Monday, 7 July 2014

Mirror, Mirror

Seven Years of Bad Luck?

As I've noted on more than one occasion, living in a city like Paris has several advantages.  One of those advantages, af least in my opinion, is that it is easily possible to exist without an automobile.  We don't have a  car, and I think I've driven a car on only one occasion in 2014, when we took a trip to Normandy to visit Le Mont-Saint-Michel.

Daily travel on the RER is not, of course, all wine and roses.  There are strikes (last month, the intransigent rail workers' union was out for about 10 days, thrusting nearly all of France into chaos), delays (a catalogue of causes from "incidents avec voyageurs malades," "pannes des signaux," and my personal favourite "un voyageur sur les voies."), and the omipresent risk of an over-crowded rame in which some of the people neglected to hit the can of Right Guard.

But on the plus side, I am free for 40 minutes, and in this time, I like to read one of the 'free' mini-news sheets available in the stations.  I've written before about the random assortment of information that occupies the inside front page.  These past two days, I've learnt two fascinating facts about the origins of a couple of superstitions.

The first, printed last Friday, pertains to the question of why we consider a broken mirror brings seven years of bad luck.  It turns out, this belief goes back to the days of the Romans, who created the first glass and silver-backed mirrors 2000 years ago.  The Romans believed that these devices reflected more than just our faces - indeed, your soul itself could be captured within the reflexion.  If the mirror somehow was broken, it could thus be trapped in a world of chaos.

But why seven years?  The Romans believed that your life was broken up in seven year cycles (e.g., infance 0-7, youth 7-14, adolescence 14-21, etc.), and thus, your rehabilitation would necessarily await the next cycle of your soul.  Of course, that means that seven years is the upper limit on the time, so if you were forthunate enough to break the mirror weeks before your 21st birthday, the effects were minimal.

The second, revealed in this morning's paper, is the origin of the superstition about passing under a ladder.  I had always presumed that this arose largely from empirical observation, as indeed, virtually all of our superstitions do.  Walking under a ladder increases your chances of having something fall on your head (not the least of which is the man standing on it should you bump the ladder).  Anyone whose seen an episode of "Three's Company" can vouch for this.

But it turns out, this belief originates in the days of early Christianity.  For Christians, the number three is a common theme, deriving from the Nicean and Apostle's Creeds.  The existence of God according to the faith is the concurrence of three - Pater, Filium, and Spiritu Sanctu (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In the early days of the Church, there was an enormous and at times violent dispute about the relationship of the Holy Trinity, which the Niceans resolved in declaring the Trinity.

The Trinity is physically manifest in the form of a triangle.  If you visit any Catholic church (and many Protestant ones as well), the ceiling will have somewhere on it, an image of a triangle.  Typically, this will incorporate the elements of the Trinity, and in the centre, the word for "God" often will appear, either in Latin (Deus) or in Hebrew (יהוה) .

A Photo of the Transept of Our Church, St Philippe du Roule,
Showing Tetragrammaton

The triangle, appears on the back of a US one dollar bill, without the obvious religious elements.

Close-up of Tetragammatron, Highlighting
God at the Centre

Since the triangle ifself was seen to invoke the Holy Trinity, persons who passed beneath a ladder were seen to be acting against God.  This could be taken as overt evidence that the person was a witch or member of a Satanic (or worse, outright pagan) cult who rejected God.

Being seen as such in the middle ages would plainly bring "bad luck" to the offender.


Brian in Oxford said...

I believe the tetragrammaton is the four letters YHWH, rather than the visual tetrahedron you're suggesting.

DW Budd said...

The letters "D-E-U-S", Gordo.