Superstitions and Their Origins: A Brief History and Examples

Superstitions and Their Origins: A Brief History and Examples
Page content

Baseball player Wade Boggs had a complicated set of procedures –one could call them obsessive superstitions– in order to become one of the greatest Hall of Fame batters. He would eat chicken every single day because he believed it would help him hit better. In addition, he had a five-hour pregame ritual that entailed:

  • Ending his grounder drill by stepping on third, second and first bases
  • Taking two steps into the first base coaching box
  • Jogging to the dugout in exactly four steps
  • Never stepping on the foul line while going out, but always stepping on it on the way back
  • Running wind sprints
  • Digging a Hebrew word into the dirt with a bat

When asked about this behavior, he claimed that he didn’t like surprises and felt his motivations were justified because he already had too much of the unexpected in the life of the game.

Many sports celebrities have these types of superstitions; but, why?

Risk and Uncertainty

Risk-takers like the thrill of the uncertain. They might engage in possibility, such as spinning the Roulette wheel, driving over the speed limit, taking drugs or skydiving.

Uncertainty and the random happenings of life such as changing jobs, making financial decisions or falling in love seem too much to bear for others, so they cope by using alcohol or drugs, developing phobias or becoming depressed.

While those are the extremes, we may fall somewhere in-between. Some, when faced with uncertainty respond with superstitious beliefs or actions.

History: Science Tells Us

Although superstitions are a normal part of human nature, they are avoidable. They are put off by common sense and planning logically.

As a study, psychologists struggled with defining superstitions in the 19th century but couldn’t come to any strict conclusions or consensus. The study didn’t jell until the 1950s.

Magic and superstition were hard to distinguish from religion and science. These two phenomena –magic and religion– were closely associated throughout history. The early priests in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Rome and Greece used magic to inspire faith and cement the allegiance of the faithful. They may have created a weeping statue, told of perpetually burning lamps in tombs or used faith healing. There were divine places, omens and rituals used by many charlatans.

Magicians use illusions to create tricks and clearly identify themselves as performers.

Today, even popular religion continues to use rituals, such as the activities surrounding a burial. People dress the dead, use certain flowers and follow burial traditions, giving mourners a way to release the emotional responses of loss and suffering.

More Recent Superstitions

The New Age movement harbors both superstitious and paranormal beliefs. For instance, some New Agers dismiss western science and medicine and turn to “channelers” who claim to speak to alien beings or people from centuries past. Other examples are medical treatments such as magic crystals, therapeutic bonding and touch healing. Some believe in numerology, reincarnation and extrasensory perception (ESP).

There are new religious aspects, such as the belief that angels exist and can affect events here on earth. Proponents of mind-body phenomena have made a large profit with seminars and products.

Superstitious belief and conspiracy theories about UFO’s, alien abductions and ghosts are paranormal in focus. This movement reflects a willingness to accept ideas not supported by science and is a cultural trend large with television offerings such as Finding Bigfoot, Ghost Hunters, The Dead Files and Chasing UFOs.

Lucky Hats and Black Cats

People Avoid the 13th Floor

According to polls taken by CBS and Gallup, people often say they are leery about staying on the 13th floor of a hotel, if there is one. Other folks knock on wood, will not walk under ladders, carry a good luck charm, avoid opening umbrellas indoors and wear a lucky game hat on the big day of a sports playoff. Most of these come to us as part of our culture. We hear them and remember them. Others are personal, such as the pre-game ritual described earlier that Wade Boggs did.

According to Stuart Vyse, author of the book, Believing in Magic, superstitious people have higher anxiety and greater fear of death, feel less in control, suffer more from depression, experience higher levels of neuroticism and have lower self-esteem than non-superstitious people do. He believes a person’s tolerance for the unknown is related to adopting superstitions as coping strategies.

This is not an absolute, he says, but people with these traits are more likely to be superstitious.

Common Superstitions

Sneezing: claims that when a person sneezes they are temporarily deprived of their soul, which will only return when someone says, “Bless you.”

Lightning: the tradition that lighting never strikes twice in the same place (this is patently untrue).

Ladder: taboo against walking under a ladder encountered worldwide today. The basis of this superstition is that anyone who walks through is disrespecting God and sympathizing with the devil.

Salt: evil spirits are roused when it is spilled and a tear will be shed for every grain scattered; salt is tossed over the left shoulder to placate them.

Palmistry: a person’s character can be divined by examination of their palms, the shape and lines on it.

Do you have any superstitions of your own?