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Those Little Superstitions Have Big Staying Power

July 11, 1986|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

The only Friday the 13th of the year now safely behind us, we can turn our attention to a disquieting question: Has the progress that introduced the square egg maker to our society also affected one of its hitherto untouchables--its superstitions?

Such things were on the mind of Donald Brenneis, professor of anthropology at Pitzer College, whose expertise includes studying these beliefs, which seek to relate cause and effect.

"It is remarkable how durable superstitions are," he mused. "Some of them have survived for centuries."

But everything (hopefully not a mirror) has its breaking point.

"Take the old practice of knocking on wood to ensure that things will keep going well," the professor said. "It is becoming more and more difficult, as wood becomes less and less evident."

It isn't uncommon for someone to utter the words, wind up striking Formica, and frantically search for the real item, which probably is going to be particleboard anyway.

New superstitions are cropping up every day. For instance, if you finish this story, you will be happy and healthy the rest of your life.

Baseball has long been a fertile field for superstition:

--Cubs infielder Glenn Beckert always used to touch second base with his left foot en route to his position.

--Former pitcher Bobo Newsom used to be notorious for picking up every piece of paper he could find near the mound. In fact, opponents would drive him nuts by tearing up paper near the hill as they returned to the dugout.

--The first thing shortstop Marty Marion would do before the first pitch was find a stone near his position and keep it in his pocket for the entire game.

--In the era when outfielders left their gloves on the field between innings, Dixie Walker always made sure his was face down.

Not shaving or not changing clothes during a winning streak, not stepping on the foul line, not taking a different place on the bench--all part of the tradition of the grand old game.

But for how much longer?

"The more uncertain an event--the more consequential the outcome and the more it might cost a person--then the more likely it is that he will have superstitious beliefs," Brenneis said. "But nowadays, with the multiyear, guaranteed contracts the athletes receive, they are probably going to be less and less concerned with superstitions."

They might even forget the warning of former basketball center Bill Russell that it is unlucky to be behind at the end of the game.

Still, the oldies and goodies carry on, such as the time-honored belief that it is bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. This is particularly true for mice.

"A sort of intermediate value of superstitions is that if something bad does happen, you have an avenue to figure out why," Brenneis said. "If a black cat is in the driveway when you leave on vacation, and you return with a dent in the fender, you can say: 'Maybe there's something to that, after all.' It's a way of not having to write it off as just random misfortune."

For some people, the educator said, "superstitions give a sense of comfort, and control over the world, of being able to make sense of good and bad fortune. For instance, someone who has spilled salt, rather than risk bad luck, will toss a pinch over his shoulder and feel, well, I dealt with that problem."

Then there is the thought, Brenneis went on, that if one doesn't do what is appropriate on a holiday--perhaps not having turkey on Thanksgiving--the occasion is incomplete, and something bad may happen as a result.

"Mirrors have been a part of superstition," the professor said. "It is the feeling that they are of another world. I believe the television writer Rod Serling sometimes made use of them, pulling a person through one and into another dimension.

"In many households, whenever there is a death, all mirrors in the home are covered. Mirrors have always had a special kind of significance. Ghosts and vampires are thought not to appear in them."

Although in many nations, it is felt that breaking a mirror forebodes seven years of bad luck, either the Soviets have no use for such trifles or else they are in for 77,000 years of tough times. Earlier this year, in a Ukrainian mirror factory, workers intentionally smashed 11,000 defective ones.

"The fear of walking under ladders dates at least to medieval times in Western Europe," Brenneis said. "An invisible monster known as a basilisk was said to perch on ladders and turn people who walked underneath to stone.

"Nowadays, we rationalize. We say that if we walk beneath a ladder, a bucket of paint might fall on us. Still, there is that nagging remembering of the superstition."

The professor said the number 13 has long been regarded as inauspicious, one reason being that in Christianity, the Last Supper was attended by 13, of whom one was the betraying disciple Judas.

Indeed, Otis Elevator Corp. said a couple of years ago that 90% of the new buildings for which it does installations don't have a 13th floor.

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