Superstitions have dominated cultures and societies throughout history. They have shaped common practice, especially morals. At other times, they have gone so far as to instil a fear of the supernatural. But what is a superstition? By definition, it is a ‘notion or belief maintained despite evidence to the contrary.’ African folklore is not exempt from superstitions. From the monetary significance of not sweeping in the evening to the dismay of seeing an owl at night––these, and many other superstitions, still shape our perception and understanding of life.
African folklore is not exempt from superstitions. From the monetary significance of not sweeping in the evening to the dismay of seeing an owl at night.
However, due to the widespread reception of Western popular culture and increased access to information and technology, superstitious beliefs have gradually phased out in urban and semi-urban communities. Nonetheless, a good number of people in Africa still cling to superstitions.
Superstition and Storytelling
Storytelling has uniquely characterised the African cultural landscape as an inter-generational vehicle of values and morals. Naturally, superstitions have entrenched themselves within these stories in such a way that the morals from the stories and the fear of superstitious objects and events are perceived similarly.
The Western system of education has slowly erased the storytelling component of the African education curriculums. Learning has become an activity for the school. So, storytelling has been gradually relegated to a leisurely pursuit. As a result, many stories have been lost in time and several moral lessons along with them. Yet for many religious Africans, what we refer to as superstition is the backbone of their belief system and cultural practices.
What Does Seeing an Owl Really Mean?
Today, in Uganda, seeing an owl is a sign of death. It is associated with darkness, just like it was to the ancient Christians. Yet for the ancient Greeks, owls were associated with wisdom and prophecy. The ancient Welsh identified owls with fertility. Can we say that all are right regarding the significance of owls to humanity?
A Christian friend of mine believes there is truth to superstitions. That indeed, owls come with death, or darkness, like ancient Christians believed. I often wonder whether this friend believes in the authority of Scripture. For in it God says, “we do not know what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14). Furthermore, and a little oddly too, Paul declares death to be gain (Philippians 1:21).
Manmade ‘Truth’ Cannot be Trusted
Man attaches meanings to things for personal reasons, and then claims they are for societal betterment. This does not necessarily mean that they are true, even if a particular individual takes them to be. The same goes for superstitions. Unfortunately, the word of man is often blindly believed and trusted. And in doing this we forsake the warning, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3). The consequences of putting our trust in man or “mere flesh” are calamitous (Jeremiah 17:5-6).
Man changes. Thus he cannot be the standard of truth
Man changes. Thus he cannot be the standard of truth. To him, something might be true today and false tomorrow. Man is depraved and corrupt. Therefore it is no surprise that Scripture says, “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). God alone is the standard of truth. His Word, Jesus Christ, is truth itself (John 8:32). Trusting in this truth sets us free (John 8:36). If God is the standard of truth, then we must ask what he says about owls, cats and death.
Thinking as a Christian about Superstition
I told my friend that it is okay to dislike owls. However, to dislike them out of the fear that they are harbingers of death is not okay. It is in fact false. An owl is a creature just like my friend. Neither know when their time is due (Ecclesiastes 9:12). James asks, “What is your life?” (James 4:14). He then ponders, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Owls do not control the events of our world; Christ our Lord ultimately does (Revelation 22:13).
Now, God is not a superstition. He is a God who is, and has, revealed himself through the Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2). He makes himself known through Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). He is the Creator of everything – so, what he says about his creation matters. Creatures exist to display God’s glory, not their own. Everything exists for his sake, not its own.
Owls do not control the events of our world; Christ our Lord ultimately does.
As a Christian, your thought process must not be isolated from your worldview; these are inextricably linked. From your thought process one can get to know whether you’re a Christian, or a traditionalist. Thus, the Christian should not wander like wind turning away from the truth to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
But What if Everyone Else Believes the Signs?
Scripture is sufficient. Paul cautions us against worldly philosophies which are dependent on human traditions rather than Christ (Colossians 2:8). Elsewhere, Paul reminds us, we should not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). A culture that is dissipated cannot set standards for what is true. An unchanging God must be the standard of truth in a changing world.
Truth remains paramount despite our thoughts, perceptions and prejudices. As such, rats do not own banks because they do not need money. They need food. Owls are nocturnal, like bats and they hunt prey in the night. They do not announce death. Superstitions lead to sprawling mysticism. This will in turn downplay biblical truth and God’s sovereignty. Superstitions are born of human experience, which is largely subjective and therefore cannot be considered the full measure of truth. God and his Word, Christ, are unadulterated truth. In light of that, superstitions, as a subjective by-product of human encounters, pale in comparison.
In Christ, We Are Set Free
If believed, superstitions foster fear, tortured minds, and restless hearts. They contradict God’s redemptive narrative (Isaiah 43:1; 53:1-12; 1 John 4:18). Superstitions tap into a heart thirsty for absolute truth. Therefore, discernment is key; more so among the saved. As Christians, we ought to put our trust and hope in God as we trail uncertain times (Psalm 20:7; 56:3; 62:8; Isaiah 26:4). Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
Superstitions tap into a heart thirsty for absolute truth.
I pray that God sets our minds free from superstitions and helps us understand him. For it is only through the Lord that we truly perceive the world. As Christians, Christ is the only way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Everyone on the side of truth listens to his clear voice (John 18:37).