by Ren Bail
If you’ve ever owned a ‘lucky’ rabbit’s foot, wished upon a star, or refused to step on a crack in a sidewalk lest you cause harm to your mother, you’ve believed in a superstition. Superstitions are beliefs that some object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events will nevertheless influence it’s outcome.
Why, if these beliefs are inherently illogical, do people believe in them? They stem from ignorance of natural laws and probability, faith in magic or chance, or an assumption of cause and effect when in reality there was only coincidence at work. Like myths, they are an attempt to make sense out of the world, and superstitions are an attempt to deflect or avoid ill effects or cause good ones.
Many superstitions are well-known, and are usually only believed by children in this day and age - that four-leafed clovers bring good luck, that walking under a ladder is bad luck, crossing your fingers will help something good to happen, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. However, some old superstitions are widely believed to this day. Many people still believe that black cats bring bad luck, which stems from a belief that they are used by witches - so much so that black cats are in real danger of being killed during Halloween by people who believe they are witches’ familiars on the prowl, or demons, and in the USA many animal shelters will not allow people to adopt any of the black cats in their care for days surrounding the holiday.
Another very common superstition is the belief that the number 13 brings bad luck. This belief has roots back into antiquity, one of which being the 13 guests at the Last Supper - the first to rise was Judas Iscariot, and he later died by his own hand. From this rose the belief that when there are 13 guests a table, the first to rise will soon die. To this end, in the 19th century socialites known as ‘foresters’ were available for hire to round out the guest list at dinner parties to keep anyone from having to be the dreaded 13th guest. Fear of the number 13 doesn’t show up in the magnitude it does now prior to the 19th century, however. The number 13 is so widely believed to be unlucky in Western culture that many high-rises were constructed without a 13th floor and many airlines lack a 13th row in their seating. Some cities even omit the 13th street or avenue from their numbering system! Amazingly, these omissions are still prevalent. However, they are only cosmetic changes; while the numbering might go from 12 directly to 14, the number of floors, rows, or streets remains the same, and the 14th of these is really just the 13th in disguise but the deception helps the triskaidekaphobes (people afraid of the number 13) feel better!
Some superstitions are well-known to this day. A common superstition, especially among athletes, is to have a ‘lucky’ article of clothing or piece of jewelry. This article may have been given its ‘lucky’ status after being worn during a game or situation in which the wearer did exceptionally well. Many people who have ‘lucky’ articles of clothing often won’t wash the clothing until a certain period of time is up (such as a game season for an athlete) - much to the distress of the noses of their teammates. Those who feel that they have ‘lucky’ articles of clothing may be affected by the placebo effect - they believe this item will give them extra luck, so they behave in ways that are most likely to positively affect their success in endeavors, such as acting with more confidence and self-assurance.
Other modern superstitions seem to be based on a limited and misunderstood knowledge of science. This is thoroughly demonstrated in the superstitions surrounding how a pregnant woman can determine the sex of the child she is carrying. One that still makes the rounds is the belief that if a pregnant woman mixes her urine with some household chemical (Draino is currently popular), the resulting color will show the sex of the baby. However, depending on who one hears this superstition from, the colors differ, some coming into direct conflict with each other. The truth is that no cleaning chemical reacts in any way that can be determined by eye with a pregnant woman’s urine to show the sex of the baby she carries - at the most, the results will give some strange colors and very possibly some dangerous fumes. Other superstitions regarding the sex of an unborn child revolve around food cravings, where the baby sits in the womb, how hard it kicks, and other such things. These superstitions are still so widely believed because no matter what, they have a 50% chance of getting the right result - not due to their accuracy, but due to simple fact that there are only two outcomes to predict - and so, they spread by people who used them and got the ‘right’ result.
Finally, one completely (at least to the author’s determination) modern set of superstitions revolves around pencil and paper role playing - or, more specifically, the player’s dice. It seems that in any gaming group, there is at least one player who will not let anyone else touch their dice for fear that the ‘vibrations’ will ruin their dice luck. Also common is the practice of gamers setting their dice out on the table in front of them, all carefully turned to the highest number in order to ‘encourage’ the dice to roll higher. Some gamers even go so far as to ‘charge’ their dice, doing little rituals with them in order to get them roll higher. This seems to make the gamers feel better, more or less - that is, until they rolls a series of low numbers that cause their characters to fail at important skills.
Overall, superstitions are based on coincidence and magical thinking, not on any fact or truth. While they sometimes can be amusing, and certainly add flavor to imaginary worlds, it is worth examining any you might hold yourself so that you can see them for what they are, and not be limited by them.
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