Where do superstitions come from? – Stuart Vyse


Are you afraid of black cats? Would you open an umbrella indoors? And how do you feel about
the number thirteen? Whether or not you believe in them, you’re probably familiar with a few
of these superstitions. So how did it happen that people
all over the world knock on wood, or avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks? Well, although they have no basis
in science, many of these weirdly specific beliefs
and practices do have equally weird
and specific origins. Because they involve supernatural causes, it’s no surprise that many superstitions
are based in religion. For example. the number thirteen was
associated with the biblical Last Supper, where Jesus Christ dined
with his twelve disciples just before being arrested and crucified. The resulting idea that having thirteen
people at a table was bad luck eventually expanded into thirteen
being an unlucky number in general. Now, this fear of the number thirteen,
called triskaidekaphobia, is so common that many buildings around
the world skip the thirteenth floor, with the numbers going straight from
twelve to fourteen. Of course, many people consider
the story of the Last Supper to be true but other superstitions come from
religious traditions that few people believe in
or even remember. Knocking on wood is thought to come from
the folklore of the ancient Indo-Europeans or possibly people who predated them who believed that trees were home
to various spirits. Touching a tree would invoke
the protection or blessing of the spirit within. And somehow, this tradition survived long after
belief in these spirits had faded away. Many superstitions common today
in countries from Russia to Ireland are thought to be remnants of the pagan
religions that Christianity replaced. But not all superstitions are religious. Some are just based on unfortunate
coincidences and associations. For example, many Italians fear
the number 17 because the Roman numeral XVII
can be rearranged to form the word vixi, meaning my life had ended. Similarly, the word for the number four sounds almost identical
to the word for death in Cantonese, as well as languages like Japanese and Korean that have borrowed
Chinese numerals. And since the number one also
sounds like the word for must, the number fourteen sounds
like the phrase must die. That’s a lot of numbers for elevators
and international hotels to avoid. And believe it or not, some superstitions actually make sense, or at least they did until we
forgot their original purpose. For example, theater scenery used to
consist of large painted backdrops, raised and lowered by stagehands
who would whistle to signal each other. Absentminded whistles from other people
could cause an accident. But the taboo against whistling backstage
still exists today, long after the stagehands started using
radio headsets. Along the same lines, lighting three
cigarettes from the same match really could cause bad luck
if you were a soldier in a foxhole where keeping a match lit too long
could draw attention from an enemy sniper. Most smokers no longer have to worry
about snipers, but the superstition lives on. So why do people cling to these bits
of forgotten religions, coincidences, and outdated advice? Aren’t they being totally irrational? Well, yes, but for many people, superstitions are based more
on cultural habit than conscious belief. After all, no one is born knowing to avoid
walking under ladders or whistling indoors, but if you grow up being told
by your family to avoid these things, chances are they’ll make
you uncomfortable, even after you logically understand
that nothing bad will happen. And since doing something like knocking
on wood doesn’t require much effort, following the superstition is often
easier than consciously resisting it. Besides, superstitions
often do seem to work. Maybe you remember hitting a home run
while wearing your lucky socks. This is just our psychological
bias at work. You’re far less likely to remember
all the times you struck out while wearing the same socks. But believing that they work
could actually make you play better by giving you the illusion of having
greater control over events. So in situations where that confidence
can make a difference, like sports, those crazy superstitions might not
be so crazy after all.

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