Throughout history, humans have interpreted their surrounding world and its mysteries relative to their level of understanding. From ancient times to the Middle Ages and beyond, most of the population, from the humblest peasant to the most learned scholar, embraced a somewhat ignorant, sometimes preposterous and absurd viewpoint, when seen from a modern perspective. Because scientific explanations were unavailable, irrational fear and superstition of unexplained phenomena prevailed. Blind terror and sublime awe struck in the heart of the populace at the experiences of thunder, lightning, earthquakes, floods, droughts, mysterious sicknesses, and plagues. All such occurrences were attributed to the displeasure of higher powers, or the workings of demons, evil spirits, and witches. 

The general populace often lived in dire circumstances and depended on the success of their crops and nature’s continuing influence on their daily lives. Fuelled by illiteracy and ignorance, strange notions and beliefs thrived amongst humanity, where the poorer classes made up most of the population, and the distinction between rich and poor was enormous. An implicit belief in the power of witches, devils, fairies, dangerous mythological beasts, and various demons officially sanctioned and categorised by the Church, instilled horror and fear.

All these factors compounded to form the unquestioning assumption of supernatural forces external to humans, regarded as tyrannical, capricious, and highly dangerous, and hence, to be appeased or driven away at all costs. This led to the development of an intricate system of elaborate safeguards against unknown powers, thereby laying the foundation for many beliefs and traditions still observed.

Often, we are unaware that certain actions, gestures, and codes of etiquette, which we observe and perform on a day-to-day basis, are actually based on relics of long forgotten ancient beliefs, anchored in archaic ritual magic, past sacrificial observances, or simply fearful superstition. When someone sneezes, we immediately respond with a ‘bless you’, or we cover our mouths when yawning and coughing. We consider it ill mannered to point at someone and take pains not to leave our knives and forks crossed on our plates when having finished a meal. We believe these actions to be ‘good manners’ and do not realise they are originally born of superstitious dread. Why do we dress baby boys in true blue, trick or treat on Halloween, kiss under the mistletoe, wear the wedding ring on our ring finger, or show someone ‘the finger’ in contempt?

There is only a difference in degree between worshipping a tree – as our distant ancestors did – and touching wood, in the vague belief that to do so will ward off some calamity. We still christen a ship by breaking a champagne bottle against its bow, refer to ships and sailing vessels as ‘she’, throw coins in a fountain while making a wish, ceremoniously lay a building’s foundation stone, and wet a newly built house’s roof – reminiscent of a time when all these were considered magic acts to appease higher forces. 

Relics from the past are buried like forgotten treasures in our figures of speech. We use these frequently, unaware of how ancient, profound, and loaded with symbolic and precise meaning many are. For example, we say everyone has a ‘skeleton in the cupboard’, not realising this once had a literal meaning. We say ‘if looks could kill’, which relates to the belief in the evil eye, still widely prevalent in many European countries, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Similarly, we refer to a ‘lily-livered coward’, an expression harking back to ancient divination practices; or we speak of ‘walking in someone’s shadow’, once a universal taboo; or being ‘spellbound’, dating from a time when spells or words were thought to have the power to bind and root someone to the spot. 

The material for this book was collected and researched over many years and pertains predominantly to Western culture. However, wherever beliefs and traditions have been found to be in common with those of cultures in other parts of the world, references to their similarities have been made. The myriads of facts presented highlight the historic origins of many beliefs and traditions, as well as their fascinating and often ‘strange’ but ‘true’ origins.

Monica-Maria Stapelberg 


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App