With few exceptions, everyone is superstitious. Whether it’s as simple as tossing salt over your shoulder if you spill the shaker, or an elaborate system of metaphysical checks and balances that resembles the meticulous routines that baseball players display as they step to the plate, we tend to rely on a few ideas that have little basis in fact but that we are unable to discard as unnecessary.
While some consider superstitions as psychological residue of less learned times, dismissal of these beliefs as illogical misses the whole point: Science can be used to debunk the logic of many superstitions, but superstitions are not subject to science, they are matters of faith. To the scientist, rapidly rapping your knuckles against the dining room table will do nothing to ward off evil; but for the person who jokes about someone dying, knocks on wood to recant, and finds the subject alive the next day, the evidence of that superstition’s effectiveness is obvious.
That’s why I like superstitions. Science is great, more power to it, but superstitions are fun, the little bits of weird poetry scribbled into the margins of the Algebra book. No, they don’t conform to a rigid equation, but life is too short to attempt to qualify and quantify every idea that lodges in our head. Simply put, life without superstitions seems like a duller version of life with them.
When I found The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions, I looked forward to informing my knowledge of these idiosyncratic belief systems: Why throw salt over one’s shoulder when we spill the shaker, and why is knocking on wood considered a remedy for a comment that suggests an outcome that we’d prefer didn’t come to fruition?
Unfortunately, this isn’t that book. While the title led me to expect a volume akin to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which gives the origin and meaning of well-known and obscure phrases and stories, The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions is a compendium of suspicions, an attempt to comprehensively list all known superstitions. As such, the title is misleading: It’s not so much a reference book as a how-to guide for constructing neuroses about the supernatural.
For instance, you likely know that breaking a mirror reportedly brings seven years of bad luck. But this can be avoided if “you bury the pieces of broken mirror or throw them into a fast moving stream; or, take out a five dollar note while making the sign of the cross.” The superstition itself is absurd enough—why precisely seven years? Why no consideration of how it was broken?—but the antidote seems preposterous even by that precedent: What does money have to do with a broken mirror? Why precisely a five dollar note? And where exactly is the implied “in” from which we “take out” the bill? Considering that seven years of misfortune is at stake, a bit more specificity would be appreciated.
Such is the case with the majority of entries, quick one-liners that seem more concerned with brevity than thoroughness, usually naming only the superstition, not the remedy. Considering that the introduction begins, “The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions is an entertaining A-Z guide for anyone interested in folklore and popular culture”, perhaps it delivers on what it promises: As entertainment, this cute little volume will amuse the light-hearted believer, who will certainly marvel at the sheer number of available superstitions; it will likely elicit self-righteous guffaws from the devout non-believer as well, who will find ample evidence that many superstitions are downright silly. But by definition, I think of an encyclopedia as a source of thorough information; this is less an encyclopedia than a 500-page list.
The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions does include some interesting and/or entertaining information. From the 15 pages on clothing, I learned that putting on clean clothes on a Friday is bad luck; sleeping with a left stocking around the throat cures a sore throat; walking in one slipper is unlucky, and may cause one of your parents to die; putting on new sandals after five o’clock in the afternoon is unlucky; and that a woman getting married without underwear will be lucky for the rest of her life. (And her husband, for at least his wedding day.)
From the entry on Zombies, I learned this: “Often depicted in horror movies, zombies are dead humans who roam aimlessly. They are frightening but harmless.” Reassuring knowledge, certainly, but if you ever encounter a zombie, this may not be a thorough blueprint for conducting your social interaction.
More useful sections of the book include examination of the various superstitions about colors, the unspoken meanings of flowers, the lucky days of the month and year for each astrological sign (astrology deemed a close cousin to superstition by skeptics) and seemingly everything from omens associated with acting to the hazards of yawning. Yet inexplicably, nowhere in the book is there any mention of “knock on wood”. Considering the apparent effort for completeness, this is a glaring omission.
If your budget hasn’t been impacted by the current economy, you may find this to be a fun book to have on your shelf. But if you’re interested in digging into the origin of the belief systems that fuel some of our voluntary eccentricities, shop on.