Friday, September 26, 2008

Superstitions

by Jean Henry Mead

For years I harbored a Friday the 13th superstition after I was struck by a car when 17. That superstition was reinforced over the years and culminated with the birth of my fourth daughter on April 13, a Friday.

People are superstitious about a lot of things, including death and cemeteries, which is something I can relate to. I can’t bring myself to walk over someone’s grave although I have no fear of the “occupant” haunting me. It's an eerie feeling whenever I visit a gravesite, especially while visiting old battlefields such as Antietam and Custer’s Little Big Horn. Others told me that they have experienced the same feeling, as though the spirits of the dead are hovering around them.

I can understand where the “walking under a ladder’ superstition originated. The darn thing can collapse and fall on you. Black cats? I avoid them at all costs because tripping over a cat can cause a broken hip. But some of the other Western superstitions really leave me baffled, such as “stepping on a crack will break your mother’s back.” Or tossing salt over your shoulder to blind the devil. Seven years’ worth of bad luck for breaking a mirror is another strange, unexplainable superstition. I cringe whenever I break one and if the bad luck were true, I’d have to survive another 97 years to outlive the curse. Who thinks up these things?

Eastern superstitions are even more mysterious. Koreans believe that leaving a fan in a closed room will cause the occupants to suffocate. In India, pregnant women refuse to go outside during an eclipse because it may cause their babies birthmarks. The belief is widespread because birthmarks in Iran are called 'maah-gereftegi' or eclipses.

Long held religious beliefs are often considered superstitions by some, particularly religions that believe in miracles, spirits and charms. Greek and Roman pagans, whose gods were mainly politically social, looked down on those who feared their own gods because it was considered superstitious drivel. Many superstitions began as religious practices but lost their true meanings over time. During Europe’s Christian awakening, the cross replaced pagan symbols to ward off evil, the cross a much older symbol than the religion itself.

Many ancient peoples believed in a magical bond between a weapon and the wound it caused. The Melanesians thought that if they retrieved the weapon responsible for the wound, it could be kept in a cool place to facilitate healing. But, if an enemy warrior retained the weapon, it would be hung close to a fire to further inflame the wound. Ancient Romans believed that if a man felt sorry for the injury he inflicted, spitting in the palm of his hand would alleviate the victim’s pain. And medieval Englishmen thought that anointing a weapon would encourage the wound to heal itself, a superstition reportedly still in practice in eastern England today.

Actors and theatre performers have long held superstitions such as the good luck greeting of “Break a log.” Whistling in a theatre is considered bad luck and production company green rooms are never painted green. Again, for some reason, bad luck. And you would never find a peacock roaming in or near a threater because their tail feathers were once thought to possess an evil eye. The NBC peacock must have forever put an end to that superstition.

I'm sure that most of my superstitions originate with my feisty, maternal grandmother, who lived with us during my formative years. She read coffee grounds instead of tea leaves, accurately foretelling the future, as far as I knew, and was the model for the southern "granny" in my first historical novel. I still have the good luck charm she gave me to ward off evil spirits, which seem to be increasing in numbers.

3 comments:

Beth Terrell said...

I find superstitions fascinating.I've never been afraid of black cats (I LOVE cats), but I try never to walk under a ladder for the very reason you state. I wonder if the idea of getting 7 years of bad luck from breaking a mirror is because they were once very expensive and there were very real economic consequences for breaking it. (Or other serious consequences--for example, if you were a servant who happened to break Her Ladyship's imported handmirror. Ack.

Jean Henry Mead said...

That makes sense, Beth. It's a tongue-in-cheek article for the most part, but superstitions still play a role in many parts of the world.

Judy Alter said...

Jean,

I certainly felt that eerie feeling at the Little Big Horn battlefield when I was there with a WWA convention. I also once got it in a building at Fort McCavitt in Texas--later learned the building was the morgue. No wonder!