Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

Did you count the magpies on your way to work this morning? Are you afraid of walking under a ladder? If the answer is yes some might say that you are superstitious. Although it is an assessment the experts are unlikely to agree with. Steve Roud, a folklorist who has written a book on the subject, say that these days, we really only play at superstitions.

&ldquoAlthough we still touch wood, consult horoscopes and perhaps even wear lucky charms, all of these things are only pale imitations of how superstitions used to rule people's lives. I think that by and large, superstitions have lost their power and we tend to just play at is these days. &ldquo

But it still very common to hear people talk about 'not tempting fate' or saying 'wish me luck'. Is that not proof of irrational beliefs being alive and well?

&ldquoA lot of superstitions have become part of the language we use – but most are simply that, traditional sayings. I mean, if your cow was sick a hundred years ago, you might attempt to fix it by attacking your neighbour with a pin. There was a widespread belief that accidents and illness was caused by curses, and the cure was to draw blood to break the spell. Fortunately these days we are more likely to call the vet. However badly things are going, few would think that the cause was our neighbour's spite or the spells of a witch. ”

Roud is anxious to dispel a few myths about superstitions, luckily without resorting to any kind of bizarre or violent practices. He relies on historical research, the result of years of searching for examples of superstitions in every possible source – books, newspapers, plays – as well as listening in to people on buses, in shops and in the playground. This is the basis for the book, A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles, which is like a reference library, made for browsing. Roud also makes some informed judgments on the origins, development and popularity of beliefs.

One of the first things this research proves, according to Roud, is exactly the point of how much less superstitious we as a society are than a hundred, even fifty, years ago. Much more surprisingly, it also shows that most commonly known beliefs are of fairly recent origin. None of the top ten (in terms of best known) superstitions can be found before 1800, and so have been invented in the last 200 years.

&ldquoI think there is this idea out there, promoted by the media, that all these superstitions have survived from ancient fertility rites or pre-Christian sacrifice – 1200 years before they were ever recorded by anyone, anywhere! It seems a bit far-fetched to me to think that if they had existed all that time, nobody noticed. The fact is that most superstitions that we know about are Victorian inventions. Friday 13th is a good example, it is one of the widest known superstitions we have and thought to be of great antiquity. However the notion that 13 is an unlucky number cannot be found earlier than 1852! From the seventeenth century onwards, there is no shortage of date-based material, like almanacs and calendars, and not one of these single out Friday 13th. Dramatists in the 16th and 17th century wrote tragedies full of omens – dogs how, owls shriek and comets predict disaster – but no tragedy happens on Friday 13th.”

So are there any ancient superstitions that still survive?

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