Read Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things Online
Authors: Charles Panati
Tags: #Reference, #General, #Curiosities & Wonders
PANATI’S EXTRAORDINARY ORIGINS OF EVERYDAY THINGS
To 443 Sail and The Crew:
Rob, Bruce, Richard, Bill, and Stan
On the Calendar
At the Table
Around the Kitchen
In and Around the House
For the Nursery
In the Bathroom
Atop the Vanity
Through the Medicine Chest
Under the Flag
On the Body
Into the Bedroom
From the Magazine Rack
In the Pantry
Superstitions: 50,000 Years Ago, Western Asia
Napoleon feared black cats; Socrates the evil eye. Julius Caesar dreaded dreams. Henry VIII claimed witchcraft trapped him into a marriage with Anne Boleyn. Peter the Great suffered a pathological terror of crossing bridges. Samuel Johnson entered and exited a building with his right foot foremost.
Bad-luck superstitions still keep many people from walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, or boarding an airplane on Friday the thirteenth. On the other hand, these same people, hoping for good luck, might cross their fingers or, knock wood.
Superstitious beliefs, given their irrational nature, should have receded with the arrival of education and the advent of science. Yet even today, when objective evidence is valued highly, few people, if pressed, would not admit to secretly cherishing one, or two, or many superstitions. Across America, tens of thousands of lottery tickets are penciled in every day based on nothing more or less than people’s “lucky” numbers.
Perhaps this is how it should be, for superstitions are an ancient part of our human heritage.
Archaeologists identify Neanderthal man, who roamed throughout Western Asia fifty thousand years ago, as having produced the first superstitious (and spiritual) belief: survival in an afterlife. Whereas earlier
abandoned the dead, Neanderthals buried their dead with ritual
funerals, interring with the body food, weapons, and fire charcoals to be used in the next life.
That superstition and the birth of spirituality go hand in hand is not surprising. Throughout history, one person’s superstition was often another’s religion. The Christian emperor Constantine called paganism superstition, while the pagan statesman Tacitus called Christianity a pernicious, irrational belief. Protestants regarded the Catholic veneration of saints and relics as superstitious, while Christians similarly viewed Hindu practices. To an atheist, all religious beliefs are superstitions.
Today there seems to be no logical reason why a wishbone symbolizes good luck while a broken mirror augurs the opposite. But in earlier times, every superstition had a purposeful origin, a cultural background, and a practical explanation.
Superstitions arose in a straightforward manner. Primitive man, seeking answers for phenomena such as lightning, thunder, eclipses, birth, and death, and lacking knowledge of the laws of nature, developed a belief in unseen spirits. He observed that animals possessed a sixth sense to danger and imagined that spirits whispered secret warnings to them. And the miracle of a tree sprouting from a seed, or a frog from a tadpole, pointed to otherworldly intervention. His daily existence fraught with hardships, he assumed that the world was more populated with vengeful spirits than with beneficent ones. (Thus, the preponderance of superstitious beliefs we inherited involve ways to protect ourselves from evil.)
To protect himself in what seemed like a helter-skelter world, ancient man adopted the foot of a rabbit, the flip of a coin, and a four-leaf clover. It was an attempt to impose human will on chaos. And when one amulet failed, he tried another, then another. In this way, thousands of ordinary objects, expressions, and incantations assumed magical significance.
In a sense, we do the same thing today. A student writes a prize-winning paper with a certain pen and that pen becomes “lucky.” A horseplayer scores high on a rainy day and weather is then factored into his betting. We
the ordinary extraordinary. In fact, there’s scarcely a thing in our environment around which some culture has not woven a superstitious claim: mistletoe, garlic, apples, horseshoes, umbrellas, hiccups, stumbling, crossed fingers, rainbows. And that’s barely the beginning.
Though we now have scientific explanations for many once-mysterious phenomena, daily life still holds enough unpredictability that we turn, especially in times of misfortune, to superstitions to account for the unaccountable, to impose our own wishes on world vicissitudes. So, thumbs up, fingers crossed, with luck, here are the ancient origins of many of our most cherished irrational beliefs. Cross my heart.
Rabbit’s Foot: Pre-600
., Western Europe
Adhering strictly to early tradition, a person in search of luck should carry the foot of a hare, the rabbit’s larger cousin. Historically, it was the hare’s foot that possessed magical powers. However, most early European peoples confused the rabbit with the hare, and in time the feet of both animals were prized as potent good luck charms.
The luck attributed to a rabbit’s foot stems from a belief rooted in ancient totemism, the claim, predating Darwinism by thousands of years, that humankind descended from animals. Differing from Darwinism, however, totemism held that every tribe of people evolved from a separate species of animal. A tribe worshiped and refrained from killing its ancestral animal and employed parts of that animal as amulets, called totems.
Remains of totemism are with us today.
In biblical literature, totemism is the origin of many dietary laws prohibiting consumption of certain animals. It has also given us the custom of the sports mascot, believed to secure luck for a team, as well as our penchant for classifying groups of people by animal images or traits. On Wall Street, there are bulls and bears; in government, hawks and doves; and in politics, elephants and donkeys. We may have abandoned the practice of physically carrying around our identifying totems, but they are with us nonetheless.
Folklorists have not yet identified the “Hare” tribal society that gave the early inhabitants of Western Europe, sometime before 600
., the rabbit foot amulet. They have ample evidence, though, of why this lagomorph became a symbol of good luck, not bad.
The rabbit’s habit of burrowing lent it an aura of mystery. The Celts, for instance, believed that the animal spent so much time underground because it was in secret communication with the netherworld of numina. Thus, a rabbit was privy to information humans were denied. And the fact that most animals, including humans, are born with their eyes closed, while rabbits enter the world with eyes wide open, imbued them with an image of wisdom: for the Celts, rabbits witnessed the mysteries of prenatal life. (Actually, the hare is born with open eyes; the rabbit is born blind. And it is the rabbit that burrows; hares live aboveground. Confusion abounded.)
It was the rabbit’s fecundity, though, that helped to give its body parts their strongest association with good luck and prosperity. So prolific was the animal that early peoples regarded it as an outstanding example of all that was procreative in nature. To possess any part of a rabbit—tail, ear, foot, or dried innards—assured a person’s good fortune. Interestingly, the foot was always the preferred totem, believed to be luckier than any other body part.
Why the foot? Folklorists claim that long before Freudian sexual interpretations existed, man, in his cave drawings and stone sculptures, incorporated the foot as a phallic symbol, a totem to foster fertility in women and a cornucopian harvest in the fields.
A blacksmith who forged horseshoes possessed white magic against witchery. Lest its luck drain out, a horseshoe is hung with pointed ends upward
Horseshoe: 4th Century, Greece
Considered the most universal of all good luck charms, the horseshoe was a powerful amulet in every age and country where the horse existed. Although the Greeks introduced the horseshoe to Western culture in the fourth century and regarded it as a symbol of good fortune, legend credits St. Dunstan with having given the horseshoe, hung above a house door, special power against evil.
According to tradition, Dunstan, a blacksmith by trade who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury in
. 959, was approached one day by a man who asked that horseshoes be attached to his own feet, suspiciously cloven. Dunstan immediately recognized the customer as Satan and explained that to perform the service he would have to shackle the man to the wall. The saint deliberately made the job so excruciatingly painful that the bound devil repeatedly begged for mercy. Dunstan refused to release him until he gave his solemn oath never to enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door.
From the birth of that tale in the tenth century, Christians held the horseshoe in high esteem, placing it first above a doorframe and later moving it down to middoor, where it served the dual function of talisman and door knocker. Hence the origin of the horseshoe-shaped knocker. Christians
once celebrated St. Dunstan’s feast day, May 19, with games of horseshoes.
For the Greeks, the horseshoe’s magical powers emanated from other factors: horseshoes were made of iron, an element believed to ward off evil; and a horseshoe took the shape of a crescent moon, long regarded as a symbol of fertility and good fortune. The Romans appropriated the object both as a practical equestrian device and as a talisman, and their pagan belief in its magical powers was passed on to the Christians, who gave the superstition its St. Dunstan twist.
In the Middle Ages, when the fear of witchcraft peaked, the horseshoe assumed an additional power.
It was believed that witches traveled on brooms because they feared horses, and that any reminder of a horse, especially its iron shoe, warded off a witch the way a crucifix struck terror in a vampire. A woman accused of witchcraft was interred with a horseshoe nailed atop her coffin to prevent resurrection. In Russia, a blacksmith who forged horseshoes was himself credited with the ability to perform “white magic” against witchery, and solemn oaths pertaining to marriage, business contracts, and real estate were taken not on a Bible but upon anvils used to hammer out horseshoes.
The horseshoe could not be hung just any way. It had to be positioned with points upward, lest its luck drain out.
In the British Isles, the horseshoe remained a powerful symbol of luck well into the nineteenth century. A popular Irish incantation against evil and illness (originating with the St. Dunstan legend) went: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Nail the devil to a post.” And in 1805, when British admiral Lord Horatio Nelson met his nation’s foes in the Battle of Trafalgar, the superstitious Englishman nailed a horseshoe to the mast of his command ship,
. The military triumph—commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square by Nelson’s Column, erected in 1849—ended Napoleon’s dream of invading England. The horseshoe may have brought luck to the British people, but Nelson himself lost his life in the battle.
Two people, making secret wishes, tug on opposite ends of the dried, V-shaped clavicle of a fowl. For the person who breaks off the larger piece, a wish comes true. The custom is at least 2,400 years old, and it originated with the Etruscans, the ancient people who occupied the area of the Italian peninsula between the Tiber and Arno rivers, west and south of the Apennines.
A highly cultured people, whose urban civilization reached its height in the sixth century
., the Etruscans believed the hen and the cock to be soothsayers: the hen because she foretold the laying of an egg with a squawk; the cock because his crow heralded the dawn of a new day. The “hen oracle,” through a practice of divination known as alectryomancy, was consulted for answers to life’s most pressing problems. A circle, traced on the
ground, was divided into about twenty parts, representing letters of the Etruscan alphabet. Grains of corn were placed in each sector, and a sacred hen was set in the center of the circle. Her pecking at the corn generated a sequence of letters, which a high priest interpreted as answers to specific questions—a sort of living Ouija board.