Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When the black cat crossed my path....

Yesterday I was stepping into my office campus with a colleague when a black cat crossed our path. My natural first reaction was to stop in my tracks. I turned around and told my friend that we should take a few steps back and return to office after a couple of minutes. My friend smiled and asked me if I believed in the black cat superstition? Hmm...Good question. And the answer is that I really don't know. I thought for a while and it seemed to me that the reaction was simply spurred by the fact that I have seen a few other friends do the same thing. So, it was really not a question of belief....it was more a question of not questioning a widespread belief.

Later, I did some research and the internet provides some fantastic insights into the origin of some superstitions. The black cat, I realized, was a symbol of the Egyptian Goddess Bast. When the Romans invaded Egypt, they wanted to remove all symbols that were sacred to Egyptians and replace them with Roman symbols. This lead to the first wave of cat bashing. Later on during the Middle Ages, in Western Europe, black cats were associated with witches. One interesting folklore that I came across is about a father and his son walking the street on a moonless night. A black cat crossed their path suddenly and the father son pair threw stones at it. The bruised cat disappeared into the house of a woman, who was considered to be a witch. The next day, the father and son saw the same "witch" woman and she was bruised and battered too. This lead to the belief that witches went about at night in the guise of a black cat. Therein lies the origin of the black cat superstition, about being the witch with evil designs on you. Sometimes what starts off as a harmless story takes on course altering propositions...to think that the black cat superstition continues to this day!! All superstitions start with a story or reason that is probably relevant for the times, however, it continues to hold sway over generations while losing the initial meaning.

Now, superstition is blind...but, it started for and with a reason. When the reason is not reinforced, it loses meaning. It becomes mechanics...it becomes a joke....it becomes irrational....it becomes irrelevant. But maybe, rethinking the relevance can give it new meaning. Everytime something goes well, I "knock on wood". Knocking on wood started as a practice because some of our ancestors revered Nature as God. A tree, it was believed, is where spirits reside.  Knocking on wood was a way of thanking the spirits for all the good that came one's way. These days, we "knock on wood" of course, but we, the post-industrial man also knock down trees. Do we really rever nature and respect it? With all the hoopla about ecological degradation, isin't there merit in treating Nature as God? Or is knocking on wood just a meaningless act? Do we follow the ritual and forget the meaning?

Maybe, all superstitions are not blind. It is time to rethink the relevance of these superstitions. And maybe, in some cases, reinforce the meaning. In certain other cases, find new meaning and in the few other, discard as meaningless. Next time I knock on wood, I am atleast going to acknowledge the importance of nature...hopefully, some day soon , I will do something about it too....even if it is just planting a tree.

Share your superstitions, its meaning and relevance for you. As you can see, I am beginning to rethink my superstitions....find new age meaning....and hopefully, some new actions. And all this introspection, thanks to that black cat who crossed my path. Who says that is bad luck?

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