Throughout the centuries, the early superstitions that brought solace to the fear-stricken primitive mind have spawned thousands upon thousands of magic practices and beliefs—all with the goal of warding off danger, of placating angry deities, or of summoning good fortune. Since humankind’s earliest awareness of the final destiny of the grave that awaits us all, people have feared death and have imagined omens, or warnings, in the simplest things, such as the appearance of a black cat, broken mirrors, the spilling of salt, the number 13 or walking under a ladder.
In a broad sense, superstitions are a kind of white magic in that people will believe that their observing or practicing of the personal ritual will bring them good luck, prevent illness, and or ward off evil. And many superstitions offer procedures for overcoming the negative acts threatened by these omens, such as casting a pinch of salt over the shoulder or whispering a blessing after a sneeze.
Out of these early forms of magic and superstition grew many curious customs that remain to this day. For example, in time of illness the medicine man applied his lips to the part that issued pain and “sucked out the evil spirit.” Mothers around the world still kiss the bruised finger or knee of their crying children to “kiss it and make it well.” Many people still “knock on wood” to guard against their words or thoughts having been misunderstood by eavesdropping spirits who might wish to punish them by bringing bad luck upon them. Some believe that the howling of a dog during the full moon predicts the death of its owner. To place three chairs in a row accidentally means a death in the family. If a sick person is changed from one room to another it is a sure sign that he will die. One who counts the number of automobiles in a funeral procession will die within the year. An open umbrella, held over the head indoors, indicates approaching death.
Scores of superstitions such as these still exist among people everywhere. Centuries ago, human beings entered into a superstitious bondage from which they have never wholly escaped. Many men and women today, in spite of the wonders of contemporary technology, still feel a great sense of helplessness as they attempt to chart their individual fates in a hostile environment. In many instances, the terrors of the modern world surpass the horrors that lurked in the shadows in that time long ago when primitive humans first dared to venture out of their caves. Even the most sophisticated of today’s men and women may still knock on wood and carry a rabbit’s foot in their pockets for luck.
Niels Bohr (1885–1962), the Danish Nobel Prize-winning physicist, kept a horseshoe nailed over the door to his laboratory. When someone once asked him if he really believed the old superstition about horseshoes bringing good luck, he replied that he didn’t believe in it, but he had been told that it worked whether one believed in it or not.
David Phillips, lead author of an extensive study of the effect of superstitions on the lives of those who believe in them, has stated that superstitions of any kind can raise stress and anxiety levels. The scientists who conducted the study, which was published in March 2002, concluded that it is as if superstitions are hard-wired into the human brain, for they affect all people, regardless of educational level or ethnicity.