A crazy cartoon town scene

ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID COULSON

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.D

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 8

TEKS: 6.2E, 7.2E, 8.2E, B.2G

The Source of Superstitions

Many people believe supernatural forces can influence their fate. Do you?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how cultural beliefs arise and change over time.

Can walking under a ladder cause bad luck? Does breaking a mirror make you cringe? Do you think the number 13 spells certain doom? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be superstitious.

These beliefs often have a long history, says Donald Saucier, a psychologist—a scientist who studies how the mind works—at Kansas State University. “Many superstitions originate from ancient traditions that gave symbols—like animals, numbers, and shapes—evil or protective properties.”

Can walking under a ladder cause bad luck? Does breaking a mirror make you shiver? Does the number 13 spell certain doom? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be superstitious.

These beliefs often have a long history, says Donald Saucier of Kansas State University. He’s a psychologist, a scientist who studies how the mind works. “Many superstitions originate from ancient traditions that gave symbols—like animals, numbers, and shapes—evil or protective properties.” 

Take, for instance, the number 13. It was considered unlucky in ancient Norse, Maya, and Christian traditions. This superstition persists today. Many modern hotels and tall buildings don’t have a 13th floor. Or maybe you’ve heard that you shouldn’t walk under ladders. This belief dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who viewed triangular shapes, like pyramids, as sacred. Since an open or leaning ladder makes a triangular shape, passing beneath one was —and still is—considered unlucky.

Not all superstitions involve misfortune, though. Finding a penny, hanging a horseshoe, or knocking on wood are thought to ward off bad luck. No matter the superstition, they were all created to serve the same purpose, says Saucier: “By avoiding black cats or throwing salt over their shoulders, people were able to believe they could better control what happened to them.”

The number 13 is one example. It was considered unlucky in ancient Norse, Maya, and Christian traditions. This superstition continues today. Many modern hotels and tall buildings don’t have a 13th floor. Or maybe you’ve been told not to walk under ladders. This belief comes from the ancient Egyptians. They viewed pyramids and other triangular shapes as sacred. An open or leaning ladder makes a triangular shape. That’s why passing beneath one was considered unlucky. And sometimes still is.

But not all superstitions involve being unlucky. Finding a penny is thought to prevent bad luck. So is hanging a horseshoe or knocking on wood. Superstitions may be different. But they were all created for the same purpose, says Saucier. “By avoiding black cats or throwing salt over their shoulders, people were able to believe they could better control what happened to them.”

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