Common Symbols

Spilling Salt: Possible Origins and Remedies

Of all the traditions surrounding good luck and bad luck, few are more curious than the ritual surrounding what to do when we spill salt. Salt is one of the most common seasoning ingredients, we add it to food and put it on our food, we use it to preserve food that would otherwise turn bad quickly. It is vital that we get enough of it in our diet, so it’s hardly surprising that we have the following ritual.

Spilling Salt is Bad Luck: Theories of Origins

This is a distinctly European superstition, although some suggest that it goes back much further than this. Several reasons for the development have been put forward, some based on logic and reason while others have a distinctly more superstitious origin.

Judas: The first suggested reason is that Judas Iscariot spilt salt during the course of The Last Supper (the night before he is said to have betrayed Jesus). Therefore, spilling salt is inviting the bad luck of Judas down on the person who spilt it. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as spilling a salt cellar

Salt is essential: One rational reason is that, despite salt being such a commonly available seasoning and preservative, its use was so vital to those societies where this tradition originated that they dare not become wasteful. This could have been a scare tactic so that people do not take the precious resource for granted

What salt can do: A third explanation is to do with salt’s properties. When sown into the ground, it destroys essential nutrients and makes it barren for a very long time. Therefore, to spill even a small amount on the ground has the potential to affect a harvest. Not so much these days with intensive farming

Ancient Germany: One interesting theory from early German history suggests that salt has symbolic meaning as a valuable commodity of trade. Exchanging it was a symbol of friendship, alliance or protection. Therefore, spilling it was an act of hostility

Ancient Rome: Slightly related to some of the examples already presented, salt has long-lasting qualities, which is why it is used as a preservative. It is not much of a leap to the metaphor that salt is symbolic of something long lasting. It became synonymous with friendship and at meal times, was presented to guests before any food appeared

What To Do to Prevent Bad Luck

While the act of spilling salt is considered both a social faux pas and bad luck, there is a simple action that we can do to remedy any bad luck coming our way. Modern tradition dictates that the moment one spills salt, the offending person must scoop some of the salt (usually no more than a pinch) into their right hand and then toss it over their left shoulder. This curious display is repeated in even those households that would otherwise scoff at most superstitions.

It is said that the devil resides over our left shoulders. Noticing the act of spilling salt, one must then toss it over that shoulder to blind the devil and prevent the bad luck from occurring, stopping him in his tracks.

How Does Breaking A Mirror Bring Seven Years Bad Luck?

The capacity for human imagination is infinite and so is the capacity for superstition. One that many of us believe but few can explain the meaning for is the idea that breaking a mirror brings not just bad luck, but seven years of it. Where did this curious and quite specific idea come from? Here are some possible suggestions and a cure.

The Ancient Soul Theory

There is a belief in many ancient cultures that our reflections in pools of water were not actually ourselves, but us seeing our souls. Some believed that parts of the soul could be trapped in the mirror while we look at it. If this particular theory is the main belief behind it, then it would stand to reason that breaking a mirror (an object that presents a person’s reflection) would be seen as damaging the soul. But how would the seven years apply here? Well, seven is a lucky number in many cultures, so this could be simple irony – the reversal of good luck into bad.

Roman Gods Theory

Most scholars credit the Romans with coming up with this particular superstition. This is the most likely explanation for the origin of this idea. The Romans were the first to use glass mirrors although these were expensive. They also believed that all life took seven years to “renew”. That meant a clearing period of seven years should you be unfortunate to break a mirror. But why would breaking a mirror be bad luck in the first place? They believed that mirrors were means by which the gods and demi-gods communicated with humanity as well as believing that souls could become trapped there (see above).

The Scare Tactic Theory

Mirrors are a relatively new invention. Most ancient societies did not have the technology, even well-to-do Romans could not always afford the reflective glass. Most people made do with the age-old tradition of using highly polished bronze to show their reflection. The technology to make mirrors was not widely in use until the Middle Ages. Even then, it was still relatively expensive for most people. Therefore, the idea that it would bring seven years of bad luck to break one was based purely on a desire for people to take care of valuable possessions.

Roman Remedies for Bad Luck

Thankfully, each of these disparate cultures had a number of remedies one may follow in order to ensure that the seven years of bad luck never came to pass.

  • Take all the pieces and arrange them back into the shape they were as much as you could and bury them by moonlight. This theory carried on into medieval Europe
  • Simply collect all the pieces and throw them in running water such as a stream or waterfall
  • Pound them into tiny fragments so that they would never again reflect anything. This would free the soul
  • Early slaves to the Americas had a similar theory in that you should leave them standing in running water for seven hours to wash away the bad luck

Upside Down Horseshoe

The belief that horseshoes are connected with luck has been around for many years, and the symbol of the horseshoe is still seen today, hung around the neck or on a charm of a bracelet to bring good luck. So where does the thought of lucky or unlucky horseshoes come from?

Well, one of the theories surrounding the horseshoe follows a story of a blacksmith called Dunstan, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan, it was said, was visited by a man who he thought was the devil. The man had hooved feet and asked Dunstan to shoe him. He nailed a horseshoe to the man’s foot and caused the devil considerable pain. The devil was then chained up, and only released when he promised he would never enter a building with a horseshoe hung over the door.

Another theory goes that witches travel by broom because they are afraid of horses, so hanging a horseshoe over the door would ward off witches. The horseshoes were made of iron, and because of its ability to withstand fire, was thought to be robust enough to ward off evil. If a woman who was believed to be a witch died, she would be buried with a horseshoe nailed to her coffin to prevent her from resurrecting. It was also used in ancient Europe to ward off the evil eye.

Some people believe that the way you display a horseshoe matters in what kind of luck you get. Many hang their horseshoe in the upright position so it resembles the letter U. This is so that it retains all the power it contains. Others, however, believe that hanging it downwards allows the good fortune to shower down upon the home. Maybe hanging one both ways is the best?

Walking Under A Ladder

We all know the practical reasons of why walking under a ladder isn’t a good idea, after all, if there is a ladder, chances are there is someone on top of it. And knocking the ladder can have terrible circumstances for those perched on it, or for you underneath it if they drop whatever they’re holding.

But as far as walking under them being bad luck, we need to take a trip back to ancient Egypt, where the superstitious locals believed Gods and Goddesses lived in the sky, and walking under a ladder may mean you’ll find one of them travelling to or from their home, which may anger them.

The Christians didn’t believe in Gods using ladders, but they did believe in the power of three, which was classed as the holy number and used to represent the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. They thought that the two sides of a ladder formed a triangular space underneath, and to pass through the triangle which represented the Holy Trinity would break the Trinity, attracting the devil to the area. Later the ladder came to represent the gallows, as those condemned to death would have to climb a ladder to get high enough for the rope to be effective.

Don’t worry if you do walk under a ladder, though, there are supposedly ways to reverse your luck. These include making a wish as you walk through, passing back through the ladder (though this we feel is tempting fate if the person atop the ladder is holding a hefty hammer) or even spitting on your shoes and waiting till it dries before looking at them. We’re not sure we approve of this one on hygiene grounds, though.

Opening an umbrella indoors

If you’ve ever opened an umbrella indoors only to be told it’s bad luck, you may ponder why. After all, surely it makes more sense to open it BEFORE you go out in the rain? But the superstition dates back many years with some believing it has traditions as far back as ancient Egypt, where they thought that to open an umbrella indoors would offend the sun god Ra as well as the goddess Nut who protected the sky with her umbrella-like form.

The Egyptian’s umbrellas were made from papyrus and feathers and were said to resemble this goddess, and as such were only used for nobility. Even the shadow created by the umbrella itself was considered sacred, and those who broke it by allowing their own form to encroach on its space were deemed to be offending the Gods and Goddesses.  

Some, however, believe that the superstition is much newer, citing the 18th century as a useful starting point. This was around the time that the Western world was introduced to waterproof umbrellas with metal supporting spokes. Much larger than those umbrellas found today, it would be a bad idea to open these inside as it would likely break objects or hurt people in the confines of a hall, thus ‘raining’ down bad luck upon its owner. Some only believe that the bad luck occurs if the umbrellas are black so other colors can be opened freely without fear of disaster.

Whatever the history behind the opening of umbrellas inside, it’s sure to remain a superstition for many years to come.

Black Cats

Black cats have long been considered to bring either good or bad depending on where you live. Western history has often portrayed black cats as an evil symbol, perhaps because of their association with witches as their familiars. So it comes as no surprise that in Europe, where folklore surrounding witches was prevalent, a black cat crossing your path is said to bring you misfortune, and possibly even death. Although in the UK, a black cat crossing your path is a good thing, bringing luck and prosperity. This luck is also extended to your home in Scotland, where a cat crossing your threshold is said to bring unimaginable fortune!

The Pilgrims believed black cats were able to change into human form to aid the deeds of witches and demons, so having a black cat in your midst was tantamount to signing your own death warrant. Those caught with a black cat as a companion would be punished, or sometimes killed, and the cat often suffered the same fate. In Europe, with the exception of the UK, who viewed them as good luck, black cats would be killed and burned in Midsummer fires. Luckily, black cats in Egypt didn’t suffer this fate, where they were viewed as good luck to those who allowed them into their home thanks to their attribution to the Egyptian goddess Bastet.

If you were sailing, you would want to take a cat with you too. Black ‘ship’s cats’ were supposedly good luck, although possibly this was more to do with them eating vermin than actually being of luck! Fisherman’s wives would also keep them at home to protect their husbands away at sea. Who’d have thought that the humble moggy would be so influential?

The History of Lucky Symbols

There are symbols of good luck everywhere – horseshoes, four leaf clovers, rainbows, even the UK’s Lotto has crossed fingers as its logo – and they have become such an ingrained part of our lives and culture that most people don’t even question them when they see them, and for many thousands of people their reaction to a piece of good or bad luck superstition is automatic. They might blow a kiss to a magpie when they see one, they might pick up a penny they see on the ground (but not if it’s facing tails up!), and they might deliberately not step on the cracks in the pavement, for example. But exactly how did the idea of having a ‘lucky’ penny, plant, stone, or piece of clothing really come about? And does it have any basis in fact?

Superstition has always been part of human nature. It had to be. Before the advent of science and the ability of mankind to delve deeper into strange ideas and phenomenon, everything that happened from sunrise to sunset (and including those too!) must have seemed like magic. And for those ancient people from whom we are descended, the world must have felt like a completely uncontrollable place – nature really did have the upper hand. So how else could a burgeoning population keep the fear and uncertainty out of their lives but with superstition? It may sound like a counter-productive idea, but if they could attribute the good and bad things that were happening to them to the world around them, they could begin to tame it – and using lucky symbols was one way of doing that.

In fact, it could be said that superstition made us into the people we are today!

Archaeologists and historians have discovered evidence of lucky symbols dating back to around 1550 BC, but anthropologists have gone one better, and confirmed that there are actual cave drawings that depict how early humans warded off bad luck! And in Africa the tradition (or superstition) of carrying a mojo bag (a bag containing something that reminds the wearer of a lucky time; it could be any kind of souvenir including items given to them from family and friends) is as popular now as it ever was.

Do these trinkets, amulets, and other symbols of good luck really work though? And if not, why do so many people believe that they do?

That is exactly the secret behind it. It’s belief.

Believing that something is lucky – or not – usually comes from something that happened once that seems to prove it to the person involved. They might have worn a particular shirt when they won the jackpot in a casino, and perhaps the next time they wore the same shirt they won again. So in their minds the belief is that that shirt has to be bringing them good luck. And the remarkably resilient human brain will believe that even if and when the evidence points to the contrary – even if and when the proof shows that they don’t always win when they wear it.

Some would say it’s possible to make yourself lucky – believe it and it will be true, send out positive ideas and wishes into the universe and they will manifest… Investigations into the power of the mind have been going on for decades now, and new ideas are being added all the time. We can’t say with any certainty that thinking yourself lucky – with the aid of a special lucky symbol – really works… but we’re not saying it doesn’t either!

Coins

There is a whole variety of coins beyond your bog standard 5p’s and £2 coins. Across many countries and cultures there are different kinds of coins that bring luck to an individual who owns one in different ways.
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Rainbows

Rainbows have been considered a magical and lucky sign throughout a huge portion of history. They are part of myths in many cultures worldwide, with a myriad of enchanting stories linking back to one of earth’s most divine phenomenon’s.

One mythical idea associated with rainbows is that they are bridges- although the type of bridge’s varies entirely depending on the country, culture or religion. (more…)

Pot of Gold

We’ve all heard of the luck of the Irish, the Irish leprechauns and the legend of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Typically, legend has it that leprechauns hide pots of gold at the end of the rainbow to be found by a mortal. But why are they so lucky? (more…)