Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: superstition from The Columbia Encyclopedia

an irrational belief or practice resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown. The validity of superstitions is based on belief in the power of magic and witchcraft and in such invisible forces as spirits and demons. A common superstition in the Middle Ages was that the devil could enter a person during that unguarded moment when that person was sneezing; this could be avoided if anyone present immediately appealed to the name of God. The tradition of saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes still remains today.

Summary Article: superstition
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A deep-rooted but irrational belief in the supernatural, and especially in omens and luck; a rite or practice based on such a belief.

Since ancient times, people of every culture all over the world have subscribed to superstitions and have indulged in rites or practices based on these. A superstition is generally defined as an irrational and erroneous belief in a supernatural agency or in a connection between two unrelated events; a superstitious person may see omens and portents everywhere, and believes that a future event or outcome can be caused or influenced by some unrelated occurrence or act – for example, that putting new shoes on a table will bring bad luck or even death. Superstitions are not based on reason, and may be a result of unenlightened fears, or the misinterpretation of some correlation as cause and effect, or they may have a basis in some fact which has long since been forgotten, leaving only the superstition. Most superstitions involve omens or causes of good or bad luck, many of them regarding the most important phases of human life – birth, marriage and death – and some professions, such as the theatre and sailing, are particularly given to superstitions. Certain times of year, such as Christmas, May Day and Hallowe’en have many superstitions connected with them. Sometimes there is a way to increase one’s chances of good luck in an undertaking, or to counteract the bad luck which an omen indicates, for example crossing one’s fingers or knocking on wood.

Many people have their own individual superstitions: for example, they might insist on always keeping a particular talisman or charm with them to ensure no bad luck befalls them. However, other superstitions are so widespread and deep-rooted in popular culture that even the most cynical individual may still feel uneasy about disregarding them: that breaking a mirror brings seven years’ bad luck, that misfortunes come in threes, that friday the 13th, and the number thirteen in general are unlucky, and that it is bad luck to walk under a ladder, open an umbrella indoors or spill salt, unless, after doing the last, you immediately throw a pinch over your left shoulder. And many people still consider it lucky to find a four-leaf clover, have a black cat cross their path, find a pin on the ground or see a shooting star (which entitles them to make a wish). Brides today still try to wear ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ on their wedding day, and are given representations of horseshoes for good luck, while May is still traditionally considered an unlucky month for a wedding. A baby born on Hallowe’en is believed to have second sight, while one born with a caul will enjoy good fortune and will never die of drowning. There are countless superstitions involving omens of death, such as a bird flying into the house or an owl hooting in daytime, and a funeral on a Friday is thought to portend another death in the family during the year.

Even those who are not involved in the theatre know that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is considered to be an unlucky play, so much so that actors do not mention it by name, but refer to it indirectly as ‘the Scottish play’, and will not quote lines from it while in the theatre, except when on stage. It is thought unlucky to quote the last line of any play until its first-night performance, whistle in the theatre or have real flowers on stage, while no actor ever wishes another ‘good luck’ before a performance, but instead urges them to ‘break a leg’. Sailors are equally given to superstitions, the best known of which is that it is disastrous to kill an albatross, as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner found to his cost. Whistling on board ship is also unlucky because it is thought to call up a wind, especially if it is done by a woman – although a woman on a ship is considered to be unlucky in any case, and a whistling woman is just as bad luck on dry land as she is at sea.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

Related Articles

Full text Article Superstition in Judaism
Encyclopaedia of Judaism

Superstitions may be categorized as folk religion, folk customs, and folklore. The concept of superstition thus emerges from the existence...

Full text Article Superstition
Reader's Guide to the Social Sciences

Brunner Constantin , Science Spirit Superstition: A New Enquiry into Human Thought , revised and edited by Walter Bernard , ...

Full text Article Superstition and Taboo
Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife

Burmese American superstition and taboo is rooted in widely held indigenous primal and Burmese Buddhist shared beliefs about universal laws of...

See more from Credo