Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Examples of Popular Superstition by the J. I. Mombert 1886


See also The Number 13 & Other Superstitions - 100 Books on DVDROM

It is proposed to consider some curious forms of superstition still current through an enormous territory, among intelligent classes of the best informed nations as well as among the lower orders of society.

Beginning with the superstition touching the number "Thirteen," there is a widespread notion that it is unlucky to have thirteen persons at table, and that one of such a company is sure to die within a year. I have often seen the consternation of the fatal discovery, and the expedients of counteracting it by one taking the meal at a separate table, or waiting until the proper twelve had finished theirs.

Twelve may be called the biblical number; for are there not the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve minor prophets, and the twelve apostles?

The superstition appears to be connected with the last, for our Lord sat down with the "Twelve," one of them betrayed Him, and the traitor went and hanged himself. Clearly our Lord was the thirteenth, and the logical inferences of the analogy seem to be these: that every person happening to be the thirteenth is to be betrayed; that in every company of thirteen there must be a traitor; and that he will go and hang himself.

It is not at all improbable that among thirteen people may be found a treacherous person, although it is highly improbable that he will share the fate of Judas. But in matters of this kind we must not insist upon literal or logical analogy, and all the requirements of the case appear to be met by the more accommodating and liberal construction of dooming one of the thirteen to certain death, without specifying the kind of death.

Reflecting upon this superstition, it may be conceded that one of the thirteen is as sure to die as the other twelve, although it were idle to specify the time and manner of his death. The life insurance people will doubtless admit the accuracy of the proposition that fifteen at a table is more dangerous to the company than thirteen, twentyfour more than fifteen, and thirty-three the most dangerous of all numbers less than that, because the table of mortality indicates that normally one person in thirtythree dies every year.

I fully concur in the sentiment of two philosophers who have investigated the subject, the one a Frenchman, the other a German, that thirteen at table is unlucky, if you have provided dinner for only twelve. The physical conditions of the several members of the company also may materially change the mortal aspect of the case.

I have known and know people who extend this superstition to whatever is connected, directly or indirectly, with the number thirteen. One declines to begin a journey or business transaction on the thirteenth day of the month; another refuses to buy or rent a house which bears that street number, or even to use an omnibus, car or cab with that number inscribed on the panels.

In one illustrious instance, however, which I have never seen stated before, an experience of one hundred and ten years may suffice to demonstrate the absurdity of this numerical superstition, and, as I believe, to the entire satisfaction not only of all loyal citizens of these United States, but also to that of the intelligent of every other nation, whom I point to the thirteen stripes of the national banner, as the emblem of freedom and unexampled prosperity, which has waved in triumph these many years, and is destined, I trust, to wave in undimmed glory to the as yet unnumbered years of a remote future. For, if ever the blessing of heaven has rested on human endeavor, it has truly been lavished on that of the thirteen patriot States, which contrived in dependence on the Supreme Ruler of mundane affairs to found this Union, where it is rank heresy and treason to cling to the silly and absurd superstition that "thirteen" is an unlucky number.

The prejudice about Friday also appears to be of evangelical origin. On that day our Lord was crucified, the sun eclipsed, the veil of the temple rent asunder; therefore it is considered an unlucky day, on which whatever is begun or undertaken is destined to end in disaster.

Sailors dread a voyage begun on Friday, and few ladies are willing to be married on that day. The story is told of an infidel, who, in spite of his disbelief, misbelief, or unbelief, clung to the superstition of Friday. He was a man who had not the fear of God before his eyes, and branded every form of religion as priestcraft, but the unluckiness of Friday was one of the articles of his creed. His friends and fellow-infidels tried to laugh him out of it, and told him, that the seven days were brothers on the best of terms, that the sun had the habit of rising on Friday as well as on Thursday and Saturday; that tempests, floods, earthquakes, and sudden deaths are not more frequent on Fridays than on other days, and that history was strongly against him, since the ancients observed Friday as specially consecrated to the goddess of love and pleasure.

He shook his head, and waved them off with emphatic action, saying, what he never would have said, had he been a Christian and a gentleman, "No, no! my friends, experience has taught me to regard Friday unlucky; I shall never venture upon anything on Friday. I married on Friday."

The superstition concerning lucky and unlucky days, though very general and old, is very unreasonable. Friday is as good a day as any other, and as we now laugh at the absurdity of the ancients for regarding the twenty-fourth day of February of the Roman leap year an unlucky day, and the whole month of May peculiarly disastrous for weddings, so, doubtless, some future generation will make merry of our absurd prejudice about Friday, and wonder how Christian people could ever have allowed it to take root.

It is singular that here again I may point to history and instance the discovery of America on Friday as evidence to the contrary, for in America at least the occurrence of that stupendous event makes that day above all others a most auspicious, or if a more religious word be preferred, a most propitious day.

Writing of these days reminds me of a conversation between a rather secular Churchman (a layman) and a Puritan overflowing with zeal for the literal observance of the old Levitical precept of the Sabbath.

"What?" cried the Puritan "You will be a Sabbath breaker? Are you aware that you are about to do a very wicked thing, which is sure to be punished?"

"Why, no," rejoined the other, "I do not think so at all; indeed, of all days of the week, I prefer Sunday for a journey; and I have, moreover, the express sanction of the Prayer Book, for Sunday is a Litany day, and the whole Church bids me godspeed."

"Nonsense," said the Puritan, "how do you make that out?"

"Easily enough," replied the Prayer Book Christian, with a smile. "On Sunday the Church prays for 'all that travel by land and by water.'"

The matter of lucky and unlucky days has been systematized by very observant people in England into a sort of general directory, briefly expressed in rhyme as follows:

For Marriages.

Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday no luck at all.

For Sneezing.
Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on Tuesday, kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on Wednesday, get a letter;
Sneeze on Thursday, something better;
Sneeze on Friday, sneeze for sorrow;
Sneeze on Saturday, see thy love to-morrow.

For Cutting Nails.
Cut them on Monday, cut them for health:
Cut them on Tuesday, cut them for wealth;
Cut them on Wednesday, cut them for news;
Cut them on Thursday, a pair of new shoes;
Cut them on Friday, cut them for sorrow;
Cut them on Saturday, a present to-morrow.
But he that on Sunday cuts his horn,
Better that he had never been born.

This is very dreadful, but carries falsehood on the face; for, as a matter of fact, there is doubtless more horn cutting on Sunday than on any other day of the week, and not improbably on grounds which, if not strictly religious, are certainly next door to it, for cleanliness is next to godliness, and Sunday being the day for the most cleanly presentation of the sons and daughters of toil, it is reasonable to suppose that on that day they will be peculiarly solicitous in the matter of their nails.

But if the directory is to be followed, as a pater familias I venture to choose Monday, Tuesday and Saturday for my special benefit, and to commend Thursday to sponsors oblivious of their duties, who, though negligent about the souls of their godchildren, may find it less irksome to attend to their understandings by an occasional remembrancer in the shape of new shoes.

As to sneezing, we learn from the rhyme that it is sometimes lucky, sometimes unlucky, and from other sources that the custom of saying something equivalent to "God bless you" is one of hoary antiquity. It is said that Tiberius was wont to bow to all sneezers, and expected all persons to bow to him when he indulged in that involuntary solo; and that one Proclus had a nose so excessively long that his hands could not reach the end, while his nostrils were so far from his ears that he could not say "God bless you," because he did not hear the sound of his sneezing. The learned Pliny discusses the question, why respect is paid to sneezers, and the exclamation was found in use among the aboriginal inhabitants of Africa and Mexico.

Prometheus, they say, imparted vitality to his first man by means of a solar ray introduced into his nostrils, and thus originated sneezing; the rabbis, who account for everything, name Adam as the first sneezer, affirm that in antediluvian times sneezing was a sure presage of sudden death, and that the Patriarch Jacob obtained a special dispensation from the penalty, which gave rise to the "God bless you."

All this sounds rather apocryphal, especially since it is difficult to disprove the proposition of Aristotle and Hippocrates that sneezing is a divine benefaction. It is certainly a great relief; moreover, the opinion of those famous Greeks was doubtless quite general in their country, and seems to have given rise to the proverbial expression for a very beautiful person that the gods had sneezed at her birth.

A very learned investigator of this recondite subject has collected the evidence and found that Homer and Theocritus entertained a less favorable view of sneezing, holding that it was bad to sneeze through the left nostril, but good to experience the relieving excitation in the right nostril.

But here again there is a conflict of authorities, for Plutarch states the very opposite, and records the fact that during a sacrifice offered by Themistocles, before the battle of Salamis, one of those present, sneezing through the left nostril, the priest declared it to be a lucky sign and good omen; and you know that Salamis is a proud name in Grecian history.

The Bishop of Hippo holds middle ground, and, while admitting the unluckiness of sneezing in putting on one's sandals, provides an excellent remedy against evil consequences in a precipitate return to bed.

Some, however, are not altogether satisfied with the infallibility of the episcopal prescription, saying that if a man sneezed before midnight when the moon was in the Bull, the Lion, the Goat, or the Fishes, he sneezed for good, but woe betide his sneezing after midnight, and the satellite lurking in the constellations of the Virgin, the Waterbearer, the Crab, or the Scorpion, especially on rising from bed and leaving the house, then he must pray or hasten to an untimely grave.

Though the citizens of this great republic do not observe the time-honored, pious ejaculation, and in the exercise of their liberty sneeze without religious exercises, they appear to be as well off as the ancients, and their modern contemporaries of foreign lands, not as particular as they in keeping the Third Commandment.

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