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6 Famous Symbols That Don't Mean What You Think

#3. The Barber Pole's Red Stripes Are Supposed to Be Blood

Duncan Harris

There is something inherently wholesome about the classic red-and-white barber pole, isn't there? It evokes images of small town main street, mom and pop stores and barbershops run by a friendly guy in a white coat. But that pole was never the symbol of a single franchise or anything -- all barbers had it. Why that and not, say, a simple symbol of a pair of scissors or something? What the hell is that thing supposed to be?

Wikipedia
It's a dick, isn't it? It's always a dick.

The Origin:

It's a blood-soaked bandage.

The barber pole first emerged during the Middle Ages as a sign used by barber-surgeons. Yes, you read that correctly -- back then, doctors considered themselves much too classy to participate in anything so vulgar as slicing people open, so the task fell upon barbers, whose job descriptions were considerably broader than they are today. Back then, barbers did all the usual barber stuff like cutting hair and trimming beards, but if you had the cash, they were also happy to pull teeth and remove gallstones.

bowsbladesandbattles
"Don't worry, I anesthetize first -- with some cheap gin and a funnel."

The most common surgical procedure of the time was bloodletting -- literally, the belief that you could just bleed a disease out of you. To do this, the patient would grasp a bandaged pole, and the barber would cut into the patient's wrists, letting the blood run down the bandage, along with all the bad spirits and gypsy curses that they figured were the reasons for disease back then. And that's what the pole represented.

Wikipedia
"Hey, Joe. I'll have a shave and a cataract surgery, please."

It's a little harder to explain, however, why barbers would openly advertise that one part of their job that involved stealing other people's blood in the first place. It says something about the era that they didn't feel the need to dress it up, the way modern toilet paper ads won't show people pooping. No pics of smiling customers or happy slogans, just "Come on in, you're gonna bleed all over the damned place."

john-adcock
"OK, so I murder people and cook them into pies. No one bothered to train me otherwise."

#2. The Rabbit's Foot Is Really a Dismembered Witch

Wikipedia

You've probably never questioned the logic that says a severed rabbit's foot brings good luck. Open that can of worms, and you have to start asking questions about all the walking under ladders and breaking mirrors stuff -- why would we expect any of it to not be insane? Well, as it turns out, the story of the rabbit's foot is even creepier than the idea of dismembering animals for luck.

Getty
These are the feet of a millionaire.

The Origin:

The rabbit's foot was thought to actually be the foot of a witch.

In the United States, the symbolism of the rabbit's foot most likely came from American "hoodoo" folk magic. They believed that rabbits were frequently witches in disguise (how else could they be so good at fucking?), so cutting a rabbit's foot off meant, to them, getting a hold of part of a witch to wear around their neck. Back then, they weren't terribly big on witches' rights.

Wikipedia
"I can't have sex with all the menfolk in the village? I'm sorry, I thought I was in AMERICA."

The earliest references to the rabbit's foot legend detail the numerous ways in which you can maximize the evil power of the foot before you chop it off. Apparently, it's best if the rabbit is killed on a Friday, especially a rainy Friday, in a cemetery, by an African-American. Of course, they didn't use the term "African-American" back then, but you get the picture.

Getty
They called him "Paul, the weird rabbit guy."

But how exactly did the rabbit's foot go from being an implement of evil black magic to something sold to tourists at souvenir stands? Just like a lot of edgy things that go mainstream, it simply got watered down. People forgot about the whole evil charm thing and just remembered the rabbit's foot as a vaguely magical talisman. On the upside, witches are relatively safer now. Rabbits, not so much.

#1. The Mistletoe Is a Symbol of Sudden Death and Castration

Getty

Each late December, people around the world decorate their houses with the mistletoe plant and kiss underneath it because, for some of us, a bizarre holiday tradition is the only way we're going to get any action. Apart from that, we don't really question how the tradition came about. If you did know, you probably wouldn't be in the mood for kissing so much as clutching at your groin.

The Origin:

A symbol of ritual castration.

Getty
Caused by kissing Christie at the office party after she's rebuffed you four times already.

Just like that kid in school your parents got nervous talking about, the mistletoe actually has two daddies. One of them is the Viking god Baldur, who, according to Nordic myths, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. Thankfully, Baldur was later brought back to life and decided to reform the mistletoe, making it a plant of life instead of death ... as long as it never touched the ground. That's why we now kiss under hanging mistletoe -- to keep it above ground and symbolize that everything is cool, man ... no need to murder everyone ... we're all friends here, OK?

Wikipedia
"Come and rest your pert buttocks upon my chin."

But the other side of the mistletoe tradition is all about balls. The sticky juice from mistletoe berries apparently quite resembles sperm, and in fact was sometimes referred to as "oak sperm." We bring it up not because we know some of you are eating right now, but because it explains why Celtic druids worshiped the mistletoe.

Wikipedia
Well, "worship" is one word for what they did.

As we've mentioned, ancient cultures generally had a tendency to revere anything vaguely genitalia related, and so, combined with the fact that mistletoe grew on sacred oaks, the druids eventually came to the perfectly logical conclusion that the mistletoe must also be sacred. Sacred oak testicles, that is. If there's one thing you should take away from this article, it's that everything is balls.

Cutting off the mistletoe was thus something akin to ritual castration of the oak god. The plant would then be hanged inside the house to harness its magical testicle powers that apparently brought you good luck instead of the wrath of high-pitch-voiced deities.

Getty
So go forth and spread your seed, we guess.

Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a freelance English-Japanese-Polish translator, tour guide and writer. Contact him at c.j.strusiewicz@gmail.com.

For more things you probably are incorrect about, check out 9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think and 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think.

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