September 28, 2004

The History of Superstition

Posted by Ed

One of my missions in life, as some of my readers may know, is to write a reference book. (Fair warning: my book will contain at least one fake entry.) I've haphazardly collected random biographical information on Soviet politicians in the vague hope of someday putting together a reference book about them, though I don't consider this an especially realistic goal; the main point of my data collection has been to satisfy my own curiosity. There's a part of me, however, that would love to write something more frivolous someday. I used to joke that I planned to write a reference book on evil people called "Who's Who in Hell" until I found out that my title had already been taken.

I was intrigued, then, to find this Guardian review of an amusing-sounding book: Steve Roud's Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. The book sounds like fun:

Unlike many books on superstition, Roud's argues that the commonly accepted notion that modern superstitions are the vestiges of ancient beliefs simply doesn't hold water. According to him, most of the best-known superstitions originated in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. If, as some popular writers have argued, beliefs in the number 13 being unlucky stem from the 13 present at Christ's last supper, why, Roud asks, is there no mention of unlucky 13 in the historical record until the late 17th century? The earliest mention of the belief is in a letter written by the antiquarian John Aubrey in 1697, and it has nothing to do with Christ. Prior to this there's a blank. In fact, gathering in groups of 13 was considered a beneficial, Christian thing to do, until the Reformation banned such practices as "superstitious".

The same is true of crossing fingers, which is supposed to be the sign by which persecuted Christians recognised each other, the gesture mimicking the crucifix. Roud points out that crossed fingers bear little resemblance to the cross. More damning is the fact that the first reference to the practice comes no earlier than 1890, when it was touted as a charm to offset the evil effects of walking under a ladder - another popular superstition that didn't take root until the late Victorian period.

These conclusions won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read Eric Hobsbawm, and the book doesn't sound especially deep or profound, but I'm guessing that it's a fun read.

Update: I'm not the only person ob sessed with reference books, it seems. (via Maud Newton)

Posted by Ed at September 28, 2004 09:19 PM

get a life loser

Posted by: dude at January 5, 2005 09:01 PM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM

hey!!!! i got on this site to learn abuot superstitiom, not hera about u n reference books!!! GAWD!!!!

Posted by: candace at March 23, 2005 05:30 PM
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