Today, a black cat crossed my path (I live with three, so it happens pretty often), and a murder of crows called me outside to check the landscape for trouble. The wind was blowing from the west, so I checked the clouds for signs, but they seemed to be holding steady, with only the usual portents and omens. So I glanced over the leaves on the trees and the progress of the spiders, and wandered in for a cup of tea, where I stirred the cream clockwise and made sure to glance at the escaped tea leaves in the bottom of the cup. I throw salt over my shoulder when I spill it, knock on wood when I talk about good events in my life, and throw a kiss to the ceiling of my truck when I run a red light (which, of course, I never, ever do).
Many people feel they are above such archaic expressions of the desire to control the random fate of the universe. In an (supposedly) enlightened age of science and reason, they feel that to submit to a tradition such as superstition would be a flaw in their thinking, a piece of grit in a highly polished lens (to paraphrase Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). They traverse their days in an orderly manner, effect following cause in a seemingly predictable pattern. Until it doesn’t, and they must turn to probability to diagnose the pattern. This is all very well and good, but it denies a fundamental human need, that of mystery and meaning.
Many of our superstitions rest on either pragmatic or deeply spiritual foundations. Most hearken back to an age when paganism was a dominant force on the planet, and the effect of Christian attempts to discredit it. Don’t walk under a ladder because, well, someone might fall on you, oh, and because anything of that shape can be used by spirits trying to ascend to higher planes and you don’t want to get in their way. Friday the 13th? Friday is named after Frigg, the Norse goddess of fertility and spring (very sketchy concepts to some) so you better watch out for her spell, and thirteen is both the number of apostles sitting at the last supper and the number of moon cycles in a year (just pure coincidence, but we may as well consider all the possibilities). A fear of black cats may stem both from the belief that they served as “witch’s familiars” and the fact that they were prevalent during the Black Plague, a time in which rats carried fleas which carried one of the direst illnesses visited upon mankind up to that time, though nobody was clear about the actual cause.
Superstitions are not universal. Black cats are considered lucky in Britain, Japan, Egypt, and in my household. In Italy, the number 13 is traditionally lucky. Apparently, in Britain, it is considered lucky to, on the first day of the month, say “white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” before you say anything else…a custom of which I must confess I had never heard (but may have to start utilizing). The word “superstition”, in many instances, is simply a label we use to marginalize customs with which we are unfamiliar: the superstitions of the natives led them to act in such a manner. Never mind our prayers, our candles, our genuflection and our offerings. Those things are of course…different.
The word “superstition” is uncertain in origin, but it theorized to be rooted in the Latin superstes, meaning to “stand above” or “survive”. Those with the gift of superstitionem were said to have the gift of telling tales as if they had been present, or of telling the future. Superstition, therefore, is deeply rooted in our desire to survive and overcome through an intimate connection to the world around us. Superstition is a means of understanding what it is to be human.
We do not have to be slaves to superstition to understand or appreciate it. We all of us create the parameters of our experience on a daily basis. What we choose to believe directly affects our experience, and so if we surround ourselves with black cats, it is wise to believe that a black cat crossing our path is a lucky, rather than unlucky, omen. What we do in accepting some superstitions, is to accept an understanding and responsibility for the mysterious patterns of our lives. We do not choose the portents, but we choose their interpretation.
My husband recently said, after a morning of viewing photographs of snowflakes and seed pods with our son, “Those who insist on Intelligent Design do not understand how BIG randomness is!”
After recovering from a fit of hysterical laughter, I had to concede his point. In an infinite universe, with infinite possibilities, we all search desperately for some sense of pattern or reason. Superstition, while perhaps seeming antithetical to a rationalist approach, actually embraces the notion that sometimes things cannot be understood with the tools we have at hand, but that does not mean there is not a reason…though it may be beyond the reach of our rational minds. More importantly, when consciously chosen, superstitions can be used to surround ourselves with encouragements and bolstering, which will appear at seemingly random intervals.
Superstition is ultimately about defining the outermost parameters of our world. It is about defining the terms upon which we will meet the unexplainable, the unreasonable. It is the category to which we ascribe the events in our lives which do not fall into the scientific world view which explains away most of the remarkable events we encounter. It is one path to our subconscious, our instinct, our most creative and secretive selves. It is a social dance with the unknown and a flirtation with a wiser aspects of ourselves. Perhaps superstition merely glances along the surface of a pool we are not brave enough to plumb…but even gazing briefly into those waters gives us a glimpse of the depths we must remember if we are to take our place in a random world.