Triskadekaphobia

It means fear of the number 13 and things associated with it. I actually learned this word tangentially today:

And yes! Eyes in the Walls is finally live in all formats.

But this got me thinking – why are people “superstitious” and what does “superstition” really mean?

Oddly, I think if you look at Pagan history, particularly that of antiquity, the concept is almost an inversion of what we think of today. Pagans viewed rituals as something that created outcomes via the attention of the gods – you made a sacrifice, Jupiter looked favorably upon your military campaign. You keep the eternal vestal flame burning, and Rome will never be conquered.

It’s also interesting to note that Rome fell only AFTER the vestal flame was extinguished and the old pagan ways were completely abandoned.

Today, we tend to think of such rituals as being superstitious, and yet it was the Christians whom the pagans considered superstitious, not themselves. This is might be because in the Christian tradition prayer and other rituals are not necessarily expected to be answered. We do not expect sacraments to bring about improvements to our situation or to bless us, as we always submit first to the will of God, and recognize he may not fulfill our wishes on this earth.

Moreover, we don’t view an outcome we don’t like – say continued illness when we have prayed for healing – to indicate that our diety looks upon us unfavorably. In the pagan tradition, defeat is pretty definitive evidence that the gods favored your opponent over you.

We cannot return to paganism (if I am being truthful, the efforts of people like Varg are ultimately revival of something lost forever), so why have these rituals persisted? I have a few ideas.

  1. Rituals are an example of assymetrical cost and risk – there is a very low cost for lost of rituals (like, for example, tossing spilled salt over one’s shoulder), but a large potential benefit in the avoidance of “bad luck” or some other catastrophy prescribed by the gods. Rituals and superstitions that require a lot of us (such as human sacrifice) have largely gone away.
  2. Rituals improve social cohesion. Saying “Bless you,” after a sneeze is an example. It’s a ritual that points to social cohesion by giving an opportunity for active politeness.
  3. Rituals work. This is a hard one for most people who are oriented toward materialism to consider, but there is always a possibility that a “superstitious” action may have actual real benefit. Throwing coins into the well to “make a wish” might seem silly, but the copper may actually benefit you by reducing the microorganisms in the water and also providing an important trace mineral.
  4. Superstitious beliefs may provide the confidence necessary for certain tasks. Want that certain someone to love you? Acting as though that is an inevitability (due to some ritual, there are lots) can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also of interest to me are elements of “folk Catholicism,” which are beliefs that are unofficial, or even heretical, but practiced by local Catholics who do not consider them to be at odds with their faith.

The denigration of the saints is one area that comes to mind, with one specific example: burying effigies of Saint Joseph. In this practice (which you can actually buy kits for off of Amazon), you bury a statuette of Saint Joseph upside down facing your home, then pray for his intercession that you will be able to sell the home.

Originally, this was a more idolatrous practice than it has become. It was denigration. “You better help me sell my house, or else I’m going to leave you buries upside down!” That element seems to be lost, and now we have an unofficial ritual (burying the statue) combined with something that is more in accordance with actual doctrine (praying for the intercession of a saint). You may have a new variation of the superstitious reasoning – it gets the subject to engage in activities which are actually religious or enhance faith.

I refer actual judgment of this to clergy, of course.

So this Friday the 13th, stay inside and read a book. I have a few scary ones you might like:

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