I’ve been thinking recently about superstitions. How even in our post-enlightenment, educated world, with reams of information and expertise at our fingertips, superstitions still have a strong hold.
I’m a logical woman and yet sometimes superstitions creep up on me like a beacon from a past life.
Bad luck superstitions
Superstitions, of course, are beliefs or practices that are considered irrational, have no basis in science and are often based on fear. For example, the bad luck supposedly attached to Friday the 13th, opening umbrellas indoors or crows. Likewise, the fear of broken mirrors. In the olden days, it was thought mirrors not only reflect your image but also hold parts of your soul. Or how you should avoid walking under a ladder, a superstition said to stem from the medieval gallows. Bad luck comes in threes, apparently, and it is unlucky to have peacock feathers in your house, because the eye pattern on them is associated with the evil eye. This didn’t put my mother off. I distinctly remember an enormous vase of peacock feathers in our childhood home that we would dust every Friday.
Superstitions in diverse cultures
Superstitions are found in every culture. My grandparents, who are from India, used to scold anyone who stepped over someone because that risks them not growing. Even today, before big functions, we place a dot of kohl behind the ear with a whispered prayer to guard against the evil eye. Some Irish brides wear bells on their dresses to ward off evil spirits. In Japan, visitors to cemeteries tuck in their thumbs, as the Japanese word for thumb translates as ‘parent-finger’, and hiding thumbs serves to protect your parents from death. Also in Japan, superstition as well as etiquette demands that chopsticks are carefully laid aside and not jabbed into food, so their arrangement doesn’t look like the unlucky number four or incense sticks used at funerals. A Filipino tradition means that funeral goers don’t go straight home after a wake in case a bad spirit follows them home.
Good luck superstitions
Superstitions don’t just cater for bad luck. The adverse is also true. A four-leaf clover is good luck, as is an upwards horseshoe over a door or being pooed on by a bird. Although that has happened to me, and believe me, it’s not much fun. Touching or knocking on wood (or your head if there’s no wood nearby) also keeps fate on your side, possibly because of old myths about good spirits in trees or an association with the Christian cross. You know this rhyme: ‘Find a penny/pick it up/and all day long/you’ll have good luck.’ Supposedly, if the second toe on your foot is longer than your big toe you’ll rule your household (is that a good thing?). Women in ancient Britain would keep acorns in their pockets to ensure a smooth complexion. In Germany, meeting the gaze of someone who clinks glasses with you means seven years good sex. It really does.
Astrology is looking for answers and predictions in the movements of the stars and planets. Astrologers forecast based on where the planets and the sun are relative to the twelve signs of the zodiac. While it isn’t a science, there is still an appetite for astrology today, and it reflects back on a lengthy history of humans looking up at the stars to plan their lives. Travellers still sometimes use the sky as a compass, and even the three kings followed a star in the Bible to Bethlehem.
I’ve gone through phases when I read my horoscope daily. It takes me back to my teen years of Mystic Meg and Jonathan Cainer, or the pages you went straight to (along with the quizzes) in teeny magazines. Or the sort of surreptitious fumbling with a newspaper on the daily commute that’s slightly shame-tinged because horoscopes are a bit silly. They remind me of my aunties giving each other knowing looks when discussing other people’s star signs, as if certain star signs can’t be paired in love, or some have a propensity for trouble-making or lying, or moodiness, or even being tied to a mother’s skirts.
To me, basing a couple’s compatibility on horoscopes is as silly as the percentage calculations I did with school friends to work out the likelihood of crushes going the distance based on the letters in their names. If the result was low, we’d work out the sum again using the first name and surname to see if it fared any better. How thrilling when it did.
Then there was the evening with my in laws when my wonderful mother-in-law discovered in horror that while she, her husband and my husband are all born in the year of the snake, which is supposed to be auspicious under Chinese horoscopes, I was a rooster. She convinced the men to pretend I was a snake too, in case I was devastated by being a rooster. The charade went on for a while and I wondered what all the covert glances were about. She’s so sweet. I’m a rooster and I really don’t mind.
What role then, does our intellect play with regard to superstitions? Are superstitions harmless? Are women more likely to be open to superstitions than men? I’ve been thinking about this as I play with ideas for my new novel. One of the characters uses tarot cards to guide her decisions, and I wonder, do women have more of a natural affinity for and an openness to unseen threads that hold the world together, an intuition that is not scientific but also not wrong? Or is my character abstaining from taking responsibility for the difficult decisions that life throws at us?
For my part, I’ve always avoided fortune teller tents and decks of tarot cards, although I’m tempted to change my mind on that one as the artwork on tarot decks can be exquisite. Recently I’ve noticed myself visiting horoscope pages. It coincides with a feeling of being a little lost, which sometimes comes before a big leap (my second novel is due to be published very soon). I’ve heard friends lately talk about the Venus retrograde interrupting their lives.
It’s funny, sometimes humans just look for anything around them to anchor them. We read horoscopes and the like, and assign meaning to the positive aspects and discard the negative ones. It’s harmless and understandable, and maybe not everything has to be cast-iron to be valuable or real.
Just like faith. We believe what we want to, and belief is as often a force for good as it is for ill.