Sinister Superstitions

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Barely two generations ago left-handed children were being forced to write with their right hands. Nowadays left-handedness usually only brings good-natured teasing and a difficulty with tools designed by their right-handed oppressors.

However, superstitions about all things lefty go back centuries and can be found in almost every language and culture.

Left in language

The Latin word sinestra, originally meaning left, took on an unfortunate meaning over time and is where we get the English word sinister. A similar pattern is apparent in other languages. For example, in Welsh chwith means left, but also “wrong”. The Swedish word for left – vänster - is related to the word for infidelity, whilst in Chinese the adjective, 左 which means “improper” also means, you guessed it, left.

Left in culture

The left side or left hand is often seen as evil or untrustworthy in religious traditions. Buddhism sees the left path as being the wrong way of life and the right path as being the right way to Nirvana.

The Bible mentions the right hand of the Lord as being special or just, although there are many more references to both right and left hands, where no bias is obvious.

In Islamic society it is seen as wrong to eat with the left hand, which historically was reserved for unclean bodily duties.

The World of Handedness website tells us that “Ancient Mayan and Aztec (Central/South America) rituals use the middle finger of the right hand to first tip into the soil then to the lips in order to bring protection and blessing.”

Tarot cards usually depict the personification of justice holding a sword with his right hand whilst the devil is left-handed.

In sailing, a boat on a starboard tack (with the boat’s right side to windward) has right of way over one on a port tack.

According to Anything Left-Handed, “The Meru people of Kenya believed that the left-hand of their holy man has such evil power that he had to keep it hidden for the safety of others.”

There are a few traditions which favour the left hand side as being lucky, but they’re far outweighed by those which consider it evil.

Possible origins

calliostoma_ligatum-smFrom the examples above it seems that bias against the left hand is widespread and either very old, or derived from some common factor amongst all people. One possibility for this suspicion or resentment may have been due to the surprising advantages left-handers have in combat. This is apparent in one-on-one sports such as boxing or fencing. I’ve also noticed – anecdotally – a larger than expected percentage of left-handers who are successful in racket sports.

So why should left-handers have an advantage in these situations? Well, as less than 10% of all people are left-handers, most people will be used to competing against right-handers. So a left-hander causes confusion by being unexpectedly stronger and more skilful on their left side. This only works whilst left-handers are a relatively small proportion of the population, if the balance was 50% left-handers, then there would be no advantage. Why the majority of people are right-handed is still open for debate. It may be a simple chance of evolution.

The effect is also apparent in the case of other animals, such as aquatic snails and crabs:

The overwhelming majority of snail species are right-handed — their shells coil clockwise. Dietl studied a species of snail that are lefties, and have shells that coil counter-clockwise.

The left-handed advantage is realized when snails interact with predators of opposite handedness. Some predatory crabs are “righties” — and have a specialized tooth on their right claw that acts like a can opener to crack and peel the snail shells.

So when faced with a “left-handed” shell the crab ends up looking like a left-handed human trying to cut straight with right-handed scissors. Being self-concious about their clumsy feeding the right-handed crabs will often give up, leaving the left handed snail feeling rather smug about its shell design.

I don’t know whether snails and crabs have any superstitions about left or right handedness, but humans certainly do. The suspicion of left-handers may have been because their success seemed somehow sneaky or underhand.

While there are some theories about differences in thought-processes between left and right handers, there’s no evidence I know of to justify the malign superstitions sometimes expressed against lefties. Although I’m right-handed myself, I’m thankful that these superstitions have for the most part been left behind.

Wild honey

Recently I caught a BBC documentary about pig farmer Jimmy Doherty’s visit to Nepal to gather honey with the local people using traditional methods in a highly risky situation.

As a ‘honey hunter’ Jimmy must scale a massive cliff to reach the home of more than two million bees and dangle 200 feet up to get their honey. If successful, the reward is not only to learn more about these amazing bees, but also to taste one of nature’s finest bounties, beautiful wild honey.

To make matters trickier, Jimmy doesn’t speak Nepali, and his hosts controlling the rope ladder from which he dangled didn’t speak any English. What’s more, these aren’t your friendly, common or garden honey bees. Due to the high altitudes in which they live, these bees are much larger. Jimmy’s medical advisers estimated that while he could get away with being stung a couple of times, more than seven stings would probably be fatal. The Nepalese protect themselves with simple smocks which leave the hands and feet exposed; Jimmy covered everything. Nevertheless, he somehow got stung three times.

The people who’ve gathered honey in this way for generations have built up a number of customs and superstitions around the practice. Some of these are quite sensible, like the rule that they always leave at least half the hives untouched, which ensures that plenty of colonies survive for the next year. Other pre-gathering rituals make less sense. They apparently take some time deciding when to make the climb and the decision hinges on such factors as the phase of the moon, the types of clouds observed and the condition of a newly-slaughtered sheep’s entrails.

Superstitions seem to arise most readily when there are many factors at least partly out of human control – although this video-clip shows at least one peril that could easily have been avoided. It’s not just the Nepalese honey hunters – most hunting cultures have pre-hunt good luck rituals. Historically sailors have also been quite superstitious, again perhaps due to the many risks of extended periods at sea and the capricious nature of the weather.

HMS BeagleIf you’re just rounding Cape Horn and the mother of all storms blows up, then even if you are incredibly rational and do everything right, it still might not save you. Hunting for food is vital to the survival of the group, but also a risky and unpredictable business. The prey might have moved on to more remote pastures or be in a particularly aggressive mood and injure members of the hunting party. Back in Nepal, I imagine that even today’s experts would still have trouble divining the moods of the bees or the stability the of the cliffs on which they nest. In all cases, there’s a factor that is out of human control.

To confuse things further, many superstitious beliefs mix readily with more useful ones. There are some pretty good reasons for not walking under a ladder that have nothing to do with the Holy Trinity or triangles and pyramids. In another example, there is a mariners’ rhyme which reads:

Trace in the sky a painters brush,
Then winds around you soon will rush

Long wispy cirrus clouds which can resemble a brush are indicative of a warm front approaching, bringing rain and wind. So there can be some truth to such folklore. Maybe the Nepalese honey hunters’ superstitions relating to clouds were also somewhat informative. However, it’s hard to imagine what genuine insights they could glean from a sheep’s intestine.

So in the face of situations beyond their control why do people resort to superstition?

It seems to me, with my armchair psychologist hat on, that us humans are especially uncomfortable when we don’t feel in control of our destiny. When in risky situations, with large elements of luck involved, we seem more likely to come up with superstitious rituals intended to protect us or predict the outcome. It might not help, but it makes us feel like we’re doing something when really nothing can be done. Put like that, it seems like a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and I guess it’s somewhat understandable that people in risky situations would get anxious.

So the answer seems to be “comfort”. Superstitious rituals that provide comfort are often harmless, unless they distract people from genuinely useful actions or make it harder for them to make the right decisions about the risks they’re taking.