What is a superstition?

What is a superstition?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about superstition with help from scholars Ülo Valk, Torunn Selberg, Alan Dundes, and others, discussing superstition in the context of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of books, and providing you with an exercise on the topic.

Folkloric Discussion of Superstition

Folkloric scholarship of superstition tends to proceed along two lines of inquiry. The first of these addresses an embedded power imbalance in everyday usage of the term to describe religious and supernatural beliefs. Ülo Valk explains this imbalance quite well when he writes that "The concept is still used as a rhetorical device of normative thinking that establishes boundaries between the so-called normal ingroup and deviant outgroup, the latter with its allegedly weird beliefs and habits. Superstitions are beliefs that are usually ascribed to the "others," who are viewed as lacking proper education and rational thinking, and tend to be socially marginalised" (2008, 21-22). Torunn Selberg unpacks the ways this sort of bias plays out in discussions about New Age and Neo-Pagan adherents, who are often labeled superstitious because of their tendency to construct beliefs and practices by borrowing from various folkloric, historical, and religious sources. Selberg writes that "This tendency to use religious ideas "freely," so to speak, is often discussed in critical interpretations of New Age philosophy in terms of their genuineness or spuriousness. This view implies that a religious tradition is coherent, that the scriptures, religious ideas and rituals together constitute a wholeness, and that if elements are separated they loose their authenticity" (2003, 303).

I like to think of these opinions about belief as three vectors of unidirectional movement. There is movement from inside to outside, where an ingroup holds a negative view of an outgroup's beliefs and labels them superstitions. Then there is movement from more people to fewer people, where a majority group exercises narrative power over a minority group by doing the same. Finally, there is movement from the old and stable to the new and dynamic, where the longevity and coherence of a belief mark it as either authentic or superstitious. In all cases, people do not usually label their own beliefs superstitions. Rather, they apply this label to the beliefs of others. With that in mind, folklorists don't use the word in a derogatory way at all. Instead, we study the elements of culture in play around beliefs of all kinds and the opinions people hold about them.

The second line of inquiry endeavours to define superstition without resorting to a discussion of opinions about belief. Alan Dundes does this when he writes that "Superstitions are traditional expressions of one or more conditions and one or more results with some of the conditions signs and others causes" (1961, 28). Let's unpack that definition a bit, shall we? Superstitions are traditional expressions. This means the beliefs that comprise them have their roots in culture. These traditional expressions have one or more conditions and one or more results, which are often phrased in if/then constructions. For example, if you wish upon a star, then your dream will come true. Finally, some of the conditions expressed in a superstition are signs like seeing a ring around the moon as an indicator of rain, while others are causes like walking under a ladder as a reason for bad luck (Dundes 1961, 28-31). This definition brings us closer to the idea of superstition as a belief that the natural and supernatural worlds talk to each other and that our observations and activities can play a part in that conversation to our benefit or detriment. Said differently, "Superstition is a way of managing irrationality in our world. Our feeling of powerlessness, whose result is fearfulness, is spellbound by the use of magical means, or is at least quieted by avoiding a potential danger by removing it (Jeggle, Dundes, and Hufford 2003, 82).

How Superstition Has Been Used in Fiction Writing

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is perhaps the perfect collection of books for a folkloric discussion about superstition. The heroine of the novels, Claire Randall, is a World War II combat nurse whose sensibilities about supernatural belief are correspondingly pragmatic. Upon passing through a magical portal at the fictional Craigh na Dun stone circle in Scotland, she travels back in time to the 18th century but retains her 20th century opinions about traditional Scottish belief in the supernatural. Gabaldon contrasts the two belief systems by writing in her primary character's first-person point of view, which allows us to side with Claire when they come into conflict. It makes for great storytelling, as in a scene halfway through the first novel when Claire and her companion Geilie find a sick baby exposed on a hilltop while gathering herbs. Horrified, Claire picks the baby up, her nursing instincts on full alert. Equally horrified, Geilie insists she put the baby down and flee before anyone sees them:

“It’s a changeling,” she said impatiently. “Leave it and come. Now!”

Dragging me with her, she dodged back into the undergrowth. Protesting, I followed her down the slope until we arrived, breathless and red faced, at the bottom, where I forced her to stop.

“What is this?” I demanded. “We can’t just abandon a sick child, out in the open like that. And what do you mean, it’s a changeling?”

“A changeling,” she said impatiently. “Surely you know what a changeling is? When the fairies steal a human child away, they leave one of their own in its place. You know it’s a changeling because it cries and fusses all the time and doesn’t thrive or grow.”

“Of course I know what it is,” I said. “But you don’t believe that nonsense, do you?”

She shot me a sudden strange look, full of wary suspicion. Then the lines of her face relaxed into their normal expression of half-amused cynicism.

“No, I don’t,” she admitted. “But the folk here do.” She glanced nervously up the slope, but no further sound came from the rocky notch. “The family will be somewhere near about. Let’s go.” (Gabaldon 2010, 361-363)

Here we have one of Dundes' conditional statements (when the fairies steal a human child away, they leave one of their own in its place), and we also have Claire's opinion of traditional Scottish belief in changelings. Later, when she discusses the incident with 18th century Scotsman and love interest Jamie Fraser, we can see the further formation of a skeptical ingroup when Jamie expresses specific, negative opinions about credulous outgroup belief. However, folklorists listening to the conversation would note that Jamie isn't exclusively a member of that skeptical ingroup. He's also a member of the local community and was raised with the beliefs he critiques, so he's not entirely willing to set them aside:

“Fairies, hm?” I was tired, and disturbed over the incident, but covered it with flippancy. “I’m not afraid of superstitions.” A thought struck me. “Do you believe in fairies, and changelings, and all that?”

He hesitated for a moment before answering.

“No. No, I dinna believe in such things, though damned if I’d care to sleep all night on a fairies’ hill, for a’ that. But I’m an educated man, Sassenach. I had a German tutor at Dougal’s house, a good one, who taught me Latin and Greek and such, and later when I went to France at eighteen—well, I studied history and philosophy and I saw that there was a good deal more to the world than the glens and the moors, and the waterhorses in the lochs. But these people…” He waved an arm, taking in the darkness behind us.

“They’ve ne’er been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born, except for a great thing like a clan Gathering, and that might happen twice in a lifetime. They live among the glens and the lochs, and they hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in kirk of a Sunday. That and the old stories.” (Gabaldon 2010, 361-363)

How Superstition Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

It might be helpful to remember here that we're exploring two different issues:

  1. Opinions one person or group holds about another person or group's supernatural beliefs, and
  2. A belief that the natural and supernatural worlds talk to each other in a way that can affect us personally.

As we've already seen, these issues are often related, which can make for great conflict in storytelling. One way to do this is the way Gabaldon does above, by crafting a scene where the majority of characters hold a supernatural belief, placing a human life on the line, and writing the "rational" character's response to the situation. I think we'd all agree that Claire's approach to saving a baby's life is the right one, but it's also important to remember that rational people can hold supernatural beliefs for legitimate reasons. Indeed, narrative scholar Diane Goldstein writes that "A characteristic feature of the memorate is its structured narrative exploration of evidence. In this sense, not only is the narrative reasoned and logical but it appears to be largely about reasoning and logic" (Goldstein 2007, 71). (Also see the "What is a memorate?" edition of this newsletter.) So there are situations in both life and storytelling where the supernatural belief is also the rational one.

This presents storytellers with a rich array of options for creating conflict between belief systems. We might world-build small supernatural beliefs into the cultures of our characters; a squad of fighter pilots kissing their planes before a battle in the belief it will cause the planes to fly true or a crew of sailors keeping a cat on the ship for good luck. We might write scenes in which a supernatural belief is labeled a superstition and proves to be irrational and incorrect, rational and correct, irrational but correct, or rational but incorrect. We might even write narrative situations in which a belief system is criticized by a majority group in order to marginalize a minority group or asserted by a minority group as an act of resistance. There's quite a bit of conflict-worthy material in this topic.

An Exercise in Writing with Superstition

This month, I want you to write a story scene. In it, take a supernatural belief you might label a superstition and portray it as an ingroup, majority, or old and stable belief. Portray your own, contrasting perspective as an outgroup, minority, or new and dynamic belief. See what narrative conflicts arise when you invert your own expectations. Best of luck!

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of charms.


  • Dundes, Alan. 1961. ‘Brown County Superstitions: The Structure of Superstition’. Midwest Folklore 11 (1): 25–56.
  • Gabaldon, Diana. 2010. Outlander. Kindle. Doubleday Canada.
  • Goldstein, Diane E. 2007. ‘Scientific Rationalism and Supernatural Experience Narratives’. In Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore, edited by Sylvia Grider, Jeannie Banks Thomas, and Diane E. Goldstein. Logan: Utah State University Press.
  • Jeggle, Utz, Alan Dundes, and David J. Hufford. 2003. ‘A Lost Track: On the Unconscious in Folklore / Response’. Journal of Folklore Research 40 (1): 73.
  • Valk, Ülo. 2008. ‘Superstition in Estonian Folklore: From Official Category to Vernacular Concept’. Folklore 119 (1): 14–28.

Monthly Folklore Meme Archive Link

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in January 2020.

My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com. #csmaccath #FolkloreAndFiction #Folklore #FolkloreThursday #Writing