The household I grew up in was not superstitious about “luck” as an explanation for outcomes. Consequently, I was deprived of a rich vein of popular culture, as I’ve learned by perusing a book entitled “Luck: The Essential Guide,” by Deborah Aaronson and Kevin Kwan. Take whistling, for example. My father was a skilled whistler, and I learned the rudiments of it at a young age, but no one ever told me that it could bring me bad luck if practiced at the wrong time.
It can cause disasters underground (miners, beware) or storms at sea (sailors, take heed). It’s also considered bad luck to whistle after dark or inside a home. All of these prohibitions are related to the fear that whistling draws attention from evil spirits or invites the devil to join you.
Walking underneath a ladder when it’s leaning against a wall is one prohibition we’ve all heard about, but the explanation for it is less well known. A leaning ladder forms a triangle with the ground, and breaking this triangle by walking through it is thought to be a violation of a universal symbol of life. Some also say that each side of the triangle represents one part of the basic family unit (mother, father, child) and passing through it violates the sanctity of the family.
On the other hand, in some cultures ladders were seen as symbols of good luck. Ancient Egyptians placed them in tombs to help the souls of the dead climb to heaven. Some of them, while alive, carried charms in the form of ladders to help them avoid earthly temptations and ascend to greater spiritual heights.
Fortunately, there are several ways to counteract the mistake of walking under a ladder. You can cross your fingers until you see a dog, or cross your fingers and spit three times through the rungs on the ladder. Or you can walk backward through the ladder to the point where you started your walk. Just be careful not to knock the ladder down.
The belief that it’s bad luck to turn back to retrieve something left behind once you’ve begun a journey dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Fishermen and miners on their way to work, as well as others leaving for a momentous event (such as a wedding) feared it above all others. Some point to Lot’s wife as the earliest recorded example, but the Bible doesn’t tell us that she left anything behind.
There’s a mystery about things that come in threes, either positive or negative. The old saying, “The third time’s the charm,” has been traced back to the 14th century, and many legends involve the granting of three wishes or revolve around spells that need an action repeated three times. But there’s also a saying about, “Bad things come in threes.” One death is thought to be followed by two more; if you break something, two additional breaks will occur; and lighting three cigarettes off one match is unlucky. In one story, with many variations and set during different wars, three soldiers are sharing one match at night. The duration of the light allows the third smoker to be spotted and killed by enemy fire.
Fear of the No. 13 even has a proper name: triskaidekaphobia. It goes back to the ancient Hindus, who believed having 13 people seated together was unlucky. Some believe that one of the 13 will die within a year. The first unlucky 13th guest we know by name was the Norse god Loki, who showed up at a dinner party uninvited and had another guest killed. The most infamous seating of 13 was the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot the unwelcome guest.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.