Across the world, and likely right this moment, humans are knocking on wood. Many are frantically flipping over their slippers, making sure they’re not upside-down. Still others around the globe are shivering at the sight of a black cat crossing their path. Or an owl.
These are all common superstitions, or non-organized folk rituals built on the premise of controlling the outcome of events. Superstitions are spread through word of mouth; we teach them to our friends and our grandchildren. These traditions are often ancient and untraceable, focusing on powerful otherworldly forces that are related to incidental or simple actions any person can do.
Superstitions offer a way for humans to shape our destinies—or try to. Many of us follow rituals to stave off bad luck, attract romance, or keep our own inner worlds intact. Now thanks to this interactive map, we can look at 150 of these mini-beliefs across the planet.
Many of the most prevalent superstitions loosely relate to early versions of the world’s major religions or to ancient pagan beliefs. Still, "Pinning down the origins of superstitions can be baffling," Max Cryer writes in his book Superstitions: And Why We Have Them. "Unlike epigrams, quotations, proverbs and literary allusions, superstitions often grow without visible ancestry."
Countries can share superstitions, too. If you speak at the same time as a friend or say something you don’t want to come true, and then knock on wood? You’re in the good company of millions of people in the United States, Syria, Ireland, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and likely a few other locales. In some locations, knocking on wood is believed to prevent the devil from entering the room (stemming from the notion that the devil was unable to touch certain woods, like oak)—which may in turn have evolved from pagan rituals regarding the worship of trees.
Leaving slippers upside down is bad luck in Syria, Egypt, Nepal and Brazil, while breaking mirrors is bad luck in most of the Western world. Keeping disembodied rabbit feet and avoiding black cats—which has been traced back to Egypt in the year 3,000 BC—are both observed practices in countries across every inhabited continent on Earth. If your palms itch in Ghana, the U.S., Brazil, and much of Europe, something money-related is about to happen.
Meanwhile, people in almost every single country in the world are constantly avoiding the “evil eye” (wishes of ill will by one person upon another) by wearing various amulets or ash, crossing their fingers to make a “figas” hand shape, or, as in the Netherlands, painting their farmhouses with a protective black stripe. Across Europe and its former colonies, bad events like deaths or illnesses are said to happen in threes, and horseshoes are believed to bring money and luck. Although each location offers its own variation on popular superstitions, for the most part common beliefs have been left off our map to make room for more distinctive entries.
A note on the unified phenomena of our folk traditions, however: because there is no agreed-upon distinction between religion and superstition, what one person considers a superstition (derogatorily), another sees as a legitimate belief. So this map is offered without judgement, with a focus on rituals we teach each other from one generation to the next, which tend to fall beyond mainstream religion and into the folk-made aspects of belief. Sometimes superstitions are taken seriously; other times they are not. All of them are, for one reason or another, rumored to have real consequences.
As there are thousands of superstitions around the world—the U.S. section of the map could be filled with fisherman's beliefs and sports superstitions alone—consider this a sample. For some, it can serve as a guide. But whatever you do, if you’re traveling in Italy, Germany, parts of the United States or many other areas of the world, don’t toast with a glass of water, which wishes death to your companions, or you’re going to have a lot of figas to do.