Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/December 1877/Modern Superstitions
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MOST people accept it as a fact that superstition went out with the advent of steam, the telegraph, and the penny-post. A little honest observation, however, will assure us that there still exist a number of pitiable though petty superstitions. Among certain classes there are lucky and unlucky days in their calendar. They will not attempt an important task on Friday. The horseshoe still hangs behind or over the door in the Highlands, and in some places much less removed from the centres of civilization. East-coast fishermen will yet occasionally burn, or otherwise destroy, a boat from which the lives of any of the crew have been lost, no matter how seaworthy or valuable the boat may be. A hare crossing the path of one of these hardy sons of the sea will cause him to forego an intended journey or voyage. To rustic and fisherman alike a concourse of magpies is an evil omen. As for dreams, the belief that they are the forecasts of events is perhaps the strongest of all the forms of their superstition. We might multiply examples, but have said enough to suggest that the follies of their great-grandfathers have still no slight fascination for the ignorant, in spite of the strides which intelligence has made.
But have superstitious beliefs quite left the more intelligent ranks of society? On the very subject of dreams itself is there not a sneaking credulity which goes far to prove the contrary? True, any one of us is quite able to account in a natural way for his or her dreams. Nevertheless, the lady who chides her children for repeating the interpretation which the housemaid has put upon their sleeping vagaries, and sagely instructs them on the subject of imperfect digestion and its effects upon the brain during sleep, is not ashamed to impart to her husband any morning the particulars of her own shocking dreams, or to piously express the hope that something untoward is not about to happen. Her better-half pooh-poohs the matter, doubtless, as becomes his superior dignity, but is visited none the less with a vague sense of uneasiness when he remembers that he himself had a vision of losing a tooth or seeing a house on fire. Having courageously quizzed his wife at the breakfast-table on the folly of her augury, and bidden her and the children good-by for the day, he inwardly deplores the unlucky omen of having to turn back for his forgotten umbrella or pocket-book!
How many curious but innocent little customs too are still current, and with the sanction of the wisest! An old slipper is still cast after a bride: it is considered necessary to christen a new ship with a bottle of wine: a fine day is still royal weather: and so on. These and many others most of us would indeed be sorry to see extinct. They are not only harmless, but, in their very departure from straitlaced common-sense, give an agreeable and perhaps even healthful relief to the prosiness of ordinary life. To sacrifice them to the strict letter of reason, would be to sacrifice much of the sentiment of life, to banish imagery from poetry, to take the perfume from the rose, to guide into a Dutch canal the current of human affections, which left free will gush and eddy, prattle and murmur by rock and meadow, carrying music and health throughout its living course.
Would that modern superstitions never took less innocent shapes! Having discarded the ghostology of olden times, many people, and among these some men and women of considerable culture, have set up for themselves a novel system of intercourse with the unknown world. Brownies and fairies, with all the fine romance that surrounds the history of their doings among human folks, are dismissed with contempt. Spiritualism has swept all these ethereal puppets off the hoards of ordinary life. To substitute what? We might at least look for an improved exhibition and more interesting "characters;" but the truth is, that nothing could be less satisfactory than the modern attempt at demon-craft. There is something so clumsy and inartistic in the whole get-up of the "spiritual" drama, that it is less surprising to find it very generally scouted than to see it obtain even a partial notoriety.
Ignorance is the parent of superstition, without a doubt; and the one never exists apart from the other. There is, however, a second wise saw that tells a great deal of the truth about the origin of that world-old bugbear of the human mind, namely, "The wish is father to the thought." What we strongly desire to be, we are next door to believing to be. The appetite of man's vanity is unappeasable, and in catering for it his fancy plays tricks with his reason. He longs for intercommunion with the unknown, and indulges the wish by creating fictitious agents for that purpose. Tokens, signs, omens, and auguries, are also outgrowths of the various forms of desire and vanity. We believe we shall have luck if we turn the money in our pocket when looking at new moon. Men have waited in all ages for the appearance of some favorable sign before beginning any enterprise of importance. If the sun shines on our wedding-day, how auspicious! Palpably in each case because we desire these things to be! But having set up omens with such an object, we, in the cleft-stick of our own superstition, are bound to believe their absence, or converse, the foreshadowers of evil.
In many ways modern credulity frees itself from such mechanical trammels as those we have mentioned, to take a form and complexion from the age, losing meanwhile not one jot of its vigor. To dream three times of a hidden treasure and set about, Whang-the-Miller-like, to lay bare the foundations of one's house, is an exploit not to be thought of by the veriest wiseacre of our day; but the desire to obtain wealth easily and rapidly being, if anything, more active and rampant, the belief in some magical means for attaining it is the most natural thing in the world. An El Dorado is required, and lo! an El Dorado is implicitly thought to exist. The projectors of a bogus company for "utilizing the clippings of old moons," or "extracting starch from granite chips," are the good fairies whom by propitiating with a portion of our substance we hope to enlist in our behalf, and obtain a thousand-fold return. Where such a superstition exists, and it is broadcast, any scheme, however absurd, any swindle, no matter how transparent, will serve for a bait to catch the unwary and over-eager fish. Nothing is so purblind as undue acquisitiveness. The ancient Highlander with his keen eye to the main chance and happy facility for "attaching" whatever came in his way, found a beautiful horse in rich trappings, browsing ownerless in his path, and, following the instinct of his desire rather than the prudence which tradition should have taught him, rashly mounted. In an instant he was borne aloft, then plunged forever beneath the dark waters of a tarn on the back of the wily and terrible water-kelpie. We, too, have our illusory steeds in this so vaunted age, and neither the teachings of history nor the bitterest experience seems able to prevent the speculator from vaulting into the saddle, and forthwith launching into perdition.
Charms are things of the past, or believed in merely by the vulgar; that is to say, those pretty and fanciful conceits which led our ancestors to attach a healing or sanitary virtue to certain objects and ceremonies are now almost extinct. A spray from the rowan-tree is no longer a safeguard against an epidemic, nor the hand of majesty a cure for scrofula. Ladies do not now believe that the presence of a piece of cold iron on their couch, "while uneasy in their circumstances" will secure a happy consummation; nor is a child's caul in much request in these days as a protection against fire and drowning. True, we have got over these beliefs pretty thoroughly. But is the desire for infallible remedies and potent protectives done away with also? Not in the least; and though science is doing its best to provide honest substitutes in a natural measure, the public is not satisfied with its efforts. Quacks are the modern magicians, and quack medicines the charms of latter days. Those who are bald, for instance, will not accept their fate while a single well-puffed elixir with a Greek name remains untried. There is something saddening, if not sickening, in the evident success which attends the pretenses to cure chronic and irremediable diseases, to effect miracles in short with the most trumpery of means and execrably silly devices. Our forefathers were imposed upon, no doubt, but there was method in their madness. The "simples" with which spae-wives and charlatans professed to cure ailments were in many cases effective and now recognized drugs, and were at the worst perfectly harmless; while the rites with which they were administered, if quite apart from the purpose, yet appealed gracefully to the imagination. Nowadays, however, the "simples" are the patients and not the medicines! The old story. Childlike, the age cries for something that it cannot get, rejecting the good that is within reach.
In a recent number of this Journal, we had occasion to refer to the amazing credulity of Americans on the subject of professional "mediums." The worst of it is, that the extent to which this has been laid bare is insignificant compared with that which really remains unexposed. The desire to work with supernatural tools in effecting the paltriest and meanest of human ends, would seem to have divided a people of accredited shrewdness into the two classes of rogues and dupes. But, as we have seen, we, too, have been singed at the same tire. There are, moreover, other if minor superstitions in our midst that suggest the propriety of beginning the task of reformation at home. An occasional glance, for instance, at the stock advertisements of leading journals, will convince any one how wide-spread is the infatuation that believes in spurious offers of advantageous employment. Some of these have, under our own observation, been repeated with little variation for more than twenty years; and we have no doubt that the wily advertisers are able to calculate to a fraction the number and gullibility of their dupes. We have from time to time drawn attention to swindles of this class, as well as to those tempting offers of "Money to lend," which appear with equal regularity in newspaper columns. We are afraid, however, that friendly warning and experience are alike unavailing to stem the mischief. The spread of education itself would appear unable to outstrip the spread of imposture or the eager credulity that supports it; for superstition merely shifts its ground from time to time, without losing appreciably its original dominion over the human mind.—Chambers's Journal.