Superstition: Friday the 13th!
FRIDAY THE 13TH: BLACK CATS, WITCHCRAFT AND PUTTING FAITH IN THE SUPERNATURAL
Emeritus Professor Bernard Capp, Department of History
Superstitious beliefs such as avoiding black cats and breaking mirrors to avert bad luck, and of course, the unluckiest day of all, Friday 13th, are an irrational yet engrained part of our culture. But how did they start? Professor Bernard Capp from the Department of History argues that what we consider to be 'rational' is specific to our times, and wonders which of our modern beliefs will be considered superstitions by future generations.
Hollywood has done for Friday 13th what Hallmark did for father’s day. The ‘infamous’ day’s history (Friday 13th, not Father’s day) does not, actually, go back that far and the tenuous theories weakly battling it out to explain the origins of the beliefs surrounding Friday 13th amalgamate various ideas about the numerology of 13 and ‘worries about the last day of the working week’.
There are, among the many suggestions, possible Christian reasons for the belief. Jesus had 12 disciples. Including himself, there was a group of 13 in all and Jesus died on a Friday after being betrayed by the 13th member of the group: Judas. But why were there twelve disciples? Twelve, a useful number mathematically speaking because of the high number of factors - 12,6,4,3,2,1 - seems to pop up quite a lot and some presume that thirteen is unlucky mainly because it has no factors at all.
And Friday? Well, for a long time it has been supposed that there is a higher chance of a stock market crash on this day, though we can all make socio-scientific guesses for why that might be the case. The almost total lack of reasons explaining how this particular day is ill-fated makes Friday 13th a superstition by definition; a superstition is a belief in something without justification, ‘an irrational or excessively credulous belief’.
It is the lack of 'rational' justification for superstitious beliefs which means that those who actually live their lives according to what their star signs says, or fret about black cats and smashing mirrors, are considered mad, crazy or at the very least, eccentric. But before the scientific revolution, views of this type were held by the majority not the minority. Bernard Capp, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick, explains:
“Our mind-set is now a scientific one. What is ‘rational’ and appears plausible to us is relatively modern. It is subjective. People just as intelligent as us, in previous ages, had a very different outlook on the world.”
Belief in witchcraft provides a striking example. In the 16th and 17th centuries you could be prosecuted for witchcraft, which Parliament had made a felony. It was not uncommon for villagers to suspect old, often widowed, women to have the power to cast spells which brought injury or death. If enough villagers came to suspect a particular individual, charges would be carried to a local magistrate and a criminal trial might follow. Several hundred people were hanged as witches in this period and many thousands on the continent were burned. In the 18th century the law changed, marking a cultural shift; witchcraft ceased to be a felony and became a fraud - indicative of a new educated consensus that there were no grounds for believing any individual could have the powers attributed to witches.
“Nothing had changed apart from the intellectual climate. By the 18th century educated people had backed away from the idea, believing now that science could one day provide a natural explanation for almost all phenomena.”
There are still people who believe in witchcraft; generally claiming to be 'white' witches, using their powers for good. Some of them contact Professor Capp, interested in his research into the 17th century origins of their practices, and one eminent historian, Professor Ronald Hutton, recently announced that he himself was a believer. The more common residual superstitions, however, relate to astrology:
“Respectable newspapers carry ‘predictions’ which seems surprising. There is nothing in it - it is what we might call ‘bad science’.”
The origins of astrology go back 2,000 years to the ancient Babylonians who arbitrarily split up the sky into the twelve signs. Perhaps the continuing significance attached to star signs reflects the prominence of astrologers and 'cunning folk' (or white witches) in the 17th century:
“There were literally thousands of practitioners, comparable to the number of doctors we have today,” says Professor Capp.
Many kept case books which record the questions asked and the charts they used to come up with the answers. Reputations were made on lucky guesses that seemed impressive to those happy to ignore the selection bias.
“William Lilly [a famous English astrologer of the 17th century] once predicted that ‘a terrible fire will destroy a great city’ over twenty years before the Great Fire of London. After the event, Parliament called him as an expert witness to help discover who had started it. If the greatest minds of the time put faith in this practice it can hardly be considered superstitious.”
The skill then, as now, was probably in phrasing predictions that allowed for the widest possible range of interpretations while appearing specific.
While it seems ridiculous to us that Parliament should proceed on this basis, it is interesting to consider which of our own beliefs future generations may consider similarly ignorant. There are many religious practices that non-believers would consider superstitious: pilgrimages, praying to saints for healing, the concept of divine retribution. As science discovers more and more about the way the world works, why do we continue to put faith in the supernatural?
“There is not an easy fit between science and religion but mostly it has been agreed that they can coexist, they do not deal with the same things. The scientific culture is dominant in the western world, and even if we are not scientists it shapes our outlook. But science does not meet all of our emotional needs so we cling on to some of the things that do.”
When Gossips Meet. Women, the Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England ( OUP 2003; paperback, 2004 ) by Bernard Capp
Francis, Leslie J. and Williams, Emyr (2007) Drawing back the veil: the socio-psychological correlates of paranormal belief among 13- to 15-year-old adolescents. Christian Parapsychologist, Vol.17 . pp. 170-185. ISSN 0308-6194.
Williams, Emyr and Francis, Leslie J. and Lewis, Christopher Alan (2009) Introducing the modified paranormal belief scale: distinguishing between classic paranormal beliefs, religious paranormal beliefs and conventional religiosity among undergraduates in Northern Ireland and Wales. Archiv für Religionspsychologie, Vol.31 (No.3). pp. 345-356. ISSN 0084-6724.
Handley, Sasha (2005) 'Visions of an unseen world': the production and consumption of English ghost stories, c.1660-1800. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.