by Amal HEWAVISSENTI
You might have felt your blood run cold on hearing a long drawn howling of a dog or a wailing cry of a devil bird (`Ulama`) which is assuredly considered an ill omen foreshadowing the death of the eldest in your household. In Sri Lankan culture in particular, the cry of house gecko and the magpie`s call are the pronounced ill presages suggesting destruction to someone or miscarriage of one`s plans.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of varied superstitions exist in relation to human and animal behaviour and natural phenomena which have traditionally come down as a part and parcel of culture and folklore. However, a few of these superstitions are proved to have a scientific basis which the forerunners of these beliefs have been vaguely aware of but not been able to explicate in justification of their creations. For instance, a person, who is in close proximity to death, may radiate some chemical rays which are perceptible not to human senses, but only to the complete senses of an animal. When a dog happens to perceive these ominous rays of its master, it begins to howl in a complex mental perplexion.The reality underlying the `Ulema`s` mysterious cry is that it simply voices a high pitched sexually appealing call to another female bird - a cry which sounds ominous to people`s ear, but apparently has nothing to do with funerary circumstances.
Many irrational beliefs in the supernatural can be traced to the primeval times when people had no understanding of nature and natural phenomena. Being surrounded by mysteries, they could not understand-events in nature such as lightening, rain and eclipses of the sun, and human events such as birth and death. They believed that unseen spirits, both good and bad, were at work in the world around them. To invoke the support of good spirits and keep the evil spirits happy and content, they invented all types of magical charms and tokens.
Ancient people had a firm conviction in the power of magical charms. They believed that a wish would come true if it was made while looking at or touching something that had experienced good fortune or associated with material wealth. For example, in England, the rabbit`s foot became a good luck charm because people were greatly impressed by the power and movement of a rabbit`s hind legs which came to be viewed as powerful charms against sinister forces. Other clear cut irrational beliefs associated with money and wealth are, the presence of beehive near one`s home and dealing with money on January 1st which are thought to promise a life time of prosperity to a person. In spite of scientific fact and common sense, a few people today are completely free of superstitious beliefs as superstitions still influence the overall thoughts and actions of people throughout the world. People in different countries in fact, often have their own unique superstitious beliefs and customs. A lucky charm or superstitious belief may give someone a feeling of perfect confidence, but such charms and superstitions really have no potential power beyond what human thinking and actions give them.
Some common superstitions
Breaking A Mirror
Most people think that shattering a mirror is definitely a portent of seven years of bad luck and this superstition formed itself long before the mirrors were known, when people believed that a reflection in a pool of water was really the soul or `other self` of a person.
After the invention of mirrors, breaking one and harming the reflection in it continued to mean bad luck to the other self because this other self would be injured if disturbed in any way. Ancient Romans, for example, believed that a mirror smashed meant seven years of violent upheaval or mischance and the number seven was chosen because they thought that life renewed itself in the course of every seven years and it would take a person that long to recover from any impairment.
The Number 13
The number 13 has been envisioned as an illstarred number among many cultures for thousands of years and the Friday the 13th itself is speculated to be the unlukiest day except for those who were born on the 13th, for whom it is a memorable day in their lives.
The superstition about Friday the 13th may have its basis on the Norwegian Legend about a goddess who was banished for being a depraved witch. Even today it is believed that each Friday, a day called `witches` sabbath`, twelve witches and the devil met to wreak havoc on earth.
The superstition about the hellish devilry that can come alive when a black cat crosses someone`s path goes back to the ancient times where it was believed that black cats were close associates of witches and warlocks and eventually transformed themselves into witches themselves. A black cat coming towards someone could therefore be a witch intent on doing mischief and the safest thing to do was to avoid the cat.
Many irrational beliefs are based on use of salt. Ancient people thought that salt was mystic or witchy and could perform good or evil because when they unravelled the ability of salt to preserve food, they believed it could protect them too. Spilling salt was believed to be a gorewarning from good spirits that evil was nearby. Since people thought that good spirits lived on the right side of the body and evil ones on the left, they used to sprinkle a pinch of salt over the left shoulder to satisfy evil spirits who were possibly intent on ruination.
Opening An Umbrella
This superstition came in to existence long ago when umbrellas were much larger than today and most people believe that opening an umbrella indoors will bring ruination and disappointment. When opened indoors these large clumsy umbrellas could hurt someone or damage something in the house.
Walking Under A Ladder
In some Asian countries, hard criminals were subjected to capital punishment by hanging them from the seventh rung of a ladder propped against a large tree. Ancient people held the belief that the death was contagious and the individual who walked under the ladder was supposed to be in danger of catching death from the ghost of the hanged. However, this belief, irrational it may sound, also had a sensible basis because a ladder can practically collapse, or tools lying on its rungs may fall and harm someone underneath. The intercultural superstition illustrated above are just a few of the thousands of beliefs rooted worldwide. However, one prominent factor related to these beliefs that, they, though baseless, tend to promote good behaviour in humans rather than undermining the well being of society.