Superstition (Latin "superstitio", literally "standing over"; derived perhaps from standing in awe; [cite book|title=Oxford English Dictionary|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford, England|date=1989|edition=Second] used in Latin as a unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic, especially foreign or fantastical ideas, and thus came to mean a "cult" in the Roman empire) [cite book|title=Oxford Latin Dictionary|publisher=Oxford University Press|locations=Oxford, England|date=1982] [cite book|last=Turcan|first=Robert|others=Nevill, Antonia (trans.)|title=The Cults of the Roman Empire|publisher=Blackwell|location=Oxford, England|date=1996|pages=pp 10-12|isbn=0631200479] is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to supposedly irrational beliefs of others, and its precise meaning is therefore subjective. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings.

To medieval scholars the word was applied to and beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity; today it is applied to conceptions without foundation in, or in contravention of, scientific and logical knowledge. [Jolly, raylene seaton; Raudvere, Catharina & Peters, Edward (2001) "Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages". Continuum International Publishing Group. p. x.]

Many extant superstitions are said to have originated during the plagues that swept through Europe. According to legend, during the time of a plague, Saint Gregory I the Great ordered that people say "God bless you" when somebody sneezed, to prevent the spread of the disease. [St. Gregory Parish SSR. [ The Life of St. Gregory the Great] Retrieved on: April 5, 2008]

uperstition and folklore

In the academic discipline of folkloristics the term "superstition" is used to denote any general, culturally variable beliefs in a supernatural "reality". Depending on a given culture's belief set, its superstitions may relate to things that are not fully understood or understood at all, such as cemeteries, animals, demons, a devil, deceased ancestors, the weather, ripping one's sock, gambling, sports, food, holidays, occupations, excessive scrupulosity, death, luck, and spirits. Urban legends are also sometimes classed as superstition, especially if the moral of the legend is to justify fears about socially alien people or conditions.

In Western folklore, superstitions associated with bad luck include Friday the 13th and walking under a ladder. It is also believed that if you were to step on a crack, your mother would then break her back. Often people will throw salt over their shoulder after they spill it, in order to blind the devil, who sits at your left shoulder. Breaking a mirror is considered to cause 7 years of bad luck.

In India, there is a superstition that a pregnant woman should avoid going outside during an eclipse in order to prevent her baby being born with a facial birthmark. In Iran, birthmarks are called 'maah-gereftegi' (Persian: ماه گرفتگی) which means eclipse. In Korea, there is a superstition that leaving a fan on in a closed room will suffocate the occupants all.

Superstition and religion

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, atheists and agnostics may regard religious belief as superstition.

Religious practices are most likely to be labeled "superstitious" by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications.

Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. "Such fear of the gods ("deisidaimonia") was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). For Christians just such fears might be worn proudly as a name: Desdemona.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" states superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion" (para. #2110).

The "Catechism" clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

:Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. "bibleref|Matthew|23:16-22" (para. #2111)

Some superstitions originated as religious practices that continued to be observed by people who no longer adhere to the religion that gave birth to the practice. Often the practices lost their original meaning in this process. In other cases, the practices are adapted to the current religion of the practicer. As an example, during the Christianizing of Europe, pagan symbols to ward off evil were replaced with the Christian cross.

Hunting superstitions

* In the forests of ancient China, when a Nivkhs hunter was pursuing game his children were forbidden to make drawings on wood or in sand; they feared that if the children did so, the paths in the forest would become as complicated as the lines in the drawings and that the hunter might lose his way and never return. [Freud (1950, 81), quoting Frazer (1911, 1, 122).]

The belief that there is a magical bond between a wound and the weapon which caused it may be traced unaltered for thousands of years:

* A Melanesian believed that if he obtains possession of the weapon which caused his wound, he should carefully keep it in a cool place so as to reduce the inflammation of the wound. But if the weapon is left in the enemy's possession, it will undoubtedly be hung up close to the fire, causing the wound to become hot and inflamed. [ [Frazer (1911, 1, 201), quoting Codrington (1891, 310).] ]

* Roman officer and encyclopedist Pliny (in his "Natural History", Book XXVIII, Chapter 7) tells us that "if you have wounded a man and are sorry for it, you have only to spit on the hand that gave the wound, and the pain of the sufferer will be instantly alleviated." [Freud (1950, 82).]

* Francis Bacon (in his "Sylva Sylvarum", X, 998) mentions that "it is constantly received and avouched that the anointing of the weapon that maketh the wound will heal the wound itself". [Freud (1950, 82), citing Frazer (1911, 203)] This superstition was still in practice in eastern England in the 20th century: At Norwich in June 1902 a woman named Matilda Henry accidentally ran a nail into her foot. Without examining the wound, or even removing her stocking, she asked her daughter to grease the nail, thinking that if this were done no harm would come of the injury. Within a few days she died of lockjaw. ["Death from Lockjaw at Norwich" (July 19, 1902). "The People's Weekly Journal for Norfolk": p. 8.] "'

Theatre Superstitions

*In the theatre, it is bad luck to wish someone "Good luck." Instead, you are to say "Break a leg."

*Uttering the word "Macbeth" in a theatre is said to bring bad luck, unless performing the show. It is commonly referred to as "The Scottish Play." The play is supposedly cursed.

*Whistling in a theatre is bad luck. The most plausible explanation is that in early theatre, the flyspace was operated using an advanced system of whistles, and nonchalant whistling may cue a tech person to do their cue too early and screw up the performance.
*The green room should never be painted green.
*Seeing a peacock in or near a theatre is bad luck. Peacocks were once believed to possess the "evil eye" in their tails.

Most bad luck in theatre can be expelled by having the person responsible turn around themselves to the right three times, then spitting or farting.

Other superstitions

*A single magpie is considered a sign of bad luck."A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar" recites an old proverb concerning the incidence of bad weather when magpies forage alone and a possible scientific explanation for this.
*Many believe that if all of the candles on a birthday cake are blown out with one breath, while making a silent wish, the wish will come true.
*Tetraphobia is widespread in China, Japan, Korea, and Hawaii; the use of number 4 is minimized or avoided wherever possible because the Chinese word for 4, "sì", sounds nearly the same as the word for death, "sǐ" (死). Mobile telephone numbers with 4 in them sell for less and some buildings even skip level four, labeling it the 5th floor instead. One of the Japanese words for 4, "shi", is also homonymous with the kanji in the word for death, "shi" or "shin". (However, there is another word for four in Japan that does not sound like death: "yon".) In Korea, number '4' is pronounced as "sa" (사 四) and is homonymous with 'death (사 死)'. Some, but not all, Korean buildings have the fourth floor written as 'F' floor. [ [ Monster Island (actually a peninsula): Paraskevidekatriaphobia is for losers ] ]
*Triskaidekaphobia--In Western culture, the number 13 is perceived as unlucky; 12a is sometimes used as a substitute and some buildings skip floor 13 completely.
*Many believe that the United States two-dollar bill brings bad luck. Gamblers sometimes call it a "deuce", a term for two. To "undo," one of the bill's corners must be torn off, forming a triangle, an ancient symbol of life. If you receive a bill with no corners left, it must be torn all up.
* Spilling salt is said to cause a fight or argument during the day. There are several options to "undo" this which seem to relate to various ways of acknowledging the fact that salt was spilled with others present at the scene. One way to revert this is tossing some salt over one's left shoulder with ones right hand.
*At times, a horseshoe may be found above doorways. When positioned like a regular 'U' it supposedly collects luck. However, when it is positioned like an upside-down 'U' the luck supposedly drains.
* The superstitious symbolism of a black cat crossing one's path is dependent upon culture: some cultures consider this a sign of impending bad luck, while some cultures consider this a sign of impending good luck.
* Breaking a mirror is said to bring bad luck for 7 years. To "undo" this, take the shards of glass and bury them underneath the moonlight. In ancient times, the mirror was said to be a window to the viewer's soul. If that mirror were to break, it would take time (or 7 years) for that 'cracked' soul to heal as ".
* If one walks underneath an open ladder it is said to bring bad luck. Sometimes it is said that this can be undone by immediately walking backwards back underneath the ladder.
* Opening an umbrella indoors is said to result in 21 days of bad luck. Some traditions hold that it is only bad luck if the umbrella is placed over the head of someone while indoors.
* Placing a hat on the bed is, apparently, bad luck. (South Carolina)
* Placing keys on a table is considered unlucky. (Sweden)
* It is bad luck to put new shoes on a bed (or a table) (comes from the tradition of dressing a corpse in new clothes and shoes and laying them out so everyone can give their respects) - (UK)
* Collect seven or nine different flowers on midsummer eve and place them under your pillow and it is said that you will dream of your future spouse. (Sweden)
* The phrase "See a pin and pick it up then all day you'll have good luck" is a superstition created from the first line of a poem in the book "The Real Mother Goose". Modern variants sometimes substitute the word "penny" for pin. [ [ Re: see a pin/penny ] ]
* When you speak of bad luck, it is said that one should always knock on wood. Also knocking when speaking of good luck apparently helps with having good luck. This is an old Celtic tradition related to belief of wood spirits.
* Before traveling a person should, apparently, sit on their luggage. (Russian)
* Two people breaking a wishbone is said to lead to good luck for the person with the larger piece.
* Once a wedding ring has been placed on the finger, it is considered bad luck to remove it.
* There are numerous sailors' superstitions, such as: it is considered bad luck for a ship to set sail on a Friday, to bring anything blue aboard, to stick a knife into the deck, to leave a hatch cover upside-down, to say "pig", or to eat walnuts aboard. Some beliefs state that it is bad luck to have a woman aboard ship, while others say that a storm will give way to calm if a woman bares her body to it. (Which may explain why female figureheads are often bare-breasted.)
* Some motorcycle enthusiasts hang a biker's bell from a portion of their bike to protect themselves from evil road spirits.

Superstition and psychology

In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he describes his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons' actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans. [Skinner, B. F. (1948). [ 'Superstition' in the Pigeon.] "Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38(2)", 168-172.]

Skinner's theory regarding superstition being the nature of the pigeons' behaviour has been challenged by other psychologists such as Staddon and Simmelhag, who theorised an alternative explanation for the pigeons' behaviour. [Staddon, J. E., & Simmelhag, V. L. (1971). The 'supersitition' experiment: A reexamination of its implications for the principles of adaptive behaviour. "Psychological Review, 78(1)", 3-43.]

Despite challenges to Skinner's interpretation of the root of his pigeons' superstitious behaviour, his conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. Originally, in Skinner's animal research, "some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an "intermittent reinforcement" basis."Schultz & Schultz (2004, 238).] Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g. fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviours were also the most resistant to extinction. This is called the "partial reinforcement effect", and this has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. To be more precise, this effect means that, whenever an individual performs an action expecting a reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual. [Carver & Scheier (2004, 332).] This strongly parallels superstitious behaviour in humans because the individual feels that, by continuing this action, reinforcement will happen; or that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, although not all the time, but this may be one of those times.

From a simpler perspective, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate weak associations. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will otuweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, "superstitious" associations. [citation
journal = Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
title = The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour
author = Kevin R. Foster
coauthors= Hanna Kokko
doi = 10.1098/rspb.2008.0981
unused_data = |DOI - 10.1098/rspb.2008.0981

See also

* Magic
* Magical thinking
* Religion
* Taboo
* Numbers in Chinese culture
* Luck
* Baseball superstition
* Theatrical superstitions


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