The Roots of Superstition

Admit it. There is that token… that little something that eases your mind and comforts your fears.  Adversely, there are also those things that can cause an unexplainable flood of anxiety and tickle that place deep in your imagination with a sense of dread. Horseshoes, 4-leaf clovers, and a rabbit’s foot. Black cats, broken mirrors, and the number 13. Undeniably, we share an emotional response to those things and many others like them. Lucky or unlucky, but why? The definition of superstition is a widely held belief in supernatural causation leading to specific consequences. The roots of these beliefs are buried deep in our human history and whether logical or not, they evoke strong emotional responses that can affect the choices we make. Although argued as irrational and illogical, superstitions are very real.

RABBITS & HARES

Frederick Morgan, Feeding the Rabbits 1856-1927

Let’s start with rabbits. VTC has a brand new collection devoted to these hares and the age old belief that saying “rabbit, rabbit” first thing as you awake on the first day of the month will bring you good luck for the fortnight. Now we ask, where the heck did this belief of lucky rabbits come from?

Celtic tribes believed that because rabbits spent so much of their time underground, they were able to communicate with the gods and spirits and to have some piece of them would bring good luck to the keeper.  Rabbits were also associated with fertility and that led to the belief that they symbolized bountiful harvests and why our Easter bunny heralds the return of spring with baskets overflowing with pastel cheer. The left rear foot of the rabbit was considered the luckiest and luckier still if the rabbit was killed in a cemetery at midnight. That does not sound very lucky for the rabbits but nonetheless, people have made a habit out of toting these little talismans with them in hopes of good fortune. 

BLACK CATS

                                                                            My black cat, Saint Ignatious

Black cats have had quite a ride through history. Egyptians held cats in high esteem and it was a capital crime to harm them. It was not until the Middle Ages that cats started to fall from favor. The hysteria over witches fanned a fallacy that cats were reincarnated sorceresses and it was actually their removal that is attributed to the black plague which was spread by an uncontainable rat population. Today, stigmas still exist and black cats are the last to be adopted from shelters. In many other countries, however, cats are considered quite lucky. It is good luck to own a cat in Asia, and in Scotland a black cat on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity. Black cats are called “magician cats” in the south of France and treating them well brings good luck to the owner. If you hear a black cat sneeze in Italy, you have a streak of good luck coming your way. Bad luck or good, it all goes back to superstition and local lore which can be completely different depending on where you are in the world.

HORSESHOES

Blacksmiths were revered as lucky and because they worked with fire and iron, which was considered a magical element with many powers. The lucky horseshoe has its root in a tale of a wise old blacksmith in Ireland. Legend has it that while busy at work one day, the devil, who was said to have hooves himself, decided to try having them shod. The wiley blacksmith recognized his customer and drove the red hot nails deeply into the devils feet. After walking a few miles on his new shoes, the devil was in excruciating pain and ripped them off in agony.  It was believed from that moment on, whenever the devil saw a horseshoe, he would turn and run. This started the tradition of hanging a horseshoe on or over the door to protect the threshold of the home from evil.  

MIRRORS, CRACKS & LADDERS

Much of this lore can be traced back to safety. If you break a mirror, you will probably get cut. If you step on a crack, you are more likely to trip. If you walk under a ladder, there is a good chance something will fall on you. The beauty of these beliefs and sayings, ingrained in us since childhood, is a culmination of hundreds of years of wisdom, trying to keep us from making bad decisions. Many athletes believe in rituals before they compete and argue that they find focus and perform better because of them. Even if we know it isn’t logical, we believe in them and that is when the mind is actually over the matter. Some of these superstitions have ancient roots in agriculture or religion and we have inherited them from a long line of believers before us who grasped at worldly tokens and tales to explain the ways of the universe and to arm them against unknown evils lurking around every corner. 

I have a medallion around my neck as I write this, a gift from my children, and when I fasten the clasp each morning, it brings me comfort. There is an unexplainable sense that I will proceed with positivity and gratitude no matter what the day has in store for me and I call it a prayer but if I fail to wear it, I am prickled by its absence. Our human nature longs for security and understanding, and our imaginations are masters at creating the answers when we don’t have them. So we will continue to make our wishes, choose our lucky numbers and say “rabbit, rabbit” on waking the first day of the month, because even though we tell ourselves it isn’t real, we can’t help but believe. 

Tomorrow is the first of March and the perfect time to practice proclaiming, “rabbit, rabbit!” as soon as you wake for a fortnight full of good luck. If you have an odd or obscure family superstition or one you remember from childhood, please share. We would love to know your story!

2 thoughts on “The Roots of Superstition

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  1. Always hang the horseshoe with the open part at the top, so your luck won’t run out. Being Irish we always had a horseshoe on or over the door.

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