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Seminar 1: Bridge #4 – Research Essay (Final)

How Important Are Turkish Superstitions to Turkish Culture and Are They Accepted by Women Specifically?

     According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, superstition is defined as a belief or practice that results from fear of the unknown. These notions become more respected and dependant during people’s most desperate and risky moments. Thus, superstition is more common for people who do not think that they, themselves, control their own lives. In Turkey today, especially in rural areas, certain superstitions and myths are still believed. Thus, it is very common for parents in Turkey to mention old superstitious beliefs to their children. Some of these superstitious beliefs are sought to be helpful for the benefit of individuals. Because of this, parents who want to care for their children often like to pass these beliefs on to help and protect their children from bad luck in order for them to have a healthy, prosperous and happy life. However, how do superstitions survive for this long in Turkey? According to folk historian Alec Gill, Eric Maple in Peter Haining’s book, “Superstition”, points out that there are “no absolutely new superstitions but only ancient ones … the advance of superstitions is through oral tradition”. Yet, even if there is no clear evidence about why people believe in them, why do people have the need for protection from a supernatural source? It could be that superstitious beliefs give people the comforting feeling of control over consequences that they believe to be above their capacity. This essay will look into the meaning of superstitions in Turkey and analyse their belief in terms of the society’s genderly faiths to conclude how these beliefs contribute to the lives of men and women.

     What is the meaning of superstition in Turkey? Like any other legends, the rise of stories and myths come from past folklore tales based on culture. For example, most Turkish folklore tales arose from the Ottoman Empire, where storytelling was a widespread form of amusement and enlightenment. However, according to writer Ilhan Basgoz, known for his works on Turkish folklore, folktales in 1912 were used as sources of inspiration for everyone, including children in order to create a  nationalistic atmosphere as this was a couple years before the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. These folklores were used as educational tools for nationalistic ideologies by “the founder of Turkish sociology”, Ziya Gokalp. According to Basgoz, the names of the folklore heroes were switched with the names of real legendary heroes of Turkish history, thus creating a muse for change. These are unforgettable tales as they are derived from Turkish past and are believed to be true stories, where it is assumed that unbelievable things have happened way back then. These stories are important emotionally as it is possible that other family members have also grown up hearing these different versions of these tales.

     Folklore tales involve the affix of imagination for exaggeration, thus as an end result, exciting stories transform into bizarre tales. Those previously told stories have evolved through oral tellers and eventually new interpretations and forms of the stories, such as lullabies, were created. Early Turkish myths rely on cultural poetry, music, dance and passing on these experiences in the form of speculations. They are mostly surrounded by the subjects of heroism and love, involving life lessons, where the main characters are usually given a supernatural gift, giving the tale a mystical speciality. The concluding life lessons usually involve certain objects in order to trigger specific emotions and personalities, such as greed (endless amounts of gold in a bowl) or heroism (courage). These folklore stories tend to be very popular and are read often for children when they are growing up. As part of my own experience, I remember when my grandmother used to tell some of these old tales in the form of bedtime stories. She would often tell tales from a popular shadow puppet show called “Karagoz and Hacivat,” where the two main characters are the complete opposites of each other, thus humoring the audience by always finding trouble together. As part of old folklore, the legend of “Dede Korkut” is a series of folktales representing Turkish nationalistic ideology of ethnic identity, history and value systems. The main character of these tales is known to have the ability of seeing the future in order to warn the people of the present. He is known as “the first teller of legends”. The oldest of these tales are assumed to arise from 16th century songs and true stories among the lives of Turkic people living in Anatolia and Azerbaijan.

     However, not all Turkish superstitions are in the form of tales. Other myths involve cultural objects such as the very popular evil eye bead, also known as the “nazar boncuk”. Even though there is no religious importance to it, it is assumed that the bead protects one from harm and bad luck, it is linked to the feeling of jealousy, expressing it through look, speech, touch and admiration. “The evil eye is an ancient tradition that survived millenniums in Anatolia … it is a very strong belief which is held in a very conservative way,” as told by glass expert, Torben Sode, at the School of Conservation in Copenhagen, Denmark. In my personal experience, I can’t remember a single moment without acknowledging the nazar bead. I was introduced to it from my family members in the form of jewellery presents, safety pins, book separators and even more. However, in terms of this essay, all I can think from my past is that only women in my family have been involved with teaching me the values of the nazar bead.

     Even though these tales and superstitions are popular and still mentioned today, could it be said that there is an important role in gender between all of this? I think that women are more involved with superstitious myths and magical tales mostly because of their need for safety at all times. According to a research by Caroline Watt and Richard Wiseman, it could be said that there are higher chances for women to believe in negative superstitions as they are more likely to fear things that are above their capacity. This research also suggests that superstitious beliefs could cause an immense need for control for women and men who are anxious in order to overcome their surrounding uncertainties.

     Nonetheless, do these beliefs change anything for the lives of believers? A study by Maria de Paola proves this idea through an experiment with 700 Italian students. In this study, 61 students took an exam sitting on an unlucky seat number, whereas 108 students took an exam sitting on a lucky seat number. The remaining students sat on neutral numbered seats. According to this study, men who sat on a lucky numbered seat were more confident about their grade after their exam, whereas women who sat on an unlucky numbered seat were less confident as a contrast. However the study concludes that the exam grades for both women and men were unaffected by the number of their seats. This study fits with the idea that gender is correlated with superstition as it impacted both women and men’s personal predictions for their exam result that where especially women were more fearful of negative aftermaths than men were.

     Regarding de Paola’s experiment, this could mean that there is a major difference between men and women in terms of their belief. According to a research on women’s issue by Afra Kavanagh, “Introduction to the Special Issue: Women in/and Storytelling,” all women who took part of the analysis affirm the link amid women and their storytelling. The research suggests that storytelling is a useful tool for women as a way of learning and healing. Superstitions tend to give a sense of protection, or in this case, become therapy for women. For example, Letty Pogrebin in her article, “Superstitious Minds”, mentions her personal experience where instead of storytelling, her mother would pass on the superstitions based on her own knowledge and experience. The author described her mother: “a Hungarian immigrant who started work during 8th grade”. She concluded her article by saying that her mother’s tough life experiences have drawn her more to become a believer of myths such as knocking on wood when speaking of fortune. Life experiences where difficulty is involved has caused her to put effort into controlling her fate as a remedy.

     In conclusion, it can be said that superstitious myths and folklore tales have an impact on Turkish people’s lives, especially their history. Superstitions and tales have been involved within their lives from centuries ago with emotional meanings attached to their personalities and family histories. These beliefs have been sources of nationalistic inspirations when it was needed before the creation of the Republic and getting rid of the Ottoman Empire. Not only have these legends been used as educational tools, they have also been used to create a sense of unity within the public and have become sentimental. These folklores however are also have caused a notion where people depend on these superstitions in order to feel emotional comfort when necessary. It gives people a sense of control over their unpredicted future, putting away the idea of danger and being controlled as a remedy. This sense is more common in women as they tend to think more pessimistically due to their feminine capacity of having control, thus they are more likely to believe in superstitions such as luck for example. Turkish mothers who are very protective of their children tend to pass on these superstitions in the form of oratures in order to keep the superstition and belief alive, as they wish a happy and safe life for their children.


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