Superstition is powerful

6 01 2013

I recently finished reading the second book in the Farseer series and while reading it I discovered the true power of superstition.  I forgot to write earlier, but my roommate reminded me by mentioning her fear of black cats.

The series is about a child, bastard to the first born prince, becoming an assassin for his king.  It is simlar to Game of Thrones in that there are many political intrigues and it is set in a feudal era.  Anyway, in the story, the boy and his master assassin use superstition to their benefit.  And they do it so often, I began to see the potential power of it if used here and now.  A couple of examples from the book:

  • A treasonous person is said to spout boils on their tounge and in their mouth, so to be rid of liability the protagonist uses a poison which causes such boils.  The common folk accept as obvious that these boils are due to her treasonous tounge and she quickly loses what power she was building.
  • Someone is coming to power that is undesired, so the main character and his mentor set a number of ill omens around such as a snake in a fireplace, candles flickering blue, etc.

The most interesting thing to me is how quickly and easily people accept bad events after these ill omens.  In effect, the protagonist is able to perform certain actions completely undetected because of people’s willingness to accept them.  These thoughts on superstition reminded me of a quote.

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. – Seneca

Religion, whether true or false to you, is a powerful tool which can be wielded by those intelligent enough.  Just ask the suicide bombers, willing to sacrifice their lives and kill others at the will of their spiritual leaders (or god(s)).  But of course, your religion isn’t like that at all, is it?


A similar usage of an event which may have meaning is in A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) with the red star falling in the sky.  Every leader of a group of people attributes their own meaning to it, and it is easy for their people to accept it.  For the Starks it is the sign of a long winter to come.  For those around Daenery’s it is a symbol of her coming and the return of the dragons and magic.  For the southerner’s it is a symbol of the long summer they had.  In other words, each leader turns the event into what they want it to be, something which can be done with both superstition and religion.


The takeaway for me is to be aware of my superstitions and how they create a blindspot for me or waste my time.  A good example would be starting a car.  Older people are likely to run their cars a bit before starting off, because in the olden days of shitty engineering/manufacturing it was necessary to warm up cars.  Modern cars have no such need, so sitting in a car for a bit is just a waste of time (assuming you have a modern car).



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