The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs
T. Sharper Knowlson
Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 201
Publication Date: 1910
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Contains the origins of customs and superstitions such as Shrove Tuesday; Halloween; Candlemas Day; Yule Logs; All Fools' Day; The Engagement Ring; Bridesmaids and Best Man; Christening Customs; Dreams; Witchcraft; Crystal Gazing; Looking-Glass Omens; Sneezing; Vampires; Theatre Superstitions; Knife Superstitions, and many, many more. Each chapter is quite small but manages to give a clear account of the custom it's talking about.
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THE true origin of superstition is to be found in early man's effort to explain Nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future. From these sources alone must have sprung that system of crude notions and practices still obtaining among savage nations; and although in more advanced nations the crude system gave place to attractive mythology, the moving power was still the same; man's interpretation of the world was equal to his ability to understand its mysteries no more, no less. For this reason the superstitions which, to use a Darwinian word, persist, are of special interest, as showing a psychological habit of some importance. Of this, more anon.
The first note in all superstitions is that of ignorance. Take three representative and widely different cases. The first is a Chinaman living about one thousand years before Christ. He has before him the "Book of Changes," and is about to divine the future by geometrical figures; the second is a Roman lady, bent on the same object, but using the shapes of molten wax dropped into water; the third is a Stock Exchange speculator seated before a modern clairvoyant in Bond Street, earnestly seeking light on the future of his big deal in Brighton A. The operating cause here is a desire to know the future, and, so long as man is man, so long will he either rely on the divinations of the past, or invent new ones more in keeping with mental science. But ignorance exists in several varieties, and one of them has to do not with the future, but with the well-established present; in other words, an accepted doctrine may be based on a misinterpretation of the facts. As Trenchard remarks in his Natural History of Superstition, "Man's curiosity is in excess of his capacity to interpret Nature and life." Thus early man attributed a living spirit to everything--to his fellows, to the lower animals, to the trees, the mountains, and the rivers. Probably these conclusions were as good as his intelligence would allow, but they became the mental stock-in-trade of all races, and were handed down from one generation to another, constituting a barrier to be broken down before newer and truer ideas of life could prevail. And the same contention applies equally to the superstition of the moment. The woman who will not pay a call unless she wears a particular amulet, or the man who starts up from a table of thirteen, his face blanched and his blood cold, are just as truly, though not in the same degree, the victims of ignorance as the animist who tried to propitiate the anger of the spirit of the stream. Ignorance is the atmosphere in which alone such superstitions can live.
Allied with ignorance is fear, which is the second element calling for notice. Fear, too, has its varieties, some of them both natural and justifiable. If I visit an electrical power-house and know nothing of its machinery and appointments, I am very chary what I touch and prefer to keep my hands to myself lest I make a mistake. Rational fear, however, is the offspring of a reasoned knowledge of danger. It is irrational fear which forms the bogey of superstition. The misfortune of early man was to have experiences more numerous and subtle than he could understand; to his power of analysis they were altogether unyielding; and yet his unrestrained imagination demanded a working theory of some kind, and he got one, grounded in ignorance and fear. An earthquake is a phenomenon calculated to strike terror into the heart of all but the strongest man; no wonder then that the primitive mind invented all sorts of ideas about spirits of the under world, and ascribed to gloomy caverns the possession of dragons and other fearsome enemies of the race. The thunder, the lightning and the tempest; the blight which spoiled the sources of food; the sudden attack of mysterious sickness, and a hundred other fatalities were to him more than merely natural forces busily employed in working out their natural destiny; they were Powers to be propitiated. That is the third note of the superstitious mind; its effort to propitiate intelligent and semi-intelligent forces by suitable beliefs, rites, ceremonies, and penances. Where ignorance and fear beget a sense of danger, knowledge, even defective knowledge, is always equal to the task of inventing a way of escape.
But if these be the prime origins of superstition, what are the secondary origins? If "the belief in the existence and proximity of a world of spirits, and a fear of such spirits, is the only solution of all the curious religions, customs, ceremonies, and superstitions of pagan life," what are the other causes which modified these primitive guesses at the riddle of existence? The answer is twofold : (1) The old causes have never ceased to be operative, though the manner of expression has changed; and (2) The new causes were the advent of world religions, of social transformations, and of political separation.
As an illustration of the old causes in a new application, I will take ignorance once more. Lord Mahon, in his History of England, tells us: "It chanced that six children in one family died in quick succession of a sudden and mysterious illness--their feet having mortified and dropped off. Professor Henslow, who resides at no great distance from Wattisham, has given much attention to the records of this case, and has made it clear in his excellent essay on the Diseases of Wheat, that in all probability their death was owing to the improvident use of deleterious food--the ergot of rye. But he adds that in the neighbourhood the popular belief was firm that these poor children had been the victims of sorcery and witchcraft." This was little over forty years ago in "Christian England." Four hundred years ago, or twice or thrice that number, it was just the same--the domination of ignorance.
But the causes called secondary offer a new field of enquiry. Take the advent of Christianity with its point of view diametrically opposed to the religions of the period. What was the effect on paganism? It was seen in the Christianising of many of the old superstitions and customs, and in the creation of a group of new ones. To the student of origins there is no fact more significant than this, and none to which he can look forward more hopefully for intelligent explanations of prevalent beliefs and practices.
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