Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Standing at the gates of chaos

By Aussiegirl

Over on Le Sabot Post-Moderne,
Discoshaman, an American married to a Ukrainian and living in Kyiv, describes his bemusement at various superstitions he's heard while living there. Tales of the "evil eye" and other warnings which come regularly from friends and even relatives. He wonders if Ukrainians are more superstitious as a whole than other nations.

As there's little news coming out of Ukraine right now, I thought I'd just muse on this topic for a while as his observation caught my attention.

Now that I think about it my own parents, although highly educated, maintained certain customs -- or superstitions if you like. A lot of them seemed to me to be more cultural than deep superstitions. Just as a Japanese person would be uncomfortable in not removing his shoes upon entering the house, considering it a sign of disrespect and perhaps bad luck, (not to mention that it has a very practical us in keeping the house much cleaner), a Ukrainian would feel that you were being disrespectful and a sign of bad luck if you whistled inside his home. If you think about it, how barbaric of us to walk in our own houses on beautiful white carpets and clean floors, in shoes which have just been out in the mud, the dirt, the city streets, possibly in dog muck and more. Which is more "primitive"?

My own parents were always admonishing us that it was a sign of bad luck and disrespect to whistle in the house. Whistling in Ukrainian lore is a sign of great insult. If you go to a performance, for instance, and you dislike it, you would not boo, you would whistle. To be "whistled down" from the stage was perhaps the biggest humiliation a performer could experience.

This reminds me of an incident which well portrays this differences in cultural expectations. When my parents were in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, at one point they organized many activities to keep people's spirits up and to keep them occupied. They organized a school, a church, civic groups, discussion groups, and also a choir and theater and dance group. At one gala evening the Ukrainians performed a concert of traditional music, singing and folk dance for the American GI's stationed there. The performance was a huge success with the GI's, who proceeded to stomp their feet, applaud and whistle loudly in approval. At this the participants on stage froze in shame and humiliation. My mother said they all felt that if a hole had opened up in the stage and swallowed them they would all gladly have tumbled in. As they stood there with horrified faces, one of the American officers hastened to inquire from one of the English speaking Ukrainians, what was the matter? He received the reply that whistling was a sign of great disapproval and displeasure in Ukraine. When told that in America it was high praise indeed -- all of a sudden the ice was broken and all were smiles again.

But I've gotten slightly off track -- back to superstitions. Ukrainians have our old superstitions just like Americans do -- many Americans don't like to walk under a ladder (not a bad idea, come to think of it). It's a matter of custom, tradition and habit. A study that I read a few years ago of Americans and British people revealed that even the most educated among them have some remnants of supersitions -- things they avoid doing because they "don't want to tempt fate". If you'd do a survey of your own friends you will probably find that even modern people may have little superstitions that they hardly dare admit even to themselves. Throwing salt over the shoulder, knocking on wood, avoiding ladders or black cats, feeling a bit queasy when a mirror breaks, etc. I'll have to look that study up as I don't have it handy.

Many of these superstitions are simply a part of our cultural heritage. The Irish exchange four leaf clovers and believe that it brings them luck -- or kiss the Blarney Stone -- we don't think they are backward. The Italians too, and many other cultures, believe that certain people have "the evil eye". Somehow these traditions survive as an atavistic memory of our ancient past, (and even our present state) when we can't escape the feeling that sometimes fate, and the vagaries of good or bad luck, hold sway over our lives rather than our having complete control. It is this standing at the gate of chaos, the uncontrollability of our destiny and the powers that surround us, that impels us to these little rituals that make us feel just a little bit safer.

And it is natural that older people take these things more seriously. Perhaps they understand that there are forces in the world that may act against one, that it is not wise to tempt your fate -- not surprising considering what many of them have experienced.

I'm also put in mind of a recent book, called
The God Gene, written by Dean Hamer, showing that there is a gene in the human genome which predisposes humans to seek God. In some people it is more strongly expressed than in others. In other words, we have been created by our Creator with a gene which impels us to seek him -- or similar belief -- we are programmed to seek a spiritual or religious experience.

Just look at the Soviet Union and its history. Religion was banned for 50 years. The Communist party was supposed to become your religion -- and for many it did. Some continued to believe in their hearts and did so secretly. Others, losing faith in religion AND communism found comfort and grounding in their ancient traditions and beliefs.

One could say that liberals are so overly emotional about their beliefs because they have substituted a faith in the religion of liberalism or leftism for a faith in God. The committed atheist is also passionate in his "unbelief". It never fails to amaze me -- the fervent nature of their "unbelief" -- rather a non-sequitur if you think about it.

For hundreds of years the Orthodox church in Ukraine coexisted beautifully with ancient traditions -- indeed one of the strengths of Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, is that it easily took on the customs and language of local nationalities and incorporated them into worship and celebration. Christmas itself, was a way of coopting the pagan celebrations at the time of the winter solstice -- even in the western church. This was done in a way which in no way diluted the essential message of faith -- only in the ways that worship was expressed. In Ukraine we decorate the church heavily with our hand worked embroideries and other handicrafts, and sing our own sacred music. These are remnants of an ancient culture and tradition that has a biological basis -- it's just that Ukrainian supersititions seem more alien to the American observer than knocking on wood.

Now that I've started to explore this subject, I suddenly find it all very fascinating. Submit your interesting superstitions -- your own, or ones you've heard. I think I'll go do some research on superstitions in various cultures now, and take a break from the heavy work of political blogging.


At 1:02 AM, Blogger Pindar said...

What an interesting post this is, Aussiegirl! The story of your parents and the whistling, your discussion of superstitions, how Christianity incorporated various elements of the surrounding pagan world--fascinating! And I particularly liked this thought: "It is this standing at the gate of chaos, the uncontrollability of our destiny and the powers that surround us, that impels us to these little rituals that make us feel just a little bit safer"--beautifully put, Aussiegirl-- surely everybody has little hints every so often that they perhaps they aren't in complete control of their fate. And your discussion of the book The God Gene--perhaps the famous god of the foxholes shows that in moments of crisis the veil that separates us from the all-encompassing Divine is briefly pierced and the hidden becomes momentarily unhidden. As always, you give me a lot to think about, which is why UT is my first stop after turning on my computer. Keep up the great posts!

At 1:08 AM, Blogger BonnieBlueFlag said...

Gosh, I didn't realize just how superstitious I really am, until Aussiegirl brought up the subject. Here are only a few of my personal quirky superstitions.

If you tell a dream before breakfast, it won't come true.

It would be my guess that the original intent of this superstition was that if you told a good dream before breakfast, it wouldn't come true as you might wish. However, I also use this thought to hopefully forestall bad dreams as well.

A hat on a bed is very bad luck.

There are those who say never place a hat on a bed, because the evil spirits that live in the hat can escape and tell all the secrets of the hat's owner.

Whenever someone very near and dear to me has come for a visit, I cannot watch them drive out of sight. If I do, I might never see them again.

At 1:10 AM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Pindar -- thanks for this great comment! And speaking of food for thought -- I was so struck by your stunning words -- "The God Gene--perhaps the famous god of the foxholes shows that in moments of crisis the veil that separates us from the all-encompassing Divine is briefly pierced and the hidden becomes momentarily unhidden."

You are so right - in our day to day humdrum life there is a veil over -- I will treasure this phrase -- the all-encompassing Divine. Thanks for giving ME something to think about. Your comments are always welcome.

At 1:17 AM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

BonnieB.!! -- Thanks for your superstitions. I always knock on wood when I say something is good, after all, it's not a good idea to tempt the gods with our own good fortune. I know I have others, but it's late -- and one of my superstitions SHOULD be trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour. But don't tell anybody that dream before breakfast tomorrow!!


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