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Superstition: A Belief Surviving an Early Stage of Thinking
Superstition is a belief surviving from an earlier stage of thinking and is based on cause-and-effect relations inconsistent with science. Primitive ways of thinking, childish acceptances, folklore traditions, and ignorance combine to keep superstition alive among the uninformed classes. Strong emotional trends, actuated by hope or fear, keep all sorts of beliefs appealing to superstitious minds, regardless of their general educational level.
The Nature of Superstitious Thinking
Superstitions, as well as other forms of magical and mythical knowledge, concern the quest for fate; the same trend leads to many varieties of fortune-telling. Superstition arises and continues because every slight event and detail of behavior influences what is to come, bringing good luck or bad luck. Seeking and avoiding, hoping and fearing in this order is in line with a superstitious mindset. Yet superstitions also arise from a lack of knowledge of real causes and a reference to personal relationships that are more satisfying than those that are not. A similar belief system was systematized in the early days.
Typical of such a body of law is astronomy, the earliest of the pseudo-sciences. These are based, in some measure, on the same ways of determining cause and effect. The reading of omens, whether in the skies, in the flight of birds, or in the appearance of the entrails of animals sacrificed to learn the will of the gods, likewise became a professional function of a priest or wise man; yet such beliefs, for the most part, are carried in popular tradition.
Superstitions change at each stage of culture and develop as part of cultural trends. They reflect the current views of religion, the nature of the world, the arts and occupations as practiced, and rituals, observances, and ceremonies in all fields of life. There is hardly a phase of human thought or action free from superstitious thinking.
Range of superstitions:
The range of superstition and the habit of belief that it reflects will be sufficiently illustrated by selecting a few fields that are particularly attractive to the superstitious mind. Charms, amulets, and mascots protect you from bad luck and keep you safe as you go through danger. The original setting of such beliefs was a world of magic in which the forces that control events were regarded as friendly or hostile to human fate; it was also a world of human enemies ready to use dire forces to injure. Without such belief, superstitious practices would never arise. Such was the belief in the evil eye and witchcraft.
Hence, a bit of metal or stone, a trinket of any kind, but usually with some symbolic meaning, would be worn as a charm. If it contained a prayer or scriptural text, it would be called a talisman. The bits of mirror woven into Oriental embroidery, seemingly ornamental only, may be considered a symbol of warding off evil.
The custom among Greek peasants was to leave some stitches unfinished in a gown, lest, if finished, they would soon end the life of the wearer. This, like the prejudice against giving a knife as a present, lest it cut friendship, shows the process of superstitious thought somewhat elaborated.
Once this habit of thought prevails, it may attach itself to any object for many reasons. The reasons may be vague or lost in myth and folklore. Just how the horseshoe became such a typical object of superstition is unclear; whether for so long the sign of travel with its dangers and adventures has been associated with ancient myths of Pegasus, Apollo’s chariot, or Neptune’s seahorses is rather immaterial. Finding a horseshoe, since it is a chance, parallels other finding superstitions, such as a four-leaf clover, as well as picking up pins to induce further finds.
It may be that the horseshoe was associated with the crescent moon by its shape. The horseshoe had to be nailed with the prongs up to retain the good luck that might befall, as similarly, the crescent moon in that position becomes a positive omen. Salt as an indispensable article of food came into the magic circle, so spilling salt was unlucky, and throwing a pinch of it over the left shoulder was an offset of bad luck.
The Psychic Aspect of Superstition:
In the folklore of names, numbers, images, and reflections, we come upon the psychic side of superstition, which derives in part from an other-world of spirits, human and superhuman. In general, any part of the body, such as hair locks or fingernail clippings, could be used to cast a spell; hence, these were burned to prevent such disasters. Or an article of clothing that a person wears could be used to work a spell.
A glove might be buried, perhaps with appropriate incantations. This is with the notion that as the glove rotted, so would the person who once wore it pass it on to his end. Or substitution would do. There is preserved in a museum of such beliefs at Oxford a lemon pierced with nails, each nail representing a victim and a curse upon one of the enemies of an old Welsh woman who prepared this superstitious object. As an image stands still nearer to the person, many primitive people object to having their pictures taken, lest the representation be used for witchcraft.
For the same reason, one must not step on another’s shadow. When the custom prescribes that mirrors be covered in a house in which a death has occurred, it may be traced back to a precaution to prevent the departing spirit from seeing its reflection. Breaking a mirror is bad luck for similar reasons, for it may reflect the human visage. Among primitive people, dreams are regarded as the actual adventures of the spirit that has left the body.
Hence, one must never awaken a sleeper, lest his spirit embark on a journey. Belief in dreams’ prophetic nature is similarly founded. There is a practice of hiding names in order to prevent their misuse, and magic formulas are used everywhere. Numbers are incorporated into beliefs about lucky and unlucky events; many rites must be performed three times to come true.
When historical traditions, such as Christianity, met with folklore products, they were transformed and added to them. Thus, the two most common superstitions relate to 13, the number seated at the Last Supper, with its special reference to 13 seated at a table, though applied to floors of buildings and dates of the month as well; and Friday, which was the day of the crucifixion. The unlucky aspect of three, which leads some to avoid lighting three cigarettes with one match, is similarly called the situation of Christ between the two thieves.
Superstition reveals strange logic and common notions about fortune and bad luck. The range of medical superstitions is large, for the cure of ills is an ever-present desire, and disease is a constant threat. There may be a belief that handling toads will produce warts or that toads may be used to drive warts away. This is because of the similarity of the spots on the skin.
Chinese doctors may use plants’ heads, middles, and roots for treating diseases of the head, chest, or feet. The mandrake, due to its human resemblance, is a particularly effective medicine. In such practices as taking the hair of the dog who bites you to cure a dog bite, there is a trace of sympathetic magic. That unusual and horrible substances will act as powerful remedies is the basis of many old-time treatments, though when mummy powder is supposed to confer longevity, the logic is more remote.
Varieties of superstitious belief:
If one were to collect at random common superstitions such as objections to walking under a ladder, postponing a wedding, wearing a peacock feather, leaving a house by a window, stepping on the cracks of paving stones; or precautionary measures like knocking on wood when one says he has not had a cold this winter, or saying, “Gesundheit” for health, upon sneezing; or protective ones like carrying a rabbit’s foot or an elk tooth; or the remedial ones in which home medical practice abounds; or the fortune-telling with tea leaves and cards; or the beliefs that go over into pseudoscience, such as horoscopes, numerology, palmistry, and dream interpretation It would serve as a model for understanding the currents and undercurrents of superstitious belief, often half-belief or playful belief, that survive in all civilizations, in all classes, throughout history.
As a rule of thumb, children find many of these beliefs congenial. In places where culture is lacking and education is limited, such beliefs become more prevalent. The Negro has a rich vein of superstition, not so much by transfer from West African tradition, though voodoo practices seem to have this origin. Instead, it is through the absorption and elaboration of superstitious currents.
In certain sections of Pennsylvania, superstitions survive in connection with agricultural practices; operations relating to crops, such as churning, sowing, and reaping, are prescribed by a superstitious ritual. There is also a belief in hexing or witchcraft in these regions, which can harm livestock or other property. For the most part, superstitions survive in mild and innocent form as interesting, fanciful gestures, often with the connection remote or lost.
Thus, itching skin means visitors are coming; a blister on the tongue means that you have told a lie; when your ears burn, someone is speaking of you, favorably if the right ear, unfavorably if the left; when you have cold shivers, someone is walking on the spot that will be your grave. Such meanings of bodily signs arise readily in a superstitious frame of mind. In these, there is no rhyme or reason, or only so much as is carried over from a habit of thought that, in all serious matters, we have outgrown.
When we have bodily symptoms of the moment, we interpret them quite differently and in a scientific manner. If in doubt, consult a physician. Soothsayers and fortune tellers were popular in the past. Superstitions contribute to the story of how mankind learned to think on the road from myth to reason or from folklore to science, from the supernatural, supported by plausible analogy, to the natural, supported by proof and experiment.