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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why are we superstitious?

It's amazing how things that happened to humans thousands of years ago still influence people today whether we are aware of it or not.  Perhaps the best examples of this are the superstitions many of us believe in.

Wade Boggs was one of the best baseball players of all time, and he attributed his success to eating chicken every day.  The days when I'm not busy I attribute to my lucky parking spot. Everyone knows when there's a full moon it's going to be crazy busy.  Likewise, if you say the word Q-U-I-E-T it's gonna be busy.

Yes, these are superstitions.  Yet 30,000 years ago they weren't superstitions at all but facts: they were omens.  Primitive people believed health and fortune were determined by the spirits, demons, dead, and gods that live among us.

They believed these transcendental forces were ubiquitous: seeming to be everywhere at once.  To make a comparison, our world is filled with bacteria and viruses that can cause us harm, and yet we live in peace among them.  In the same way, people 30,000 years ago lived in peace among the transcendental.

The way they did it was by omens, amulets, talisman, incantations and prayers.  Amulets are objects that ward off evil spirits.  Perhaps it's a bone taken from prey or loved one lost in battle, or  knife or sword or a rabbits foot. It was a bracelet or necklace.  Talisman is a similar object, yet it's objection is to bring good luck.

An omen, however, is a projection of the future.  It can be both good and bad.  A word in our language derived from "omen" is "ominous."  However, the ancient view of omen wasn't necessarily bad: it was good or bad.

One way the Babylonians sought omens was to open an animal and inspect the liver. To them the liver was the essence of life. They viewed the liver the way other societies viewed the heart, or how today we view the brain or the mind.  Priests examined the liver for signs they were trained to interpret.  For example, an abnormality on the left side of the liver may mean the enemy will be defeated, and a deformity on the right side may mean defeat.

Surely we see such omens -- superstitions if you will -- as goofy, they saw them as real as the chair you're sitting on.  Yet in a time when the only medicine was an incantation or prayer, omens were actually a good thing.

Consider the following quote from Henry E. Sigerist in his book, "A History of Medicine (Vol. II, page 455):
"We must keep in mind... that the most abstruse omens do exert an influence on people as soon s they believe in them.  If somebody is convinced that a black cat crossing his path brings bad luck, he will feel uncertain and will be inclined to make mistakes.  The general who in the past went to battle knowing that the stars were against him had a good chance of losing it, because he was bound to feel that it was a vain undertaking to fight against destiny, when he thought that the odds were against him and all in favor of his adversary."
So superstitions -- omens -- aren't so bad.  On the days Wade Boggs ate chicken he put himself in a relaxed state of mind because he just knew he was going to have a good day.  On the days my parking spot is available I do the same because I just know I was going to have a good day.

On those full moon nights, many of which are not busy at all, we medical care workers just put ourselves in a mood where if it's busy it must be because of the full moon.  The same with the recitation of the word quiet. Yet we owe it all to the first form of medicine: the magico-religious.

In a sense the magico-religious is ingrained in our blood.


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