In Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” which I consider to be his greatest accomplishment (for it is Twain as scholar, essayist, and social psychologist) he describes a crew of riverboat men who think they’re being followed by a floating barrel of supernatural origin:
“Everybody was sober and down in the mouth all day. I don’t mean the kind of sober that comes of leaving liquor alone—not that. They was quiet, but they all drunk more than usual—not together—but each man sidled off and took it private, by himself.”
Now a barrel is just a barrel and a virus is just what it is. The virus does’t care about your mood and while you can use war metaphors all you like it is not your enemy. This is why Donald Trump’s press conferences are so dreadful. Dr. Fauci recognizes the virus is just what it is and needs to be confronted with reason. Trump turns it into a figure of sinister foreign origins or a hoax or a political cudgel.
I carried around with me for years a tattered copy of the “Oxford Book of Superstitions” and I think I still have it somewhere. In Scotland it was believed as late as the 18th century that upon leaving the house if a man or woman met a blind person they would go blind UNLESS they went to the woods and located a tree with two trunks—a tree with a crotch filled with water. They had to gather that water and, as they say in cookbooks, put it aside. Then they had to find a black cat and burn it. Retrieve the water and mix it with the cat ash. Rub this fetid unguent in your eyes. The “Oxford Book of Superstitions” does not say where this apothecary and alchemical nonsense originated.
I hope you’re too wise for superstition. If you’re American I have my doubts of course. In general the great migrations of the late 19th century brought plenty of evil eyes and hats on the beds to the good old USA. My Finnish grandmother once shook hands with Richard Nixon and she didn’t wash her hand for a whole month. Imagine.
I’m guessing my good old Finnish grandmother thought Nixon’s handshake a harbinger of luck. She’d have been better off hanging a golden horseshoe above her door.
Did you know the Romans used to hang horseshoes above their doors to ward of plague?
Americans also like to “knock on wood” and cross their fingers.
My favorite widely believed contemporary superstition is “the itchy palm”:
There are many variations on this superstition. But the idea of having an itchy palm generally refers to someone who is greedy or has an insatiable desire for money.
In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Brutus says, “Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself are much condemned to have an itching palm.”
Some believe that if the right palm itches you will meet someone new, while an itchy left palm means that money is coming.
Others say that an itchy right palm means money coming in and a left-handed itch foretells money going out.
The superstition warns you not to scratch your palm unless you want to counteract the effect. The only way to scratch it without stopping the effect is to use lucky wood or brass.
The disabled are thought to bring bad luck and if you think I’m joking just look at the ableist narratives going around. Our lives are deemed in many quarters to be sacrificial.
One thought on “Of Floating Barrels in Virus Time”
Ha. In my experience, you bring good luck, or at least good reading and reasoning.