A-Z of superstitions
Posted 09 November 2006 - 12:01 PM
A variation on the YULE LOG custom that was once traditionally observed at CHRISTMAS. A peculiarity of the festive folklore of the West Country, the ashen faggot comprises a bundle of ash sticks bound up with nine bands of green ash, which is set alight in Christmas Eve using a fragment left from the previous Christmas's fire. According to the custom, young girls select one of the bands of green ash as their own and wait for it to burst into flame - the girl whose band is first to catch fire will be the first to marry. This tradition, which is sometimes credited to the Christian myth that Christ was given his first bath before an ashwood fire, but probably has pagan origins, is still maintained in some Devon inns. It is customary for a round of cider to be drunk as each band breaks.
Posted 10 November 2006 - 02:07 PM
The ashes of a spent ritual FIRE have numerous uses in the superstition of many cultures. These are particularly valued as a fertility CHARM, ensuring (when taken from a fire at Easter of Midsummer and scattered over a field or mixed with seeds) that the coming crop will be a good one. In ancient Egypt, the ashes of men with red hair were considered particularly conductive to bountiful harvests. Ashes have even been mixed into the food given to livestock to promote their health.
In Britain and the USA ash provides some protection against witchcraft, and in Wales ashes from fires lit during the Beltane festival (see MAYDAY) were formerly placed in shoes to safeguard the wearer from the treat of coming sorrow. In Yorkshire, ashes spread over the hearth on New Year's Eve or St Mark's Eve (or else from the burnt bedstraw on which someone has just died) will give a hint as to what the coming twelve months have in store. Footprints discovered in them the following morning prophesy a death if they lead towards the door, but anticipate a new member of the household if going in some other direction. Many reports exist of people identifying the shape of coffins or wedding rings in the ashes of their fires, giving unmistakable clues about coming events. Lovers were also formerly known to trace patterns relating to possible partners in the ashes of a fire in the belief that this would help decide their union. In Ireland, the Isle of Man and Lancashire, men could establish who their future wife would be by scattering ashes in a quiet lane at HALLOWEEN and waiting to see which girl followed the trail first: the ashes would ensure she becomes his.
According to French tradition, ashes will preserve a household from storm damage if scattered over it, while in South America and elsewhere ashes tossed in the air play an important role in the ritual of rain - making. In the USA, there is a popular prejudice against sweeping out the ashes of a spent fire after four in the afternoon and similarly during Christmas or on a Friday (see DAYS OF THE WEEK). The farming communities of North Carolina have also been known to recommend sprinkling livestock with ashes to protect them from infestation by LICE.
The ashes of the dead have great symbolic significance in many cultures throughout the world and are much revered in some regions for their magical properties. In Africa, there are numerous records of human ashes being mixed with food and eaten by relatives in the belief that they will inherit some of the dead man's attributes.
See also CINDERS.
Posted 11 November 2006 - 09:39 AM
Also called the shiver-tree, the aspen is best known for its trembling leaves which stir in the slightest of winds. Folklore has it that the aspen shivers in shame and horror because its wood was used for Christ's CROSS, or because it failed to bow when Christ passed by. The aspen is prized for its efficacy in treating a range of medical ailments, particularly FEVER (in which the patient shivers like the tree). The sufferers pins a lock of his or her HAIR to the nearest aspen while uttering the rhyme: 'Aspen tree, aspen tree, I prithee to shake and shiver instead of me', and must then return home without uttering a word or the charm will not work. An alternative is to cut a small hole in the tree at midnight and place the sufferer's nail-parings into it before closing the hole up and thus trapping the fever permanently (see FINGERNAILS). In Cheshire, locals similarly recommend rubbing WARTS with BACON and then hiding the bacon in a slit in an aspen tree: the warts will fade from the sufferer's skin and reappear in the tree's bark.
Tomorrow: a s s
Posted 13 November 2006 - 11:41 AM
Respiratory disorder, often the result of an allergy, which has inspired several superstitions of ancient origin. One of the oldest treatments was that recommended to the Romans: twenty or so CRICKETS with a little wine. Many centuries later, sufferers in Cornwall were advised to roll COBWEBS in a ball and to swallow them to affect a cure. In the sixteenth century, cures included consuming a raw CAT, swallowing foam collected from the mouth of a DONKEY or, perhaps a little more appetising, sticking to a diet of boiled CARROTS for the space of two weeks (the vitamin A in carrots may have a beneficial effect on the lungs).
Posted 14 November 2006 - 04:30 AM
The tradition of 'reading' the stars and predicting from their relative positions what the future holds. Broadly speaking, the months of the year are divided into a ZODIAC of twelve houses, each with its own symbol and characteristics which determine a person's emotional capabilities and ambitions. In 'judicial' astrology the movements of the stars are related to human affairs. The resultant horoscopes published in newspapers and magazines are generally dismissed by serious scientific establishment, but retain a compulsive fascination for millions who not only know their own star sign but are also versed in their alleged strengths and weaknesses, as dictated by professional astrologers.
The study of the stars has ranked among the intellectual preoccupations of all the world's major civilisations. First developed by the ancient Babylonians, it continues today as a respectable science in the officially approved form of astronomy. Offering some kind of logic behind the apparently random happenings of daily life, astrology, which first fell foul of established scientific thinking in the sixteenth century, suggests that the movements of the planets and the ensuing events are expressions of divine will. Critics claim that it is ludicrous to suggest that one-twelfth of the world's population will all experience 'a pleasant financial surprise' or a 'falling out with a close friend' on the same day, but this is an over-simplification of the system, which depends not just on the day of birth but on the precise hour.
In defiance of all the logical arguments against them the predictions of the astrologers do sometimes impress - perhaps inevitably, due to the law of averages. Examples that have been cited in support of the 'science' of astrology have included the warnings that were signaled by the positions of the planets in November 1963 just before the assassination of President F. Kennedy. The same stars failed, however, two give any notice of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 - though repeated predictions of Allied victory during the course of the war played a big part in boosting morale, to the extent that some Members of Parliament demanded the silencing of the astrologers because their optimism threatened to undermine the willingness of the public to make the necessary sacrifices for the war effort. On the German side, Adolf Hitler was notorious for his reliance upon what his astrologers concluded (as indeed were many other military leaders before him).
The positions of the planets, particularly those of the SUN and the MOON, have long had an occult relevance and are of primary importance in the preparation of innumerable potions and spells. Many plants and other materials only retain their magical properties at given times of the planetary cycles. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries astrological information was considered particularly useful in medicine: the planets were believed to govern the welfare of the internal organs and the zodiac to influence the surface anatomy. Treatments depended upon analysing the planets' effect upon the four bodily 'humours': blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.
Posted 15 November 2006 - 02:34 PM
Just as motorists and seafarers have developed their own codes of superstition, so too have the world's space travellers. Many of the superstitions observed are based on much older, time-honoured taboos, such as avoiding the wearing on unlucky COLOURS and considering prefect rehearsals for take-off an ill omen; several astronauts have also been noted for their attachment to good luck mascots. The disaster that nearly befell the Apollo 13 mission was inevitably attributed by many to the unfortunate numbering of the craft (see THIRTEEN).
Tomorrow: aurora borealis
Posted 16 November 2006 - 04:32 AM
The coloured lights that often appear in the sky in the extreme northern hemisphere as a result of charged solar particles being attracted towards the Earth's magnetic poles. The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, the Burning Spears and the Merry Dancers, is particularly revered by the Eskimo or Inuit peoples, who interpret them as spirits of the blessed dead sporting in the heavens. Other peoples have seen in them more ominous portents, and in lands where they only make occasional appearances they have been considered a precursor or WAR (a tradition strengthened when the lights were seen as far south as London in 1939 and again as far south as Cleveland, Ohio just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor). In Northumberland the lights are sometimes called Lord Derwentwater's Lights in memory of the display that occurred on the night of 24 February 1716 when James, Earl of Derwentwater was executed for his part in the failed rebellion of that year.
Posted 16 November 2006 - 02:30 PM
As one of the earliest tools invented by man; the axe is associated with several ancient superstitions. Made of IRON, itself considered a magical metal, the axe came to play a prominent role in the rituals of pagan religion and its image is to be found at such sacred sites as Stonehenge. Witches were alleged to 'milk' axes and thereby to steal the milk from all the cows in the area, while others used a piece of AGATE balanced on a red hot axe blade to search for buried treasure: if the agate stuck to the axe there was nothing to be found, but if it fell over and rolled three times in the grass then treasure lay hidden in the direction that the agate had taken. An upturned axe is also formerly used in the detection of THIEVES. The suspects were obliged to dance in a circle around it until the axe fell over: whoever the haft was pointing towards was regarded as the culprit.
In some European countries it is said that cattle persuaded to step over an axe on their way to the fields in the spring will be impervious to evil influences. In the USA, meanwhile, it is considered unlucky to carry an axe into the home, as this will bring about the death of a member of the family, and bad luck is also to be expected in the wake of any dream in which an axe appears.
Posted 17 November 2006 - 04:50 PM
A substantial body of time - honoured superstitions surrounds the subject of babies, many of them reflecting the natural concern of parents for the welfare of their offspring. The superstitious start drawing conclusions the moment a new baby has arrived and take particular note of whether it is born with hands open or clenched shut: if the palms are open, the child will show honest and generous nature, but if they are closed the child clearly has a mean streak. A baby born with teeth is likely to turn out to be selfish when older or alternatively may die young or become a murderer (in central Europe this may mean that it is a VAMPIRE). A blue vein across the nose, meanwhile, prophesies that the child will die by DROWNING. If the infant has no hair on its head, though, it is sure to grow up quick-witted and intelligent.
By way of greeting the baby into the world the Irish recommend SPITTING on it, while the Welsh suggest rubbing a little honey on its head. In Scotland, placing a KNIFE on the doorstep of the house where the birth has taken place will protect the infant by preventing a witch or other agent of harm from entering the house (no evil spirit can cross over IRON or steel).
Babies should always be nursed for the first time on the right side; if not, they will grow up left-handed. Should the mother experience any difficulty in producing milk, she should drink beer, eat fennel and honey or else apply a poultice of PARSLEY. Wet nurses, meanwhile, may ensure that their milk does not dry up by ignoring calls from outside the house, never burning wood in the hearth and never holding a NEEDLE by the point. If the baby refuses to suck, it has probably been bewitched and measures should be taken to break the spell.
Weaning should start on one of the Church's holy days, ideally on GOOD FRIDAY or failing that when the MOON is on the wane. It should not be attempted in the spring, or the baby will be prematurely grey-haired, and certainly not on CHILDERMAS DAY. Mothers should on no account offer a child the breast once it has been weaned: this will harm the infant's luck in a variety of ways, and in Wales to do so means that the child will swear constantly when grown up.
A baby's first soiled nappy should be left unwashed, and subsequent nappies should be left out to dry when the moon is up for fear of attracting its baleful influence. Also on the subject of nappies, mothers in the USA are careful not to use old nappies for a new baby; since to do so promises that the child will grow up a thief. In England, it is said that allowing a baby urinate in a fireplace will hasten toilet training and this has the added advantage of ensuring the child's future good behaviour.
Care should be taken not to wash a newborn baby's right hand for the first three days (or, according to some, in the first year of life). Doing so may also wash away the infant's good luck, particularly in financial matters. According to Welsh superstition, the water used to bath a baby should be deposited under a tree in leaf to promote the child's healthy growth (throwing the water for its first bath over the roots of a tree in bloom ensures that the child will be good-looking as an adult). Weighting a baby is not advised in some European cultures. Doing so, they believe, is an insult to God, from whom the child has come; He may be therefore taken the child back at a young age as a punishment.
Whether born in a hospital or at home it is imperative that the child should be carried upstairs rather than down on leaving the room where the birth has taken place (midwives have even been known to clamber on to furniture placed in the doorway so as to satisfy this requirement when the room where the child has been born is at the top of a house and there are no further stairs).
The logic of this particular custom lies in the contention that the babe cannot expect to go up in the world if it heads off downwards at the very start. When a child born in a hospital leaves for home, modern superstition dictates that it is unlucky for the baby to be placed on a rear seat and that he or she should be carried instead in the front. Once the baby is safely home, the proud parents are advised to carry the infant three times round the house to provide protection against the colic.
Announcements of birth are widely acknowledged through the observance of various customs. Friends and relatives drink to the health and long life of the new arrival. In some areas anyone who visits a house where there is a newborn baby - whatever his or her business - is not allowed to leave before drinking a TOAST and having something to eat (this sometimes holds true right up to the day of the baby's CHRISTENING).
Saying that the baby is beautiful might seem the polite thing to do, but may be resented in some Jewish households because doing so threatens harm from the EVIL EYE. This has to be countered by chanting 'whoever gave you the evil eye may it fall on them' three times in Yiddish. Jewish mothers also suggest that it is unlucky and possibly fatal to the child's health to watch a baby sleeping. Calling a baby an 'angel' is equally unwise as this is TEMPTING FATE to take the child directly to Heaven. Care should also be taken by visitors not to step over a crawling infant, which will stunt its growth. Moreover, tickling a baby on the feet or under the chin will cause it to grow up with a stammer.
Presents traditionally offered to a new baby come in various forms. In northern England it was once customary to give an EGG (representative of the Trinity with its three parts, the shell, the yolk and the white), SALT, and some good BREAD (in some cases also matches to light the way to Heaven, meat and drink) when a baby made its first call on friends or relatives - an occasion known as 'puddening'. Gifts of baby clothes or toys are now more usual, and most babies benefit from gifts of money as a result of the old custom of crossing a baby's palm with SILVER, which is said to fend off evil spirits. Newborn babies are themselves thought to be lucky, and those who kiss a newly arrived infant are sure to benefit from its luck giving qualities (some say the baby will share the temperament of the first person to give it a kiss after its own mother).
Many more superstitions concern the clothing chosen for the very young. In order to confuse the DEVIL and thus to protect young children from his attentions it is considered advisable to dress a baby in the clothes of the opposite sex. Some Irish mothers have been known to continue to dress their boys in petticoats and their girls in trousers up to the age of fourteen. Newborn infants should never be wrapped in new sheets or garments when dressed for the first time, and some midwives used to bring along an old apron or other piece of cloth specifically for this purpose. Additional protection will be afforded a newborn baby who is wrapped in some article belonging to its mother or father (mothers in Ireland and elsewhere sometimes wrapped a pair of trousers belonging to the father around their neck while they were in labour in the belief that this would lessen the pain).
Mothers are advised to dress baby boys in BLUE because the colour, which is associated with the Virgin Mary provides protection against evil (dressing girls in pink was a later invention with no particular significance). It goes without saying that babies should never be dressed in BLACK, as they will surely die before they left childhood. When dressing a baby, incidentally it is thought unlucky to pull clothing over its head and preferable to start with the feet. After the baby clothes have been grown out of a mother should think twice before disposing of them: if she fails to keep back at least one item then she is certain to bear another child (the same applies to disposing of the CRADLE).
Other superstitions relating to the very young include the traditional notion that a baby's future luck can be foretold by observing which hand the child first uses to pick something up. If it is the right hand, then good luck will attend him or her throughout life, but if it is the left then the baby's future will be plagued by misfortune. In Louisiana, further information about a baby's future may be obtained by placing before the child a BIBLE, a pack of CARDS and a silver COIN: if the infant reaches for the Bible it has a bright and happy fortune; if it goes for the cards it will be a gambler; and if it chooses the coin it will do well in business (if a bottle is added as one of the choices and the baby selects it, it is sure to grow up a drunkard).
It is considered particularly unlucky for a baby to be allowed to see its reflection in a MIRROR before the age of six months, and any baby that does so is sure to die before it is a year old. Cutting the baby's nails with SCISSORS before it has reached the age of one also risks misfortune and a life of crime (biting them off with the TEETH, however, guarantees good luck). The child will also die if its HAIR is cut before twelve months have passed. It is also unlucky to place a baby on a TABLE, to carry it in a FUNERAL procession and, according to US superstition to toss it playfully in the air (to do so risk the child growing up slow-witted).
Babies should never be passed through an open WINDOW for this will retard their growth, but they will benefit from a good sneeze (see SNEEZING), which rids them of evil spirits. Painful teething can be relieved by supplying the baby with a suitable AMULET, which may be in the form of a cowrie shell, a fossil shark's tooth or some other 'magical' item. Sore EYES can be relieved by a few drops of mother's milk, while other conditions such as BIRTHMARKS can be alleviated by the application of saliva. Inhabitants of New England claim that it is a good sign if a baby contrives to fall out of bed three times before the age of one, and even better if it falls downstairs before the same age. Most people agree that the auguries are good if a baby learns to do things in the right order, that is, crawling first, then walking and finally talking (in the USA, it is claimed that giving the child a little water in a thimble will hasten its progress in this last challenge). If a baby smiles in its sleep, it is talking to the angels.
One last cautionary superstition warns that if a baby looks at a woman from between its legs then the latter is fated to become pregnant very shortly.
See also AFTERBIRTH, BREAD AND BUTTER, CAUL, CHILDBIRTH, CHILDREN, NAMES and TWINS.
Tomorrow: bachelor's button
Posted 18 November 2006 - 04:29 AM
Small button-shaped flower variously identified as double red campion, upright crowfoot, buttercup, white ranunculus and white campion, which was once used by young men as a means of foretelling the success or failure of an intended love affair. According to very ancient rustic tradition, one of these flowers should be picked early in the morning and kept in the pocket for twenty - four hours: if still fresh at the end of that time then successful outcome could be expected, but if withered the affair would not prosper.
Posted 19 November 2006 - 10:23 AM
In some parts of Europe and the USA bacon is credited with certain healing powers, but only if it has been stolen rather than acquired legitimately. Such purloined bacon is particularly valued for its effectiveness against WARTS, which will disappear when rubbed with a rasher or two, and is also considered of use in treating FEVER and constipation. In Devon it is said that if cooking bacon curls up in the pan a new lover is about to arrive.
See also PIG.
Posted 20 November 2006 - 05:12 AM
An ancient rustic belief from Yorkshire reasons that the badger has longer legs at the back and shorter legs on one side in order to help it to run across and up a slope. Elsewhere in Europe, badgers' TEETH are particularly prized by gamblers, who claim that carrying one on the person guarantees success in any wager as well as bestowing good luck in general.
Posted 21 November 2006 - 12:21 PM
Various superstitious beliefs surround the all important business of baking BREAD and similar foods; depending as it does upon the apparently magical action of yeast and ovens. Among the most widely observed of these is the superstition that no scraps of uncooked dough or pasty must be left over, or the entire baking will be spoiled and bad luck will follow. Rather than throw away such remnants, cooks are advised to make them into small treats for children. Counting the NUMBER of loaves or cakes as they are removed from the oven is also unlucky and will cause them to go stale quickly. A loaf that emerges from the heat with a cracked crust is a sure sign that a stranger is about to arrive to share in eating it.
Dreaming of yeast, incidentally, is a guarantee of success in one's next project, though it also means that one's wife or lover is pregnant.
Posted 22 November 2006 - 02:12 PM
Superstition offers several treatments for baldness, while warning also that sudden loss of HAIR prophesies the loss of a child, health or property. The problem can be avoided altogether by never cutting the hair when the MOON is on the wane, and in the USA it is said that cutting the hair as short as possible and then singeing the cut ends will encourage regrowth and prevent hair dying. When such things were obtainable, BEAR fat mixed with laudanum and rubbed on the scalp was sure to restore the hair, according to W. Bulleyn's Book of Simples. Failing this, a handy substitute is FOX fat or ONION juice, similarly applied. A more drastic remedy recommends rubbing copious amounts of GOOSE dung into bald patches. Rather more simply, a sufferer who stands bareheaded in the RAIN will never suffer complete hair loss.
Posted 23 November 2006 - 01:10 PM
According to time-honoured tradition it is possible for children to use an ordinary playing ball to find out what the future has in store for them. Before playing a game of catch, girls in northern England and Scotland may chant the rhyme:
Stottie ba', hinne ba', tell to me,
How mony bairns am I to hae?
Ane to leeve, and ane to dee,
And ane to sit on the nurse's knee.
The number of times the ball is then caught indicates the number of children that can be expected. Similarly, a young girl may throw a ball against a wall or tree and learn from the number of times it bounces on the ground how old she will be before she meets her true love. A variant in which the ball has to be caught in the hands prophesies that a girl is destined to be an old maid if she catches it an odd number of times and a wife if she manages an even number of catches.
In times gone by, children often made balls of COWSLIPS and, with the words 'Tisty-tosy, tell me true, who shall I be married to?' (or similar), tossed them back and forth while chanting the names of prospective lovers. The name spoken whenever the ball fell was the most likely prospect. In sporting circles, it is considered most unlucky to hold three balls in the hand while serving in TENNIS, and equally unwise to carry a new ball still in its wrapping on to a golf course. Footballers, meanwhile, often like to touch the ball or to bounce it a given number of times before the start of a match.
Posted 24 November 2006 - 03:58 PM
Reflecting the superstitious ways of seafaring folk, a number of curious customs surround the gathering of STONES for use as ballast in SHIPS. In north-east Scotland there is particular prejudice against using stones with holes made in them by shellfish, while elsewhere granite and stones that have come from demolished buildings and still have mortar attached are also rejected. Similar prejudices exist against the use of white stones in ballast.
Posted 27 November 2006 - 10:53 AM
The reading of a couple’s banns in church prior to their WEDDING is a formal tradition that has inevitably acquired its own mythology. According to widely held superstition it is very unlucky for a couple to hear their own banns being read and any children they later have are bound to suffer as a result – probably by being born deaf and dumb. It is also unlucky if there is a break in the sequence of the three readings of the banns, which should be hear on three Sundays in succession. Further bad luck is risked if the wedding is called off after the final reading of the banns, an act that was once considered an insult to the church and could be punished by a fine. In Scotland, couples were formerly advised against having their banns read at the end of a quarter and against arranging the wedding for the start of the following quarter as this was considered unpropitious for the future. After the third reading of the banns the bells in Scottish churches would sometimes be rung to bestow a further blessing on the couple and to drive away evil spirits.