Superstition is blaming the trivial on the inevitable.

From my observations I have noticed that people will blame the tiniest superstition on any event, from not getting a job, losing at a casino, to their favorite (sport) team losing the (corresponding major sporting event). Actors blame the utterance of the title of the Scottish play (MacBeth). Americans believe in a number of things, the most outstanding being the number 13, considered unlucky and damning, where as 17 seems to be much more universial.

The fact is, if it went wrong, it was going to happen. Sometimes thats how things are. Thats not to say superstition is bad thing - more of a crutch that humans seem to need.

Background to some superstitious beliefs

Superstitions have been with us for a long time - the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese and indeed most ancient civilisations have recorded a fear, or avoidance of certain acts, things, people or animals for fear that harm will befall them. Additionally, there are many references throughout time and culture, to charms and cermonies to ward off evil or bad luck.

Some superstitions can be tracked back for generations, and I have listed some of those most common in the West, below:

Unlucky 13

(triskaidekaphobia, literally, fear of 13) - This may possibly be down to the biblical references to the number '12' - a number which was considered to be complete, good. In addition, Jesus Christ was betrayed when there were thirteen sat at table for the Passover supper. In Europe and the USA, very few buildings have a thirteenth floor, and many are the streets in England with the number '12a' in its stead. No civilised host would seat 13 at a table - I have even had a restaurant booking refused because I wanted a table for thirteen!

Contrast this with the Japanese fear of the number four - the pronunciation of which sounds like a word for 'death'.

Oh, and why is Friday the Thirteenth so unlucky? Well, back to Christianity - Jesus was crucified on a Friday. There are other suggestions, notably that the Knights Templar were arrested at the behest of King Philip IV of France, on Friday, 13th October, 1307. Given that they were tortured (in some cases to death), no surprise that Friday 13th was considered unlucky by some.

Lucky Black Cats

Cat superstitions feature in many places. In the UK it is considered lucky if a black cat crosses your path, in other parts of Europe, similar beliefs abound - cats walking toward or away from you may signify bad or good omens in different cultures. In some areas, cats were associated with witches, who kept them as familiars. Witches wore black... black + cat = bad luck.

Walking under ladders

In most places, this is going to bring bad luck. There is perhaps an element of common sense in this - after all, there could be someone working above you with paint, tools or other objects subject to the law of gravity! One suggestion as to the origin of this one is that those holding seige ladders were the most likely to be caught if burning oil were poured down the walls of a castle being stormed. Convincing argument...

Another suggested origin lies in the Trinity doctrine, both the Christian and ancient Babylonian faiths having triune gods. Ladders, you see, form the three sides of a triangle with floor and wall - to break this would be to violate the sanctity of a religious tenet. Bad luck from the gods would follow!

Knocking on Wood

Knock on wood for good luck. As Druidic/Celtic tradition dictated, trees were sacred - many other cultures have faerie creatures living in or associated with them. Knocking on the tree was performed as part of a ritual to call on the gods for assistance, guidance or support. The tradition lives on, although in my neck of the woods, knocking on one's own head seems to suffice, should there be no handy timber product.

Breaking Mirrors

This is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck! In many places, one's image or reflection was said to contain the soul, hence many cultures' reluctance to allow photographs to be taken. Breaking the mirror caused spiritual trauma and hardship. Many peoples suggested that looking at your reflection in water was bad luck, as any ripples would distort the image. Narcissus fell prey to that one, all right.

Spilling Salt

It is said that if you spill salt accidentally, it allows the Devil to possess your soul. A far cry from the days when salt was such a precious commodity that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (salarium - salary). To break his power over you, a pinch of salt thrown over the shoulder would make him sneeze, and relinquish his hold. Some say that the left shoulder is best, others the right. They all make the assumption that Old Nick is coming at you from behind.

Four-Leaved Clover

A good luck thing, for a change! We are back to the Druids, who believed that a four-leaved clover would allow them to see into the spirit world, and avoid wicked demons. They did of course have more and better ways of seeing things.

Don't put shoes on the table

Just like my Grandmother used to say. This will surely bring disharmony to your household. Little surprise there - someone had to polish that table, you know! I also heard tell that the hobnails in boots, scratching the surface would allow sadness into the heart of the family. Shoes should also never be stored upside down.

Birds

Birds in the house are a harbinger of death. A robin in the house means that one of the family will die - many are the birds whose singing outside a house is a sign of disaster too, like the whipporwill, for example.

"Bless You!"

Said to the victim of a sneeze, this pharse will ward off evil and guarantee good health. The Devil (again) was able to get to you whilst your mouth and nose was open. So why not during a yawn? Well, the Black Death was in part responsible for this one - sneezing was one of the symptoms of this plague, and anyone would do well to keep out of reach of a sneezing person. Asking for God's blessing on the sufferer (presumably whilst running away) was the least anyone could do. (The nursery rhyme Ring Around the Roses illustrates the fear that people had of this dread disease.) Gesundheit!

Lighting cigarettes

Not surprisingly nowadays, given the health risks, but lighting them is surrounded by superstition, too. It was said (during WWI) that taking the third light from a match would get you shot. As well it might, as an enemy sniper has time to take a bead on you and BANG!.

There's another one that tells of a sailor dying if you light a ciggie from a candle. Apparently sailors often sold matches to supplement their incomes (or with smuggled tobacco, possibly!). Lighting a cigarette from a candle was denying them income from match sales.




Thanks gnarl for the cigarette ones, and smartalix for the Templars.
If anyone knows of more superstitions, with their origins, please /msg me, I will include them and credit you!


http://www.rosslyntemplars.org.uk/friday,_13th.htm

If you want true, active superstition, look no further than Britain's Royal Navy (the "Britain" is a sop to all other monarchies).

In the RN, the form you have to fill in for any collision or grounding of your ship is Form 232. No-one mentions the number 232, if they have to it is always "231 and a bit". It gets to the point where HMS Lancaster, in sequence of pennant numbers, should have been F232, but on protest it was changed to 229 to avoid making the ship unlucky from birth.

Another example, a friend of mine who does not want to be "tapped" or conscripted as a submariner, touches wood every single time he hears the word submarine or submariner.

Another one heard is a Captain who banned Earl Grey tea from his ship since it caused accidents - apparently the last time the ship had Earl Grey on board, one of the lifebuoys came loose, set off a massive smoke float in the middle of Portsmouth harbour, they had to call up on the Radio to tell the Harbourmaster it wasn't real distress, then try to pick it up, they subsequently lost it after the smoke burned out, and spent several hours hunting. When they finally found it, they had to return to port as a missing lifebuoy is an A1 OPDEF (not allowed to go to sea).

Other things not to mention/have aboard are:

-Finns: Jack perceives Finns to be the root of all storms and evil, and will go out of his way to avoid them

-Eating Fish at sea: for some reason a lot of sailors object to this - they see it as eating their brothers and bad luck to eat them

Hindu Mythology also has many superstitions, some might have scientific reasoning behind them, many do not. (I know this because I am a Hindu myself.)

Some examples are :

Cutting nails after sunset

Cutting nails at night (or after sunset) is bad luck. A variation of this is that one isn't allowed to cut their nails on Saturday. I believe that in the olden days, when electric lights didn't exist, people used to cut their nails with scissors(?!) and cutting their nails in the dark would result in massive pools of blood all over the place because people wound up cutting their fingers off or something. I do not know about why Saturday is a restriction.

Taking clothes off the washing line at night

This is also supposed to be bad luck. The rationale behind this is that at night, the ghosts and demons are active. Some of them maybe hiding in your clothes, and when you take them back into the house, you are effectively inviting them into your homes and allowing them to wreak havoc.

Hanging a lemon and a chilli on your front door

This practice is supposed to ward off evil. A string is pushed through the lemon and chilli and is tied (only at one end) around a nail over the door. The resulting contraption of dangling chilli and lemon is supposed to keep evil spirits out of your house (I do not know how, my mom never was able to explain that one). They can still get in if you do things to invite them, like whistling at night for example. Which brings me to the next superstition...

Whistling at night

This brings demons into your house. No explanations there. Just really angry aunties shouting at you telling you not to invite the demons over for dinner.

Staring at shadows at night

Shadows at night you say! If there is some external light source, then you should be able to get shadows at night. Of course if you looked at these shadows, you have inadvertently invited demons to your home. When I was a kid it seemed like almost anything I could do would invite demons home. I think this superstition started because little kids could get nightmares looking at strange shadows before they slept at night. I know I did, after I heard about this superstition.

Returning to the house for any reason, just after you left it.

Not only is this bad luck, but be prepared to waste a lot of time, depending on what your parents choose to believe. Many people believe that if you leave the house, and immediately return (to pick up those car keys you forgot to take the first time around), you will either be KILLED on your journey, or have horrible luck until you return home. (Whew, at least demons don't get into your house this time huh?). To avert certain disaster, there are a few things you can do. Some people believe it is enough to get get back into the house, sit down for a minute and then walk out again. This would probably be enough to convince the demons who were out to destroy your car (or horse, or airplane) that you didn't really start on your journey the first time. (Hey I said they weren't getting into your house. I never said demons weren't involved here). Other people believe that when you get back in, you MUST drink a glass of water and THEN sit down. Still others believe that you should walk in and out of the house five times(thus confusing those pesky demons. Now they won't know whether you're coming or going). And finally there are a few people who believe a combination of all these methods is a good way to ward off the demons.

Leaving your hair open on a full moon night

I believe that this applies to girls (mostly). So you thought you were smart by hanging that lemon chilli contraption over your door eh? You forgot about your daughters/sisters/wives walking around with their long tresses flowing over their shoulders at night! The ever present demons will be seduced by their hair, and climb into the hair, and enter your houses that way! I believe THIS superstition came up because mothers did not want their daughters to attract extra attention from boys, and on a full moon night, there would be more visibility than on nights without a moon (Remember, we are talking about a time before street lights). I think I also have to mention that open hair is considered to attract boys/men in Indian culture (I feel that this is a given, but I still thought I should explain it)

Too much flattery

This is bad for the one who is receiving the praise. The idea behind this is that the demons will get jealous, and then decide to hurt you out of envy. So if someone keeps telling you how good you look, then you have to touch your temples with your knuckles to remove the "kaala nazar" (literally translated that means "black sight", but it basically means the 'evil eye')

Staring at the moon during Ganesh Chaturthi

I know this doesn't apply to everyone, but it has some interesting roots, so I wanted to add this in my list. Ganesh Chaturti is a festival celebrating the birth of Lord Ganesh. On one of his birthdays, tripped and fell while he was dancing on his flying rat.. (yes. I said it. Flying rat. Or mouse if you would prefer. I'm really not making this up. Lord Ganesh himself was a boy whose head was chopped off and replaced with the head of an elephant. Try explaining Hindu mythology to little kids and see how many of them you can terrify.) Anyhoo, when the moon saw this, he laughed at Lord Ganesh. Not a smart thing to do, laughing at a God on his birthday. So Lord Ganesh cursed the moon, saying that no one would ever look at the moon on his (Lord Ganesh's) birthday. So if you DID look at the moon, you would incur the Wrath of God.

There are many others, and I will add the interesting ones as and when I remember them, and if anyone knows any others, they can message me or add them here themselves.

I have at times lamented that while far too many songs vainly repeat the theological conditioning of their originating cultures, precious few recount any sort of freethought -- and of those, fewer still which could be deemed downright funky. True, John Lennon enabled us to "Imagine" no religion, and Rush invited us to exercise Free Will. But it was not until I entered the lyrics catalog of Stevie Wonder that I discovered the perfect freethinkers song sitting there all along under my nose -- and it is a funkalicious song, and it has an awesome message.

The inspiration:

It all began in 1972, with the then-22 year old musician seeking to step out of the shadow of Ray Charles, whom he had been cast by the music industry as a younger version of, partly for his sound and undeniable talent as both a pianist and a singer, but mostly for his coincidental blindness. In a jam session with Jeff Beck for the production of what would eventually be Stevie's starmaking album, Talking Book, Beck came out with a novel drumbeat, immediately inspiring Stevie's writing of a bass part, to be played on his "funky, dirty, stinky, nasty instrument" -- the clavinet. Other musical elements followed, the rise and fall of the trumpets trumpeting notes, sometimes stairstepping, sometimes flowing close to free jazz until all come winding together in a chaotically, beautifully layered ending.

The Execution:

The song launches itself with what has become one of the most iconic bass lines known to music, a variation of a conventional run up and down the pentatonic scale made wild by the interspersing of ghost notes between the scale notes. This is shortly joined by a small but potent section of brass instruments. And then Stevie starts singing, tearing into lyrics, "Very supersititous, writing's on the wall," which give the song meaning above and beyond the greatness of the music itself. Now, Stevie could've taken this masterfully funkalicious tune and turned out a song with lyrics on most any subject, for example those most ubiquitous themes of the genre, love, sex, and just plain partying. But he instead chose superstition as the theme, excoriating by name irrational belief in such fanciful flights as bad luck from walking under a ladder ('ladder's 'bout to fall'), triskadekaphobia ('thirteen month old baby'), and breaking of mirrors ('broke the looking glass'), the last event being followed by 'seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past'.

This overall sentimentation is then most powerfully reflected in the repeated refrain:
When you believe in things
That you dont understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition aint the way
An almost primal singing scream is arced by double-tracking over the words, 'then you suffer,' almost a lamentation of suffering on its own. In the next verse, he interestingly includes 'wash your face and hands,' though not typically a superstition, certainly something done to a superstitious degree by some, especially germaphobes and the OCD-stricken. This line may be read to suggest a biblical reference as well, as does the earlier line 'the writing's on the wall.' After another refrain comes something else which seems telling about the song as a whole; mixed in amongst all the other beliefs dismissed for their harmful nonsensically, in the spot where the falling ladder stood in the first verse, is the comment, 'devil's on his way'-- the inescapable implication being, the devil is simply yet another silly superstition, a falsity as with all the rest.

The Contemplation:

In an interview on the release of the album, Stevie waxed lyrical in speaking of the superstition decried in the lyrics: "The worst thing is, the more you believe in it, the more bad things happen to you. You're so afraid that something terrible is going to come up, that you are much more vulnerable."

Superstition is the funkiest song on the album, indeed the only one which aims for funkaliciousness. It took a while for the ambition of the song to sink into the music market, with the song reaching the Pop and R&B number one spots some three months after its release. And it is the only song directed toward a seemingly antireligious theme. Now, I won't pretend to have any inkling of Stevie being anything but a traditional theist. He had earlier recorded gospel numbers as well, and has had no dearth of references to theistic beliefs in later songs. And it may well be that Stevie was excluding his own beliefs from the condemned categorization, possibly even considering the superstitions addressed as counterclaims to his religion.But whether he intended or not, this song tells a good part of the story for those who have broken the bounds of theism altogether and leapt into the sea of other possibilities.

It may be that other listeners don't get this out of the song, we humans being adept at reading the validation of our own desires into the things we see and hear and feel. And, most assuredly, it is the music as a whole, rather than the message, which made this song the hit which it was and is. But even as the song contains one of the funkiest baseline/horn combos ever belted out, it unquestionably conveys one message vital to the philosophy of freethought: the irrational belief in superstitious leads to suffering of the funkiest kind.

Su`per*sti"tion (?), n. [F. superstition, L. superstitio, originally, a standing still over or by a thing; hence, amazement, wonder, dread, especially of the divine or supernatural, fr. superstare to stand over; super over + stare to stand. See Super-, and Stand.]

1.

An excessive reverence for, or fear of, that which is unknown or mysterious.

2.

An ignorant or irrational worship of the Supreme Deity; excessive exactness or rigor in religious opinions or practice; extreme and unnecessary scruples in the observance of religious rites not commanded, or of points of minor importance; also, a rite or practice proceeding from excess of sculptures in religion.

And the truth With superstitions and traditions taint. Milton.

3.

The worship of a false god or gods; false religion; religious veneration for objects.

[The accusers] had certain questions against him of their own superstition. Acts xxv. 19.

4.

Belief in the direct agency of superior powers in certain extraordinary or singular events, or in magic, omens, prognostics, or the like.

5.

Excessive nicety; scrupulous exactness.

Syn. -- Fanaticism. -- Superstition, Fanaticism. Superstition springs from religious feeling misdirected or unenlightened. Fanaticism arises from this same feeling in a state of high-wrought and self-confident excitement. The former leads in some cases to excessive rigor in religious opinions or practice; in others, to unfounded belief in extraordinary events or in charms, omens, and prognostics, hence producing weak fears, or excessive scrupulosity as to outward observances. The latter gives rise to an utter disregard of reason under the false assumption of enjoying a guidance directly inspired. Fanaticism has a secondary sense as applied to politics, etc., which corresponds to the primary.

 

© Webster 1913.

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