The Natural and the Supernatural
Part 3: Superstition
Broken any mirrors lately? Walked under a ladder? What’s your lucky number? Why is thirteen an unlucky number? Is
it safe to walk on the cracks in a sidewalk—some people don’t think so.
Got a problem with black cats? How do you keep witches away, and why is
the number eight so popular in China?
All these questions have to do with what are
commonly termed superstitions: beliefs that certain objects, actions, words or even thoughts, have some sort of connection
to the supernatural and can influence the course of events.
The history of superstitions is a fascinating
study, but it is not our concern here. Rather, we’re interested in how
descriptions of superstitions can be used to add realism and authenticity to worlds you are building as settings for your
In the last two columns, we looked at two methods
humankind has devised for coexisting with the supernatural: religion and magic. Religion
requests the intervention of the supernatural in human affairs, while magic, so long as it is performed correctly, guarantees
it. Superstitions belong in the realm of magic, and they are often associated
with the nebulous and ill-defined quality called luck. All peoples have
a concept of luck, and all peoples possess various means to minimize bad lick and ensure good luck. Many superstitions are beliefs about what will and will not influence luck, but all superstition relates
to the manipulation of the supernatural. Break a mirror and you will have seven
years of bad luck; find a four-leafed clover and you will have good luck, and so on.
In our world we can see evidence of superstition
everywhere—especially in relation to the number thirteen, which is considered to be unlucky. In medieval times, it was believed that witches met in groups, or covens, of twelve, but if a thirteenth
appeared, that one was not a witch, but Beelzebub himself. There were commonly
thirteen steps up to the gallows, and thirteen turns of rope on a hangman’s noose.
Whatever its origin, fear of the number thirteen shows up almost everywhere.
Many hotels do not have a thirteenth floor, some airlines do not have a row thirteen on their aircraft, hospitals do
not have a ward or room number thirteen, and in the city of Florence, Italy, the street address between twelve and fourteen
As a writer of historical fiction, you can provide
interesting insights into the times in which your stories are set by mentioning the superstitions which surround your characters. Superstitions can also be used to show or explain the behaviour of your characters
in reference to their coexistence with the supernatural and in relation to their
concept of luck.
By referring to the supernatural, whether it
be religion, magic or superstition, you will add a richness of detail to the world you are building, because beliefs in the
supernatural and its power are ubiquitous in human societies, and there is every chance it will interest and entertain your
Beyond that, however, supernatural influences
and beliefs are very useful in explaining why your characters behave as they do.
In historical fiction, it is vital that your
characters speak and behave as if they belong in the time or era in which you have placed them. If they display modern attitudes or opinions, they will lack authenticity and your world building will
be incomplete or inaccurate. In its worst manifestation, it may look as if you
have not done sufficient research or devoted sufficient thought to the development of your characters.
If superstitions played a role in determining
human behaviour in the historical period in which your story is set, then a strong sense of realism can be added by referring
to superstitions and the behaviour associated with them. Consider the following
The men wore hats decorated with straw.
Perfectly accurate. Quite straightforward. However, how much more can be communicated
if one says:
The men wore hats decorated with small bunches
of straw to ensure a good harvest.
Or the following:
After the dough had been proofed for the second
time, the loaves of bread were baked.
Again, perfectly straightforward. However, go one step further.
After the dough had been proofed for the second
time, the eldest male in the household drew the outline of a four-leafed flower on the loaf with his forefinger in one continuous
motion. If this were not done, the bread would not bake properly, and, much worse,
the harvest could fail the following year.
So much more has been said in these two examples
by adding a reference to prevailing superstitions. It gives readers a small but
interesting insight into the supernatural environment within which these characters lived.
As we have cautioned before, however, don’t
overdo it. Use these techniques sparingly, and only when the opportunity
presents itself. Research your time period and culture carefully. Always be accurate, but exercise judgement and construct your world in a consistent manner. Your readers will be stimulated and entertained, and, of prime importance, they will want to read more.