Friday the 13th

Jan 13, 2012

Once again, Friday the 13th is at hand, one of the most abiding superstitions despite little agreement about its origins. Superstitions date from a time when the workings of the physical world were unknown. Calamitous events such as earthquakes, solar eclipses, plagues and death seemingly came out of nowhere.

Many superstitions centered on birds, most likely because they fly high to the heavens where the gods were thought to hang out. Birds were seen as carrying messages from the gods, and because the gods wielded power capriciously the messages seldom were glad tidings.

A bird flying into a house or appearing at a window foretold death in the family. In general, black birds, similar to black cats, struck particular fear. Ravens, crows and owls were the most ominous. Owls aren't black, but they are creatures of the night with vocalizations often described as haunting. The expression, "A little bird told me," likely is a holdover from ancient superstitions of birds as messengers of the gods or birds as embodiments of departed souls.

Friday the 13thstill gives many of us pause, as does a black cat passing in front of us. So we cross our fingers for good luck, knock on wood, avoid stepping on cracks, and collect a few good luck charms. As for birds in superstition, throughout history birds have captured the human imagination, but today they’re more likely to inspire artists and poets, not dread. And they’re welcomed as harbingers of spring not impending misfortune.