Have you ever said, “bless you,” when a person sneezed? Or have you picked a four-leaf clover? Blown out your birthday candles and made a wish? If you have, then you may be one of the 25% of the United States population who admits to having superstitious beliefs!
Superstitions are beliefs that things can bring good luck or bad luck to a person. For example, do you know someone who believes that wearing a favorite piece of clothing will cause their favorite football or basketball team to win? You may recognize one famous person who had this superstition: Michael Jordan. When Jordan led the North Carolina Tarheels to a National Championship in 1982, he started wearing his UNC practice shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform, believing that they would bring him good luck and game wins.
Scientists believe that people have superstitious beliefs because they want to feel like they have some influence over forces outside of their control, especially supernatural forces that could cause them harm. In the South, this is especially true because of the area’s roots in farming as a way of life. Many superstitious beliefs center around farming and attempts to predict upcoming weather, which could be very important to a person whose entire livelihood depended on good crop production. Take the humble woolly worm for example. A common belief in Surry County and surrounding areas is that woolly worms, those fuzzy black and orange caterpillars, can predict how bad and long a winter season will be. It is believed that if you see woolly worms with large black bands, then the winter season will be long and harsh. Farmers would rather see woolly worms with bigger orange, red, or rust-colored bands because they believe that those colors predict milder winters and better planting conditions. Another animal-centered farming belief is the basis of Groundhog’s Day, where it is believed that if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, there will be six weeks of bad weather or continued cold, a bad omen for farmers who want to get a head start on their planting.
Online polls find that the most common superstition found in North Carolina is a fear of black cats. Many people think of black cats as bad luck, but not many know the origins of this belief. In the Middle Ages, black cats and other black animals, such as crows or ravens, were omens of bad events ahead, especially an upcoming death. Another common belief during this time period was that black cats were witches in disguise. In fact, historical documents show that during witchcraft trials, black cats were often killed because they were believed to be witches or a witch’s pet. Crossing paths with a black cat was believed to be a bad omen as well. It was believed that because the black cat was a sign of “evil,” having one cross your path meant that you were literally blocked from your heavenly path and your connection to God, making it bad luck to cross paths with one of these feline fortunetellers.
Of course, seeing someone turn completely around when encountering a black cat may seem silly to some, but what about other superstitions that are part of everyday life in the South? The most prominent example of this is the practice of saying, “bless you,” when someone sneezes. While the origins of saying “bless you” are not clear, there are several theories about why we do it. One belief is that when the Bubonic Plague was sweeping across Europe, it was known that sneezing was one of the plague’s earliest symptoms. It was hoped that by saying “God bless you” when a person sneezed it would protect that person from dying of the plague. Another belief was that when a person sneezed, the soul momentarily separated from the body, and that if someone didn’t bless the sneezing person’s body, a devil or demon could swoop in and take over the person’s body.
Many people who think of superstitions as something from the past may be surprised by the amount of superstitions that are still around today. Take the number 13 for example. The number 13 has long been thought of as an unlucky number, some tracing this belief back to the Norse Gods while others to Judas Iscariot. What is known is that the fear of the number 13 is prevalent in Western culture that a large number of multi-level buildings will skip a thirteenth floor and some airports will skip a thirteenth gate. In many Eastern countries such as China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, a similar fear exists, but instead of the number 13, the fear is of the number 4.
So, what are some superstitions that you have? What about your friends and family? As Halloween approaches, take notice of those small superstitions around you. Black cats in your neighbor’s Halloween décor. Your boss knocking on wood when mentioning something bad. A friend tossing spilled salt over their shoulder. These acts may seem silly, but really, do you want to take that chance?
Casey M. Wilson is a volunteer at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. She and her family live in Mount Airy. For more information, contact the museum at 336-786-4478.