5 Persistent Myths and Superstitions

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For the giant pharmaceutical companies that have spent millions developing and marketing medicine for everything from high blood pressure to insomnia, when will someone find a cure for the estimated 60 million people worldwide that suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia? That mindboggling word refers to people who have a fear of Friday the 13th. Those poor souls are in the midst of a very bad year, with April 13 the second of three Friday the 13th dates this year (July 13 is the final one). Just how did this particular day and date become associated with bad luck? Here’s a look at that and a few other common myths and superstitions that just won’t go away.


5. Friday the 13th Is An Unlucky Day

Friday the 13th did not surface as an unlucky day in Western culture until the mid-19th century.

Photo credit: W.J. Pilsak

There are several possible origins for this date denoting bad luck. Two of the most common stem from Christianity. The Last Supper featured Jesus and his 12 disciples, for a total of 13, and Jesus was crucified on a Friday. In Western culture, Fridays have long been considered unlucky in general, at least dating back to the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. Surprisingly, people didn’t associate the two concepts for hundreds of years; the first written references to Friday the 13th bringing bad luck didn’t appear in western literature until the mid-19th century. Before you brush this whole thing off as a useless superstition, consider this: Mental health professionals note that people who fear this date may inadvertently be more accident-prone, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.


4. Black Cats Are A Bad Omen

Black cats have long been associated with bad luck in America and much of Europe.

Cat owners await a casting call for Roger Corman’s horror movie Tales of Terror in 1961.

Not everyone associates black cats with evil and bad luck. In Great Britain and Ireland, for example, encounters with black cats are believed to portend good luck. On the nautical front, sailors believe black cats bring good luck. In Egyptian culture, black cats have been viewed as an extension of good fortune through the feline goddess, Bastet. In much of Europe and the United States, however, black cats have long been seen as a bad omen. In the U.S., this distrust of black cats began in the colonial period, when black cats were associated with witchcraft. The myth is a persistent one — animal shelter workers note that black cats are much less likely to be adopted than other cats. To combat the negative stereotype, Black Cat Awareness Days were held in the U.S. and Great Britain in 2011.


3. Step On A Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back

The phrase step on a crack, break your mother's back orginated in the early 20th century.

Photo credit: © Sonya Etchison/Dreamstime.com

This little ditty from childhood was used with this exact wording by a character in a popular children’s book in 1905, and then appeared two years later in a book, Superstition and Education. A popular variant surfaced a few years later: “If you step on a line, you break your mother’s spine.” And of course, dad wasn’t safe, either, given this threatening phrase: “Step on a nail, put your father in jail.”


2. Walking Under a Ladder Is Bad Luck

In medieval times, it was thought that walking under a ladder was a desecration to the Holy Trinity.
Like many persistent superstitions, this one carries religious connotations. A ladder leaning against a structure creates a crude triangular shape, and during the medieval period, devout people worried that walking through that triangle would be a desecration of the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


1. Breaking a Mirror Brings 7 Years of Bad Luck

Breaking a mirror has been viewed as bad luck for hundreds of years.

Photo credit: © Gareth Cosgrove/Dreamstime.com

You’ve probably heard of primitive tribes that refuse to allow photographers to take their picture for fear their spirit will be captured in the photo. Primitive cultures that developed the first mirrors out of polished stones had a similar reaction, seeing their “soul” captured in a rock. Those early mirrors were viewed as portals into another world. When the Romans began manufacturing the first glass mirrors around the first century A.D., they were expensive, fragile items, so the myth that your soul would be damaged if you broke a mirror likely evolved as a way to ensure people took care with their mirrors. The Romans also believed that a person’s life cycle renewed every seven years, giving rise to the seven years time frame. But if you’ve just dropped a mirror and watched it shatter, don’t fret, because several acts supposedly break the spell of bad luck. You can try a time-consuming and possibly dangerous solution — grind the mirror into powder. Or you can spin around three times in a counter-clockwise direction, or toss a pinch of salt over your shoulder.


One More: Four-Leaf Clovers Bring Good Luck

Four-leaf clovers are found only once in an estimated 10,000 three-leaf clovers.

Photo credit: Phyzome

Perhaps you remember finding a four-leaf clover as a child and pressing it in the pages of a book for safekeeping. Four-leaf clovers have been associated with luck for hundreds of years, provided they’re found by accident. Each of the four leaves represents a different facet of life: hope, faith, love and luck. As for your odds of actually finding a four-leaf clover, good luck — it’s said there are 10,000 common three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf variant. Now consider this: In 2008, the Chicago Tribune profiled a 76-year-old man who had found 160,000 four-leaf clovers in his life.


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