How Gullible Are You?
Around Halloween-time, I often get to thinking about all the rites and rituals and superstitions that people follow, and I sometimes wonder where they come from. So over the weekend I did a little digging and I thought I’d share the results with you.
Did you know that gullible is a synonym for superstitious (so are credulous, irrational and illogical)? Somehow I never equated being superstitious with being naive (a synonym for gullible), uncritical (a synonym for credulous), or unreasonable (a synonym for irrational). I don’t dispute the fact that some superstitions might be seen as illogical, foolish, crazy, ridiculous, absurd, or silly, but few are unfounded (they all have some sort of historical origin). Here, then, are some ‘superstitions’ (including their source) that I follow (for no other reason, really, than they are learned behaviours).
- Knocking on wood. When I want to prevent something bad from happening (usually after I’ve mentioned something positive), I knock on something wooden (and say ‘knock on wood’; e.g., “I haven’t gotten the flu yet this winter” Tap, tap, tap … “Knock on wood”). This superstition apparently comes from the druids of Great Britain who believed that spirits lived in trees. Whenever they spoke of the potential for good or bad fortune occurring, they would knock on a tree to ‘perk up’ the spirits so they’d work in their favour. Maybe next time, I’ll knock directly on a tree instead of my pressed plywood desk!
- Saying ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes. This one goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (540 – 604 AD) who apparently said it to people who sneezed during the bubonic plague outbreak of the late sixth century (the first symptom of the plague was severe, chronic sneezing, usually followed by a quick death). And since it was believed that when someone sneezed, the soul escaped from the body and the heart momentarily stopped, saying “God bless you” was a way of welcoming the person back to life. To me, it’s just a natural, polite thing to say when someone near me sneezes.
- Unlucky 13/Friday the 13th. Personally, I’ve turned this one on its head. Ever since I got a perfect grade on a math test on a Friday the 13th back in Grade 5, I’ve always seen it as a lucky day. Still, there are some who believe that the number 13 is unlucky (despite there being absolutely no statistical evidence to prove it), and the 13th falling on a Friday as more so. This is apparently because there were 13 people at the Last Supper of Christ, and Judas Iscariot (Christ’s betrayer) was the 13th member of his close circle; Friday was the day Christ was crucified. In Spanish-speaking countries, Tuesday the 13th is considered a bad luck day, and the number 4 is considered unlucky in Japan, Korea and China (because it sounds like ‘death’ when pronounced). In most English-speaking countries, there is no 13th floor in apartment buildings or hotels; in the far east, floors with the number ‘4’ in them (4, 14, 24, 34 …) are missing.
- Never walk under a ladder. I think I’ve always just considered this to be a dangerous endeavour, rather than superstitiously harmful. Still, its origin is interesting – murderers were hanged from the tops of ladders before gallows were invented; it was thought that their spirits (ghosts) remained at the bottom of the ladder and could ‘possess’ anyone who walked there. Creepy! I just don’t trust whoever is up on the ladder not to drop something on my head.
- Indications that you’re coming into money. There are several superstitions that apparently can predicti when you are going to come into money (or lose it). My maternal grandmother always looked into a cup of tea before drinking it – if bubbles had formed on the top, she’d excitedly exclaim that she was going to come into money. Other people believe in the ‘itchy palm’ theory – an itch on the right palm means you’ll have a windfall; an itch on the left is money going out the window (if both palms itch at the same time, you’ve got a lot of good luck coming your way). I’ll have to pay more attention to my palms the next time I buy a lottery ticket (I always check my tea for bubbles!)
- Never open an umbrella indoors. Again, I always thought this was more a matter of safety than superstition (I can hear my mother’s admonishments that you’d poke someone’s eye out or break something if you opened your umbrella inside). However, the superstition that ‘bad luck will rain on you’ if you open an umbrella indoors comes from a time when umbrellas were used more for protection from the sun than from rain, and opening one indoors was considered an insult to the sun god. I keep my umbrella in the car, so I think I’m safe on this one.
- If a black cat crosses your path, you’ll experience bad luck. I’ve never really believed this. I love all cats. However, our local Humane Society reports that black cats are the least-adopted (of both cats and kittens) and they hold a ‘black cat sale’ (with reduced adoption fees) once a year. The fear of black cats goes back to the Middle Ages, when they were associated with witches. It was believed that witches would turn themselves into black cats in order to do the devil’s bidding. If a black cat crossed your path, it was because the devil had sent it to block your way to heaven. I’ve owned two black cats (and known many others, including my ‘grandcat’, Wilbur) and the only ‘devilish’ or ‘bad luck inducing’ thing I can say about them is that they’re impossible to see in a dark hallway at night, so if you’re not careful, you might just trip over them and cause yourself harm. Otherwise, they’re just as wonderful as any cat.
Perhaps these superstitions (and many others) are outdated or – according to my thesaurus: illogical, foolish, crazy, ridiculous, absurd, or silly) but I’ve practiced them for so long that I doubt I’d ever give them up. After all, they’ve worked for me right through to … the other side of 55.