Knocking on Wood Since When…?


Many of us hear about the following superstitions growing up. Some of us may have actually believed them. But how often do we stop to think how these superstitions floated to the surface? Here’s the historical scoop!

Black cats are known to leak bad luck when they cross our paths, but why does the mere color of their fur evoke such superstition? Essentially, it began back in the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages because there was a strong lack of knowledge in nature and spirituality. People living in this time period were highly superstitious (especially in Europe) and believed that black cats were a symbol and warning of death. They also believed that witches shapeshifted into black cats to spy on people and cause misfortunes to spew all over. Later on, black cat superstition traveled with the earliest settlers of the United States. New England primarily possessed the belief that black cats were bad luck and it eventually traveled throughout the nation.

Walking under ladders supposedly invites misfortune in our lives but for a few different reasons. One belief stems from the medieval times where the gallows was being used often. If you’ve seen a gallows, you’ve probably noticed a ladder leaning on it. Perhaps this conditioned many superstitious people into believing something unfavorable will happen to them if they walked under a ladder. Another belief comes from ancient Egypt where a ladder leaning against a wall resembled the sacred pyramids. So if one walked under a ladder—symbolically walking through a pyramid—it’s believed that the special pyramid powers are disrupted. Finally, walking under ladders was deemed unfortunate because of Christian beliefs. A ladder leaning against a wall resembled a triangle. Three was believed to be a holy number because of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the act of walking under a ladder was actually believed to be blasphemous and invite misfortune in one’s life.

Breaking mirrors are said to cause misfortune because of an ancient myth claiming that mirrors have magical powers, such as foresight into the future, and that they were also linked to the heavens. So if one broke a mirror, he or she would be stained with misfortunes unless it was somehow reversed. “Seven years” of bad luck came from the ancient Roman idea that it took seven years for one’s whole body and life to be restored. The curse of the broken mirror was believed to end after a seven year period.

Stepping on cracks in the pavement originated back in the late 1800s and early 1900s where racism roared through the country. Interracial marriages were shunned at the time so ‘stepping on a crack’ made it likely that a non-black person would marry a black person and have a black child. It’s not entirely known how the rhyme, “step on a crack, break your momma’s back,” originated – perhaps it was tossed around just for a little crude humor.

Knocking on wood has been around since the 1800s, and there was a pagan culture called the Celts who believed that spirits and gods lived in trees. They would knock on trees to channel and rouse these spirits to bring good fortune among them. They would also knock to ward bad luck off. This origin may have brought further superstitious beliefs when people would knock on trees to chase away evil spirits or keep them from hearing about the good luck that people would boast about (in an attempt to keep evil spirits from spoiling any good luck).

Spilling salt became a superstition back in ancient times when it was a hot commodity. Salt used to be preserved for special occasions, early rituals and practices. It was believed to be a magical substance. It was very expensive at the time so spilling it, even accidentally, was considered wasteful. Interestingly, in DaVinci’s The Last Supper, Judas, Jesus’ traitor, is seen spilling the salt! So that serves as another connection as to why spilling salt is so unfortunate.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of where superstitions originate, it’s important to know that luck only exists in our minds and not around us. Only we decide what to believe.