To say that superstition is one of the facts of history is only to state a truism. If that were all, we might treat the subject from a purely philosophical or historical point of view, as one of the inexplicable phenomena of an age much lower in intelligence than our own, and there leave it.
But if, also, we must admit superstition to be a present, a living, fact, influencing, if not controlling, the everyday acts of men, we have to deal with a problem as yet unsolved, if not insolvable.
I know it is commonly said that such things belong to a past age – that they were the legitimate product of ignorance, and have died out with the education of the masses. In other words, we know more than our ancestors did about the phenomena of nature, and therefore by no means accept, as they did – good, superstitious souls! – the appearance of a comet blazing in the heavens, or the heaving of an earthquake under our feet, as events having moral significance. With the aid of electricity or steam we perform miracles every day of our lives, such as, no doubt, would have created equal wonder and fear for the general stability of the world not many generations ago.
Very true. So far as merely physical phenomena are concerned, most of us may have schooled ourselves to disunite them wholly from coming events; but as regards those things which spring from the inward consciousness of the man himself, his intuitions, his perceptions, his aspirations, his imaginative nature, which, if strong enough, is capable of creating and peopling a realm wholly outside of the little world he lives in – “”ay, there’s the rub.”” Who will undertake to span the gulf stretching out a shoreless void between the revelations of science and the incomprehensible mysteries of life itself? It is upon that debatable ground that superstition finds its strongest foothold, and, like the ivy clinging round old walls, defies every attempt to uproot it. As Hamlet so cogently puts it, –
“”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.””
Superstition, we know, is much older than recorded history, and we now stand on the threshold of the twentieth century; yet just in proportion as humanity has passed over this enormous space of time, hand in hand with progress, superstition has followed it like its shadow. That shadow has not yet passed away.
There is no sort of use in denying the proneness of weak human nature to admit superstition. It is an open door, through which the marvelous finds easy access. Imbibed in the cradle, it is not even buried in the grave. “”Age cannot stale, nor custom wither”” those ancient fables of ghosts, giants, goblins, and brownies told by fond mothers to children to-day, just as they were told by mothers centuries ago. Even the innocent looking Easter egg, which continues to enjoy such unbounded popularity with old and young, comes of an old Aryan myth; while the hanging up of one’s stocking, at Christmas, is neither more nor less than an act of superstition, originating in another myth; or, in plain English, no Santa Claus, no stocking.
How much of childhood’s charm in the greatest of all annual festivals, the world over, would remain if Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and St. Nicholas were stripped of their traditional, but wholly fictitious, character?
Adapted from The Myths and Fables of To-day by Samuel Adams Drake, 2013.
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