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Inna Danylyuk, a philologist, has done some research into the phenomenon of superstition and now says that though Ukrainian superstitions share many common features with superstitions of any other nation, there are differences, peculiar for the Ukrainians.
The word “superstition” is somewhat ambiguous and suggests a belief or practice for which there appears to be no rational substance. Every religious system tends to accumulate superstitions as peripheral beliefs — a Christian, for example, may believe that in time of trouble he will be guided by the Bible if he opens it at random and reads the text that first strikes his eye. In fact, all religious beliefs and practices may seem superstitious to the person without religion.
There are superstitions that belong to the cultural tradition and these are enormous in their variety. Many persons, even in the most developed and largely irreligious societies, have held, seriously or half-seriously, irrational beliefs concerning methods of warding off ill or bringing good, foretelling the future, and healing or preventing sickness or accidents. A few specific folk traditions, such as belief in the evil eye or in the efficacy of amulets, have been found in most periods of history and in most parts of the world. Others may be limited to one country, region, or village, to one family, or to one social or vocational group.
Also, people may develop their personal superstitions, but we’ll deal with superstitions that have gained wide currency in Ukraine and are still, though not to the extent as in the earlier times, popular.
“Don’t whistle indoors!” is a stricture that many a boy has heard from his grandma. “Why?” some dare to ask. “Because if you do, there’ll be no money in this house!” But it’s not an explanation, of course. It is one of the most characteristic features of any super-
stition that in most cases, there seems to be no rational explanation. Many attempts have been made to discover the circumstances that gave rise to this or that superstition, or dig deep into the roots of the age-old traditions, or probe into the subconscious of the people who believe in suppestitions, but it seems not much success has been achieved.
Though no results of a large-scale research into the superstitions of the Ukrainians seem to be available, it is probably quite safe to say that a great many people in Ukraine today feel uncomfortable if a black cat walks across your path in front of you. They would feel something has to be done to ward off the possible ill effects on them that they, for no apparent reason, believe may be caused by that small and harmless feline just peacefully taking a walk and minding its own business — many would look for a cross or wood to touch; some would spit over the left shoulder three times, change the direction of their walk or try to walk around the place the black cat has walked across, or wait for someone else to cross the imaginary line along which the cat has walked — the passerby who does it would thus take the evil charge of the black cat magic upon himself. Most of those who do such things would hardly be able to explain why they do it, but would admit that the instance of the black cat walking in front of them can bring bad luck.
Some research suggests that in the times of old, it was widely believed that it was the devil himself that walked around in the shape of a black cat.
Some superstitions have become so wide-spread and casual that many people think that they uphold some traditions (and usually people do not either question the reason why this or that tradition should be maintained, or give it any thought and just do what the tradition requires) rather than believe in these irrational superstitions.
Reluctance to work on Sunday, for example, on the part of many people seems to go much deeper into the past than may seem at first glance. Ethnographic materials collected in the nineteenth century show that there was a belief that existed in a very distant past —“working on Sunday may turn you into a werewolf.”
Superstitions can be divided into several groups. “Don’t do it” superstitions are particularly many and have roots in a very distant past. Most of them have died out, but some still persist. Such superstitions are of the kind that many people would not dare to ignore them.
Do not look into the mirror after the sunset — or you’ll lose your beauty.
Don’t borrow money in the evening.
Do not take out litter or water after the sunset.
Do not take anything over the threshold. Your home is a safe place — the moment you step out you find yourself at the mercy of evil forces — a belief like that has an age-long history and thus is particularly deeply ingrained. By taking something from someone over the threshold you may be letting an evil force in. Precautions must be taken to prevent evil from entering. Metal features as a charm in some superstitions: Needles stuck into the doorframe ward off evil. Pin a safety pin to your clothes — it’ll help to ward off evil from you personally.
Do not give knives or scissors as presents. If you want somebody to have them as a gift from you make sure these items are “bought” from you for a symbolic price.
Do not give a watch or a clock as a present to anyone — it sort of suggests that the recipient may be living on borrowed time (the taboo on giving watches as gifts is so imperative that you cannot even suggest it be “bought” from you).
Do not give anybody living an even number of flowers — only the dead should have even numbers of flowers.
Do not praise your child or your domestic animals — by doing this you may endanger the success or well being of those you eulogize.
Do not spit on the ground — if you do, you may cause a decline in the reproductive forces of the earth; Do not spit into the fire — if you do, you’ll get sores on your lips; Do not spit into the well — if you do, it’ll spoil the water in it.
Do not point to the sun with your finger — if you do, your finger may wither away.
There is a whole string of superstitions connected with everyday life: After you’ve left your house, do not return even if you’ve forgotten to take or do something important. Girls — do not sit at the corner of the table! You run the risk of never getting married!
If, during a meal, you drop a knife — there is a man on the way to your place; if you drop a spoon or a fork — there’s a woman who is on the way.
If you break a porcelain cup or bowl — it’s for good luck, but if it’s a piece of earthenware that you break — be prepared for bad luck. Spilling salt or breaking a mirror is for bad luck.
Birds figure in many superstitions: If a bird hits the windowpane in your room — it may be a harbinger of bad news. Count the number of times the cuckoo calls — each call counts for a year left for you to live. When you take a walk in the forest and hear a cuckoo cry for the first time, jingle the small change in your pocket — you’ll live the whole year in health and wealth. A nest of cranes or swallows brings happiness to the household. The crow crows — expect a misfortune to come soon. Armies were known to avoid battle if there was too much crowing heard.
The study of superstitions may help understand better certain aspects of ancient beliefs and conditions of life, and can even reveal some unexpected “shady nooks” of the human mind.