Somehow the belief has spread worldwide that to be superstitious is not “Cool”, that advanced thinking, and technology, have seen off the superstitions of our ancestors, and that modern woman will no longer be inhibited by the foolish customs of the past. Superstition, we say, belongs in that past, and if you want to be modern, and “with it” (whatever “it” might be) then thumbs down to anything old fashioned.
So superstitions are dead? Don’t you believe it! Many old ones are alive and kicking, and if some fall by the wayside, why there are new ones springing up to take their places all the time. There used to be one that made it mandatory for a bride to see a chimneysweep at her wedding, so one was often specially invited; unfortunately there aren’t many sweeps around nowadays, so the poor girl has to do with not seeing her bridegroom on the wedding day until they meet at the church or the registry office.
The point really is that while noisily denying any aspiration of being superstitious oneself many people will submit to the discipline and restrictive practices of the old beliefs. This is based on the quintessence of self-deception and well, you never know, better to be safe than sorry; there may be something in it; no smoke without fire, etc. and similar sophistries.
Examples? Well there are those who perceive lucky or unlucky days in their calendar; they will not take on anything important on a Friday, especially when it’s the thirteenth day of the month. Many, I might almost say most, rural households in Britain, especially Scotland, have a horse-shoe nailed up on a wall somewhere, “for luck”, and heaven help the poor fool who fixes it upside down, for then all the luck will drain out.
Many curious, innocent, little customs are still current among us, none can really say why; they are nothing, more not less than superstitions, without a rational explanation or any explanation at all. Why for example do we still find it necessary to smash a bottle of wine against the bows of a ship when launching her? It can’t be to test the quality of the steel for a remarkably high proportion of such launches require a second (or in one case a humiliating third) swing of the bottle. And why is it always a woman who has the honour of naming/launching? For that matter why is a ship always a “she”?
We may have given up believing in fairies, gnomes, elves, brownies etc (only the Irish still really believe in the “little people”), but what have we got in their place? A growing cult of witches and witchcraft, “devil-worship” and the “black mass” to expunge the ancient and romantic mischief makers from our minds and lives, Not for the first time I, for one, say if this is the future I prefer the past , thank you.
Ignorance is the parent of superstition no doubt, but don’t let us make the mistake of thinking that ignorance is restricted to the unintelligent. Far from it, you can be bright and possibly well educated yet not be proof against that specific area of ignorance that nourishes superstition. Another old wise say is “The wish is father to the thought”, what we strongly desire to be we are next door to believing to be. Mankind’s intellectual vanity is unappeasable, and in catering for that appetite his desires are in conflict with his reason but the desires often win. He longs perhaps for communication with the unknown, so indulges that whim by inventing fictitious agents to achieve that communication. Tokens, signs omens and auguries all stem from this amalgam of human vanity and desire. We believe we shall have good luck if we turn the money in our pockets when looking at a new moon. Is there any reasonable basis for such behaviour? or for deliberately waiting, as men have done in all ages and all claimes for the appearance of some sign before beginning any enterprise of importance. Where is the sense, the rational explanation for such conduct? Yet many of us do it.
The motive, the driving force behind such behaviors is not reason, it is desire: we want things to be so. Conversely and unfortunately, having set up omens with the object of achieving our desires we are bound by our own superstitious logic to adhere to the result the absence of good omens must be a foreshadowing of evil to come.
Education will not help much to eradicate superstition; the latter will merely shift its ground from time to time without losing appreciably its hold over the human mind. There will still be that murmuring to intimates, or consciences, that It is after all better to be safe than sorry: I don’t really believe, but . . .