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«Superstitions in an Urban Contemporary Community Fenella Dean MA Cultural Astronomy and Astrology Crynodeb Fel y pwysleisia Alan Dundes (Dundes: ...»

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Y Myfyriwr Ymchwil Prifysgol Cymru

Cyfrol 2, Rhif 2, Mai 2013, 59–77 Y Drindod Dewi Sant

The Student Researcher University of Wales

Vol. 2, No. 2, May 2013, 59–77 Trinity Saint David

Superstitions in an Urban Contemporary Community

Fenella Dean MA Cultural Astronomy and Astrology Crynodeb Fel y pwysleisia Alan Dundes (Dundes: 1961; t. 25), nid gwaith hawdd yw diffinio ofergoelion gan fod ofergoelion wedi’u plethu mewn systemau cred a chwedloniaeth sydd i’w gweld yn amlwg ar draws hanes a diwylliannau, ac sy’n rhan annatod o gymdeithasau, bywydau ac ymddygiadau pobl heb iddynt o reidrwydd gydnabod eu bodolaeth na deall pam. Nod y prosiect ymchwil hwn yw ymchwilio i ddilysrwydd y datganiad hwn oddi mewn i gymuned drefol, fach, gyfoes trwy gyfrwng holiaduron a chyfweliadau. Bydd yr holiadur ar ffurf cyfres fer o gwestiynau er mwyn cael gwybod a yw’r unigolyn yn ei ystyried ei hun yn ofergoelus. Dosberthir yr holiadur i ryw 20 o unigolion. Yn dilyn hyn, dewisir nifer fach o unigolion o blith y grwp sydd wedi llenwi’r holiadur i’w cyfweld. Bydd y meini prawf ar gyfer dewis yr unigolion hyn yn dibynnu ar nifer y rheini ‘sy’n credu’ neu ‘nad ydynt yn credu’ mewn ofergoelion, fodd bynnag, y nod yw dewis nifer gytbwys o’r naill grwp a’r llall pe bai modd. Bydd y cyfweliadau ar ffurf hanner-strwythuredig lle bydd hawl i’r cyfwelai sôn am ei gred neu’i ddiffyg cred mewn ofergoelion wrth iddo gael ei gyfarwyddo trwy wahanol gwestiynau ynghylch ofergoeledd gan y cyfwelydd. Amcan y cyfweliad yw casglu rhagor o wybodaeth ar gyfer dealltwriaeth ddyfnach ynghylch ofergoeliaeth o safbwynt yr unigolyn yn ogystal â’r unigolyn oddi mewn i’r gymuned.

Geiriau allweddol: Ofergoelion, systemau cred, cymuned, ethnograffeg, gwaith maes Abstract As Alan Dundes (Dundes: 1961; pp. 25) highlights it is not a simple task to define superstition as superstitions are interwoven in belief systems and folklore that are prevalent throughout history and cultures, and are integrated into societies, peoples’ lives and behaviour without them necessarily acknowledging their existence or understanding why. This research project aims to explore the validity of this statement within a small, contemporary, urban community via both questionnaires and interviews. The questionnaire will take the form of a short set of questions in order to ascertain whether the individual believes him/herself to be superstitious. The questionnaire will be distributed to approximately 20 individuals. Following this, a small number of individuals, will be chosen from the group who have completed the questionnaires, to be interviewed. The criteria for choosing these individuals will depend on the number of ‘believers’ or ‘nonbelievers’ in superstitions, however, the aim is to choose a balanced number of both groups should this exist. The interviews will take a semi-structured form with the interviewee being allowed to talk of their belief or non-belief in superstitions being guided by various questions with regard to superstitions by the interviewer. The aim of the interview is to gather more information for a greater depth of understanding with regard to superstition both in terms of the individual and the individual within the community.

Key words: Superstitions, belief systems, community, ethnography, fieldwork

University of Wales Trinity Saint David60 Fenella Dean

Introduction In his study entitled “Some Observations on Superstition in Contemporary Life” Judd Marmor stated it is often assumed “[A]s man’s scientific knowledge has increased … his irrational beliefs must be diminishing proportionately” with Marmor aligning 1 superstitions with irrational beliefs. Marmor goes on to say that this superiority “over 2 earlier or more primitive societies is actually more apparent than real”. He is surprised to discover “how many beliefs of irrational nature persist in contemporary society 3 despite the far-reaching advances in our technological understanding”, mentioning the prevalence of the superstition knocking on wood in order to ward off ill-luck. So, it would appear that for all the technological advancement that man/woman seems to embrace, superstitions persist however irrational they may be. As Hamlet said;

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 4 Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare, I, v) Marmor’s observations are further supported by Alan Dundes’ research entitled 5 “Brown County Superstitions: The Structure of Superstitions” undertaken a few years later. Dundes highlights it is not a simple task to define superstition as superstitions are interwoven in belief systems and folklore that are prevalent throughout history and cultures, and are integrated into societies, peoples’ lives and behaviour without them necessarily acknowledging their existence or understanding why. The following research project explores the validity of these statements within a small, contemporary, urban community in the 21st century, via both questionnaires and interviews.

The questionnaire was distributed to a small number of individuals in the chosen community. Following this, a smaller number of individuals were interviewed from the group who had completed the questionnaires. The aim of the interview was to gather more information for a greater depth of understanding with regard to belief in superstition both in terms of the individual and the individual within the community.





Defining Superstition Samuel Adams Drake in 1900 said “[S]uperstition is not easily defined.’ (Drake, 1900, 6 pp. 7), Mazie Earl Wagner in 1928 referred to superstition as ‘these irrational beliefs”.

The anthropologist, David Bidney in 1953, defined superstition as “a mode of fear 7 based on some irrational or mythological belief and usually involves some taboo”.

In 1997, Michael Thalbourne defined superstition as “a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable 8 grounds for such a belief ”.

What the above illustrates is that superstition is commonly categorised as a form of belief and a belief, according to David Bidney (Bidney, 1953), is made up of three types of knowledge: rational, irrational and non-rational. Rational knowledge being that which people assume to be true, for example four multiplied by four equals sixteen. Irrational knowledge which is assumed by sane individuals to be false, for example four multiplied by four does not equal seventeen. Non-rational knowledge is deemed to be everything in between rational and irrational knowledge; “it is knowledge that can neither be proved nor disproved – commitments we make and 9 assumptions we act on every day”.

Thus, superstition can be assumed to be a form of belief, however, Carl Lindahl questions what belief is and whether we know what we believe. In his study “’It’s Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant Superstitions in an Urban Contemporary Community 61 Only Folklore…’ Folklore and the Historian”,10 an example of this conundrum is given by Lindahl when he asks his new students at the start of folklore classes each year if they believe in ghosts and if not would they spend the night in a cemetery.

Of the students who say they do not believe in ghosts, several in the class would not spend a night in a cemetery. Lindahl asks the question “If you say you believe one thing, and act immediately and instinctively as if you believe the opposite, what 11 do you really believe?” Whilst the above example is not a scientific study it does show the transient nature of belief. Patrick Suppes in his paper “The Measurement of Belief ” summed up this transience with the analogy, “[O]ur beliefs….are rather like the leaves on a tree. They tremble and move under even a minor current of 12 information”.

Another aspect of defining superstition as a form of belief is that these definitions have a psychological basis; Bidney’s definition above centres on the psychology of irrational fear. Gustav Jahoda in his book “The Psychology of Superstition” highlights the psychological theories explaining superstition and how these definitions and theories have been formulated, dividing superstitious 13 belief into four categories. Sociologists in formulating theories and definitions to explain superstition in modern society have looked to theories that “were developed to explain a different phenomena: that of magic and ‘superstition’ in traditional, 14 mainly non-literate societies”. For example Bronislaw Malinowski’s ‘theory of the gap’ which says that magic is used to reduce anxiety, filling the unknown space.

Magic and superstition being assumed to be the same or similar, Malinowski states;

“[M]an, engaged in a series of practical activities, comes to a gap [...] his anxiety, his fears and hopes, induce a tension in his organism which drives him to some sort of 15 activity”. John McLeish in his study applied this theory to superstitious belief and practice in modern society and summed it up as “[T]he functional significance of these unfounded beliefs,....is that they contain, or otherwise cope with, individual 16 and group anxieties”.

The weakness with these definitions and theories of superstition, as mentioned above, is that “[T]hey attempt to explain a phenomenon – superstition – which 17 is envisaged as a uniform trans-historical and trans-cultural phenomenon”. They have ignored the cultural and historical aspect of superstition and that superstitious 18 belief and practice develops and changes over time, from one generation to another.

Additionally, they assume “that people actually believe in the superstitious acts which 19 they perform”.

Superstitious beliefs and practices in contemporary society differ from premodern society in that they are on the whole “individualistic, unrelated to social roles 20 and generally devoid of any degree of social prescription”. The practises are usually 21 “unrelated to any system of beliefs” and therefore possess no rationale. People if they 22 are asked to explain their behaviour”are typically unable to formulate any reason”.

Additionally, people may go further when attempting to give a reasoned response to their superstitious behaviour by denying “that they believe in the effectiveness of the 23 acts that they perform”.

So distinguishing features of modern superstitions appear to be that “the beliefs are barely articulated, have virtually no coherent structure and are only partially accepted 24 by those who carry out the associated practices”. For example few people can give a coherent explanation why they knock on wood rather than plastic. Individuals appear to “half-believe” in superstitions and their practices, they do not have a problem with 25 this lack of “coherent and meaningful belief ”. This “half-belief ” behaviour was

–  –  –

Methodology and Discussion A single sheet questionnaire (Appendix I), composed of 4 questions was distributed to 21 people within the community by hand or email. Twenty of the questionnaires were returned completed of which one was ‘spoilt’ and is to be ignored, leaving 19 questionnaires to analyse. The responses were from nine males and ten females in the age range 32 to 51, representing a virtual 50:50 split between the genders.

The questionnaire included a definition of superstition to frame the research and 2 questions asking whether the individual believed themselves to be superstitious and if so to what degree. The final question asked for a list of superstitions that could be remembered regardless of their belief.

The questionnaire was composed of 4 questions, starting with a definition of superstition to frame the questionnaire and guide the respondents. The subject of superstition is very broad and it was necessary to frame the subject matter for such a small study although this could be viewed as leading. In addition, whilst it has been outlined above the difficulty in defining superstition and the drawbacks of each style of definition, the reason for choosing David Bidney’s definition was due to the fact I believed it to be an easily understood definition. It also included the words ‘fear’ and ‘irrational’ and I wished to test the respondents’ reaction to the use of these words and how superstitious beliefs, if they are deemed to be based in fear and irrationality, have a place in an urban contemporary community. I felt the best way of doing this was to use a definition which attempted to question their belief in themselves as irrational, if they deemed themselves superstitious. To give an example of the power of superstition based in fear and irrationality, during the terms of the American President Ronald Reagan, his wife Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer, Joan Quigley, allegedly “to advise her on a wide range of topics, many of which bore directly on the affairs of 33 state”. In addition, there is the “twenty-year death cycle” which is the superstition that “since 1840, every President elected or reelected in a year ending in zero had either died or been assassinated in office. Mr Reagan was elected to his first term in 34 1980”. This example of actions being influenced by superstition could be viewed as being rooted in fear and irrationality.

There was also the subjective issue of the choices given to answer question one and three of the questionnaire. Whilst it can be argued that “[W]ords which have a 35 common meaning to you may mean something to other people”, the reason for the choices was again to assess the reaction to the definition with regard to question one Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant Superstitions in an Urban Contemporary Community 63 and how the respondents view their level of superstition with question three (Appendix II, Tables 1 and 3). In addition, I believe it made it easier for the respondents to answer the questions.

The first question was a definition of superstition and the respondents were asked to what degree they agreed or disagreed with the statement (Appendix II, Table 1).

Fourteen of the total nineteen respondents ‘Agreed’ with the statement representing 74%, whilst two ‘Strongly Agreed’ (11%), two were ‘Not Sure’ and one ‘Disagreed’.

Of these results, six of the fourteen who agreed with the statement were male and the remaining eight were female. The two who ‘Strongly Agreed’ and the one that ‘Disagreed’ with the statement were male. The two individuals who were ‘Not Sure’ with regard to the statement were female.



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