2016-06-30
Dr. Edmund Kern is an Associate Professor of History at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, specializing in European religious culture and witchcraft trials. He is currently finishing a book on the witch trials of Styria, 1546-1746, and is working on a book about morality in the "Harry Potter" series. He spoke with Beliefnet producer Wendy Schuman on the intersection of superstition and religion.

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] is ritualized 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 the observance 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.

What about omens-a black cat crossing your path, for instance?

Yes, that would be an ill omen. Another example of these kinds of omens are crows. Some people [Native American groups] believe that when one sees crows during the day, depending on what kind of activity the crows are engaged in, that can be an indicator of how one's day will go. So if the crows are on the ground digging for food, that will be an indication that the day will be concerned with details, getting things done. If on the other hand the crows are soaring or in flight, that would be an indication that the day will somehow transcend the normal, the everyday, and perhaps be a good day for initiating new endeavors.

In Europe, though, crows and ravens are usually birds of ill omen. So this Native American belief is a little more interesting, a little more nuanced.

Another form that superstitions can take is the observance of sympathetic powers, the idea that certain times or certain objects or certain elements found within nature have with in them a kind of power. And if you use the object or observe the times, you can take advantage of that power inherent in the object.

Is that the kind of ritual Tom and Huck were engaged in? When the moon was full they were swinging a dead cat around...

Yes, exactly. By the way, I think the concept of sympathetic powers is one of the explanations for why people are so superstitious around cats. I think that cats remind us of our own humanity and our own animality. We recognize the intelligence of a predator and that reminds us of ourselves and our origins in the animal world. Cats can at times appear very human, they can sound human and their actions are in some respects very human as well, their curiosity, the ability to solve problems.

It becomes complicated, though, when you try to search out the origins of superstitions. I think what we can do at best is speculate in an informed fashion about the origins, you can never really say with any degree of certainty how a superstition emerged. What we can do is look into the past and find early examples from the first or second century. That doesn't mean that the practice began then-it might have begun much earlier, but we have no record of it.

Is knocking on wood a way of appealing to sympathetic powers?

I think the best explanation for that is to be found in the pagan beliefs of ancient Europeans, where many groups believed that objects in nature possessed animistic powers. In other words, that there was a kind of spiritual power inherent in every object. The famous example, of course, is the veneration of trees by the Druids, or the recognition that there were sacred groves. I think touching wood might be a legacy of that. One would call upon the power of wood to forestall bad luck.

That seems like another area where superstition intersects with religion but is now divorced from that faith.

It's a good example of religious syncretism. Christianity in some respects was a relatively thin veneer over a deeper pagan substrate. If you think of religion as practice rather than definitions of orthodoxy, we can see that certain practices are the result of a blending of a number of different traditions.

Another form superstitions might take is reversals-say, the notion that one can change one's luck at a card table by changing positions at the table. Or by literally getting up and turning one's chair around and sitting back down on it.

I remember that when my son's baseball team was doing badly, all the kids would turn their caps around-they called it a rally cap.

The Atlanta Braves brought that to national prominence seven years ago.

The fifth type is metaphor, meaning pretty much any kind of symbolic action. Good examples include the tying of knots, to "bind" or thwart malevolent intentions or to create discord or disharmony, and carrying people (particularly children) or objects upward to signal improvement. A tradition in England is to carry a newborn baby upstairs after a birth, and this is a way of symbolizing upward mobility.

It seems like marriage and weddings are rife with symbolism. Do you think that major events in life-marriage, betrothal, childbirth-are more likely to evoke a rich tradition of superstitions?

Yes, because so many superstitions are ritual practices and because rituals are associated with periods of transition from one state to another. It's a way of ordering what is otherwise disorderly.

What purpose do you think superstition serves for most people?

I think we have to begin with the notion that life is uncertain and contingent. There are no guarantees in life, and therefore at times people experience these uncertainties as a kind of chaos. Furthermore I think there's a recognition by most people that reason does not provide all our answers or solutions. In fact oftentimes reason even suggests that nothing can be done about a problem. So superstitious practices are a way of restoring order to what might appear chaotic, of attaining some certainty in the face of vast uncertainties.

Superstition becomes a means of asserting some control, a means of ordering what is otherwise disorderly. That would be the best explanation for why otherwise rational people continue to engage in superstitious behavior.

There's an interesting addendum to all of this. Largely through the laws of probability, superstitious actions will seem to have the intended effect. So through coincidence alone, people feel that their practices or actions are in fact justified. If we think of throwing a pinch of salt over our left shoulder, as a form of protective magic, more often than not nothing bad is going to happen.

In addition to this, I think there's a kind of psychological filtering that takes place-people tend to ignore the ineffectiveness of their superstitions.

So when one goes to have one's palm read or Tarot cards read, certain similarities between what the fortune teller says and what the person experiences in his or her own life can be recognized. Dissimilarities are given less credence or ignored outright.

Are there any superstitions that you follow either consciously or unconsciously?

Yes, there are a couple, but each one of these is taken with a grain of salt. So if you quote me on this you have to include that. I read my horoscope, I knock on wood religiously, and I will also do Tarot readings. But I engage in these activities as someone who perceives himself as a rationalist. I don't believe the cards are going to tell me my future, but I do believe that I can learn quite a bit about my feelings and myself by measuring my reactions to the readings. In other words, the buck stops with reason. Ultimately, I'm going to make the decisions, I'm not going to base them on these methods.

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