Bizarre origins of popular superstitions

We all have our own superstitions. We're not here to judge (although, we do think if you carry a rabbit's foot, especially once you collected yourself, you're probably a monster). Instead, we want to look at just why we believe some of the things we do, and what happened to make some things lucky, other things unlucky, and still other things just downright terrifying.

Why is a rabbit's foot considered lucky?

There's so much wrong with this entire idea, we're not even going to get into it. We're just here to talk about just why this unlikely lucky charm became lucky in the first place … you've no doubt heard the old joke that it wasn't lucky for the rabbit, after all.

Bill Ellis is a folklore scholar, and he traced the idea of the rabbit's foot back to its roots. When he found advertisements for those selling rabbit's feet, he found that they seemed to be considered more lucky if they were taken from a rabbit killed in a particular way … in a graveyard, say, on a Friday the 13th, by a left-handed man riding a white horse. Weird, right? Ellis calls it "backward elements," things that seem to be counter-intuitive, but which all lead to good luck in the end.

He's also the one that's noted old legends that suggest rabbits are witches' familiars or, in some cases, witches themselves. It's no wonder, then, that killing them and taking their feet might be something of a good luck trophy, and he also says that rabbit's feet were thought to be more powerful if they were taken from a rabbit killed on the grave of an evil person. The worse the person, the more powerful the fetish charm.

Ellis says the idea of the rabbit's foot is likely something of a confluence of African and Anglo traditions, where the rabbit was seen by one as a symbol of cleverness, and the other as involved with witchcraft. B'rer Rabbit was once a symbol of the righteous underdog, and that's helped lead to a belief in one of the most horrible good luck charms out there. We'll stick to just knocking on wood.

Why do we knock on wood?

You know you've done it, so have we. You say something you just know will come back to bite you, so you knock on wood to keep from jinxing yourself. It's one of those odd superstitions that crops up in countries all over the globe, too, and that makes it even weirder.

Where it came from isn't completely understood, but we have some good ideas on how it all started. Ancient Pagans thought there were spirits that lived in the trees, and knocking on wood was a way to get their attention … and help. You don't just knock once, either — that would be rude. One knock was said to get their attention, and the second knock was to say, "Thanks, tree spirits!" After all, politeness will get you everywhere.

Later, the idea was adopted into various new religions. For Christians, it was knocking on the wood of the cross to get God's attention. In Judaism, it was about a special knock that harkened back to secret communications that kept people safe from the Inquisition. Knowing the knock would get you safe passage and entrance into secret synagogues, making it about more than just luck: it was a matter of life and death.

When the University of Chicago studied just how effective rituals steeped in superstition actually were, they were kind of surprised with what they found. They asked volunteers to say something that seemingly invited bad luck, then perform a ritual that they thought would help them avoid that misfortune. Many knocked on wood, and others performed actions that had something in common with this worldwide favorite: they all were some kind of activity that directed energy away from the person. If only it were that easy.

Why is breaking a mirror bad luck?

Like a lot of superstitions that have been around for ages, the origins on this one aren't that clear, either. We think we know what the general idea behind it is, though: the belief that a mirror isn't just science, it's the soul. Specifically, that image in the mirror is believed to be an actual projection of your soul, and breaking it means you're actually breaking your own soul into lots of little pieces. You crazy Voldemort, you.

Just where it all goes from there is debated, with one group believing that your damaged soul isn't able to protect you from bad luck until it presumably repairs itself. (That must take seven years, and seven itself has a long history as being one of humanity's favorite lucky numbers.)

There's a darker explanation, too, and honestly, we quite like this one better. Here, the bad luck isn't caused by outside forces, but rather your broken, injured soul. It's looking for a little bit of payback, because you were careless enough to break it in the first place, and that string of bad luck is caused by your broken soul. The idea of the soul residing in reflections is an ancient one. Remember Narcissus, the Greek youth that fell in love with his own reflection? He couldn't leave the edge of the water for love of his own appearance, and eventually died there. If there's anything you should take away from this, it's that your soul's a bit of a jerk.

What's the deal with chain letters?

A lot of things got left behind with the advent of technology. Chain letters, however, definitely didn't go away — they just gained a return address that ended in .com. We know what they've become, but the really weird part is where they started. If you believe the stories, that's with JesusChristtheSavior@aol.com.

The earliest chain letter we've found reads, "He that copieth this letter shall be blessed of me. He that does not shall be cursed." It was published sometime in the 18th century, and it was written by Jesus. That's the story, at least, because every chain letter has to have a story that goes with it to convince you just how legit it is. According to this one, it was 55 years after the crucifixion that Jesus realized he hadn't left anything behind. He ordered Gabriel to take a letter and put it under a rock that read, "He that picketh up this rock shall be blessed." The rock stayed right where it was until a boy, who had never sinned, picked it up and found the letter. He, of course, copied it and passed it on to all his friends and neighbors, because he's not a heathen. Annoying, maybe, but not a heathen.

Included in the letter were instructions to make Sunday a holy day, so if you ever wonder where that idea came from … but really, it didn't. The whole thing was, of course, a hoax, and there's one piece of the original story that really should have been a complete giveaway. Why would he wait 55 years? Pffft.

Why do we break the wishbone?

You know the drill. After everyone's too full to move, and all that's left of the turkey is the carcass, it's time for two people to make a wish and break the wishbone. Whoever gets the larger piece will have their wish granted, and the other person can finish off the night knowing they can't even do this one thing right.

This is another pretty ancient superstition, and it dates back to at least the ancient Etruscans. They thought that birds' bones could predict the future, because ancient history is a weird place. When they slaughtered chickens for food, they would dry the wishbone in the Sun, and anyone who happened by was free to make a wish on it. By the time the Romans came along and started taking things, they took this tradition, too. It became so popular, there were more wishes than chickens, so the Romans started breaking the wishbone, thereby supplying more people with the wish-giving goodness.

It spread more and more from there, until the English took it to the New World and turkeys started supplying the wishbone. We still do it today because, as it turns out, current history is a weird place, too.

Why do we try not to step on cracks?

"Step on a crack, break your mother's back," goes the rhyme, because what in Moses is wrong with kids? We all knew that kid that went out of their way to jump on every crack they could find (which doesn't say much good about their relationship with Mother) … but why? Aside from how that kid's a jerk and you should probably stay away from him, we mean.

One suggestion for just how this one came about is the simple fact that cracks are scary. The phrase comes from early Americans and their European counterparts, and folklorists suspect it has something to do with cracks signaling the boundary between the known realm of this world, and the unknown, metaphysical world that exists just outside of what we interact with. There are a couple variations, and they're all pretty dark. Some believe that stepping on a crack invited dark forces to influence your life, or even to break a witch's back. (Depending on what you think of your mother, it might be sort of the same thing?)

Whatever you believe, stepping on a crack meant that you might very well be stepping on something you can't see, don't know about, and can't possibly understand, and no matter how cynical you are, we can probably all agree that's pretty terrifying.

Why are horseshoes lucky?

Some people hang them so the luck doesn't fall out, while others don't care where their luck gets scattered, as long as it's on them. Lucky horseshoes are another weird thing that people somehow believe creates good luck, and to figure out just how this one got started, we're going to have to go back to the ancient Celts.

According to Celtic lore, the land was once filled with little people. We're not talking about leprechauns, either, but rather goblins. Ancient beliefs said that goblins were responsible for bad luck that ranged from infertility, to chickens that didn't lay eggs any more, and it's as good an explanation as any. If a goblin set up camp in your house, you were in for a whole lot of bad luck, and in order to keep the goblins away, people hung iron horseshoes over their doors. It was a double whammy: goblins didn't like iron because they associated it with human weapons, and the shape was reminiscent of the crescent of the Celtic moon god. Take that, gobbos.

By the time Christianity came along, they adopted the horseshoe and gave it a whole new meaning. According to their lore, St. Dunstan was a blacksmith who went on to be his trade's patron saint. There's a few different versions of the story, but in the end, St. Dunstan tricked the devil and nailed an iron shoe to his hoof, only releasing him after he promised never to enter a home protected by an iron horseshoe. Never hurts to have all your bases covered.

Why do we expect bad things to happen during a full moon?

Werewolves aside, you've probably heard the idea that bad things are afoot during a full moon. This isn't just another folkloric superstition we chuckle about then move on with our day over, either. There's been a huge amount of scientific study devoted to the idea, and in some places in England, police departments have even added more officers, to deal with what they see as an increase in crime around the full moon.

It's known as the lunar lunacy effect, and it dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. Historians and physicians, like Pliny the Elder and even Aristotle, wrote about human bodies that they knew were made up mostly of water. Water — and the tides — were influenced by the moon, so they reasoned that we were, too. The idea stuck, and lunacy became so linked to the full moon that the words even share the same roots.

There's a big reason that it's a superstition that's stood the test of time. Some psychologists refer to something called illusory correlation, which basically means we're more aware of bad luck and crazy happenings when there's a full moon out, so we're more likely to connect the two. We turn it into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though there's nothing out of the ordinary happening on nights with a full moon. Alternately, you could say that every night is just as weird as the ones under a lunatic moon, and that actually makes more sense.

Why are we afraid to walk under ladders?

It's not superstition, you say — it's safety and not a little bit of common sense. Right. We believe you. If you're really that safety-conscious,though you wouldn't be walking and texting, either.

So why do you really avoid walking under a ladder? There's a few theories as to how this one got so ingrained in popular consciousness, we still dodge ladders today. One dates back to ancient Egyptians, who thought that if you passed beneath a ladder you risked seeing a god climbing up or down. Who knew they even used ladders? We're not here to judge, though.

A slightly more recent belief is a Christian belief that the shape of a ladder leaning against a building formed a triangle reminiscent of the Holy Trinity, and walking underneath it was to break that holy triangle. That wasn't just disrespectful — that might get the attention of the devil. No one wants that. Trust us.

A little more recently, people started to think that a leaning ladder looked very much like gallows. Do you know who's underneath gallows? Hanged people, that's who. Hanged people that might have been driven to their crimes by the devil. Yes, that guy again. Given all that, we'll say it's better to take a few steps to the side and just give that ladder a miss.

Why is Friday the 13th extra unlucky?

"Ha!" you say. "I know this one! It's something to do with the Knights Templar…"

And we're going to interrupt you right there, and suggest you don't get any more history from Dan Brown. He helped spread a whole bunch of theories that are complete bunk for the sake of his dumb plots, and this is one of them. The Knights Templar were, indeed, arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307, but people's fear of Friday the 13th definitely didn't start with them. (The historical version of the Templars is a lot more boring — the whole reason they were persecuted in the first place was that the French King Philip IV wanted their money, pure and simple.)

Historians have found that fear of the number 13 goes back a heck of a lot farther than just the 14th century, with some of the earliest signs of superstition dating back to 1770 BC, with the omission of a 13th rule from Babylon's infamous Code of Hammurabi. There were 13 people at the Last Supper, too, and Norse mythology tells the story of a 13-person meal where the troublemaker Loki was the last one to show up. Christianity might have something to do with the Friday part of the equation, too, with the belief that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Chaucer echoed the idea in The Canterbury Tales.

But it wasn't until the 19th century that someone put the two together, with the first mention of an unlucky Friday the 13th in the 1869 biography of someone called Gioachino Rossini. Still other historians suggest that it wasn't until 1907 and a novel called Friday, the Thirteenth, that fear of the day became a real thing. In short, we might not know the whole story, but it definitely wasn't the Templars.

Why are black cats unlucky?

Let's get this out of the way first: black cats are awesome. Some of our favorite cats are black. That said, there's a lot of people that think they're evil, or bad luck, in spite of the fact that some cultures — like Japan — believe they're good luck.

You've probably heard that the bad reputation of black cats has something to do with witchcraft, but it's a little more complicated than that. According to Norse mythology, the goddess Freya had a chariot pulled by two black cats. As a reward for their faithful service, they were turned into witches. There's also the Scottish Cat Sith that might have something to do with it, as he's a black cat believed to steal souls from the recently dead before they could be given to God. Not cool, Cat Sith. Cat Jedi are way cooler anyway.

But the very real-world hate of black cats can be traced back to Pope Gregory IX, who officially declared black cats to be the incarnation of the devil in 1232. Throwing black cats onto bonfires became a popular way to celebrate the Christian holidays, because people are horrible human beings. From there, black cats became the symbol of witches and witchcraft, later associated with anarchists and all they stood for. Repeated association with all things evil has done its damage to the black cat's reputation, but we think we can take it back. So remember, if one crosses your path, it's probably just looking for some love. Good kitty.