AskDefine | Define superstition

Dictionary Definition

superstition n : an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear [syn: superstitious notion]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A set of beliefs that future events may be influenced by one's behaviour in some magical or mystical way.

Related terms


a set of beliefs that future events may be influenced by one's behaviour in some magical or mystical way

Extensive Definition

Superstition (Latin superstes, "standing over", "set above") is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to supposedly irrational beliefs of others, and its precise meaning is therefore subjective. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings.
To medieval scholars the word was applied to and beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity; today it is applied to conceptions without foundation in, or in contravention of, scientific and logical knowledge. The earliest English uses of the word in the modern era refer critically to Catholic practices such as censing, rosaries, and other practices that Protestants believed went beyond - or were set up above - beliefs that seemed unfounded or primitive in the light of modern knowledge.
Many extant superstitions are said to have originated during the plagues that swept through Europe. According to legend, during the time of a plague, Saint Gregory I the Great ordered that people say "God bless you" when somebody sneezed, to prevent the spread of the disease.

Superstition and folklore

In the academic discipline of folkloristics the term "superstition" is used to denote any general, culturally variable beliefs in a supernatural "reality". Depending on a given culture's belief set, its superstitions may relate to things that are not fully understood or understood at all, such as cemeteries, animals, demons, a devil, deceased ancestors, the weather, ripping one's sock, gambling, sports, food, holidays, occupations, excessive scrupulosity, death, luck, and spirits. Urban legends are also sometimes classed as superstition, especially if the moral of the legend is to justify fears about socially alien people or conditions.
In Western folklore, superstitions associated with bad luck include Friday the 13th and walking under a ladder.
In India, there is a superstition that a pregnant woman should avoid going outside during an eclipse in order to prevent her baby being born with a facial birthmark. In Iran, birthmarks are called 'maah-gereftegi' (Persian: ماه گرفتگی) which means eclipse. In Korea, there is a superstition that leaving a fan on in a closed room will suffocate the occupants.

Superstition and religion

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, atheists and agnostics may regard religious belief as superstition.
Religious practices are most likely to be labeled "superstitious" by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications.
Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. "Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). For Christians just such fears might be worn proudly as a name: Desdemona.
The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion" (para. #2110).
The Catechism clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:
Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. (para. #2111)
Some superstitions, that originated as religious practices, continued to be observed by people whom no longer adhere to the religion that gave birth to the practice. Often the practices lose their original meaning. In other cases, the practices are adapted to the current religion of the practicer. Such as replacing pagan symbols to ward off evil, to using the cross, during the Christianizing of Europe.

Hunting superstitions

  • In the forests of ancient China, when a Nivkhs hunter was pursuing game his children were forbidden to make drawings on wood or in sand; they feared that if the children did so, the paths in the forest would become as complicated as the lines in the drawings and that the hunter might lose his way and never return.
The belief that there is a magical bond between a wound and the weapon which caused it may be traced unaltered for thousands of years:
  • A Melanesian believed that if he obtains possession of the weapon which caused his wound, he should carefully keep it in a cool place so as to reduce the inflammation of the wound. But if the weapon is left in the enemy's possession, it will undoubtedly be hung up close to the fire, causing the wound to become hot and inflamed.
  • Roman officer and encyclopedist Pliny (in his Natural History, Book XXVIII, Chapter 7) tells us that "if you have wounded a man and are sorry for it, you have only to spit on the hand that gave the wound, and the pain of the sufferer will be instantly alleviated."
  • Francis Bacon (in his Sylva Sylvarum, X, 998) mentions that "it is constantly received and avouched that the anointing of the weapon that maketh the wound will heal the wound itself". This superstition was still in practice in eastern England in the 20th century: At Norwich in June 1902 a woman named Matilda Henry accidentally ran a nail into her foot. Without examining the wound, or even removing her stocking, she asked her daughter to grease the nail, thinking that if this were done no harm would come of the injury. Within few days she died of lockjaw.'''

Theatre Superstitions

  • In the theatre, it is bad luck to wish someone "Good luck." Instead, you are to say "Break a leg."
  • Uttering the word "Macbeth" in a theatre is said to bring bad luck, unless performing the show. It is commonly referred to as "The Scottish Play." The play is supposedly cursed.
  • Whistling in a theatre is bad luck. The most plausible explanation is that in early theatre, the flyspace was operated using an advanced system of whistles, and nonchalant whistling may cue a tech person to do their cue too early and screw up the performance.
  • The green room should never be painted green.
  • Seeing a peacock in or near a theatre is bad luck. Peacocks were once believed to possess the "evil eye" in their tails.
Most bad luck in theatre can be expelled by having the person responsible turn around themselves to the right three times, then spitting or farting.

Other superstitions

  • A single magpie is considered a sign of bad luck.A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar recites an old proverb concerning the incidence of bad weather when magpies forage alone and a possible scientific explanation for this.
  • Many believe that if all of the candles on a birthday cake are blown out with one breath, while making a silent wish, the wish will come true.
  • Tetraphobia is widespread in China, Japan, Korea, and Hawaii; the use of number 4 is minimized or avoided wherever possible because the Chinese word for 4, sì, sounds nearly the same as the word for death, sǐ (死). Mobile telephone numbers with 4 in them sell for less and some buildings even skip level four, labeling it the 5th floor instead. One of the Japanese words for 4, shi, is also homonymous with the kanji in the word for death, shi or shin. (However, there is another word for four in Japan that does not sound like death: yon.) In Korea, number '4' is pronounced as sa (사 四) and is homonymous with 'death (사 死)'. Some, but not all, Korean buildings have the fourth floor written as 'F' floor.
  • Magical thinking
  • Religion
  • Taboo
  • Numbers in Chinese culture
  • Luck
  • Baseball superstition
  • Theatrical superstitions
  • Sinner's Prayer


superstition in Catalan: Superstició
superstition in Danish: Overtro
superstition in German: Aberglaube
superstition in Estonian: Ebausk
superstition in Spanish: Superstición
superstition in Esperanto: Superstiĉo
superstition in French: Superstition
superstition in Korean: 미신
superstition in Italian: Superstizione
superstition in Hebrew: אמונה טפלה
superstition in Latin: Superstitio
superstition in Luxembourgish: Awerglawen
superstition in Dutch: Bijgeloof
superstition in Japanese: 迷信
superstition in Norwegian: Folketro
superstition in Norwegian Nynorsk: Overtru
superstition in Polish: Przesąd
superstition in Portuguese: Superstição
superstition in Russian: Суеверие
superstition in Albanian: Bestytnia
superstition in Serbian: Сујеверје
superstition in Finnish: Taikausko
superstition in Swedish: Skrock
superstition in Thai: ความเชื่อโชคลาง
superstition in Ukrainian: Забобон
superstition in Chinese: 迷信
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