Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either.
– Mark Twain
Well I’m hoping you’ve listened to our podcast episode on superstitions and are now coming here to supplement your voracious appetite for fun facts and more of my delicious thought babies. Good for you.
I hope to, briefly, deliver some clarification and personal reflection on superstitions because we covered a lot in the podcast (not as much as I wanted to but hey, I gotta try and have a life too) and some of it wasn’t fully fleshed out or just difficult to explain verbally. I mostly want to further elaborate on magical reasoning and how it permeates human life.
Magical or Associative reasoning is when the human mind links or associates one thing or event to another without proper evidence of causality. For example, if a black cat crosses your path and you run into 5 red lights in a row and you were late to work that morning, you may attribute the bad luck of the red lights to the black cat. Even though rationally, you know the red lights run on sensors and timers that are completely out of feline control (hopefully).
In anthropologist James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, he breaks down the two types of magical or associative reasoning as sympathetic magic and contagious magic.
Sympathetic magic is based on the idea of similarity or likeness (Metaphor). For example, many cultures associate the sunflower with fertility and loyalty. In Greece, it’s also associated with Apollo, the sun god. Sunflowers are yellow and tilt their heads to loyally follow the sun throughout the day. So they are believed to carry properties of the sun in them and are used in healing rituals. Another example is mangoes in India. They are associated with love and the heart because they have a similar shape to an anatomical heart. They look like hearts so people attribute heart related properties to them. Even wine being associated with the blood of Christ is a type of sympathetic magical reasoning.
Contagious magic is link or association by contact or contagion (Metonymy). For example, lucky charms like rabbit’s feet, or cursed objects would fall into this category. This is an association that keeps people away from “haunted houses” or why people spend thousands on a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair on eBay or go crazy over a celebrity’s sweaty shirt or cry when they lose a wedding ring – because they think that having come into contact with a certain entity or force, these places or objects carry a bit of that contact on with them – that the properties of a particular force, rubbed off on them and have a life of their own. These objects are more than they are – they are symbols for some greater meaning/memories.
We use metaphor and metonymy in speech all the time! We use simile and metaphor without even thinking about it. How many times have you heard things like: “she was a well of knowledge” or “his eyes were blue as the sky”?
Metonymy is something people tend to be less familiar with. An example is “the pen is mightier than the sword” where the pen is standing in for language and communication or the written word and the sword represents force and violence. One object is standing in for larger concepts here.
Whether or not you are familiar with linguistics or Noam Chomsky, it probably won’t surprise you to consider that our brains are naturally wired for language acquisition and language is associative – pattern based. And abstract. And language is how we view the world. How we interpret it. So naturally, our brains are wired for pattern seeking and abstract thinking. This type of reasoning is highly adaptive – it’s because your mind can connect cause and effect that you avoid certain foods that could do you harm or avoid dangerous things – you associate them with pain. Or the reason you seek out companionship and good food – it brings you pleasure. However, many times, those patterns are put together or interpreted incorrectly. Unchecked superstitious thought can hold a society back and drown it in paranoia and fear. There are many people in India that consider widows to be bad luck and will avoid helping needy people due to a completely unfounded fear. Sometimes these superstitions become forms of social oppression that circumvent laws.
It would be foolish and downright depressing to eliminate magical reasoning.This type of reasoning makes more than survival possible. Getting rid of it would take so much of the whimsy out of life. It’s what makes science and art possible. It wasn’t until the time of Galileo and his scuffle with the Catholic Church that religious/philosophical and magical reasoning started to formally separate from science. The same part of the mind that comes up with fantastic stories and art and superstitions, comes up with scientific advancement. The only difference is that science has logical checks on itself to eliminate extraneous and inconsistent data to allow for more reliable patterns to emerge. It is our system of peer review and fact checking that allows us to rule out the magical associations that lead us down the path of fear and superstition. And now more than ever, it is important that we check our own beliefs and see if they stand up to scrutiny and hold our media responsible for proper facts and investigation.
In conclusion, I will leave you with a nearly prophetic quote from Carl Sagan:
“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
I was sitting on the couch a few weeks ago gazing out the large window situated above the front door to our house. It was dark, I could see the stars and I saw the moon; big, bold, and beautiful.
A short side tangent — I am obsessed with moons. My horoscope is Cancer and moon is my planet. I even grew up watching Sailor Moon and I can almost swear it was because of the “Moon” being in the title (also great storyline with women warriors saving the world! And dreamy characters like NAME, duh.) I also have a half moon tattoo… So yeah, I like moons.
So I was staring at this big, bold, beautiful moon shining through the large window. It was dreamlike; I was really happy.
My mom walks over right then and sees me staring out the window. She gasps a little and informs me I’d better stop gazing less I want to be cursed for the year. “Anu, stop looking at the moon!” I look at her curiously and then realize my mother often makes such remarks and continue gazing. She started explaining then how that very night was the night of the lunar eclipse and how back in Punjab it was forbidden to gaze at the moon on those nights.
I was curious then. “What do you mean?” She explained. “There is a moment of darkness when the moon is eclipsed. This is a bad omen.” She told me that during both lunar and solar eclipses everyone in the villages would huddle into their homes, not eat or drink during this period. Pregnant women especially had to be careful for these occurrences could negatively affect the child — they had to untie their pants during this time. It was so serious that even pregnant female cows’ leashes were loosened.
I stared at her in disbelief but also fascination. Now I am no newbie to such superstitions — my mom in fact is very superstitious. She makes me eat sweet yogurt every time before a big interview or test to bring me luck; she puts a black kohl dot on the back of my ear when I get dressed up for a party so to deflect the “evil eye”; to rid of said evil eye, she burns her hand over a hot pan to wipe over my face — “burn away evil magic!”
I grew up in superstitions. I’d always roll my eyes when my mom performed these acts or told me such things because I never really believed in them. At least I don’t think I did. I’d still partake in them — to appease my mom or perhaps at some level I began endorsing them because they were so a part of my home life. I don’t know.
So, where does that leave me?
My intensely rational side demands I suspect all and any superstitions. To dismiss my mom’s beliefs as ridiculous and scoff when she tries to prevent me from leaving the house because I sneezed (In Indian superstition you can’t leave the house after sneezing unless you eat something sweet.) I tend to also blow things up: If I endorse any one superstition, what precedent does that set for other superstitions? Where are superstitions founded upon? I think it to be founded in uncertainty, fear, and also hope. People look for means to cement understandings and to also simplify them: Superstitions do that.
I think of what’s happening today. With the state of our politics and our current President a big part of me says: “SEE THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO THINK RATIONALLY AND NOT BE STUPID TO IGNORE FACTS AND SCIENCE FOR MOMENTS OF WHAT WE WANT TO BELIEVE!!” I mean lot of this political season involved many middle-class white folks frustrated with their economics situations and so angered by President Obama that they were desperate to cling to any token or tool that could give them certainty in their identity in this country. That tool was Trump. He used these people’s frustrations and fear to his advantage, conjuring up his own “alternative facts” to best fill their needs. And those alternative facts I would argue are founded by superstitious behavior.
Fearing specific groups of people for their religion is superstitious.
Profiling folks based on what they wear is superstitious. Etc etc.
There are very real effects for deeply held societal myths and superstitions.
In India for example this is especially true of menstruation. As a part of Hinduism, bodily excretions are believed to be “polluting” and “impure”.(1) Many temples and holy places in India will refuse admittance when a girl is on her period. In some parts of India a menstruating woman is not allowed to touch a cow for belief that the cow will then become infertile! Central to all these myths is scrutinizing women’s natural bodies as being inherently impure and demonic — they devalue women. And these superstitious beliefs just reinforce and perpetuate a women’s lower status in Indian society.
Because of these myths, menstruation is such a taboo in India. This leads to ignoring the hygienic and health concerns related to menstruation. More than 77% of women in India use old cloth in place of proper sanitary pads or tampons during their period because it is taboo to offer hygienic products for something considered so taboo. It is recorded that over 22% of girls drop out of school once they start their period for fear of what is happening to their bodies, and in many places because it is believed the start of menstruation is indicative of the time to be married off — because our only goal is to bear children.(1)
Those are real consequences of superstitions.
I think back to the evil omen of the lunar eclipse my mom started this whole post with. This seems harmless to me, and I understand how villages would cling to this superstition as a way of understanding their relationship with the sun and moon particularly by Indian mythology. But what are the bigger implications of this one belief? People might look to blame such occurrences for real health dangers such as difficulties in childbirth. My mom said one of my Aunt’s had two childbirths after a lunar eclipse she didn’t untie her pants for and so they all believe it is because of this reason that her children were born with health problems. This does many things: 1.) It ignores the actual medical problems associated with the children’s’ health and 2.) It inadvertently puts blame on the mother for not heeding to the lunar eclipse superstitions and untying her pants.
This is wrong. And this is where superstitions get dangerous.
I’ll keep to my daily horoscopes consciously aware that whenever it reads that “today I will find the love of my life” that it is likely not true, unless I interpret the finding of girl scout cookies as the love of my life which would be true and then I’d be reinforcing the belief my horoscope told me to believe in — what a cycle! And that is one I can get on board with.