Characterising common superstitions

Posted on November 8, 2007


Here is a short section from the draft version of the manuscript that I am currently working on – I may put up some more in the coming weeks. The language is still all over the place, there are missing references, etc. – the whole thing will have to be gone over carefully before it is close to ready. Still, the basic ideas ought to be fairly clear:

Ten common superstitions are listed in the introduction to The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. The list is the result of an informal survey, carried out in part by the guide’s author, which asked people living in Britain or Ireland to name ten superstitions they had heard of: A survey of people living in other European countries would most likely yield a similar list. That walking under a ladder brings bad luck is the mostly commonly mentioned superstition with blacks cats being unlucky or lucky – there is some confusion on this point among those who filled out the questionnaire – coming second. The remaining superstitions on the list are: unlucky to break a mirror, unlucky/lucky to see magpies, unlucky to spill salt, unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, thirteen/Friday the 13th being unlucky, unlucky to put shoes on a table, unlucky to pass someone on the stairs, lucky to touch wood. A survey of people living in most places in the western world would probably come up with a very similar list of examples.

The people who filled out the questionnaire did not have to state whether they personally believed in the superstitions they list so the results are only indicative of what superstitions people had heard about. Also, they were not presented with any definition of superstition so that whatever other properties the items of the list share are supposed to be due to common ideas about superstition and not a particular theory of it. This makes the survey very useful in terms of identifying prima facie clear-cut examples of superstition. As it is, most of the superstitions listed seem to fit a fairly simple scheme: two events are somehow connected, the second being usually in the future and characterised in terms of whether it is lucky or unlucky. Thus, the action of opening an umbrella indoors is said to result in some unlucky effect. Each of the elements of this scheme: initial event, second event, and the connection between them needs to be considered in turn.

The initial event is often an action that can be taken by someone. An action is generally understood to entail that an agent intended to perform that action. So, driving into the garage is typically an action while driving into a tree is probably not. Out of our ten examples, walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella, putting shoes on a table and touching wood are the ones that most clearly are actions. The remainder are events that we might more or less inadvertently participate in. Thus, pilling salt typically only concerns cases of accidental spillage while it is impossible to ‘skip over’ the thirteenth days in a month that happen to be Fridays. At the very least, therefore, it can be said that each of the examples ‘starts with’ an event that we are involved in somehow. Not surprisingly, it seems that unintended ‘actions’ are the ones more likely to be thought to have unlucky consequences. Finally, even in such cases it is possible to speak of a practice of sorts – this being to take measures to avoid the unlucky unintended event.

The second element of the story is the ‘resultant’ event that, in the cases in question, is not generally specified beyond being considered lucky or unlucky. It perhaps important to note that, despite the general significance of luck for superstition, the list of examples is untypical of the superstitions in the Penguin Guide; most of the other examples specify more closely what the result will be. This may be due to that way the information about common superstitions was collated by the survey’s authors. Indeed, when one looks at the historical examples of the ten listed superstitions it turns out that in the past they also used to be linked to particular results. Thus, the putting of shoes on the table was supposed to lead to a death in the household while walking under a ladder might make it hard to find a wife or husband. Something of this can still be seen in the way that touching wood is thought to abjure the ill fortune caused by saying something that might be interpreted as boasting. One doesn’t go about touching wood every time a bit of luck would be useful. What can be said in general is that the results mentioned in superstitions are usually understood as either fortunate or unfortunate and in those cases where a neutral result is foreseen it is one that may be favourable or unfavourable in the particular circumstance: a cat using its paws to wash its behind its ears was considered to indicate a change in the weather. As such, the characterisation of the second event in terms of whether it is desirable seems to play a fairly central role. What is more, the superstitions seem to assume that the distinction between lucky and unlucky events is not just one that is made by humans but has an objective basis, in effect reifying luck.

The final element to consider is the connection between the two events. The ambiguity in this case appears to run from one event causing the other and it merely indicating that it will occur (this is important to recognise given that superstitions are often characterised as false causal beliefs). In effect, superstitions seem to fall on the spectrum between divination and conjuration, to use the traditional terms. Some cases of superstition do appear to fall clearly on the divination side – tealeaf reading is one, especially when used to try and obtain information about current or past events (“He loves me, he loves me not”). In such cases, the details of what occurs are interpreted to have some implication for the events being ‘investigated’. Other cases are less clear. The tradition of first-footing depends upon the belief that it is possible to know what the coming year will be like for a particular household on the basis of the characteristics of the first person to cross the threshold in the new year. This might look like divination till we consider that people used to try to ensure that the ‘right’ sort of person was the first to visit after the start of the new year. Finally, such superstitions as touching wood appear to be thought to actually cause the future result (or to abjure the effects of the tempted fate, in that particular case).

There is a final point to consider. Each of the superstitions considers concrete events that could happen to anyone. Both the ‘cause’ and the ‘effect’ of each of the listed superstitions are everyday events. None of the superstitions suggest that any special abilities are necessary for the superstition to be relevant – everyone can touch wood and if anyone sees a magpie it will have some result, lucky or unlucky as it may. Also, the results, even though described as lucky or unlucky are such as occur normally – getting married, dying, having an argument. What is peculiar is that the events are thought to be somehow connected.

It is now possible to try and give a fuller, general characterisation of the common superstitions listed by Roud. These superstitions involve the belief that two everyday events are connected, where the first event may be a particular action undertaken by someone, and it either causes or predicts the second event, which is such as is deemed lucky or unlucky. This may seem like a definition of superstition, however, it is far from that. First of all, this is a generalisation made on the basis of only a few unequivocally superstitious beliefs – there are other superstitions that do not necessarily fit into this characterisation. Perhaps more problematically, it fails to distinguish superstitions from some beliefs that are not superstitious. Thus, it could be argued that this characterisation fits the belief that if you bribe the officials you will win the lottery. It may seem, therefore, that the exercise of trying to arrive at this characterisation was largely pointless. However, the point was not arrive at a definite way to determine what is and what is not a superstition but to come up with a starting point for the investigation of superstitions.