Friday, October 13, 2006
Presentation of a lucky horseshoe to a bride (1962)
Are you superstitious? Of course, not. But did you get out of bed this morning and think, "Oh dear, Friday the 13th – that’s unlucky!"
Some time ago, I found myself in a discussion that attempted to differentiate between religion and superstition. It is not an easy distinction to make and I recall a well-educated lady who believed that all religion was superstition – but she would never sit thirteen people down at her dinner table, thinking it would bring bad luck. That old but well-practised belief has descended from religion because thirteen was the unfortunate number at the Last Supper.
In this modern society, with organised religion on the decline, whilst information technology is revolutionising our means of communication and our introduction to new ideas, many of us will declare we are not in the least superstitious. Yet we will cross our fingers or touch wood for protection, or pick our lucky numbers in a lottery. And how many of us will never walk under a ladder?
In attempting to understand the difference between religion and superstition, I turned to my dictionary. It says that superstition is an excessive belief in supernatural or irrational forces in human affairs. Another definition supports this by saying it is a widely held belief or widely practised act that has no rational basis. One definition of religion is that it is the organised service and worship of a god, gods or the supernatural. The two definitions are remarkably similar albeit with a strong suggestion that it is superstition which is irrational. I found no definition that suggests religion is irrational.
What seems to be true is that, even in this twenty-first century age of the computer, superstition remains a powerful force within our society. Many of us continue to believe in the irrational, perhaps because a host of superstitious beliefs have been passed down to us by our ancestors. But if religion has also been passed down to us in this way, why have so many of us abandoned religion whilst continuing with superstitious practices?
One interesting aspect of this close association is that the major events in our lives are surrounded both by superstition and religion. Think of birth, marriage and death. In these matters, superstitious belief and religion exist side-by-side. The act of baptism is one example – our pagan ancestors used purifying water and various rituals as they named a child whilst giving it the full protection required to grow into an adult. The Christian faith does likewise.
There are lots of superstitious beliefs about the time of birth, with some believing our destiny is governed by the stars. Others believe the time of day is important, a birth in the morning ensuring a long life ahead. An old saying said, The later the hour, the shorter the life, and it was also thought that an early morning birth guaranteed intelligence and success in the person concerned. I had an aunt who always put a silver coin into the hand of a newborn baby to ensure good fortune for the child.
People who live on the coast used to believe that one's birth should always be as the tide is coming in. That is a sign of good fortune whilst to be born as the tide is ebbing has long been considered unlucky.
The celebration of a marriage was surrounded by much superstitious observance. The colours worn by the bride were of great importance, with green or black never being used, and still today many brides will endeavour to include "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." The bride should always leave home by the front door and, if possible, meet either a black cat or a chimney sweep on her route to church – to ensure the necessary good luck. And, of course, she must always carry a horseshoe. There are lots more wedding superstitions, even at ceremonies conducted in church.
It is not surprising that death also brings its share of superstitious beliefs. Until comparatively recently it was common for a dying person to be given every assistance to leave this life. Windows would be opened, all doors unlocked and opened and all knots in the bedroom loosened. The mirror was turned to the wall, all animals ejected from the room, clocks stopped and any perishable food thrown away. All this was done to ensure the dead person's soul had a trouble-free flight to heaven. There was also a lingering belief that one should never leave a dead person alone. He or she should be attended until the funeral and this custom gave rise to the wakes, where friends, family and neighbours watched over the deceased until the funeral.
It all reminds me of the man who said, "I'm an atheist, thank God."
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 10:39 AM GMT [Link]