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Explainer: How did superstitions like unlucky 13 get started?

  • Image: Composite image of a groundhog, graveyard, black cat and the number 13
    AP, Featurepics.com

    C'mon, now. Doesn't it make total sense to allow a simple number inspire fear and extra caution? Well, no, it doesn't. But our fixation with the number 13 runs deep. Architects frequenly omit a 13th floor from their plans. Parties featuring 13 guests give hosts pause and the arrival of a Friday the 13th on the calendar can cause palpable dread and frantic re-scheduling of plans.

    Of course, unlucky 13 isn't the only popular superstition that has been clinging, barnacle-like, to the human psyche for decades. We're also beholden to black cats, rabbits' feet, broken mirrors and umbrellas opened indoors.

    But why? Where did this stuff even originate? Read on for some eye-opening background information about 13 — that's right, 13 — common superstitions. To see all of them, click on the word "next" at left, or click on "Show more items" and keep scrolling down.

  • The number 13

    Image: Number 13
    Alex Hinds  /  Featurepics.com

    Why does the number 13 give people such a bad case of the heebie-jeebies?

    "The number 13 has a number of very old references that tend to be associated with groups of 13 people," explained author and psychology professor Stuart Vyse.

    "At the Last Supper in Christian theology, there were 13 dinner guests, so that number is unlucky because Christ was betrayed. ... And in Norse mythology, 12 benevolent gods were gathering in a hall and the evil god Loki attacked the group. Loki was the 13th guest, and the god Balder was killed in the melee."

    Vyse noted that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was quite fearful of the number 13, and he took great pains to avoid hosting a meal for a group of that size. "If he had a cancellation and it looked as if there might be 13 people to lunch, he invited his secretary to join them so there wouldn't be 13," he said.

    The fear of the number 13 is so pervasive that it even has a phobia named after it: triskaidekaphobia. Based on this phobia, airlines typically do not have a 13th row, and most tall buildings do not have a 13th floor.

  • Groundhog Day

    Image: Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog
    AP

    It's a ritual that's continued for more than 100 years: Thousands gather in the frigid pre-dawn hours in Punxsutawney, Pa., to find out whether the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will "see his shadow." If he does, the meaning is clear: Six more weeks of winter weather.

    Right? Ummm ... not necessarily.

    A report in the Christian Science Monitor revealed this fun fact: "Flipping through the history books, it seems Punxsutawney Phil has spotted his shadow 99 out of 114 times. That would mean poor Pennsylvania rarely gets an early spring. However, according to the Stormfax Almanac, the groundhog is only right 39 percent of the time — a failing grade in school terms."

    It kind of stands to reason, considering that this ritual is firmly rooted in fun, not science. In the late 1800s, a group of Punxsutawney men climbed a hill called Gobbler's Knob to eat groundhog and drink beer. They had such a blast that they christened themselves the "Groundhog Club" and vowed to get together each year. And so they did!

  • Black cats

    Image: Black cat
    Grlic  /  Featurepics.com

    OK, so now we understand the pull of the groundhog. But what's the big deal with black cats, and why would it be wrong to let one cross your path?

    Duh. A black cat might be a witch who has transformed into the shape of a cat.

    "Cats fared badly (in the Middle Ages in Europe) ... as people thought they were witches' familiars. Black cats were believed to be witches in disguise," writes Richard Webster in the reference work "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions."

    "An alternative belief was that after seven years of service to a witch, a black cat would turn into a witch. Consequently, a black cat crossing your path was an indication of bad luck, as the devil was watching you."

  • Umbrella opened indoors

    Image: Umbrella
    Featurepics.com

    Why is it so wrong to open an umbrella indoors?

    Because you don't want to offend the spirit of the umbrella, silly!

    Consider these insights from Richard Webster's "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions":

    "A common superstition is the belief that opening an umbrella inside a house causes bad luck. The origin of this is that the umbrella acts as a shield against the sun or rain outdoors. To open it indoors offends the spirit of the umbrella, who will cause bad luck to occur as a result."

  • April Fool's Day

    Image: April 1 on calendar
    Featurepics.com

    Here's another annual tradition that's coming up soon: April Fool's Day. Ever wonder why people play practical jokes on each other on April 1? You can blame that custom on the pesky Gregorian calendar.

    "The custom began in France, in the late 16th century when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. This changed the start of the New Year from March 25 to January 1," writes Richard Webster in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." "As March 25 coincided with Holy Week, the New Year had traditionally been celebrated on April 1. When the date changed, many peasants paid surprise visits to their neighbors on April 1 to trick them into thinking it was still the start of the New Year. Gradually, the custom spread around the world, and people look forward to this day as an opportunity to play tricks on their friends and colleagues."

  • Rabbit's foot

    Image: Rabbit
    Featurepics.com

    Why do people think a rabbit's foot brings good luck? One reason, apparently, is that rabbits are well-known for their — er — reproductive fruitfulness.

    "Consequently, as feet are considered phallic symbols, the rabbit's foot may originally have been a fertility symbol," Richard Webster writes in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions."

    "The rabbit's foot is arguably the most popular of all lucky charms," Webster writes. "The origins of this charm are unknown, but there are a number of possibilities. As rabbits are born with their eyes open, the charm may originally have been used to provide protection against the evil eye."

  • Walking under a ladder

    Image: Man on ladder
    Featurepics.com

    Why would walking under a ladder be considered such a bad thing? Stuart Vyse, a psychology professor and author of "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition," said the ladder superstition is one that may have perfectly understandable and logical origins.

    "Obviously, people may have had bad experiences; maybe something had dropped on their heads," Vyse said. "So that's not totally irrational."

    In his book "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions," Richard Webster notes additional reasons for the belief:

    "Walking under a ladder is believed to cause bad luck. No one really knows why, but at least three theories have been proposed. The most likely theory is that a ladder forms a triangle when placed against a wall. The triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Consequently, when you walk through it, you effectively insult the Trinity and attract the devil. The second theory concerns the use of the ladder in hangings. The ladder would be propped against a beam to allow the person about to be hanged to climb high enough to reach the rope. A third theory dates back to ancient Egyptian times, when people believed you might see a god walking up or down the ladder while you walked under it."

  • Hats on beds

    Image: Cowboy wearing cowboy hat
    Sascha Burkard

    The notion that it's bad luck to place a hat on a bed is a persistent one, and it's even been referenced in movies such as "Drugstore Cowboy." But why?

    In the book "Hats & the Cowboys Who Wear Them," Texas Bix Bender writes: "Seems the expression comes from way back when people believed in evil spirits — other than the ones you drink. These evil spirits lived in the hair. This probably came from static electricity in the air crackling and popping when you came in and took off your hat. So, the idea was, don't lay your hat where you're gonna lay your head 'cause evil spirits are spilling outta the hat. It doesn't make any sense. But then, superstitions seldom do."

  • Broken mirrors

    Image: An ethnic Uzbek woman and her son captured in a broken mirror
    Viktor Darchev  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Why is breaking a mirror considered so unlucky?

    "Souls were said to dwell inside mirrors, so any harm done to the soul when the mirror broke would also happen to the person," writes Richard Webster in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions."

    "Over time, these disastrous consequences were softened to a mere seven years of bad luck. The choice of seven as the number of years is because of the myth that the entire body is completely renewed every seven years."

  • Salt over left shoulder

    Image: Hand adding salt using a salt shaker
    Featurepics.com

    Why do people toss salt over their left shoulders? Well, how else are you supposed to prevent the devil from sneaking up on you?

    "The devil is believed to detest salt, as it is incorruptible, immortal, and linked to God," writes Richard Webster in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions."

    "Salt is a preservative, which makes it a natural enemy of anyone or anything that seeks to destroy. If a superstitious person accidentally spills some salt, he must immediately toss a pinch of salt over his left shoulder. This is because the devil is likely to attack from the rear, and will also attack from the left, or sinister, side. The presence of salt will immediately scare off the devil before he has time to cause any difficulties."

  • Graves and graveyards

    Image: Graveyard
    Featurepics.com

    It isn't difficult to understand why a gravesite or a graveyard might make people more than a little bit uncomfortable. But superstitions tied to the behavior of the living near graves are legion.

    "It is believed to be bad luck to plough up land that has previously been used as a graveyard. It is also a waste of time, as any crops grown on the site will be stunted," writes Richard Webster in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions."

    "Everything inside a graveyard is sacred, and it is bad luck to interfere or meddle with anything found there. ... It is unlucky to pick any flowers growing on a grave. ... It is particularly bad luck to use pieces of broken tombstones for paths or roads. Frequent accidents will occur as a result."

  • Olympic athletes

    Image: Casey Puckett
    AP file
    "If I have a good race, whatever socks I'm wearing, whatever turtleneck I'm wearing, that tends to be the go-to," said ski crosser Casey Puckett.

    Overall, athletes tend to be a superstitious bunch — for reasons that aren't entirely irrational. "They have a lot on the line," said author and psychology professor Stuart Vyse. "If the stakes are high and there's insufficient control over the outcome, then superstitions take hold. For athletes, this is their livelihood."

    Olympic athletes in particular devote their lifetimes to exercising and practicing with incredible rigor — and then, as their big moments arrive, they reach a point where there's nothing else they can do. "You literally just go to the arena and wait until it's your turn," Vyse said. "Those waiting periods have to be filled somehow. They may not refer to what they're doing as a ritual; they may call it a 'routine.' But there's often a very rigid routine that some people feel they must do or else they'll do badly."

    Some prominent athletes who competed in the last Winter Olympics acknowledged such rituals. Ski crosser Casey Puckett gravitates toward lucky turtlenecks, socks and undergarments. Speed skater Chad Hedrick pays special heed to fortune cookies. And skier Michelle Roark applies the same perfume before each race.

  • Baseball superstitions

    Image: Baseball glove
    Featurepics.com

    Of all the sports and all the athletes in the world, baseball — and baseball players — just may be the most superstitious of them all.

    Why baseball? Author and psychology professor Stuart Vyse said one reason is that the game involves so much waiting around. "And if they're waiting, they have time to perform these rituals," he said. Those rituals often involve:

    The foul line: Players and coaches consistently and stubbornly refuse to step on the foul line on trips to and from the dugout.

    Rally caps: If a team is down, all the players in the dugout will wear their caps inside-out or in some other funny way so as to bring about a rally for the team.

    The pitcher: If no one gets a hit off a pitcher over the course of the game, it's considered bad luck to talk to the pitcher in the dugout.

    Spitting: Spitting into a baseball glove is believed to provide good luck.

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