The cultural diversity of superstitions

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Graphic illustration by Lina Mezerreg

Superstitions are practiced as a way of carrying on traditions and preserving culture.

Timothy Kim

Although some may think of superstitions as far-fetched beliefs that hold little significance, they are still practiced as a way of carrying on traditions and preserving culture. Superstitions, practices developed because of a common desire to exert personal control over one’s environment, date back to traditions from centuries ago and have been passed down as a way of bringing fortune or preventing bad luck through habitual actions. Practices such as picking pennies off sidewalks for good luck or avoiding black cats are so common that they are second nature for many people. 

Superstitions in America are linked to strong religious beliefs that developed from the past. Going back centuries to European folklore, many superstitions arose out of fear of certain concepts going against Christian beliefs and subsequently bringing bad luck.

“A common American superstition is knocking on wood for good luck,” junior Kevin Davies said. “I don’t believe in it, but there’s nothing to lose by just doing it.”

Although people tend to stop believing in superstitions as they grow older, superstitions that seem realistic continue to find their way into everyday life. For example, people believe that the number 13 is unlucky, and go to great lengths to avoid it. Elevators all across the world often are missing 13th floors. The number 13 has several allusions to Christianity and the Bible that relate it to negative events, the most important being that the 13th guest was the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, causing Europeans to label the number as unlucky since then. In a similar religious allusion, crossing fingers for good luck originated in medieval Europe, since crossed fingers resemble a cross, a symbol of great religious significance. 

Other countries have superstitions that are practiced avoiding religious omens, and many have implications for health and security blended with religion to spread positive habits.

“A superstition that is common in Hindu culture is the practice of taking shoes off before entering a house,” sophomore Rochan Kavulli said. “Many other cultures follow it, and it prevents bad luck, but I imagine it also has hygienic implications.” 

Besides just in the U.S., superstitions in the Americans have risen out of beliefs in luck and prosperity. In South America, avoiding sweeping a broom over one’s feet is common as doing so is often linked to preventing marriage. The practice of eating 12 grapes at midnight of a new year brings good luck in Latin America, with the practice traced back to Spain. 

Cultural superstitions truly are globally shared, as they run deep in the traditions of Middle Eastern and African cultures, often having religious origins. The belief in the Evil Eye, which has been depicted as early as the 6th century B.C.E. most often as a glaring malevolent eye stemming from hatred, bringing bad luck. Followers of Islam burn incense and recite religious scriptures to ward off the Evil Eye. 

Various Asian cultures have developed their own superstitions as well.

“One superstition in Hindu culture that my family practices is that if I accidentally touch a book with my feet, I have to touch it with my right hand and touch my forehead,” Kavulli said. “It’s a sign of respect because those objects are forms of God in a sense. I’m not religious myself, but I practice the superstition because it’s a tradition that I was taught as a child.”

Another prevalent superstition among Hindus is the abstinence of cutting hair and nails on certain days after sunset. 

“I’ve been taught is to not cut hair or nails after sunset because that is when God enters the household,” junior Satvik Shreesha said. “I’m not sure about any bad effects resulting from not following the superstition, but it’s just disrespectful to God overall. It’s been ingrained in me, so I just like to follow it.” 

In Chinese culture, eating noodles on one’s birthday for longevity represents a way to live longer. 

“I believe this superstition originated with an old Chinese legend,” Davies said. “I think that in general, even if many don’t believe in superstitions, they still perform them because it is part of their culture and tradition.”

Even if superstitions are less prevalent in daily life today, they are more than just simple beliefs that arose randomly, instead having rich cultural origins.