(Investigator 14, 1990 September)

Let's make a brief survey of superstitions affecting people in different countries:

In Sweden the girls put 7 sorts of flowers under their pillow on Midsummer's Eve. They think this will help them see their future husband in their dreams.

In Poland wolves, pigeons and crows are thought to bring bad luck, but goats good luck.

When clocks begin to strike at midnight on New Year's Eve Spaniards try to swallow 12 grapes before the chimes stop. If successful then they await prosperity in the year ahead.

To ensure luck in the coming year West Germans, in some areas, eat carp on New Year's Eve.

Witchdoctors in South Africa don't charge for services if the client or patient is going to die. A fee means you're going to get well.

Portuguese fishing boats often have eyes painted on the bow. This supposedly helps the boat to see the fish and lead the fishermen to them.

People in Haiti think that written words have magic powers. Many still have prayers written on paper hanging from their neck on a string.

Families in rural areas of Belgium eat cabbages on Shrove Tuesday at the beginning of Lent to protect the cabbage crop from pests.

Do you want your wish to come true? Try the French method of making your wish on the 1st of May while wearing lilies of the valley.

Do evil spirits bother your baby? Peruvian Indians protect the infant by washing it in the urine of llamas.

Many Africans still try to find supernatural defences against bullets. One Nigerian witchdoctor who killed a client when testing a bullet-proof charm received the death sentence.

In Nepal monkeys are considered sacred and to own a monkey is indicative of good luck.

A robin flying into a house in South Ireland is taken to be a sign of cold weather ahead.

North Germans are glad to have storks make nests in their houses. This is because the magic powers of storks prevent houses from being destroyed by fire.

Hindus in India think of cattle as sacred animals — as guardians of life because of the milk they produce.

In England labourers used to spit on a coin "for luck" especially if the coin was found. Americans used to spit on a passing parson either for luck or to show they belonged to his church.

Superstitious Japanese believe that the left hand is somehow more evil than the right hand. Left-handed girls therefore have fewer marriage prospects than right-handed ones.

Christians in many lands often seek guidance by opening the Bible at random and by applying to their situation the first verse or line that the eye notices or the fingers touch.

The English used to "knock on wood" to scare off elves hiding in the walls and stop them from eavesdropping.

In many lands the moon, especially the full moon, is believed to influence criminal behavior, menstruation, and to cause crazy behaviour. Derived from these superstitions is the word lunacy.

Ships are often christened by breaking a bottle of wine against them. The wine is considered a sacrifice to Neptune the God of the sea.

And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other superstitions applying to every area of life.

Most superstitions have no basis in science fact and are a "load of bull". Why do they start and keep going so long?

One reason is that parents often pass superstitions on to their children in the same serious way as when teaching them how to use a fork, or anything else, and the child takes it equally seriously. Lots of people feel rather powerless and vulnerable. Trust in supernatural forces substitutes for rational decision making. It alleviates anxiety and fear by passing the responsibility of decisions and actions onto forces which can (supposedly) be influenced by means of the superstition.