Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Man and Superstition

Not to be at least a little superstitious is to lack generosity of the mind – De Quincy
It was Frank Olize who broached the subject about the myth or reality of superstitions in his Sunday, July 20 1997 edition of Newsline. The answers he got to his poser are quite interesting even though varied. In fact the responses of the interviewees to the veracity or otherwise of superstition really showed Nigerians as superstitious lot who still subscribe to their cultural beliefs in spite of their literacy level, status or religious faith. This, to me, does not come as a surprise as superstition is not a peculiar phenomenon to Nigerians or Africans but a worldwide belief that cuts across age, sex, creed and clime. But pray, what is superstition?
Superstition, according to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines the word as “a belief which is not based on reason or fact but an association of ideas, as in magic”. It is true that superstition may not essentially be reasonable or factual, yet considering the fact that ours is a highly spiritual society, such seemingly absurd and illogical beliefs may not be totally baseless, unfounded and inconsequential. For instance, the omnipotent God who most of the world population believe in is not visible to human sight but yet we can all perceive Him in the way He answers our prayers. As God is a mystery, so also are most of our traditional beliefs esoteric and therefore puzzling to the uninitiated.
If we really understand the underlining factors that gave birth to some superstitions, we would realise that the belief does not suffer from poverty of logic as many of us are wont to think but are actually products of many years of empirical observation of causes and effects. Clinical analysis of superstition will show that the phenomenon is designed or evolved to serve dual purpose of control and warning, or better still, premonition. For one, taboo is an integral part of superstition. That is to say, when social custom of any human society forbids certain thoughts or practices from being exercised such constitute belief in superstition. For instance, it is a taboo in Yorubaland to give out things or point at one father’s house with the left hand. Such is regarded as being disrespectful. It is also forbidden for pregnant women to walk the streets at one p.m or am; to beat man with a broom; to whistle in the sun or at night; to draw rain water with hand or bath in the rain and also to marry one’s siblings or blood relations.
An analytical look at all these aforementioned taboos will reveal they are not without reasons or logic. The ultimate rationale behind their formulation is to serve as control measures in communities where such beliefs are observed. Taboos are pre-emptive and preventive practices which are meant to protect us against ourselves and surrounding dangers. Simply put, taboos are prophylactic medicine. Why this is so can be seen in the real reasons some of these taboos were promulgated. While the ostensible reason for asking a pregnant woman not to come out on the street at 1 p.m could be to avoid meeting fairies or ghomids, the real reason is to stop the potential mother from walking in sunny afternoon which may be detrimental to the health of both the expectant mother and the expected child.
In the same vein, while the ostensible reason for asking young children not to bath in the rain is to avoid incurring the wrath of Sango, the god of thunder, the real reason is not unconnected with the prevention of our young ones from catching cold and contracting pneumonia. As earlier mentioned, while some superstitions are prophylactic or meant to serve as control measures, others are premonitory. They are in the sense that certain occurrences are believed to act as a token, omen or harbinger of fortune, misfortune or an event.
A very good and topical case in point of a premonitory superstition which most people subscribe to is the one that happened on 23 July 1997 when Afro-beat King, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was widely rumoured to have kicked the bucket only for the rumour to be doused the following day. The superstition in this saga is that it is generally believed that anybody who falls victim of such malicious rumour will automatically have his stay on earth prolonged. Invariably, as it applied in Fela’s case, he would not die prematurely. Still in line with premonitory superstition, an itchy palm is believed to mean that one would soon experience a monetary windfall while an itchy foot is a sign that one would soon embark on an unexpected journey. In the same vein, some individuals are believed to have hair of attraction, likeness or love while others are alleged to have hair of hatred or repulsion.
It is a common belief that when one kicks one’s left foot against a stone unconsciously, it means there is danger lurking somewhere in the vicinity, just as well as Christians believed that the appearance of rainbow in the sky is remembrance of God’s covenant with man that He would no longer destroy the world with flood. It is also noteworthy that dreams, trances and visions and their interpretations are products of individual cum societal superstitious beliefs and are in essence ominous or premonitory. The explanation need to be given that while taboos are traditional or customary promulgations which are binding on every individual in the affected society and whose violation or infraction sometimes attract certain penalties, one is at liberty to believe or disbelieve omens or premonitions as they are more of a personal thing. That is however not to say that discountenance of certain warning signals or premonitions cannot be to one’s own cost.
In sum, every human being alive is superstitious. Consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, we all are. Any human being who believes in God or gods and who subscribes to certain mysteries of the world is already a superstitious being.
Daily Sketch Thursday 31 July 1997 (Page 16)