Chapter 13: Introduction
Perhaps the oldest and most basic of human instincts is that of fear. Early humans experienced an array of bewildering hostility lurking all around them. In addition to predators from the animal kingdom who pursued them as prey, there were such frightening and unexplained natural phenomena as the rumbling terror of thunder and lightning, the glowing eyes of the stars in the night sky, and the deadly volcanic craters that shot fire into the air. Equally as terrifying as the physical threats of their world were the fiendish creatures that sprang from their imaginations, specters that could come to life from their own shadows on the walls of their caves or huts.
Out of these primitive fears and feelings of helplessness, certain beliefs and practices arose that helped to ease the terrors of existence. The experiences of those who had faced great dangers and lived to tell the tale were ritualized by others who listened carefully to such accounts and took note of what the survivors had worn, thought, said, or did to escape death. As the sharing of the survivors' stories spread, highly individualized personal rituals grew out of the methods by which these heroes had been able to ward off evil or the deadly attack of predators or human enemies. These personal rituals became the beginning of what is called superstition and evolved over time into systems of magic and religious practices.
As the belief in magic and superstition grew stronger, witches, wizards, and magicians were increasingly regarded with awe and great respect. Everyone, rich and poor alike, sought their counsel and advice, for it was believed that the magicians were in direct communication with the spirit world and were able to foretell the future. They could prevent storms or make the rain to fall in time of drought. They could pacify angry deities and thus save the people of the tribe or community from impending punishment.
Magical words and spells were created, and talismans, amulets, and good luck charms were invented.
In ancient times, the amulet or talisman was a charm intended to exert a magical influence upon evil spirits and frighten them away. In the twenty-first century, the good luck charm is intended to attract good rather than to repel evil. The transition has given rise to the custom of accepting certain objects and certain happenings as good luck omens. The word "luck" itself appears to have been derived from an old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning "to catch."
Magic practices were divided into two distinct kinds—black magic and white magic. Simply stated, the term "black magic" applied to all those practices that caused evil and harm to others, and the practices termed "white magic" were intended to counter the influences of black magic, achieving good instead of evil.
As human society continued to evolve into cities with a hierarchy of rulers, a class system of the citizenry, and respected priests to guide group worship of gods and goddesses, what had once been superstitions became formalized social customs and established religious practices. Identification with a particular nation and its borders continued to grow among the people. The more primitive forms of religions evolved into large and organized systems of faith. Distinctive and unique customs representative of specific religions or identified with ethnic groups became more firmly fixed in the mass consciousness. Because what is custom and what is taboo—forbidden or improper behavior—depends so much upon the individual's cultural, societal, and religious orientation, it is difficult to judge between what may be harmless conduct in one group and an act of evil intent in another.
This chapter will examine those universal social occasions of courtship, marriage, hospitality, and the respect of the dead that are practiced by all societies and religious institutions. The chapter concludes with a review of a number of so-called urban legends—those remarkable experiences that the storytellers always insist really happened to "a friend of a friend."