Is Walking Under a Ladder Really Bad Luck? Superstitions and Their Origins


The origins of most superstitions lie within the pages of ancient history and usually began with a specific event that became worthy of retelling. Long ago, folks were very focused on the mystical: both out-of-the-ordinary and everyday events became omens in disguise or carried messages from spirit or were concerned with the possible insult to a deity. Consequently, most superstitions began from a place of fear and their longevity is evident even today. The following is an example of how a superstition might start and in fact, probably did.

Picture a sickbed surrounded by friends and family. A sad and somber scene to be sure. Now imagine the shock and widened eyes around the bed as a sparrow flies in through the open window, crashes from one wall into another, then shoots back out the window. The friends and family members whisper amongst themselves, all the while casting careful looks at the sickbed and quickly crossing themselves. Later, when this unfortunate sod dies, the appearance of the sparrow takes on a whole new meaning and thus a superstition is born.

Long ago, birds were thought to be messengers from the realm of Spirit, however, messengers though they might be, the truth of the matter is that birds are not all that smart when it comes to the construction of houses. On a variation of the theme above, birds have been known to fly into closed windows or sit on ledges and peck at the glass, actions which would have been viewed with as much trepidation as the sparrow was. Birds cannot distinguish open air from a panes of glass and see their own reflection in a window as another bird challenging their territory, so they fly into the path of the oncoming bird (their reflection) and wind up braining themselves. Or, if they are sitting on the sill and (seemingly) staring inside – they are really just staring and pecking at their own image.

Speaking of images, long before mirrors were created, folks used to think that the image looking back at them from surfaces of still waters, like ponds, was a part of themselves: their soul, if you will. Later, this concept was transferred to mirrors and when one broke, it was thought to bring bad luck to the owner…the soul’s image was shattered, broken, in disrepair. The idea that it would take 7 years for this bad luck to pass came from the Romans, who thought that life renewed itself every 7 years…so the time of ‘healing’ would be a long and difficult one. (Very similar to the current view that the tissue of the liver is regenerated every 7 years – I wonder if that was an afterthought when God created potatoes, saw what happened when they fermented and sensed the concept of distilling?)

Have you ever walked under a ladder? I know I haven’t. Not on purpose, anyway. Long ago, the triangle was considered the pure and perfect shape: as in the Holy Trinity – walking through it was thought to be rude and insulting to God. So, later, when a bucket fell on someone’s head when they walked under a ladder, it was seen as confirmation that walking through a triangle (formed by the angle of the ladder, the wall and the ground) was not a recommended activity.

Ladders bring wood to mind – have you ever made a wish or a positive affirmation and followed up by knocking on wood? This practise goes back to times when it was believed that gods or spirits resided in trees (we still hug trees today! Well, some of us do) and that if a wish was made, one should touch the bark to catch the attention of the tree spirit and touch it once more to say thank-you. Nowadays, we knock twice on tables, chairs, walls or anything nearby that is made of wood. My father used to knock on my head. I used to make my own wish when he did so, but that’s another story.

Speaking of tables: never leave your shoes on one. I don’t know why: maybe because people will think you’re dead and your stuff is being packed up. The same goes for shoes left upside down.

And about table salt: try not to spill it and if you do, be sure to waste some more by throwing it over your left shoulder so that you may smote the devil in the eye. This superstition began way back when salt was a precious commodity — in fact, workers were often paid in salt, hence the word ‘sal-ary’ — and it was also used in medicinal remedies. To spill or waste salt was considered a crime and could buy you a few days in the local slammer. (Just so you know? The devil is thought to stand behind all of us – get thee behind me, Satan!, so throwing something over the shoulder is aimed at disarming or confusing evil intentions).

Since we seem to be focused on kitchen-type energy, let’s just go with it. So the next on the list is garlic. This superstition, which revolves around keeping away everything from vampires to werewolves and all kinds of other nefarious energies (and even someone who might just want to kiss you) cores back to the devil himself. Apparently, when he left the Garden of Eden, his rear hoof prints left cloven marks from which sprouted garlic (which has a high sulphur content – go figure) on the left and onion (which can make a grown man cry) on the right. Both plants are curious in that they smell very…odoriferous when raw, yet become sweet and mushy when cooked.

Anyway, the point is that along with the high sulfur content, garlic is also loaded with antibacterial and anti-parasitic values that were commonly used to treat infections, delusions and other mentally related diseases as well as functioning as an effective blood thinner (the Vamps must have loved that!) Garlic built a reputation for itself and became a charm against evil to hang on your door or a medicine that could assist your ills. Even today, folks eat garlic if they feel a cold coming on. Or they have a garlic lunch before meeting with that boss they can’t stand.

And now for some chickens. Back in ancient Italy, chickens were viewed as sacred and when they died, their bones were used for prophetic purposes by the priests…the clavicle, or collarbone so to speak, was saved, dried and then used as a touchstone. The bone would be stroked as a wish was being made. Later, in Rome, chickens became scarce and these bones were broken in two to create more bones for others to wish upon.The British came to believe that the bone with the end still attached was the lucky one…and somehow, this all mixed together to form the modern ritual of two people holding the opposite sides at the base of the wishbone with their pinkies, making a wish and pulling until it snaps. The person with the longest section is thought to be the one who caught the ‘lucky break’ and will see fortune come their way. I need more wishbones in my life.

By the way, when you are carving the chicken, don’t cross any knives. It is said that crossed knives will lead to crossed words, or an argument. (Interesting from the words point of view…switch the ‘s’ of ‘words’ to the front and it becomes ‘sword’). Crossed swords are defensive, and indeed, were often used as an opening formation in a sword fight of old.

Oh, and take care not to drop silverware unless you want company — maybe lots of company: a teaspoon says a child, a fork says a female, a knife says a male and a bunch of cutlery says a bunch of people will be dropping by quite soon. However, if a knife falls to the floor and faces an uncommon entrance, it speaks of an unwelcome visitor. These omens don’t seem to have a definite origin…they just took on a life of their own. My guess is little girls kept showing up after teaspoons fell to the floor. And so on. I think I might go drop some knives.

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