Extract from A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles by Steve Roud (Penguin). Copyright Steve Roud, 2004.
Are black cats lucky? What should you do if you spill salt? And why is touching wood a good idea? In his new book, A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles, Steve Roud answers these questions and many more – just in time for Halloween
Superstition is a pretty slippery concept, and we need to examine what we mean by it. The simple statement that a superstition is an irrational belief is quite adequate for most purposes, as long as we don’t enquire too closely into the meaning of the word ‘irrational’. But not every irrational belief gets labelled as superstition, so we need to look a bit closer. One of the key characteristics of superstition is a belief in the existence of luck, as a real force in life, and that luck can be predicted by signs, and can be controlled or influenced by particular actions or words. Other key elements include a belief in fate, which again can be predicted and manipulated, and a belief in fate, which again can only be described as magic – the idea that people can be harmed or protected by spells, charms, amulets, curses, witchcraft, and so on.
Superstitions are also unofficial knowledge, in that they run counter to the official teachings of religion, school, science, and government, and this is precisely why – even in the 21st century – many of us like to hold onto a few, to show that we are not totally ruled by science and hard fact.
The Pocket Guide To Superstitions is a book of historical research, the result of years of searching for examples of superstitions in every source we can think of – novels, plays, poetry, children’s books, newspapers, magazines, diaries – going back as far as we can. We also listened to people on buses, on the radio, in the playground, in the supermarket, and so on, to learn what is being said and done now.
We examined statements, and asked questions. It is frequently said, for example, that the fear of spilling salt goes back to the Last Supper and, to prove it, that Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the event shows Judas spilling salt. But it doesn’t. One piece of ‘evidence’ put forward to support the completely groundless idea that ‘Ring a ring a roses’ goes back to the plague is that sneezing was a main symptom of that disease. It wasn’t. It turns out that Friday 13th is a Victorian invention. ‘Touch wood’, it is claimed, is based on a belief in tree spirits, but is there evidence we ever believed in tree spirits?
What we ended up with was a mass of material on the subject, which was organised and analysed to provide data for informed judgements instead of guesses. The first principle of the historical approach is that if a superstition cannot be found before, say, 1850, the idea that it has survived from an ancient fertility ritual or pre-Christian sacrifice 1,200 years before seems a bit far-fetched. If it existed in that time, how come nobody noticed it? And if there is no evidence for its existence, how can we base our theory of origin on it? If it had existed underground for all that time it would probably have changed beyond all recognition anyway (imagine a game of Chinese whispers lasting for 1,200 years), so an examination of the modern version is unlikely to tell us anything about the original. Our historical approach enabled us to make estimates of the age, development, and relative popularity of particular beliefs, and start to make general statements about how superstitions function. Occasionally, our research also threw light on the question of how superstitions arose in the first place.
One thing which became obvious when we compared a whole mass of reported superstitions was that most are based on a small number of principles which are repeated time and time again in different guises, and the formulae can tell us a great deal. The two most widespread, for example, are that you must not tempt fate (don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched) and that beginnings dictate the future course of events. The concern for good beginnings is reflected in the first-footing customs at New Year, giving a baby a coin to ensure future good fortune, getting out of bed on the correct side to start the day well, and so on. On the negative side, don’t stumble as you leave the house, don’t see an unlucky person on the way to your fishing boat, and so on. A third principle, far more complex if fully analysed, is that the natural world ‘knows’ what is going to happen in human life – a robin tapping at the window means a death in the house very soon; a dog howling at your door means the same.
The world of superstition is essentially a symbolic one, although in most cases only on a very simple level. Money in the pocket at a key moment (for example, when hearing the first cuckoo in spring) stands for prosperity in the coming year, whereas an empty purse symbolises want. A piece of coal carried by a first footer represents warmth and comfort; an upturned bowl in a seafaring family stands for an upturned ship. This feeling for the symbolic is often little more than a weak pun – washing on certain days ‘washes one of the family away’, for example, or ‘turn your chair to turn your luck’.
Another conclusion that is clearly supported by a historical review is that we, as a society, are much less superstitious than we were 100, or even 50, years ago. Although few people (myself included) can claim to be completely free of superstition, many of us only play at it nowadays. This claim can be demonstrated in several different ways, most notably by asking someone to name 10 superstitions; most people will not be able to get beyond five without really thinking hard about it, whereas a century ago, the average person would have known dozens.
Even those we still know are relatively colourless, being nearly always simply a matter of ‘bad luck’, whereas in the past they would have had more individual meanings – a death, you won’t get married, a stranger is coming, and so on. Regional differences have been largely ironed out, and the same beliefs are found all over the country. But the real acid test is that however superstitious a person may think they are, few act on their superstitions in the way previous generations did. Who would accept being turned down for a job because they had red hair or the wrong sun sign? Who would phone work and say, “I can’t be in today because I saw a magpie as I left home”? We might try a traditional cure like a key down the back for a nosebleed, but who would accept a verbal charm rather than hospital treatment to stop real bleeding? Who would tell a young mother that her baby will die if she weighs it, or lets it see its reflection in a mirror? And so on, through hundreds of different superstitions which were believed and acted upon only a century ago.
But why were people so superstitious? It is usually assumed that superstition is the result of fear and uncertainty – an attempt to control the parts of life that are in fact beyond our understanding or control. This is largely true, and there is some evidence that superstition is more prevalent in people involved in dangerous occupations, and increases in times of particular uncertainty, such as during a war. But there are other forces involved. Superstitions are passed on from person to person, often within a family, and take on the authority of tradition. It must be said that, in the past, various people made a living out of their neighbour’s willingness to believe in magical cures, love potions, and the need for protection against ill-wishing.
The main reason for the decline of superstition in modern times is that many of these uncertainties have declined – whole areas of life, from the trivial to the life-threatening, have had the mystery and danger removed from them to a large extent. Childhood diseases still exist, and parents still have worries, but nothing compared with a century ago. Changes in everyday technology have brought almost instant death to many beliefs. The light-bulb and the radiator provide little scope for superstition, or romance, whereas the candle and the open fire had plenty. Baking bread, turning the bed, churning butter, washing by hand, sweeping the house, laying out a corpse n the front room, killing a pig – all these activities were highly charged with beliefs, but have changed beyond recognition, or disappeared from our lives completely. How many of us know the phases of the moon?
It could be argued that superstitious impulses in society are not dead, but are simply resurfacing in the guise of alternative medicines, unofficial pick-and-mix religions, astrology, conspiracy theories, and new-age cults and gurus of various kinds. But one major area where most of us can claim to be less prone to irrational thinking is in the matter of witchcraft. However badly things are going, however ill we may feel, few would think that the cause was our neighbour’s spite or the spells of a witch. In this area at least, people nowadays have more sense.
This is an edited extract from A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles, by Steve Roud, published by Penguin.