Superstitious Notes

We had cooler weather recently, so it was perfect to see pumpkins at a roadside farm stand when I drove by one morning. It just felt like apples and crimson-colored leaves and Halloween all rolled into one.

As luck would have it, an old favorite started playing on a 70’s music channel just as the pumpkins flashed by: Superstitious by Stevie Wonder. I have heard this song probably 13,000 times over 40 years and the opening beat remains instantly recognizable. I smile.

“Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall,” I unabashedly sing along.

As it continues, I get a little less sure:

“Seven years of bad luck, do-do-do-do-do-do!”

Then I’m quickly at “if you believe in things you don’t understand” followed by a final, fast mumble because I’ve never really paid attention to the last phrase. I fill in the gap by madly tapping on the steering wheel instead.

After all these years, this is the day where I must search for the lyrics when I get home. For the first time, I realize the significance of the last line in the first verse: “Then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way.”

This was a bit of a moment for me. Was Mr. Wonder actually cautioning us against superstition?

What is the formal definition of superstition, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” The dictionary then narrows it down to a simpler “a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck.”

We’ve all been there. To this day, I knock on wood whenever I say something that the mere utterance of those spoken words is going to jinx the outcome I want. Knock. Knock. On one level, I understand perfectly that there is not a shred of causation, but I do it anyway “just in case.” In another person’s experience, they may never knock on wood, but they may avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks. Or, they quickly throw a pinch of salt over their left shoulder.

We’ve put humans on the moon, carry miniature computers in our pockets and finally deciphered the chemical make-up of the entire human genome, so why do these practices still hold power?

First, I think it is about how deeply rooted superstitions are in society. Some have been around for hundreds of years because they keep getting passed on through generations of families and communities. For instance, historians believe that knocking on wood stems from medieval times, where European churchgoers would touch wood the churches claimed was from the cross. Touching it supposedly gave a connection to divinity and thus good luck.

Other experts don’t think it dates back that far and lean towards a 19th century British children’s game named Tiggy Touchwood, where the goal is to gain immunity from being tagged by touching the closet piece of wood.

What about the common belief that you never walk under a ladder? Some say this superstition arises from a Christian belief in the Holy Trinity: Since a ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, “breaking” that triangle was blasphemous. Logic insists I point out that it also makes sense to avoid having something potentially falling on you.

Another reason superstitions persist is that modern day life continues to perpetuate them. Have you ever seen a 13th floor in a hotel? Or the 13th row on a plane? I find that rather fascinating that billion dollar businesses will cater to the age-old superstitious belief that the number 13 is bad luck. Finding ways to side-step it speaks to the power of that superstition. Several years ago, Brussels Airlines altered their 13-ball logo off the tails of their fleet. They made this decision (the logo was a stylized “b” shaped by 13 dots) to appease superstitious beliefs.

And, of course, every single horror movie, no matter its storyline, plays on the fear of the unknown; the very crux of why superstitions exist. Sell Friday the 13th movie tickets to a bunch of teenagers and a new generation will begin their journey into superstition.

The reigning theory on why both the number 13 and Friday the 13th are unlucky is once again connected to religion. Wikipedia states that the superstition points to the story of Jesus’ last supper and crucifixion in which there were 13 individuals present in the Upper Room on the 13th of Nisan Maundy Thursday, the night before his death on Good Friday.

In its most basic form, it is about good luck and bad luck and controlling it.

In sports, basketball legend Michael Jordan concealed his lucky North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls team uniform. Or, if you follow baseball, just watch the myriad of players who step up to bat. They do everything from tapping the plate with their bat three times to touching each shoulder and kissing a necklace. Many refuse to wash hats, helmets, or uniforms during a winning streak. We’ll try most anything to manifest the desired outcome. It’s a human need to resolve uncertainty.

As much as we want to control our good luck, many could argue that it is even more important to control our bad luck. This leads me to the broken mirror superstition.

It is a superstitious belief that breaking a mirror will cause seven years of bad luck. Why? An NBC.com report states that “according to folklore, the superstition seems to arise from the belief that mirrors don’t just reflect your image; they hold bits of your soul. That belief led people in the old days of the American South to cover mirrors in a house when someone died, lest their soul be trapped inside.” I’ve seen this practice in movies such as Fried Green Tomatoes when Ruth dies. It’s an eerie practice.

I also just learned that this ritual is performed during the Jewish custom of sitting “shiva.” Shiva is a period of mourning which begins right after the funeral and lasts for seven days. Families cover the mirrors in this time not so much because it can hold a soul, but rather, rabbis place an emphasis on “looking inward in grief, rather than on the physical.”

There is a downside to performing superstitious rituals. Research shows that actions associated with superstitions can also become self-reinforcing; the behavior develops into a habit. Worse, a failure to perform that ritual can actually create anxiety.

Was this what Stevie Wonder was getting at through his iconic song?

“Superstition was something that came from out of my mind right on to the drums that I was playing,” he shared once in an interview. “It was an emotional kind of thing that happened.” The lyrics came later. It sounds like it was the music over the message. Even so, how in the world did his thoughts lead to “Very superstitious, broke the looking glass”?

Either way, just like many superstitions, his hit continues to have staying power. It’s an interesting coincidence.

Brussels airline photo: Yves Logghe / AP file

Mirror Image: Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

References:

Theconversation.com: “The science of Superstition”

U.S. News & World Report “13 Superstitions From Around the World”

NBC News

Lyrics:

Very superstitious,
Writing’s on the wall,
Very superstitious,
Ladders bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby,
Broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck,
The good things in your past

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition aint the way

Hey

Very superstitious,
Wash your face and hands,
Rid me of the problem,
Do all that you can,
Keep me in a daydream,
Keep me goin’ strong,
You don’t wanna save me,
Sad is the soul

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way,
Yeh, yeh

Very superstitious,
Nothin’ more to say,
Very superstitious,
The devil’s on his way,
Thirteen month old baby,
Broke the lookin’ glass,
Seven years of bad luck,
Good things in your past

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way,
No, no, no


9 thoughts on “Superstitious Notes

  1. You tapped into wonder and mystery here, pun intended. I do think humans have an impulse to devise “handles” for what is beyond our control. Or, we want to find a way to explore mystery, grasp the unexplainable in our lives.

    Speaking of superstition, I w0nder if you have watched any of the MONK episodes, a Netflix series starring Tony Shalhoub, who plays a detective with OCD and superstitions including not walking on sidewalk cracks, and a multitudes of other phobias.

    Melanie, I like how you combine so many media in your posts, creating a work of art, really. Enjoy your weekend–and the cool Florida weather for as long as it lasts. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I love your intended pun and yes, I watched the original run of Monk (I don’t think I missed an episode) when it was on ABC and USA network many years ago. He was so smart, but did have many issues. It was a great cast. I am drawn to mystery, so I’m glad you felt I captured it here. Thank you. Plus, I am always interested in human behavior. I think you also use multi-media frequently Marian. I remember you even started a YouTube channel for yourself! 🙂 I’m going to take a Storycircle Network class on podcasts in Nov. Have a nice weekend too!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you, I’ve heard the Stevie Wonder tune for many years. I realize that I never paid much attention to the lyrics because I only remembered a couple of lines from the song.

    I can see that superstition could be connected in some capacity to OCD.

    I started thinking about any superstitions I follow, and I couldn’t recall any.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for your fast response Pete, I know you’ve had a FULL week. I definitely agree that people who suffer from OCD can be vulnerable to superstitious rituals, but I do think it extends past them too. Superstitions have just been around too long to be carried along by just one group. Maybe you have a lucky hat to wear when your team is in the play-offs? 🙂 Just thinking out loud. I’m glad to hear that you like Stevie Wonder, that opening beat remains one of my all-time favorites!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this read Melanie. Very interesting to read the origins of some superstitions. I remember as a kid being so upset if I told my wish out loud after blowing out birthday candles. Did I really think I’d get that very expensive Barbie dream car if I kept the wish to myself?!! I think a lot of superstitions become the scapegoat when plans go awry. Easier to explain why bad luck happens or things don’t go as planned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😂😂 So true about your reasoning behind the Barbie car! I love that. Our brains are wired in some fascinating ways. I thought it was interesting how many (I didn’t include them all) rituals tie back to religion. That’s a powerful influence.
      I agree that you can hang bad luck on a Friday the 13th or whatever, it definitely makes us feel better like we never had a chance with our team winning or winning the daily double. Maybe they are also there to be used as a comfort? Food for thought. Have a great weekend Pam! 😊

      Like

  4. Things become instilled over time. I too knock on wood and won’t walk under a ladder, lol. Interesting about the mirror covering story, that’s what Jewish people in the home where the family sits ‘shiva’. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for educating me about sitting “shiva.” I am aware of what it is, but not the covering the mirrors portion. Surprisingly, I read several articles for this piece and the ones which referenced the broken mirror superstition, did not reference this tradition. I am rather shocked actually. I’m going to add this piece of knowledge to the post. Thank you Debby. xo

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.