Breaking Mirrors: The Origins of Common Superstitions

on October 14, 2015

Daily Mail

The More You Know...

Superstitions pervade society as age-old folklore we laugh about in groups, but let's be honest-we all catch ourselves knocking on wood and thinking twice before passing under an open ladder. As far-fetched and downright ridiculous as some of them may seem, these lighthearted wives' tales actually have deep historical and cultural roots, some of which date back to ancient civilizations. In the spirit of bad luck, we've rounded up the 13 most common superstitions and the reasons they're still around.

Opening an Umbrella Indoors

While refraining from putting up an umbrella indoors where you won't need it might just be a matter of common sense, there are two main theories about this superstition's origin. Many historians have held that this myth was substantiated pragmatically by the Victorian English, who widely held that opening an umbrella-made at the time with steel poles-indoors was a serious hazard, and could result in injuries such as poking out an eye or breaking valuables in close proximity.

However, the most popular theory comes from torrid ancient Egypt, where people used umbrellas (called parasols) for sun protection instead of rain. If you opened yours indoors, it was offensive to the sun god Ra, who would curse you for your transgression.


Spilled Salt

For thousands of years, spilling salt has been viewed as more wasteful than bad luck-inducing, so it's widely held that people from ancient civilizations began referring to it as bad luck so everyone would be more careful with the commodity. It's believed the practice of throwing it over your left shoulder to reduce the curse was borne from Christians, who believed the devil assumed position on one's left shoulder to plot destruction.

Another interesting superstitious tidbit? In Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper, Judas, positioned next to Jesus, can be seen spilling salt, and, well, no one really wants to be the Judas figure.

Broken Mirrors

Seven years of bad luck seems a hefty price to pay for a careless slip, but the ancient Romans felt differently. There were special doctors within Roman society-known for being equal parts physician and mystic-who used mirrors to determine the health of their patients. They would fill a mirrored plate with water and look at the patient's reflection. If the plate cracked during the process, it meant the patient was doomed to be very sick for seven years-the duration of time Romans believed it took the body to renew itself.

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Walking Under a Ladder

Another ancient Egyptian-sprung contender, the superstition of walking under a leaning ladder has heavy religious undertones. If a ladder was to lean against a wall, it would naturally form the shape of a triangle, which was incredibly sacred to the Egyptians (think pyramids), as it represented the Holy Trinity. If you passed through one, it was seen as incredibly degrading to the gods.

This concept was carried over to the Christian world after it was said that a ladder leaned against Christ's crucifix, symbolizing death and betrayal. This myth was so pervasive and widely feared, in fact, that criminals were made to walk beneath a ladder on their way to the gallows in 1600s England.

Knocking On Wood

Easily one of the most commonly abided by superstitions, knocking on wood revolves around pagan beliefs about spirits. On the one hand, some pagans believed that good spirits dwelled in trees, and that in order to receive good luck and fortune, one needed to whisper wishes into the tree and then knock to make sure the spirits were awake to hear. On the other hand, it was also a popular belief that evil spirits could be warded away with the force of a knock on wood.

"God Bless You"

This superstition is a sort of "catch-all" in terms of interpretations of origin, so we've gone with the most popular. It was popularly believed throughout religious history that when a person sneezed, an evil spirit was being expelled from his/her body, so following up with a quick "God bless you" ensured that the pesky little creep stayed away.


The Number 13

In the world's first known legal document, the Code of Hammurabi, most likely only due to a clerical misstep, the 13th law was missing, setting the precedent for years upon years of civilization avoiding the number at all costs. C'mon, why else would there only be 12 months in a year or 12 hours on a clock?

The Guardian

Crossing Paths with a Black Cat

Although most of us can't help but stop to pet those fluffy rascals, those who were alive and active during the witch-hunt era probably turn over in their graves each time this happens. This is because witches were said to be able to communicate with certain animals to aid them in their evil schemes. The black cat just so happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, because many thought they harbored the soul of Satan himself-if you saw one, it meant you were being watched by the devil.

Horseshoes as Good Luck Charms

Those who implemented horseshoes as good luck charms did so to repel the devil, whom many assumed could only move in a circle, and if there was no top to the circle, he couldn't bother you. Ancient Greeks also believed that iron had the ability to ward off evil.

Wishing on a Shooting Star

This is one of those lighthearted traditions none of us are ashamed to do around friends, and it takes root in the first century, when Ptolemy, a famous astronomer, theorized that shooting stars were the result of the gods peering down on the earth.

Don't Step on a Crack or You'll Break Your Mother's Back

To step on a sidewalk crack as a kid would have been treachery, and all thanks to this short rhyme picked up during childhood. The exact origins for this popular superstition are not completely known, but it is known to have become prevalent in 1907 when Fletcher Bascom Dressler mentioned it in his book Superstition and Education.

Seeing the Bride Before the Wedding

During times when pre-arranged marriages were the big thing, this superstition was clung to, as many grooms believed their soon-to-be wives would get cold feet and call off the entire event.

Woman's Day

Bird Droppings on Your Head

If anyone's ever told you that good things are coming your way if a bird decides to let nature happen over you, you've probably scoffed and walked away. However, it is widely held that this inconvenience is a sign of wealth coming from heaven, taking from the belief that if you suffer such an inconvenience, you will receive rewards in return.