It’s Friday the thirteenth, the first of three such Fridays we’ll be treated to this year, and people the world over are walking backwards under ladders, smashing mirrors, and running circles around black cats. Or, well, probably not. But seriously - if you happen across a black cat today, give it a pet and a treat, the poor things have had it rough.
What a society regards as lucky, or unlucky, can say a lot about what they value. Crafting superstitions that tie into our made-up cultures’ history, geography, and folklore can add a lived-in sense that enhances immersion and deepens not only our faux worlds, but the characters that inhabit them.
Don’t just rely on superstitions that are familiar to you. Examine the culture you’ve created and look for opportunities to exploit magical thinking - causal relationships that cannot be justified logically.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
What are the notable geological features near your culture’s place of origin? What’s the soil like? If your people live in an area with, say, red clay - and they use that to make bricks to build their homes with - then red could be a lucky color, a symbol of home. If they live alongside a great mountain, one which directs freshwater streams their way, then height could be a symbol of prosperity, purity, or even enlightenment. If they live on a karst landscape, where sinkholes are common, going down into the earth could be considered bad luck - and basements taboo.
Flora & Fauna
Are there any notable plants near your people? How about animals? A dark and mysterious wood is rich ground for superstition, and apex predators are always carrying off young children. Maybe there’s a flower in the area that only blooms on a special night, and to see it blossom is to receive a generation of good luck - or bad. Anything that preys on the local foodstuff, be it predators harassing sheep or insect swarms destroying crops, is fair game for superstition building.
There’s a thin line between superstition and religion, but it’s safe to say that any religious practice that is not fully accepted by your culture’s primary religious doctrine can fall on the side of superstition. You could easily build conflict and tension into your world by having one culture dismiss another’s genuinely believed religion as mere superstition.
Martyrs & Heroes
The victorious dead are rife ground for superstition building. Perhaps a martyr of your culture lay on a bed of coals all night to suffer for their cause, and as such it is bad luck to let your fire go out at night. Or perhaps a glorious hero took thirty-seven arrows to the chest, and still lead a victorious charge against your culture’s old enemy, making the number thirty-seven sacred. Maybe another hero had their left hand cut off as an unfair punishment, and as such left-handed people are considered blessed with whatever that hero’s shining quality was.
We humans take what we call things quite seriously. Is it lucky in your culture to name a child for positive qualities - or is it considered hubris, and therefore potentially disastrous? Is a named sword more likely to to serve its master well? Is it unlucky to call the Queen by her name? Why? How about pets, would only a weirdo name their hunting hound? Are estates given names that aren’t that of their owners? How about ships - and if so, why? What’s the methodology behind naming these things?
This subject is a bit stickier, but still worth considering. The psychologist BF Skinner once observed pigeons performing rituals to gain food. If, for example, they tilted their head to left just before the food chute opened, then they’d do it again and again, hoping the antecedent action would cause the same reaction as last time. This is a highly simplified version of the study (which has been challenged) but the point is that, if at one point in your culture’s past/folklore a man waved a stick to the north winds in a certain pattern just before the rains came, then your people might keep on doing the same thing to summon the rains when they need them.
Your culture, whether you know it or not, has superstitions. Have fun finding them and bringing them to life.