Knock on Wood

Notes from Merge on Feb 17, 2010

Superstitions are fascinating. Even if you claim to not be a superstitious person, I’d be willing to bet that everyone engages in some sort of superstitious behavior from time to time – whether it’s knocking on wood, crossing your fingers or avoiding the number 13.  Superstitions are a part of every culture around the globe.

Here’s some stuff about superstitions you might find interesting:

  • Animals can be superstitious. Psychologist B.F. Skinner noticed that pigeons in cages would do different motions like swinging their heads or turning in circles to try to get their food dispensers to dispense food (even though the dispensers were on a timer and their actions had no bearing on when food was dispensed). The birds appeared to associate certain random activities with food being dispensed and they made a connection that wasn’t actually there (a superstition).
  • Nearly every religion considers other religion’s practices to be superstition.Perhaps it’s the egocentric view that’s a condition of humanity, but we all tend to interpret activities of other religions to be superstitious – and our own’s to be completely founded.

At Merge, we shared a portion of an article about some common superstitions.  The portion we shared is below; you can read the entire article here.

SUPERSTITIONS IN AMERICA AND AROUND THE WORLD

There are many superstitions practiced here in America that we do subconsciously, and most of them we have no idea why we do them. My question is if we would continue to practice them if we knew how they came about. All of these superstitions that I want to point out now have been passed down as tradition, and we unknowingly practice them. Most of us don’t know the meaning behind them either.

  1. The first superstitious practice that I want to look at is the act of knocking on wood. It is a common practice to knock on wood whenever something good is said. But have we ever thought about why we do that. The reason for this practice goes back many years, as is the case with most of these practices. The ancient belief was that the gods lived in the trees. When a person needed a favor or something good, they would touch the bark, speak it and then knock on the bark as a note of thanks. It was also believed that there were jealous spirits that roamed around. If they heard your good fortune, they might try to ruin it, so knocking on wood would keep them from hearing it.
  2. Another very common practice is to cross you fingers while making a wish. We do this without even realizing it is a superstitious practice. I do it all the time without even realizing what’s behind it. The reason behind this practice is that it was believed that when two lines crossed, the wish was held at the center until it came to be. By crossing you fingers, you supposedly had a better chance of seeing your wish come true.
  3. Have you ever said, “Cross my heart and hope to die?” Have you ever wondered why you say that? The reason behind this saying is that the ancients believed that the heart was the seat of wisdom. When you crossed you heart you were giving testimony to the validity of what you were saying. It showed you weren’t lying.
  4. What about opening an umbrella indoors? They say it brings bad luck. I have never specifically not opened an umbrella indoors because of that superstition, but many times I have opened one and thought about the superstition that it would bring me bad luck. The interesting thing is that when umbrellas were first invented, opening one indoors might just bring you bad luck. Back then umbrellas were huge, because they were made to cover entire families. Opening an umbrella of this size indoors would frequently hurt somebody or break something. It brought bad luck, thus the tradition today.
  5. Walking under a ladder is not good either. Why? Most of us don’t ask that question, we simply don’t walk under ladders. It’s good common sense because the ladder might fall, but the reason behind the superstition goes back farther than that. In the ancient world, a ladder leaning against a wall formed a triangle with the ground. This was considered a sacred triangle, as it was a symbol of life. Anybody who walked through this sacred triangle would be punished. Another reason for not walking under ladders were the methods of execution of long ago. Years ago men who were facing execution would be hung from the seventh rung of a ladder leaning against a tree. Back then, death was considered contagious, and walking under a ladder provided the risk that the dead man’s shadow would fall on you and you might die.
  6. Have you ever spilled salt on a table and quickly thrown a pinch over your left shoulder? That is superstition that has come from long ago also. When the ancient people found out that salt preserved food, they rationalized that it must protect people as well. So spilling salt was a sign from the friendly spirits that there was evil around. Back then, it was thought that good resided on a person’s right side, and evil on a person’s left. Throwing salt over your left shoulder would therefore win the favor of the evil spirits.
  7. If you break a mirror, you will have seven years of bad luck. We all say that, but most of us don’t know what it means or how it came about. This statement came to be before mirrors were ever invented. In those days, if a man wanted to see his reflection, he had to go to a pool. The belief was that your reflection was another “self”, and if the water were disturbed (thus disturbing you reflection) it would disturb you other self. The idea of seven years bad luck originated from the Romans. They believed that a cycle of life was seven years long, and that it would take a person seven years to recover from such a harsh blow.
  8. Why do some buildings not have a thirteenth floor? Why is the number 13 considered unlucky? Why is Friday the thirteenth so bad? We usually don’t think about the “why” for the number thirteen being so bad. Most of us associate it with evil, but that’s about all that got passed down with the tradition that the number thirteen represented bad luck. The tradition first started back when man was first learning to count. By using his ten fingers and two feet, man came up with the number twelve. Anything beyond that (thirteen) was considered unknown and mysterious. Later on, tradition says that a goddess got kicked out of her realm and became a witch. After that, every Friday, twelve witches would get together for a meeting with the devil. That equaled thirteen evil spirits that were up to no good. By associating traditions, the evil of Fridays, and the mystery surrounding the number thirteen, arose the tradition that Friday the thirteenth was bad.
  9. What would you do if you saw a black cat cross your path? Would you run? Would you try to reverse the problem by making him cross in front of you again? Why would you do that? This is a pretty simple one, and most people know the meaning. Black cats were known to be common companions of witches. When a person saw a black cat coming towards them, they didn’t know if it was just a cat, or if it was a witch or even the devil.
  10. I think every Christian falls to this superstition. When I sneeze, your most likely response will be to immediately say “Bless you”, or something to that extent. Maybe we don’t even realize that is a superstition, but it is. Why ask God’s blessing on someone who sneezes? The ancient belief was that a person’s spirit or soul was found in the breath or in the air in his head. When someone sneezed, there was the danger that the spirit would be expelled unless God’s blessing was called. In some Asian cultures, if a person sneezes, somebody will blow back at them. This is for the same reason, so that the person’s spirit might go back into his head.
  11. Whenever we have an entire chicken for dinner at my house, my sister and I would look for the wishbone, so that we could make a wish. But why is the collarbone of a chicken so important? The ancients believed that because a hen cackled when laying and egg, and a rooster crowed at dawn, they were divine. They were worshipped, and so when a hen was killed, the collarbone was hung out to dry. When it was dry, they would make a wish a break the bone much like we do today. He who got the larger part would get his wish. That is how the name “wish” bone came about.

The fact that I want to point out is that all of us engage in superstition whether we try to or not. It is embedded in our culture, and is part of our tradition. We don’t think about why we do a lot of the things that we do. Not all of it is bad in itself either. But superstition can make way for fear and uncertainty in any person’s life, because that is essentially what it preaches. That is why it is important for the Christian to not lay too much at stake when it comes to superstition, because it breeds fear and uncertainty. We need to plant our feet on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. He is our rock and our fortress, and we need not fear. We practice superstition out of fear; we obey Christ out of love. And that is what life is all about: loving submission to Christ. Superstition is the devil’s way of taking our focus away from the solid Rock.

Ultimately, while superstitions are really harmless, when we begin to believe that they actually control the events of our lives they can take our focus off of where our hope truly is found.

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

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