October 20, 2004

Superstition in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain uses various examples of superstition in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the following presentation I will state examples of superstition from the novel, attempt to state the origin, and explain why I feel the superstition was relevant in the meaning of the novel.

The following definition of superstition is from the Webster online dictionary:

n. 1. An excessive reverence for, or fear of, that which is unknown or mysterious.
Superstition is a set of behaviors that may be faith based, or related to magical thinking, whereby the practitioner believes that the future, or the outcome of certain events, can be influenced by certain of his or her behaviors. An example is the belief that it is bad luck to wear gold and silver together.
Critics argue that superstition is not based on reason, but instead springs from religious feelings that are misdirected or unenlightened, which leads in some cases to rigor in religious opinions or practice, and in other cases to belief in extraordinary events or in charms, omens, and prognostications. Many superstitions can be prompted by misunderstandings of causality or statistics.

The following excerpt was taken from a website discussing author Mildred Haun’s take on superstition in her novel “Melungeon Colored”.

Often people do not think of superstitions as customs or an individual's way of life, but they are, as vividly portrayed by Mildred Haun in "Melungeon Colored". The true origin of superstition was found in early man's effort to explain nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate fate and invite fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and attempt to pry into the future.

The "Melungeons" are a group of dark-skinned people of mixed ethnic heritage. Although the term is most commonly applied to those of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia, it also refers to many other mixed-ancestry populations

The element of superstition the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is related to the concepts of hope and fear. Jim is a slave of the south with no formal schooling. Naturally, a person has to have hope. Hope makes one wake up in the morning and move through life with a little more ease. Creating or following superstitions is a hope that good things will come in the future, especially if Jim feels that his present lifestyle is not good. He hopes that one day he will be free. Huckleberry Finn also needs Hope. Miss Watson tries to instill religion in Huck, but he sticks to what he knows of and lives life through his ways of luck and superstition. Fear is another influence on the two. They are both running scared. They are running from the empty lives they were living. Jim fears he will be caught and be sold from his previous residence to New Orleans. He knows Miss Watson treats him pretty well and fears he we will be treated worse elsewhere. Huck fears his selfish, alcoholic father who only wants him for his money. If he got caught he would either have to live with his father or back with the widow and Miss Watson whose lifestyles were completely different than what he was accustomed to.

Example #1
Superstition of Snakes
The poisonous snake on Navajo land was a real threat to Navajos and their livestock. The snake is also a symbol of the lightning people and brings rain to the dry land. While the only significant venomous snakes present are the rattlesnakes, all snakes are avoided. Snakes are seen in Navajo sand paintings and other artworks.
Do not touch a snake because it has nothing and you will have nothing.

In chapter X, Jim and Huck are discussing how Jim says that it is bad luck to touch a snakeskin with your hands. Huck doesn’t believe him because they found money in an overcoat they took from a house that was tilted on its side from the flood. Jim tells Huck that it’s coming to him. Then, Huck plays a prank on Jim and curls a dead snake up and puts it by Jim’s feet while he is sleeping. The snake’s mate comes and bites Jim. This gives the two reason to believe the superstition. They believe that Jim getting bitten by the snake was a result of Huck touching the snakeskin. Why wouldn’t you believe this? Because of the events, it seems that this is cause and effect.

Example #2
Spilling the Salt
The Ancient Greeks believed that salt was sacred and a repository of life itself because of its preservative qualities, and consequently used it in their sacrificial cakes and preparations. They also believed it to be a symbol of friendship, and if any was spilled it was an omen of the end of a friendship. Among some peoples it was the custom to pay workers in amounts of salt, hence our modern word salary, from salarium. Later beliefs had it that evil spirits dwelt on the left-hand side of the body and so began the custom of throwing spilt salt over your left shoulder (and into their eyes).

In chapter IV Huck talks about spilling the salt at breakfast. He tries to throw it over his shoulder to “keep off the bad luck” but Miss Watson is there and won’t let him. He states that Miss Watson put in a good word for him. Considering Miss Watson is a religious woman, I assume this means she will pray for him. She may have made this statement to sway Huck’s opinion from beliefs of superstition to her preference, which is religion. However, Huck’s spirits are lowered and he is on the watch out for his bad luck all day. Huck’s negative feelings are prominent because he is not happy with his living situation. He tries not to do things that will give him bad luck, and if he does, he has a ritual (throwing the salt over his left shoulder) that is supposed to cancel out the bad omen. Ultimately, he hopes for a good luck omen so that things will get better. This shows the difference between Huck and Miss Watson’s beliefs. Huck has not learned anything about religion, only the little she has taught him, so he bases his knowledge on things that he has heard from other people and along his travels.
The superstitions that are believed by Huck and Jim represent their lives and the negativity in them. They constantly live in fear that their lives will continue on the negative path they have been following. They may believe their lives are destined to be of ill fate and they have to follow certain rituals to make them better. Bad things that happen prove in their minds that the superstitions are true. Therefore they continue to believe. They can only hope for omens of good luck and continue to carry out their rituals in order to stay alive and well.

Posted by JenniferHaun at October 20, 2004 12:24 PM


I believe that there is a lot of superstition in this book. Besides the salt spilling and the snake skin, I have also noticed how Jim makes predictions of what is going to happen to Huck. There is a bit of fortune telling involved. It goes well with your assumptions.


Posted by: NabilaUddin at October 21, 2004 2:19 AM


I think that you picked a wonderful topic for your presentation. I picked up probably half way through the reading that there seemed to be a lot of representation of superstitions. I think that you did a wonderful job of showing the use of superstitions and how they were so influential during this period of time but also even today in society! Excellent Job!!


Posted by: Melissa Hagg at November 3, 2004 10:33 AM

Excellent job, superb connections!

Posted by: joe at November 30, 2004 9:21 PM

As I said in my presentation, I am very superstitious myself so I picked up on the superstitions right away. I think I am a lucky person...knock on wood (hehehe)...so superstition gets me through things. And if that works for me who can argue it?! Thanx for the compliments...u guyus are awesome!

Posted by: Jennifer Haun at December 1, 2004 12:33 AM

I also recall, that Jim found it bad luck if you were to look at a full moon over your left (or was it right) shoulder. Also, when Jim predicts that it will rain from seeing little birds jumping about a yard at a time, Huck says that he will catch one. But Jim says "it was death. He said his father laid mighty sick once, and some of them catched a bird, and his old granny said his father would die, and he did" (45). Lastly Jim says it's bad luck to "[shake a] tablecloth after sundown" (45). Jim was very superstitious.

Posted by: Frank at February 8, 2005 7:23 PM

Could you post more examples of superstition...like the hairball and the cross on pap's shoe??

Posted by: Anna at February 9, 2005 6:35 PM

How would you cite this page when making references to it in a paper?

Posted by: adaf at March 1, 2005 9:05 AM

ur like so smart but did you know that it is bad luck to be such a smart ass.
laters geek

Posted by: laura at March 8, 2005 2:04 PM

thanks alot ur info helped me alot, im doing a project about Huck and his superstitions and this just helped me understand everything better. thanks.

Posted by: karla at April 1, 2005 2:54 PM

Wow. This was very helpful, and you seem to know your stuff.

Posted by: deb at April 6, 2005 10:14 PM

I need all of the superstitions from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn... Please and thank you.

Posted by: Kari Toberman at April 14, 2005 8:28 PM

(Tom Sawyer's Comrade)
(Samuel L. Clemens)

Copyright, 1884, by Samuel L. Clemens


IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit:
the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the
backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike
County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this
last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-
hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly,
and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without
it many readers would suppose that all these characters
were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.



Scene: The Mississippi Valley
Time: Forty to fifty years ago


YOU don't know about me without you have read a
book by the name of The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was
made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth,
mainly. There was things which he stretched, but
mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never
seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it
was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt
Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and
the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book,
which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as
I said before.

Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom
and me found the money that the robbers hid in the
cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars
apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money
when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took
it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar
a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body
could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she
took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize
me; but it was rough living in the house all the time,
considering how dismal regular and decent the widow
was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it
no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my
sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But
Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going
to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would
go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went

The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor
lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names,
too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me
in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing
but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well,
then, the old thing commenced again. The widow
rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time.
When you got to the table you couldn't go right to
eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck
down her head and grumble a little over the victuals,
though there warn't really anything the matter with
them, -- that is, nothing only everything was cooked
by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different;
things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps
around, and the things go better.

After supper she got out her book and learned me
about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat
to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out
that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so
then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't
take no stock in dead people.

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow
to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean
practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it
any more. That is just the way with some people.
They get down on a thing when they don't know
nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about
Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to any-
body, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of
fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in
it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all
right, because she done it herself.

Her sister, Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid,
with goggles on, had just come to live with her, and
took a set at me now with a spelling-book. She
worked me middling hard for about an hour, and then
the widow made her ease up. I couldn't stood it
much longer. Then for an hour it was deadly dull,
and I was fidgety. Miss Watson would say, "Don't
put your feet up there, Huckleberry;" and "Don't
scrunch up like that, Huckleberry -- set up straight;"
and pretty soon she would say, "Don't gap and stretch
like that, Huckleberry -- why don't you try to be-
have?" Then she told me all about the bad place,
and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then,
but I didn't mean no harm. All I wanted was to go
somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't
particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said;
said she wouldn't say it for the whole world; she was
going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I
couldn't see no advantage in going where she was
going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.
But I never said so, because it would only make
trouble, and wouldn't do no good.

Now she had got a start, and she went on and told
me all about the good place. She said all a body
would have to do there was to go around all day long
with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn't
think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if
she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she
said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about
that, because I wanted him and me to be together.

Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got
tiresome and lonesome. By and by they fetched the
niggers in and had prayers, and then everybody was
off to bed. I went up to my room with a piece of
candle, and put it on the table. Then I set down in a
chair by the window and tried to think of something
cheerful, but it warn't no use. I felt so lonesome I
most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and
the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and
I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about some-
body that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog cry-
ing about somebody that was going to die; and the
wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I
couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold
shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I
heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it
wants to tell about something that's on its mind and
can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in
its grave, and has to go about that way every night
grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared I did wish
I had some company. Pretty soon a spider went
crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit
in the candle; and before I could budge it was all
shriveled up. I didn't need anybody to tell me that
that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some
bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes
off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks
three times and crossed my breast every time; and
then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to
keep witches away. But I hadn't no confidence.
You do that when you've lost a horseshoe that you've
found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I
hadn't ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep
off bad luck when you'd killed a spider.

I set down again, a-shaking all over, and got out my
pipe for a smoke; for the house was all as still as
death now, and so the widow wouldn't know. Well,
after a long time I heard the clock away off in the
town go boom -- boom -- boom -- twelve licks; and
all still again -- stiller than ever. Pretty soon I heard
a twig snap down in the dark amongst the trees --
something was a stirring. I set still and listened.
Directly I could just barely hear a "me-yow! me-
yow!" down there. That was good! Says I, "me-
yow! me-yow!" as soft as I could, and then I put
out the light and scrambled out of the window on to
the shed. Then I slipped down to the ground and
crawled in among the trees, and, sure enough, there
was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.

Posted by: JenniferHaun at May 5, 2005 11:03 PM

omg ur sight was a completely gr8 fall back on my Huck Finn essay in my english class!

sophmore, GACS

Posted by: Amanda Circiu at August 25, 2005 11:10 PM

Wow. Very nice. This explained a lot. How might one go about citing this for a paper, though? Would just the web addy and your name be ok? Or would you prefer some other sort of credit?

Posted by: Kiki at December 3, 2005 12:25 AM

Thanx a lot for the info :)

Posted by: maria at February 16, 2006 7:57 AM

I am writing a paper on Huck Finn's controversy over the "n" word. I am arguing that this is just one of the many practices of the time, and that the superstitions practiced among African Americans at the time were another factor that is often overlooked. So overlooked I've had a hard time finding information. No one has posted on here for awhile, so I hope this isn't in vain, but does anyone have any advice where else to look? I've followed all of the links provided and they've helped immensely, but unfortunately I need more!

I hope someone sees this =)

Posted by: Donna at March 23, 2006 12:51 AM