How many of these 13 common superstitions do you believe in?
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How superstitious are you? Find out the meaning of 13 of the most common superstitions plus some that are linked to Norfolk and Suffolk.
Do you find yourself saluting magpies or hurrying to stop people putting a new pair of shoes on your table? Do you refuse to cross on the stairs?
Do you fear you’ve condemned yourself to seven years of bad luck if you smash a mirror or throw salt over your left shoulder if you spill some?
Superstitions are utterly contagious. I have infected dozens of people with my magpie saluting insanity to the point where my daughter saluted a magpie while on her driving test (she passed).
No matter how level-headed we consider ourselves and society to be, superstitions linger like the smell of woodsmoke after a fire.
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In times of heightened stress, such as the current pandemic, more people than usual resort to “magical thinking” and superstitious behaviour when they feel they have no control over a particular situation.
When control is removed, larger numbers of people cling to the belief they can ward off undesirable outcomes by taking part in rituals or specific behaviours that bear no relationship to the accepted laws of science.
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More than 70 per cent of us admit to being superstitious – but what do some of the most common superstitions actually mean?
(And for those that think superstition is foolish, take note: a recent study revealed that those who truly believe in superstitions often perform better at certain tasks and experience less stress in their lives. Touch wood and fingers crossed that’s true).
Most common superstitions and their meanings
1) Crossed fingers
Very few of us are immune from finger crossing…it is thought to have originated in Western Europe in pre-Christian times, the intersection of the fingers thought to mark a concentration of good spirits and an anchor for wishes before they came true. At first, it involved two people forming the cross and then it became one person using two hands, and then one person using one hand.
2) Putting shoes on a table (new or otherwise)
There are lots of folklore tales attached to putting shoes on the table and none are connected to good luck. Some believe that if shoes are on a table it’s a harbinger of death because traditionally, when a miner died in the pits, his family would leave his boots on the table as a tribute. To do the same thing invites the Grim Reaper to your door. Another story links shoes on tables to convicts hanging from the hangman’s noose: when they were cut down, their boots would scrape the wooden platform which reminded many of a table top. And if death isn’t enough of a preventative: some people believe shoes on tables also sour marriages, invite fights into a house, bring storms and can cause actors to stutter. The reasoning behind NEW shoes is that most people wouldn’t put dirty shoes on a table but they might rest new shows there – and they shouldn’t. That much is now clear.
3) Opening an umbrella indoors
Just try it: open an umbrella indoors when people are around and you’ll soon hear the whispers of fear. It’s believed this superstition is rooted in good sense: when umbrellas were a relatively new invention in the 18th century, they boasted a fearsomely strong spring that opened the mechanism and would put up an umbrella in seconds – and also take out an eye or a priceless piece of china. But there’s another belief that your home’s spirits will be upset if you open an umbrella and will cause misfortune to rain on your family. Wait for rain before you open an umbrella.
4) Touch wood
Lots of us find ourselves ‘knocking on wood’ or ‘touching wood’ to secure good luck or avoid bad luck. Some people believe the tradition began with the Pagans who believed that good spirits lived inside trees and that people once laid their hands on trees to ask for good luck. Others believe the wood in question was from Christ’s cross, or the fragments said to be from the cross which found their way across the world. There are more theories, too: that the practice dates fro the Spanish Inquisition when Jewish communities used a system of knocking on wooden synagogues to avoid persecution, that sailors knocked on wooden decks to have good luck at sea and that miners would tap the rafters inside mines to check for rot that could cause a collapse.
5) Seven years bad luck after breaking a mirror
This long-held fear of bad luck following the breakage of a looking glass is said to stem from either the Romans, who used mirrors to divine the future and believed that a broken mirror during a reading foretold a death or the Venetians, whose expensive mirrors were ‘protected’ by folklore from careless servants. Additionally, the Victorians covered mirrors when someone died to prevent the deceased’s soul becoming trapped inside.
6) Spilling salt
Salt has always been prized: Roman soldiers were given allowances for salt rations called salarium or ‘salt money’, the origin of our word ‘salary’. It is said that Judas Iscariot spilled salt at the Last Supper (which is immortalized in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting) and therefore it is associated with lies and treachery. It is said every spilled grain represents a future tear. But this is a superstition which has been around since 3,500 BC when the ancient Sumerians cancelled the bad luck of spilled salt by throwing a pinch over their shoulders. According to legend, the devil is always at our shoulder, looking for a way in to claim our souls and to bestow bad luck upon us, so to counteract this, throw a pinch over your left shoulder to blind him.
7) Walking under ladders
While often a sensible precaution, the folklore around ladders suggests that their triangular shape when leant against a wall invoked the Holy Trinity and that to walk through the triangle was unholy. If you walked under one by mistake, the only ‘cure’ was to walk back underneath it while praying.
8) Saluting magpies
Magpies have long been considered to be birds of ill omen, considered wicked for their behaviour towards other birds and thieving tendencies. If a single magpie crosses your path, you should salute it and ask how it’s wife is. And of course the number of magpies you see is said to determine your happiness: one for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, four for a birth…
9) Passing on the stairs
There is a belief that passing others on the stairs brings bad luck – there are Biblical passages where angels passed one another in the opposite direction which was thought to lead to misfortune. There is a suggestion that this also arose from before the banister was invented when passing could result in one person falling from the unguarded side or when to pass a master on the stairs could result in dismissal for a servant.
10) Pick a door and stick to it
According to folklore, it’s bad luck for your family to enter your house through one door and leave through another. Doing so means you take your home’s good luck with you.
11) Getting pooed on by a bird
It feels unlucky, but to many, a gift from above is seen as a lucky charm. One might be forgiven for thinking this was advice invented by a parent after a child found themselves covered at the seaside, but apparently the arrival of a sky-fall from a bird is considered to be a sign that luck is on the way. The theory is that such an event is rare, and therefore the time to play the lottery or take a chance and be rewarded with something far sweeter!
12) Always bless a sneeze
For centuries there has been a persistent belief that sneezes expel evil spirits (and at the moment, this seems particularly true) and this belief began in the sixth century thanks to Pope Gregory the Great. A terrible illness was sweeping through Italy and the first symptom was chronic sneezing, quickly followed by death. Pope Gregory urged the healthy to pray for the afflicted and ordered that people said ‘God bless you’ if they heard someone sneeze and ‘God help me’ if they sneezed alone.
14) The number 13
Airlines and airports regularly forgo a 13th aisle or gate and more than 80 per cent of high-rise buildings across the world lack a 13th floor. Many hotels don’t have a room 13, skipping from 12 to 14 and Friday 13 is considered unlucky. Triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, is commonly linked to the early Christians as the number appears in certain Biblical traditions: there were 13 people present at the Last Supper and some say Judas was the 13th to join the table. However, the oldest reference to the fear of the number 13 can be found in a Babylonian code of law dating from 1760 BC – the laws are numbered but number 13 is missing.
* A notable mention for…rocking an empty rocking chair invites ghosts to sit in it, always get out of bed on the same side every day (so there IS a wrong side), don’t sweep a new house with an old broom, keep your bedroom windows shut on November 1 or you’ll invite spirits indoors, ringing bells frightens away ghosts, acorns protect your house from lightning, stuffing fennel in your keyhole to stop witches getting in, luck is collected in horseshoes, picking up pennies for good luck, avoiding cracks in pavements, a black cat crossing your path is good/bad luck and you should avoid giving newly-weds scissors or knives in case you sever their love. Stay lucky.
Norfolk and Suffolk’s superstitions:
Dropping coins in a wishing well
Why: Celtic people considered springs and wells to be holy places where gods or magical guardians would grant wishes – if paid.
Where: Generations of children have dropped pennies into the Norwich Castle well. Right now that cash gathered over years is going towards the Keep Giving project to transform the Castle Keep.
Avoid geese flying overhead
Why: The cries of geese were thought to sound like hunting dogs, and sometimes said to be the hounds of heaven used by the Archangel Gabriel to hunt the devil.
Where: Now is a great time for the ultra superstitious to enjoy our coastal nature reserves as the flocks of pink-footed geese arrive to winter in the UK.
See hares Why: Celtic tribes believed hares were sacred, royal animals. East Anglia’s great queen, Boudicca, was said to have released a hare before battle as a good luck charm. Where: Brown hares are quite common across much of East Anglia – see them in fields of spring wheat and barley or on coastal marshes and heathland. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves at Thompson Common, Upton Broad and Weeting Heath are good sites to see hares.
Dream of treasure
Why: Because the legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham and the true story of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure, both involve dreams.
Where: See the church beautified by the Pedlar, after he dreamed of buried treasure, at Swaffham. See the incredible site of royal ship burials at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. Edith Pretty, of Sutton Hoo House, dreamed there was treasure in the strange mounds on her land. Eventually she persuaded Ipswich Museum to send an archaeologist to investigate. In 1938 he began the dig which was to uncover the richest ship burial ever found in northern Europe, and the grave of a 7th century warrior king and his treasure. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo
Why: People across East Anglia used to try to protect their homes against bad luck with magic charms, especially at entrance points such as doorways and chimneys. Charms included single shoes, clay pots with pins inside, circles filled with petal shapes and even mummified cats.
Where: Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds has a unique display of witchcraft and sorcery-related objects including a 17th century wand, a witch’s puppet and mummified cats found in cottage walls. moyseshall.org
Why: Going to sea in a fishing boat has always been fraught with dangers.
Where: Superstitions which have built up in an attempt to divert bad luck at sea include no whistling at sea (perhaps because it mimics stormy wind) and not wearing green because it was thought to be the colour of fairies. In Yarmouth fishing nets are blessed at an annual church service in St Nicholas Minster every October.
Do more women or men believe they own ‘lucky pants’?
We may be living in the most enlightened times in history but more than half the people living in the UK live in fear of ignoring their superstitions.
The most common superstition in the UK is touching wood for good luck or to avoid bad luck while the majority of people will avoid walking under ladders and will keep umbrellas closed indoors.
Just under 50 per cent of people believe seven years of bad luck follow the breakage of a mirror and 44 per cent of people would not travel on a Friday 13. Women are more likely to be superstitious than men.
More than 70 per cent of people over the age of 70 are superstitious and more than 50 per cent of those aged between 35 to 44 have superstitious beliefs.
One in five people believe they own a ‘lucky’ piece of clothing with more men than women claiming they have a pair of ‘lucky pants’.
Almost 60 per cent of women believe it’s bad luck for the person they are marrying to see their wedding gown before their wedding day.
The UK’s top 10 superstitions
1) Touching wood
2) Avoiding walking under ladders
3) Opening umbrellas indoors
4) Breaking mirrors leading to seven years of bad luck
5) Friday 13th is unlucky
6) Four-leaf clovers are lucky
7) The number 13 is unlucky
8) Horseshoes are lucky
9) Wedding dresses shouldn’t be seen by partners until wedding day
10) Crossing fingers avoids bad luck