I just can’t take pre-cognition and death omens seriously: a bat flying into the window, a rooster singing loud at midnight, even an encounter with a tall woman combing her hair. Yes, yes, all these are picturesque folklore confetti. But to say, as many of our ancestors did, that they represent the grim reaper throwing down his visiting card on your silver tray. Just no.
However, as Chris Woodyard made me acknowledge in an hour-long chat on death omens (the latest Boggart and Banshee podcast), there is no question that some deaths are foreseen. It is just that this has, I would argue, nothing to do with messages from the future. So how do we explain accurate death mumblings? I introduce you to the four reindeers pulling death’s black sleigh: super-abundance; super-nocebo; super-perception and, with his red shiny nose, super-cognition.
Super-abundance: I live in a village of some six hundred people. Let’s say that the village rooster goes mad and starts warbling in the night. Horrors! Someone is going to die. The problem is that in a village of eight hundred people someone is always dying or about to die (as I can sadly testify). Miss X flops onto her death bed or into an ambulance in the week after the rooster’s fit? Then, of course, the prophecy is fulfilled.
Super-nocebo: Medical types are fascinated by placebo, the power of positive suggestion to cure ills. But we sometimes forget its ugly poison-tongued sister, nocebo. For instance, my next-door neighbour in his eighties – this is invented… – hears the rooster crowing after waking in the night. Depressed he convinces himself that he is listening to his own death call. The coffin closes on him within a week. He has been self-suggested to death.
Super-perception: Some individuals are so perceptive that they can appear to others (and sometimes fatally to themselves) to be psychic. They do not know why, but they think that aunty is about to pass on: it is actually because of a hundred micro signals that their unconscious picks up on. At that point a cockerel waking up half an hour early brings these well-grounded intuitions out into the open. ‘I had a feeling and now…’
Super-cognition: I’ve gradually and reluctantly convinced myself that there are some light and confused forms of telepathy: particularly in dreams. There is room for confusion between precognition and telepathy at times of death: crisis apparitions, death visits by dying people to their loved ones. I can fit this – with sweaty palms – into my world view, because it is about an act of mental contact. It doesn’t involve the future.*
Outraged? That’s fine, just don’t give into the powers of nocebo. Any constructive comments: Drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com
* It is not just that I don’t believe in pre-cognition. It is that I don’t like it. I admit this sheepishly.