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This Is the History Behind These 5 Common Superstitions

Updated: Mar. 07, 2022

Ever wonder why some people avoid black cats and broken mirrors?

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Claire Benoist for Reader's Digest

Superstition: Black cats are bad omens

The backstory: Despite centuries of royal treatment (Egyptians worshipped them; the Norse goddess Freya rode in a chariot pulled by them), cats took a big hit to their reputation in the 1200s, when Pope Gregory IX, waging a culture war on pagan symbols, damned cats as servants of Satan. As a result, cats—especially black ones—were killed across Europe. One unintended consequence, according to some historians: The cat-deprived continent may have allowed disease-carrying rodents to flourish and spread the bubonic plague of 1348.

Rumors that the feline’s fangs and fur were venomous persisted, and by the witch-hunting days of the 1600s, many Puritans believed black cats to be “familiars”—supernatural ­demons that serve witches—and avoided them (to borrow an apt phrase) like the plague.

This is the science behind why we believe in superstitions.

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Superstition: Never walk under a ladder

The backstory: Depending on your background, a ladder leaning against a wall can represent an honest day’s work, a textbook geometry problem, or a symbol of the Holy Trinity that, if breached, will damn your soul. That last bit is what some ancient Christians believed—that any triangle represented the Trinity, and disrupting one could summon the Evil One. These days, our under-ladder phobia is a smidge more practical: Avoid it because you might get beaned by falling tools, ­debris, or an even less lucky human.

This is the meaning behind common omens. Haven’t you always wondered why you’re supposed to hold your breath when you go past a cemetery?

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Superstition: Break a mirror and see seven years of bad luck

The backstory: Numerous ancient cultures agree: Your reflection doesn’t just reveal whether you’re having a bad hair day—it also holds a piece of your soul. To break a mirror, then, is to fracture your very essence, leaving you vulnerable to bad luck.

So why should the sentence last seven years? Some writers cite the ancient Romans, who are said to have believed that the human body and soul fully regenerate every seven years. Any poor pleb who fractured his or her soul in the looking glass would therefore have to endure the bad karma until the soul renewed again.

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Superstition: A full moon brings out the crazies

The backstory: Ever wonder where the word lunatic came from? Look no further than luna, the Latin word for the moon. Many Greeks knew that the moon and its goddess, Luna, held the tides in their thrall, and Aristotle considered the human brain—the “moistest” organ—­particularly susceptible to Luna’s pull. Ancient physician Hippocrates agreed, writing, “One who is seized with terror, fright, and madness during the night is being visited by the goddess of the moon.” Today, some emergency room workers still believe the full moon means trouble.

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Superstition: Say “God bless you” after a sneeze or risk something worse than a cold

The backstory: You’ve probably heard the myth that a sneeze stops the heart (it doesn’t) or separates body from soul (science declines to comment there). But to explain the ritual of post-sneeze “blessing,” we can look to another pope. During the first recorded plague pandemic, in the sixth century, severe sneezing often portended sudden death. As a desperate precaution, Pope Gregory I supposedly asked followers to say “God bless you” every time someone sneezed. Today, it’s just polite.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest