Friday the 13th: A guide to the history behind common superstitions

Why does a black cat mean trouble? Will your mama’s back really break if you step on a crack?

by Justin Joseph
May 13, 2022

Many cities have different superstitions. In New Orleans, many people don’t walk under the balcony of the famed LaLaurie Mansion. In Boston, while some find peace at the Boston Common, others are hyperaware of the witchy history tied to the space. In Pittsburgh, Max Talbot’s NHL playoff beard is the stuff of legends.  

Why does Friday the 13th have a reputation?

The stigma attached to Friday the 13th is widely believed to have biblical roots. The number 12 is seen in many cultures as a sort of “perfect” number and adding one more to that throws things off a bit. According to the Bible, Judas was the 13th guest to arrive at the Last Supper and Friday was widely believed to be the day Jesus was crucified (but has since been brought into question.)

Similarly in Norse mythology, Loki was the 13th guest to arrive at a dinner for the gods in Valhalla and wreaked havoc on the whole event. The Friday superstition also has origins in the U.S. where (in the 19th century) all executions took place on Friday.

Are you a friggatriskaidekaphobia?

There’s even a word for people who fear Friday the 13th: friggatriskaidekaphobia.

In recent years, we may remember the COVID-19 pandemic starting on March 13, 2020. Though the global pandemic came with its own fears, a superstitious person might believe Friday the 13th is directly responsible. 

Superstitions have long been a part of local culture and have many origins from around the world. We took a look at a feature in Esquire Magazine to explain some common superstitions. 

READ MORE: Lesser Known NOLA Haunted Stories

Top Superstitions Explained 

Breaking a Mirror

Ancient Romans believed that mirrors held pieces of your soul. This, coupled with the myth that our body “renews” itself every seven years fueled the superstition that breaking a mirror means you are damning your soul to seven years of bad luck. Click here to see more on how to break the seven-year curse from WDSU-TV.

Black Cat Crossing Your Path

Many cultures throughout history actually regarded all cats as good luck omens, but black kitties got a bad wrap in the Middle Ages when they were associated with witchcraft and actually viewed as demons. That demon thing snowballed into an idea that if a black cat crossed your path, they were blocking your connection to God and path to heaven.

READ MORE: Haunted NOLA | The Fighting Ghosts of Cherokee Street

Blessing a Sneeze

It’s become a reflex to bless someone after they sneeze. Little do you know, you could be saving them from damnation. This custom originated with an old superstition that a person’s soul separated from their body when they sneezed. Saying “bless you” was a way to keep the devil from swooping in to steal their soul before they recovered.

READ MORE: When The Devil Lived On St. Charles Avenue

Walking Under a Ladder

This one has a morbid beginning. Back in medieval times, ladders were associated with the gallows where people were hanged. A person who made the mistake of walking under a ladder was believed to be facing their own death by hanging in the near future. There was also the belief that because people were hanged from the top of the ladder, the area underneath was haunted.

Stepping on a Crack

There are some internet theories that this superstition actually had racist beginnings in the 19th century, but cracks have been something to avoid since far earlier. European and Early American folk tales spread the notion that the empty space in cracks (whether in sidewalks, floors, walls, etc.) were actually connections from earth to the spirit world, and messing with them in any way would cause trouble and misfortune. This eventually gave way to the popular nursery rhyme, “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back.”

REFERENCES

Dartmouth Univeristy. (2020, May 24). Step on a crack, break your momma’s back | Dartmouth Folklore Archive. Dartmouth Folklore Archive. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://journeys.dartmouth.edu/folklorearchive/spring-2020/southern-superstitions/step-on-a-crack-break-your-mommas-back/

Shuback, A., & Popular Mechanics Editors. (2022, March 31). We need to talk about the world’s 30 most baffling superstitions. Esquire. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/g36886797/superstitions-list/