Black Cats & Four-Leaf Clovers
Harry Oliver
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Buy *Black Cats & Four-Leaf Clovers: The Origins of Old Wives' Tales and Superstitions in Our Everyday Lives* by Harry Oliver online

Black Cats & Four-Leaf Clovers: The Origins of Old Wives' Tales and Superstitions in Our Everyday Lives
Harry Oliver
Perigee Trade
272 pages
September 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Do you cross your fingers for good luck, or knock on wood to prevent something bad from happening? Do you avoid crossing the paths of black cats, or wonder why it’s considered to be unlucky if you gift a knife to someone, and that person doesn’t reciprocate with a symbolic gift of money? Harry Oliver’s intriguing and informative book Black Cats & Four-Leaf Clovers answers these questions and more.

Harry Oliver’s latest is conveniently divided into sections dealing with several different categories of superstitions so that the reader can turn to the area of greatest interest more easily and quickly. The whole book is fun and informative to read, but if you have a burning desire to read about one superstition in particular, the sections do make it easier to locate the one you have in mind. There are 22 sections, or chapters, altogether, including Animals, Birth, Death, Numbers, Lucky and Unlucky, Gifts, Days of the Week and Predicting the Future.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its delving into the origins of many of the superstitions - to discover the original reasoning people had for making up the superstitions in the first place. For instance, crossing one’s fingers, according to the author, was “thought to be an attempt at conjuring up the protection of the Christian cross and Jesus Christ.” “Knock on wood” may have developed because of a belief “that speaking of one’s good fortune would anger the gods and tempt fate.” Or, it could represent “seeking protection of the wood of the cross.”

The explanation for the origins of some superstitions (if logical explanations for them ever existed) have been lost to the sands of time. One rather bizarre example: if a gambler “sees a hunchback on the way to the casino,” he “may be in for a winning streak.” However, “one who sees a woman should probably turn around and go home.”

Some people, especially seafaring men, have believed that a cat’s behavior foretells the weather. Some sailors believed “cats not only foretold but could even control the weather,” and the idea developed somehow that “Trapping a cat was said to raise a storm.”

Charles Darwin reported that his sailors believed someone on shore had trapped a cat under a tub, preventing them from setting sail.
Many people even in this day and age believe to some degree or other in superstitions. Even if you consider them to be without merit, not to mention foolish, you still may find yourself crossing your fingers or knocking on wood, or you might make up the excuse that you don’t walk under ladders not because it’s bad luck but that doing so is “potentially dangerous.” You might explain that the reason you have invited fourteen people instead of thirteen to supper has nothing to do with a belief that the number thirteen is unlucky, but because you want your dinners to be matched up, male/female, across from each other, so you need an even number of people to do that. Who do you think you’re kidding? It’s superstition, whether you want to admit it or not.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Douglas R. Cobb, 2010

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