"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Taboos, Superstitions, The Evil Eye: "To Dismiss or Not to Dismiss?" - That is the Question!

"Step on a crack and break your momma's back."

How many of us chanted this little jingle growing up as we deliberately stepped so as to not touch any parts of our feet on the offending cracks in sidewalks?  

Admit it...you did this too, right?

My friends and I would do it for fun, for a few minutes, and then it was back to normal walking and who really cares if we stepped on or over cracks in the sidewalk because we did not believe the ways we stepped would affect our mothers' backs in any way.

Not that this book, African Notebook, is huge or anything, but the author, Albert Schweitzer, devoted a full chapter to Taboos and Magic.  As I was reading it last night, thoughts of American Bedu's recent post concerning "Does the Evil Eye Really Exist" came to mind. I know Saudi Arabia is very cultural and sometimes the culture gets mixed up with the national religion and people fault Islam for things that are not in Islam.  They are simply cultural traditions predating Muhammad's religion.  Evil eye talk exists in even predominantly Catholic Latin American countries from what I understand.

And we all know of superstitions such as the bad luck that follows breaking a mirror, spilling salt, seeing a black cat, walking under a ladder or the number 13.  By contrast a rabbit's foot and four leaf clovers are supposed to bring good luck.

You may recall from the Old Testament that the Israelites used the Ark of the Covenant as somewhat of a good luck charm believing if they took it into battle, they were assured of victory over their foes.

How much stock do you put into such things?  Are they nonsensical or do they have some supernatural value that people who only believe what they see should note? Is there some element of the supernatural out there that we should take seriously?

In this book, Schweitzer notes how strongly taboos influenced the people of (now) Gabon, Africa.  Some were more general: men whose wives were pregnant could not drive nails, eat meat that had begun to smell (despite most of the times their eating meat that was "already almost putrid"), touch a chameleon, step over a procession of driver ants, fill a hole with dirt and have anything to do with a corpse.  

Some taboos were very specific and "at the birth of a child the special taboos affecting it as an individual [were] usually disclosed by the father."  When the child was old enough to learn to count to five, he was taught his particular taboos.  For one woman it was that she never sweep with a broom. Thus she always used her hands for this task. For a young man, it was that he never be hit on his right shoulder.  Yet another was prohibited from eating plantains or even from the same pot where plantains were cooked immediately before. (When he accidentally ate fish that had plantain remains in the pot, he immediately got a cramp and died after a few hours!)

Can you imagine having to sweep with your hands due to a taboo?

When people died, the villagers often looked for reasons. Instead of attributing death to natural causes, they were quick to consult a witchdoctor who would inform them of the person who had practiced magic or called down a curse on the one who died.  In one sad recollection, a French-American observer, du Chaillu, watched with horror and helplessness as the village gathered round and executed quick "justice" over three women who supposedly had caused a young man's untimely death.  One of the victims' brothers was forced to participate in this beheading and hacking up of the bodies and throwing them into the river to avoid suspicion.  It was not allowed to show sympathy for those accused...even if you knew they were innocent and the one being killed was a close family member!   This distraught young man "compelled not only to join in witnessing the murder of his sister, but to shout with the mob in the chorus of rage, [was full of] frightful suffering.  [du Chaillu] endeavored to comfort him. He spoke to him of God, Who loathes all cruelty.  'Oh, Chally,' said the poor African, 'when you go back to your country, tell the people there to send people to teach us poor ignorant beings the words that come from the mouth of God.'"  (pg. 77)

Apparently some of the natives did believe God freed them from these taboos.  I especially enjoyed this recollection:

Nyingone's taboo was that she "must never see her reflection either in glass or metal or water."  This was especially hard when trying to cross streams by tree trunks because when she happened to see her reflection in the water, she fainted, fell in the water and nearly drowned.  (She'd been rescued from drowning several times.)

In despair over what she had already suffered from this taboo, she came to Monsieur Lavignotte.  "This taboo," she said, "is a dreadful force. I can't help being afraid of it.  But I know too that God, Whom you know and preach, is stronger than Satan, in whom we have hitherto believed.  So with your help I hope to get rid of my taboo.  When you have prayed with me, I shall fearlessly turn round the mirror I hold in my hand and look at myself in it." 

After the prayer, she had courage to do as she had said.  She looked in the glass for a long time glowing with happiness because nothing happened.  When at last she raised her eyes, she said to Monsieur Lavignotte, "And to think I never knew how beautiful I am ...'"  (pg.62)

The truth will set you free!

Maybe I'm wrong, but I tend to believe that Jesus would have appreciated the faith it took for this lady to overcome this strong cultural superstition.

Twins were often considered halves of the same whole.  If they were allowed to live, mothers had to treat them exactly the same, give them the exact same amount of food, dress them alike and even twins were forced to marry at the same time.  Often when one twin died, the other hid because tradition held that the other half (since s/he was not a whole person) needed to die as well.

What do you think concerning this post?   Do you take evil eyes, superstitions, taboos, magic seriously? Why or why not?  Do you believe your holy book supports your position or is it more cultural for you?  Did any of the stories above interest you?  Does the story about the young man dying after eating out of a pot with plantains prove to you that some spiritual force is behind these taboos?  What did you think of Nyingone's declaration that God is stronger than Satan when she wanted to be free of her taboo? Other thoughts or impressions?

Want to read more tidbits from this book?  Check out this post with more interesting cultural observations from African Notebook.


Zuhura said...

I used to step on the cracks on purpose when I was mad at my mom!

Susanne said...

Hahaaaaa! Now let's hope your son doesn't follow your example on this! ;-D

Amber said...

When I was little I was *so worried* that something would happen to my mom and it would be my fault because I stepped on a crack! I was this weird blend of gullible and jaded as a child. Some stuff I'd scoff at and others I believed with painful intensity. I grew out of the superstitious stuff though at some point. :)

I tend to think of the evil eye (in any culture) along the lines of what jealousy can cause some people to do. Most people who are envious are just envious. They wish they could have your nice thing. But that's about it. In others it can fester and make them bitter and angry toward you and others. Which is unpleasant but only really harmful to themselves in the long run. It's the people that get jealous and then feel the need to do something about it that are worrisome. Like they want your car, so they steal it. That sort of thing.

I half-remember reading a hadith, I think, that said something along the lines of a third of the people are in the grave because of the evil eye. To my mind that speaks less of some magic curse-y thing than the fact that jealous people, especially 'back in the day' sometimes take matters into their own hands. :)

I do take magic and the supernatural seriously in many cases, but that's from experience. In others, things that are common superstitions not so much. There's nothing evil about a cat no matter the color. Breaking a mirror is just a pain in the tush and walking under a ladder is only dangerous if the guy in top of it drops something.

You may recall from the Old Testament that the Israelites used the Ark of the Covenant as somewhat of a good luck charm believing if they took it into battle, they were assured of victory over their foes.

I don't know that they treated it as a 'good luck charm'. Weren't they instructed by God to carry it into battle with them?

Huh. I found the bits about the personal taboos very interesting. Does the notebook give any idea how the father knew what the child's taboos would be? Did it come to him in a vision or did a tribal elder/shaman tell him?

re: the broom taboo: What is this 'broom' of which you speak? I have this thing called a vacuum... ;) But yeah, sweeping out the house with my hands would be a gigantic pain.

(When he accidentally ate fish that had plantain remains in the pot, he immediately got a cramp and died after a few hours!)

Do you know if the young man knew after the fact that he'd eaten the remains of a plantain? Is it known for a fact that this is what actually happened or just that he got sick and died after eating a meal and his taboo was the plantain thing so the others took a logic leap and assumed? If it is true and someone saw him eating and told him and then he got sick and died then I'd guess it was one of those things where your belief in something makes it true. He *believed* so much that plantains were taboo for him that it killed him. Same thing with the woman who fainted every time she saw her reflection. The difference is that she eventually overcame that belief by believing in a power greater than the one she thought the reflection had over her.

Wafa' said...

you know i am this complicated person who doesn't believe in things but like to know about them and read into them and stuff.
in general, i don't believe in all of these things, but if you were complaining to me about an evil eye, you would hear me praying with you and cursing those evil people the whole time, lol.
People are so obsessed with these things, they drive me nuts. And no almost everyone know's that Wafa' doesn't believe in such things so don't try to convince her.
The problem is that everything happens for a reason-and i strongly believe that- but when you try to explain it, everyone keep saying but it's mentioned in the Quran, but it's so and so... So how can you convince people that these believes are not necessarily the same as the one in the Quran !!!

You know, a very close friend is about to give birth so some months ago, i told the rest of our friends about "baby shower" idea, it's fun and interesting. But...eyes were wide open. that's an evil eye for the coming baby, lol. So it's going to be a typical thing with gifts send to the mom and baby after birth "sigh" .

Oh do you know, that people here believe that most times when you change from pretty to ugly, white to dark,thing to fat...etc. that's an evil eye . We are so innocent that we don't hurt ourselves in anyway, it's only people have huge time and decided to send "bad vibes" and "evil eyes" against the rest !!!

awww i love the idea of dark spiritual forces and evil beings << being affected by horror movies.

Lat said...

Haha! superstitions and evil eye! Definitely very much acquainted with it.Afterall I'm surrounded by more than one culture :)

Like Amber said earlier,I too think that superstitions and evil eye happens to people who really believe in it,and to people who have experienced it as a result.It must have happened a numerous times to become a culture of its own! Sometimes I try not to think too much into it but I do say my prayers just in case for myself,family and friends.

Husband never wears any bright clothes fearing he'll get the evil eye.Whereas for me,I'm the opposite:)The cracks part you mentioned is new to me.How many times have I stepped on a crack before,i don't know.So far my mum has been a strong lady.She can crack a crack:)mA! And I had to 'drive' a huge nail into my thick plait whenever I had to go out in the night while being pregnant.The nail protects me and my unborn baby from bad 'elements',i'm told.By the third baby,I habitually did it:)The list can go on forever.The Indian evil eye are numerous plus with the Malay's and Chinese's,we can run a government with jsut evil eyes!:D

Thanks for sharing the African evil eyes.It's interesting and very sad that it can cause such devastation to people sometimes.

Suroor said...

Evil eye and superstitions - oh yes!

In the middle class Arab families evil eye is taken very seriously and the most efficient way of getting rid of an evil eye is by making the person who gave the evil eye to take a bath and collect that dirty water in a tub. That water is then poured over the victim of the evil eye who is instantly cured!

Lat said...

@Suroor,so the victim knows the evil-eyer, who is told to take a bath? Isn't that rude? And if she doesn't know who the evil-eyer is,she/He never gets cured? Hhmmm..

Susanne said...

Amber, why am I not surprised that you thought you might accidentally break your mother's back by stepping on a crack? You sound like such a cute little girl really. :)

I agree that jealousy left unchecked and not dealt with properly can lead people to doing awful things. I think the Bible's admonition against coveting tries to nip this in the bud. And also those talks concerning being content. I think it's weird when someone can't even share good news because someone might envy them and thus cause some sort of evil to befall. Even if someone were to go through with their evil and take matters into her own hands, I dont' think they can do *anything* to me unless God allows it. I suppose I take His promise to protect His children literally. That whole good Father thing, I guess.

I appreciate all you shared on that subject. I too believe in the supernatural. I don't know how one can appreciate anything in the Bible without believing *something* is happening outside our physical realm. I love the story when Elijah (or was it Elisha)'s servant was scared due to all the enemies surrounding them. The prophet prayed and asked God to open his servant's eyes and the servant was amazed at all the spiritual beings present around them.

I think the Israelites were supposed to carry the Ark of the Covenant with them, however at one point they got to disobeying (which was actually the key to unsuccess) and still thought having the Ark would give them the victory. Then they lost and were stunned ...and maybe I am totally wrong and remembering the stories incorrectly. I really should read through them again to see if I still agree with myself. :)

Re: the taboos ... apparently the taboos for each child were disclosed to the dad as a revelation from the ancestor's spirits; I did get the impression witchdoctors and such people were often consulted for this advice

Haha...re: the broom/vacuum. I'm guessing their floors were dirt, but I don't know. Can you imagine sweeping it by hand?

The young man was told that dried plantains were in the pot so I think - and the author pretty much said - fear killed him. The guy immediately got a cramp and died after a few hours. He said that often it was the stress and fear of breaking a taboo that killed the people. Sad, isn't it? Fear is so powerful! I'm glad you asked that question. I almost put it in the post, but decided it was long enough. I'm always glad for chances to elaborate in the comments.

I appreciate your very interesting comment! Enjoyed it all!

Susanne said...

Wafa', I'm so glad to see you chime in on this topic! I loved so much of what you wrote and this made me chuckle:

"but if you were complaining to me about an evil eye, you would hear me praying with you and cursing those evil people the whole time, lol. "


I'm sorry your friends were not willing to have a baby shower prior to the baby's arrival due to this fear. That's sad to me. It's almost like saying this evil eye has more power over God if we truly believe GOD is the Author of life,ya know?

"Oh do you know, that people here believe that most times when you change from pretty to ugly, white to dark,thing to fat...etc. that's an evil eye . "

REALLLLLY?!?!? So there is nothing about, oh, say, we age and because of age we tend to lose some of our charming looks? Or that our getting plumper might have to due with the fact we are eating more calories than we are burning and thus the pounds follow?

Your comment was very interesting! So glad you chimed in. Ah! You and your horror movies! :-P

Susanne said...

Lat, so glad to read about evil eyes stuff in your area! I really like reading more about the cultures surrounding you! I appreciate too that you shared specific things like your husband's refusal to wear bright clothes and the thing about a nail in your hair while you were pregnant. How interesting!!

"The Indian evil eye are numerous plus with the Malay's and Chinese's,we can run a government with jsut evil eyes!:D"

HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAAAAAAAAAA! You are so funny! :-D Loved that!

Thanks so much for what you shared!

Suroor, aha....nice to know the cure! Thank you! :)