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Stray Thoughts

Superstitions in Gaming

by Michael B. Erb
Dec 12,2002

 

Superstitions in Gaming

While working on a Halloween article for RPG.net I touched briefly on the topic of superstition. Many of the strange little quirks of the holiday were once considered to be precautions to be taken against supernatural forces. Many were taken quite seriously too.

Throughout the ages, and into the modern age, superstitions held a valuable place in society and culture. Superstitions became a means of controlling the uncontrollable, an explanation for the unexplainable. Many superstitions are derived from mythology, tradition and to a lesser degree science. In a way, superstition could be considered the earliest form of science. When A happens, I do B ... when I do B, A goes away ... therefore B counteracts A.

Superstitions are also a form of religion. Many deal with appeasing spirits or creating a spiritual contract with the afterlife. Many superstitions were believed to be a means of avoiding death or affliction. For some superstitions, they simply became habit. Why we did them in the first place became less important than the comfort derived from the action itself.

Below are some superstitions that I find particularly interesting. I leave the application of them in a gaming context to the reader, though I would be interested in hearing how individual GMs use superstition in their games.

Let me also say that I am not claiming any of these ideas as my own. They are derived from a variety of sources and are presented here merely as a basic list, not a definitive library.

1). Nail a tree to end a toothache.

This superstition is actually a combination of several. Toothaches were considered to be an affliction from outside of the body, caused by harmful or mischievous spirits. Trees tended to house such spirits, as the woods were often rife with fairies and other elf-kin.

Cold iron was one of the weaknesses of these spirits, and since nails were made of such materials, placing one within a tree was a sure way to imprison a spirit and keep it from causing further harm. Within a few days the toothache would end ... or the tooth would fall out. Either way, it worked.

2). Knock on wood.

Similar to the above, knocking on wood sought to ward off bad luck by confusing the wood spirits. Often this was done after having said something unlucky ("I hope the wagon wheel doesn't break") or having done something unlucky that might draw the attention of such spirits.

The exact reason this worked was somewhat of a debate. Some said it placated the spirits, the way a heartbeat might sooth a newborn. Others said it was an offensive noise, driving the spirits away from the discordant banging of a human hand on wood. Others said the wood spirits found it amusing for some unknown reason and seldom harmed those who amused them. Regardless, it worked.

3). Never cross a black cat.

A really simple one, black cats were the familiars of witches. Sometimes they were witches. Either way, you wanted to avoid drawing their attention, lest you gain the attention of the witches themselves.

4). Friday the 13th.

A little more complex, but deriving itself from both religion and mythology. Witches covens often met in numbers of 12, with the 13th being the Devil himself. Definitely unlucky. Friday was named after the Norse goddess Freya who fell from Odin's grace. Thus Friday, her day, became unlucky. Slap the two together and you have a doubly unlucky day.

5). Spilled salt and throwing a pinch over the shoulder.

Salt was not always as common as it is now. In fact, its rarity made it valuable, and sometimes even holy. The spilling of salt was not only the equivalent of throwing away gold, but also a minor desecration.

Now, the Devil, being the wily guy he is, always resides just behind the left shoulder of every man woman and child, always waiting for the opportunity to do a little evil in the world. And what better time to work his evil than when a holy object is desecrated and wasted?

People would fling a pinch of salt over their left shoulder and into the eyes of the Devil, blinding him for a moment. And since the Devil could only work his evil within the heartbeat of that moment, his devilishness would be prevented.

Some went a little further with this way of thinking, saying that if the Devil always resided upon the left, then certainly God resides upon the right. Therefore, the salt must always be thrown with the right hand, the righteousness of God punishing the evil of the Devil. Woe be to the poor fool who, upon wasting the holy salt, made the mistake of using their corruptible left hand to fling salt over the right shoulder and into the eyes of God Himself ....

6). Saying "Bless you" when someone sneezes.

There are several reasons for this, some fanciful, some morbid. Some, even today, claim that the heart stops when you sneeze, that for an instant you die. Blessing the person ensures their continued health and, in a way, congratulates them for their survival.

Some felt it was the soul trying to escape and a blessing helped hold it in place.

Now, in the olden days, demons ran rampant, and the trick was you couldn't see them. People got possessed all the time and invisible demons and devils often hovered around, waiting for an opportunity to spring into a body. A sneeze could prove to be such an opportunity, but a quick "Bless you" bestowed just enough of God's grace on a person to prevent the possession and preserve their soul.

And you thought they were just being polite.

An interesting side-note was that later it was believed that a person who sneezed three times in rapid succession was marked for possession. Apparently the demons got a little more picky.

7). If a cock crows as you pass you're marked for possession or have already been possessed.

Pretty self explanatory, just hope you weren't the unfortunate passing by the roost around dawn.

Now tell me, what if the rooster sneezes three times before it crows?

Those are just a few. Dozens, maybe even hundreds more exist. Breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, sleeping under moonlight (which, I've heard, can be very harmful to your soul), a lucky rabbits foot, horseshoes, all are part of the rich tapestry of superstitions.

One interesting source and quite a fun read is Raymond Fiest's book "Fairie Tale," which is a horror fantasy book about a modern-day family plagued by fairies. One of the main characters, the groundskeeper of an ancient estate, becomes the town drunk to avoid the fairies' wrath because superstition says fairies won't harm drunkards. A young boy has his eyelids painted green with a mixture of water and crushed clovers, allowing him to see into the fairie realm. Superstitions and legends become the only defenses Fiest's characters can muster against their supernatural foes. A very cool book.

Let me know what your favorite superstitions are and how you might use them in a game.

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