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Beyond belief

Black cat creepy/sinister face/portrait on black background.

Words: Joanna Cummings

Have you ever thrown salt over your left shoulder? Avoided walking under a ladder? Called Macbeth ‘the Scottish play’? If so, you are partaking in superstitions – beliefs or practices based not on reason or science but on faith in supernatural forces.

The word ‘superstition’ comes from the Latin word ‘superstitio’, meaning “transcending or standing outside of ordinary logic”. Over time, the meaning of the word has evolved to include any beliefs or practices considered irrational or unfounded, particularly those related to supernatural or magical forces. Calling someone ‘superstitious’ these days can often have slightly negative connotations.

Many of our most common superstitions are around luck, both good and bad. Being covered in bird droppings (Russia), picking up a penny (USA) or finding an elusive four-leaf clover (Ireland) are all thought to be beneficial to the ‘recipient’. In Spain, it is common to eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve to bring good fortune for the coming year, a tradition thought to have been inspired by an excess harvest sometime in the past. In Japan, a black cat signifies good luck, but it is a different story, in the West – where our ongoing mistrust of black cats is apparently why they are least likely to be adopted from a cat shelter.

Other bad luck omens you may be familiar with include breaking a mirror, which the Ancient Romans believed would bring seven years of misfortune, or the possession of peacock feathers. This is thought to stem from the story of the Greek goddess Hera, who placed the eyes of her faithful watchman on the tail of the peacock after his death – leading to the ‘evil eye’ symbolism we’re familiar with today. But don’t worry: if bad luck is heading your way, you could always take a leaf out of Elvis’ (and the pagans’) book and ‘knock on wood’ to ward it off.

When it comes to superstitions, one thing is for sure – these ‘irrational beliefs’ are not restricted to one country. Here are a few lesser-known or perhaps forgotten superstitions from around the world:

Whistling indoors

In Lithuania, this reprehensible activity was believed to invite evil spirits into the household. While its origins are unclear, it is thought that it could have arisen from the idea that loud and disruptive sounds could disturb or anger supernatural beings. Sounds like something your grandmother might say so she can have some peace.

Sweeping at night

If you’re looking for an excuse to avoid cleaning your kitchen floor, look to China and Vietnam. Here it is believed that sweeping at night could lead to the loss of wealth – possibly because cleaning in the dark (pre-electricity) ran the risk of sweeping away valuable items.

Shoes on the table

At one time in the UK, placing shoes on the table was thought to bring death to the family. Possible reasons for this include the symbolism of footwear about ‘going on a journey’, but it is just as likely that – like many superstitions – its origins are practical in nature. No one wants dirty shoes on the table while they are enjoying their tea.

Counting crows

No, not the American alt rock band – the belief that crows were harbingers of bad news. Crows certainly have an image problem; in many cultures, they are associated with death, and some Native American cultures see them as messengers between the living and the spirit world. This has not been helped at all, we imagine, by a famous film from a certain Mr Hitchcock…

Itchy palms

It is possible that this superstition – that if the palm of your hand itches, you will receive some money – began in the Caribbean, but it now is a widespread belief in various cultures. Of course, which hand itches is significant; if the right, cash is heading your way, but if the left, you’re likely to lose money.

Ringing in the ears

For some, this is simply tinnitus, but in places like the Philippines, it is believed that a ringing in the ears can predict future events. The ears are, of course, sensitive organs, often associated with perception… could any ringing be a message from the spirit world? As with itchy palms, the left side of the body loses out – while a ringing in the right ear indicates someone is speaking well of you, a ringing in the left means you’re likely the source of some gossip.

Join the discussion

Do you have any unusual superstitions in your family? Do you know where they come from?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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Beyond belief

Words: Joanna Cummings

Have you ever thrown salt over your left shoulder? Avoided walking under a ladder? Called Macbeth ‘the Scottish play’? If so, you are partaking in superstitions – beliefs or practices based not on reason or science but on faith in supernatural forces.

The word ‘superstition’ comes from the Latin word ‘superstitio’, meaning “transcending or standing outside of ordinary logic”. Over time, the meaning of the word has evolved to include any beliefs or practices considered irrational or unfounded, particularly those related to supernatural or magical forces. Calling someone ‘superstitious’ these days can often have slightly negative connotations.

Many of our most common superstitions are around luck, both good and bad. Being covered in bird droppings (Russia), picking up a penny (USA) or finding an elusive four-leaf clover (Ireland) are all thought to be beneficial to the ‘recipient’. In Spain, it is common to eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve to bring good fortune for the coming year, a tradition thought to have been inspired by an excess harvest sometime in the past. In Japan, a black cat signifies good luck, but it is a different story, in the West – where our ongoing mistrust of black cats is apparently why they are least likely to be adopted from a cat shelter.

Other bad luck omens you may be familiar with include breaking a mirror, which the Ancient Romans believed would bring seven years of misfortune, or the possession of peacock feathers. This is thought to stem from the story of the Greek goddess Hera, who placed the eyes of her faithful watchman on the tail of the peacock after his death – leading to the ‘evil eye’ symbolism we’re familiar with today. But don’t worry: if bad luck is heading your way, you could always take a leaf out of Elvis’ (and the pagans’) book and ‘knock on wood’ to ward it off.

When it comes to superstitions, one thing is for sure – these ‘irrational beliefs’ are not restricted to one country. Here are a few lesser-known or perhaps forgotten superstitions from around the world:

Whistling indoors

In Lithuania, this reprehensible activity was believed to invite evil spirits into the household. While its origins are unclear, it is thought that it could have arisen from the idea that loud and disruptive sounds could disturb or anger supernatural beings. Sounds like something your grandmother might say so she can have some peace.

Sweeping at night

If you’re looking for an excuse to avoid cleaning your kitchen floor, look to China and Vietnam. Here it is believed that sweeping at night could lead to the loss of wealth – possibly because cleaning in the dark (pre-electricity) ran the risk of sweeping away valuable items.

Shoes on the table

At one time in the UK, placing shoes on the table was thought to bring death to the family. Possible reasons for this include the symbolism of footwear about ‘going on a journey’, but it is just as likely that – like many superstitions – its origins are practical in nature. No one wants dirty shoes on the table while they are enjoying their tea.

Counting crows

No, not the American alt rock band – the belief that crows were harbingers of bad news. Crows certainly have an image problem; in many cultures, they are associated with death, and some Native American cultures see them as messengers between the living and the spirit world. This has not been helped at all, we imagine, by a famous film from a certain Mr Hitchcock…

Itchy palms

It is possible that this superstition – that if the palm of your hand itches, you will receive some money – began in the Caribbean, but it now is a widespread belief in various cultures. Of course, which hand itches is significant; if the right, cash is heading your way, but if the left, you’re likely to lose money.

Ringing in the ears

For some, this is simply tinnitus, but in places like the Philippines, it is believed that a ringing in the ears can predict future events. The ears are, of course, sensitive organs, often associated with perception… could any ringing be a message from the spirit world? As with itchy palms, the left side of the body loses out – while a ringing in the right ear indicates someone is speaking well of you, a ringing in the left means you’re likely the source of some gossip.

Join the discussion

Do you have any unusual superstitions in your family? Do you know where they come from?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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