Ye Olde Urban Legend: The Meaning of Common Omens

Before modern science, these premonitions didn't leave much room for second-guessing; however, some still hold for the very superstitious today.

Compiled by Amy Zerello from Superstitions: 1,013 of the World's Wackiest Myths, Fables & Old Wives Tales
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    Black Cats

    Long ago, visitors to English homes were expected to greet the family cat with a kiss to bring good luck. And in the 16th century, it was white cats that were a sign of bad luck, not like today's belief that black cats crossing your path means misfortune.

    More cat lore around the world: In Scotland, if a black cat happened to appear on the doorstep, the family believed their wealth would increase. In Italy, fisherman's wives kept company with black cats to prevent disasters at sea. And back in the day, some folks thought a cat's sneeze forecasted rain, while others believed unusually playful behavior signaled a storm was brewing.

    Rainbows

    Rainbows are mostly thought of as positive symbols, though in parts of Scotland and Ireland, rainbows whose ends touched down within the same town or island foretold death. It's also still believed in some places that to point a finger at a rainbow, the moon, or the stars is bad luck, since at one time celestial bodies were thought of as gods, and pointing at them was deemed disrespectful.

    Comets

    Comets were commonly believed to precede great events. Shooting stars, on the other hand, were thought by some cultures to foretell ordinary peoples' deaths, since the belief was that each person had a star in the sky representing his soul.

    Tingling Ears

    Itching, tingling or a feeling of warmth in your ears is thought to mean someone is talking about you. Particular associations have been made for each ear: the right means the words being spoken are good, while sensations in the left meant the opposite. Grimly, ringing in the ears was believed to predict the death of someone close.

    Cloud Formations and Sky Color

    While some people prophesize weather based on cloud formations (like high, scattered clouds, known as 'mackerel sky,' meant a safeguard from rain for at least 12 hours), others rely on color. Greenish rain clouds meant more rain is to come, while green after sunset meant gales were headed your way. Red foretold both good and bad, based on time of day: an evening red sky predicted favorable weather for the following day, while morning meant to prepare for bad weather.

    Holding Your Breath

    When passing graveyards, children in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, held their breath for fear they'd breathe in the souls of the recently deceased. British and French persons held the common belief that the keeper of the graveyard was the soul of the last person buried in it. It was this soul's job to keep watch until the next person was laid to rest. In an alternate telling, the first person in a parish to pass on was thought to keep watch for the following 12 months.

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