Knock on wood

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 1 Mar 2022


Are you superstitious? Not even a little bit? Many are of the opinion that superstition is for the ignorant, the feeble –minded, and the fearful. This is the age of science, knowledge, and technology. Without evidence or consistence with the laws of science, it is unacceptable.

How about luck? Do you believe in luck? We make our own luck by hard work and dedication.

Perhaps that is how it should be, with the amazing progress of education and science — yet it is not.

Few people would admit it, but if pressed, they might reveal cherished secrets of some superstitions.

Unknowingly, buying a lottery ticket or wearing a certain shirt are tell-tale signs of superstition, even among unyielding scientists.

Reject it, deny it, dismiss it, superstition is an ancient part of our human heritage.  According to archaeologists, it started 50,000 years ago when Neanderthal man began to believe in an afterlife. Before them, Homo sapiens abandoned their dead, but Neanderthals buried their dead with ritual funerals, which included food, weapons and other objects they might need in the next life.

Therefore, superstition and the birth of spirituality go hand in hand. One person’s superstition could be another’s religion.

It may not be logical, but every superstition has an origin, a cultural background and a practical explanation.   If man developed superstition it was for a logical reason —  his own protection.

Seeking answers for phenomena such as lightening, thunder, eclipses, birth, death and lacking the knowledge of the laws of nature he developed a belief in unseen spirits. He also observed animals that possessed a sixth sense to danger. How did they do that? Could it be that secret spirits whispered warnings to them? We need that too.

Early man had no explanation how a tree sprouted from a seed, or a frog from a tadpole. Life was so confusing, his environment full of hardships, there must be more evil spirits than good. He must protect himself from those evil spirits —superstition was created.

It was his attempt to impose his will on his environment.

This instinct has remained with us for 50,000 years. Despite our scientific explanation for the many once-mysterious phenomena, we still persist unconsciously on reverting to them especially in times of misfortunes.

We make the ordinary, extraordinary. So on with the mistletoe, garlic, salt, horseshoes, crossed fingers and rainbows.

Thumbs up to our ancient, most cherished, irrational beliefs.  Here we go, “thumbs up” is an expression of approval or courage. The Egyptians developed a thumb language with similar meanings to our own. “Thumbs up” means ill will or defeat. The Romans adopted the thumb language in the 4th century BC, with Etruscan gladiators.

 “Thumbs up” meant “spare his life”, “thumbs down” suggested disapproval. It is as common today as it was then — no science, logic or reason involved.

Does a broken mirror suggest bad luck to you? The superstition originated long before glass mirrors existed. The first mirrors used by ancient Egyptians were made of polished metal — brass, bronze, silver and gold. Mirror-seers revealed the future of any person who cast his image on the surface. By the 15th century in Italy, a broken mirror invited 7 years of a fate worse than death.

To this day, many shudder if they break a mirror. Such sophisticates as we have become, we still retain a widespread belief of impending bad luck at the sight of a broken mirror.

Some superstitions change with time. Three thousand years ago, in ancient Egypt, a black cat was revered — in fact all cats were protected by law from injury or death. The cat’s popularity spread quickly through civilisation.  Egyptians originated the belief that the cat has nine lives. Today a black cat is feared as an omen of bad luck.

Almost all cultures believe in the evil eye — “a dirty look”, “if looks could kill” or “to stare with daggers” are a few common expressions referring to the universal fear of the evil eye. Egyptians’ antidote to the evil eye was applying kohl, the world’s first mascara, used to this very day. Whether it wards off the evil eye has not been proven, but darkly pointed circles around the eye absorb sunlight, therefore they minimise reflected glare into the eye.

Football players and athletes are among the most superstitious groups on earth.  They have good luck shorts, shirts, amulets and also smear grease under each eye before a game.

Covering your mouth when you yawn, is definitely a sign of good manners. Ancient man also covered his yawn, not out of politeness, but out of fear. One giant exhalation might cause the soul to leave the body and life would depart. A hand to the lips held back the life force.

Primitives at heart, we can do away with all the advancement of the technology we enjoy today. Were it to disappear in a flash would we not survive and start again, re-moulding it more to our liking than all we despise in today’s civilisation.

Tree cults were commonplace throughout history. How often do we knock on wood? It is an act of prayer or an appeal to God to grant our wishes. The oak was a favourite among Greeks and Native Americans, the sycamore amongst ancient Egyptians and Germanic tribes preferred the ash. The Dutch started the knock-wood custom — the wood would be unvarnished, unpainted, uncarved unadorned.

In our high-tech world, we still knock on any wood, even though most wood is not even real.

Our superstitions are.

“Superstition is the poetry of life.”                
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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