Why do we throw salt over our shoulder and other superstitions answered
So why DO we throw salt over our shoulder Answers to the strangest superstitions
8:42 AM on 10th May 2011
Are you the sort of superstitious character who avoids wandering under ladders Do you salute any magpie that flies across your path You’re not alone. Two-thirds of us can’t get through the day without some kind of superstitious gesture, according to recent research. Here, Ticky Hedley-Dent examines some of our odder beliefs and their origins . . .
Spilled salt: Because of Judas Iscariot, spilling the seasoning is associated with lies
The Last Supper has given us two common superstitions: the first is that you should never seat 13 at dinner, and the second is that spilling salt brings bad luck.
If you look closely at Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, you can see that Judas has knocked the salt cellar over with his elbow. Thanks to Judas Iscariot, spilled salt is associated with treachery and lies. If you do spill salt, a pinch thrown over your left shoulder is supposed to blind the devil waiting there.
According to Norse folklore, the oak tree was the symbol of the hammer-wielding Thor, god of thunder and lightning. To protect their houses from vengeful lightning strikes, the Ancient Norse would fill their homes with acorns collected from Northern oak forests. Fire insurance has moved on a bit since then, but many still pop an acorn in their pocket for good luck.
As the summer wedding season approaches, beware of buying the bride and groom a set of kitchen knives. Legend has it that giving a knife as a present ‘cuts’ your friendship in two. More bizarre, is the widespread belief in keeping a knife under the pillow.
The Greeks believe that a black-handled knife under the pillow wards off nightmares, and the Chinese that knives protect pregnant women from evil spirits. A knife under the bed is meant to act as a painkiller during childbirth, and, in a pre-Health-and-Safety age, a knife in the cradle was thought to keep a baby from harm.
Often thought to arise from a risk of falling scaffolding, the fear of walking under ladders may have far more complex origins. It is believed that the triangular shape made by a ladder leaning against the wall invokes the Holy Trinity and that walking through the triangle is desecration.
If you’ve wandered under one by accident, the only solution is to walk back underneath it, saying a prayer as you do so.
Complex: The only solution if you walk under a ladder is to walk back underneath it
Seven years bad luck seems a steep price to pay for a common household accident such as breaking a mirror, but that’s nothing compared to the loss of your soul.
Superstition has it that a person’s soul can be seen in their reflection, and if you shatter a mirror then your soul is shattered too. To speed the seven year curse, pick up the broken pieces and throw them into a river flowing south.
Throughout Europe, magpies are seen as birds of ill omen. Their aggressive attitude to smaller songbirds and their tendency to steal shining coins and jewellery has earned them a reputation for wickedness. And apocryphal tales recount that the magpie was the one bird that refused to sing and comfort Christ when he died on the cross.
The number of magpies you spot will determine whether you enjoy good or ill fortune. As the popular rhyme suggests: One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a funeral, Four for a birth.
A lone magpie is considered sorrowful because it appears without its mate. If a single magpie crosses your path, doff your hat (if you’re wearing one) and say ‘Good Morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady today’ It may earn you a few strange looks on the street, but saluting it like this suggests it has a mate and is happy.
In the 14th century, rumours first began to circulate that witches flew through the night skies on household brooms. Ever since, brooms have been regarded as signs of ill omen. If you sweep dust out of your front door after dark, it will bring an unwelcome stranger to visit.
Model society: Beehives are venerated
Frogs were once believed to cure all manner of ailments. A country cure for thrush was to hold a live frog to the patient’s mouth. As it breathed in, it was supposed to draw out the disease into its own body. Warts could also be cured by rubbing a frog across them.
If you’ve even seen the terrifying West End play The Woman In Black, you’ll remember the chilling horror of an empty chair rocking of its own accord. An old Irish superstition claims that if you set an empty rocking chair rocking, you invite evil spirits to occupy the empty seat.
Smokers beware. According to an old soldiers’ superstition you mustn’t light three cigarettes from the same match. Its origins lie in World War I, when a sniper firing at night would pick up his gun at the first spark of a match lighting a cigarette, take aim at the second, and then pull the trigger as the third soldier lit his.
From Plato onwards, beehives have been venerated as examples of a model society. Legend insists that a beekeeper should talk to his bees every day and keep them up to date on everything happening in his personal life.
If he neglects to tell his bees of an engagement or a death in the family, he risks the entire swarm deserting their hives. And we should all try to resist the urge to swat: a bee landing on your hand augurs wealth and good fortune.
Witches, seeking to control and influence their victims, used to brew potions with collected fingernail clippings. The truly superstitious burn or bury their clippings to keep them from harm. The eccentric artist Picasso stuck rigidly to this rule, keeping all his nail clippings — and shorn hair — in sealed and dated containers.
The sea is a dangerous place, and seafaring men have invented countless superstitions to keep them safe until they are back on dry land.
Having a woman on board, distracting the sailors, is thought to bring terrible luck on a crew. However, a naked woman is said to calm stormy seas, which explains the busty figureheads found on the front of ships.
The most unlikely nautical superstition claims that bananas on board spell disaster. One theory dates back to the 17th century when slave ships sometimes travelled with a cargo of bananas. The fruit was known to release deadly methane gas into the hold, suffocating African slaves trapped inside.