The Origins Behind 7 Common Superstitions

Do you catch yourself automatically throwing spilled salt over your shoulder? What about avoiding ladders and black cats? Plenty of people who don't believe in superstitions follow these traditions out of habit. Some of the origins behind common superstitions date back hundreds of years, and we all know people who keep them in mind even today — perhaps especially today, because January 13 falls on a Friday this year.

Superstitions vary from culture to culture. In the United States, for example, the number 13 is considered unlucky, but in China, people are wary of the number four, possibly because the word resembles the word for death. Then there are all the weird folk beliefs that pop up in different regions of a country — the kind of hyper-localized superstitions you think everyone believes until you bring them up outside your hometown. Say what you will about logic and reason, but nobody's ever going to catch me eating the ends of a bread loaf before the middle.

Although superstitions might seem like holdovers from a different era, plenty of people believe in them today. According to a Gallup poll, nearly a quarter of Americans admitted to being somewhat superstitious, particularly when it came to traditions like knocking on wood and walking under a ladder. Following these traditions doesn't make you irrational; they're simply part of a culture that gets passed down through the generations. Besides, if there's anything universally beloved by humanity, it's coming up with rituals.

So how do they get started in the first place? Here are the origins behind seven common superstitions.


Friday The 13th

Let's start with the most relevant superstition: That Friday the 13th is unlucky. Although ancient Egyptians actually considered it lucky, many Westerners believe that it's bad luck, to the point where many buildings avoid listing the thirteenth floor.

There are a couple options for the origins of this belief, and in all likelihood, it grew out of a combination of all of them. For one thing, according to, the number 12 was considered "perfect" in some ancient cultures, so 13 was already going to seem subpar in comparison. Furthermore, Judas Iscariot (the dude who betrayed Jesus Christ) was the 13th person to arrive for the Last Supper in the New Testament of the Bible. Norse mythology has a similar story in which chaos was introduced to the world by Loki's arrival at a godly dinner party... as the 13th guest.

So that's probably how 13 wound up being considered unlucky, but it's a little more difficult to pinpoint why Friday wound up being the unlucky weekday. Most historians boil it down to two options: The belief that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and Geoffrey Chaucer's decision to make everything bad happen on Friday in his seminal work, The Canterbury Tales.


Beginner's Luck

Beginner's luck, or the belief that newbies are more likely to win something the first time they play, has its origins in something called confirmation bias. If you go into into something with a preconceived idea, you're more likely to notice evidence supporting that idea. You could play a game against six beginners in a row and crush it every time, but you're likely to remember the one time a noob beat you. Voila! You have a superstition.


Breaking A Mirror Is Bad Luck

We've all heard that breaking a mirror brings you bad luck for seven years. This belief likely stems from ancient Roman culture, which believed that mirrors held bits of your soul. Combine this with the belief that your soul renews itself every seven years, and it's easy to see why breaking a mirror would bring you bad luck for so long.


Pick Up A Penny

The tradition of picking up pennies probably comes from a nursery rhyme: "See a pin and pick it up / All the day you'll have good luck." Back in the Middle Ages, pins were relatively expensive, so it's easy to see why someone would get excited to find one laying around. Pins may have later changed to pennies through what's essentially an elaborate game of Telephone.


Blessing Someone After A Sneeze

Back when this tradition formed, it was believed that a sneeze separated your soul from your body. It was the perfect time for the Devil to swoop in and steal it, unless someone blessed your soul and released the ownership back to you.


Crossing Your Fingers For Good Luck

According to Live Science, this practice might come from early Christianity, which believed that anything resembling the cross was good luck —including crossing your fingers.


Walking Under A Ladder

Like many superstitions, this belief might have religious origins. According to HowStuffWorks, it comes down to the triangle formed by a ladder leaning against the wall. In Christianity, the trinity — and by extension, the number three — is sacred, so it's a bad idea to break the three-sided shape by walking under a ladder.

Another possibility is that ladders resemble the gallows, which isn't a great association. Finally, the Encyclopedia of Superstitions writes that it could stem from an ancient Egyptian belief that if you walk under a ladder, you might see a god climbing up or down.

Then there's the practical aspect: Walking under a ladder seems like an easy way to get hit by a falling object. It's not a particularly sexy explanation, but it's worth considering.