Superstitions, Faith or Magic

As members of the Home Sapiens species we tend to consider ourselves significantly superior to the “lower orders” — but take a deeper look at yourself and you might be surprised by your suppressed arrogance. So much of our daily lives are governed by that part of the brain that neuro-scientists sometimes describe as the “lizard brain” or limbic system. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication and is one of the earliest parts of the brain to develop in the foetus.

If you step round a ladder when walking down a street, throw some spilled salt over your left shoulder, avoid the number 13 or welcome the number 8 you are probably activating the limbic system to react to these superstitions. They can hardly be considered as the carefully-considered thoughts of the cerebral cortex, or higher brain.

Apprehension about the number 13 mayhave originated from ­­­­­Norse mythology which includes a well-known tale of 12 gods who were invited to dine at Valhalla, a magnificent banquet hall in Asgard, the city of the gods. Loki, the god of strife and evil, crashed the party, raising the number of attendees to 13. The other gods tried to kick Loki out, and in the struggle that ensued, Balder, the favourite among them, was killed.

Scandinavian avoidance of 13-member dinner parties, and dislike of the number thirteen itself, spread south to the rest of Europe. It was reinforced in the Christian era by the story of the Last Supper, at which Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest at the table.

The Chinese, some of the greatest inventors of all time, still rely on their own signs of their Zodiac, the characteristics of numbers and the mysteries of I Ching. Many people are tempted, almost against their rational will, to look up their astrological predictions published in the newspapers of the day — but are they using Western or Vedic (Eastern) astrology? As an example, Western astrology may suggest that your Sun sign is in Capricorn. In the Vedic system, it could be in Sagittarius. Your rising sign and the other planets might also be in unfamiliar signs. However, this does not mean that Vedic astrology is inaccurate. It simply calculates a horoscope differently.

Then we must consider both the triangle and the Trinity. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle and 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, and the Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (as exhibited by their pyramids). To them, triangles representing the trinity of the gods were sacred and to pass through such a triangle was to desecrate them. The Egyptian Trinity consisted of Osiris , the father, Isis, the mother and Horus, the son. It is very possible that a lot of the ideas from this early trinity later had an influence on the development of Christian ideas of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But let us leave rather dubious history behind us and consider the argument between superstition and faith. Notice that I have purposely used the word faith” rather than “religion”. Faith can be appreciated by most people as beneficial while religions are, all too often, divisive.

Superstitions take many forms. Touching the head on seeing a magpie, avoiding the number thirteen and probably, although mystics will deny this, astrology are all examples of superstition. Do you remember the last time you had a birthday with a cake with candles on it? Who blew out the candles? You did? Would you have let somebody else blow them out? And what did you do just before you blew out the candles? Did you make a wish? Did you secretly hope that you’d blow out all the candles with one breath, so that your wish would come true? Of course you did. We all do. And it’s utterly ridiculous, unscientific, silly, superstitious — but such thoughts and behaviour are not necessarily “wrong”. The difference between right and wrong is a completely different debate which has little bearing on this article.

Do you rejoice when you find a four-leaf clover? Do you feel that they bring good luck? Do you keep one in a safe place for good luck? That’s infatuation. How can a mutant plant (for that’s what four-leaf clovers are) have any effect on your luck?

Do you keep a rabbit’s foot for good luck? It did not bring good luck to the rabbit! Do you keep a horseshoe (a real one or a pendant or a pin) to bring you good luck? It’s not only stupid, it’s idolatry and that, we are told by many religions, is a sin.

When a black cat crosses your path, do you change direction to avoid having bad luck? Do you believe that killing a money spider will deplete your bank balance? Do you avoid wearing certain colours because they bring you bad luck? (I’m not referring to inner-city Los Angeles where you do have to worry about what colour you’re wearing because if you wander into some gang-infested area wearing the wrong colours you might get shot.) No, I mean the strange way actors and actresses avoid wearing green to auditions, and tennis players avoid wearing yellow. It’s crazy.

Do you avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement? Why? Why are you so quick to attribute such powers to such silly things? Go ahead and stamp on the cracks on that pavement; the only thing you’ll hurt is your foot.

Do you throw salt over your shoulder for good luck? That’s because Leonardo painted a spilled salt cellar beside Judas Iscariot in his painting of the Last Supper. You must be kidding me.

We are really not as sophisticated, intelligent, logical or superior as we thought — just be careful with that mirror in the hallway.

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Adrian Arnold

Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.