Review of Reviews

“Touch Wood”

KATHLEEN MURPHY October 15 1934
Review of Reviews

“Touch Wood”

KATHLEEN MURPHY October 15 1934

“Touch Wood”


IT WAS guest night at the big broadcasting station in New York City, and I was scheduled to do something—turn leaves for a musician or one of those big jobs that build up static on the ether. The chief guest was a clever woman doctor who rushed in at the last minute, breathless and doing a little ladylike perspiring.

‘‘Why, you’ve your dress on inside out,” I whispered helpfully, just as she was going on the air.

“Yes. In such a rush I ¡Milled it on the wrong way.”

“But why not ¡mil it off and put it on properly?”

She turned a horrified face to me. “Why, my dear, I wouldn’t fly in the face of the powers-that-be. Don't you know it’s bad luck to do that?”

And she has enough degrees from Sorbonne and Columbia to sink a ship!

Two serious-minded men from Columbia University—Dr. Mailer and Dr. Lundeen— have just finished a coast-to-coast survey of our pet superstitions and they inform us in their report that in their nation-wide investigation they have found not one person entirely free from some unfounded beliefs.

And they surveyed the intelligentsia of the nation, too.

So the next time you “touch wood” and feel a trifle ashamed of it, be not bashful. We all have some pet fallacy that, has come down to us through the years, or has been told to us on such unimpeachable authority as to defy our natural intelligence.

Why do We Touch Wood?

TOUCH WOOD” is probably one of the most common of our beliefs. It is one of the oldest of superstitions.

It may date back to the time when the oak and other trees were considered sacred and were "touched” to ward off evil spirits. Then, too, in years before Christ, when our forebears lived in wooden huts, it was thought that bad spirits roamed aroundlooking for happy people, intent on doing away with their joy. So if a wedding or some merriment was in progress, the people continually struck the wooden walls, as if they were provoked and quarrelling, thus hoping to fool the spirits.

It is a historical fact that the Crusaders touched the relic of the Cross, on which Christ was crucified, as a pious act and to gain the protection of heaven. Relics of the true Cross are still objects of veneration. So when you "touch wood”, you are not the first person to do it; and knowing human nature, I vouchsafe to say you won’t be the last.

I’ve always been afraid to pass under a ladder since an energetic painter splashed my new hat with the contents of his pail. But from the belief that it is bad luck many ¡xople will walk around a ladder and have been doing so for centuries.

This custom may come from the fact that in olden England and other countries felons were hanged from ladders. They were “tipped off" with a ro¡x‘ in the place where it would do the most harm—-from the top of a ladder. Or it may come from the ancient practice of "passing under the yoke” the mark of humiliation, defeat and slavery. Again one of the oldest paintings depicting Christ’s descent from the Cross shows a devil lurking behind the ladder, as if to prevent the removal of Christ’s body. In Italy and other countries it is considered unlucky to pass under a ladder because liis Satanic Majesty is there.

Spilling salt has always been considered an evil omen. One of the reasons for this may have been that salt used to be very costly and extremely hard to procure, so that spilling it meant going without it or having to replace it at a prohibitive price. Leonardo da Vinci, in his great painting,

“The I^ast .Supper,” completed before the beginning of the sixteenth century, shows a spilt salt cellar in front of Judas, indicating that even in his time spilt salt wasn’t a happy accident.

Friday and Thirteen

HPIIIRTEEN AT table is also supposed to be unlucky because thirteen people sat down at the Last Supper. Even Houdini, the great magician, who generally was able to get himself out of most scrapes, was very superstitious about the number 13 and would not perform dangerous feats on Friday or the thirteenth day of the month. And when Friday and the thirteenth came together, he would, if at all possible, cancel his engagements.

Because Christ died on a Friday is the generally accepted belief why that day is considered unlucky for new ventures, marriages, etc.

We all have heard of the belief that friends, walking together, should not let a post or a third person come between them, as it would mean a quarrel. St. Augustine, who lived in the latter part of the fourth century, touches on this superstition in his De Doctrina Christiana and writes: “. . . the thousand silly observances paid heed to in Carthage now, such as friends walking together, should not allow an object or a person to come between them as it would mean a quarrel in the near future.”

Probably one of the most prevalent of our customs—and it is to be found in almost every civilized country—is the exclamation “God bless you!” when a person sneezes. We have a fairly sure idea where this custom originated.

In the time of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.) there was a terrible plague sweeping Italy and the surrounding countries. One of its symptoms was sneezing, which grew in frequency as the illness advanced. At the Pope’s behest a custom was introduced to say, when a person sneezed : "God save thee.” In all probability it was then that this pious expression was started.

But that there was superstition about sneezing prior to this is proved from the writings of St. Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) who, in his Twelfth Epistle to the Ephesians, comments on the superstitions rife at that time in Greece: . . my servant gave

me my left shoe first today, which he says means trouble and black lcxiks everywhere. If an ass bray, if a cock crow, if anyone sneezes, these silly people are like folks loaded with chains and shut up in a dark prison, for they tremble at everything and are more abject in their misery than a marketful of slaves.”

And how many of us shudder when a cock crows, and who would dream of putting on the left shoe first!

“If your ears burn someone is talking about you.”

How often we have said it, little knowing that in the days of Pliny (23-79 A.D.) he commented on this belief and assures us that it is a presentiment that the absent have when they are the subject of conversation.

“Married in May, and you’ll rue for aye,” is another belief that is as old as the known world. Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17) wrote of this belief that only worthless brides were married in May. Mense malas Maio nubere vulgus ait. The ancient Romans considered May an unlucky marriage month, probably because it was the month dedicated to Bona Dea, the goddess of fertility and chastity.

Never Cross Knife and Fork

UMILY POST would frown on you if she caught you crossing your knife and fork on the plate. In olden days it was not done

because it was considered unlucky, like spilling salt. In Gay’s fable, The Farmer's Wife and the Raven, written in the beginning of the seventeenth century, both these superstitions are mentioned as a cause for the good lady’s tears:

Alas you know the cause too well;

The salt is spilt, to me it fell.

Then, to contribute to my loss,

My knife and fork were laid across.

Many good housewives, while deploring the holes caused by mice in clothing, are also perturbed because it is considered bad luck as well as poor housekeeping. One of Cato’s friends, very much disturbed, came to him one day to say that ill would soon befall this friend because his slippers had been nibbled at by the mice. But he received poor consolation from the hard-hearted Cato. “I don’t see anything portentous in that,” said Cato. “It would be much more alarming if your slippers had nibbled the mice.” Medical science has stepped in and given us many reasons why we are superstitious and a logical reason for certain events. One

of them is in refutation of the old saying: “Sing before breakfast, cry before night." They say that if persons start being gay so early in the morning they use up too much nervous energy, and it is the result of emotional strain that causes the tears later on in the day. There are thousands of superstitions that came from we know not where. But because our personal memories or those of friends have woven a chain of coincidences around certain beliefs, we are prone to accept them, and it’s so much easier to “touch wood” than call an ambulance later.

The funny part of it is that we live but don’t learn.

So often we will defy our pet beliefs because we are really not serious in them and never think it strange that no evil befell us. But wear a green hat once, or light three cigarettes with one match, then lose a pocketbook—whose handle should have been fixed ages ago— and at once we say: “That happened because...” and we fill in our own superstition.

As Bacon aptly puts it: “Men marke when they hit, but never marke when they misse.”