New Worlds: Superstitions

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

We touched on superstitions last week, when the idea of lucky or unlucky numbers came up. But superstitions go well beyond that — and they’re a weirdly under-exploited concept in speculative fiction.

Or maybe it isn’t so weird. As I mentioned back when we discussed folk magic last August, I think there’s a tendency in fantasy to try to systematize magic and treat all of it as Definitely Real. Once you’re operating in that mode, characters will only do things like cross their fingers or toss salt over their shoulders if it has a measurable effect on the plot. And in science fiction, of course, the story frequently assumes that humanity will have outgrown all such silly habits in their march to the stars.

But as has probably become apparent, I don’t really buy that idea. I think human beings are human beings, and we’ll keep these little habits and unfounded fears until we stop being human. They may not be as pervasive as they once were; it’s true that most of us go through our daily lives with much less concern for the small-scale metaphysical ramifications of our actions and surroundings than our ancestors of a thousand years ago. But they’ll still be around — especially in times of crisis, when people clutch at any straw which offers even the illusion of control.

And we spec fic authors tend to write about times of crisis a lot.

Mind you, the hard part here is writing superstitions well. A lot of academic ink has been spilled over trying to figure out where they come from, and a lot of it is inconclusive. Do they arise out of religious ideas, and you shouldn’t walk under a ladder because you’re disrupting the triangular shape which suggests the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Or are do they have their basis in practical considerations, and you shouldn’t walk under a ladder because something might fall onto your head? Is breaking a mirror bad luck because mirrors are expensive and the superstition helps remind people to be careful around fragile objects, or is there something more symbolic at work? Both? Neither?

In many cases we don’t really know. We have lots of theories, but it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to prove them. (Even if the people who practice a superstition say “here’s why it exists,” that may or may not be the whole story. Like folk etymologies for words, some of those explanations are post hoc.)

So what you’re left with is a collection of random-seeming practices. And unfortunately for us writers, fiction isn’t allowed to be random; it has to make more sense than the real world. Why are rabbits’ feet lucky, but not the feet of other animals? Why is a bride supposed to wear something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue? Why is it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, and instead you should tell them to break a leg? In a story there’s a subconscious expectation that eventually things will make sense, and if you just drop in random actions like your character slapping the top of their head for good luck or braiding their hair to forestall bad dreams, the reader may get hung up on the question of why.

To some extent you can mitigate this by remembering that in the real world, “superstition” is often a pejorative term. And not just in the modern day, where it tends to connote irrationality and beliefs that run counter to science; it’s been a way of dismissing things for hundreds of years. What my people do is religion; what your people do is heathen superstition. Or even within a faith: superstition has sometimes been referred to as “excess of religion,” an overheated tendency to inject spiritual significance into everything around you, or an attempt to control the actions of the gods through your own behavior.

Which means it’s easy to put superstitions into a piece of fiction if the intent is to make the people practicing them seem in some fashion unlettered, excessively spiritual, or foreign. Then it doesn’t matter whether the reader can see logic behind their actions, because the whole point is to create a feeling of distance between that and whatever is being positioned as “normal” within the story.

But of course there are problems with that, too. It is quite literally Othering: it marks out the people practicing that superstition, and not in a positive way. Which sometimes you want (because we don’t always write stories about how everyone is understanding and sees the value in other people’s cultures) . . . but not all the time. And it doesn’t help you include such things as something done by your protagonists or the highly-educated people that set the norms for their society.

The answer, I think, is to make sure you highlight the meaning as much as, or more than, the action itself. And not just the significance of the action, but what it means to the point of view character — which might go well beyond that single point. Your heroine has been having nightmares, so she braids her hair at bedtime, remembering when her mother used to do this for her as a child. (Your hero has been having nightmares, and wishes briefly that he had long hair so he could braid it, like his mother used to do for his sister. Or whatever.) If slapping the top of your head is a way to invite good luck, make sure we feel the fortifying effect it has, even if that effect is only psychological.

Or go for the absurd: the character whacks himself too hard, the ring on his hand cracking against his skull, and there’s a brief flash of “so much for good luck.”

This kind of thing is rarely load-bearing, and in fact that’s my point: it shouldn’t be. It’s just a touch of flavor, a little reminder that not everything in the setting exists to further the plot. Some of it is there simply because realistically, it would be there. Such things shouldn’t be a distraction from the story — if you’ve spent three paragraphs describing the somersaults your character turns after hearing a woodpecker tapping in order to turn away the omen of a family member’s death — then unless you’re Neal Stephenson and can turn practically anything into an entertaining vignette, you should probably consider paring it down.

But a few touches here and there? Those are fine.

(And now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to take the hair-braiding example I made up for this essay and put it into one of the settings I’m developing.)

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Superstitions — 22 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Superstitions - Swan Tower

  2. Marie,

    you’ve probably read the epilogue to Lois McMasters Bujold’s first book about the Vorkosigan family? There’s a great moment where the person finding corpses in space & preparing them to be sent back to families for burial mentions gently that the pockets of the Barrayaran soldiers are always interesting–because despite their advanced military caste system world with the tech to use wormhole technology, they tend to carry charms in their pockets. (That was unwieldy–bad focus day, sorry.)

    Does the entire issue of superstition change now that we’re pretty sure quantum mechanics is how the universe works?

    I always figure that the majority of superstitions come from an experience where someone took the incident as worth passing on–like “shoes on a table means a death within a month.” When you think about the sanitation level of cities and farms, putting a pair of shoes on the table when they had not been meticulously cleaned might have led to a death within a month from contamination of food via shoe gunk. We have a story about “break a leg.” Dark humor, worry about someone dealing with theater low light, missing footing and BAM! So they remind him to Pay Attention by saying the opposite of what was originally said? Some superstitions may have come from religious focus, but a family tradition becoming a family superstition also makes sense to me. (Some advanced tech cultures might not see the origin or value. People make dark humor jokes about “it wasn’t lucky for the rabbit” talking about a rabbit’s foot. But what if they were originally considered lucky because you caught a rabbit, and you didn’t starve that day? Hunter’s luck?)

    SF writers often get terribly bent out of shape about magic in fantasies that is hand-wavy (I call it shmoo magic–apparent “wish fulfillment” magic.) But there are multiple forms of magic. Jen Stevenson has been exploring that in a series of magical contemporary fantasy/romances. I did an essay about her use of magic using tropes that talk about superstition vs. old/new deities vs. where do they end up?

    I think superstition is a huge part of how a people magically interacts with the world. But between my own spiritual training plus quantum physics, I now wonder. . .do we need to look at superstition as a category in a totally different way? What if on some timeline somewhere, everything is real and can be effected by focus, decision, and effort?

    • you’ve probably read the epilogue to Lois McMasters Bujold’s first book about the Vorkosigan family?

      Yes, though I had forgotten that detail — thanks for the reminder!

      re: explanations — we can definitely come up with some. What we can never really be certain about is whether those explanations are correct. Maybe rabbit’s feet are lucky because it used to mean you had food on the table; maybe they’re lucky because a thousand years ago rabbits were associated with some benevolent deity; maybe they’re lucky because a thousand years ago the word for “rabbit” in a particular language was a homophone for something else good and so the association stuck. Maybe a little from Column A, a little from Column B, a little from Column C. We can only speculate.

      As for quantum physics, I really don’t know enough about that subject to opine. I think it’s fruitful territory for thought, though!

    • >What if on some timeline somewhere, everything is real and can be effected by focus, decision, and effort?
      Other than Brin’s The Practice Effect, I’m not sure that’s done much. (i mean, other than a character deciding what spell to cast & narrowing their eyes to focus on their target…which I’d wager isn’t what you meant)

    • In one of the Lord Darcy stories. Master Seamus laments that people WILL insist on going to some disreputable witch who would go and treat their heart condition with foxglove, which has no magical connection to the heart at all, and such like superstitions.

      • Hah! I came across a similar thing when researching 17th-century medicine for In Ashes Lie. The newfangled thing then was “chemical physicians,” who fed all kinds of concoctions to their patients . . . some of which were pretty much straight-up poisonous, but some of which were precursors to modern pharmaceuticals. They were headed in the right direction, but by the accepted standards of the day they were total quacks.

        • There was a Renaissance writer who criticized witches because they completely ignored the astrological side of things.

  3. There are a lot of actions that are not quite superstitions, but more of being comfortable with actions that one does in life.

    Stuff like bouncing the bat on home plate before batting, or putting slacks on left leg first, or having a favorite golf tee shape. They can be comfortable habits without really believing they really change destiny.

    • And once you get into the habit, it can be stunningly uncomfortable to shift it.

      Ex post facto explanations are also a source.

    • Yes, that came up a while back when discussing lucky charms. There can be a genuine effect to them, and the fact that the effect is psychological doesn’t make it any less real.

  4. There’s the correlation-equals-causation thing. If your husband died after eating rabbit caught during the new moon, you’re not going to experiment by feeding it to your next husband.

    • See also: why my sister refuses to eat shumai. She’s had two instances of consuming it and then getting sick shortly afterward; the sickness wasn’t caused by the shumai, but try telling your primitive brain that. It took me something like a year or two to eat ramen again after I got stomach flu for the first time in my life right after a ramen dinner.

    • Oh well, I certainly would experiment if I were looking to get rid of my second husband, too. However, I would add a fine mushroom sauce just in case.

  5. Looking for “the” origin — single-explanation cause-and-effect — of almost anything involving human belief is usually futile. One post-Classical superstition in the West is that all causation is a single-linked chain; the chestnut “for want of a nail…” isn’t exactly new. People don’t tend to be very good at distinguishing correlation from causation, let alone dealing with post hoc reasoning of all kinds. I suspect that’s part of expanding a personal quirk to a broader “superstition” shared by at least some others: A sufficient correlation with something that is either not otherwise explanable at all or is not explanable without threateing self-interest.

    • True — but that doesn’t mean the search for explanations isn’t sometimes fruitful. It’s really only when you try to nail everything down to the Single Real Explanation, rather than acknowledging that X might be one of several factors influencing things, that people tend to go wildly astray. There are some hilarious old folklore theories that explained everything by way of solar mythology, or vegetative mythology, or whatever.

      (We actually did an exercise in one of my grad school classes where each of us was assigned an theory and told to use it to analyze some narrative of our choice. It turns out to be hilariously easy to explain all of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer using solar mythology.)

      • Or one could just invoke Broadway and “Let the Sunshine In,” and then compare the concept of the Hellmouth to the closing-scene shot of soldiers boarding the aircraft in Milos Forman’s film of Hair, and we’re off to the races…

        And I wasn’t trying to say “Since one can’t find a single definitive source, don’t bother looking for sources at all.” Not no-how. I was merely pointing out that the single-chain theories of superstition are oversimplistic and a bit ironically superstitious in themselves. (Example: “Because trichinosis” is not a complete, valid, or adequate explanation for pork being “unclean” in the Abrahamic religions.)

  6. I’m working on a world where there’s a superstition that twins–particularly identical–are unlucky. At first I just needed a way to explain a certain behavior (twins of the higher class being split up and fostered with different families–twins of a lower class unfortunately aren’t going to be so fortunate), but it’s kind of weaved its way into a lot of things, now. It started out as a religious proscription, but as the society has become more secular they started to handwave that away- if you asked a random person on the street why twins are bad luck she’d probably end up saying something about there being more risks associated with childbirth. Whenever my group of characters (which obviously includes a pair of twins) encounter something mildly inconvenient they joke that it’s because both of the brothers are around at the time. Or they think they’re joking. But its a more ingrained attitude than they realize.

    I’m trying to think about how to include a general aversion to the number two without being a subtle as brick to the head about it. Stopping after two drinks in the bar? You’d better have that third. Turning twenty-two? Well, you’ll just have to accept that all year small, bad things are going to follow you everywhere. Instead of two windows on the face of your house, having four. Not the focus of the story by any means but little details that make sense with the worldview.

    • In medieval Europe, there was a superstitious belief that a man could only get a woman pregnant with one child; if she had twins, it was proof of adultery.

      Oddly enough, it appears only in works of fiction where a woman uses it to sneer at another, and then has twins (or more children at a birth) of her own. This is never a revelation of her adultery, but as a just punishment for her slander.

      • Whereas in other parts of the world, twins were considered exceedingly lucky. Which, again, highlights the difficulty of explaining superstitions: why do different cultures sometimes assign totally opposite values to the same situation?

    • Exactly! I love it when I read stories where ideas like that have been worked throughout the entire society. And then maybe some moment pops up where the superstition does wind up having an effect on the plot — not necessarily a metaphysical one, just something like “it would be better for all three of us to go do X rather than just two,” and then things happen because that third person is there that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.