Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Superstitions: Black Cats

Cross-posted at Jennifer's History and Stuff.

Americans tend to think of black cats as bad luck, especially if one crosses their path, but the black cat is actually a very popular good-luck symbol in England today. Historically, cats in general have had a mixed bag of luckiness/unluckiness in Europe. In France, cats of any color that were suspected of being witches were caged and set on fire. In Eastern Europe, some cats were marked with crosses to prevent them from turning into witches.

Besides witches, black animals can be associated with other evil spirits. Demons tend to prefer to become black animals--whether cats, dogs, or other creatures. And it is believed that sorcerers often turn themselves into black cats.

The American superstition about black cats is based on the association of black cats with witches, originating in the late 1800s when cartoons and children’s books started pairing the two. Now you can hardly imagine a witch without her black cat keeping her company. Before this, witches in America were usually associated with rabbits and other animals.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in David Pickering's Dictionary of Superstitions and Steve Roud's The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ghost Stories: Oiwa and Iemon

This is one version of a very famous Japanese ghost story.

Over 300 years ago in the Edo Period of Japan, there lived a master-less samurai named Iemon. He and his wife, Oiwa, lived in Tokyo. Oiwa was happily expecting a baby, and loved her husband very much. Oiwa didn’t care that Iemon was poor, but he was depressed about his lack of prospects anyway.

A rich young woman named Oume fell in love with Iemon despite his poverty and marital status, and one day her grandfather came to Iemon. He told Iemon what a shame it was that he was already married, because his granddaughter loved him very much. The grandfather went on to say all the ways that he would ensure his granddaughter’s future husband’s wealth and success. Iemon listened intently.

After some time thinking about the grandfather’s visit, Iemon decided to free himself of Oiwa and their unborn child so that he could marry Oume. The easiest way to do this was to poison Oiwa. Oiwa, ignorant of Iemon’s plans, happily prepared for the arrival of their baby.

One evening Oiwa and Iemon sat down to dinner, and Oiwa noticed her husband was strangely quiet and listless. She encouraged him to eat, but he would not touch his food. He encouraged Oiwa to stop fretting and to eat, herself. She needed to be strong for the baby, after all. Oiwa finally gave up trying to tempt Iemon’s appetite and started to eat. It wasn’t long before she felt very sick.

Iemon watched her coldly as the poison did its work, not offering her any help or comfort. But Oiwa did not die right away. Her beautiful face became disfigured from the poison first. Then she slipped into unconsciousness. Iemon was too much of a coward to finish the job he started, so he put Oiwa’s lifeless body in bed. Eventually Oiwa woke from her coma, remembering nothing of the poisoning. She had lost her baby, and her face was ugly and terrible, but Oiwa lived.

Iemon was desperate. He played the part of the concerned husband, but he was looking for any way possible to rid himself of his wife. One evening he took Oiwa for a long walk. They made their way to a cliff, and Iemon looked around to see if anyone was nearby. No one was in sight.

Iemon pushed Oiwa off the ledge. Her broken body was recovered and Iemon gave her the best funeral he could afford, spending all of his money in a great show of marital devotion. Of course, Iemon knew his money troubles were only temporary now that Oiwa was gone.

Thinking his worries were over, Iemon planned his wedding to Oume. The night before the marriage was to take place, Iemon noticed his lamp was dimming. He looked at it curiously, as it seemed to be changing. The disfigured face of Oiwa suddenly replaced the lamp, growing larger and larger in the room. “Betrayal!” it hissed.

Iemon grabbed his katana and swung at the face, but Oiwa disappeared and the lamp fell to the floor, cut from its cord. Iemon thought he heard the faint laughter of a woman from outside. Shaken, Iemon stamped out the lamp’s candle that was now burning the rug. He soon convinced himself that the vision was simply the result of too much sake earlier in the evening, and went to bed.

The next day, Iemon had forgotten all about the specter from the night before. He and Oume were wed. When he lifted her veil, however, her beautiful young face was replaced with Oiwa’s horrible visage. “Betrayal!” she hissed.

Iemon once again defended himself with his sword, cutting Oiwa’s head off. When it landed on the floor, however, it had Oume’s face and not Oiwa’s. He heard the faint sound of laughter again.

Iemon ran to his tiny house, looking for a place to hide. There was a pounding at the door, and Oume’s grandfather demanded that he open it. When Iemon did so, Oiwa was standing there. “Betrayal!” she hissed.

Once again, Iemon tried to decapitate her, but when his sword finished its work, it was Oume’s grandfather that lay dead.

Iemon ran for the cliffs, Oiwa’s laughter following him. He stopped at the edge and looked down, perhaps changing his mind.

It didn’t matter. Passersby reported seeing a woman push Iemon off the cliff before she jumped after him, laughing all the way down.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Superstitions: Horseshoes

Cross-posted to Jennifer's History and Stuff.

In the late 1300s, we see the first British record of a found horseshoe being considered lucky. This belief has been held by pretty much every horseshoe-producing culture, from Scandinavia to Asia. The key was to have a found horseshoe, rather than a new horseshoe, and various degrees of luck were associated with intact nails, number of nail holes, etc.

By the late 1500s, the English were nailing their found horseshoes above their doors to keep the witches at bay. This is probably related to a long-held belief in the power of iron, which protected European people from fairies and other spirits before witches came along.

As we got closer to 1900, horseshoes above the door were less about witches and more for general luckiness. Whether the horseshoe’s ends should face up or down has never been completely resolved. Some people think facing the ends up will keep the luck from falling out of the horseshoe, while others believe facing the ends down will direct all that luckiness to the people walking below it.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in Christina Hole's The Encyclopedia of Superstitions and Steve Roud's The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ghost Stories: The Girl in White

Danny was sulking, standing along the wall and watching his friends dance with their pretty partners. His girlfriend, Anita, had stayed home that night to take care of her sick mother.

His friend, Nathan, came up to him between dances and said, "Anita is not the only girl in the world. There are many pretty girls here: dance with one of them."

Danny started looking around the room. His gaze fell upon a beautiful young girl standing at the edge of the dance floor. She was dressed in an old-fashioned white gown and her skin was as pale as the moon. Her dark eyes watched the dance wistfully from her position behind a tall fern, and Danny felt his heart beat faster. Such a lovely young woman should be dancing!

He made his way through the crowd and introduced himself to the girl in white. She looked startled by his attention, as if she had not expected anyone to notice her, but she readily agreed to dance with him. Danny happily led her out onto the floor to dance, all thoughts of Anita gone from his mind.

Nathan and some of his other friends gave him odd looks as he danced with the girl in white. When the dance was over, he left to get his beautiful partner a drink. Nathan found him at the refreshment table. Danny grinned and thanked Nathan for his advice. "I'm dancing with the most beautiful girl in the room!"

"You've had too much to drink, buddy," Nathan replied.

Danny glared at his friend, annoyed, and left. Making his way back to the girl in white, he handed her a glass and asked her to walk outside with him along the terrace. The night was beautiful, the sky twinkling with stars, and Danny stared at the girl with love in his eyes.

The girl in white turned to him with a sigh and said, "Thank you for the dance. It has been a very long time since I had such pleasure."

"Let us dance again, then," he said quickly. But she shook her head.

"I must leave now," she said, drifting toward the stairs at the end of the terrace.

"Please don't go," he pleaded, following her.

"I must," she said, turning to look at him. Her eyes softened when she saw the hurt look on his face. "Come with me?" she invited, holding out a pale hand.

Danny's heart pounded rapidly at the thought. More than anything in the world, he wanted to go with this lovely girl. And then he noticed that he could see the stone wall of the terrace through the girl's hand. Shocked, he looked into her face, and realized that she was fading away before his eyes.

At the look of horror on his face, the girl gave a sad laugh and dropped her hand, which was nearly transparent now.

"Goodbye," she said, her body becoming thin and misty. "Goodbye."

Then she was gone.

He stood silently in terror as he realized he had been dancing with a ghost. Then he ran all the way home.

When Nathan came the next day to check on him, Danny told his friend the whole story. Nathan whistled in amazement. "You saw the spirit of Genevieve," he said. "She lived on a plantation around here more than two hundred years ago. She died of consumption the night before her debutante ball and they say her spirit sometimes attends the local dances, hoping to have one of the dances that she missed."

Danny shuddered at the thought of his dance with the ghost. "I will not be visiting that dance hall again," he told Nathan. "From now on, all my dances will be with Anita!"

And he kept his word.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Superstitions: Salt, Garlic, and Silver Bullets

(Cross-posted to Jennifer's History and Stuff.)

Salt and garlic have long been used throughout the world for medicinal and preservative purposes, and as a result generally have "lucky" reputations.

For example: if you spill salt, take a pinch and throw it over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck. The earliest record of this practice dates from around 1584; it was seen quite commonly thereafter. Why do people do this? The reasoning is largely unknown. Some people say the Devil whispers in your left ear and the salt will blind him or drive him away. (As for why spilling salt is unlucky in the first place, this is due to salt's historically high value.)

An older salty superstition said that keeping a bag of salt with a baby before baptism guarded the child against witches. This practice arose at least partly because salt was mentioned in the Bible for use in the baptismal ceremony, and was used in pagan ceremonies long before that.

Garlic also has a history of use as a protectant. The protection against vampires sprang from literature. (See: Dracula, 1897.) Before this, however, it was used to protect against witchcraft everywhere from Europe to Asia.

And since we're talking about modern-day monsters, how about silver bullets? Long before they stopped vampires and werewolves, they were believed to be the only thing that could harm a witch who had taken the form of a rabbit or other animal. Silver itself has a long history of being used for luck, because of its value in general. It is supposedly able to withstand enchantment, which is why it can't be deflected by evil beings.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in David Pickering's Dictionary of Superstitions and Steve Roud's The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ghost Stories: The Monkey's Paw

Over a hundred years ago, an old couple lived in the English countryside with their adult son. Henry White worked in a saw mill for the Meggins Lumber Company, helping to support his parents.

One cold and rainy night, an old friend came to visit. He was a retired Army sergeant who had spent years in India. The family rarely had visitors in their lonely little homestead, so to hear the sergeant's stories was quite a treat. They listened raptly while he told of his adventures in India.

During a lull in the narrative, Mr. White said, "What were you starting to tell me about a monkey's paw the other day?"

The sergeant looked flustered, "Oh, that. Nothing worth hearing."

After some pursuasion, however, the sergeant finally relented. "It's a trifle, really, but I have this monkey's paw." He pulled a mummified, dry monkey paw out of his shirt pocket. "A fakir put a spell on it so it will grant three wishes to three people."

The Whites looked incredulous. Henry jokingly asked, "So why don't you have your three, sir?"

The sergeant gravely responded, "I have."

Mrs. White whispered, "And did they come true?"

"They did. As did the wishes of the previous owner. His third wish was for death, which is how I came to be in possession of this thing." The sergeant stared blankly into the fire as he absent-mindedly rubbed the paw. Suddenly, he threw the paw into the flames.

"Hey now!" Mr. White shouted and jumped up, rescuing the paw from the fire. "If you've no more need of it, I'll certainly take possession of the thing."

"Best to let it burn, my friend."

Mr. White examined the monkey's paw in his hand, turning it around and around. "How does it work?" he asked.

"Just remember I threw it on the fire. Whatever happens, don't blame me, for I did not give it to you," the old sergeant said quietly. "But if you're determined to keep it and use it, hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud."

Mr. White immediately held it up, but before he could speak, his friend grabbed his arm in alarm. "For God's sake, if you're going to wish, wish for something sensible."

Mr. White put the paw in his own pocket and the thing was largely forgotten as the group sat down to dinner. After their guest left, the Whites cheerfully joked about becoming rich and famous with their wishes.

Henry didn't believe the talisman had any magic to it, but told his father that if he wanted to wish for something, he should wish for enough money to clear his debts. "With five hundred pounds, you could pay off this house, father, along with the rest of your bills. Wish for that." Henry left the room to tend to his evening chores.

Mr. White looked at his wife, and she smiled. He held up the monkey's paw in his right hand and said, "I wish for five hundred pounds."

Mr. White felt the monkey's paw move in his hand, and dropped it with a yell. Henry came running back to check on the commotion. "I'm sure it's in your head, father, but why don't you go up to bed. The money is probably tied up in a bag under your pillow!"

After Henry finished his chores in the barn, the three of them sat quietly around the fire, listening to the wind and rain. Finally, with a sense of disappointment, the elder Whites went to bed. Henry stayed up, staring into the fire. He thought he saw faces in the dying flames, and when he saw the clear outline of a monkey's face, he felt a chill go down his spine. He reached for a glass of water on the table next to him, hoping to douse the flames. Instead, he accidentally touched the monkey's paw. He wiped his hand off with disgust and went to bed himself.

In the light of day the next morning, Henry forgot about his anxieties regarding the monkey's paw, and continued making jokes about it. He cheerfully left for work, whistling as he walked down the country lane towards town.

Mr. and Mrs. White spent the day quietly reading and talking, much as any other day. Around noon, Mrs. White noticed a strange man walking toward the house. He stood outside their gate for some time, seeming undecided about whether or not he should enter. Finally he did and walked up to the door.

"I was sent from the Meggins Lumber Company," he began.

Mrs. White looked alarmed, "Oh! Is something wrong with Henry?"

"I'm sorry. I'm afraid he was caught in the machinery, ma'am."

Henry was dead. Mrs. White nearly lost her senses, such was her grief.

Mr. White finally spoke quietly, "He was all we had left in this world. It's very hard."

The stranger nodded sympathetically, then said, "The company wished for me to convey their deepest condolences. And...I was told to say...they disavow any responsibility for the accident. However, to aid you in this time of suffering, they want to give you a monetary gift."

Mrs. White went quiet.

Mr. White looked pale. "How much?"

"Five hundred pounds."

Mrs. White screamed.

Mr. White fell to the floor.

Henry was buried in the cemetery, and his parents slowly walked back to their lonely old home. They spent their days in listless mourning, unable to cope with their grief.

One night, the old man wakened to the sounds of sobbing. His wife was sitting by the window. He spoke quietly, "Come back to bed. It's too cold to be sitting up."

"It's colder for my son," she responded. Then, suddenly, she jumped up from her seat. "The monkey's paw!"

The old man was alarmed, "What?"

"Why didn't I think of it sooner? Why didn't you think of it? Wish our son back!"

"He's been in the ground for two weeks. I couldn't even identify him other than his clothes. Imagine how he'd look!"

"I don't care! Wish him back to me!"

Finally, the old man gave in and held the monkey's paw up in his right hand. "I wish my son was alive."

The couple waited, and nothing. Nothing happened. Mrs. White looked expectantly out the window towards the gate, but nothing was there. Finally they went back to bed, but a knock at the door sounded just as they were falling asleep.

Mrs. White leapt from the bed. "My son!"

Mr. White was terrified. He only imagined the mangled body of their son, buried for two weeks, digging its way out of its grave and walking the two miles to their house. And now it was knocking at their door.

Mrs. White was already downstairs, pulling the heavy bolts open on the door. Mr. White frantically grabbed for the monkey's paw to make his third and final wish.

He heard his wife open the door, followed by her disappointed cries.

No one was there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Superstitions: Throwing Rice at the Bride and Groom

(Cross-posted at Jennifer's History and Stuff.)

Some superstitions may have lost their original meaning, but have become ingrained in cultural behavior. These behaviors are no longer tied to a superstitious belief; throwing rice is one of these behaviors that simply became part of the culture. Of course, now you are more likely to see bubbles, flower petals, or birdseed at a wedding in the United States, but most of us have pelted a bride and groom with rice at one time or another.

The earliest known reference to throwing grains at a wedding occurred when a baker’s wife tossed wheat at Henry VII for good luck in 1486, and it became a widespread practice in England soon thereafter. The switch to rice took place around 1870, probably because rice was cheaper than wheat at the time.

Why throw anything? The Victorians liked to say it was to ensure fertility, but it was generally just to wish the new couple lots of luck, happiness, and prosperity. Using foodstuffs as good luck charms is not confined to weddings. We'll discuss salt and garlic another time.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in Steve Roud's The Penguin guide to the superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Superstitions: Knock on Wood

(Cross-posted at Jennifer's History and Stuff.)

If you say something to tempt fate, knocking on wood will protect you. (Example: "I'm the only one in my house to not get the flu. Knock wood.")
This superstition can be traced to the early 1800s, with some people believing it invokes the wood of the crucifix for protection.

The real origin seems to be a children’s game from the early 1800s called “Tig-touch-wood”. Children playing tag were “safe” when they touched wood. Touching wood for luck became knocking on wood for luck in the U.S. and Germany.

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in Steve Roud's The Penguin guide to the superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Superstitions: The Number 13

(Cross-posted at Jennifer's History and Stuff.)

The number 13 is thought to be an unlucky number, with some people refusing to live in a house numbered 13 or stay on a hotel floor numbered 13.


Well, around 1700, the belief that having 13 people at a meal was unlucky was fairly widespread. Therefore, the number 13 must be unlucky because of the Last Supper, right? After all, 13 people participated in that, and one was dead soon thereafter.

But actually, early Christians loved to emulate J.C., and that included organizing themselves into groups of 13. You'd have 12 nuns and their superior, for example, making a group of 13. The number 13 was awesome!

So what happened? A little thing called the Protestant Reformation, actually. During the Reformation, the obsession with groupings of 13 was itself called "superstitious", and the practice was forbidden.

This led to the number 13 immediately having a "bad" connotation that turned into unlucky over the years...becoming its own superstition!

Reference: Most of the material from this post was found in Steve Roud's The Penguin guide to the superstitions of Britain and Ireland.