Collection

Ministry of Apparitions

Writing about superstition by Matthew Sweeney, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Gaskill, Patricia Lockwood, Theodore Zeldin, Katherine Rundell, Peter Campbell, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Angela Carter, Ian Penman and Leslie Wilson.

Poem: ‘The Warning’

Matthew Sweeney, 22 November 2012

I had Coltrane playing from the hallway / and was humming along. The black cat / was poking and hissing at the white cat, / when a crow landed a couple of feet away.

Superstition is easier to accommodate in the body politic than religion. It is less divisive: no one ever went to war about what you should chant when you see a magpie, or was burned at the stake for denying the reality of the Loch Ness Monster.

Talismans were universal. Soldiers wore heart amulets, sprigs of heather, four-leafed clovers, rabbits’ feet, miniature horseshoes, pebbles with holes in them (traditionally a witch-repellent), as well as Catholic medals depicting saints, angels, Christ and the Virgin.

Diary: America is a baby

Patricia Lockwood, 3 December 2020

‘You’re not the only one,’ a friend assured me, and sent me screenshots of other people who couldn’t change their dresses or remove their ties until the official call came. At best, my superstitions were an attempt to stave off uncontrollable physical terror; at worst, I felt like I was giving the wrong answer to the ‘Do you think Margaret Thatcher had girl power?’ question a hundred times in a row. 

Stratagems of Ignorance

Theodore Zeldin, 5 January 1989

Superstition is one of the older religions of the Don’t Knows. For some, it may be a positive assertion of faith in supernatural forces, but for many it is a foggy compromise between knowledge and ignorance, an insurance policy that may or may not stop things going wrong, a part-time religion. It is a good way into the history of uncertainty.

Consider the Hedgehog

Katherine Rundell, 24 October 2019

The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1550 bce, suggested that an amulet in the shape of a hedgehog would stop hair thinning. Its skin and spines have been thought to help with toothache, kidney stones, diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, deafness, cystitis, leprosy, elephantiasis and impotence.

After the Deluge: How Rainbows Work

Peter Campbell, 25 April 2002

First the rainbow brought messages, later it demanded explanations. In the story of Noah it is God’s promise of an end to floods; in Greek mythology, Iris was both goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods. Then, once a scientific theory was called for, it proved far from easy to come up with a satisfactory one.  

Dolls, Demons and DNA: Bruno Latour

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 8 March 2012

A scientific fact, like a fetish doll, acquires potency in a framework – or ‘network’ – of specific ideas, habits, material apparatus and professional skills, and the potency of a fact (what we may call its truth or reality), like that of a religious fetish, cannot survive outside its framework. Gods and facts are not autonomous: they are constructed.

Potatoes and Point

Angela Carter, 22 May 1986

It was a godless vegetable. It wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. The Old Believers, who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1667, regarded potatoes, along with sugar and tobacco, as abominations. The Irish surrounded the planting and harvesting of their crops with ritual and superstition – with good cause, as it turned out.

Wham Bang, Teatime: Bowie

Ian Penman, 5 January 2017

The scene-setting picture of Bowie at home featured black candles and doodled ballpoint stars meant to ward off evil influences. Bowie revealed an enthusiasm for Aleister Crowley’s system of ceremonial magick that seemed to go beyond the standard, kitschy rock star flirtation with the ‘dark side’ into a genuine research project.

Diary: On Chinese Magic

Leslie Wilson, 12 May 1994

Trees must not be planted at the front of a house or they will keep chi out. (The front door is the entry point for good and bad alike, and is often protected by good luck papers or door gods.) A watercourse in front of the site is desirable, but only if the configuration is auspicious.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences