Maggie Parham takes a look at our liking for superstitions
A Dictionary of Superstitions, edited by lona Opie and Moira Tatem (OUP, £17.50)
IF you would sneeze at the notion of superstition as a thing of the past, check yourself. Would you willingly walk under ladders? Or spill salt, or unfurl an umbrella indoors? Would you touch wood or cross your fingers for luck? Might you, even if not a churchgoer, have your children baptised?
Iona Opie, doyenne of folklore, and linguist Moira Tatem, believe that superstition is not confined by time or space; it is an "inherent part of the human mind". And they have fine tooth-combed diaries, letters, local histories, literature, magazines and newspapers to produce the first systematically organised record of those superstitions from Great Britain and Eire which have survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
St Thomas Aquinas would be saddened that they had survived so long. Superstition is "a vice contrary to religions", he wrote in his Summa Theologicae, some 700 years ago, "not that it offers more to the divine worship than true religion, but because it
offers divine worship either to whom it ought not, or in a manner it ought not". Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about this latest OUP dictionary is that it shows how most superstition is related to a deeply-rooted network of belief, and how most is based on unauthorised or outmoded religion.
Christians may have reckoned their pagan forbears superstitious, but Protestants in turn thought Catholics superstitious. "Can Christians not he christened without crossinge, blowinge, tensing, salting, spittinge, oyle and chreame?". To puritans, the celebration of Christmas and decking of houses with holly and ivy seemed superstitious. Today, it seems superstitious to many to believe in God.
And many of those superstitions not directly traceable to religion become easier to understand when one realises that they had their roots in a time when human beings lived in closer proximity with nature than they do now, and believed in an anima mundi; when sun, moon, fire and water, flora and fauna were accorded religious respect. With man and
nature in harmony, it obviously seemed right to stir one's food in the same direction as the course of the sun; to believe that plentiful autumn berries were a provision for birds during a coming hard winter, and that the housefly that survived until winter was lucky, because it must necessarily be under heavenly protection.
Unevenness in chronological reference under each entry reflects waxing and waning beliefs in particular superstitions. From the rationalist eighteenth century, references are meagre and incidental, from the nineteenth century, w hen folklore was invented, they are copious; and from the twentieth century, references reflect a remarkable lack of cynicism. "Freedom from superstition is not necessarily a form of wisdom", writes Robert Lynd in 1922. And "who can doubt", writes Jung "that the Flanders poppies are more than just local flora?".
Those who remain cynical can be assured that they will find something here to amuse. Wives with workaholic husbands can chant the song of the Shropshire man who was swallowed up by his field for ploughing on Christmas Day; while husbands can learn from the unhappy experiences of a certain Herefordshire farmer, and not give their wives new shoes for Christmas. Maiden daughters, wili they only take the last piece of bread at tea, can be assured rich husbands; and sons, by learning to rub onions on their bottoms, can secure protection from the pain of caning.
The greatest good fortune is reserved for he who, coming downstairs first on Christmas morning, flings open the front door, seizes a broom, symbolically sweeps trouble from the house, and shouts loudly "Welcome, Old Father Christmas!" — crossing his fingers, I imagine, that the neighbours don't immediately dial 999.