What Is Behind Those Superstitions?
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
A STORM is threatening. At the first flash of lightning a woman rises hastily and covers all mirrors in the house. An elegantly dressed society woman wears a gold chain with a little wooden figa, or amulet, around her neck. A university student surreptitiously slips a rabbit’s paw into his pocket at exam time. While a hotel guest in the United States may refuse accommodations on the 13th floor, many persons in Brazil consider 13 to be a “lucky” number. Why?
All these people have one thing in common—superstition. But what really is superstition? It has been defined as an “unreasonable religious belief or practice.” One writer denounced superstition as being based on “foolishness, futility” and said that it is “almost always ridiculous.” (The Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans) Many superstitions are widespread, such as associating good luck with a horseshoe. Others are peculiar to certain countries or regions.
Statues, “Holy” Water and the “Figa”
The following random selection gives some examples of currently held superstitions:
● A statue of an elephant with its trunk pointing upward and tail pointing toward the door will bring money into a home.
● Mirrors cause paralysis of the face if looked into after one has been eating. If a mirror breaks, it means death of a family member.
● A glass of “holy” water placed behind the door wards off any evil spirits that may wish to enter a room.
● One should not sleep while exposed to moonlight, as it weakens eyesight and causes insanity.
Perhaps the most common superstition in Brazil involves use of the figa, an amulet shaped like a fist with the thumb between the index and middle fingers. According to the publication Vocabulario de Crendices Amazonicas by Osvaldo Orico, this amulet represents sexual intercourse. Nevertheless, it is used to guard against the “evil eye,” sterility and other forms of “bad luck.” It can be seen in necklaces and bracelets, on car bumpers, behind doors, or used as ashtrays and lampstands and as a decoration in humble as well as wealthy homes.
Do you know of any other such practices or beliefs? Likely you do, for superstitions are very numerous in all parts of the earth. One director of a study center found more than 400,000 examples and expects to come up with at least that many more.
Birth and the Menstrual Cycle
Some customs and “do-nots” have been shown by modern science to be fallacies. For example:
● A woman who has just become a mother should refrain from washing her hair for 30 days or more after giving birth; she should refrain from taking a bath for 40 days if the baby is a girl, 41 if a boy.
● A new mother may not eat eggs, pepper, acid fruits, or even rice.
● She must avoid going out at night, as the evening dew may cause insanity.
These are but a few of the taboos that well-meaning friends and relatives urge new mothers to heed.
In some parts of Brazil, birth is surrounded by superstitious rites and practices known as simpatias. Some examples are:
● If a woman begins labor, she is told to make an infusion. This is done by boiling in water two railway signal flags, a red one and a green one, and then drinking the water. The red flag is believed to be good for stopping hemorrhage, and the green one supposedly shortens labor.
● Keeping three twigs of rue root under a new baby’s pillow will stave off harm from the evil eye as well as disease.
● Putting red wool on the baby’s forehead can cure its hiccups.
● When en route to the location where birth will take place, do not tie ribbons to clothes that the baby will wear, for this will delay birth.
The menstrual cycle is another thing that has given rise to many superstitions. Some believe that a woman should not wash her hair during menstruation; and certain women fear to take a bath at this time. But these normal hygienic procedures have no ill effects on the menstrual cycle. Regarding the fear of washing hair during menstruation, a doctor in Rio de Janeiro states: “Among enlightened women this fear is giving way to the reality that menstruation is a normal, physiological fact, not a sickness.” And Claudia, a popular Brazilian women’s magazine, remarked in its January 1976 issue: “A [menstruating] woman can and should eat everything, acid fruits, boiled eggs, fish, pork, greens, cheese. All this is part of a healthy diet and has nothing to do with stopping the flow during the menstrual period.”
Some attribute control of the menstrual cycle to the moon, because of the average cycle’s being 28 days. But the late Bergen Evans, author of the book The Natural History of Nonsense, claimed that this was an unwarranted deduction and quoted doctors who had observed that menstruation occurs at all times of the month, regardless of the lunar cycle, and that there is no justification for associating the date of menstruation with lunar phenomena.
Superstition has it that the approach of a menstruating woman may parch plants, dim mirrors, blunt knives, kill bees and make cakes fall. This is ridiculous. Yet, as Evans shows, women at the time of menstruation are naturally nervous, irritable and depressed. Hence, they easily do such things as breaking dishes, scolding the children and weeping at the slightest provocation.
Religion’s Role in Superstition
By their religious leaders, people have been led to believe that God and the Devil are divinities that can be cajoled, flattered and bribed. So people try to find out the plans of such divinities and then proceed with efforts to influence them.
In Brazil it is common to see Casas de Umbanda. These are stores where one can buy magic herbs, incense, beads, amulets, hog’s-tooth necklaces, charms, books on voodoo arts, and parts of doll’s bodies for use in casting spells and as a means of determining the future. At these stores the “Virgin Mary,” Jesus, and the horned “Devil” stand side by side with other images.
On Friday nights, at about 11 o’clock, people place at street crossings black chickens, bottles of beer and cheap brandy, cigars, candy and fruit to curry the favor of “spirits.”
One tale about the horseshoe comes from England. According to legend, while “Saint” Dunstan was working as a blacksmith, he was sought out by the Devil to fix one of his shoes. Dunstan, so goes the story, tied him to a wall and treated him so violently that Satan begged for mercy. Dunstan let the Devil go, but only after making him promise never again to enter a place where a horseshoe hung. Of course, the story is absurd. So why trust in a horseshoe?
Why Are People Superstitious?
When asked this question, usually people shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” Or they may quote their parents, or grandparents, whose word they accept unquestioningly. In Brazil, the mixture of Indian, African and European cultures has produced a vast number of myths and legends.
There are two factors, though, that nearly always lie behind superstitions—fear and ignorance. Fear of God’s wrath, the Devil, sickness, death and many other such things regularly promotes superstitious beliefs and acts. People will grasp at straws to ward off calamity. Brewton Berry writes in You and Your Superstitions: “Superstition is nothing more than another chapter in history’s years of research to conquer security. And since education, prohibition, sermons, satires and science have failed miserably in their fight against superstition, only SECURITY will succeed in destroying it.” Closely related to fear as a cause of superstition is ignorance of the true cause of many calamities and especially ignorance of the Biblical view of many woes that afflict mankind.
An Antidote to Superstition
While showing that most religious beliefs are indistinguishable from superstition with its taboos, Brewton Berry writes: “But there exists another kind of religion that supports [the belief] that the Cosmic Power is constant and is not subject to whims, does not give in to flattery, is not deceived by charlatans, does not cater to favorites. This Power makes it rain and shine over good and bad alike. It does not favor those who recite creeds and light candles. Man’s duty is not to prod . . . this Power so as to get from him what he wants, but rather [man should] try to discover the truth about the universe, the paths that should be followed and prepare himself for them. This belief was never popular. Its followers were insulted and forgotten and at least one of them was crucified.”
The writer here refers to unpopular true Christianity. Like the faithful Israelites of old, Jesus and those who pattern their lives after him have never put their faith in “Lady Luck,” omens or superstitions. Rather, they have sought guidance in life from the written Word of man’s Creator, Jehovah God.—Deut. 18:10-12; 2 Ki. 21:6; Isa. 8:19; 65:11; Acts 16:16-24.
How do you feel about superstitions? You can break free from them. The best way to do so is by making a careful study of the Holy Bible and by molding your life according to its principles.