Common American Superstitions and Their Origins
By Jennifer Thompson
In remembering the black-eyed pea and cornbread tradition of New Years Day, I realized that for years now I have been reminded to do that by my family for good luck. I asked a friend of mine who had come up with that why it was supposed to bring good luck. He replied that he had no idea. And so this got me thinking of several common superstitions and their origins.
The old South is credited most for the black-eyed pea tradition. One explanation is that during the Civil War battle of Vicksburg, the town was under siege for 40 days. The Yankee soldiers burned all of the crops except for the cowpeas which they thought were weeds. The Union army then raided all of the food supplies, leaving only these cowpeas, which at that time where only used as feed for livestock. To avoid starvation, the citizens of Vicksburg ate the cowpeas, and considered themselves lucky to make it through the war. In the South the tradition is actually black-eyed peas and turnip greens. Each pea is said to be either the equivalent to a dollar earned or a day of good luck, and the greens symbolic of financial luck.
The black-eyed pea tradition is also said to date back as far as to the days of the Pharaoh, when black-eyed peas were a sign of luck and fortune. Black eyed peas are actually neither peas nor beans, but lentils, and originated in North Africa. They were introduced to India around 3,000 years ago, and also a main staple in Greek and Roman diets. It was said to have made its way to the United States by way of Spanish explorers and African Slaves.
So maybe this gives us a better understanding about why we eat black-eyed peas on New Years Day, but what about all of the other things we do for good luck, or to avoid bad luck? Why is man superstitious? Many of our superstitions have been around for centuries. Most of them came to be because of our slow understanding of the world around us, from a time when everything was explained by good or evil forces. Today, as a people of a more scientific mind, new superstitions rarely come about. Unless we look at an athlete who never washes his lucky socks, perhaps.
One superstition that remains prominent in many cultures is belief that nature affects human behavior. A wish made on a falling star is supposed to be granted, and think of the fuss we make over a full moon. The Latin word for moon is Luna, and the moon was thought to bring about insanity, hence the term lunatic. The moon has always been considered influential in the growth of crops. In some parts of Northern Europe, batter is stirred in the direction of the sun, from east to south, then west to north. If the direction is reversed, it brings bad luck or ruins the batter.
Salt is regarded as possessing magic qualities, perhaps due to its power to check decay. Spilling salt is considered bad luck, it used to be quite expensive; but throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder after spilling is said to keep the devil at a distance, an old European custom. Offering salt to a guest is good hospitality, and including salt in a housewarming basket is customary, to bring good luck to a new home.
We all are very cautious not to break a mirror, fearing seven years of bad luck. Glass used to be very expensive, and in old times it was said to take seven years to save enough money to buy it. No amount of research yields an answer, seemingly, for why it is unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, but it is especially unlucky if you open it above your head, and if you drop it a murder will take place in the house.
Several people hang a horseshoe above a door in their home, prongs up. What is not common knowledge is that the superstition also calls that the horseshoe be hung with three nails, each to be driven into the wall with three strikes from the hammer, supposedly due to the mystic power of three, from the Trinity of God the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It used to be common belief that the use of the left hand was untoward, or offsetting of the good. The literal meaning of the word sinister is left; however, the left hind foot of a rabbit becomes a good luck charm, and it is also lucky to see the new moon over your left shoulder.
When you sneeze your spirit leaves your body; Italians will say Felicita as a blessing, for good luck. Germans will say Gesundheit meaning your health. In America we commonly say God bless you. We won’t walk under a ladder; the ladder leaning against a building forms a pyramid which is not to be broken, dating back to the days of the Pyramids in ancient Egypt, it was bad luck then to walk in the shadow of a pyramid.
In the days of the Salem witch trials, a black cat, thought to be a witch in disguise, should not cross your path, also an omen of bad luck. Its funny, really, how we cling to these beliefs, as if we still fear witches, or worship Egyptian Gods. Will the moon make us crazy, will knocking on wood prevent the spirits that live in trees from causing misfortune?
In observing the way that we all continue these practices, it makes one wonder, is it out of habit, or do we continue to practice our superstitious customs of tradition because we really believe?
By Jennifer Thompson
Column Editor and Contributing Writer
Published in U S Legacies Magazine January 2004