Superstitions and their Origins

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Nazars, charms used to ward off the evil eye.

Many famous people believe in superstitions. How they came to be part of the culture is often a curious tale.

As Americans became more educated, superstitions with their irrational nature should have disappeared from the culture. Yet the proof they still exist can be seen in the millions of dollars spent each year on lottery tickets and the purchasers’ use of their “lucky numbers”.

It should come as no surprise that superstitions started as far back as Neanderthal man. Neanderthals buried their dead with food, weapons and fire for the next life. It should come as no surprise that superstition and the birth of spirituality go hand in hand.

Many religions were blasted as superstitions and to an atheist all religion is superstition. It may seem inconceivable as to why a rabbit’s foot is lucky or why the number thirteen is not, but all superstitions have their symbolism in a purposeful origin, a cultural background, and /or a practical explanation.

Superstitions in Daily Life

Superstitions arose in a very straightforward manner. Early man looking for answers to things he could not explain gave powers to ordinary things. In early mans need to understand the complexities of his world and protect himself he assigned power to the foot of a rabbit or a four-leaf clover.

This is still done today. If a basketball player scores a perfect game he may need to wear the same ‘game shorts’ or his lucky socks. People try to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is not much in the world that at some time or another has not been considered lucky. Umbrellas, hiccups, crossed fingers, rainbows and the list goes on.

The following are a few examples how some of these good luck charms came into common culture.

History of the Rabbit’s Foot

A rabbit‘s foot is still one of the most culturally recognized good luck symbols. This superstition has its basis in totemism. Totemism is the belief that all people descended from certain animals. This belief predated Darwinism by thousands of years. Along with totemism, it was the rabbit’s fecundity that helped give its body parts their strongest association with good luck and prosperity. The animal was so procreative that many people felt to possess any part would assure a person’s good fortune. Because rabbits were also used as food, the foot became the logical source of a totem to carry around.

The horseshoe is one of the most universal of all good luck charms. It was the Greeks that introduced the horseshoe to Western culture in the fourth century; legend credits St. Dunstan with giving the horseshoe over the door a special power against evil.’

Archbishop of Canterbury

Dunstan was a blacksmith who became the Archbishop of Canterbury; legend has it that in 959 A.D. he was approached by a man who wanted horseshoes attached to his own feet. When the blacksmith looked the feet were cloven. Dunstan realized the customer was Satan and explained he could do the service only if the visitor was shackled to the wall. Dunstan applied the horseshoes in such a painful manner that the devil cried for mercy. Dunstan only released him when he swore to never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door. This myth along with the fear of witches in the Middle Ages gave the horseshoe it’s aura of good luck. Because witches rode brooms it was believed they feared horses. Many times a woman accused of witchcraft was interred with a horseshoe nailed on the top of the coffin. Of course history also tells provides the information that the horseshoe could not be hung just anyway but had to be positioned with points upward, so that it luck did not drain out.

Indians of North America

Knocking wood for good luck arose from a four –thousand-year- old custom begun by the Indians of North America. The Indians carried their belief because they often saw lighting hit trees and they felt that was where Gods lived. So any bad deed, boast, or evil intent could be supplemented by knocking on a tree and asking forgiveness. Some Christian scholars argue that the knock-wood superstition came from the fact that Christ was crucified on a wooded cross but because this tradition was part of Indian tribe-lore who had no knowledge of the crucifixion it causes that theory to not be taken seriously.

With science now providing explanations for once supernatural phenomena, life should be predictable and superstition free, but that is truly not the case. Whether it’s knocking on wood, tossing salt over a shoulder, or just keeping fingers crossed, superstitions are still a part of daily life.

Sources:

  1. D. Dundes. The Study of Folklore. Indiana. Prentice-Hall. 1965
  2. Hole, Christian. Encyclopedia of Superstitions. London. Greenwood Press. 1975