Smashing Superstitions – An Introduction to Personal Mythology

Posted by on October 18, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments



We all have our quirks and eccentricities. Depending upon our upbringing, our education, our societies, interests and influence, we all take on-board different habits, and perform rituals, whether they be the order that we do things in the morning while readying ourselves for work, or more structured rituals like the ones performed in religious ceremonies. The attributes help to shape us as individuals, and make us the people we are.

Of particular interest, among the dozens of things we do either consciously or unconsciously during our lives, is the idea of superstitions. These can manifest themselves in many ways, and can be adhered to by people with varying degrees of vigour, but regardless of the obscurity of a superstitions, most owe their origins to one of two ideas:

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.

Many religious practices of the past (and some current religions) have at one point in their existence been dismissed as mere superstition. For example, in modernity we consider the ancient Greek religious practices as superstition, and 1st Century Romans considered Christianity as superstitio Iudaica or “Jewish superstitions”.

What is of particular interest to me is looking at superstition and trying to decipher the original reason superstitions came into common use. What were the particular events that led people to see something as bad luck, as a bad omen, or as forbidden in any given society?

Here in the west, even in the 21st century, and even in as progressive a society as the one I live in, superstitious practices are still commonplace in daily interactions. For instance, it is very common for someone to utter the phrase “touch wood”, seemingly as an invocation of some unseen force that may impart good luck upon the person who spoke it. Few people take superstitions seriously, yet they’re still around today.

In the case of most superstitions, you can get a good idea of how they may have originated by looking at the actions themselves and what ashering to them might achieve. Explanations for the superstition that says it is “bad luck” to walk under a ladder, for example, vary from culture to culture, but this one, like many others, has a very obvious practical purpose. Stemming from a common sensibility, it is highly likely that something will fall onto your head, dropped accidentally from a person working overhead. However, this commonsense approach is not what made the practice of walking under a ladder into a superstition, or gave it the reputation for being “bad luck”. In order for that to happen, additional meaning needs to be attached for it to become something that we avoid under all circumstances. In this case, beyond the obvious idea of having something dropped onto your head, walking under a ladder came to represent bad luck because apparently, during executions in certain societies, the condemned had to walk under the ladder in order to climb up to the gallows. A further and more tenuous link to bad luck comes from Christendom, in which some claim that the triangle formed by a ladder represents the holy trinity, and walking through this was a pathway to the devil.

Religious superstitions, such as the forbidding of eating shellfish, also have a base practical purpose, though went on to become more of an identifier of a group than a health warning. For instance, shellfish becomes spoiled very quickly once its out of water, and could easily become a source of poisoning in cultures without any form of refrigeration. But the practice of not eating shellfish became a way for the Jews to separate themselves from the “shellfish eating heathens” from other belief systems.

In fact, some religious superstitions’ only practical purpose is to serve as an identifier for a particular group, such as forbidding people to wear cloth made from mixed fibres. Though some suggest the bible forbade this because of either these fibres’ tendencies to generate static electricity, or that such fibres may make the wearer extra hot in desert climes, the truth is that this particular superstition again denotes the bible-follower from the heathens from other beliefs.

So a superstition can come from either a very practical physical danger, or can be co-opted to represent a mythical belief system, but it can also be the product of a mistake made in the minds of one or many, misconstruing a situation, and reading the chain of events as one of cause and effect. For instance, let’s imagine a person is about to sit for a test, and they drop their pencil upon entering the room. They then do very badly at the test, and from then on they see the act of dropping a pencil as an omen of bad luck to come. Similarly, sportspeople are particularly superstitious, in that they often carry out a seemingly meaningless ritual, or wear a particular piece of clothing, before going onto the sport field. This kind of superstition comes from our innate predisposition toward “patternicity”, or the tendency to seek out and find patterns in every day life. As Michael Shermer points out, this patternicity, when correct, can save our lives, but when wrong, can cost us our lives. So better to sway on the side of caution rather than die, right?

If a superstition we invent turns out to be simple happenstance (which on most occasions it is), the enacting of the superstitious ritual is harmless and takes little time to perform. So the thinking goes “What harm could it do?” However, superstitions only remain harmless when they are enacted on a personal level, and not passed on. Religious superstitions, when enacted by groups, have the potential to cause disputes, because part of the power of religion is to form a personal sense of identity and belonging to those like yourself. If someone goes against the tradition (superstition) of your particular flavour of religious practice, they stand to undermine the unity of your group, and therefore can be seen as a threat.

Religious superstitions are by far the most tenacious of all superstitions; From casting rocks at The Hajj during a pilgrimage, to the raising of the pagan Christmas tree every December, religious superstitions have been ingrained in our societies for so long now that they are almost inseparable from the cultures in which we enact them. Crossing yourself, eating the flesh of Christ, praying toward Mecca 5 times a day, lighting candles at an altar, or leaving food “sacrifices” for the gods, all of these superstitious practices have their origins somewhere in our human history. And they stem from either a practical (safety or social) base, or from a mistaken happenstance passed from one to another. The cultural superstition is an example of what Richard Dawkins calls “a virus of the mind“. While only a metaphor for the way ideas are passed down from one person to the next, it is an apt metaphor, for like viruses of the body, memes and social paradigms mutate over time, and can either be escalated in importance, or becomes something completely different from their initial intended meaning or purpose.

With this in mind, I will be looking at superstitions, the personal mythology we set up for ourselves, and the way these affect our lives, over the coming weeks and months. It promises to be a fascinating and informative journey.

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  1. Looking forward to reading more. I don’t think I have any superstitions, but I’ll try paying more attention just to see.

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  2. Moving away from the larger aspect of religious superstition and to a personal level—your pencil-dropping example is the kind of thing that intrigues me. Once someone develops such a superstition, it very well could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It relates to ideas I’ve been hearing lately from—of all things—a golf instructional CD. The author advocates the idea that if you believe you will do either very poorly or very well, and you set up in your head a strong belief based on that, it effectively becomes self-fulfilling.
    Okay, so that part is really basic psychology. But if you carry that to the next level, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch at all that this is the kind of thing that contributed to larger belief and religious systems.
    So far, so good. Now here’s the part that gets me. At what point does it cease to be a reality you are merely creating in your own head, and become external reality? I’m not sure there’s a One True Answer to that.
    Anyway, love the blog, even if I don’t comment very often. ;)

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