By Alex P. Vidal
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” – Bertrand Russell
DO we still believe in superstition in this age of cybernetics and space travel?
There are people nowadays who continue to consider superstition as part of their way of life.
But what really is superstition?
Superstition does not merely apply to religion or bigoted and vicious religious practices that place artificial limits to man’s intellectual pursuits.
Partly influenced by religious dogmatism, some superstitious beliefs originated from ancient folklore passed from one generation to another.
Some of them are: Napoleon’s fear of black cats; Socrates’ evil eye; and Julius Caesar dreaded dreams.
Henry VIII claimed witchcraft trapped him into marrying with former mistress Anne Boleyn, mother of Queen Elizabeth I.
Peter the Great suffered a pathological terror of crossing bridges.
Samuel Johnson entered and exited a building with his right foot foremost.
“Bad-luck superstition still keep many people from walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, or boarding an airplane on Friday the 13th,” Charles Panati narrates in Extraordinary Origins of Everything Things.
“On the other hand, the same people, hoping for good luck, might cross their fingers or, knock wood.”
Panati thinks that superstition beliefs, given their irrational nature, should have receded with the arrival of education and the advent of science.
Yet even today, he observes, when objective evidence is valued highly, few people, if pressed, would not admit to secretly cherishing one, or two, or many superstitions.
Panati says that across America, tens of thousands of lottery tickets are penciled in every day based on nothing more or less than people’s “lucky” numbers.
“Perhaps this is how it should be, for superstitions are an ancient part of our human heritage,” explains Panati.
According to him, archaeologists identify Neanderthal man, who roamed throughout Western Asia 50,000 years ago, as having produced the first superstitious (and spiritual) belief: survival in an afterlife.
Whereas earlier Homo sapiens abandoned the dead, Neanderthals buried their dead with ritual funerals, interring with their body food, weapons, and fire charcoals to be used in the next life.
Panati says the superstition and the birth of spirituality go hand and hand is not surprising. Throughout history, one person’s superstition was often another’s religion.
The Christian Emperor Constantine called paganism superstition, while the pagan statesman Tacitus called Christianity a pernicious, irrational belief.
Protestants regarded the Catholic veneration of saints and relics as superstitious, while Christians similarly viewed Hindu practices.
“Today there seems to be no logical reason why a wishbone symbolizes good luck while a broken mirror augurs the opposite,” Panati elaborates. “But in earlier times, every superstition had a purposeful origin, a cultural background, and a practical explanation.”
Superstitions arose in a straightforward manner.
This was how Panati explains it: Primitive man, seeking answers for phenomena such as lightning, thunder, eclipses, birth, and death, and lacking knowledge of the laws of nature, developed a belief in unseen spirits.
He observed that animals possessed a sixth sense to danger and imagined that spirits whispered secret warning to them. And the miracle of a tree sprouting from a seed, or a frog from a tadpole, pointed to otherworldly intervention.
His daily existence fraught with hardships, he assumed that the world was more populated with vengeful spirits than with beneficent ones. (Thus, the preponderance of superstitious beliefs we inherited involve ways to protect ourselves from evil.)
To protect himself in what seemed like a helter-skelter world, ancient man adopted the foot of a rabbit, the flip of a coin, and a four-leaf clover.
It was an attempt to impose will on chaos.
And when one amulet failed, he tried another, then another.
In this way, thousands of ordinary objects, expressions, and incantations assumed magical significance.
In a sense, we do the same thing today. A student writes a prize-winning paper with a certain pen and that pen becomes “lucky.”
A horse player scores high on a rainy day and weather is then factored into his betting. We make the ordinary extraordinary.
In fact, there’s scarcely a thing in our environment around which some culture has not woven a superstitious claim: mistletoe, garlic, apples, horseshoes, umbrella, hiccups, stumbling, crossed fingers, rainbows. And that’s barely the beginning.
“Though we now have scientific explanations for many once-mysterious phenomena, daily life still holds enough unpredictability that we turn, especially in times of misfortune, to superstitions to account for the unaccountable, to impose our own wishes on world vicissitudes,” concludes Panati.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor or two local dailies.—Ed)