Houston Matters

The origins of some well-known superstitions, like Friday the 13th

Journalist Shelby El Otmani, author of The Book of Superstitions, explains the origins of some widely held, yet unsubstantiated, beliefs.

A broken mirror, a ladder, and a black cat
Many superstitions date back to beliefs and practices few of us remember anymore.


To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="https://embed.hpm.io/441360/441269" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>

Today is Friday the 13th. Why does that fact carry a certain connotation that, say, Tuesday the 10th does not?

Superstitions. Unsubstantiated beliefs that one thing leads to another. That bad things happen when the 13th falls on a Friday. Or when you break a mirror.

But where do they come from?

While superstitions are by definition unproven, they often represent a well-meaning attempt to understand something and prevent something bad from happening, according to journalist Shelby El Otmani. She’s the author of the The Book of Superstitions, which is out in March.

“It comes from this sense of trying to understand what’s going on around us and trying to create a little less uncertainty and anxiety about the regular chaos of life,” she said.

El Otmani said superstitions even make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, if you simply boil it down to the notion of “better safe than sorry.”

“I think — superstitions aside — you might hear a loud sound, and it might make you nervous,” she said. “And so you’ll run away from the sound. I think you can trace a superstition back to that where, ‘Oh, last time I did this thing it was Friday the 13th (for instance) and something really bad happened. So, Friday the 13th is bad luck.'”

In the audio above, El Otmani tells Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty about what she discovered in her research about the backstories of some of the most commonly held superstitions.


Friday the 13th — This one is a combination of beliefs, El Otmani said. The idea that 13 is an unlucky number has its origins in Christianity (and is itself kind of unlucky if you look at it from the perspective of poor number 13).

Superstitions like Friday the 13th being unlucky often have their origins in beliefs and practices so old few remember where they came from. But still they’re part of our everyday lives.

Western culture has long considered the number 12 a very complete number. A year has twelve months. The zodiac has twelve signs, etc.

“And so the funny thing is the reason why 13 is a little bit of the pariah is because it comes after 12,” she said. “It’s the first number that comes after this kind of holy, complete number.”

So the number 13 suffered some pretty bad luck itself. But what did Friday ever do to anybody?

El Otmani said that comes from the Bible too. There’s some belief Friday was the day Cain killed his brother Abel and that Friday is the day Eve took a bite of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

“So, there’s this sense of misfortune in Friday, biblically speaking.”

El Otmani notes Friday isn’t the pariah in every culture. In Greece, Tuesday the 13th is the unlucky one. In some east Asian cultures the number four is ominous.

“Because in the language the number four sounds very similar to the word for death,” she said.

Saying Bless You — This superstition comes from the era of the bubonic plague. El Otmani said back then there was a sense that if someone sneezed it meant they were getting sick and were therefore likely going to die fairly soon. And saying “bless you” absolved the person of their sins.

The practice of saying “bless you” after someone sneezes dates back to the days of the bubonic plague.

While we still say that when someone sneezes, the practice is seen more as a matter of politeness, and that’s a good example of how many superstitions have evolved beyond their original purposes, their origins long forgotten.

“That’s a really common superstition that it is so baked into our culture that you forget that it’s actually a superstition,” she said.

Knock on Wood — This one, El Otmani said, has strong connections to the Pagan idea of spirits inhabiting trees. That notion is at the heart of the diminishing practice of carrying a bride over the threshold of a home, for example.

The superstition of knocking on wood stems from the Pagan belief that spirits lived in trees and wood.

“Even if you’ve chopped down the tree to make your house, [evil spirits] still live in the threshold,” she said.

Knocking on wood is derived from the practice of touching a tree to ask the spirits for favors.

“Saying something and feeling like, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that because my luck will turn around, and so I’m going to knock on wood to make sure the energy or the spirits keep everything in my favor,'” she said.

The Boyfriend Sweater Curse — This superstition is a more modern example found within knitting culture. The idea is when you’re dating someone don’t knit them a sweater or they’ll break up with you.

The “boyfriend sweater curse” is a more modern superstition from the world of knitting.

El Otmani said while this is a pretty strong superstition, there’s some real relationship psychology at play in the background.

“If you’re in a relationship with someone, and they’re going through the hard work of knitting you a sweater — and perhaps you’re not feeling quite so committed to the relationship — I think it’s likely that if you’re the receiving end of that you may reconsider your own commitment,” she said. “You may reconsider, ‘Hey maybe I wouldn’t put as much work into this relationship as this person has. Maybe this isn’t right for me.'”

And the inverse is also true. The person knitting the sweater might realize their partner isn’t putting in the same kind of effort.

“Yes, there’s this magical element to it, but, at the end of the day, there’s this understanding that there’s something a little more based in how the human mind works and how the human heart works,” she said.