Why did the Black Cat Cross the Road?

The curious origins of everyday superstitions


Opening an umbrella indoors used to pose a major safety hazard.

Parker Briggs, Online Editor

According to a recent survey, Annie Wright Upper School boys are 26% more likely than the national average to believe in superstitions.* But where did such peculiar beliefs come from in the first place? Here are the origins of 10 common superstitions:


Four Leaf Clovers

According to medieval extra-biblical folklore, four leaf clovers were once endemic only to the Garden of Eden. During Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden, Eve picked a four leaf clover as a souvenir, introducing it to the outside world. This clover became the progenitor of all similar ones found today. Superstition aside, only one out of an estimated 10,000 white clover shoots has four leaves, meaning it truly is lucky to pick one out of a patch.


Wishing on a Shooting Star

Ancient Greeks believed that occasionally the gods would peer down from the firmament to observe the mortal world. In doing so, they would often knock down stars from the sky. These “falling” stars alerted the Greeks that the gods were paying attention, providing a perfect opportunity for casting petitions.


Tossing Salt over one’s Shoulder

In verse 5:13 of the Book of Matthew, Jesus says Christians who lose piety are like salt that loses its saltiness- fit only to be thrown to the ground and “trampled upon by men.” Thus spilled salt held a connotation to sinning against God. In DaVinci’s painting The Last Supper, Judas is even shown knocking over a salt-cellar. To protect from the evil summoned by this ill omen, people would throw a pinch of salt into the eyes of the devil, who, according to medieval folklore, always approached from behind and from the left.


Walking Under a Ladder

In Ancient Egypt, triangles represented the trinity of gods, made up of Osis, Isis and Horus. A ladder leaning against a wall formed this sacred shape and walking through it was akin to desecrating a holy shrine, bound to turn the gods against you.


Opening an Umbrella Indoors

During Victorian times when the umbrella was still a new invention, it had not yet achieved its sleek, modern design. With sharp-tipped ribs and ferrules to be feared, opening an umbrella indoors could pose a major safety hazard. More than just toppling a potted plant, it could put out someone’s eye.


Black Cats

In Ancient Egypt, cats were regarded as manifestations of the divine. A feline walking before you was a sign that the gods were acting in your favor. This belief spread throughout Greece and Rome, where similar panthiestic beliefs were common. However, during the age of medieval Europe, black cats were believed to be the animal form of shapeshifting witches, tainting their reputation to such a degree they still have yet to recover.


Breaking a Mirror

Romans believed that one’s image in the mirror was not just a reflection, but a person’s very soul. Thus, breaking a mirror with one’s reflection in it could cause serious spiritual harm. The Romans also believed that luck renewed itself after seven years, so breaking a mirror would curse one’s soul for the duration of that period.


Knocking on Wood

The ancient Celts’ pagan culture has brought us fairies, elves and most salient to our civilization, the hallowed Renaissance Faire. According to Celtic mythology, spirits inhabited the trunks of trees, and could be summoned to provide supernatural protection by a polite knock. Due to either laziness or a shortage of trees, this practice eventually evolved into simply knocking on wood, what once was a tree trunk.


Breaking a Wishbone

Etruscans, the cultural antecedents of Rome, believed that birds were able to see into the future. By drying out and gently stroking a bird’s bones, the power of clairvoyance could also be extended to humans. The Romans adopted the superstition, but began cracking the bones to release more of the supposed power contained inside them. Eventually, this power evolved into the ability to grant wishes.


Rabbit’s Foot

Because goblins were so seldom seen, Celtic tribes were of the general consensus that they lived in underground lairs. Rabbits, who every night retreated into their burrows, were seen as having a connection to these supernatural creatures. After a rabbit was shot, the feet were preserved as good luck charms.


*When asked of their beliefs about black cats, the number 13, and head-side-up pennies being lucky, unlucky, or neither. National average provided by statista.com.