A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

Science behind Superstitions

Do superstitions have a basis; what is the reason that they have been practised for centuries?

These are questions that came to my mind after the recent Sabarimala incident. A little homework reveals that there is always some logic or scientific bias behind the actions and superstitions of the past. Yes, some of them may not be valid in today’s context and can very well be junked. So read on and decide which are the superstitions you can jettison out of the window.

1. Spilling Salt brings bad luck 

As children we were always reprimanded for spilling salt – it was supposed to bring bad luck. Salt was a precious commodity for our ancestors. It was used not just for cooking but also to preserve food. The word “salary” owes its origin to the Latin word “salarium” and has the root sal which is there in “salt.” In ancient Rome, it specifically meant the amount of money allotted to a Roman soldier to buy salt, which was an expensive but essential commodity

Prior to industrialisation, it was very expensive and labor-intensive to harvest the mass quantities of salt necessary for food preservation and seasoning. This made salt an extremely valuable commodity. Entire economies were based on salt production and trade.

This was the reason for being extra careful with salt probably leading to the superstition that spilling salt brings bad luck. The superstition would have ensured that people would have been extra careful while handling salt.  

2. Breaking a Mirror Brings 7 Years of Bad Luck

This was probably a belief from the past that a mirror is a projection of one’s appearance and one’s soul. Breaking a mirror reflected the soul breaking into pieces. The damaged soul is thus not able to protect its owner from bad luck. It could also mean that damaged soul seeks revenge against the one responsible for its injuries. The means of revenge varies, but often includes the loss of a close friend or the death of someone in the household.

But the truth here is similar to the case of Salt. Pure economics. A major component of mirror is glass. Because glass is a poor reflector, it must be coated in order to make a mirror. The most appropriate materials for making metallic coatings are silver, gold, and chrome. All 3 are expensive materials. During the Renaissance period in Europe, mirrors were made by coating glass with an amalgam of  tin and mercury. In the sixteenth century, Venice became the centre of manufacture for such mirrors. A factory for manufacturing mirrors called Saint-Gobain was established in France, but mirrors were still expensive luxuries and only the very rich owned it. So if you owned one you were very carful and did not want to break it.

Breaking it in the evening after sunset was even more inauspicious – simple not only was it the loss of an expensive item but now you had the added challenge of cleaning the place in the dark to ensure that the family members are not cut by the broken shreds on the ground.

3. Black Cats Crossing Your Path is Bad Luck

This one should help my learned IIT IIM friend. Even on a highway speeding along he comes to a screeching halt when he spots a black cat crossing by. Most Indians have this superstition deeply engrained in them. But its time to shed this superstition after reading the reason behind it.

In olden days people used to travel by carts that were pulled by domesticated animals like horses and cows When passing through forests at night, the animals used to get scared and act chaotic when they sensed wild cats such as leopards, cheetahs, and tigers crossing their path. The travellers warned others not to proceed when a cat passes their path. And wait for some time before the danger passed. The wait also helped the animals to relax and get them under control before proceeding.

Today, this is of no significance and we are afraid of black cats for no reason. Groucho Marx once said “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

4. Avoid a Hair Cut on Tuesday

Most barber shops are closed on Tuesday and it is considered inauspicious to take have a haircut on that day. The reason behind this is simple. In olden days the villagers after a long hard week of work used to take Monday as the off day. Sunday was probably reserved for visiting the temple, friends , family etc. So Monday was the day when they visited their local barber for a haircut and shave. The Barber overloaded on Monday also needed a rest – and he probably did not get any customers on Tuesday. That tradition seems to have continued over the years. So if you find a barber salon open on Tuesday – don’t worry its perfectly safe to go and get a haircut.

5. Sweeping the house, Cutting Nails and Shaving After Sunset

The superstition is that by doing this you will lose all your wealth as Goddess Lakshmi will leave your house. Nobody dared to take a risk and lose their hard earned wealth and the superstition stayed.

But the reason is simple and logical. Electricity is a 100 year old invention and there are villages that have got electrified recently. In the dusk after the sunsets if you sweep the house in the dark there are chances that some valuables may also get swept away. As far as cutting nails and shaving – chances are in the dark you may cut yourself.

6. Hanging Lemon and 7 Green Chillies In shops and Business Places

You can see this all over India – a lemon along with chillies, seven to be precise, hanging from the doors of shops, houses or from the bumpers of cars? These days it has turned into a superstition that it keeps the god of misfortune, Alakshmi, away from the shops.

 

As weird as it seems, there is a logical explanation behind this one too. The cotton thread that passes through the lemon and the chillies absorbs the acids, vitamin C and the other nutrients present in it. Then, by slow vaporization, it is released into the air. The odour is also said to keep pest and insects away, making it a natural pesticide. This is said to have significant health benefits and our ancestors made it an essential part of ceremonies to increase its use.

To simplify life, some people have used a metallic version of the lemon with chillies – but sadly that doesn’t work.

7. Most people avoid Unlucky 13

The number 13 is considered an unlucky number by many people. People avoid travelling on 13th or checking into hotel rooms on the 13th floor or room no 13. I have seen 5 Star hotels that have 12th floor and then the 14th floor totally skipping unlucky 13. It is also considered unlucky to have thirteen guests at a table. Friday the 13th has been considered the unluckiest day of the month.

A possible reason driving this behaviour could be from the time of Jesus. At Christ’s last supper, there were thirteen people around the table, Christ and the twelve apostles. Some believe this unlucky because one of those thirteen, Judas Iscariot, was the betrayer of Jesus Christ. Another major reason for Friday the 13 to be considered unlucky was that on Friday 13 October 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar, and most of the knights were tortured and killed.

8. Lizard Falling On Human Is Bad Luck

It does feel creepy to have a lizard fall on top of you – after all they are cold blooded creatures. But there are lizards that could emit poisonous juices resulting in skin problems. It may not be bad luck but it could lead to bad health.

9. Fallen Hair inside house causes fights

The myth is that if you throw fallen hair inside the house instead of binning it, soon you will see a fight within your family. Well, who would like to pick up a quarrel at home?

But the real reason behind this superstition is if you leave the fallen hair inside the house it may end up falling inside the food when the wind blows. And that will definitely cause a quarrel when a hungry husband finds hair in his food.

10. Twitching of the eye is a Good or Bad Omen

This is a bit like a sixth sense, and it differs from community to community. Eye twitching or the sudden involuntary movement or spasms in the eyelids is a common condition.  There is an established explanation for these constant or intermittent involuntary muscle twitches, including various medical reasons behind them – these twitches are nature’s way of warning a person about some impending problem or indicative of some good news on the way.

11. Walking under a ladder is unlucky

There are a couple of theories about this superstitious belief. Many Christians believe in the Trinity, that God is made up of three parts, – the Holy Father, the Holy Son, and the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit). A ladder leaning up against a building was seen as a triangle of these three. To walk through this triangle was seen as breaking the Trinity and hence considered as bad luck. Another origin of the superstition was a bit less specific, and had to do with the similarities between a ladder leaning against a wall and a gallows.

However the fact is that, it is simply unsafe to walk under the ladder and you may get hurt or might hurt someone around by knocking the ladder down. A ladder is an unstable equipment and a person on top may fall or drop something on you. So its good to stay away from a ladder.

12. Taking a bath after attending a funeral is a must

When a person dies, the body starts to decompose. This is basic biology. And when you attend a funeral, you are exposed to the germs, bacteria and the chemicals released by the body and present in the air due to decomposition. It makes a lot of sense to come back take a bath and then have your meal.

13. Stop by at a temple before starting a long tour

In olden days people travelled by foot or bullock / horse carts. Journeys were long, mostly in groups like caravans. So if you forgot something coming back was not an option. A temple in your village was a good place to sit by quietly for a few minutes and recollect if you had everything for your travel before proceeding on the long journey. It was probably for the same reason that you were advised by the elders to  eat curd & sugar before heading out. The Curd kept your body cool and the digestive system efficient while the Sugar gave you the energy for the long walk.

14. Don’t go near a Peepal tree in the night

If you believed your grandmother, Peepal is one tree the ghosts like to hover around and if you sleep around a Peepal tree at night, the ghosts will kill you. Every school kid knows that trees emit CO2 at night so its best to avoid visiting a large tree like a Peepal Tree at night. But do walk by a Peepal tree during day.

You will find a Peepal tree in most temple complexes and Villages. Peepal is considered to emit disproportionate amount of Oxygen during the day along with Neem and Tulsi. It purifies the surroundings where it is planted, and kills bacteria. So worshipping it means you would be near its vicinity, and inhale healthy air.The leaf, bark and roots of this tree are of significance in Ayurveda. Its leaves help cure asthma, fever and cold. The milk derived from its leaves cures eye pain.  This tree can cure as much as 50 disorders, including diarrhoea, epilepsy and gastric troubles. That’s why it’s a practise for devotees (especially women) to walk around a Peepal Tree.

15. Why people say “God Bless You” after a sneeze 

Considered a polite response to a sneeze, the phrase “God bless you” is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who said it to people who sneezed during a bubonic plague. Aside from the idea of protecting against the spread of disease, “blessing” someone after they sneezed originated from the erroneous beliefs that the soul escapes the body during a sneeze and the heart momentarily stops as well. Therefore, saying “God bless you” was a way of welcoming the person back to life.

16. Crossing fingers is a good luck sign 

Crossing your fingers for good luck (or, secretly, to get you out of keeping a promise) is common around the world — but its origins are unclear. It seems to be common in Christian countries, with the belief that it’s related to the sign of the cross. Other theories include it being an old Pagan or Norse gesture, or possibly a good luck superstition created by archers during the “Hundred Year War” between England and France (archers used their two main fingers to draw back their bow)

17. Knock on wood to avoid disappointments

The origin of this very common superstition is believed to date back to the Pagan era. It was believed that the deities lived in trees. Touching a wooden surface would acknowledge them and ensure that you get their protection during misfortunate events. It was also believed to be a thankful gesture to the deities for bringing good luck.

The Greeks used to worship the oak tree as it was considered sacred to Zeus. When Pagan beliefs were incorporated into Christian beliefs, this superstition found its way to Christianity, and knocking on wood became to be associated with the Cross.

A Jewish version of this particular superstition takes one back to the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition. During this time, the Jews used to hide in synagogues (wooden prayer buildings). They designed a specific knock code to let people in. This saved the lives of many people, and subsequently knocking on wood came to symbolize good luck. By the 1900s, the British and the Americans had also adopted this ritual.

18. Its lucky to have a bird poop on you 

This superstition comes from an interesting leap in logical thinking that’s related to the reason that four-leaf clovers are considered lucky. Essentially, the belief says that the odds of a bird pooping on you or of finding a four-leaf clove, are so low that if it happens, you’d be likely to beat the odds in other fortunate ways, too. Funnily enough, this superstition can be found in cultures all over the world, so historians have a hard time pin pointing where exactly it started.

19. Being the 3rd person to light a cigarette from a match is unlucky 

The historical origins of this superstition are very clearly set in World War I. It was a conventional wisdom among soldiers in the trenches that if you kept a match lit long enough for three people to light their cigarette from it, the enemy would spot the flame and deduce your location. Soldiers brought the belief back with them, but there’s evidence to suggest that after the war, match companies rather cynically helped popularise the superstition to sell more matches

In conclusion I want to add that our forefathers were not stupid. From splattering cow dung on the walls to bursting crackers most of their actions were driven by some logical reasoning. Cow Dung on the floor and walls prevents insects from entering the huts and the noise of crackers and smokes helps eradicate insects after a long rainy season.

So while some superstitions can be thrown out of the door (Like the Black cat one) many have some scientific basis. 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Rajesh Marwaha

    Great research. Many of these rituals we blindly follow today and worse still, we pass them on to our children. When questioned on the logic for these by our children we mostly shut them up in order to not expose our unintelligence/ stupidity to them (while we feel the same).

    It is true that our actions are governed by our thinking and this article exposes our fallible thought process. These superstitions are believed by most people, both literate (many of us reading this article) and illiterate. This also shows how much ineffective is our education system in making us rational and analytical.

    We should reason and research before believing, accepting and following. That way we could live free from certain unnecessary fears of superstitions that impact our lives today and might impact of our children in future.

    I am still chuckling at the quote “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

    Thanks again VAK. You have an amazing ability to pick highly unusual but highly relevant topics. Then your knack of researching and presenting in clear, concise language and with a touch of humour makes it a delight to read your articles.

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