by Alfred George Gardiner
Complete explanation of the Essay ‘On Superstitions’ alongside the original text
On Superstitions by A.G. Gardiner is taken from his 1931 collection of essays called The Alpha of the Plough: Second Series. Alpha of the Plough being A.G. Gardiner’s pseudonym. The essay launches a frontal attack on superstitions that prevail in all societies and in all ages. Using his lucid reasoning, and sense of satire, Gardiner convinces the readers about the gullibility of the human beings who willingly fall prey to irrational restrictions on one’s behavior. To make the essay sound appealingly funny, Gardiner becomes the narrator himself.
Original Paragraph 1
It was inevitable that the fact that a murder has taken place at a house with the number 13 in a street, the letters of whose name number 13, would not pass unnoticed. If we took the last hundred murders that have committed, I suppose we should find that as many have taken place at No. 6 or No. 7, or any other number you chose, as at No. 13 – that the law of averages is as inexorable here as elsewhere. But this consideration does not prevent the world remarking on the fact when No. 13 has its turn.
A. G. Gardiner understood the folly and gullibility of the human mind really well. Despite the advancement of science and a dramatic shift towards seeing everything through a prism of rationality and experimental proof, the propensity to cling on to age-old prejudices have continued to blight the human ability to look at events and phenomena dispassionately.
Gardiner has chosen the case of a murder that happened in a house bering the number 13. People around ascribed the grisly crime to the ‘unlucky’ number 13, conveniently ignoring the fact that many murders did take place in houses with other numbers too. The link between the number 13 and the murder, thus, does not stand statistical scrutiny. The stigma around ‘13’ has refused to go away.
Original Paragraph 2
Not that the world believes there is anything in the superstition. It is quite sure it is a mere childish folly, of course. Few of us would refuse to take a house because its number was 13, or decline an invitation to dinner because there were to be 13 at table. But most of us would be just a shade happier if that desirable residence were numbered 11, and not any less pleased with the dinner if one of the guests contracted a chill that kept him away. We would not confess this little weakness to each other. We might even refuse to admit it to ourselves, but it is there.
We all concede that the number 13 does not bode ill for anything that bears it, be it a bus seat, or a house, or a airline counter. Yet, when it comes to accept the product or the service marked ‘13’, we step back. An unknown voice from a deep corner of our brain says ‘No’. We heed it, aware that we are falling prey to prejudice. A house bearing the number ‘11’ strangely appears more livable than the one with ‘13’. A dinner party with 13 guests triggers negative thoughts making us wonder if we should attend it or not. Quite curiously, if an invitee excuses themselves reducing the guest number to 12, we sense that the meeting would be joyful. If someone says we are meekly ceding to irrationality in shying away from anything numbered ‘13’, we refute the accusation vehemently.
Original Paragraph 3
That it exists is evident from many irrefutable signs. There are numerous streets in London, and I daresay in other towns too, in which there is no house numbered 13, and I am told that it is very rare that a bed in a hospital bears that number. The superstition, threadbare though it has worn, is still sufficiently real to enter into the calculations of a discreet landlord in regard to the letting qualities of his house, and into the calculations of a hospital as to the curative properties of a bed.
In the subconscious mind of most of us, the fear of’13’ remains entrenched. Any one in authority to allot serial numbers to goods, properties or services skips ‘13’ and jumps to ‘14’ after ‘12’ willfully ignoring mathematics rule. This is why, almost in all town and cities we seldom find a street bearing the number 13. No hospital bed, where people fight off illness, will be numbered 13. No matter how cozy a house is, or how efficient the doctors are, a tenant or a patient will shy away from a house or a bed numbered 13. Such is the aura of gloom and doom around the number ‘13’.
Original Paragraph 4
In the latter case general agreement would support the concession to the superstition, idle though that superstition is ‘Physical recovery is a matter of the mind as well as of the body, and the slightest shadow on the mind may, in a condition of low vitality, retard and even defeat recovery.’ Florence Nightingale’s almost passionate advocacy of flowers in the sick bedroom was based on the necessity of the creation of a certain state of mind in the patient. There are a few more curious revelations in that moving record by M. Duhamel of medical experiences during the war, than the case of the man who died of a pimple on his nose. He had been hideously mutilated in battle and was brought into hospital a sheer wreck; but he was slowly patched up and seemed to have been saved when a pimple appeared on his nose. It was nothing in itself, but it was enough to produce a mental state that checked the flickering return of light. It assumed a fantastic importance in the mind of the patient who, having survived the heavy blows of fate, died of something less than a pin-prick. It is not difficult to understand that so fragile a hold of life might yield to the sudden discovery that you were lying in No. 13 bed.
When a patient battles some serious illness, they need, apart from high-quality medical care, a steady physical and mental state. A patient with a strong positive outlook and a hope that they would not succumb to their illness is more likely to recover, than a weakling who feels they are in the end of their tether. Unfortunately, stray cases of patients well on their road to recovery have intriguingly taken a U-turn to die have happened. Such unexplained deterioration was explained away by attributing the death to the bed number which was’13’. In one such instance, a soldier grievously injured in the battle field received medical care and showed dramatic recovery. Just when the doctors felt the gallant soldier had fought off death, his condition worsened after a pimple erupted on his nose. This innocuous development certainly can’t pull a patient into the jaws of death, but it did. The medical staff clueless about the mishap ascribed it to the ‘inauspicious’ bed number 13 that the patient occupied. This single incident that was possibly a coincidence cemented the notion that 13 is indeed an unlucky number that invites trouble.
Ambience around a patient’s bed does affect his recovery. A pleasant surrounding aids the recovery by lifting their mood. This is the reason why Florence Nightingale insisted on keeping bouquets of fresh flowers at patients’ bedsides.
Original Paragraph 5
I am not sure that I could go into the witness-box and swear that I am wholly immune to these idle superstitions myself. It is true that of all the buses in London, that numbered 13 chances to be the one that I constantly use and I do not remember, until now, ever to have associated the superstition with it. And certainly, I have never had anything but the most civic treatment from it. It is as well-behaved a bus, and as free from unpleasant associations, as any on the road. I would not change its number if I had the power to do so. But there are other circumstances of which I should find it less easy to clear myself of suspicion under cross-examination.
The author regularly travels in a particular city bus, and has had very pleasant experience travelling in it. The passengers, the conductor, and the interior were all to his liking. Curiously, the bus has the number 13 on it. So, it’s absurd to link the number ‘13’ with bad luck or any sort of danger.
Original Paragraph 6
I never see a ladder against a hose-side without feeling that it is advisable to walk round it rather under it. I say to myself that this is not homage to a foolish superstation, but a duty to my family. One must think of one’s family. The fellow at the top of the ladder may drop anything. He may even drop himself. He may have had too much drink. He may be a victim of epileptic fits, and epileptic fits, as everyone knows, come on at the most unseasonable times and places. It is a mere measure of ordinary safety to walk round the ladder. No man is justified in inviting danger in order to flaunt his superiority to an idle fancy, moreover, probably that fancy has its roots in the common-sense fact that a man on ladder does occasionally drop things. No doubt many of our superstitions have these commonplace and sensible origins. I imagine, for example, that the Jewish objection to pork as unclean on religious grounds is only fur to the fact that in Eastern climates it is unclean on physical grounds.
People on encountering a ladder on their way generally avoid walking under it, and instinctively walk around it. Such instinct is made part of our psyche by people around us who aver that walking under a ladder must be avoided as it could invite big trouble. The author reflects on this widely-held belief and delves into it to see if there is any rationale behind it. He understands that people at work on the higher rungs of a ladder often involuntarily drop items that could hurt those who happen to at the spot at that very moment. It’s also possible that the worker on the ladder is struck by a bout of fits and crashes onto the ground. Quite obviously, one can preempt such dangers by walking around a ladder and not under it. So, we see some rationality behind this apparent superstition.
The Jewish abhorrence towards pork is due to the fact that the animals are ‘dirty’ because they eat ‘dirt’. We can figure out that in many geographies, particularly in the East, pigs eat human waste. It’s reasonable, therefore, to assume that the animal’s meat is unfit for human consumption. Here again, we see some reason behind a superstitious belief.
Original Paragraph 7
All the same, I suspect that when I walk round the ladder I am rather glad that I have such respectable and unassailable reasons for doing so. Even if – conscious of this suspicion and ashamed to admit it to myself – I walk under the ladder, I am not quite sure that I have not done so as a kind of negative concession to the superstition. I have challenged it rather than been unconscious of it. There is only one way of dodging the absurd dilemma, and that is to walk through the ladder. This (is) not easy.
A person walking around a ladder can draw comfort from the fact that he is aware of the physical risks involved in walking under a ladder. If the person dares to walk under a ladder voluntarily, he would be presumed to have challenged the soundness of the superstitious belief. Few would believe that he was unaware of the prevailing bar on walking under a ladder due to customary beliefs. If someone wants to be seen as a person who pays no heed to superstitious beliefs, he can walk through the ladder, but that would impractical and absurd.
Original Paragraph 8
In the same way I am sensible of a certain satisfaction when I see the new moon in the open rather than through glass, and over my right shoulder rather than my left. I would not for any consideration arrange these things consciously; but if they happen so I fancy I am better pleased than if they do not. And on these occasions I have even caught my hand – which chanced to be in my at the time – turning over money, a little surreptitiously I thought, but still undeniably turning it. Hands have habits of their own and one can’t always be watching them.
Original Paragraph 9
But these shadowy reminiscences of antique credulity which we discover in ourselves play no part in the lives of any of us. They belong to a creed outworn. Superstition was disinherited when science revealed the laws of the universe and put man in his place. It was no discredit to be superstitious when all the functions of nature were unexplored, and man seemed the playing of beneficent or sinister forces that he could neither control nor understand, but which held him in the hollow of their hand. He related everything that happened in nature to his own inexplicable existence, saw his fate in the clouds, his happiness or misery announced in the flight of birds, and referred every phenomenon of life to the soothsayers and oracles.
Original Paragraph 10
You may read in Thucydides of battles being postponed (and lost) because some omen that had no relation to the event than the falling of a leaf was against it. When Pompey was afraid that the Romans would elect Cato as praetor he shouted to the Assembly that he heard thunder and got the whole election postponed, for Romans would never transact business after it had thundered. Alexander surrounded himself with fortune-tellers and took counsel with them as modern ruler takes counsel with his ministers. Even so great a man as Caesar and so modern and enlightened a man as Cicero left their fate to augurs and omens. Sometimes the omen were right and sometimes they were wrong, but whether right or wrong they were equally meaningless. Cicero lost his life by trusting to the wisdom of crows. When he was in flight from Antony and Caesar Augustus, he put to sea and might have escaped. But some crows chanced to circle round his vessel, and tool the circumstance to be unfavourable to his action, returned to shore and was murdered. Even the farmer of ancient Greece consulted the omens and the oracles where the farmers today is only careful of his manures.
Original Paragraph 11
I should have liked to have seen Caesar and I should have like to have heard Cicero, but on the balance I think we who inherit this later day and who can jest at the shadows that were so real to them have the better end of time. It is pleasant to be about when the light is abroad. We do not know much more of the power that turns the handle of this idle show than our forefathers did, but at least we have escaped the grotesque shadows that enveloped them. We do not look for divine guidance in the entrails of animals or the flight of crows, and the House of Commons does not adjourn at a clap of thunder.