10 Spine-Chilling Ancient Superstitions and Their Origins
Superstitions have long held a grip on human imagination, weaving threads of fear and fascination into the tapestry of our history. Today many of us no longer believe in them (or claim not to) but these often-eerie beliefs once governed the lives of our ancestors.
Ancient superstitions are so ingrained in our shared psyche that even those of us who no longer believe in them often find ourselves following them. While the origins of these superstitions are fascinating, more often than not among all the supernatural folklore a practical reason can be found for the creation of these beliefs. Let’s take a look at some of ancient history's most chilling ancient superstitions and where they came from.
Ancient Superstitions #1. The Evil Eye: Something Is Watching
One of the world’s most widespread ancient superstitions is perhaps that of the evil eye. Deeply rooted in human history, with origins stretching back over 3,000 years, this is a belief that malevolent glares can bring down harm and misfortune on unsuspecting victims.
The evil eye superstition can be found in many cultures, but its earliest traces can be seen in ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets from the 7th century BC have been unearthed which show not only proof of belief in the evil eye but the incantations the Mesopotamians used to ward off its effects.
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Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato even wrote off the evil eye and its impact on human psychology. It seems the belief eventually spread to the Roman Empire, where protective amulets featuring the evil eye became popular. Similar beliefs quickly emerged in the Islamic world where the eye became known as the Nazar and in India as the Buri Nazar.
The belief in this superstition led to the creation of protective symbols, most famously the blue and white “eye” that can still be commonly found in both Greece and Egypt. To this day people decorate their homes with the eye and wear it as jewelry in the hopes of warding off the evil eye’s effects.
Due to one ancient superstition, the blue and white “eye” is commonly used in both Greece and Egypt to ward off the effects of the evil eye. (ShU studio / Adobe Stock)
Ancient Superstitions #2. Walking under Ladders: Egyptian Gods and Medieval Gallows
This is one most of us have heard since childhood, stepping under a ladder is bad luck. But where did this superstition come from? This ancient superstition is centuries old and has evolved over time but at its heart is linked to the idea that triangular shapes (like when a ladder leans up against a wall) are sacred and that tampering with them can bring down misfortune and even summon malevolent spirits. This belief’s origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where triangles were seen as sacred symbols.
Disturbing these shapes, say by walking beneath a ladder, was seen as a direct affront to the gods. This belief then spread to ancient Rome, where ladders were associated with the divine. From there the belief likely spread to the rest of Europe.
In medieval Europe, ladders were no longer associated with the divine. Not just tools for construction, they bore an eerie resemblance to gallows. This was an incredibly superstitious time, and this resemblance bolstered the superstition's association with death and misfortune. Walking under a ladder became known as a terrific way to anger the spirits. It was at this point that the fear of walking under ladders became more pronounced and separated from the fear of disturbing triangles.
These days, people will still cross the street rather than pass beneath a ladder. The ancient superstition is embedded in our collective consciousness, which may not be a terrible thing. Not walking under ladders sounds like pretty sound health and safety advice.
Ancient Superstitions #3. Friday the 13th: Two For One
Friday the 13th is what happens when two superstitions collide. Friday as an unlucky day dates back to Christian tradition. It was believed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and therefore that day of the week was unlucky.
No one is sure where the fear of the number 13, known as triskaidekaphobia, comes from, but there are a handful of options. Some historians believe it dates back to ancient times when 12 was seen as a “perfect number” being used for things like calendars and certain measurements. This made its neighbor, 13, an imperfect or unlucky number.
Others have pointed to later traditions. Some have claimed the idea that 13 is unlucky dates back to Norse mythology where Loki arrived as the 13th guest to a divine dinner party, upsetting the other gods and introducing evil and suffering into the world. Others have pinned the number’s unfortunate reputation on Judas who was the 13th guest at the Last Supper.
When the idea that Friday the 13th is uniquely unlucky came about is up for debate. Some historians believe it’s a more recent development, claiming it can be traced back to the 19th century when Friday, the Thirteenth was written by Thomas W. Lawson. Others believe the superstition is much older, dating back to 1307.
On Friday the 13th of October 1307 King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the infamous Knights Templar. Many of them were subsequently tortured and executed with some being burnt at the stake, which one could argue is pretty unlucky.
Whatever its origins are, over the years Friday the 13th has only grown in notoriety, reinforced by unfortunate events such as the crash of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 on Friday, October 13, 1972. Pop culture has also helped to strengthen the belief, with movies like Friday the 13th helping to fuel the superstition.
The ancient superstition surrounding black cats is as old as civilization itself. (chphotography85 / Adobe Stock)
Ancient Superstitions #4. Black Cats: Friends with Witches and Demons
Did you know that statistics show that black cats are measurably harder to rehome than other colors? The superstition surrounding black cats is as old as civilization itself, with a history entwined in both fascination and dread. These dark felines have played a complex role in human superstition, evolving over the centuries.
The reputation of cats in general has been a bit of a rollercoaster. In ancient Egypt cats, including their black brethren, were revered and associated with the divine, especially the goddess Bastet. Killing a cat, even by mistake, was a major crime.
However, fast forward a few centuries, particularly to Medieval Europe, and cats had gained a reputation for being associated with witches, witchcraft and Satan himself. It was believed that cats acted as witches’ familiars, allowing them to communicate with the devil and that witches could transform into black cats to carry out their nefarious deeds.
This sadly took a darker turn during the crazed witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. We’ve all heard about the poor women put to death during these trials, but cats fared little better. Countless innocent felines were killed alongside those accused of witchcraft.
On the lighter side, not everyone hates black cats. In some parts of Europe, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, black cats were seen as good luck. This contrasted sharply with the prevailing superstitions in other regions. Today, black cats continue to symbolize different things in various cultures. Some consider them omens of bad luck, while others view them as symbols of good fortune.
Ancient Superstitions #5. Breaking a Mirror: Seven Years Bad Luck and a Broken Soul
We all know that breaking a mirror is, at best, seven years of bad luck. This superstition goes back to Greek and Roman times when it was believed that mirrors held a piece of one’s soul. Breaking the mirror not only damaged the physical reflection, but it also damaged the person’s spiritual essence, leading to bad luck.
Like many other ancient superstitions, this concept carried through to the Middle Ages when mirrors were scarce and expensive, amplifying the belief in their mystical properties. Asia had a similar superstition. In ancient China, mirrors played a role in predicting the future through divination. Rather than damaging the soul, breaking a mirror was seen as disturbing this connection with the spirit world, bringing misfortune.
Another ancient superstition claims that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. (Serg Zastavkin / Adobe Stock)
Ancient Superstitions #6. Opening an Umbrella Indoors: A Superstitious Shower of Bad Luck
In most parts of the world, it is considered either extremely bad manners, bad luck, or both to open an umbrella indoors. The reasons behind this depend on where in the world you are.
In Europe, this superstition is thought to be linked to Victorian-era England. The reasoning behind it is immensely practical. During this time, umbrellas were a relatively new invention, and their spring-loaded mechanisms made them cumbersome indoors. Opening one in a confined space could lead to accidents, damaged property, or even injury to oneself or others. The Victorians were a superstitious lot and began associating the accidents with bad luck (or used it as an excuse to stop clumsy fools from breaking everything).
In Asia, the superstition has creepier origins. Opening an umbrella indoors was considered taboo because it resembled actions performed during funerals, such as opening a canopy over a deceased person. People believed that opening an umbrella indoors (especially at night) could trap, or anger the spirits of the dead, leading to bad luck. In Japanese folklore, there is also a kind of yokai (demon) called a Kasa-obake that takes the form of an umbrella and likes to cause mischief.
Today, the idea that you shouldn’t open an umbrella indoors is an interesting example of a superstition many people follow but few know why. It seems to be a case of practical good advice that has morphed into a superstition over time.
Ancient Superstitions #7. Horseshoe Superstitions: Holding All the Luck
The superstition surrounding horseshoes and their supposed power to bring good luck has galloped through history, with roots firmly planted in European beliefs and folklore. The horseshoe superstition has two distinct aspects to it.
First, in ancient Europe iron was believed to have protective properties. Iron was seen as pure and as such could be used to fight off malevolent forces like demons, spirits, and even witches. Second, the horseshoe, resembling the moon, was associated with old pagan lunar deities, which over time morphed into a belief it gave good luck.
In medieval Europe, people began hanging horseshoes over doorways with the ends pointing upward. It was believed this formed a protective barrier, keeping away supernatural nasties and bringing prosperity to the household. As the horseshoe became more of a good luck charm the superstition morphed again.
Today, the direction in which the horseshoe is hung carries significance. Hanging it with the ends pointing upward is believed to catch and hold good luck while hanging it downward is thought to let the luck spill out. Horseshoes remain symbols of good fortune and protection in various cultures with people still hanging them on their walls.
One ancient superstition held that spilling salt would anger the gods. (Olga / Adobe Stock)
Ancient Superstitions #8. Spilling Salt: Blinding the Devil
What do you do if you spill some salt? Toss a pinch over your shoulder of course. Why? Ask the Romans. To the Romans salt was a symbol of purity and was used in certain religious practices, especially purification rituals. Spilling salt was seen as a desecration of this sacred substance and was thought to anger the gods. Angering the gods obviously led to bad luck.
This idea that spilling salt was bad persisted through the centuries. In medieval Europe, salt was a costly item, and the act of spilling it was believed to attract the attention of evil spirits or witches, who would then bring misfortune.
To combat this perceived bad luck, a common practice emerged: tossing a pinch of spilled salt over one's left shoulder, where it was believed that the devil lurked. This gesture was thought to blind the devil and avert the ensuing bad luck.
Salt also continued to be associated with purification. There was a belief that demons and spirits couldn’t cross salt lines, meaning sprinkling salt along window edges and doorways could keep demons at bay.
Ancient Superstitions #9. Whistling at Night: The Wrong Kind of Attention
Many people have an instinctual fear of the dark and it is a feat that has been ingrained in the human psyche for centuries. It’s easy to see why, in many cultures, the night has always been associated with the unknown, where darkness conceals mysteries and unseen forces.
Many of these cultures hold a historic belief that whistling at night is bad luck. It was seen as an invitation, a way of calling spirits or supernatural beings into one’s presence.
This belief was particularly pronounced in the deeply superstitious and demon-obsessed medieval Europe. The night was seen as a realm inhabited by witches, demons, and other nasty monsters, and whistling was believed to attract these entities, possibly leading to misfortune, illness, or even possession.
Whistling at night on land is bad but doing it at sea is even worse. Sailors are a superstitious group by nature, and they historically regarded night whistling as an ill omen on the high seas. The eerie sound of whistling wind in the dark was seen as a forewarning of impending storms or other maritime disasters.
Throughout history, crows and ravens have been seen as omens of death and symbols of wisdom. (Sebastián Hernández / Adobe Stock)
Ancient Superstitions #10. Crows and Ravens: Harbingers of Darkness and Light
It’s not just black cats who have a complicated relationship with ancient superstitions. Crows and ravens have been both omens of death and symbols of wisdom throughout history.
In Norse mythology, Odin the Allfather was always accompanied by two ravens, Huggin (thought) and Muninn (memory). At his command, they would fly across the world to bring back knowledge to their master. Another pagan god, Morrigan, was associated with the birds, often being depicted as a crow or raven. This may be where they get their more negative reputation, Morrigan was a goddess associated with death.
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It also likely has a lot to do with their color and natural behavior. Their black plumage, scavenging behavior, intelligence, and haunting calls led many to view them as harbingers of doom and death. In some beliefs, the sight of a crow or raven near a home was considered an ill omen.
Like black cats during medieval witch hunts, these birds were sometimes linked to witches. They were also believed to act as familiars or were believed to be spies for dark forces. Unfortunately, killing them was believed to ward off evil. Outside of Europe, in Native American cultures, crows and ravens were often seen as tricksters or shapeshifters, embodying both light and dark aspects of existence.
History’s Creepiest Ancient Superstitions
Even for those who don’t believe them the history of ancient superstitions, especially the most spine-chilling ones, is fascinating. The world of superstitions is a labyrinth of beliefs and cultural perceptions that have influenced human behavior for millennia. From the ominous gaze of the evil eye to the dread of Friday the 13th, these superstitions have cast their shadows across history, reflecting our innate desire to make sense of the unknown.
They also reflect a curious quirk of human nature. We hate being told what to do, and we hate receiving practical advice. Tell someone walking under a ladder is dangerous, that spilling salt is wasteful or to be careful opening their umbrella and they’ll likely ignore you. But tell them doing these things will cause bad luck or summon a scary demon, and then they’ll take you seriously.
Top image: Ancient superstitions abound, including the belief that breaking a mirror can bring bad luck. Source: Ricky / Adobe Stock
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