Unless you’re a complete cynic, you probably have at least one element of superstitiousness in your day-to-day life. Not walking under ladders, encouraging birds to shit on your head so you’ll get that promotion, or hiding in your room for days because a black cat trotted in front of you on your way to the supermarket. Whatever it is, I bet you’ve got at least one.
In such a well-informed and increasingly science-driven society, how are we still engaging in these superstitious rituals? Most of us don’t go to church any more, and neither do our families, but our parents have passed down the cold, hard fact that if someone sneezes you must say ‘bless you’, lest the person’s soul leave their body forever. And if that person accidentally thanks you for blessing their sudden ejection of phlegm? Well, everyone knows that somewhere, somehow, a fairy is going to die.
Many things tell us that superstitions are illogical; they’re unfounded beliefs in our ability to control the universe and ward off bad vibes at the utterance of a word or the movement of a hand. Not least in the way of proving their ridiculousness is how vastly superstitions vary so greatly across countries and cultures. What people do in China varies from what people do in France, and as far as I’m aware, there’s the same distribution of good and bad luck in both countries. Drawing on my own experience, and on a country not too far in location or lifestyle from my own, I can tell you that Italians do things very differently to us Brits.
My boyfriend moved to England three years ago, and whilst I didn’t believe myself to be an overly superstitious individual, the non-British perspective really shone some light on how often I do engage in good-luck/no-bad-luck activities. He will come home from the shoe shop and recoil in terror as I launch myself across the room, screaming at him to take his new boots off the table. When we talk about something awful happening, I will say ‘touch wood’, and he will say ‘touch iron’. He mostly fares better in these situations – it’s easier to find a cast iron pole in the city centre than it is a flourishing silver birch.
When I’m alone on the bus, or in the street, and I find myself passing a lone magpie, I will scratch my eyebrow excessively. ‘He’ll know I’m saluting, won’t he?’ I think. ‘He’ll know I can’t do a full-on salute in public and will now fly home to his family and tell them to bring me good luck for the day.’ How weird is that? I work in science, I’m a rational human being, and there I am giving secretive undercover messages to a bird as it eats vomit from the gutter.
When we grow up, we believe our superstitions are the same as everybody else’s. I was shocked when I went to high school and discovered that nobody else puts the toilet lid down after every use in case all their money gets flushed away into the sewage system (I didn’t even have any money at 12 years old, but again – logic does not apply). I couldn’t believe that nobody else ran around the playground chasing those floating balls of fluff that roam through summer, so they could catch them and blow them away with a wish to send back to the elves and fairies.
We also stop engaging in certain superstitions as we grow older. Maybe we forget one day, and nothing terrible happens, or we realise that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just put our umbrella up before we left the house, and take the risk. I used to jump over every crack in the pavement, but time constraints and the overwhelming desire not to look like a complete twat in public have shaken that behaviour straight out of me. I step on fractured paving stones every single day and, so far, my mother has not fallen down the stairs and broken her back (touch wood).
Human beings are obsessed with control. We control our finances, our careers, our home lives, our eating schedules, our routes to work. What we can’t control are the things that happen to us. Nothing you can do will stop that plane from falling from the sky, or the fast-growing cancer in your best friend’s kidney, or that fire starting in your nan’s house thirty miles away. But the ease-of-use of superstitious behaviours, the nothing-to-lose gamble of them, means that somehow it makes sense to chuck the salt over your left shoulder if you spill it, rather than submitting to the minuscule chance that not doing so would result in plague and ruin.
Thirteen has always been my lucky number, and I consider myself to have had my fair share of both good and bad in life. Yet I still salute the magpie, because if I didn’t, and something terrible happened, the illogical part of my brain would tell me it was my fault. I say ‘safe journey’ to everyone I love as they leave the house, because if I didn’t, and they were involved in an accident, it would be my fault. Reason screams that it wouldn’t be, of course it wouldn’t, but at least I know I’ve made an attempt at exerting my future-changing powers. In a world where we control far less than we are led to believe, it comforts to know what we have tried.