Tag Archives: superstition

Seeing Portents

The inclination to read meaning into random events seems to be widespread and longstanding in human thinking. Many cultures (probably all) have superstitions and attach meanings where there is no justification for doing so. When this is taken to extremes, it can be limiting and damaging to a person. But why do we do this?

I think in part it comes from a desire to have some power over or insight into what is basically a very chaotic and unpredictable world. Imagined insight gives comfort, even when we know it has no basis, weirdly. People who make something of seeing one, or two magpies. People who expect the worst on Friday the 13th.

From a certain perspective this all seems wildly illogical, and unlikely to be of any help to anyone. However, if you consider the idea that all things, people, objects, events, stars, flowers, creatures etc are connected, then a different way of considering this emerges. There’s the old gem about a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. Things are affected by each other in very logical ways. I can look at the sky and guess what the weather will be like in a while. Animals sense tsunamis and earthquakes. Perhaps other tides and currents manifest in the natural world.

If you believe in any notion of higher powers, then it can be tempting to see natural phenomena as messages from the divine. However, a comet above a battlefield can be taken as meaning victory to all who see it – and clearly for one side it won’t be. If the sight of a rainbow, a meteor or a thunderstorm is a message from the gods, can we be confident that it was meant for us and that we’ve understood it right?

The biggest danger, to my mind, lies in imagining that we understand. The world is a complex place, full of subtle balances and relationships. Sometimes things we see as omens turn out to be relevant, and sometimes they don’t – whether that’s a matter of interpretation, or the relevance of omens, I can’t say. I don’t know. Some experiences and encounters feel laden with meaning, but is that my desire to find meaning, or does it represent something external to me?

I think the bottom line here, as with all things is, does it help? If you are forever seeing bad signs and omens of doom that make your life even more unhappy, then no, it doesn’t help. If you see too many good signs and miss the trickier realities of your life by ignoring what you need to face, that doesn’t help either. If you are able to do something that adds to your life, in the gap between those extremes, then why not explore it?



I just made a cup of tea before I sat down to write this article. I stirred the tea clock-wise (deosil) and tapped the spoon three times on the side of the cup. This is a just a small way that superstition weaves its way into my everyday life. I toss salt over my left shoulder to ward off the devil and bad luck. I wont walk under a ladder and I “knock on wood” every time I walk past a weeping willow tree that is near my house to appease the tree spirits.

Superstition seems to be woven so intricately into our lives that we don’t even notice it until our attention is drawn to it. I wonder how many generations of my family have made their tea the same way, as I was taught by my parents who were taught by theirs and those before them.

There are so many superstitions from all parts of the world which allows them to blend into multicultural array to be taken up by our society. Both ancient and modern takes on superstitions makes them an intriguing part of our lives. In ancient times, it is easy to see where superstitions come from. The black cat, who could have very well been a witches familiar was to be feared as a dark omen. Saying bless you when someone sneezes could be derived from two different versions of a superstition. One that arose during the great plague was that to sneeze was usually the first sign of the plague, so “bless you” because you were more than likely to die from the plague. The other, more ancient superstition is from a  belief that you sneezed out a part of your soul and saying “bless you” restored it to it’s former glory.

In today’s technologically and scientifically advanced world, do superstitions still prevail through society? I think they do, mainly because as you read this post, you are probably thinking about all the superstitions you know or do without thinking. Superstitions about nature may still hold true, such as “red at night, Shepard’s delight, red in the morning, Shepard’s warning.” Meaning that if the sunset is red at night, it will be a nice sunny day tomorrow and if it is red in the morn, then it is going to be a hot, miserable day.

These superstitions can still hold true, because nature is nature, whether we humans are advanced or not. Other superstitions hold true because we are creatures of habit and also because there is a mystical and magical quality to superstitions. They are almost like rituals handed down through the generations without us even acknowledging them.

There are superstitions regarding all facets of life, eating, marrying, good luck, bad luck, the state of your soul, nature, animals, rainbows. Everything.

When I was young, I broke a mirror and was told of the superstition of seven years bad luck would now befall me. I asked my father why and he told me that in times gone by the mirror was thought to hold your soul and breaking it would mean that it would take seven years for the soul to rejuvenate. I was mortified and my father told me it was only a superstition. So I asked my father how the mirror really worked and he told me.

But I will leave you with these words that have stayed with me, even until today. He held up a shard of the mirror and said, “Just because you know how it works, doesn’t mean it isn’t magic.”