Superstitious beliefs have probably been present among us since the beginning of time and have been passed on through the centuries, culturally shared and transmitted from generation to generation. Superstitious rituals or activities are thought to have a positive or negative impact on the events of one’s life, hence, influencing people’s behaviour in various ways effecting both one’s psychological and social state. Superstitious behaviours have been used to reduce anxiety, build confidence, and cope with uncertainty, giving the illusion of control over reinforcement in an uncontrollable situation (Neil, 1980; Matute, 1994). The purpose of this study was to obtain data about the topic of superstition, superstitious beliefs and their effect on young people. The study examined the belief and interest of Maltese young people in superstition and the impact superstition has on their lives. The study explored interalia whether participants perceive happenings and success and/or failure as being of their own making rather than that of fate/pre-destiny, fortune/misfortune, hexes, curses, the evil eye and so forth. A qualitative research was carried out using one to one (topic guided) interviews that were conducted with superstitious young people. Participants were recruited through purposive sampling – that is, on the basis of their interest and belief in superstition. Key informants knowledgeable on the subject (who form part of my social network) were interviewed and assisted the process of “snowballing” other research participants. In relation to the above results show that;
Maltese youth perceive success and/or failure as being of their own making rather than that of other external forces.
the level of superstitious beliefs makes a difference in the way a young person would make attributions to positive and/or negative happenings.
Key Words: Superstitious beliefs, youth, attitude behaviour relation, self-efficacy, locus of control, performance.
BA (Hons) – Youth and Community Studies
Table Of Contents
Table Of Contents 2
1.1 Aims of Study and Research Agenda 2
1.2 Why Superstition and Young People? 3
1.3 Dissertation Outline 5
Chapter 2: Literature review 6
2.1 Introduction 6
2.2 Maltese Superstitions 12
2.21 Popular Traditions, Beliefs, and Superstitions 15
2.3 Superstition and Religion 24
2.4 Illusion of Control 28
Chapter 1: General Introduction
1.1 Aims of Study and Research Agenda
The aim of this research was to investigate Maltese young people’s belief and interest in superstition, and to discover why and how superstitious beliefs affect young people’s attitudes and actions in their everyday lives. For this purpose, a qualitative research based on one to one topic guided interviews was conducted. This research also brings together and reviews previously conducted studies and already published data from books, articles, journals and electronic sites, related to superstition, youth and their beliefs, interest and involvement in superstition, and the relationship between superstitious beliefs and self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus of control and performance. This study also investigated the role of superstition in society, analysing the influence that different beliefs passed on from generation to generation have left in our community. By delving deeper into the subject, I explored the intensity of young peoples’ reliance in superstition vis-a-vie their discernment towards personal positive or negative experiences, and whether these happenings are recognised and accredited as being of their own making or of other external forces.
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1.2 Why Superstition and Young People?
When I was a child I remember visiting my paternal grandparents in Valletta, we used to go see them every Sunday after the 10am mass and stay there for lunch sometimes. Although nanna and nannu lived in an old building and I didn’t like the place much, I loved spending time with them because they were both kind hearted and very loving. As you walked in you could not miss the two cattle horns stuck to the ceiling which seemed to look at you no matter where you were standing in the room, the statue of the Virgin Mary with rosary beads and a candle which was kept lit at all times right past the door, and also the statue of Ä esu’ Redentur which was further down the hall way. I remember nanna FranÄ¡iska always wearing the same necklace with a cross, a horn, and a pendant of St. Anthony which is now mine, a memory I treasure of my nanna and something I always keep with me in my purse. Nanna also wore a bracelet with all sorts of lucky charms including an eye, a horn, a horse shoe, a key, a clover, and some kind of fish among other objects. Because we were the first to arrive I had the chance to sit next to nannu in the kitchen and listen to the stories about his time of service in the navy while helping him prepare lunch under nanna’s vigilant supervision. Nannu Nenu was a great cook and sometimes enjoyed a glass of wine and background music while preparing and cooking supper. I was always happy to help nannu out because he would never make any fuss if I had to drop or spill something, however, nanna was always concerned about the salt and the wine, in fact, if it was the case she would come running and tell me to quickly throw some of the salt over my shoulders, and if nannu would spill the wine he would have to dab some of it over his head. I never quite understood the meaning of this, but as I grew older I found myself repeating these kinds of rituals every time the occasion arose. There were other habits nanna had or even rituals she would perform in certain circumstances, such as making the sign of the cross quickly followed by that of the horn when mentioning a particular neighbour of theirs. She also used to always choose the same numbers for lotto.
My father was also a great influence on me. Like his mother he was greatly devoted to Ä esu’ Redentur and always played the same numbers for lotto, and like his father he also was an excellent cook. I have vivid memories of him in the kitchen while experimenting with new flavours and sauces. He also enjoyed a glass or wine while cooking, and repeated the same rituals nannu did when spilling wine or salt. Since his food always tasted and smelled so good sometimes I used to go and try to have a little taste from the pot when nobody was watching. Usually I also would have a second serving and at times eat the food directly from the pot or pan. In reference to this my father used to tell me that those who eat directly from the pot would remain unmarried – “Jekk tiekol mill-borma ma tiÅ¼Å¼ewwiÄ¡x”, perhaps this is the reason why I am still not married. I also remember my father scolding me for putting new shoes (which I would have just purchased and still in the shopping bag) on the table, as they would bring bad luck. My sister and I were also never allowed to buy a gold fish or to have an aquarium, because he believed that keeping an aquarium at home would bring death to our family.
These and other forms of rituals became quite habitual to me and even if I know that probably nothing wrong will happen if I don’t follow my father and grand parents’ traditions, I often find myself repeating their behaviour, sometimes without even thinking about it, and sometimes just in case. Because superstition was part of my upbringing and very present especially during my adolescent phase, I have always been fascinated about its origin and drawn towards exploring and understanding the topic of superstition and other factors related to it more in depth. I would like to discover if and why superstition is significant in young people’s lives and how superstition and related topics influence their behaviour and everyday life.
1.3 Dissertation Outline
In the first chapter I gave a general overview of what the study is about, my position about the subject chosen and the interest it incites in me, outlining the purpose of this study. As well as the preparation for the formation of the research questions, locating participants, conducting interviews and the analysis of the results, this dissertation required a considerable amount of time spent at the University library and Melitensia, scanning through various books, thesis, journals, articles and other relevant material, searching for the appropriate data and gathering the suitable information related to my research subject.
Chapter 2 of this dissertation starts with an introduction on superstition; its origins and foundations, as well as its effects and development through the years. An emphasis was made on Maltese superstitions, popular traditions and custom beliefs passed on from one generation to the other. The topics of religion and illusion of control and their relevance to superstition were also addressed in this chapter.
Chapter 3 gives a detailed account of the methodology design of this study, the reasons for implementing a qualitative phenomenological approach, the nature of the sample, and the procedures undertaken to analyse the collected data.
Chapter 4 provides a detailed description of the findings of my research. This is where the major themes and related topics are explained further and examined, linking the results of this study to literature.
Finally, the last chapter provides a conclusion outlining the major findings, the limitations of this study as well as its usefulness, followed by recommendations for future research.
Chapter 2: Literature review
The word superstition derives from the Latin words super and stitio which when put together reveal the meaning of ‘standing still over’ or ‘one who stands in awe’ (Subramuniyaswami, 2002). Latin speakers made use of the word supersitio to refer to things that were greater than usual or beyond normality (Steiner, 1999). Dictionaries commonly define superstition as a belief or practice which is based on irrationality, or as a fear of the unknown, and different fields including popular psychology (Shermer, 1998; Vyse, 2000; Wheen, 2005), abnormal psychology (Devenport, 1979; Brugger, Dowdy, & Graves, 1994; Shaner, 1999; Nayha, 2002), philosophy (Scheibe & Sarbin 1965), and medicine (Hira, Fukui, Endoh, Rahman, & Maekawa, 1998; Diamond, 2001), have commonly described superstitions as irrational mistakes in cognition. However, further studies have suggested various additional approaches that characterise this concept.
Superstitious beliefs, magical thinking and other paranormal activities have existed in a variety of cultures since the beginning of times (Jahoda, 1969), and can be divided into three types: religious, cultural, or personal. The word superstition is quite ambiguous and can only be used subjectively. While for a Roman Catholic, the belief in reincarnation may be considered as superstitious, for an Atheist all religions are a form of superstition.
According to “American Folklore: An Encyclopedia”, anthropologists refer to superstitions as a folk belief, popular belief, or folk science. They consider superstitious beliefs to be a gathering of cultural traditions developed in pre-scientific societies used to keep doubts and uncertainties about the future under control (Brunvand, 1996). Superstitions were also generated to deal with misfortunate incidents, creating the power and possibility of controlling things and events in life that one was otherwise unable to explain, manage or control. Shermer (1998), contends that superstitions are a product of adaptation to a general ‘belief engine’ which has developed to moderate anxiety and to allow people create causal associations; with those endorsing behaviour-related superstitions conditioning other people to follow their paths by proving them with reinforcing emotional reactions when behaving accordingly, leading them to link those positive feelings to the superstitious behaviour (Tinbergen, 1963; West, Griffin, & Gardner, 2007).
Superstitious rituals or beliefs are generally invoked either to keep away bad luck, or to bring about good luck, and even if a lot of superstitions have cultural and social connotations and are passed on from one generation to another, others comprise more peculiar beliefs or rituals. Various research has been done to shed light upon the foundation and function of such beliefs (Frazer, 1922; Jahoda, 1969; Vyse, 1997), identifying several factors that are linked to superstition and magical beliefs, such as motivation, personality traits, and cognition, as well as emotional instability, demographics, and social influences (Vyse, 1997; Zusne & Jones, 1989).
Gustav Jahoda, the author of “The Psychology of Superstition” proposes various characteristics that surround the word superstition. He points out the importance of temporal and spatial relativity and gives examples of how in ancient times it was common to believe in things such as fairies and witches, and therefore to attribute unexplainable matters to supernatural forces. He also mentions people’s unjustified emotions, thinking and ignorance, which can be very subjective as they depend on the individual. Jahoda finally defines superstition as: ‘every belief or action that a rational man of the present from the west culture considers as superstitious’ (Jahoda, 1969, p. 48).
Peterson (1978) possibly gives a more understandable view, as he explains different types of superstition which include:
Belief in unspecific bad consequences; like for example – spilling salt or opening an umbrella indoors.
Belief in unspecific good consequences; like for example – catching falling leaves, or finding a horseshoe.
Engaging in protective rituals; like for example – crossing fingers, or touching wood.
Belief in specific consequences; like for example – right-handed itch foretells money is coming in, itchy left palm means that money is going out.
By some authors, superstitions have also been defined as attitudes depending on affective, cognitive, and behavioural aspects (Saenko, 2005). The affective aspect involves different emotions related to superstitious matters such as fear, joy, anger, etc. The cognitive aspect would include knowledge, classification, anticipation of consequences, and also the planning of one’s actions. The behavioural aspect would comprise the various rituals and other symbolic acts, such as spells or curses, carried out by people for protection against misfortune or to realise that what is wished for. Additionally to this, each superstition has its particular object that is linked to a specific happening and its consequences, and a feeling that results from these consequences which is automatically associated to the particular object or act that are connected with that object. For example, a black cat (object) crosses your path on your way home and when you arrive you find out that you’ve been robbed (happening); this gives rise to a mixture of negative emotions including anger, fear and despair (feeling, which is then associated with the object). Å½eÅ¾elj, PavloviÄ‡, VladisavljeviÄ‡, and RadivojeviÄ‡ (2009), also states that ‘when a person who has adopted a certain superstitious belief faces a concrete object of superstition, it automatically triggers associated evaluations, driving a person to feel and behave accordingly’ (p. 143,144).
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Albeit the perceptible relation between attitudes and superstitions, one cannot associate superstitions solely to attitudes, for the reason that while superstitions are usually based on irrational groundless thinking and the actions correlated to them are rather specific and fixed, in attitudes this is not always the case (Ajzen & Fishbein, 2005). PriÅ¡lin (1991) also presents opposing conclusions; while proposing that one can depend on attitudes for a very reliable prediction of behaviour, he also suggests that attitudes do not have a predictable value. This contradiction arises for the reason that individual behaviours carried out in a particular context are influenced both by general attitudes as well as by an extensive series of moderating variables (Ajzen, 1982).
Recent research indicates that despite the progress or advance made in different societies, superstitious beliefs remain prevalent in different cultures and communities around the globe (Newport & Strausberg, 2001). Some survey studies report a high degree of belief, interest and involvement in superstition (Gallup & Newport, 1991; Ross & Joshi, 1992); people still seem to want to rely on mythical beliefs to understand happenings and to control their surroundings, even though their different religious beliefs, socioeconomic or educational status.
Although superstitions can be resultant of an observational learning process (learned behaviours), they can also originate by chance, for example, if a person uses a particular pen for an exam were he/she does particularly well, the individual may continue to use the same pen for other exams in the belief that the pen was responsible for the positive outcome (Codrington, 2006). According to B.F. Skinner, this is described by means of ‘operant conditioning’ – the perception that positive or negative reinforcements determine behaviour. Skinner concluded that people’s actions are reinforced by positive repercussions, encouraging the recurrence of certain rituals or repeated behaviours hopefully leading to other positive results (Skinner, 1948). In the same way, superstition is formed when people trust that a specific behaviour will bring about a specific result even if there is no actual link between the two (Vyse, 1997).
A further process by which people may become superstitious it that of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The thought and fear that bad things will happen add anxiety and apprehension, giving rise to confusion, uncertainties and panic, leading the individual to perform poorly and faultily. Peoples’ selective attention on particular days such as Friday the 13th makes individuals more alert and sensitive to the things that are happening around them than on any other day, with the conclusion that people might think and believe bad things are happening only on that specific day.
While some superstitions are widespread all over the globe and common to many countries (such as, keeping fingers crossed or knocking on wood for good luck, or 7 years of bad luck for breaking a mirror), one can clearly observe that some superstitions are specific to particular cultures. For example, because the number 8 is considered to be lucky for the Chinese, the Bank of China was opened on what is considered to be the luckiest day of the century, that is on 8/8/88 (Lip, 1992), and because the number 4 is considered to be unlucky, many of the buildings in China do not have a fourth floor (Wiseman & Watt, 2004). Other Chinese superstitions involve the colour red for good luck and putting up mirrors in houses to ward off bad luck (Simmons & Schindler, 2003), while Indians believe that looking into somebody else’s mirrors could trap part of your soul in their house, giving power to the owner of the mirror to manipulate and control your soul (Oman, 2005). In Ireland, as well as India, people believe that the devil lingers in houses that are no longer lived in and therefore break windowpanes for the devil to get out. People practicing Hinduism do not work during Rahu Kalam, which is a certain part of the day considered to be unfavourable in the Hindu Almanac (DuBois & Beauchamp, 2007). The fishermen of New Guinea also adhere to certain beliefs and engage into complex magical rituals for a guaranteed successful fishing trip (Malinowski, 1954), and Russian maidens put handmade green-leaf garlands into water to see whether they will live to get married; should the garland float, or die unmarried in a short time; should the garland sink (The Theosophical Movement, 2009).
Like in other countries superstition has a rather significant position in the Maltese society as it is portrayed in our culture strongly influenced by supernatural beliefs, rituals, symbols, stories and traditions still carried out by many to this day. Although the pagan influences embodied in our culture and society (Cassar, 1996; Zarb, 1998) research indubitably shows the strong relationship between superstition and religion depicting tendencies towards a superstitious religiosity in Maltese Catholics (Darmanin, 1999b). External locus of control has also been associated with higher degrees of superstition while internal locus of control creates this sense of power and control over positive and/or negative happenings, this illusion of control (Vyse, 1997).
Hence, following is a more detailed and intense exploration of the relevance and association of these topics in relation to superstition, also outlining their impact and position within the Maltese culture.
2.2 Maltese Superstitions
According to Dr Alfred Darmanin, ‘some cultures are more prone to superstition than others’, and in his personal opinion, the ‘Maltese belong to that category’ (Darmanin, 2006, p.14). In Malta, beliefs in superstition go back to the 14th and 16th centuries. Sean O’Suillaebhain writes that fairy tales and superstitions were probably the only source to be gathered by word of mouth (Cassar-Pullicino, 1992). It is probable that various Maltese proverbs, traditions, and superstitions were mostly introduced by the many different rulers that have governed this island. In 1653, Inquisitor Federico Borromeo (iuniore) reported that Sicani  slaves wandered around Valletta disseminating all kinds of superstitions, lucky charms, and magic potions among the urban population (Bonnici, 1966).
In those days, the Maltese put their faith in superstitions for many things. There was no science to explain certain phenomena and people had no concept of medical remedies as yet, therefore, they relied on rituals and mythical beliefs to look after health issues making up explanations from what they believed in. Frequently Maltese people turned to superstitions to manage their fears and to keep away from danger, however, they also applied superstition when trying to find their romantic partner; creating magic potions, following rituals and keeping talismans for this purpose (Cassar, 1996; World Trade Press, 1993).
The design of some of the baroque churches found in Malta is also partly influenced by superstition. In old times it was believed that at midnight the devil roams around the streets looking for souls. To confuse the devil and stop him from carrying out his malicious conducts, two clocks were put one on each side of the two towers of these churches. One of the two clocks would show the correct time while the other one would have a painted clock face showing the witching hour, that is, 5 minutes before midnight (Sheehan, 2000).
But are superstitions something of the past, or are they still present in Maltese culture today? Carmel Cassar, among other authors, maintains that despite the distant times of many centuries and the official banning of rituals and other forms of magic, some superstitions and practices linked to healing and the use of charms against bad luck and the evil eye are still present among the Maltese today (Cassar, 2002). Saliba (2011), sustains that a study carried out by Schembri in 2006 reported 12.7% of the Maltese citizens to be superstitious. He also mentions another study conducted in 2003 at the University of Malta with results showing that 13.1% of the students believe in horoscopes and 14.7% believe in fortune-telling, Saliba claims that these figures changed drastically to 5% and 3.1% respectively, when the study was repeated in 2008.
Rountree, (2010) writes about the people she met when in Malta recalling a particular woman in their village which was known to be a healer, fortuneteller, or psychic able to offer personalised charms or spells to those in need, some of whom had acquired these services themselves. She speaks about a Maltese woman who had gone to a witch for a spell, to stop her daughter from leaving Malta and marrying a foreigner, to her content, this spell was successful, as her daughter did not move abroad. Even though the use of such practice might not be as popular as it was 50 years ago, similar stories are still commonly recounted among the Maltese today, and some people still seek the help of such practitioners and their magical remedies.
Due to the great influence of the Church and Catholic religion in Malta sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish Christianity from folk traditions, magic, and superstition. Living examples of this are the mixture of non-Catholic symbols such as horseshoes or cattle-horns altogether with pictures of Saints, rosary beads and blessed olive leaves commonly found in Maltese houses or people’s vehicles, offering protection and blessing to their owners (Cassar, 2002; Rountree, 2010). According to Zammit-Meampel, people in Malta try to justify mysterious happenings and unexplained phenomena ‘either by the intervention of saints if the effect is good, or by some magical supernatural power, such as the evil eye, if the results are harmful’ (Zammit-Meample, 1968, p.4).
Case in point is the mysterious healing involving contagious magic  (according to Franzer, 1992), or a miracle (if you believe in them), which happened to Charles Zammit Endrich in 1964. This man who suffered from detached retina in his left eye, devotedly prayed to Dun Gorg Preca (canonised in 2007) and placed a piece of the Saint’s shoelace under his pillow. By touching the saint’s clothing, together with faith and prayers, the man was cured (Rountree, 2010).
2.21 Popular Traditions, Beliefs, and Superstitions
Il-Ä¦ares: The word Ä¦ares, possibly deriving from the Roman Lares (household gods), refers to the Maltese ghost. The legend states that il-Äares in the form of a Turk appeared at a workman in Forte Ricasoli showing him were a treasure was to be found. The miner told his colleagues and together they went looking for the treasure. Concurrently they started digging in the suggested area but found coal instead of coins. The next day the ghost reappeared to the man, beating him up for sharing the secret. Therefore, it is believed that whatever il-Äares tells you should never be disclosed to other entities, as telling others would bring the ghost back to punish you (World Trade Press, 1993). Some believe that il-Äares is present in certain houses; it protects these houses and brings good fortune to the children born there. This ghost appears as an old black serpent, and is called ‘the ghost of the house’ (Daniels & Stevans, 2003, p. 697). Killing this serpent would result in misfortunate incidents to come to pass all the members of this family (ibid).
Maltese folk culture accredits unpleasant sleep paralysis occurrences to an assault by il-Äaddiela who is the wife of the Äares. Il-Ä¦addiela appears to disturb people in similar ways as to those of a mischievous spirit. To keep away this spirit people are suggested to place a piece of silverware or a knife under the pillow prior they go to sleep (Zarb, 1998).
Il-Gawgaw: It is believed that a dreadful spirit wanders by the streets on Christmas Eve. This spirit takes misbehaving children to a faraway place, leaving them there, lifeless. No one has ever seen the shape or form of this monster called il-gawgaw. Babies born on this eve, exactly at midnight, are said to wake up in the middle of the night and to be changed in to il-gawgaw. Hence, on the 24th of December before midnight, those children are given chores, like for example counting the holes of a sieve or strainer, to refrain from falling asleep until Christmas morning comes (Lanfranco, 2002).
Maltese folklore is abounded with stories about supernatural or other unearthly beings, and according to the archives of the Maltese Inquisition, some of these individuals accused of being witches occasionally owed up to their charge (Cassar, 2002). Zarb (1998) recounts how parents used to tell stories about frightening witches to persuade their children to behave properly. He mentions that the people he interviewed in the 70’s spoke about witches that were able to fly and to transform themselves into animals or other beings. Those people, Zarb says, believed that such witches really existed, that they were dangerous, and deserved to be punished if caught. He writes of a person who told him about an incident which had happened to his own mother one summer. This person told Zarb that his mother had seen a group of witches flying by and ditching a shoe on to her roof, the shoe was then taken to the village shoe maker and recognised to be one of the shoes he had personally produced.
The Supernatural: Belief in the supernatural, haunted houses and testimonials of apparitions or strange noises is very common in Malta. Zarb writes that visions of late people and/or phantoms and such telepathy are considered to be quite straightforward (Zarb, 1998). During her fieldwork in Malta, Kathryn Rountree, noticed Maltese people to be much more conscious about religion, spirituality, and the supernatural, when compared to other countries. She mentions stories Maltese people told her about people being possessed by demonic spirits, ghost-sightings, haunted houses they were afraid to inhabit, and certain rituals people engage into. For example, because some people are afraid of cemeteries, they make sure to wash their shoes if they happen to visit one in order to eliminate any sort of contamination. Rountree suggests that this ‘hyperconsciousness’ is resultant of ‘the pervasive influence of Catholicism in combination with deeply rooted popular beliefs, traditions and folklore’ (Rountree, 2010, p.113).
The Evil Eye: L-GÄajn, or the evil eye can be represented by different terms, like for example, ‘an envious stare’ or a ‘withering glance’. This kind of look in conjunction with a feeling of envy or admiration and a compliment, are bound to generate bad luck. Not only negative feelings such as anger or envy can cause harm to people but also praise and admiration that evoke evil spirits. In Malta as well as in some other countries like Morocco, when someone’s look is linked to praising words, it is believed that a curse will take place. Hence, to avoid cursing other people one must use the phrase Alla jbierek – God bless you.
Belief in the evil eye is widely spread in many countries, and in various cultures it is believed that the most susceptible to the influence of the evil eye are mothers and babies. In Malta many people attach children’s bad happenings and/or illnesses to the evil eye, even today. In Eastern countries to praise a baby is considered to be very dangerous and is regarded as an insult. After a baby yawns, it is common for Maltese people to make the sign of the cross on the baby’s mouth; this is to keep the evil eye from entering the little one’s body. In Greece, during childbirth, all mirrors would be removed from the room, because it was believed that the mother could curse herself (Zarb, 1998).
There are several things one can do to protect himself/herself from the evil eye, namely: make the sign of the cross or do the horn  – jagÄmlu l-qrun; perform a certain ritual called tbaÄÄir – that is, to undergo fumigation using olive leaves and branches blessed on a Palm Sunday; keep amulets of the horned fist or a single bright red horn; wear coral necklaces; have a niche around th
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