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Superstitions can be defined as, "irrational beliefs, especially with regard to the unknown" (Collins English Dictionary)
They cause us to act in strange ways, believe in odd things and leave us unable to explain the reasons why.
Many superstitions may seem silly, even stupid to us today, but they continue to influence our behaviour and many people would argue that there are in fact some very good reasons for avoiding black cats and walking around ladders.
Common Superstitions Explained
In most cases, the reasons behind common superstitions can be traced back to medieval or even ancient times. They are quite often even more peculiar than the beliefs they attempt to explain.
Black cats are the source of literally hundreds of unlucky superstitions. It's a sign of bad luck if they walk in front of you. It's unlucky to step on their tails. They even bring bad luck into a house if they sneeze inside!
This unfortunate connection with misfortune dates back to the Middle Ages when they became associated with witches and were thought to harbour evil spirits.
There are very practical reasons for thinking twice before walking under a ladder, but a more mysterious explanation can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The early Egyptians believed that the shape of the Pyramids had a special power. It was considered very bad luck to break the 'power' of this shape and that's exactly what walking under a ladder would do!
In Roman times people had the habit of looking at their reflections in pools of water. Some believed that these reflections were in fact 'glimpses of the soul'. Any disruption to the water, such as a stone being thrown into the pool, would bring bad luck to the person looking in. This superstition lives on with the fear of bad luck from breaking a mirror.
Certain groups of people involved with dangerous or unpredictable activities tend to be very superstitious indeed.
Actors: There are lots of Do's and Don'ts to be followed backstage in the theatre.
One of the biggest Don'ts concerns the name of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. If anyone says the name backstage then the cast will have all sorts of unlucky problems and the show will certainly fail. Also, actors never wish each other, 'good luck' before a performance as it might have the opposite effect. It's safer to tell an actor heading for the stage to, 'break a leg'!
Sailors: Long, dangerous journeys on wild and unpredictable oceans have made sailors very aware of lucky and unlucky signs. Bad luck is caused by stepping on board a ship with your left foot, starting a cruise on Friday and throwing stones into the sea. Good luck will follow a ship if there are dolphins swimming nearby or there is a naked woman on board! Think about the figureheads on old sailing boats with a naked woman at the front, calming the seas.
Athletes: The great Michael Jordan wore his old college shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for an extra bit of good fortune on the court and Tiger Woods favours wearing the colour red on Sundays for similarly superstitious reasons. Amateur golfers can have a successful day on the course if they start their round with odd numbered clubs and don't use balls with numbers higher than 4! It's also lucky to set out on a rainy day, but definitely not okay to borrow your partner's umbrella.
Football players don't let the side down and have numerous eccentricities of their own. West Hams' ex-player Paolo Di Canio always puts his shin pads on his left leg first. Steven Gerrard and the Liverpool players like to touch the, 'This is Anfield' sign in the tunnel on their way to the pitch, but nothing tops Chelsea's ex-player Eidur Gudjohnsen, who goes to the loo just after the warm up, kisses his shirt twice (for two goals) and says a prayer thanking God for his health and the health of his teammates as he runs onto the field!
Finally, here are a few curious beliefs from around the world.
If you don't cover your bald head it will start raining. – Afghanistan
If you shave your head on a Saturday, you will be in perpetual debt. – Africa
You'll 'cut off' fortune if you use scissors on New Year's Day. – China
You shouldn't wash your hair the day before an exam. – Russia
If you go to the bathroom in the night with no clothes on, insects will fall on you. – Japan