Where do superstitions come from?


Are you afraid of black cats? Would you open an umbrella indoors? And how do you feel about the number thirteen? Whether or not you believe in them, you’re probably familiar with a few of these superstitions. So how did it happen that people all over the world knock on wood, or avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks? 


Well, although they have no basis in science, many of these weirdly specific beliefs and practices do have equally weird and specific origins. Because they involve supernatural causes, it’s no surprise that many superstitions are based in religion. For example, the number thirteen was associated with the biblical Last Supper, where Jesus Christ dined with his twelve disciples just before being arrested and crucified. The resulting idea that having thirteen people at a table was bad luck eventually expanded into thirteen being an unlucky number in general.


Now, this fear of the number thirteen, called triskaidekaphobia, is so common that many buildings around the world skip the thirteenth floor, with the numbers going straight from twelve to fourteen. 


But not all superstitions are religious. Some are just based on unfortunate coincidences and associations. For example, many Italians fear the number 17 because the Roman numeral XVII can be rearranged to form the word vixi, meaning ‘my life had ended’. Similarly, the word for the number four sounds almost identical to the word for death in Cantonese, as well as languages like Japanese and Korean that have borrowed Chinese numerals. And since the number one also sounds like the word for must, the number fourteen sounds like the phrase must die. That’s a lot of numbers for elevators and international hotels to avoid!


So why do people cling to these bits of forgotten religions, coincidences, and outdated advice? Aren’t they being totally irrational? Well, yes, but for many people, superstitions are based more on cultural habit than conscious belief. After all, no one is born knowing to avoid walking under ladders or whistling indoors, but if you grow up being told by your family to avoid these things, chances are they’ll make you uncomfortable, even after you logically understand that nothing bad will happen.

So, while we can’t cure your fear of the number 13, we can assure you that you are not alone! We cordially invite you to our next round table discussion, consisting of you…and 12 other people…. 😉

From the TED-Ed Lesson Where do superstitions come from? – Stuart Vyse

Animation by TED-Ed & @jefflebars

Watch out y’all. It’s Friday the 13th.