The time is January, 2006. The place is somewhere at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul.
The characters are any three soldiers of the United Nations. The going has been hard. Weary men are snatching a brief rest, taking time out for a smoke. "Light, fellow," says the American, "or are you superstitious about three-on-a-match?"
"Of course not," is the invariable answer, "but just the same, I'll light my own. No use in tempting fate, you know."
Three-on-a-match. Death to one of three. Here is superstition Number One in the world of war. For over a century, fighting men the world over have avoided three-on-a-match. And now, as superstition reborn of war fears reaches a new flood tide, three-on-a-match rises to the top of a wave sweeping through armies in action, the training camps, into the homes of men in service.
Why do superstitions always revive and flourish in difficult times? The answer can be found in the records of a student of superstition, an amazing French woman, Claudia de Lys, who has traveled the earth to track down strange beliefs hidden frequently in primitive tribal lore. Her rows of steel files carry data on more than 80,000 superstitions which she has cataloged to date, and each day as the millennium approaches sees these files growing and expanding.
To Claudia de Lys, the fifth horseman of Apocalypse is Superstitious Fear, and he is riding hard and fast again as emotions tense, as uncertainty of the future grips the people of the world.
Miss de Lys spent her 'teens and early twenties in the Far East, and she rates a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Calcutta, India. Her search for knowledge has carried her far off the beaten track, frequently into danger. After settling in New York, she has passed along the results of her findings.
"Fear," says Miss de Lys, "is the basis of all superstition - fear of the unknown, fear of disaster, fear of evil. Fear, always lurking in the mind of man, can become a habit, a bad habit. Superstitious beliefs are merely the outward expression of these fears."
"Superstitions have forged themselves into chains which impede our progress. They color our language, jeopardize the development of medical science, complicate human relations, retard education. All too frequently, superstitions acquire a practical or factual angle and so bed themselves even more deeply. Such is the case with three-on-a-match."
Three, Miss de Lys explains, has been a mystic number since the world was young. The miracle of birth fascinated the ancients. Each two became three. Three meant life, continuance of the line of life. In pagan Europe, when a chieftain died, all the fires of the tribe, except the chieftain's fire, were extinguished.
And as the godlike ruler lay in state, the medicine man, the witch doctor, the shaman, relit the tribal fires three at a time from the life-giving flame of the chieftain's fire.
As the centuries rolled along, this pagan custom was adopted by the Christian church. In Russia, during the early part of the 10th century, when Vladimir I introduced his people to Christianity, the death rites were performed in a church, and three candles were lit from one glowing taper, the idea being to light a departed spirit into eternity.
Candle lighting was a priestly prerogative which naturally became taboo for lesser mortals, and the taboo spread to the lighting of lamps, pipes, cigars, and finally, cigarettes.
The Russians passed along this belief to the British in the Crimea, and it finally became entrenched in the British mind during the Boer War, when thousands of Tommies fell victim to the deadly accuracy of the Boer marksmen. Three-on-a-match all too frequently spelled death to one of three, for the flashing light of a match at night made a perfect target for keen-eyed Boers shooting to kill.
From there it made it's way into the World Wars, and spread to many Allied Nations.
Three is not the only number playing a part in many of the superstitions which currently run rampant. In Friday the Thirteenth, an unlucky day avoided alike by workmen starting a new job and generals leading their men into battle, we find a blend of two numerical superstitions.
The day we call Friday was the seventh day according to the ancient lunar calendar, the lucky seventh. It was a day of no work, of worship, in short, a Sabbath day to early man. On this seventh day, primitive men and women carried offerings to the temples, and the temple pools were stocked with fish to feed the priests who served the gods. Ergo, fish on Friday, just one of the many ideas which Christianity borrowed from paganism.
For centuries Friday remained a good day, a holy day. But somewhere along in the Middle Ages, when the flame of man's intelligence flickered low, Friday got mixed up with the overwhelmingly evil number 13, and a good day became a bad day.
Thirteen has had an unsavory reputation ever since that misty eon when humans first learned to count. Using ten fingers and two feet, which were thought of as units, man arrived at twelve. Beyond lay the unknown, the unpredictable - 13.
Conversely, of course, there are those few who believe both Friday and 13 to be good luck, and this contrary attitude crops up again and again in relation to many other superstitions.
As the thunder of the end of the millennium rises to a crescendo, fortune tellers reap a rich harvest, soothsayers and experts in psychical research prey upon the weak in mind and spirit, to no end.
A particularly somber chapter in the endless book of superstitions is the chapter on jinxes. It has been reported that an untold number of accidents occur among, "accident-conditioned" workmen, workmen who believe that they are so jinxed, who are sure disaster awaits them. Tribal lore once again yields the basis for the jinx phobia, a superstition so strong, say Miss de Lys, that it produces fatal results, a fear so deep that the fear comes true.
In contrast to this grim note, many superstitious beliefs are rich in colorful and amusing detail. Take, for instance, the charming fantasies lying behind lucky pieces. Many people carry a lucky piece - a four leaf clover, a rabbit's foot, a coin with a hole punched in it, or perhaps something as esoteric as an elephant-hair charm.
The four-leaf clover is quite simply an earthly manifestation of the solar compass, which man discovered when he followed the sun from East to West, and drew two crude lines, a double cross to indicate directions. The Druids popularized the clover idea, and soon this rare little plant was endowed with magical powers.
The rabbit's foot talisman is of phallic origin.
Although few followers of this old-fashioned superstition realize it, most of the charms sold today are made from the bunny's front feet, whereas it is the left-hind foot of the hare, and only the left-hind foot, which engenders good luck.
The punched coin, a favorite of sailors, can be traced back to the days when early man ranging along the seashores found stones with holes in them. In his simplicity, he believed these to have been worn by sea-gods whose protection he, weak mortal, would acquire if he, in turn, wore the pebble.
England has always loved elephant-hair charms. Faith in these entertaining lucky pieces goes back at least three thousand years to a certain wily maharajah, who bestowed an elephant-hair charm upon a worthy and deserving peasant. To the maharajah's everlasting amazement and distress, the charm worked, and in a year the peasant returned, strong as an elephant, at the head of an army to oust his former ruler.
In the language of superstition, good can conquer evil, so for each bad luck superstition, there can be found an offsetting good luck superstition. Charms and mascots belong on the good side of the ledger. In this group we find many familiar and homely little customs, such as knocking on wood, crossing the fingers, or throwing a pinch of salt over our shoulders, even turning a hat back-side-to.
Servicemen, who are often staunch supporters of this turning-the-cap-around belief, realize little that they are carrying on an idea which found favor among the centurions and elegant nobles of ancient Rome.
No story of superstition is complete without some mention of mascots. There are three types of mascots - human mascots, talismans or charms, and animals, the latter beloved by sports teams and armies since history has been written.
When the soldiers of Rome tramped the roads of Gaul, pet mascots were popular. One of the legions of Vespasian boasted a mascot eagle, caught in the Austrian Alps, which had been trained to ride on the standard of the legion in place of the traditional golden eagle.
In ancient Egyptian paintings we find cats riding in war chariots. Statuary dug out of the ruins of Babylon shows trained lions and leopards, mascots of the Assyrian kings, charging into battle.
The vastness of superstitious belief is hard to comprehend. Even Miss de Lys, who has spent years in study and research, has only tapped the well. The 80,000 superstitions in her file sound like a lot until you stop to realize that in Ohio, where a directory of superstitions has been compiled, 10,000 state superstitions have been recorded.
The greatest mass of superstitious belief is concerned with life and death. These two physical laws which were, and are, the inescapables, so engrossed our prehistoric ancestors. Indeed, life and death, together with sex, a closely related theme, run like an undertone through the majority of superstitions.
A curiously accurate outline of history could be written in the fantastic phrases of superstition drawn from each age and each nation. But the real task that lies ahead is the debunking of these misbeliefs which cloud our thinking and confuse our emotions, a way of contributing to progress, to help make freedom from fear a reality.