Death Omens

Tonight and earlier this week at around 9:00PM I have heard “Taps” being played by the bugle here in Thailand. When I hear that song, I associate with death and the American Civil War (as it was apparently composed by Dan Butterfield, a Union general officer in that war). Now, I happen to live very close to a military base in Thailand. Right across the highway from my little village is a military base for the 5th Special Regiment of the Thai Army. I don’t know entirely what a “special regiment” does in the Thai army and a part of me doesn’t really want to know too many details either.

One of the occupational hazard of living near the base is hearing a lot of high caliber gunfire. I must admit I find the fire of artillery shells without warning to be rather alarming, and I wonder how close to the village the guns are being shot at. It rather reminds me also of the guns that used to fire when I was in Ghana for the local defense force that were often fired early in the morning to warn would-be thieves that the neighborhood was armed to the gills. If you know the neighborhood you are thinking of robbing has a howitzer, it rather deters you from the effort. At least that was the theory, and it seemed to work rather well. I’m not sure why the Thai military feels the need to fire guns late at night nearby, though it seems to be a common occurrence.

At any rate, I consider the sound of weapons going off and the bugle calls of taps (for whatever reason they are being called) to be death omens. I’m not exactly sure for whom the bugle calls, but such preparations and planning suggest either that someone’s death is being prepared for or being commemorated. I’m just not sure either because good information in English is so hard to find, and because I’m not really sure who to ask about that kind of information, given the people around here don’t seem very curious about such matters.

I’m not a very superstitious person by nature, so the things I consider death omens are songs and actions associated very closely with death. This is not always the case. During the Middle Ages, for example, a society where death was very uncertain, death omens were much more common. Haley’s comet, for example, was a very common death omen and even royal deaths a year or more afterward were attributed to the malign effects of comets. I suppose it was the tails of comets, like the trails that follow airplanes, that were thought to be malign and dangerous. Too bad no one had thought of the idea of putting vinegar in the sky to get rid of the evil chemicals from such comets [1]. Then they might have felt a little safer at least.

Nor was this the only death omen. One of the more intriguing death omens is that if there were thirteen people sitting at a table, the first one to get up would be the first to die. I happened to first hear of this omen from Harry Potter (where it is actually a fairly reliable death omen, given J.K. Rowling’s great interest in Medieval superstitions, as an author who has done perhaps a bit too much research into witchraft), and then had it confirmed as a genuine historical superstition in A World Lit Only By Fire [2]. Such a superstition could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, unfortunately.

We have not advanced all that much in the past few hundred years. As human beings we are far too prone to be slapdash and neglect the important details of keeping disease away and far too quick to consider the wrong qualities as contagious. We are no better than our ancestors, and this is even without considering such matters as auspicious and inauspicious days in Chinese and Chinese-influenced cultures, which add further layers to the superstition (as a note, it was Greek superstition against the number seven that led them to be hostile to the biblical Sabbath, according to some researchers [3]).

Superstitions still endure in society, and those areas of competitive endeavor that are the most uncertain (like sports) are home to some of the most silly superstitions. Some athletes wear “lucky socks” or engage in very specific free-throw shooting rituals or promise not to cut their hair until their team loses. The importance of these superstitions is to bolster the confidence of people engaged in very uncertain activities where success is deeply uncertain. Not surprisingly, many of the salespeople I know are pretty deeply superstitious for the same reasons, with rituals about touching bells and engaging in certain ritual behavior (like smoking) to boost their confidence in the face of deeply uncertain environments. As long as they feel better, they perform better, or so the theory goes.

It is no surprise that our superstitions are aspects of ‘magical thinking’ that seek to ensure a positive result (sales, a good game) or avoid a very negative result (like death). As a result we should find that as risk and uncertainty increase in a job, or in life, that superstitions increase because we would rather engage in behavior that makes no rational sense (like trying to get rid of chemtrails several miles in the air with vinegar) than to accept what we fear openly and honestly. And so our age, just as any other age, has its paranoia, its witch hunts, its superstitions. We are no better than our fathers, as much as we would like it to be so and as much as we pretend to ourselves that we are rational as opposed to the past.

[1] No. This is not a joke. There are actually plenty of people who believe that the trails from planes are unsafe chemicals and put vinegar in the air to drive them away. Seriously:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Death Omens

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