Thursday, January 27, 2011

Knock Wood

Working Stiffs welcomes back the super-fabulous Kelli Stanley! 

Knock Wood
I’m absolutely thrilled to kick off my new release celebration with my favorite bunch of working stiffs! Thank you all for having me over, and I only wish I could have brought an actual hostess gift rather than the virtual cheese dip on the coffee table.

I thought I’d talk about a subject that most people don’t talk about often enough, mainly because, well, they’re afraid it’ll bring bad luck.

We’re talking superstition, here. You know, knock wood, jinxes, ladders, black cats, and the rest of it. It’s kind of thematic—my next “Roman noir”, THE CURSE-MAKER, releases on February 1st , and, as you might expect, it deals with curses (and ghosts and necromancy and other cool stuff).

I’ve always been interested in why we perform the rituals we do, and way back in yesteryear when I was still getting my Master’s in Classics, I loved diving into studies of ancient cults and magic and … cursing. No, not that kind, though I had plenty of practice as a student.

Curses are an ancient form of bribery/magic, and their basic purpose—just like our knocking wood—is to control the unknown. In this case, through bribing a god or goddess or spirit to arrange things for you—whether it’s the horse in the third race or the sexy handyman down the street (that’s a plug for Derek, Jennie’s handyman in her Avery series—very handy and very sexy!) —we’re calling on supernatural aid to give us what we most desire or avert what we most fear.

Curses were almost always illegal in most places … but not in Aquae Sulis (Bath) in Roman Britain. Here, these lead tablets—they were usually lead tablets folded up and/or stabbed through with a nail in order to “fix” the spell, hence the Latin name defixiones—were legal and apparently sanctioned by the temple of the leading goddess herself.  Sulis was the reigning queen of the magic waters of Aquae Sulis (i.e. “Waters of Sulis”) which reputedly had magical powers of healing. See, Bath—before Jane Austen—was still a snooty spa town.

Sulis was the local Celtic goddess all right, but the Romans identified her with Minerva, so she’s usually referred to as “Sulis-Minerva” … though we don’t really know what she called herself. We don’t even know for sure if she was a she, because the only surviving relief sculpture from her temple clearly shows a bearded figure.

Anyway—she, he, or bearded lady—presided over a sacred spring of this healing water (which you can still experience today, by the way). The hopeful and the desperate would throw curses into the spring, and most had something to do with theft, i.e. “May the person who stole my bath slippers, be he man or woman, slave or free, be unable to use the bathroom and feel like his bowels are on fire until the slippers are returned.”

In other words, the curses, in a very unique and bizarre way, were a sort of social police network. They made victims of theft feel better, and—possibly—they may have worked. I mean, if you stole someone’s bath slippers, and you knew about this curse, wouldn’t you return them?

One of the curse-makers in THE CURSE-MAKER explains how and why it all works to Arcturus, my protagonist, but please don’t try it at home … these spells persisted in cultures for thousands of years, and, well ... color me superstitious.

Arcturus is there on a honeymoon of sorts, and immediately gets drafted into a murder investigation. One of the curse-makers is found floating in the Sacred Spring, and he’s not taking a bath. The thing is … this curse-maker’s curses had a reputation.

They came true.

I’ll leave you with that, and one quick question: what’s your own favorite superstition? Rabbit’s foot? Ladders? Or Knock wood?


Annette said...

Welcome back to Working Stiffs, Kelli!

My favorite superstition story has to do with my grandparents. I remember my grandma chiding my grandfather for washing his '57 Chevy pickup truck on a Sunday. That same week, something happened (I forget what...this was DECADES ago) that resulted in the pickup's back window being broken out. Grandma waggled her finger and tsk-tsked, "I told you so!" Grandpap never ever washed a car or truck on a Sunday ever again.

And my word verification just happens to be CARCAR. Is that an omen? ;-)

Joyce Tremel said...

Welcome back, Kelli!

Very interesting post. The new book sounds fabulous!

I'm really not superstitious. I don't have any lucky charms. (Not even the cereal.) The only thing I can think of that might be considered superstitious is something that carried over from my childhood--whenever you visit a new Catholic church you're supposed to make three wishes. I have no idea where that one came from, but I still do it!

Karen in Ohio said...

Waving at Joyce!!

Kelli, I'm glad to be reminded of your books; I've been meaning to look for them for ages. The subjects intrigue me, and I think will challenge the mind. Good luck with this new book.

I'm not especially superstitious, but I do knock, or touch, wood whenever I say something or hear something that, if it came true would bring a pox on our house. Or something like that. Sometimes it isn't so easy to find actual wood, so I knock twice on my own noggin.

Annette, CARCAR is an omen, for sure! FRUSTF is just silly.

Joyce Tremel said...

Waving back at Karen...

Ramona said...

I'm not superstitious, although I often talk about my voodoo dolls and how I use them, therapeutically.

I think the power of suggestion can be a powerful weapon. Whether or not you actually believe in the curse, you weigh the risk and...yep, I'd return the slippers.

Best of luck with the new book!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you, Annette!! It's always fabulous to get to hang out with you guys! :)

I LOVE the story--I can just picture your grandmother shaking her head. And it shows how closely intertwined religious practice and superstition can be ... the "no work on Sundays" and even Friday the 13th are examples!

Thanks for having me over, sweetie!! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks so much for being the perfect hostess, Joyce!! :)

And this three wishes idea is fascinating!! I've never heard anything like it (hay trucks, yes, Catholic churches, no), but it's really cool, and hey--I might give it a try!! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

LOL--I knock on my own head when I need to, so you're not alone, Karen!! :)

And thank you for the kind comments--I hope you enjoy THE CURSE-MAKER!!

Holly West said...

I'm not superstitious, but I'm very interested in the subject of curses and rituals and the ways humans appeal to God(s) for assistance, especially as it pertains to Vodun and other African religions. I'm also interested in the blending of Catholicism and African religion as it occurred in so many Western locations who imported slaves.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ramona, and I agree--our minds can be more powerful than science can explain!

But now, of course, I want to hear about your voodoo dolls!!! :)

Jennie Bentley said...

Welcome back, darling! As always a pleasure to see you! The Curse-Maker sounds awesome...

I'm not superstitious. At all. That said, I knock on wood, shudder when a black cat crosses the road in front of me, never walk under ladders, feel a thrill of horror if someone breaks a mirror or opens an umbrella inside... and on and on and on. It's not because I really believe that anything bad will happen, it's just habit, I guess.

Ramona's mention of the power of suggestion brought me in mind of my favorite Agatha Christie mystery, which also has to do with curses. The Pale Horse. Anyone else like that one?

Joyce Tremel said...

Bente, I once opened an umbrella in the house just to see what would happen. The only thing that did is my mother had a fit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kelli, The Curse-Maker sounds like a good one.

I remember my rather British mother-in-law-to-be commenting one Christmas as the kids gathered closely around the fire that they shouldn't get too close because their spines would melt. I laughed...but she was SERIOUS!

I suppose that falls into the "old wives tale" category.

I agree with Ramona about the power of suggestion-- What we truly believe (for better or worse) is often what happens...

Gina said...

Never let a rocking chair rock with no one sitting in it, or someone will die.

That said, I've always found the most effective curse to be wishing someone dead. It always works, although it may take 60 or 70 years . . .

Kelli Stanley said...

Holly, I took an art history course from a woman who specialized in exactly what you're talking about--Vodou and the blending of Afro-Caribbean culture with Catholicism. It's absolutely fascinating!! I learned a lot--Art History was one of my undergraduate degrees--and I particularly liked the cult of Mami Wata.
Can't wait until we can talk more about this!!! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Hi, Jennie, my sweet!! :) Thanks for letting me hang out with y'all!! :)

You bring up an interesting point. Is superstitious reaction an unconscious cultural habit? An irrational fear inculcated by societal exposure?

The fact that a lot of us react as you do--not actually embracing superstition, but at the very least hesitating before crossing a bad luck symbol--shows how powerful it can be ...

The one thing I never worry about, though, is a black cat. I refuse to associate any animal or living creature with bad luck.
Except for humans, of course ... :)

Kelli Stanley said...

And I forgot to mention--I like The Pale Horse!! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Hi, Sarah, and thanks!! :)

That whole "spine melting" thing is a bit scary ... I mean, I grew up with Bogey Man stories, but the threat of spine melting is a new (and fascinating) child-control method!! ;) Maybe it's a British thing.

I think Ramona hit the nail on the head, too ... if only we could fully harness the power of our minds!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Gina, that is one spooky superstition! Predicated on having a rocking chair in the house, of course, and also datable to whenever rocking chairs were invented. Cool!!

Of course, people who pay to put curses on others are always impatient ... so although nature will eventually take care of their ill wishes (and their own lives), they want control, and they want it now. Patience, as they say, is a virtue! :)

Ramona said...

Right now, my powerful mind is suggesting that all Working Stiffs and their friends become successful authors.

Make it happen!

Anonymous said...

Somewhere I read that black cats are GOOD luck in England. I LIKED that superstition as I have a sweet black cat.

I thought it weird that my maternal grandmother wouldn't let me watch my parents driving off into the sunset when leaving me for a summer vacation since she said it was bad luck to watch them literally driving out of your view. Never heard that from anyone else.

In re Sunday superstitions. The very relative who took me to have my hair done on a Sunday was the one who later said that the fact that that hairdresser TOTALLY RUINED my hair was Sunday luck. Didn't listen to HER hair advice again but had to wear a wig to recover from that round.

Our cat proved it is bad luck to stand under a ladder because you can turn it over.


Kelli Stanley said...

Brenda, thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing those great stories!! I've never heard of "Sunday luck", but that tradition sounds very intriguing ... and a definite ploy by said relative to get out of taking the blame for recommending the wrong hair stylist! ;)

My parents have a sweet black cat, too--Shadow. He's a darling! :)