superstitions like black cat, broken mirrors, umbrellas indoors
Illustration by Lauren Wood, The Ohio State University
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superstitions like black cat, broken mirrors, umbrellas indoors
Illustration by Lauren Wood, The Ohio State University

Everybody knows not to break mirrors or walk under ladders, but there are other beliefs that are less well known.

Superstitions are found in every culture. In the United States, common superstitions include knocking on wood, not walking under ladders and not opening umbrellas indoors. However, there are many more superstitions that are not as well known. This may be because they are specific to a region, specific to a culture or because they have become outdated. These are a few examples of lesser-known superstitions.

1. Witch Windows

In Vermont and other areas of New England, windows are installed at a 45-degree angle on the second story of the house. While the windows are specially built this way to allow in light, their strange, slanted appearance has led to tales of their origins. Supposedly, the angles of these windows make it harder for witches to fly inside on their broomsticks because witches cannot fly diagonally. This specific explanation may reflect the ways that a belief in witches has shaped New England folklore and history.

2. A Penny in Exchange for Something Sharp

This superstition posits that if you receive a knife or a blade as a gift, you must give back a penny in exchange. This gesture prevents the sharp blade from severing the relationship between the giver and the receiver. There’s also a variant of this superstition: Giving a knife as a wedding present is considered bad luck because it means the marriage will fail. The specific reason for giving a penny is somewhat unclear, though it may have to do with pennies being lucky.

3. Cutting Nails at Night

In India, it’s thought that cutting nails at night brings bad luck. This belief may have come from practical and sanitary purposes, as trimming nails in the dark means it’s harder to clean up thoroughly and it may be easier to cut oneself.

4. Bananas on Board

Some fishermen believe that bringing along a banana, or anything with the word banana on it (such as Banana Boat sunscreen), causes bad luck. This superstition is somewhat odd, but there are a few proposed explanations for it. Bugs and other pests could be living in bananas and then spread throughout the ship; bad bananas could give sailors and fishermen food poisoning; and the ethylene gas released by bananas could make other fruit onboard ripen and rot faster.

5. Black Cats Bringing Good Luck

While black cats are often incorrectly considered to bring bad luck, in some cases, they are thought to bring good luck. For example, some sailors considered having a black cat onboard to be a good thing. A part of this may have come from cats being great at removing pests that would have snuck onto ships, such as rats. In Japan, black cats are sometimes thought to be good luck as well. Beckoning cats (“Maneki-neko” in Japanese), for example, can sometimes come in black as well as white.

6. Dogs Howling at Night

The basic superstition is that a dog howling at night signals misfortune. Some more specific examples include that a dog howling outside the home of a sick person means that they will soon die, and that a dog howling a certain number of times signifies something. This superstition somewhat resembles the Irish legend of the banshee. It could also tie into how sometimes animals can sense things that humans can’t, like approaching earthquakes.

7. Whistling

Superstitions about whistling can be found in many different countries, including Russia, Germany and Singapore. For the most part, whistling is a negative thing. Whistling at night or indoors can bring about bad luck or attract the attention of evil spirits.

8. Three Cigarettes With One Match

This superstition is mainly a wartime one, which partially explains its obscurity. The declining popularity of smoking over the years also explains why it is lesser-known. The idea is that the third cigarette that is lit will bring about misfortune. The superstition is thought to come from the fact that the amount of time it would take to light three cigarettes with one match would be enough time for an enemy sniper to spot the light and subsequently shoot the third man.

9. Fan Death

In South Korea, it is believed that having a fan on in an unventilated room while one sleeps can lead to death. This superstition is an odd one, and people have suggested that it was made up in the ’70s to reduce energy consumption or to avoid hypothermia and carbon dioxide intoxication.

10. Chopsticks Sticking Straight Up

In China, sticking chopsticks straight up in food is considered taboo. The most common belief is that it can bring death upon a person or their family. It doesn’t appear that there is one explanation for this, but most seem to tie it to death and funeral practices. For example, when burying a body, they will place a stick to temporarily mark the area. Since chopsticks sticking straight up resembles this, it is thought to bring negative consequences.

11. Singing at the Dinner Table

In the Netherlands, singing at the dinner table supposedly means you are praising the Devil for your food. A variant says that doing this would lead to one having a crazy spouse in the future. This superstition could stem from social etiquette, as singing at the table is seen as rude and could possibly attract less favorable suitors.

12. Tuesday the 13th

While the United States and other countries hold that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, in Spain it is actually Tuesday the 13th. This could be because in Spanish, the word for Tuesday (Martes) comes from Mars, the Roman god of war. It appears that in Greece, Tuesday the 13th is also seen as unlucky because it’s the anniversary of the day Constantinople fell.

13. A Bird Entering the House

In general, a bird entering the house can be seen as a bad omen foretelling illness or death. Birds such as magpies and crows are often tied to superstitions. Sometimes, it depends on the type or color of the bird. A black bird, for example, signals an ill omen, while a white bird doesn’t.

14. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

The idea of a seventh son being either blessed or cursed with powers can be found in different places around the world. In Ireland, it was believed that a seventh son would have healing powers, while in Romania it was believed that a seventh son would become a vampire. For these things to happen, the son would have to be in an unbroken line of sons, with no daughters in between. This superstition isn’t super common today because people don’t have as many kids, and because the probability of having only sons is low.

Superstitions can be found everywhere, even in our modern times. Sometimes, they are harmful; for example, the superstition of black cats being a bad omen has led to the death of many cats. Some superstitions just seem nonsensical, like the witch windows or fan death. Other superstitions may seem random, but there is actually a reason behind them; for example, the longer a match stays lit, the more likely it is that the enemy can mark one’s location. Whatever the case, superstitions can provide a fascinating look into cultures and into humanity in general.

 

Writer Profile

Melissa Wade

Northern Arizona University
English

Melissa Wade is a student at Northern Arizona University. She is majoring in English and minoring in studio art.

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