What is a Superstition?

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

A superstition is anything that people believe that is based on myth, magic, or irrational thoughts. They are beliefs that are steeped in lore or tradition, and it is usually difficult to pinpoint the exact origin. Superstitions are also known as old wives' tales, legends, and traditions. They may involve animals, graveyards, ghosts, inanimate objects, or even other people.

A broken mirror, which brings bad luck, according to superstition.
A broken mirror, which brings bad luck, according to superstition.

Most superstitions start in fact, and then become distorted over years and years of use. Others formed from religious beliefs. For example, a popular superstition, that it is bad luck to walk under a ladder, came from Christian religion. The ladder makes a triangle with the wall and ground, representing the Holy Trinity. Walking through the triangle, under the ladder, meant that you were in league with the devil, and might lead the other villagers to condemn you as a witch.

Crows are often associated with death.
Crows are often associated with death.

There are different superstitions from all over the world. In Japan, for example, it is considered bad luck to stick chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, or to pass them person to person. To avoid a baby being born with a facial birthmark, pregnant women in India don't go outside during an eclipse. In Taiwan, there is a superstition that says being a bridesmaid more than twice is considered bad luck.

Acorns are often used for good luck charms.
Acorns are often used for good luck charms.

Many cultures around the world have superstitions about numbers. Western tradition is that the number thirteen is unlucky, but seven is lucky. In Japan, it is numbers four and nine that are considered unlucky. The number four in both Chinese and Japanese is shi, which is very close to the Japanese word for death, and the number nine is similar to the word for suffering.

Some people believe that ravens are associated with death.
Some people believe that ravens are associated with death.

There are also many superstitions about luck. It is bad luck in theater culture to wish someone good luck before a show. The correct thing to say is "break a leg." It is bad luck in Western cultures to spill salt, break a mirror, or see three butterflies together. Four leaf clovers and horseshoes, after they have fallen off of a horse, as considered lucky, as is carrying around an acorn.

Some people believe black cats are bad luck.
Some people believe black cats are bad luck.

Superstition is an integral part of almost every culture around the world. Even people who do not believe in superstition may still pause before walking under a ladder, or may think of a wish when they see a falling star. People have good luck charms, such as a rabbit's foot or a lucky piece of jewelry. Some men believe that wearing a particular hat or pair of socks will make their favorite sports team win a game. Superstitions, whether believed by a whole culture or just one person, still have some sway over people's lives, with or without having any actual power.

Spilling salt is considered bad luck in Western cultures.
Spilling salt is considered bad luck in Western cultures.
According to a common superstition, finding a four leaf clover is expected to bring good luck.
According to a common superstition, finding a four leaf clover is expected to bring good luck.
Horseshoes, after they have fallen off of a horse, are considered lucky.
Horseshoes, after they have fallen off of a horse, are considered lucky.
Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal wiseGEEK writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

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Discussion Comments

BoatHugger

@waterhopper:

Interestingly enough, there are some buildings in China that leave out the fourth, fourteenth, twenty-fourth or any other floor that has “four” in it. It is said that the word “four” sounds like “death” in the Mandarin language.

There was once a study done by a man named Dilip Rangnekar who worked for Otis Elevators. In this study, it was estimated that 85% of buildings with elevators did not have a 13th floor.

DinoLeash

@waterhopper: Yes, actually that is true. Several hotels leave out the 13th floor. It is said that too many people are superstitious and would be upset if they were put on the 13th floor. Therefore, many hotels just leave off the 13th floor.

WaterHopper

Is it true that some hotels don't have a 13th floor?

breakofday

Many countries still view a child born with a Polydactyly defect as a witch. It's just an extra finger or toe, cats have that all the time. I wonder if it is somehow linked to a cat being a "witches familiar"?

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