Ladders are among humankind's earliest tools and constitute one of its most universal symbols. But where did the superstition originate that bad luck would dog one's path if he or she walked under a ladder? It would seem to make great sense not to walk under a ladder while a carpenter is standing on it pounding in nails with a heavy-headed hammer. Is this superstition just plain common sense?
Going back to ancient Egypt, when the priests placed ladders in the tombs for the dead so they might ascend upward if they chose to do so, it was believed that spirits collected in the space that formed in the area between the ladder and the wall that it leaned against. When a ladder leans against a wall, it forms a natural triangle, and that particular geometric shape has been regarded as sacred since the most ancient of times. And since it is a region to be venerated, it is also a space to be avoided. Evil, as well as benign, spirits may be resting there.
Those people who have somehow walked under a ladder can placate the disturbed spirits by immediately placing their thumb between their index and middle finger. This is an ageold method of warding off bad luck.
In Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, individuals who inadvertently walked under a ladder would cross their fingers on both hands, calling upon the sign of the cross to protect them from any evil entities lurking in the shadows existing between wall and ladder. Others would employ the always-reliable method of spitting to banish the negative beings, for best results, three times—one for the Blessed Virgin, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.
More optimistic folks altered the superstition to state that if a person was, through unusual circumstances, forced to walk under a ladder against his or her will, he or she might receive anything wished for. This is much preferable to the superstition that to tread under a ladder is to foreshadow one's being hanged.
On the symbolical level, the ladder often represents an individual's spiritual quest as it moves from a lower to a higher level. Seen in dreams, the ladder may symbolize that the percipient is about to achieve a transition to a higher state of awareness.
The archetypal ladder vision or dream for Christians and Jews is the one received by Jacob at Bethel when he perceived angels descending and ascending a ladder and giving assurance to him that he would be the chosen vessel to extend the Jewish people into a great nation (Genesis 28:11–19). Since that seminal experience, dreams or visions of ladders have been associated with communication with a higher source or with the rites of passage.