To say I’m not very superstitious is like saying the sky isn’t blue. I can probably attribute it (very lovingly) to my mother. I can recall on a few occasions being halfway down the road when a black cat crossed in front of our car and my mom immediately turned around to go back the way we came, only to turn back around to continue on in the right direction. The backtracking apparently negated the bad luck. Don’t even get me started with knocking on wood – a habit that I can’t quite break even today. And, if my mom is reading this, perhaps she can clarify who comes to visit when you drop a spoon, fork or knife – I can never remember!
Certainly every culture, community and even family has superstitions ranging from the mundane to just plain silly. The Library’s collections are full of accounts of local lore, many from its various oral history collections like “American Life Histories” from the Federal Writers’ Project. Following are just a sample. Search for “superstitions” in the collection for many more.
In this narrative from the Federal Writers’ Project collection, “Myer” recounted Yiddish folklore from his grandfather, who would admonish him not to whistle lest all the evil spirits be called together.
Mrs. Erret Hicks believed in several superstitions: If a dog howls under your window, it is a sure sign of death for someone you love. The breakage of anything you like or admire is a sign that you are losing a friend or sweetheart. Always put your right shoe on first or bad luck will follow. If a child is born with a caul over his face, he will never suffer a death of drowning and will be a genius.
Mrs. Ernest P. Truesdell recalled a few “uninteresting” superstitions including returning to your house after you just left meant bad luck. To offset the bad luck, you needed to go sit on your bed for a few minutes.
An old Russian superstition, as told by Gussie Spector, believes that if you see leaves turning around in the wind, the devil is there.
This post was actually inspired by a story on Slate’s The Vault blog on lost superstitions. The post highlighted the work of Fletcher Bascom Dressler, who wrote a book on a research study he conducted on superstition and education at the University of California. The Library has a copy in its collections. The list of superstitions is quite thorough. Some of the most common include dropping a dishrag means company is coming, never begin a new task on Friday because it will mean bad luck, dreaming of snakes means you have an enemy and opening an umbrella inside means bad luck.
Believing in superstitions may be a habit that is comforting without the consequences. Goodness knows, I’ve broken a mirror and not suffered bad luck. And I’ve certainly walked by my fair share of black cats. Still, I find I come back to them now and again. Perhaps Carl Sagan said it best in this note from Sept. 21, 1979:
“Superstitions may be comforting for a while. But, because they avoid rather than confront the world, they are doomed. The future belongs to those able to learn, to chance, to accommodate to this exquisite Cosmos that we have been privileged to inhabit for a brief moment.”