DEVELOPMENT OF SUPERSTITIONS
In this History of Magic I aim to give you an insight into the development of magic from the earliest times down through centuries to the present. No one has ever adequately covered this tremendous subject. It would take many volumes to write a complete history of magic. And yet I want to give you a fairly complete picture of the progress of magic down the ages.
It is a huge task to put together the knowledge the world has on magic. We have some information on magic in ancient times and some information on magic during the middle ages; but these records are scattered and incomplete, and were they all to be assembled they would fill ponderous volumes. What history has been recorded I have collected and I am giving to you the high spots in a concise form. I am tracing for you the various phases of magic to give you the background and importance of magic so that you may the better understand modern-day scientific magic.
Today I take up the subject of superstitions. I know you will be very much interested in this subject because it is one which we are all familiar with in every-day life. You know many people who still believe in these old superstitions -- and perhaps you, like so many others of us poor mortals, are just a little superstitious too.
Our modern day superstitions, of course, had their origin in ancient magic. From the beginning of things almost, down — down the long dim avenues of time have come these magical beliefs, closely intertwined with religion, with medicine, with social life.
The Art of Divination furnishes almost the complete background for the superstitions people believe in today. With primitive people these magical beliefs of divination are, of course, the very foundation of their lives. I told you in a previous lesson of the belief of some barbaric tribes in charms and incantations — and the belief of even civilized peoples like the Romans in augury and other forms of divination.
Magic in Savage Lands — Superstitions in Civilized
Strangely enough, these same beliefs are found today among savage tribes still as magical beliefs, and among civilized peoples as superstitions.
Shooting stars and comets are to the natives of barbaric tribes omens of disaster — and to the superstitious of our country, they signify death. The hawk's cry in the night portends the death of a child in far-away Australia; and the barking of a dog at night in front of a home to some of our people indicates death in that home.
Incantations — Modern Curse
Incantations to bring about certain acts are common among primitive peoples. Repeated utterance of a blessing or a curse was believed to bring about the desired good fortune for the person blessed or disaster to the accursed one. The modern curse is an outgrowth of this, and while it is no longer regarded as a means of vengeance and is really only an expression of anger, back of it still lies some of the element of the incantation from which the curse originated.
Charms — Mainstay of Sorcery
Charms, you know, are one of the mainstays of sorcery. There are two kinds of charms — one, amulets and talismans, which are gems or stones or other objects which are said to guard from harm the person who carries them about with him; the other, casts spells by pronouncing certain words with the use of some object.
Barbaric tribes still retain these beliefs in charms. There are sacred gems and stones which, according to these people, can bring sight to blind eyes, can give strength to the weak. When the sorcerer chants certain words with the aid of a stone or other object, he can overcome the influence of the "evil eye" and can make the sick well.
Today we find these same beliefs, though somewhat modified, among people of our own country. The superstition that the opal is an unlucky gem and that pearls signify tears is nothing but an outgrowth of the ancient belief in magic gems. You have known men to carry about with them charms of some kind — a coin that was found, a bit of quartz or flint, a rabbit's foot. These men may not really believe or may not admit that they believe in the working of these charms — nevertheless, they carry them to be "on the safe side." They want to be sure, in case there is something to these charms, that they won't be "caught unaware" if there is any evil floating around their vicinity, or that they won't be unprepared to attract good fortune. So firmly have these beliefs been imbedded in our minds that, even against our better judgment, we still halfway believe them.
The old magical belief that a loadstone or magnet, because it draws steel, will also draw out pain still exists. Many a peasant in Europe carries a magnet in his trousers' pocket to ease the pain of his rheumatism. And even more enlightened people will wear, with as great confidence in its effectiveness against rheumatism, a "galvanic belt," though any electrician will tell them that it has not the power to hurt or cure a fly.
Spells cast over anyone work miraculous effects, according to the beliefs of the natives of uncivilized regions. The same spells that were cast over men thousands of years ago, no doubt, are still being exercised today. The use of sticks or strings or stones and the muttered chanting of the sorcerer to overcome evil influences has been passed on from generation to generation to the present.
I remember witnessing the casting of a spell about fifteen years ago. The child of a family I knew was ill and was believed by her mother to have come under the "evil eye." The child's grandmother took a number of broom straws, crossed them in her hands in a certain way, and pronounced some words. It was believed that this made the child well. Another time this same child became ill again and it was believed that the child had been frightened by something and that caused the illness. The grandmother, this time, melted a small quantity of lead in a pan and poured it into cold water. The lead solidified into a shape that resembled a dog and the conclusion was drawn that the child had been frightened by a dog. The grandmother, of course, was not regarded as having supernatural powers, but was believed by the superstitious neighbors to "know how" to cast the spells.
The derivation of many of our present-day superstitions has been lost. One generation learned them from another, and so they have been passed down through the centuries. It is small wonder that some of them have changed somewhat from their original forms and the explanation for many has been completely lost. The superstitions still live in spite of the fact that their association with the things they are believed to influence is very vague.
Take spilling salt, for example. This is a sign of a quarrel when it is done at the table. The connection of salt with a quarrel has been lost, but the superstition still lives; and you have, no doubt, seen many people throw salt over their left shoulders to break the evil influence of spilling salt.
The origin of the misfortune connected with the number 13 and its heightened ill effects when it is Friday the 13th is no longer known to us, yet this superstition holds the belief of many people.
Why the horseshoe is a charm which brings good luck is unknown. The use of the horseshoe as a charm is evidently of more recent beginning than some of the other superstitions as, of course, horses were not shod in primitive times.
There are many, many other beliefs which I could discuss with you, but space will not permit and I must wait until the next lesson to continue with my absorbing work of delving into the dark recesses of magic's past.
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