Sunday, 15 December 2013

Urban Myths and Legends-Are Superstitions a throw back on Race memories and instincts?

A couple of days back it was Friday the Thirteenth, and somehow or the other no one at my place of work even mentioned it as if the very act of mentioning the fact would somehow bring them bad luck! Somehow, fewer people  in India believe in Western superstitions and fewer people in the West are somehow even aware of the superstitions that people in India believe in. Take for example the Owl. The owl according to Western Culture is a symbol of Wisdom, but for people in India it symbolizes bad luck! The same can be said about a cat cutting across ones path ahead. In India this is supposed to bring bad luck, but then in the West, people would even bother noticing such an event! It is clear, from a superficial view that  most superstitious beliefs  are dependent on geographical and cultural factors.
That brings me back to the topic of Friday the Thirteenth. This is an Urban Myth associated with the Western Culture and has some links to the Christian Religion too. The number thirteen is supposed to be so unlucky by some people that you don’t have a thirteenth floor in most buildings, and similarly you might not have a seat numbered thirteen in a commercial aircraft. Why people continue in believing in such superstitions is beyond reasoning. Scientific reasoning and rationality suggest that their is absolutely no basis for believing in such superstitions as never crossing a path that has been crossed by a cat, or not stepping out of homes on Friday the thirteen. Somehow, it is race memories that are to blame for such irrational beliefs. If too many horrible incidents took place in the past on a particular date, then people begin to associate bad luck to that particular date. The only solution to such superstitious beliefs is education. In India where there is an auspicious moment for everything, it often becomes really difficult to move on in life without being really scared of something or the other. Take for example the belief that a person born on a Tuesday, a Mangalik will bring certain death to the spouse who is not himself or herself born on a Tuesday. Imagine the large number of people who remain unmarried their whole lives because of this superstitious fear of causing the death of their partners.
In times of extreme competition and stress and hard work, it is amazing how strongly superstitions and Urban Myths continue to hold sway on societies across the world. I guess, superstitions are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the societies all over the world, and these memories are difficult to remove, they are like the instincts that many of us are born with and are unable to explain somehow their workings. They are like memories engrained within our DNA, memories integral to our being human. While no doubt, Education could be a way of removing superstitions from the society, in some cases it can be a factor for promoting Superstition, take for example the superstitions associated with Friday the thirteenth. Very few of the less educated Indians would even be aware of the superstitions associated with this particular day, although once introduced to the idea, they would be more likely to accept it wholeheartedly because their own belief in auspicious dates for every thing.
To state that western societies are less superstitious than eastern societies would in itself be a very wrong assumption. Some of the most advanced societies can be as superstitious if not more superstitious than their eastern counterparts!  Which brings me back to the topic of Friday the Thirteenth. This is an Urban Myth or Legend that has been strongly ingrained in the Western man’s psyche. Intriguing connections between events, practices are attributed to ancient culture that mark Friday the thirteen as the unluckiest day of all! Katherine Kurtz in Tales of the Knights Templar ( Warner Books, 1995) writes: “On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests”. 
  “ LEGEND HAS IT: If 13 people sit down to dinner together, one will die with the year. The Turks so disliked the number 13 that is was practically expunged from their vocabulary (Brewer,1894). Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. Many buildings don’t have a 13th floor. If you have 13 letters in your name, you will have the devil’s luck (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert Salvo all have 13 letters in their names). There are 13 witches in a coven.” -*
It is clear that most Urban Legends, Myths and superstitions all have a basis in historical events and ancient facts. One interesting assumption is that “primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, this explanation goes, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that – 13 -  was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstation.”-* The Norse god Loki was the god of mischief and when twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla, he gate crashed into the party bringing the figure to an unlucky thirteen! The same can be said of all superstations that prey over the minds of people in India.
Most superstitions are apparently very old superstitions those that have been with us since the times when our forefathers lived in caves. When these memories are taken up by people living in modern urban cities all over the world, they become  Urban Legends, thus a house where a murder has taken place will be shunned by all, and we continue to fear haunted houses. Each city has its own Urban Legend, like for example my father keeps telling me stories about how in the past, many years back, when he was a child living in what is now Gurgaon, Millennium City of Haryana, it was dangerous to give lifts to unknown strangers while travelling towards other villages. One of his uncles had narrated a story  to him about how one evening, while riding his cycle to Badshah-pur, someone asked for a lift and he obliged and the passenger sat on the Cycle carrier. After some time the uncle noticed that it was becoming tougher to ride the cycle. When he looked back, he noticed that the passenger had grown in size! There are many other superstitions that have become very much part of our culture today and you will see even highly educated people believing in them. Take for example the habit of stringing green chillies and lemons ad then hanging them before the gates of business establishments to ward off the evil eye and ensure prosperity-or for that effect, straightening shoes that are upturned, lest the upturned shoe should bring bad luck to their owners!
All that I can say as a conclusion to this article is that Fridays might be most lucky for some people, and the number 13 could be lucky for those people who according to numerology have birth numbers that include the numbers 2, and 4 as the addition of 1 and 3 in thirteen equals 4 and 4 divided by 2 equals two and 4 divided by the birth number 4 equals 1 both lucky numbers indeed! The fact of the matter is that however we might rationalize our superstitions, and beliefs in Urban Myths, there is no Scientific basis to any of these and they are to be taken with a pinch of salt and a smile! Certainly, they are quirky appendages of every culture and might have something to do with historical events and incidents that took place in the past-a throw back to our race memories, memories that have become ingrained deep within our psyche, a collective consciousness that is unique and distinct for each culture. Fact of the matter is that they continue to prey on our minds no matter how educated we are and at times need to be treated seriously. If a person goes into depression on a Friday the Thirteenth or he  believes that all his bad luck is because of his unlucky birth number, then obviously he would require counselling or even medical treatment. Unfortunately we have become slaves to habit and are easily fixated in our beliefs no matter what may happen to prove our beliefs wrong. It is ironical how most of these beliefs persist even in an age of scientific and technological advancement!
Should the reader be more interested in reading more on this rather quirky topic, the following sources might prove helpful:
·        Bowen, John. "Friday the 13th." Salon magazine, 13 Aug 1999.
·         Brewer, E. Cobham. The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (1898 Edition in Hypertext).
·         "Days of the Week: Friday." The Mystical World Wide Web.
·         de Lys, Claudia. The Giant Book of Superstitions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1979.
·         Duncan, David E. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. New York: Avon, 1998.
·         Ferm, Vergilius. A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965.
·         Krischke, Wolfgang. "This Just Might Be Your Lucky Day." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1 Nov 2001.
·         Kurtz, Katharine. Tales of the Knights Templar. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
·         Lachenmeyer, Nathaniel. 13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition. New York: Avalon, 2004.
·         Lawson, Thomas W. Friday, the Thirteenth. New York: Doubleday, 1907.
·         Opie, Iona and Tatem, Moira. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
·         Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.
·         Q and A: Triskaidekaphobia. New York Times, 8 Aug 1993.
·         Scanlon, T.J., et al. "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" British Medical Journal. (Dec. 18-25, 1993): 1584-6.
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