My first encounter with a superstition was when I was around eight years old. I was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table when she asked me to pass her some scissors. As I handed her the scissors she tapped the table, motioning for me to place them down. I scrunched my eyebrows in confusion, but nevertheless placed the scissors halfway between me and her on the table. She picked them up, then introduced me to the saying, “You can never pass a sharp object to someone or else you’ll sever the friendship.”
Delusions, old wives tales, superstitions. Either you have them or you know someone who has them. Almost everyone partakes in some sort of good luck ritual including famous athletes, celebrities, students and CEOs. Think about the last time you knocked on wood or wished on a shooting star. These rituals might not have any meaning to you or even affect the way you view the world, but to some people superstitions are truly something magical. According Merriam Webster dictionary a superstition is, “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” More often than not, people have no idea what a particular superstition means or where it originated, but continue to practice it nevertheless.
I didn’t realize how much superstitions are present in my life until I started thinking about all the different ways they might appear. For instance, every time my mom sees a penny on a ground she’ll pick it up and recite the line, “Find a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.” Or the ever-present scramble to find a piece of wood to knock on when someone says something good that they don’t want to jinx. Superstitions are all around us and people follow them at varying levels.
My grandmother on my father’s side, Grammy, is the first person that truly introduced me to superstitions. I remember thinking that they were funny when I was younger and I always did them out of amusement. Just to name a few: throwing spilled salt over your shoulder, never handing a sharp object to someone, no hats on the bed, and opening umbrellas inside. I realized that I never truly understood the logic behind the superstitions I’ve been taught, so I decided to learn more about the meaning behind these superstitions by talking to my grandmother. Before I talked to Grammy, however, I went to my younger sister for some comparison and understanding of how superstitions might affect her life.
“So would you consider yourself superstitious?” I ask.
She shrugs her shoulders and says, “In some cases I would, but overall I would not consider myself superstitious.”
“Do you remember your first encounter with a superstition?”
“I think my first experience with a superstition was the nursery rhyme ‘if you step on crack, you’ll break your mother's back’ and I followed that superstition for a while and I still occasionally avoid stepping on cracks just for fun.”
I remember all the times I would take giants leaps across the sidewalk in order to avoid cracks, but for me it was always a fun game instead of an actual fear or belief. While I was interviewing my sister I was actually sitting with my other grandmother, Mama Cee, when she unexpectedly chimed in on the few superstitions she also partakes in. While talking to her, she brought up a point about superstitions.
“If you think that something is gonna happen it will, and if you think it will not happen then it won’t … so just the action won't do anything. It's all about what you believe and you have to be sincere in your belief,” she told me.
She made the point that so much of superstitions is just doing some silly action, like knocking on wood or tossing salt over your shoulder, but “good” or “bad” luck might really depend on your thoughts and actions. With that information, I proceeded to ask Mama Cee what superstitions she partakes in.
“I always, always cross my fingers when I’m hoping for something good to happen, and it works,” she said. I thought about it for a second and realized that I’ve witnessed her crossing her fingers many times and never thought anything of it. “I also used to be deathly afraid of black cats until you all got your cat,” she says.
I have an all-black shorthair cat, that we ironically named Black Cat. Black Cat’s gleaming yellow eyes and sleek black coat gives him the exact description of the cats associated with magic, 7 years of bad luck, witches, and the devil. We always let Black Cat outside of the house to roam where he pleases, but every Halloween we actively make sure that he is safely inside because of all the negative connotations associated with black cats and Halloween. I’ve encountered many people in my life that have an outright hatred for cats in general, but for the superstitious people I’ve met, black cats are always an unprecedented level of repulsion and fear. Last summer I was in the car with my friend’s mother when a black cat scurried across the road. She immediately slammed the breaks of car and a ghostly expression came across her face. As if she had absolutely no other option, she turned the car around and rerouted at least 10 minutes out of the way, all because of a little cat. Some superstitions seem so irrational that it doesn’t even make sense that otherwise level headed people would go to such extents to follow them. According to an article entitled Why Even Some Smart People are Superstitious by Marty Nemko Ph.D., “It’s an easy way to increase the feeling you're in control. If you believe that not walking under a ladder will ensure safety, you thus, with little effort, feel you’ve improved your life.”
Perhaps superstitions are less about fear of good or bad luck, and more about giving oneself the false feeling of control when so many things in life are unpredictable. With all this information about superstitions and a few different comparisons, I finally talked to Grammy.
“Would you consider yourself superstitious?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Where did you learn your superstitions?”
“Let me see … well I believe my mother taught me most of my superstitions, like never putting hats on the bed, never handing a sharp object to someone and other stuff like that,” she said.
As I talked to Grammy, I found out that even though the superstitions she follows today are actual superstitions from centuries ago, she was never taught them for the sake of superstition, rather just as practices that promote good behavior and safety. My grandmother learned her superstitions from her mother as a child and they were taught to her in order to prevent real life accidents and mistakes, rather than warding off bad luck and spirits. For example, Grammy always says not to put hats on the bed because her mother told her not to in order to prevent accidentally ruining a nice hat because it was placed on the bed. While this is a superstition that dates back centuries, my grandmother learned it as a housekeeping rule. Another example is the tale of never handing anything sharp to anyone or else the friendship will be severed. This is also a superstition from centuries ago, but was taught to my grandmother and her siblings in order to prevent accidents and injuries. “I also taught my children that as soon as they started school so they wouldn’t hurt themselves or anyone else,” Grammy said.
“So would consider your practices to be actual superstitions or just precautionary measures for daily life?” I ask.
“A little bit of both. Most of them came from my mother and it was something she didn’t want you to do, so she gave you a superstition because you just didn’t want to get in trouble!”
I then asked Grammy what the reasoning behind her superstitions were, and she laughed and told me she really did not know. Before this interview, I always believed that Grammy was just a really superstitious person because she did not want bad luck, and while that may be partially true it turns out that she was really just following safety and obedience lessons. After all, a superstition is really just a practice rooted in fear of consequences, so it makes perfect sense that after being told not to do something over and over it turns into a superstition.
Superstitions are like many great folktales and stories that have been passed down from generation to generation and are often muddied and changed with each storyteller, but nevertheless create bonds and connections to cultures, relatives and memories. Everyone that follows superstitions has a different reason for why and how they became superstitious, and sometimes those reasons might not be what we thought they were. Whether you swear by superstitions or just knock on wood out of habit, there is always something intriguing about the slim possibility that you can control something that is entirely up to chance. There really is no way to know for sure how and why any superstition truly began, but perhaps it's not really the fear of good or bad luck that keeps superstitions thriving, but rather the sense of mystery and curiosity that make superstitions feel like magic.