Knock on Wood: The Story of Superstitions
How Superstitious Are You
By: J. Marlando
Want to live a long life of good fortune, carry an acorn in your pocket!
I don’t know about you, the reader, but I was raised on superstitions and if I spill salt I still toss a pinch over my shoulder for good luck. *Some say that originally tossing a pinch of spilled salt over the shoulder was to hit the devil in the face.
And speaking of superstitions, did you ever carefully step over cracks in the sidewalk? I think one of the first poems a lot of children put to memory is, “step on a crack break your mothers back.” No one wants to risk that!
Most of us say that we are not (really) superstitious yet most of us are. Be honest, don’t you give at least some thought when a Friday the 13th comes around? Don’t you have at least a touch of triskaidekaphobia? That is, a phobia of the number 13? Well, I’ll tell you one thing for sure: not even airplanes have a number 13 aisle and people who run airlines know what they’re doing, right? And how about tall buildings—very few have a 13th floor. My question is, where has it gone when the elevator goes from 12 to 14? Quite magical if you ask me!
I don’t want to brag on my bravery but I actually own two black cats. They’re supposed to be bad luck if they cross in front of you, you know. Way back in the Dark Ages it was said that black cats and witches traveled together and, indeed, when a black cat turned seven years old, they turned into witches themselves. And speaking of crazies and their superstition, in 1692 not only women witches were hanged for having a pact with the devil but so were men and dogs. And you can almost bet that a couple of black cats were strung up too. For sure, Salem was no place to be if someone—anyone--accused you of witch craft or, for that matter, accused your dog or cat.
Speaking of animals and other living creatures, it is said that a cricket in the house is good luck. If there’s someone sick in your house and a dog howls at night—bad omen! Hanging a horse shoe over your door is supposed to bring good luck but only if it faces up. If you hang a horseshoe facing down, the luck runs out. And speaking of luck running out—a wild bird flying inside your house is a sign of…death. Yet, a frog that enters brings good fortune. But guess what, animals are also superstitious in their behaviors. For example, the anthropologist**Melvin Harris tells us that, “...animals can acquire responses that are falsely associated with rewards. For example, a pigeon placed is a cage into which food pellets are dropped by a mechanical feeder at irregular intervals! If the reward is delivered by chance while the bird is scratching, it begins to scratch faster. If the reward is delivered while the bird happens to be flapping its wings, it keeps flapping them as if wing-flapping controls the feeder.
I don’t know about you but when I was a youngster I used to carry a rabbit’s foot for good luck. It never occurred to me what bad luck that meant for the rabbit. Anyway, some say that “the lucky rabbit’s foot superstition” goes back hundreds of years BC. if not more. Back then the rabbit’s foot probably symbolized good crops and lot of children. Well, you know what rabbits are best known for.
And speaking of good luck and bad, did you know that people began saying, “God bless you” when you sneeze because it was once thought that your soul could escape when you sneezed and the blessing stopped the process and chased the soul back in.
It is also said that walking under a ladder brings bad luck but worse than this, breaking a mirror brings seven unlucky years to the person that broke it. Some say that this superstition goes back to the Romans who, like the ancient Chinese, Greek and other cultures believed that a mirror had the power to steal part of the soul and so to break a mirror was to distort the soul…and we all know that it is very bad luck to distort our souls!
As I think about all this, my dictionary tells me that a superstition is an irrational belief. Well, I’ll certainly knock on wood for that being true. Which reminds me, a very long time ago it was thought that the gods lived in trees and so people would make their prayers and wishes to trees, One knock got the tree’s attention and the second said, thank you.
Every culture has its own superstitions just as most individuals do. I admit it, I have little quirks that I do in an attempt to feel right with the world. You know favorite numbers and so forth. And yes, I know, a lot of people think that’s silly but they make me feel better and that’s really what counts. And so, if you are superstitious or not, just remember, an apple a day, keeps the doctor away.
*It is also said that putting salt in the doorway of your house will keep the bad spirits away.
**Harris, Marvin * OUR Kind *Harper Perennial