Superstitions—How Widespread Today?
IT HAPPENS everywhere—at work, at school, on public transportation, and on the street. You sneeze, and people you’ve never met, mere passersby, say: “God bless you” or simply “Bless you.” There are similar expressions in many languages. In German the response is “Gesundheit.” Arabs say “Yarhamak Allah,” and some South Pacific Polynesians say “Tihei mauri ora.”
Believing that it is simply common courtesy rooted in social etiquette, you may have given little thought to why people say this. Yet, the expression is rooted in superstition. Moira Smith, librarian at the Folklore Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A., says of the expression: “It comes from the idea that you are sneezing out your soul.” To say “God bless” is, in effect, asking God to restore it.
Of course, most people would probably agree that to believe that the soul escapes your body during a sneeze is irrational. Not surprisingly, therefore, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”
Little wonder that a 17th-century physician called superstitions of his day the “vulgar errors” of the uneducated. Thus, as humans entered the 20th century with its scientific achievements, The Encyclopædia Britannica of 1910 optimistically foresaw the time when “civilization [would be] freed from the last ghost of superstition.”
As Widespread as Ever
That optimism of some eight decades ago was unfounded, for superstition seems as firmly entrenched as ever. Such durability is characteristic of superstitions. The word “superstition” derives from the Latin super, meaning “above,” and stare, “to stand.” Warriors who survived in battle were called, in effect, superstites, since they outlived fellow warriors in battle, in a literal way “standing” above them. Alluding to this derivation, the book Superstitions states: “The superstitions that still exist today stand above the ages that attempted to obliterate them.” Consider just a few examples of the persistence of superstitions.
◻ After the sudden death of the governor of a major Asian city, a demoralized staff at his official residence advised the incoming governor to consult a special psychic, who proposed a number of changes in and around the complex. The staff felt that the changes would neutralize the ill omen.
◻ A special rock is the constant companion of the president of a multimillion-dollar company in the United States. Since her first successful trade show, she refuses to leave home without it.
◻ Before closing major business transactions, Asian business executives often seek the advice of a soothsayer.
◻ An athlete, although training extensively, credits his victory to an article of clothing. So he continues to wear it—unwashed—in future contests.
◻ A student uses a certain pen to take an exam and receives a high mark. Thereafter, he views the pen as “lucky.”
◻ On her wedding day, a bride carefully arranges her wedding ensemble so that it includes “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.”
◻ A person opens the Bible at random and reads the text that first meets his eye, believing that those words will provide the particular guidance he needs at the moment.
◻ As a jumbo jet roars down the runway for takeoff, several passengers make the sign of the cross. Another caresses a “Saint” Christopher medallion during the flight.
Clearly, even today superstition is very widespread. In fact, Stuart A. Vyse, associate professor of psychology at Connecticut College, states in his book Believing in Magic—The Psychology of Superstition: “Although we live in a technologically advanced society, superstition is as widespread as it has ever been.”
Superstition is so well entrenched today that efforts to stamp it out have failed. Why is this so?