Superstition is woven into nearly every aspect of life. There are also many superstitions related to clocks, time, sleep and waking. Sleep, waking and dreams receive more attention than timepieces in the media and popular culture; there are even books available to interpret dreams. These books are full of different suggested superstitious meanings related to different events or objects in dreams. One interesting suggestion is that dreaming about a clock signifies an upcoming journey. Is there some truth to these time-related superstitions? This post on the OnlineClock.net Blog will attempt to separate some of the facts from fiction on these topics.
There is a lot of buzz on the internet about an old tradition of putting a small cap full of kerosene in a clock. Some people claim it keeps the clock in good working order by evaporating; others claim it helps keep termites out of a wood clock or that is is just “good luck.” Having a clock that slowly becomes saturated in kerosene definitely doesn’t sound like an object of luck – it sounds more like a potential fire hazard, especially if it were kept above a fireplace on a mantel. In an aeronautics and mechanical engineering study about kerosene and cook-stoves performed at the California Institute of Technology, researchers reported that kerosene evaporates slowly.
If this is true, it means that using a small cap filled with kerosene in the back of a clock will ultimately only leave an oily residue on all the gears, especially if the encasement is closed tightly. Micheal Gainey is an expert clock repairman certified by the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. He provides answers to some of the most popular clock myths and superstitions, including this one. His answer reflects that of science; evaporated kerosene will only collect on the gears and speed up damage to them by contributing to particle and dust collection. He also makes another good point – not all parts of a clock are supposed to be oiled. Only certain mechanisms and gears receive oil, which is a very precise process. The people who started this tradition in past centuries had the right basic idea, but it was simply misguided and passed down through generations.
Another popular superstition is that turning the hands back on the clock is bad luck. Perhaps this one was based on some truth at its origination. Older clocks made in the past two centuries often had a striking mechanism. Chiming, grandfather and cuckoo clocks all had this; when hands were turned backward, the striking mechanism could be damaged or off-set. Micheal Gainey points out that clock hands can be turned backward today. After clock-makers realized that people would try to turn clocks backward, especially when Daylight Savings Time was used, they added a mechanism that makes it safe to turn the hands backward. He states that almost 95% of clocks made in the past 60-70 years have this beneficial feature. Perhaps the original warning to avoid turning the hands back on a clock later evolved into a mysterious superstition.
There are plenty of other superstitious sayings related to clocks. “Don’t watch the clock all day or you’ll go crazy.” “If you watch the clock constantly, time will pass slower.” In a previous blog, we discussed this phenomenon of feeling as if time is passing slower during boring times and faster during enjoyable times. Here’s one from the early days of clocks – “If you don’t stop the clock in a room someone dies in, you’ll have bad luck.” There are several movies reflective of those days that depict this superstition; after someone dies, the camera pans to another person in the room who stops the clock. One interesting superstition that originated in the early days of clocks states that if a clock that hasn’t been chiming and suddenly chimes, a death in the family will happen soon. An old text originally written by Rev. Samuel Watson in 1813 and published online by the University of Michigan’s Library recalls some bizarre clock events related to this superstition.
The first example the author gives refers to a friend who returned home, fell ill, walked into a room and heard an old clock strike once. He thought it odd when it happened again the second day, then told his wife he thought he might die. Three days later, he did die. The next example refers to a woman who was taken ill in Georgia. As she lay in bed dying, the clock struck one; she died the next day. A third example references a little boy who became ill, the clock struck one and he died the next day. This does seem eerie, but keep in mind that each of these people had fallen ill before dying and before the clock struck one. It is also important to remember that during those days, people didn’t sit around the house and may not have been home on days when family members were all well. Perhaps the clocks were chiming while they were outside doing chores or away working – or perhaps they were so busy doing chores in the house, they didn’t notice previous random chimes from a malfunctioning clock.
Waking and sleep have many superstitious ties. Some of these superstitions vary from one culture to the next, as well as one generation to the next.
There is a common universal superstition that it is best to sleep with the feet pointing toward the door; in the case of death during the night, this will allow the soul to “easily walk out.” The Horticulture Department at Purdue published an informative article about tamarind trees; at the end, it is stated that there is a superstition indicating that falling asleep below one of these trees is bad luck. Plants don’t survive well below them either, which added incentive to the superstition.
These two ideas probably originated years before scientific research was done to show that the leaves have a corrosive effect where they land, especially when wet. This would likely cause skin irritation, which wasn’t well-researched in early days. It would also hinder plant growth. According to a detailed list of folklore and cultural superstitions published by the University of Pittsburgh, an old German superstition states that on the night of Christmas Eve, all single girls awake between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. If they want to know who their future husband will be, they must go into the kitchen, stick their head in a kettle and watch the bubbles. It was also believed that those who spun on Saturday nights – this refers to the outdated act of spinning wool – would die in their sleep.
Some of these superstitions are clearly outdated, but there must have been some truth perceived to be connected to them, otherwise they wouldn’t exist.
So, if superstitions are not proven facts, how do they remain so long and get passed down through generations?
In an article from Santa Rosa College titled “Superstition and Pseudoscience,” it is noted that many superstitions are based on a small bit of evidence or fact. However, they mostly stem from ignorance and fear of the unknown. The author suggests that superstitions may be developed to help give the person who is fearful a sense of control over the uncontrollable. Superstition is so common and extensive in some cultures that it can be considered a pseudoscience.
A pseudoscience is an entire belief system that is based on superstitions and other beliefs that are not backed by science. One popular example of a pseudoscience is astrology. The article from Santa Rosa College suggests that people are drawn to pseudoscience because it offers explanations for the unknown. Although they’re not based on facts, they do provide psychological comfort for the person who believes them.
Perhaps these Online Clock-related superstitions are not something to live by, but rather a perfect example of just how important time, clocks and sleep are in our lives.
Our lives are so dependent both on clocks and sleep that it seems to be a logical answer as to why they are also the subjects of countless superstitions!