Old Superstitious Beliefs

Sofia Panuelos | Staff Photographer—Old superstition has it that it's bad luck to open umbrellas indoors!

I’m a sucker for wishing wells and fountains. Anything I can throw a coin into for the potential wish come true, really. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to wish for something twice. The first coin flew gently down, the fountain until I heard the reassuring plop of coin hitting water. Unfortunately, the second wish was rudely intercepted by my 12-year-old brother.

I admit shouting, “Steve, how could you do that?!” It was neither mature nor rational, but what I knew about this superstitious practice didn’t cover intercepted wishes. So I did some digging, and as it turns out, I found out that I’m not crazy or overly sensitive.
Who can resist a shiny penny heads up on the ground or the satisfying prospect of getting your heart’s desire? The ancients certainly couldn’t. Superstitious practices like this go way back, and many have their basis in religious traditions.

Take walking under ladders for example. Passing beneath a ladder was seen to violate the triangular barrier when propped against a wall. This represented life or the Holy Trinity (depending on the pagan or Christian persuasion), and breaking the boundary put you in league with the devil.

Alternatively, some say this superstition comes from the fact that hangmen stood on ladders at the gallows. He would look at you if you passed under the ladder, an ominous sign of death in your near future.

As far as pennies go, metal was thought to be a gift from the gods as a protection against evil; it would be quite rude to leave the gift unappreciated on the ground. Drinking water symbolized purity because of its clear color and near flavorlessness. You could send your wishes directly to the gods by speaking into the well, but you’d have to send a metal coin as payment if you wanted them to take your request seriously.

We owe a lot of automatic modern practices to these old superstitions. Think of the gracious courtesy associated with a post-sneeze blessing.

They were offered first when pagans held the belief that your soul could be replaced by demons when it was momentarily expelled by a sneeze. This blessing became “God bless you” when the bubonic plague took hold of Europe in the 6th century. Sneezing was a more obvious symptom of the plague, so Pope Gregory I ordered the blessing as an attempt to cure the disease.

Our modern celebration of Halloween itself is a tribute to pagan ritual. Thousands of years ago, Celtics believed they needed to appease spirits that remained on Earth by leaving treats for them. People later began dressing like spirits to take advantage of these offerings and would play pranks on the people who didn’t leave food out, hence the adage “Trick or treat!”

I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person. As a physics major, I realize these practices are irrational. Stevie Wonder probably had it right when he sang, “Superstition ain’t the way.” Still, I follow my fair share of rituals. I throw salt over my shoulder whenever I cook to ward off the evil eye. I wish on each new moon, knock on wood and I never take an exam without my jade ring and charm necklace.

I don’t do these things because I think they work. I do them because I worry that if they do work, I’m missing out by ignoring them.

Like me, fourth-year English major Teresa Villaruz wears certain necklaces on certain days and says her boyfriend believes the jacket he wore on their first date is lucky. She thinks these superstitions give people faith that might affect the outcome.

Third-year psychology major Melanie Humphrey says she always wishes on shooting stars, “because if you send good energy into the universe, good things will come back to you.”

Some are more passive about the rituals. Fourth-year international studies major Ellen Kern doesn’t feel that keeping an evil eye talisman on her phone protects her necessarily. She likes the way it looks and said that they are all the rage in Greece, where she bought it.

Fourth-year civil engineering major Kevin Woods felt the same, telling me, “I don’t think I believe they work, but I definitely like the stories.”
Whether or not you truly believe that an iron horseshoe channels godly luck, these practices certainly have interesting origins. For myself, I’m pretty sure that none are more than entertaining histories, but I’m going to continue wishing on stars and hanging dream catchers anyway. Just in case.