Some superstitions leave you shaking your head, while others have such surprisingly rational origins that it makes sense they've endured over the years, even as lives and circumstances have changed through the centuries. While it's easy to dismiss seemingly baseless superstitions related to horseshoes and four-leaf clovers, it's tougher to argue with superstitions firmly rooted in reality rather than magic.
Sure, times have changed, and maybe these cautionary tales are no longer needed, but at one time, they were valuable — keeping people safe, helping them avoid danger or allowing them to explain away unhappy events. Even in modern times, when people are widely educated and know that some of these superstitions are silly, many live on out of habit — or because people choose to follow them "just in case."
Many have become insurance policies of a sort, as people are willing to alter their behavior or make small changes in the off chance they might reap a bit of luck or increase their odds of success. Sure, there's no proof that any of it actually works, but if it only takes a bit of extra effort, why not take a chance?
5: Black Cats
A black cat crossing your path is a universal symbol of bad luck and may drive some suspicious folks back home to hide under the covers. At first glance, this superstition may seem silly. Black cats are just simple house pets that want no more than the occasional treat and a warm place to sleep at night, right? These cats may seem innocent to most of us now, but just a few short centuries ago, having a black cat cross your path was enough to get yourself sent to the gallows — or burned at the stake.
In 1233, Pope Gregory IX wrote his "Vox In Rama," which likened black cats to incarnations of the devil. Having the Pope compare an animal to the devil himself was enough to give black cats a sinister air for both Christians and non-Christians alike. Over the next few centuries, black cats were rounded up and burned in an effort to punish the devil for his wicked ways. Soon, the black cat's evil reputation spread to its owner, branding anyone who possessed or associated with one of these animals as a witch. While few records exist to tell the tale, it's highly possible that more than a few innocent people were put to death as witches simply for being in close proximity to a black cat [source: Bradshaw].
Even now that owning these creatures is considered safe, the lingering memory of black cats and witchcraft is still enough to give people pause.
4: No Girls Allowed
Take heart, ladies: The old superstition that women bring nothing but bad luck on boats hasn't stopped women from playing a prominent role in the U.S. Navy — or on fishing, sporting and commercial vessels around the world. Here in the 21st century, women work side-by-side with men, performing many of the same duties, with some even captaining vessels, turning age-old seafaring superstitions and traditions on their head.
Despite growing gender equality, the idea that a woman on a boat brings bad luck still lingers in some corners of the boating world, and if you consider the rationale behind the myth, you just might understand — even though it's hardly the woman's fault.
The notion that women bring bad luck when permitted to board a vessel dates back to a time when exclusively male crews spent months at sea, living and working in tight quarters. Inviting a woman on board during that time was thought to invite trouble as well; the woman would almost assuredly suffer from unwanted advances, and any blossoming relationship might result in jealousy, anger and fighting among the crew — not good ingredients for a successful voyage [source: Hanauer].
Even More Superstitions With Rational Origins
3: Bananas on Board
"Yes, we have no bananas." If you plan to head aboard a fishing boat, these words had better ring true. While it may seem like there couldn't possibly be anything logical about bananas casting bad luck over a boat, this superstition actually makes a lot of sense if you explore its origins. When the Spanish began to colonize Central and South America, they carried a tremendous amount of bananas across the Atlantic to Europe. When ships sank, which many did, the bananas would float to the surface, giving them an association with shipwrecks [source: Mikkelson].
Of course, it's also possible that the bananas actually did cause shipwrecks, at least indirectly. As sailors raced across the Atlantic to carry their payload to ports in Europe, they may have rushed their travels or made risky decisions in an effort to get home before the bananas could spoil. This added speed could have increased the rate of accidents and led to the loss of ships, lives and property — all for a simple load of fruit.
In addition, crews learned that fermented bananas released methane, a toxic gas that could kill or sicken sailors. The discovery of poisonous snakes, spiders and other vermin in crates of bananas further dampened their reputation among seafarers, making them an unwelcome snack on boats to this day [source: Odyssey Marine Exploration].
2: Shoes on the Table
In many different cultures, it's bad luck to put your shoes on the table. Some regions specify that putting new shoes on the table will reduce later prosperity, while others assert that any shoes left on the table will bring bad luck, trouble at work and even difficulties with your relationship [source: Van Scoyoc]. One local superstition in Illinois claims that leaving your shoes on the table will lead to a quarrel by the end of the day — which it very well might if your roommate or spouse likes things tidy [source: Middleton].
While the origins of this superstition are tough to trace, some sources suggest that when a member of a mining company died, his family would bring his shoes inside and place them on the table as a sign of respect [source: Tanna]. This in itself seems a rational enough explanation for this superstition, but it might not even be needed. Even without this nugget of history, any rational person would agree that putting your shoes — complete with all the dirt and debris you've slogged through during your day — on the same table where you eat and work is just a plain bad idea.
1: Rule of Three
Legend has it that when three people share a match, say, to light a trio of cigarettes, the third person to use the match is doomed to die. At first glance, this superstition seems silly and wasteful — why not share a match to conserve resources and avoid waste?
The idea that three to a match means death dates back to the Crimean War, when snipers from both sides would lie in wait to kill unsuspecting soldiers [source: Webster]. Lighting a match for a cigarette would reveal your position, but putting the match out quickly made it tougher for snipers to take aim in the dark. Leaving the match lit long enough for a second person to use it meant plenty of time to aim, so that by the time the third person bent in to touch his cigarette to the match, the sniper was ready to fire. Sure, most people aren't on the lookout for snipers anymore, but this superstition's oddly rational origin story means it's stood the test of time anyway.
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Author's Note: 5 Superstitions With Oddly Rational Origins
It's been almost a millennium since the Pope declared black cats as devils in disguise, but the animals are still suffering because of it. In a 2013 study, researchers at Colorado State University found that it takes four to six days longer for a black cat to be adopted from a shelter than a cat with another coat color. While it's unlikely that many people still make a direct connection between black cats and evil, it's possible that lingering superstitions about these animals have hurt public perception, leaving the cats stuck in shelters simply because of the color of their fur.
- Bradshaw, John. "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet." Basic Books. 2014.
- Hanauer, Eric. "Seafaring Superstitions." Dive Training. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.dtmag.com/Stories/Weird%20Stuff/08-06-feature.htm
- Middleton, H. "Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois." 1890. (Jan. 5, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=o-8JAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Mikkelson, Barbara. "Banana Ban." Snopes. July 20, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.snopes.com/luck/superstition/bananas.asp
- Odyssey Marine Exploration. "Strange at Sea: Maritime Myths and Superstitions." 2015. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.shipwreck.net/oid/Nov12-maritimesuperstitions.php
- Tanna, Ruchika. "Don't Put Your Shoes on the Table!" USC Digital Folklore Archives. May 16, 2012. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=14058
- Van Scoyoc, Andrea Dean. "Old Worlde Magic — Superstitions and Lore ..." Lulu. July 8, 2008.
- Webster, Richard. "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." Llewellyn Publications. 2008.