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Understanding Superstition

Updated on January 6, 2013
An Indian with a Blessed Wedding Pot
An Indian with a Blessed Wedding Pot | Source

Do you consider yourself superstitious?

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The Art of No Explanation

My wife yelled at me the other day for putting my shoes in the wrong place.

I took a shower, grabbed my clothes, socks, and shoes and put them on a table. You’d have thought I’d butchered a hamster in front of her. Her eyes widened. She gasped, taking in a huge lungful of air, and screamed, “GET THOSE OFF THE TABLE IMMEDIATELY!!!”

I wasn’t ready for that bit of screaming; so I did. I threw all my stuff on the floor.

Internally, I waited a beat. When you stand in nothing but your underwear, there isn’t a whole lot you can do when crazy people yell at you. I put on my jeans and a t-shirt and then looked at my wife who seemed to have instantly regained some of her sanity.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Your shoes were on the table,” she said as if that were a rational explanation and looked at me like I was a disobedient two-year old.

“And?” I said with some exasperation.

“It’s bad luck.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered being yelled at like this before. My late mother-in-law yelled at me for putting my new sneakers on the table as I was changing out of my old ones. It was something to the effect of “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!! GET THOSE SHOES OFF THE TABLE!”

I found out later that this was an Irish superstition that is taken very seriously even today. It is based on the act of an undertaker. An undertaker will remove the shoes of the deceased and place them on a table prior to embalming. The translation of this to Irish superstition is that if you put shoes on a table, someone is going to die.

Well, better safe than sorry.

We do acts that are based in superstition all the time. For example, see what happens when you sneeze in front of anyone over thirty. You will hear someone say, “God bless you.”

Why do we bless people who sneeze? I don’t think it’s to pay homage to St. Sneezy.

In actuality, it’s a superstition based on the belief that when people sneeze their soul comes up through their body and out their mouth. At that point, the devil has a chance to snatch your soul and keep it.

No, I’m not making this up.

To counteract this, another person says “God bless you” to keep Lucifer from getting your wholesale soul. Does this work? WHO KNOWS? My guess is that if this is true there must be a whole bunch of angry people in line at the pearly gates waiting for an explanation from Saint Peter.

“Yes, I know you lost your life saving a bus full of orphans from certain doom – but you did sneeze pretty hard back when you were five and no one said ‘God bless you’ – Satan has your soul now. You can blame your so-called ill-mannered friends.”

This is the way of superstitions. It is an irrational belief in the act of doing, having, or saying something that for no logical reason will bring bad or good things upon your life.

What are Superstitions

Superstition is a belief that somehow, supernaturally, one act or event despite there being no real logical explanation causes a good or bad effect on your life.

Superstition, from the Latin superstitio, is rooted in meaning as excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief. It is also derived from super-stare which is “to stand over, stand upon; survive”. Just who is standing over or standing upon another is not known.

These practices are beyond reason. Superstition has been linked with a supposition of magic, witchcraft, Voodoo, miracles, prayer, revelations, and astrology. The basic formula is event A added to superstition reason B equals good or bad effect C. All of this is related to the outcome of good luck or bad luck (also called fortune).

While the normal rational world would call the practice and belief of superstition pure poppycock, you cannot escape the fact that a strong majority of rational people have a superstitious belief of one thing or another. Such things are pervasive and come with the practice of religion and faith that by acting in a certain manner good things or good karma will come to the practitioner.

Superstitions are also linked with the carrying of certain charms or objects that have the ability to create good fortune or banish bad fortune. Such good luck object have ranged from the carrying of talismans like a rabbits foot, four leaf clovers, and the hanging of a horseshoe (open end at the top) to the carrying of specific crystals which help attract good luck or repel bad luck (or specific personal attributes that are to be amplified or reduced).

There is also the other end of the spectrum where an event involving specific objects are considered bad luck despite what the person’s intent would be. Such things are: the breaking of a mirror, the stepping on a sidewalk crack (break your mother’s back), a horseshoe that was pointing up now pointing down (spilling any good luck accumulated into the ground), and a black cat crossing one’s path. The last factor is a cruel injustice to the genetics of a black haired cat. These poor creatures are hunted in some areas in that superstitious belief. I personally believe that if there is any justice in this universe, no creature was ever born to be hunted down due to some cosmic law which equates bad fortune to befall another person.

Some superstitions are just based in madness and poorly told mythology.

However, I can see how finding a four leaf clover can be a sign of good luck. The natural rarity of a genetic deviation of a four leaf clover comes out to a 10,000 to 1 probability of finding one in a batch of three leafed clovers. When we look at the odds of finding the one in a bunch, we are looking at someone who has been fortunate.

And when we think of good luck or back luck we need to think about the odds of an event. Diskworld author, Terry Pratchett, has made the axiom that lady luck comes to those who do not call for her and that last hopeless one in a million chances have a one in ten chance of succeeding when luck is involved (as she gets 999,999 votes in that situation). When we look at the mythological impact of such an entity of luck, we can truly say that she is above the gods and fate itself. Even when we look at models of predicting outcomes we can never be 100% per cent accurate as there is always an unknown x-factor that can come into play at any moment.

The Reality of Superstitions

William Shakespeare had written in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Such is true in superstition.

We’d all like to think that superstition, magic, and witchcraft are the musings of foolish minds. However, there is much that is either based in psychology and quantum physics that may prove all of this to have some amount of merit.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’ve lost my mind. Superstitions are not based in science and following these beliefs is not the work of a logical mind. And you’d be right. As I said at the beginning of this article, superstitions are not based in the logical world.

If endorsing superstition means I’m that much out of sync with the universe, tell me why any of the following have any resonance with people in general.

  • Prayer
  • Baseball superstitions (which can be an entire hub unto itself)
  • Placebos
  • Religion in general

Prayer, in itself, is an irrational belief that by imagining your intention is being heard by a cosmic all powerful being who can help you. This is an action tied to a non-causality to a possible outcome. This in some definitions can be pure superstition. Yet, because this practice is built on an entire institution, there seems to be some validity to it.

You can’t go to a zealous religious practitioner and tell them what they’re doing is superstition.

Religions are based in faith – something that is not provable in any sense. If it were, it would be historical text. The Bible is not a historical text. It can’t be. And if it is, we really need to know what the survivability of a person would be if they get swallowed by a whale – as well as the plethora of other impossible things that were in that book.

Then there is baseball. What do fans do when pitchers are pitching a perfect game or a no-hitter? They refuse to say anything about it. They are afraid of jinxing the game. I dare you to say to another fan that the pitcher is pitching a perfect game while he’s pitching one. You will be assaulted.

Leave alone all of the superstitions that baseball players practice themselves when they are in the middle of a streak of some sort. They are always serious about the superstition of a streak. They will take the same route to the stadium that day, eat the same food they’ve eaten for the past week, and wear the same unwashed uniform until the streak is over.

Yes, it’s ridiculous – but it’s taken seriously.

The work of placebos is based purely in belief and faith that the medicine the patient is taken will work. How many people have been cured of a terrible disease with sugar pills. There is evidence to suggest that a person’s entire and full belief in something will make the physiological changes needed to cure a disease. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all experienced it.

The entire practice of some religious beliefs and prayer have in some sense been attributed to quantum physics. That somehow and intention fueled by the belief of many people have caused an event made within the past materialize into the present. Because the world and science of quantum physics is based on laws that make little sense on the natural plane, such things are possible. While I could go into pages of theory based on “unobserved particle behavior” we can agree that there is a lot to things we can’t properly explain – but the results are known by doing an unrelated event.

Final Words

Like it or not, unless you are completely removed from the metaphysical world and have embraced atheism, you probably have a superstition about something.

Sneeze and say “God bless you.” Spill some salt and throw it over your left shoulder. Stir a pot of whatever you’re cooking clockwise to bring in prosperity. And most of all, keep your damn shoes off of the table.

There is no way for me to escape this kind of thought. My wife is a spiritual person and doesn’t take chances with me. She gives me rocks for my protection. I love my wife and I take them. In the long run, whether the rocks work or not, it doesn’t matter. The rocks are a symbol that she actually gives a damn about my welfare.

Well, all of them that aren’t glowing like radium, that is.

There is a certain amount of faith we have to have consciously and unconsciously. When layoffs happen in the corporate world and things get completely random – we silently hope that we don’t lose our jobs. We grab the equivalent to a rabbit’s foot in our head and hope for the best.

Superstition, religion, faith, and magic always come into play when we are in crisis. Like all people we sit and we hope. That hope comes with our understanding of everything we know about the universe and we do everything we can to make sure that the outcome is on our side.

We are in uncertain times. We do what we can. If that means that I’ll clutch at a medallion or use a certain soap for a month to make things work out for the best, then that’s what I’ll do.

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    • cperuzzi profile image
      Author

      Christopher Peruzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Blushes.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Fascinating hub on a fascinating subject. I don't think of myself a superstitious, but I do feel squirrly when I step on a crack. Good work Chris. God bless you :)

    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

      Well done Hub. I was reading a book about superstitions once, and read about all this stuff I do as a habit without even thinking about it and a bunch of them were superstitious stuff. I think most people don't even realize where their habits come from.

      Though I do have to say, I always scoffed at people who told me never to walk under ladders and I did once and got kicked in the head by a person I didn't know was on it, so, yeah, some superstitions are valid. I've also almost taken a friend's eye out opening an umbrella in the house.

    • SM OBrien profile image

      Sharon OBrien 4 years ago

      Very interesting. One minor thing - one should stir CLOCKWISE to bring good things towards, and ANTI-CLOCKWISE to banish. Also, Witchcraft is not a superstition. It is a religion, philosophy, spiritual system, etc under the Pagan umbrella. Also, you are correct that superstition becomes more of a habit, and some people do not wish to break routines. If a person seems to do something in line with superstition, most times you can bet it is a habit that is ingrained in them to the point that they do not even realise they are doing it.