Smashing Superstitions – A Way to Divide

Posted by on October 25, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment

SmashingSuperstitions_Divide2

 

Part of an ongoing series. See also part one “An Introduction to Personal Mythology“, and part 2 “Even Pigeons Can Do It“.

As I alluded to in earlier pieces in this series, superstition often originates from an idea or learning that has some kind of utilitarian or practical purpose.These superstitions often owe their existence to one of two scenarios:

1. A utilitarian or practical reason for the superstitious behaviour.

2. An interpretation of a situation by someone, usually mistaken or misconstrued, or a story passed down through folklore as legend or superstition.

For instance, the idea of walking under a ladder has obvious safety concerns attached to it, eg. the idea that something might fall onto you from a person working overhead. One of the reasons humans are so successful is that we learn from others, therefore don’t have to learn every mistake firsthand, and a lesson like the one in the ladder scenario is just such a situation. We are taught hundreds, if not thousands, of practical life tips in our lifetimes, but not all of them turn into superstitions. It takes more than just a practical warning for a mere safety tip to become a superstition. It needs the added notion of consequence built into the warning, then it needs to me mysticised in some way, to promote the inevitability of the warning.

As an example, when someone smashes a mirror, we often say, almost automatically, that the person who smashed it will have seven years of bad luck. Of course there’s nothing inherent in the act of smashing a mirror that could possibly give us seven years bad luck, so the warning in this case is an arbitrary one, a warning without consequence. The real consequence of smashing a mirror is not the bad luck, but rather the cost of replacing the mirror, and the inconvenience and dangers of cleaning up the shards of glass. The automatic response to say “That’s seven years bad luck” is ingrained in our brains, due to reinforcement as a child, and whether we believe the superstition, as I’m sure few of us do, we still associate the smashing of a mirror with bad luck. The reinforcement of this superstition is a good way for parents to warn children against potential injury by glass cuts, and also a way to ensure that they don’t have to fork-out money for a new mirror. By introducing the idea of “bad luck”, an ethereal and illogical idea, it adds the mysticism necessary to move the warning from practical into the realm of mythology.

It’s the addition of the inevitable, yet unseen and unknowable, consequences beyond the practical that gives rise to the superstition, calling upon the apparent invisible “underworld” of the spirits and ghosts, and in some cases, of religion. Once something becomes taboo in this way, it doubly reinforces the idea that the action is something to be avoided, because it invokes the spirit world, and that is never something we want.

While many superstitions owe their origins to practical reasoning, many come from a seemingly arbitrary idea, which perpetuates itself through folklore and local cultural stories. For example, the passage in the most notorious sections of the Bible, Leviticus 19:19, which reads:

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material”

What possible advantage could the early Israelites gain from these practices? The decree seems arbitrarily laughable, however the context of the passage makes it clear that these superstitions are not teachings about practicality in life, but teachings about division and discrimination. The Israelites had an obsession with racial purity, and this passage is an example of this. The idea is that by mixing and “interbreeding” fabrics, cattle and seeds, the purity of these things would be tainted, and the ensuing “offspring” of this mixing would somehow be unclean. Of course the mixing of fabrics doesn’t create offspring, nor the mixing of 2 completely different plant species, but in the case of cattle, in reference to this proclamation, the offspring would be tainted and lesser. Still, we see no advantage here from a practical purpose, so what could possibly be the reasoning for such a proclamation?

The Israelite’s obsession with “purity” is a clue here. The real subject of this passage is about the Israelites themselves, and their need to separate themselves from the other groups at the time, such as the Canaanites. The forbidding of mixing fabrics was a visual way for the Isrealites to know, at a glance, whether a person was “one of their own” or not, and they therefore knew whether the person they are meeting could be trusted. The tribalistic nature of such a proclamation means that the likelihood of their own blood, the blood of the Israelites, would not be tainted or diluted. People wearing mixed fibres could therefore be shunned quickly, and without any interaction, saving the person time in talking to them an deciding whether or not they were an “insider” or an “outsider”.

Few people practice these Jewish purity laws these days, for many of our clothes are made from poly-cotton, though in religious societies these and many other superstitions are still practiced almost unconsciously. The simple addition of this law into their holy book means that this superstition takes on the mystical properties we saw in the broken mirror example, in this case invoking the spirit world and the “will of god” by its inclusion. The practical application becomes one of racial purity, and a kind of codification of their daily dealings, saving both time and the worries of decision-making. By making the consequences much more dire than seven years bad luck (the idea that they would incur god’s wrath), this superstition became law to the Israelites.

So the practical use of these laws was one of unity and discrimination, therefore these superstitions fall into the first category, the utilitarian and practical category, no matter how tenuous the actual belief is to the practical outcomes.

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1 Comment

  1. You raise some good points I hadn’t considered. The connection between the forbidden mixing of non-people and the drive for ethnic purity fits in well with the Old Testament narrative. This is often forgotten by those in the modern era who still maintain these and similar practices without understanding the reasons for their origins. In some cases, the justification for such practices, arbitrary and no longer practical in the modern world is, “We stick to these commandments because they are hard, not because they make sense,” with the hardship of practicing them presumably bringing the believer “closer to God.”

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