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The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs


THE true origin of superstition is to be found in early man's effort to explain Nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future. From these sources alone must have sprung that system of crude notions and practices still obtaining among savage nations; and although in more advanced nations the crude system gave place to attractive mythology, the moving power was still the same; man's interpretation of the world was equal to his ability to understand its mysteries no more, no less. For this reason the superstitions which, to use a Darwinian word, persist, are of special interest, as showing a psychological habit of some importance. Of this, more anon.

The first note in all superstitions is that of ignorance. Take three representative and widely different cases. The first is a Chinaman living about one thousand years before Christ. He has before him the "Book of Changes," and is about to divine the future by geometrical figures; the second is a Roman lady, bent on the same object, but using the shapes of molten wax dropped into water; the third is a Stock Exchange speculator seated before a modern clairvoyant in Bond Street, earnestly seeking light on the future of his big deal in Brighton A. The operating cause here is a desire to know the future, and, so long as man is man, so long will he either rely on the divinations of the past, or invent new ones more in keeping with mental science. But ignorance exists in several varieties, and one of them has to do not with the future, but with the well-established present; in other words, an accepted doctrine may be based on a misinterpretation of the facts. As Trenchard remarks in his Natural History of Superstition, "Man's curiosity is in excess of his capacity to interpret Nature and life." Thus early man attributed a living spirit to everything--to his fellows, to the lower animals, to the trees, the mountains, and the rivers. Probably these conclusions were as good as his intelligence would allow, but they became the mental stock-in-trade of all races, and were handed down from one generation to another, constituting a barrier to be broken down before newer and truer ideas of life could prevail. And the same contention applies equally to the superstition of the moment. The woman who will not pay a call unless she wears a particular amulet, or the man who starts up from a table of thirteen, his face blanched and his blood cold, are just as truly, though not in the same degree, the victims of ignorance as the animist who tried to propitiate the anger of the spirit of the stream. Ignorance is the atmosphere in which alone such superstitions can live.

Allied with ignorance is fear, which is the second element calling for notice. Fear, too, has its varieties, some of them both natural and justifiable. If I visit an electrical power-house and know nothing of its machinery and appointments, I am very chary what I touch and prefer to keep my hands to myself lest I make a mistake. Rational fear, however, is the offspring of a reasoned knowledge of danger. It is irrational fear which forms the bogey of superstition. The misfortune of early man was to have experiences more numerous and subtle than he could understand; to his power of analysis they were altogether unyielding; and yet his unrestrained imagination demanded a working theory of some kind, and he got one, grounded in ignorance and fear. An earthquake is a phenomenon calculated to strike terror into the heart of all but the strongest man; no wonder then that the primitive mind invented all sorts of ideas about spirits of the under world, and ascribed to gloomy caverns the possession of dragons and other fearsome enemies of the race. The thunder, the lightning and the tempest; the blight which spoiled the sources of food; the sudden attack of mysterious sickness, and a hundred other fatalities were to him more than merely natural forces busily employed in working out their natural destiny; they were Powers to be propitiated. That is the third note of the superstitious mind; its effort to propitiate intelligent and semi-intelligent forces by suitable beliefs, rites, ceremonies, and penances. Where ignorance and fear beget a sense of danger, knowledge, even defective knowledge, is always equal to the task of inventing a way of escape.

But if these be the prime origins of superstition, what are the secondary origins? If "the belief in the existence and proximity of a world of spirits, and a fear of such spirits, is the only solution of all the curious religions, customs, ceremonies, and superstitions of pagan life," what are the other causes which modified these primitive guesses at the riddle of existence? The answer is twofold : (1) The old causes have never ceased to be operative, though the manner of expression has changed; and (2) The new causes were the advent of world religions, of social transformations, and of political separation.

As an illustration of the old causes in a new application, I will take ignorance once more. Lord Mahon, in his History of England, tells us: "It chanced that six children in one family died in quick succession of a sudden and mysterious illness--their feet having mortified and dropped off. Professor Henslow, who resides at no great distance from Wattisham, has given much attention to the records of this case, and has made it clear in his excellent essay on the Diseases of Wheat, that in all probability their death was owing to the improvident use of deleterious food--the ergot of rye. But he adds that in the neighbourhood the popular belief was firm that these poor children had been the victims of sorcery and witchcraft." This was little over forty years ago in "Christian England." Four hundred years ago, or twice or thrice that number, it was just the same--the domination of ignorance.

But the causes called secondary offer a new field of enquiry. Take the advent of Christianity with its point of view diametrically opposed to the religions of the period. What was the effect on paganism? It was seen in the Christianising of many of the old superstitions and customs, and in the creation of a group of new ones. To the student of origins there is no fact more significant than this, and none to which he can look forward more hopefully for intelligent explanations of prevalent beliefs and practices. He is on historic ground, and whereas is most of those who have endeavoured to account for the various superstitions of savage races have done so by crediting them with a much more elaborate system of ideas than they in reality possess," he can give chapter and verse for the modifications and developments in the first century of the Christian era. Sir Isaac Newton was not a historian, but he was right when he said (in his book on Prophesies) that "the Heathens were delighted with the Festivals of their Gods, and unwilling to part with those ceremonies; therefore Gregory, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, to facilitate their conversion, instituted annual Festivals to the Saints and Martyrs; hence the keeping of Christmas with ivy, feasting, plays, and sports, came in the room of Bacchanalia and Saturnalia; the celebrating May Day with flowers, in the room of the Floralia; and the Festivals to the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and divers of the Apostles, in the room of the solemnities at the entrance of the Sun into the Signs of the Zodiac in the old Julian Calendar."

But the events of Christianity, the birth, life, and death of Christ, were themselves the basis of new superstitions. For example, the notion that to sit down at a table of a Christian is unlucky, can have no other origin than that of the Last Supper, and all Good Friday superstitions are of course Christian, that is, although discountenanced by the Church they are based upon Christian history.

With the Reformation came a radical force that tended to push all the old superstitions and customs into oblivion. The analogy between the pagan and Christian forms was detected and enlarged upon with the utmost severity of condemnation. Randolph's Poems (1646) tells us something of the spirit of these Puritan criticisms:--

"These teach that dancing is a Jezabel,
And Barley-Break the ready way to Hell;
The Morice Idols, Whitsun Ales can be
But profane reliques of a Jubilee:
There is a zeal t'expresse how much they do
The Organs hate, have silenc'd Bagpipes too;
And harmless May-Poles all are rail'd upon,
As if they were the Tow'rs of Babylon."

Ultimately the custom was attacked before the superstition in the hope that the decay of the one would result in the disappearance of the other. Such hopes were not altogether disappointed, but as is evident from the crowd of superstitions that did not die, or have since been revived, the modifying effect of Puritanism cannot be said to have done more than create a prejudice against the rites and associations of the Catholic Church. But that Church has always been the fountain of superstition, for when Newman declared his belief that all the wood in Continental Churches, alleged to have been part of the Cross (although enough to timber an ironclad), was really what it professed to be--probably miraculously multiplied by Divine force like the loaves and fishes--we can see a little better the Puritan's point of view. The eye of the Papist was ever on the look out for signs and portents of grace in the realm of Nature and material things. A good instance of this is found in the old notion of the shaking aspen. Christ is alleged to have been crucified on aspen wood, and from that time the boughs of aspen trees "have been filled with horror and trembled ceaselessly." Unfortunately for the probability of this story, the shivering of the aspen in the breeze may be traced to other than a supernatural cause. The construction of its foliage is particularly adapted for motion: a broad leaf is placed upon a long footstalk, so flexible as scarcely to be able to support the leaf in an upright posture; the upper part of this stalk, on which the play or action seems mainly to depend, is contrary to the nature of footstalks in general, being perfectly flattened, and as an eminent botanist has acutely observed, is placed at a right angle with the leaf, being thus particularly fitted to receive the impulse of every wind that blows. The stalk is furnished with three strong nerves, placed parallel and acting in unison with each other; but towards the base the stalk becomes round, and then the nerves assume a triangular form, and constitute three distinct supports and counteractions to each other's motions."

This disposition to see a religious message in everything secular is responsible for a good many local superstitions. "All things praise Thee," was taken in its literal sense.

An example, which in these days would be considered ludicrous, of the manner in which our ancestors made external nature bear witness to our Lord, occurs in what is called the Prior's Chamber, in the small Augustinian house of Shubbrede, in the parish of Linchmere in Sussex. On the wall is a fresco of the Nativity; and certain animals are made to give their testimony to that event in words which somewhat resemble, or may be supposed to resemble, their natural sounds. A cock, in the act of crowing, stands at the top, and a label, issuing from his mouth, bears the words, Christus natus est. A duck inquires, Quando, quando? A raven answers, In h‰c nocte. A cow asks, Ubi, ubi? And a lamb bleats out, Bethlehem.

This devout attitude is by no means absent from the Protestant mind, ancient and modern. Quite logically, too; for, if there is an active Providence, that Providence must manifest itself in some outward and visible sign. Hence we find to-day what we find throughout history, that there are superstitions fostered by the religious disposition, and others that may be called social--for want of a better term. They are accepted apart from any ecclesiastical creed. The faithful will agree that relics are good to be adored; the non-religionist has no opinion about relics, but he will carefully avoid walking under a ladder.

Now we come to the most difficult question of all: why is it that some of the superstitions in the past persist in the present? Why do we, in an age of increasing knowledge, still retain some of our fears--the offspring of ignorance? We can understand the perpetuation of a custom, even when its inner significance has gone, but a living superstition is a different thing.

One reason must be sought in the fact that superstition has always been contagious. This is amusingly set forth by Bagehot in his Physics and Politics, although probably India contains more mysteries than he allowed:--

"In Eothen there is a capital description of how every sort of European resident in the East--even the shrewd merchant and the 'post-captain with his bright, wakeful eye of command'--comes soon to believe in witchcraft, and to assure you in confidence that 'there is really something in it;' he has never seen anything convincing himself, but he has seen those who have seen those who have seen those who have seen; in fact he has lived in an atmosphere of infectious belief, and he has inhaled it."

If this is true now, it must have been more profoundly true in past centuries. The presence everywhere of the same superstition, though in different forms, is a testimony to the power of contagious fears. Children brought up in the atmosphere of credulity do not often rise above it. White in his Selborne observes:--"It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices; they are sucked in as it were with our mother's milk; and, growing up with us at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so interwoven with our very constitutions, that the strongest sense is required to disengage ourselves from them. No wonder, therefore, that the lower people retain them their whole lives through, since their minds are not invigorated by a liberal education, and therefore not enabled to make any efforts adequate to the occasion." He adds that such a preamble seems to be necessary before he enters on the superstitions of his own district, lest he should be suspected of exaggeration in a recital of practices too gross for an enlightened age.

But--and this is a further reason for the persistence which is the object of our enquiry there is a superstitious mind, quite independent of education and training. One has already referred to Newman, who possessed as subtle an intellect as any man in the nineteenth century; there is Dr Johnson, who believed something bad would happen if he did not touch every post as he passed along the road or street; he had for some reason built that idea into his mind, and nothing could dislodge it. Take another instance, this time from a source where one would not expect it. J. D. Rockefeller, reputed to be the world's wealthiest man, is of Puritan or Nonconformist associations, and yet, according to a London journal which specialises in personal items, he pleads guilty to a pet superstition. For years he has carried an eagle stone in his pocket. This is a kind of hollow stone, containing in its cavity some concretions which rattle on shaking the stone. It is of a brownish tint, and is often carried by the eagle to its nest. Superstition ascribes wonderful virtue to these stones when actually found in the bird's nest. They are a charm against disaster, shipwreck, and other calamities. A ribbon passed through the perforation of the stone is said to possess even more virtues than the stone itself, and when Mr Rockefeller wishes to confer a particular favour upon someone, he gives him a small piece of this ribbon.

But the great reason why superstitions persist is because they are, in part, doctrines about matters concerning which we as yet know little. Mental and occult influences are the staple commodities of most of those practices which modern science condemns as meaningless. Of these influences we are in partial ignorance, and until that ignorance is dissolved we shall always have the crystal gazer and the clairvoyant in our midst, despite the activity of the police. True, some of the remarkable "coincidences" related in solemn tones, amid breathless silence, are receiving their quietus at the hands of the expert in hypnotism and auto-suggestion; from this standpoint we may eventually be able to justify some of the stories about charms and amulets, as well as to develop a useful moral agency. But in regard to occult powers, especially what is known as black magic, we are still in darkness, mainly because those who are competent to investigate laugh the problems out of court as not worthy of attention. This is a pity, because, if there are any superstitions at all which have an origin that can be tested here and now, it is the group belonging to the occult section, dealing with the things in heaven and earth "not dreamed of in our philosophy." In view of such discoveries as have been made by Lombroso and others, not so much in magic as in mental forces, it would appear very desirable to initiate enquiries into the so-called evil side of man's powers, the persistent tradition of which has come down from remote antiquity, and surrounding which are strange superstitions and nightmare stories. It is because men of all classes have some modified belief in these vicious powers that a kind of half probability is accorded to beliefs of a more innocent hue. To read the narratives of modern travellers in the East, men with no axe to grind, and not suffering from "imagination," is to have one's curiosity awakened to the highest degree; for they tell us of powers to which there is no corresponding agency in the West. If early races in the same territory possessed the same powers, it is easy to understand the tenacity with which they held on to the beliefs in the supernatural as they understood it.

Reviewing the whole subject, without prejudice, it seems to the present writer that the right attitude of mind towards the superstitions that are still operative is not one of mere condemnation, or lofty indifference; it should be one of sympathetic inquiry, for the psychological and scientific data available are of the highest interest; and just as astronomy arose out of astrology and chemistry out of alchemy, so from the occult world we may some day attain developments in mental science, equally distinctive and equally useful in the service of the race.

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