I Ain’t Superstitious1


May 2017
Ivan Obolensky

The word, superstition, derives from the Latin super (over) and stare (to stand), perhaps in the sense of standing over something in awe.2 It is defined as an irrational belief in supernatural influences.

As an example, crossing one’s fingers to prevent bad luck or a bad outcome is considered superstitious. Conversely, a student who believes that using the same pencil, or wearing a lucky shirt, on the day of an exam is also being superstitious. Although such beliefs make no logical sense, surprisingly, they are effective.

In a 2008 study, college students were subjected to four golfing experiments that activated good-luck related superstitions. The subjects improved their performance by 33% when handed a “lucky” golf ball. In a like manner, those who were allowed to bring good-luck charms from home had better performance with them than without. Similar positive results occurred on mental tasks such as solving anagram puzzles. Although anxiety levels did not change, in that their nervousness at being tested remained the same, the students’ sense of self-efficacy or confidence in their ability to do well and achieve their intended goals improved, and so did test performance.3

Even the most logically scientific are not immune from superstitious thinking.

There is the apocryphal story of Niels Bohr, who when asked if he believed that the horseshoe in his country home was lucky, replied, “Of course not, but I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not”.4 In other tests, not just scientists but self-proclaimed atheists broke into a cold sweat when reading aloud such sentences as “I dare God to make my parents drown”.

Whether superstition is innate or learned is not clear. What is known is that the expression of subconscious superstitious beliefs increases as we are reminded of our own mortality. This is evidenced by the saying: there are no atheists in a foxhole.5 Whether one knows intellectually that talismans and superstitious beliefs are causally ineffective, we still use them and have for a very long time. This behavior is understandable in that there is an observable correlation between threat factors in an environment and the prevalence of superstition and magical beliefs.

This can be demonstrated in the rise of the mystery religions of ancient Rome. During the Punic wars (the Roman wars with Carthage, 264 – 146 BCE), Rome was thrown into a deep and profound uncertainty. Reliance on the indigenous family-oriented polytheistic religion had been gradually supplemented by mysteries of eastern origin. With Hannibal threatening Rome itself, the Senate in desperation resorted to consulting the Sibylline Oracles whose utterances were written down in a series of nine books, of which only three were available at the time.6

According to legend, the entire collection of nine had been offered to Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, by the Cumaean Sibyl, who arrived from Cumae, located outside modern Naples, where the Greek oracle of Apollo resided in a cave. Lest one think that driving a hard bargain is only a feature of the modern world, the Sibyl had a most effective and impressive presentation. She offered the nine books of prophecy in exchange for a large sum, but the king rejected the offer, the price being far too exorbitant. The Sibyl answered his refusal by throwing three volumes into the fire. While they burned, she offered the remaining six at the same price. These too were refused, and another three were cast into the flames. When she offered the final three at the same price as the nine, the king finally accepted. Thereafter the books were considered so valuable they were preserved in a vault below the Capitoline temple of Jupiter. 7

When Hannibal annihilated the Roman legions at Cannae and again at Lake Trasimene, the books were consulted in earnest, and they recommended that two Gauls and two Greeks be buried alive in the city’s marketplace. Whether because of the grisly human sacrifice, luck, or the conqueror’s desire to ravage the countryside before advancing on the city, Hannibal uncharacteristically paused and never arrived. During the brief lull, Rome was able to field yet another army, this time under the legendary Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, whose canny maneuvers are immortalized in Livy’s History of Rome. 8

In spite of Rome’s conquests and steady expansion, its proscriptions (a sentence of death or exile), internal squabbles, taxation, property confiscations, and power struggles, made being a Roman citizen a perilous undertaking. Under pressure to find answers and with the importation of vast numbers of slaves as well as immigrants, the religious ideas of the Eastern empire gained in popularity.

That so many foreign religions flourished was partly due to the Roman policy of allowing the conquered their beliefs rather than their freedoms, and also because religion could be used as a tool of state policy. After the death of Augustus and his resurrection as a god, a cursory bow to the emperor’s divinity in the many temples was sufficient to allow continued toleration of their existence. It was the Christians’ refusal to allow even a token nod in this direction that precipitated the Christian persecutions under Diocletian and others. (Placing a figure of the emperor in the temple as a divine presence violated the commandment regarding false idols.) Over time, the state religion was subject to skepticism and did little to ease the fears of the masses, who resorted to the mystery religions to obtain personal peace and solace.

They were called mystery religions because of their secret initiation ceremonies. They included early Christianity, the worship of Mithras, the temple religions of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, as well as a host of others. All had common themes that appealed to the individual such as baptism, rebirth, confession, resurrection of the dead in another life, redemption, atonement, secret knowledge, sacrifice, potent symbolism, and allegory – all of which found their way into what was to become the Christian faith. Astrology, prophecy, augury, religious worship of the mysteries and all that might divine a path to a better future vied with one another in the forum and the villas of the time.

It has been noted quite accurately that the profound beliefs of one group are the mere superstitions of another, but in the melting pot that was the Roman Empire, beliefs and thus superstitions abounded and found fertile ground in the persistent uncertainty.

At Rome’s height, superstition was so prevalent and had permeated so many facets of Roman life, from when to get a haircut to having an affair, it created alarm even amongst the most educated, and they responded. Cicero penned his essay on superstition to differentiate between religious beliefs and excess fear of the gods. Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, the nature of things, to show that nature can be explained by natural laws without the need for divine intervention. He also explained the philosophy of Epicurus, the earlier Greek philosopher, who emphasized divine neutrality, and that tranquility could be secured by moderation and above all by living in such a way as to avoid fear. The two greatest sources of which were religion and death. The emperors would routinely clear the city of foreign temples but to no avail. Inexorably they would creep back in; such was the public’s thirst for faith, hope, and a better life.

Although given only passing reference in today’s education, the history of the Roman empire is instructive. It endured violent wars as the Republic collapsed and the even more terrifying behaviors of the Emperors themselves; death, confiscations, slavery, or exile might happen at any moment. The empire of Rome encompassed all that was considered civilization. There was no escape from the long arm of the Emperor or the state.9

In today’s world, as in Rome, there are few places to remain anonymous and ultimately private, unless one wishes to live in self-sufficient freedom far from the urban environment and out of reach of the Internet.

Similarly, as economic, political, and environmental uncertainties increase, there has been a rise in superstitious thinking. Over the last few decades the mind-set has taken hold and is now accelerating.10 The number of requests for exorcisms to the Catholic church in Italy has risen sharply to some 500,000 a year.11 Only a few decades ago being an exorcist was an endangered occupation – not today. It is a growth industry.

Urban legends abound as well and could be considered a form of superstition. It should be noted that whatever belief one holds may find verification through various Google searches for that same belief. Inaccurate information is just as prevalent and accessible as accurate information with little means to tell the difference.

Fake news may also be interpreted as superstition in that the snippets make no logical sense, yet if they conform with one’s own ideas, they must be true. Given that governments and their agencies see no reason to disavow – and even originate – questionable rumors if it forwards their purposes, it is likely that wrong conclusions, inaccurate assumptions, and false beliefs are just as prevalent as the bogus prognostications, advice, and superstitions of the marketplaces and forums of old.

We have even outdone the past in our sophistication in terms of magical thinking. We now have the Mandela effect, which takes elements of String Theory and the pliability of our memories to create the belief that we live beside a parallel universe that is slowly leaking into our own.12 Is this superstition, urban legend, or fake news? In this the lines blur, and all that is left is our imagination and our own interpretation.

In spite of the extraordinary amount of information and misinformation, the fact that any belief seems better than none, and that even the most illogical is more helpful to the confidence and self-efficacy of those that believe it, any attempt to weed out inaccurate thinking is likely to fail as surely as the Empire’s efforts to rid Rome of Isis and those pesky Christians, who in the end proved more adept at conquest than even Hannibal.

Winston Churchill said the following before the House of Commons on May 2, 1935:

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”13

And so it goes.14

  1. Dixon W. (1961) I Ain’t Superstitious (Recorded by Howlin’ Wolf) 45 RPM Single, Chicago, IL: Chess label. Recorded December, 1961.
    [Note: Jeff Beck recorded his version in 1968 and featured Rod Stewart on vocals.]
  2. Superstition (2016) In Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/superstition.
  3. Damisch, L. (2008) Keep your fingers crossed! The influence of superstition on subsequent task performance and its mediating mechanism. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/12010169.pdf.
  4. N.A. (N.D.) I Understand It Brings You Luck, Whether You Believe in It or Not. Quote Investigator.com. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/09/horseshoe-luck/.
  5. Hutson, M. (2015) The Science of Superstition. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-science-of-superstition/384962/
  6. Livy, T. (1965) The War with Hannibal. Aubrey De Selincourt, translator. London, UK: Penguin Books.
  7. Amundgaard, B. (2015) The Sibyl of Cumae. Classical Wisdom Weekly. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from http://classicalwisdom.com/sibyl-cumae/
  8. Livy, op. cit.
  9. Angus, S. (1928) The Mystery-Religions. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
  10. Damisch, op. cit.
  11. Williams, T.D. (2016) Report: As Satanism Grows, Italy Experiencing A ‘Boom’ in Exorcisms. Breitbart.com. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/10/13/report-satanism-grows-italy-experiencing-boom-exorcisms/.
  12. N.A. (2016) The Mandela Effect: Conspiracy theorists believe we’re living in colliding alternate realities. News.com.au. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/wtf/the-mandela-effect-conspiracy-theorists-believe-were-living-in-colliding-alternate-realities/news-story/ac488ee2426335f09d781f50c26ba33a.
  13. Churchill, W. (1935) Those Who Fail to Learn From History. The National Churchill Museum. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/blog/churchill-quote-history/.
  14. Vonnegut, K. (1969) Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, NY: RosettaBooks.
    [Note: I ended with fourteen citations not because I’m superstitious or anything.]

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© 2017 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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