"The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses."
Believe it or not, superstition, a belief in supernatural causality, is not just found in humans. Superstition has also been identified in many animals, like chickens. The belief that totally unrelated events, actions or objects can influence an outcome, is the basis of superstition. As a kind of magical thinking, superstition is common to pretty much all of us, as it gives us a feeling of self-control in situations we really have little control over. So what are some strange, yet interesting superstitions.
The idea of "a Jonah" is an old-established superstition among sailors and seafarers. The name comes from the character of Jonah in the biblical Book of Jonah, who was swallowed by a fish or whale. Seafaring folk however, would use the term "Jonah" to mean a person who would bring bad luck to the ship, a person who is jinxed and spreads misfortune.
Sailors also favored tattoos as a way of bringing them good luck. Pictures of animals, or religious imagery, was believed to be particularly lucky. Pictures of hens and pigs were especially favoured, as the seamen believed that God would take pity on the helpless animals who could not swim, and so help the sailors in sea misadventures.
Knocking of the wooden hull of the ship to check for worms in the timber, also became a ritual for good luck. Later however, the words “touch wood” were considered good enough. There was also the idea, that a stolen piece of wood brought upon the ship would make it safer. Strangely wine was also often thrown on the wood of the deck, to ensure good luck.
Women on ships were believed to bring bad luck, yet for some reason, a naked figurehead of a woman at the prow of a ship was believed to have a protective and nurturing function. Sailors also kept away from those with red hair.
Behind all these superstitions, was the idea of respecting the seas and avoiding making it angry. However it isn't difficult to see, that sailors must have felt intensely vulnerable, when sailing on the vast and changeable seas and that superstitions lent a feeling of control.
Have you ever heard about, or seen, a witch or coffin window? Mostly these window are found around Vermont, in the USA and particularly farmhouses of the 19th century. These windows are often placed in the gable-end wall of a house and rotated 45 degrees from the vertical, leaving it diagonal, with its long edge parallel to the roof slope.
The idea behind the witch window, was that an evil witch flying upon her broomstick would be not be able to fly through the tilted window. However on a more practical level, these windows effectively allowed hot air to escape in the summer. These days as few people believe in witches, the windows are often affectionately called '"lazy windows'.
It is well-known, that it is not generally a good idea to wish theatre folk "good Luck", as this may bring bad luck. Theatre folks traditionally, have had many such superstitious traditions; many revolve around ghosts. A ghost light for example, is often used in theatres around the world after the people and crowds have left for the day. This tradition can be traced back to the time of Shakespeare, when candles were left to burn in empty theatres. Beyond the obvious usefulness of the light deterring thieves and minimising accidents and falls, there are also traditions relating to the light allowing ghosts to perform their own theatre.
Another tradition relating to theatre and ghosts, is the common theatre expression wishing good luck, "break a leg", which was an attempt to get the mischievous ghosts, who may be inclined to cause mayhem, to do the opposite. "Has the Ghost Walked Yet?", was another phrase commonly spoken in the theatre, however this merely meant "has the paymaster been around with the wages"? Supposedly this also can be traced to the time of Shakespeare, who often played the role of Hamlet in his play by the same name and as the ghost has long stretches between appearances, he would be preparing the pay packets.
"In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth - often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."
The sport of baseball, is famous for its players having many superstitions. The belief in rituals, or talismans by many players, however is not silly or pointless and in fact allows the players to believe that they have a level of control over the many uncontrollable aspects of the game, and so minimises stress and increases concentration.
Some players will only eat certain foods before a game, wear a particular pair of socks (perhaps unwashed), tap things, grow a moustache and even may engage in a cycle of licorice chewing and tooth brushing.
Various Odd Superstitions
- Don't step on a crack on the footpath, to avoid bad luck.
- If you blow out the candle on your birthday cake, you will have good luck.
- If your cheeks are hot, someone is talking about you.
- If you get goosebumps, someone is walking over your grave.
- It is good luck to find a four-leaf clover.
- Wearing new clothes at Easter, will bring you good luck.
- Fear of the number 13.
- Ivy growing on your house, protects you from witchcraft.
- It's bad luck to walk under a ladder.
"My right eye itches, some good luck is near." John Dryden