Black cat seen walking under a ladder on Friday the 13th. A historical look at superstitions.

Black cat seen walking under a ladder on Friday the 13th. A historical look at superstitions.


&ldquoThe idea that a sneeze must be answered by a salutation from bystanders is both ancient and almost universal. It is known all across Europe and possibly all over the world. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks not only responded to a sneeze but also wondered what the reason for this strange habit was. Pliny, in Ad 77, asks &ldquowhy do we say good health to those who sneeze?'

Another institution that survived certainly up until the 1950s, and I think we still have remnants of to this day, are 'cunning folk' or 'healers'. These were people who for whatever reason (perhaps being the seventh son of a seventh son?) were believed to have special powers; they could cure ailments, predict the weather, make efficient spells. In some cases they had thriving businesses – playing on superstitions and possibly making some more up if necessary. &ldquo

It could easily be argued that some of these customs are not dead, but have simply resurfaced in a new guise – astrology, alternative medicine, and cult religion. But as Roud says in his introduction, that is not within the scope of his book to comment on.

Another, although not surprising fact that Roud's research confirms is that superstitions, always assumed to be the result of fear and uncertainty, rise in times of war and troubles.

&ldquoWhen things are seen as out of control, more dangerous, we seem to be more inclined to rely on – and make up – spells and curses. You find a lot more rituals where people do dangerous jobs. I think this element of uncertainty, and vulnerability, is also behind some of the practices around childbirth and new babies. The book gives the example of how mothers tell their daughters not to bring a pram or a cradle in to the house before the baby is born. This also shows how superstitions are passed on within a group, often the family, and take on the authority of tradition.”

What is also striking is how many entries have a religious connotation, or even a direct link – the book lists many uses for the Bible, for example. How does Roud distinguish between religious belief and superstition?

&ldquoThat is a really difficult one – and one I could get in to lots of trouble answering! I am an atheist so to me, it is all irrational belief, all magic. It is a fact that spells and prayers are intimately linked, but there is a difference. In a prayer you ask for help, but with a spell you demand that something happens, and the intent is to force a particular outcome. It is a distinction though that it has been difficult to maintain completely. The church itself struggled to teach people the difference between official and unofficial charms – official teaching was that charms worked because the Devil was behind them.

It does seem that Catholics are more superstitious than Protestants; Northern Europe more rational that Southern Europe. But you could say this simply means there are devotional differences – often it is not possible to say whether something is a superstition or faith in a higher being. It all depends on your own belief system.

The fact is also that to most of us, superstitions are what other people believe in. It is a label we tend to ascribe to someone else – who we deem inferior. It fits in with other stereotypes and insulting jokes. I mean, the English might say the Irish are superstitious, and in Dublin you will say the same about people from Connemara – and so on. Superstitious usually means backward, ignorant, uneducated.”

If you want to determine the depth of your own superstitions, or indeed backwardness, Roud's book provides an exhaustive list of charms, rituals and other irrational beliefs. It may be true that we employ less magical protection than in earlier times, replacing specific evils with a generic “bad luck”. Still, anyone who asks a friend to keep her fingers crossed, refuse to play soccer without their lucky shorts or insist on not telling you what they wish for, for fear of jinxing it, is flying in the face of reason. Roud’s explanation for this is simple: life is uncertain, unpredictable and full of nasty surprises. Superstitions stem from a pessimism that sees disaster around every corner. The basic principle of not tempting fate is that someone out there will do you down. It is like a conspiracy theory, where the whole world is against you. The beliefs themselves are illogical, but in a world full of random misfortunes, taking whatever safety precautions are available seems quite a logical thing to do.

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