Friday, January 13, 2017

Of Friday 13th, practical superstitions, and the other kind

Quick, repeat after me the following word: paraskevidekatriaphobia. This is the learned name for fear of Friday 13th. It doesn't trip off the tongue quite as lightly as triskaidekaphobia, which means fear of the number 13.
    The longer tongue-twister is derived from the Greek words for "Friday", "thirteen", and "fear". But don't blame the ancient Greeks, The term was made up just a century ago, when scientists and psychologists still knew Greek and Latin.
     If you're nervous about Friday 13th, here's my suggested remedy. Try to memorize and repeat 13 times (without looking) the word paraskevidekatriaphobia. By the time you get this right, Friday 13th will be over.
     Friday 13th is one of my favorite days in the calendar, but then I think black cats on my path are a good sign. I am in favor of personal and practical superstitions, ones that are road-tested rather than received as hand-me-downs.  I know that for me, for example, a red-tailed hawk is a reliable messenger and that if it is flying my way or feeding well, things will go well that day.  Friday 13th has been a lucky day for me in the past. But if things  turn out otherwise, I am ready to revise my opinion; I want oracles that deliver.
    It's worth recalling that the Latin word superstitionem  literally means "a standing over." The stem, superstare, means to  "stand over" or "survive." There is a clue here, that in the original sense, superstition might be a survival mechanism. It is an etymological mystery how this root meaning evolves into the modern sense of  “irrational belief”.
    Practical superstitions include personal omens that are road-tested. You can rely on them because you have observed many times that (for example) something good or bad follows an encounter with a friendly black dog, or a red-tailed hawk, or a singing mailman.
    You may notice that some old superstitions and nostrums work for you, maybe because that unseen hand that makes things appear and disappear in the world around us chooses to work with your vocabulary of understanding. This is exactly what goes on in dreams and visions. Our dream producers, and greater powers, give us pictures and puns, dramas and deceptions, according to how we are able to perceive and receive.
     In my book Sidewalk Oracles I offer the following guidance on developing a list of personal omens that work for you:

1.Start by checking on superstitions you may have inherited or picked up from others. For example, that walking under a ladder or having a black cat walk in front or you is bad luck, or that having a bird poop on your head or your car might mean money is coming. Have any of these supposed omens worked for you the way they are supposed to? If so, keep them on your personal list of practical omens. If not, scratch them.

2. Check recurring images or incidents that catch your attention. Some people have strong feelings about numbers, both a repeated digit in one number (11:11, 2.22 etc) and the recurrence of a certain number in many different places and situations in a finite time period. 

3. Keep track of what happens after sightings of this kind. Does a certain kind of incident follow? Does the day turn out well, or badly? Does the repeated number or similar sighting seem only to be saying: Listen up, pay attention.

4. Make a short list of your personal omens, the ones that seem to work, and pay attention to what follows your next sightings.

Don't let superstition wreck the rug

Let's note that superstition isn’t practical if you just get spooked. Here's a cautionary tale, from the life of a great writer. Victor Hugo did not like the number thirteen, especially after what happened to him and his family in what he called “The Terrible Year”, 1871. He left Paris on February 13th and found himself with thirteen people in a carriage on the train. When he got to Bordeaux, the address of the apartment where his son Charles and his daughter were lodged was 13, Rue de la Corse. In the morning, the bill for the family breakfast at a restaurant was 13 francs. Not long after, his son died, at age 44, of a massive heart attack.

     So we might say that Hugo had reason for fear of the number thirteen, for which the scholarly name, as you now remember, is triskadeiphobia. But the superstition later proved impractical, or at least to have an expiration date. When Hugo moved back to Paris, to a splendid apartment on the Rue de Clichy in Paris (number 11) that became a famous address, the number of the guests for dinner one evening was thirteen. This would not do. So a cab driver was invited to join the party. No doubt unused to all the rich food and drink, the cab driver spoiled the scene by throwing up copiously on an expensive carpet. 

Kaspar the 14th dinner guest

The photo above is of Kaspar, the celebrated black cat of the Savoy Hotel in London. If a dinner party at the hotel turns out to be 13 in number, and there is uneasiness about that, Kaspar is seated at the table as the fourteenth guest and served each course at the same time as the other guests.

Text partly adapted from Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity in Everyday Life by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

1 comment:

janjan said...

I hadn't even realised yesterday was Friday the 13th. I spent a wonderful day with my youngest granddaughter. Nothing went wrong, everything fell into place. Your blog post was very interesting. It made me recall a few family superstitions: 1)Never place new shoes on a table - I haven't a clue why, but it's something I never do. 2)Black follows brown when buying a new clothes - dad bought mum a new coat that was brown, a few months later my baby brother died. He (dad) also gave her a string of pearls at the same time. She never ever wore brown coats or pearls ever again for fear of bringing on someones death. I sometimes remember to turn money over when it is a new moon, and I never first look at it through glass - I remember my grandmother saying that one and she told me her grandmother told her. I always put coins in a purse if I am giving one as a gift. As for the 13th, it has never bothered me. I walk under ladders and the only reason I avoid blacks cats is that I am allergic to cats and don't particularly like them no matter what colour they are.