured glass ball might be hung up in a window to distract the evil gaze of a witch and absorb the impact of any venom that she might spit.

The ancient art of geomancy, or feng shui, decrees that, to avoid ill luck, the items within a home must be optimally placed relative to the lines of energy crossing the landscape.

This derives from the links between ancient feng shui and astronomy. The Chinese used the study of astronomy to link humans with the universe and the pole stars, while the position in relation to the celestial poles determined the north-south axis of settlements.

Using these rules, a home should ideally be set with hills or tall trees to the north or back, and water flowing to the south or front, so that the favourable aspects of cosmic breath, or chi, are perfectly balanced with the unfavourable ones. Inside, screens will help to keep positive energy flowing out of the doors. A mirror should never be placed on the wall facing a bed because the spirit leaves the body at night and may be disturbed by its own reflection.

Staying lucky

All kinds of actions are supposed to influence luck. Crossing the fingers to avert bad luck or to induce a lucky event is thought to relate to the Crucifixion, as is the older and, for gamblers, even luckier action of crossing the legs. From Roman times, holding the thumb with the fingers of the same hand has been a way of keeping away ghosts. The same action was a medieval way of keeping a witch from seeing you. Touching or knocking on wood for luck probably dates back to the ancient belief in tree spirits. But not just any wood will do. The ash and yew, trees of immortality, are luckiest while hornbeam was favoured as the wood of the sorcerer’s wand. At sea, men believe that touching iron will confer the best protection against evil if someone should blaspheme.

Avoidance can be as important as action. Fear of walking under a ladder dates back to the old practice of hanging criminals after making them climb a ladder to their execution. Opening an umbrella indoors could bring ill fortune or even be an omen of death, particularly to the Chinese, who saw it as an insult to the Sun, their warmth-bringing deity.

The animals and people who cross your path may also affect ­­your fortunes. In Africa and Ancient Egypt, hares were symbols of both good and bad luck, symbolising mortality and renewal. They had many roles in Native American culture but in the most all-encompassing form represented the life-giving power of the Sun. More recently they were thought to resemble covens of witches and were deemed unlucky. Cats, too, are both lucky and unlucky. They were revered as gods in Ancient Egypt but burned for their perceived links to witches in the Middle Ages and later. Their colour is significant. In Britain, black cats are lucky, but in most other places, white cats fill this role, in some instances bringing wealth. Sheep are lucky if you encounter them in a flock, but it is unlucky to count them – they, or you, may die as a result.

Theatre customs

Professions traditionally fraught with uncertainty, such as acting and fishing, have attracted many superstitions. In Greece and Rome, plays were performed to propitiate the gods and to help to assure every important event from the return of spring to fruitful harvests. Many customs still persist. An actor will keep a rabbit’s foot, an ancient lucky charm, in a make-up box, and avoid knitting or whistling (which can summon evil) anywhere in the theatre at any time. A cat backstage is lucky, as are shoes that squeak on a first stage entrance. A visitor can bring good luck to the dressing room, but only if they enter right foot first.

‘The Scottish Play’ – actors will never call it Macbeth – has strong associations with ill luck. One theory is that the witches’ speeches will curse the production. Another is that actors may be injured during the numerous scenes involving swordplay. Or it may simply be the case that the play was regularly staged as the repertory season came to an end and audiences were smaller than they had been.

To ensure good weather, safety at sea and a good catch, sailors and fishermen observe many superstitions. For a fisherman, meeting a woman in an apron is the height of bad luck and may even prompt an immediate return home. Launching a ship by breaking a bottle of wine over her bow dates from the Greek practice of pouring wine over a ship as a gift to Poseidon, god of the sea. Because they are thought to embody witches, pins are never taken on board ship, but gold earrings offer protection from both shipwrecks and drowning. In the USA, May Day is auspicious for fishing, when, it is said, fish will ‘bite almost a bare hook’.

Days and dates

It is an ancient belief that anything started on a Monday will not work out well – possibly because it was seen to be a day of reckoning after the events of the previous week. In France the name St Lundi was given to days when shoemakers would, for this reason, take a day off work. In the British Navy, ‘Blue Monday’ was the day when a sailor’s misdeeds would be punished. But both nails and hair are best cut on Monday ‘for health’.

Friday, the Roman ‘day of Venus’, was an auspicious day associated with love and beauty, but for Christians, who remember it as the day of the Crucifixion, it has many connections with bad luck. The Christian tradition also underlies the belief that it was sinful (and unlucky) to work on a Sunday. In medieval times, many dates were considered unlucky. They were called ‘dismal’ or ‘Egyptian’ days from their links to bad luck or to events such as the 10 plagues of Egypt. One 15th-century calendar includes 32 such dates, beginning with 1 January and ending with 17 December.

Red, green and blue are the colours most associated with superstitions, as well as the ‘non-colours’ black and white. Red represents energy, life-giving blood and healing. As the colour of a talisman, it confers protection against both witches and the Devil. The custom of giving babies red coral teething rings reflects this ancient superstition. Green is a symbol of life and its ‘resurrection’ in spring, and also of mischief. The two associations combine in the character of the Green Man or Jack in the Green. This figure is sometimes regarded as a fertility symbol, but at other times as malign, maybe even the Devil himself.

Blue, the colour of the sky, denotes truth and knowledge, and is thought to dispel the power of the Evil Eye. The association of blue clothes with good luck dates back to the time when the children of Israel fringed their clothes with ‘blue ribands’ for protection. Highly-regarded boy babies were given the same safeguard with blue clothing.

Black is bad, white good, mirroring dark and light, evil and purity. The two colours combine in magpies, birds feared on their own but welcome in pairs. The dual colouring relates to the bird’s refusal to go into full mourning after the death of Christ.



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