Superstitions 'R' Us
A historian explains that they're a human response to living in a disorderly universe.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
Are superstitions found in every culture?
I do think that superstitions are a universal or a near-universal phenomenon. However, ultimately superstition is in the eye of the beholder. In some cultures around the world we find practices we would label superstitious, but those practices would not be understood as such in those cultures. The notion of superstition is dependent on certain understandings of rationality.
So if you make a certain gesture to make something happen, you don't call it superstition--you call it religion?
Yes, or something else-ritual. Superstitions are in a sense all ritual activities.
Have you come across any common characteristics of superstitions?
There are five categories or types of superstitions that I've come up with. You might find other historians or folklorists dividing things differently.
The most common [form] isritualized custom or habit
. For example, people who throw a pinch of salt over their left shoulder when they spill salt are probably doing that because of their upbringing rather than any conscious decision on their part. They became familiar with it because their parents did it, or their grandparents, so they formed habitual actions that are in origin superstitious even if they don't perceive them that way.
Another quite common form is theobservance of taboos or omens
, a whole host of do's and don't's which have to be followed, or a series of signs that might portend something of importance.
Can you give an example of that kind of taboo?
One that comes to mind is that grooms are not supposed to see their brides before the wedding ceremony on the day of the wedding. Many people go to great lengths to see that doesn't happen, even though they might otherwise be perfectly rational people.