We like to think that our modern world is free from superstition – we are enlightened people living in an age of science fact, we are above the base superstitious understanding of the world that affected our forebears. Well, not quite, we still find ourseves observing superstitions – sometimes consciously and sometimes by habit. In this article we look at some historical superstitions we still observe today.
Triskaidekaphobia – the fear of the number 13. It was thought the origin of unlucky 13 came from the Christian belief that 13 people sat down at the Last Supper and Judas was first to leave the table to betray his master, Jesus. So for centuries, hosts avoided having 13 people seated round a dining table, convinced that the first person to leave would die within the year.
But fear of 13 predates Christianity. The ancient Romans believed that 13 was a bad omen, foretelling ill-fortune and death. The Vikings also hated 13, because in Norse mythology a banquet was held for 12 gods at which the trickster, Loki, appeared uninvited, like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, and as a result the beloved god, Balder, died.
We discuss this particular superstition further in our article entitled ‘Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky ?‘.
Thrown a coin and make a wish
If you visit any famous pool, wishing well or fountain, then the chances ar that you’ll see modern coins glittering at bottom. In ancient times, pools and wells were thought to be home to water spirits or deities, and offerings to them were thrown into the water to ensure fertility or success.
During the medieval period many ancient sacred springs became associated with saints who replaced the water spirits. People still came in the hope of finding cures or good fortune and, just they had in pre-Christian times, brought offerings to the saint, usually in the form of a bent pin or coin. If you install a wishing well today people will still throw coins into it.
Throwing the bride’s garter
Many brides wear a lucky garter under their wedding gowns. In ancient times, bridal garments were considered blessed, and the bride would have all her clothes ripped from her by the guests on the wedding night as everyone tried to snatch a piece. Gradually attention focussed on the bride’s garter-ribbon – a symbolic of sexuality and fertility.
In medieval and Tudor times, unmarried men fought for the bride’s garter to ensure they would be the next to find a beautiful and fertile wife. Bachelors even mobbed the bride as she stood at the altar, throwing her to the ground and ripping the garters from her during the wedding ceremony. The church protested, and the custom evolved to the groom removing the lucky garter from his new wife in the bridal chamber and tossing them down from the window to the waiting men below who shouted words of encouragement.
Many of us still say ‘touch wood’ when talking about future plans, even if we don’t actually perform the action: “It’ll be finished by Friday, touch wood”.
It is one of mankind’s oldest and most enduring fears that if we talk about any good thing, something will happen to curse it. Lurking spirits or demons will jinx our success, or a jealous neighbour might curse us with the evil eye.
The wood we used to touch would have been from one of the sacred trees – oak, ash or hawthorn – because the spirits of those trees were thought to have the power to protect us from the evil eye or demons. Today, any wood will do – people even touch wood-effect plastics.
Cutting the wedding cake
Back in Roman times, the wedding cake was made from wheat, fruit, nuts and honey – symbols of wealth and fertility. The cake was broken over the bride’s head to ensure a fertile and prosperous marriage, and the guests scrambled to pick up the crumbs of good luck, which is why even today small pieces of wedding cake are sent to guests who can’t attend.
Some modern brides are returning to the medieval custom of having a stack of individual cakes instead of a single large one. Originally these were fruit buns, heaped up in high stack, which the bride and groom had to leap over without toppling if they wanted to ensure a happy and fertile marriage.
By Tudor times, the stack had transformed into a single tiered cake that the bride cut, usually with the groom’s hand over hers, in the belief that if the bride didn’t cut the first slice, the marriage would be childless.
From Saxon times, if mistletoe was hung over the door or above a hearth, it was a sacred oath that the host would not kill his guests, even if they were mortal enemies, and would defend them against attack for as long as they remained beneath the mistletoe. The mistletoe pledge was often used at times of great feasts, like the winter solstice, when fights could easily break out after heavy drinking.According to Greek myth, the twin berries of mistletoe are the testicles of Uranus, which were severed and fell into the sea, becoming the blood and white foam from which Aphrodite was born. In Norse legend, mistletoe was dedicated to Frigga, also a goddess of love, so we kiss under the mistletoe, removing one berry for each kiss, till no berries remain and kissing must cease.
We discuss this particular superstition further in our article entitled ‘Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?‘.