Knock on wood. Toss some salt over your shoulder. Don’t walk under a ladder. Superstitions developed all over the world, connecting cause and effect in irrational ways in the prescientific era. Behavior was somehow thought to influence consequences in either negative or positive ways. People have been following superstitions for thousands of years. During the 17th century, superstitions thrived. Some of them have been lost over the years, but many are still familiar today.
In the 17th century, many people believed that witches had the ability to hurt or even kill. Anyone could be accused, but individuals who differed from their neighbors were watched carefully. Suspicious signs included extreme age, physical disability, mental impairment, bad temper and irritable personality. Fear grew so strongly from this superstition that communities in Europe and the American colonies staged witch hunts, and many alleged witches were arrested, tried and executed. Historians have many explanations for this persecution, including mass hysteria, individual grudges and the desire to blame someone for social or personal problems. To counter the power of any witches who were unidentified, some wary people filled jugs with items like nail clippings, hair, pins and nails. For full protection, the bottles had to be buried near the front or back door or hidden in the chimney.
Animals were the source of many superstitions. Cats had been revered in ancient Egypt and Rome, and feline-loving Romans brought them to Europe. However, by the 1600s, cats, especially black cats, became associated with witches. The animals were thought to be supernatural helpers or even disguised witches. Even today, in many parts of the world, some people believe it’s unlucky to have a black cat cross your path. Back in the 17th century, if a rabbit ran in front of you, it was bad luck. Sighting a shaggy dog or a rough-footed hen first thing in the morning was also an ill omen. If rats chewed on your clothes, you would not only have holes in your garments, but misfortune would soon follow. You might think that a long-term cricket infestation of your house would be unpleasant. However, if they suddenly up and left the area around the hearth, someone in the house would die.
During the 1600s, many people believed that demons, ghosts or God caused dreams. Seventeenth-century dreamers felt that nighttime visions predicted the future, and they consulted doctors, religious leaders or magic users to interpret the dreams. It’s likely that these beliefs stemmed from the strong religious influence on people in the 17th century, since the Bible has many examples of dream interpretations and visions of the future. However, some philosophers and writers of the era scoffed at the predictive value of dreams. Most of this criticism focused on dream interpretation as an offense to God. These dream reformers saw superstitions as false, anti-religious beliefs.
During the 1600s, many everyday occurrences were considered bad luck. It was unfortunate to have a nosebleed, but if you bled just from the right nostril, you were in for some trouble. Yellow speckles on your fingernails predicted death. A dream of eggs or fire signaled that someone would soon be angry. However, not all circumstances bode ill. Got an itchy right hand? You would be coming into some money soon. Feel a burning in your left cheek? Someone somewhere was complimenting you. As you were sitting down to a meal, you’d better count how many were at the table. Thirteen was unlucky, because of the religious connection: there were 13 at the Last Supper. Religious beliefs also fed into the fear of the rare but real possibility of conjoined twins. People thought that this type of birth could come from two sources: an out-of-wedlock conception or a horrific event viewed by the pregnant woman.
- Proceedings of the Royal Society: The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour
- New York Times: Superstitions of the 17th Century
- University of Warwick: Friday the 13th: Black Cats, Witchcraft and Putting Your Faith in the Supernatural
- BBC: The Horrors of the 17th Century Witch Hunts
- University of Massachusetts Amherst: 17th Century Witch in Hadley
- King's College: Ten General Historical Theories About the Origins and Causes of the Witch Hunts
- The Telegraph: Archaeologists Unearth 17th Century Bottle Used to Scare Off Witches
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: Black Cats
- Montgomery County Humane Society: Black Cats
- Wellcome Collection: Sleeping and Dreaming
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images