superstitions


superstitions
   Some recent folklorists shun the term 'superstition' as being too pejorative, preferring the less value-laden 'belief'. This, however, is too broad a term and, for convenience, we have kept the older word, emboldened by the fact that it is universally understood, and that few 'believers' find its normal use offensive. It only becomes so when used by adherents of one religion, or by atheists, to vilify the religious beliefs and practices of others - issues far outside the scope of this work.
   Dictionary definitions of the word regularly invoke the ideas of fear, irrationality, ignorance, groundless belief; folklorists can broadly accept this, while giving added emphasis to the communal and traditional nature of the genre. Its Latin etymology is somewhat obscure; numerous writers interpret its root ('standing over') as implying survival from ancient times, but the OED declares this unlikely. Victorian evolutionary survivalists considered them the tattered remnants of archaic religious and scientific beliefs, made obsolete by intellectual progress, though there is little real evidence for this. Nevertheless it is commonly asserted by popular authors and the general public that superstitions date back for thousands of years, and are direct survivals of attempts by primitive humans to explain and control their environment. The fallacy, as so often, arises from a failure to distinguish form from content. Even if it be agreed that the early human world-view was 'superstitious' in modern terms (a point still debatable), it does not follow that particular items of the modern repertoire date from that time. By analogy: we can be pretty sure early humans liked singing, but we know the song 'White Christmas' is not prehistoric. Yet 'explanations' based on this assumption are now so firmly fixed in the public mind as to become traditional themselves (e.g. that touching wood dates from when people believed in tree spirits).
   Even without adequate definition, one can identify some of the patterns, formulas, and basic principles controlling modern superstitions. (a) They aim to 'accentuate the positive/ eliminate the negative': do this for good luck, avoid that to prevent bad luck. (b) Luck can be influenced, but not completely controlled. (c) Do not transgress category boundaries, for example wild flowers or open umbrellas (outdoor items) should not be indoors. (d) To seem too confident about the future is 'tempting fate' and attracts retribution - 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch'. (e) Some days or times are lucky or (more usually) unlucky; they vary in frequency (*midnight, *Friday, Friday the thirteenth, Holy Innocents Day), and can be individual - 'Tuesday is always my lucky day'. (f) Something that begins well (or badly) will probably continue that way. (g) As in *magic, things once physically linked retain a link even when separated (birds using your hair in their nests will give you a headache). (h) Evil forces exist and are actively working to harm you; these may be impersonal, or concentrated in humans (witches, ill-wishers) or other beings (devils, fairies). (i) Certain things, words, or actions have powerfully negative effects, and must be avoided or counteracted (*taboo). (j) Anything sudden, unexpected, or unusual can be seen as an omen, usually of misfortune. However, many superstitions do not fit these categories, and individuals can invent their own (e.g. 'Must get back to bed before the toilet stops flushing').
   Many have wondered why superstition persists despite improvements in religion, logic, and science. For Gilbert White in 1776, it is because of habits formed when young and imbibed with our mother's milk (White, 1789: letter xxviii). For Melton (1620) and Igglesden (c.1932), it is because astrologers, fortunetellers, and local cunning men/women deliberately foster credulity for profit; for Puritans of the 16th century onwards, it was due to Roman Catholic priests. Some maintain that rationalism must not be allowed to remove all the romance and mystery of life, and enjoy the idea of 'more things in heaven and earth . . .'. Others point to the distress superstition brings, for example the lifelong guilt felt by a woman who believed she had caused her brother's death at sea by washing clothes on New Year's Day (Gill, 1993: 105-6; cf. Balleine, 1939). At a general level, it is clear that the hold of superstition on people's minds has weakened over the centuries, and that it is increasingly consigned to trivial areas of everyday life.
   In autumn 1998, the present authors sent out a questionnaire asking respondents to write down any superstitions they knew, in order to assess the current repertoire; we 348 83% made clear that we were not asking what they believed, only what they knew of. Ten spaces were provided, and respondents were told they could add more items if they wished. Our hypothesis was that most English people nowadays know only a relatively small number of superstitions, which will tend to be the same ones. The first 215 replies received showed this was indeed the case; few of the items reported were uncommon, and many appeared time and again. It seems unlikely that further results will change the basic pattern. The following summary gives the number of times the 'Top Ten' items were mentioned, the percentage (of 215) this represents, and the date of the first known reference to the belief in Britain, taken from Opie and Tatem.
   1. 178 Unlucky to walk under a ladder (1787)
   2. 144 67%
   3. 117 54% Lucky/Unlucky to meet black cat (1620) (More respondents said 'lucky' than 'unlucky'; several commented 'don't know which') Unlucky to break a mirror (1777) (Most specified 'seven years' bad luck')
   4. 102 47% Unlucky to see one magpie, lucky to see two, etc. (c.1780)
   5. 94 44% Unlucky to spill salt (1584?) (Most mentioned throwing a pinch over the shoulder to counteract bad luck)
   6. 85 39% Unlucky to open umbrella indoors (1883)
   7. 78 36% Thirteen unlucky/Friday the thirteenth unlucky (1711/1913) (These related items were given in about equal numbers; some gave both)
   8. 76 35% Unlucky to put shoes on table (1869) (Most specified new shoes)
   9. 45 21% Unlucky to pass someone on the stairs (1865) 10. 34 16% Lucky to touch wood (1877)
   These dates suggest a fairly rapid turnover in superstitions. Only one (spilling salt) can be dated to the 16th century, via a vague allusion to those 'that make great divinations upon the spilling of salt' (Scot, 1584: book 11, chapter 15). Another (black cat) can be traced to the 17th century, four to the 18th, four to the 19th; one (Friday the thirteenth) to the 20th only. It is also instructive to compare this list with that given by John *Melton in Astrologaster (1620), reprinted in full in FLS News (2000). Many of his items are still known, but do not appear among our Top Ten (e.g. cat washing face, cheek/ear burning); conversely, only one of our Top Ten (black cat) was reported by him. Opie and Tatem, 1989; Igglesden, c.1932.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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