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Very Superstitious


Introduction

Since I was a child, I have avoided walking under scaffolding because I thought it was bad luck to walk under ladders or other climbable man-made structures such as scaffolding. For many, there are multiple issues with this logic. ‘But scaffolding is not a ladder.’ ‘How can you tell if it’s bad luck?’ ‘But why though?’ All are valid examples of questioning my ‘casual superstitiousness’.


I do not have any in-depth reasoning for indulging in behavior tempted by bad luck superstitions. As far as I am aware, I mostly picked up casually superstitious habits either from their visibility on TV, such as an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy about bad luck, or my Mum prompting me; case in point not putting new shoes on the table or stirring things with a knife.


I was also the only one Mum could prompt since I don’t have siblings and she gave up on reminding Dad about manners a long time ago. Even when Mum and I talk about something hopefully not happening, we restlessly thump our fists onto our foreheads as a replacement for any wood we could not immediately knock on to dispel any bad omens.


It was only this year I realized how many behaviors I have learnt and kept for the sake of avoiding bad luck and was curious to learn more about the history of certain superstitions; why do superstitions persist in the modern day?


What are superstitions?

The Cambridge University Press & Assessment dictionary defines superstition as a “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic.”


This implies that the origins of most, if not all, superstitions are rooted in older societies that favored folklore, magic, and religion, and also existed before modern medicine. This is expanded upon by Stuart Vyse, who states,


“The origin of the concept is found in ancient Greece, at least as far back as the 4th century BCE, and for the next 2,000 years superstition stood in contrast to the religious practices that, even today, we could consider magical or paranormal, and yet versions of most of these practices are still with us.” (2020, p. 2).


Additionally, it suggests that superstitions were mental tools to reason why certain events may or may not happen – a way to manage behavior by emphasizing supernatural or otherworldly consequences for actions.


Although this definition provides minimal information about superstitions, it is a solid benchmark to further explore not only superstitions as a general concept, but individual superstitions, where they historically and geographically originate from, and why they exist in the first place.


To explore these queries, this piece will analyze three superstitions I casually maintain as part of my behavior, including their origins, and attempt to answer why we were superstitious – and still are.


Superstition 1: it is bad luck to walk under a ladder

As Debra Ronca for HowStuffWorks brilliantly points out, it is generally not a good idea to walk under a ladder because it is a safety risk for something to fall or collapse onto you. However, there are possible explanations as to why this is a superstition and not just a practical piece of advice.


In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Richard Webster concludes that,

“[n]o one knows why, but at least three theories have been proposed. The most likely theory is that a ladder forms a triangle when placed against a wall. The triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Consequently, when you walk through it, you effectively insult the Trinity and attract the devil. The second theory concerns the use of the ladder in hangings. The ladders would be propped against a beam to allow the person about to be hanged to climb high enough to reach the rope. A third theory dates back to ancient Egyptian times, when people believed you might see a god walking up or down the ladder while you walked under it." (2021, p.149).


This highlights how difficult it can be to pinpoint a superstition if it existed in multiple cultures and religions or is old enough to have its origins mostly forgotten or uncertain. Additionally, it reinforces how, religion or not, disturbing God(s) can contribute to societal behaviors and therefore create superstitions.


Superstition 2: touching or knocking on wood avoids bad luck

According to Webster, how you interact with wood or wooden items to dispel bad luck can depend on your location. For example, people in the United States would knock on wood, meanwhile, it is more common for people in the United Kingdom to just touch the wood. (2012, p.293). Another example of how one superstition can exist in multiple countries and cultures but may vary on certain things for their own (and possibly unknown) reasons why.


To explain further, Webster’s book states that for many Christians, knocking on wood derives from Jesus Christ being crucified on the cross (p. 147). However, it may also originate from prehistoric times when people largely believed that gods lived in trees, and after making an “optimistic remark”, knocking on wood would “appease the fates who might prevent the good luck from occurring”. (p. 293);


“These gods were responsible for the seasonal changes in trees that symbolize birth, death, and resurrection. The tree gods were happy to help humans who approached them in a respectful manner. Consequently, people touched trees when asking for favours, and touched them again once the request had been granted. [...] As a result of this, many charms and amulets were made from food to enable people to touch it more easily. The wooden cross that medieval Christians wore are a good example of this". (p. 293).


This superstition emphasizes not only the possible historical origins, but how behaviors exhibited in religions can shape superstitious behaviors that carried into the modern day almost as smoothly as using ‘oh my god’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ for exclamation even if you were not religious.


Superstition 3: it is bad luck to spill salt, throw salt over the left shoulder to reverse bad luck

Why the left shoulder specifically? Webster answers this by stating that the left side is synonymous with bad luck and evil, especially when sinister is Latin for the word left. This serves as an explanation as to why,

“Christ sits on the right hand, or good, side of God. This is also why people throw salt over their left shoulder after accidentally spilling some. they feel that the devil might pounce on them after an accident of that sort." (2012, p.153)


Allegedly, in Christianity, the devil “detests” salt as it is “incorruptible, immortal, and linked to God”. This explains why Christ is on the right side in religious art or other visual depictions as it is seen as the ‘good’ side of God. (p.227 & 153) Additionally, salt is preservative and therefore in the context of faith is,

“a natural enemy of anyone or anything that seeks to destroy. If a superstitious person accidentally spills some salt, he must immediately toss a pinch of salt over his left shoulder. This is because the devil is likely to attack from the rear, and will also attack from the left, or sinister side. The presence of salt will immediately scare off the devil before he has time to cause any difficulties." (p.227)


It is fascinating how the negative religious connotations of the left side had repercussions on left-handed people, who were “assumed to have some sort of connection with the devil and evil spirits. however, it was considered lucky to meet a left-handed person, except on Tuesday, when it was highly unlucky" (p.153); this appears to showcase some conflicts or contradictions in terms of where left-sidedness stood on the scale of luck. However, this context is necessary to understand the origins of spilling and throwing salt over the left shoulder.


Why do superstitions exist?

As our world continues to age our knowledge and understanding of it matures, and the pacing of this maturing may be different in various circumstances. Knowing that what we understand of the universe has drastically changed from mythology and the scientific method, why do superstitions persist for many cultures and individuals?


Harada and Hunter argue that superstitions are early examples of reasoning and problem-solving before modern science. Furthermore, it suggests that similarly to religion, superstitions can answer questions we are not sure how to respond to or understand, and therefore provide a sense of security to have good fortune, omens or luck, with non-offensive rituals or tasks. Or more importantly, security on how to avoid bad fortune, omens and luck.


As suggested in Thorin Klosowski’s aforementioned statements, my casual superstitions were learnt from an early age. My Dad grew up in a Hindu household in Malaysia, a largely Muslim country. However, I did not learn many behaviors informed by superstition or religion especially since he considered himself ‘non-practising’. However, my Mum has informed me of a lot of my superstitious practices, she was the one to tell me to not put new shoes on the table or stir with a knife because it was bad luck (in short, I blame mum for my ladder fear-mongering).


Growing up in the UK also meant that most of the media I consumed, from cartoons to films, would either be British and American; therefore, any superstitions I grew up learning and retaining are very western in their origins – Christianity is likely the primary culprit of this.


Vyse’s abstract for Superstition: A Very Short Introduction states that,

“Under Theodosius I (r. 379–95) Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion and the word ‘superstitio’ was now used against those who once used it against Christians. ‘Religious superstition’ describes the rising concerns over magic and superstition during the last centuries of the first millennium CE. A number of edicts against superstition, magic, and pagan religious practices were produced and working magicians and sorcerers were forced to renounce their practices or face death. Fears about demonic magic swelled during the 14th century, but a much more ominous threat emerged that would be a considerable worry for the next four centuries: conspiratorial groups of demon-worshipping black magicians alleged secret societies of witches.”


This historical ‘conflict’ between cultural practices and Christian practices highlights that, for many western citizens, superstitions are a response or result of Christianity – which may differ from countries that have superstitions informed by their specific cultural practices as well as religious practices. Therefore, it is important to recognize that any superstition people have in history and the modern-day is informed by these practices and experiences, so it would be a disservice to infer that superstitions are dated because they are uninformed by scientific method.


If we continue to promote the beauty and value of maintaining historically cultural practices, it may be counterintuitive to suggest superstition is primitive to modern thinking. If they do not harm the individual or collective, it is not necessarily inferior in the wider context of how people learn information, whether it be fact or folklore.


Why are we still superstitious?

In terms of why people are still superstitious despite advancements in society, culture and technology, Harada and Hunter suggest that who we are is largely influenced by the “values, beliefs, and meanings adopted by society”, highlighting that the environment(s) we grew up and develop in not only include social building blocks such as languages and etiquette, but also our behavior towards luck. Additionally, Harada and Hunter claim that superstitions still exist as they contribute to morality and how we cope with uncertainties;


“Embedded within our belief systems are a wide range of customs, rituals, taboos, and behavioral codes that have basis upon superstition. Superstition conceals hidden motives at a social level that cover society's hidden traumas. In the Freudian sense, superstition could be considered a social defence mechanism, as a means to deal with fears and anxieties that society faces. [...] Superstitions are based on flawed causalities where rationality and reasoning have been abandoned. Superstition can be seen as extended metaphors, transmitted through stories that people tell, in an attempt to cover up irrationality. These stories emerge as timeless myths that become culturally patterned remedies for something that is not understood and has its basis upon events and history, a universal acumen of culture.”


This showcases how superstitions can manage the ‘fears and anxieties that society faces’ by giving individuals autonomy over their luck, or resistance to bad luck. Harade and Hunter associate superstition with ‘flaw’ and the abandoning of ‘rationality and reasoning’, which may be true to many people that do not care for luck or superstition; however, the ‘timelessness’ that superstitions had earned is the result of finding answers in something that not be effectively or concisely answered: what is the reason and result for a person’s luck?


Reported by Thorin Klosowski for Lifehacker, Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College and author of Magic: The Psychology of Superstition Dr. Stuart explains possible reasons why superstitions become part of a person or society's development;

"One is that people teach them to us when we're young. They're part of the lore of any culture. The basic process of socialization is a major part of it. Also, we live in a world where there are always going to be important things in our lives that we can't completely control and their outcome is uncertain. Superstitions tend to emerge in those contexts. You do everything you possibly can to ensure that things will work out. Superstitions are employed as one more thing to help you bring [a desired outcome] about. They're maintained in part by a phenomenon psychologists call the 'illusion of control.'"


Klosowski claims the methods by which social structures teach individuals about luck and fortune can inform an individual’s response to casual or devoted superstition. More importantly, Klosowski emphasizes the ‘illusion of control’, something a lot of people would want to experience at a powerful level. It provides that comfort and safety to individuals or groups in uncertain circumstances. If bad luck is consistent in a person’s life, they can locate the possible causes and prepare for future consequences.


To summarize, the persistence of superstition in most, if not all, cultures can largely derive from three factors:

  1. respectfully adhering to traditional practices adjacent to modern practices

  2. the desire for answers to unusual or befuddling circumstances

  3. autonomy and control over actions and their consequences


Conclusion

Based on three specific superstitions I subconsciously act on, examples of research and insight into superstitions illustrate how the concept is densely layered in history but can be divisive depending on how much an individual’s faith (or lack thereof) informs their perspectives on luck and omens.


Superstitions are not an actively conscious part of my lifestyle in the same way it may be for people that practice their faith and religion; however, it is interesting to see how the superstitions I grew up learning about from TV and my Mum can be historically related to religion and continue to persist in many people’s lives and cultures.


But why does that matter?


One of my favorite answers to this question comes from USC Dornsife’s Tok Thompson, associate professor (teaching) of anthropology. We practiced superstitions and continue to because it can be fun, “there’s an aesthetic and a social quality to them and we think, ‘What’s the harm?’” Thompson said. “And finally, people think they might just be true.”


What’s the harm? Certainly, a valuable question in more ways than one.


If skepticism is a porous sponge that soaks into all aspects of contemporary life from table talk to internet discourse, and superstitions have managed to retain space in these crevices for multiple walks of life, perhaps having faith in luck and fortune is more valuable than we think.


This piece examined multiple ideas and professional input into the social history of superstition, and its purpose in tradition and modernity. But maybe the simple answer to ‘why’ is truly… ‘why not?’.



 


Editors: Danielle C., Lang D., Cathay L., Joyce P., Claudia S., Leila W.


Bibliography:

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