On superstition – part II

20 09 2010

“Your grandmother was superstitious,” my mother told me when describing my paternal grandmother’s veneration of la Santa Muerte. “She said that if she prayed to her, she wouldn’t come to take her in the night.”

This from my mother, who could seamlessly weave faith and folklore, old wisdom and wives’ tales into her exhortations to close the door when I left the house or not put too much salt in my food. Even my mother has standards, even when it seems that I don’t.

Perhaps this was the reason why my mother would only reluctantly tell us how things could really be like back on el rancho in Mexico. It was at a birthday dinner that AG and I took her out for (my mother is out of her element in any restaurant that doesn’t serve hamburgers) that she first told me about the remedies for el mal de ojo, or evil eye. I had known such things existed, of course, as my closest cousin was “cleansed” by his grandmother of the fright sickness. This type of stuff was just background noise for a pocho kid growing up in rural central California. By the sheepish way that my mother recounted this particular story, she probably already heard the “half way catechized” Catholic naysayers telling her that this was just superstition. “Here, have another scapular.”

The fact is, my mother’s side of the family is actually pretty “institutionally Catholic”, in spite of their charismatic preferences. My mother and great-grandmother were at times members of the Legion of Mary, and I hung around it quite a bit. There is no inkling of any sort of folk saint crawling around my grandmother’s house, but that probably would not ameliorate the doubts of the good American Catholic seeing trinkets from various shrines in Mexico (Guadalupe, Plateros, San Juan de los Lagos) hanging all over the place. As for the egg cleansings and other marginal rituals, that is just how people cured back then. And even though strange objects were involved (eggs, alum stones, dirty rags), all you were doing was saying your prayers. Now, you take the baby to the doctor. Hey, whatever works.

All of this would make me think that Mexicans and other Latin Americans are just exceptionally superstitious, if my Louisiana Creole in-laws weren’t so similar. Here in Louisiana, there are many “superstitions” regarding fending off storms and flooding. I overheard my mother-in-law and one of her sisters talk about how they used to put statues in the window to protect the house during a storm. AG could tell you about how her maternal grandmother would make them go down on their knees and say a rosary every time it would start thundering. And as for the “miraculous cures”, one of AG’s great-grandfathers was a traiteur, just as I suspect one of my great-grandmothers was a curandera: a local faith healer who used prayers to cure various illnesses.

Even in Catholic Louisiana, however, there was an occult side to such a folk Catholicism. There was of course the gris-gris and various types of spells associated with African American Hoodoo. Some of the men in AG’s family have had strange experiences with the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and one relative even used to wear pages of it on his person to defend himself from knife wounds.

So for the interest of full disclosure, I will come out and say that I am one of the most incredulous people that I know. On the surface, I am very resistant to believe anything, even what I am “supposed” to believe. Sure, I can believe that a Jewish carpenter rose from the dead and is the Son of God, or that His mother was assumed into Heaven, and so on. But to believe that a bunch of men in Rome work the world of the supernatural like strings on a marionette… that is a hard one to swallow. You mean that one institution run by inept sociopaths somehow can just pop out the answers for all questions in Heaven and on earth like a mental Pez dispenser? Makes me want to reach for an egg and rub it on a baby’s head to rid her of colic.

Maybe then I am not the best person to ask the question: “But when is it superstition?” Maybe at one point in my life, I could come up with a good answer. But after taking a good, hard look at my ancestral religion, I would not be able to tell you. Maybe those who have passed through the cathartic experience of having generations of family living in secular modernity could cough up a convincing definition. Maybe superstition is just expecting the divine to put out like a school cafeteria vending machine. But that is never what the above practices were about, at least in my experience.

There are two metaphysical premises that are completely alien to modern people: “as above, so below”, and “omnia in omnibus modo suo”. Both are the premises behind what modern occultists would call, “sympathetic magic”. In this philosophy, all things relate to each other and move each other to certain courses of action. The universe can be conceived of as a living thing (anima mundi), and through symbolic (theurgic?) action, one could draw on its power to create a desired effect. In Catholic societies, sympathetic magic was inevitably attached to Catholic prayers (since the Christian God created the heavens and the earth), though cosmic symbolism was still employed (eggs, crossroads, branches, the moon, etc.)

How does one disentangle such a philosophy from superstition (presuming that it isn’t superstition itself)? One doesn’t, or at least, one cannot on a systematic basis. Superstition, then, is a lot like pornography: you know it when you see it. Rubbing a kid with an egg to get rid of fright sickness? Hey, is it any less moral than popping in a pill to mess with the chemicals in the brain to calm him down? Light a “Win the Lottery” candle to, well, win the lottery? Honestly, how stupid can you be? Those who would then pose the “but what IS superstition?” are being borderline facetious. You already know the answer, so what is your ulterior motive for asking the question?

Really, though, I am from the “I don’t believe in that shit” rite of Catholicism. I can be a true agnostic when it comes to the supernatural. But I don’t think that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Roman Church has complete and absolute dominion over every benevolent preternatural phenomenon that takes place on earth and in heaven, and it certainly doesn’t have a catalogue that encompasses all of them. So stop trying to browbeat me with stupid points that I don’t agree with. I will address these phenomena in my life on a case by case basis. As for my grandmother’s Santa Muerte, I do believe that it is possible that there is an angel (deva, orisha, lwa, daemon, jinn, etc.) of death, and that praying to him/her/it may not be sinful. So no, not superstition. Next?

(Above: Don Juan de la Lotería, just another friendly neighborhood spirit from the Venezuelan cult of Maria Lionza.

And no, I don’t believe in that shit either)


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