Posted tagged ‘folk magic’

Podcast 67 – Curanderismo with Carolina Gonzalez

August 28, 2014

Summary:

Tonight we have an interview with the magical Carolina Gonzalez, a curandera based in the Canary Islands. We’ll also have a brief overview of what curanderismo and brujeria are, and we announce a new contest!

Play:

Download: Episode 67 – Curanderismo with Carolina Gonzalez

 -Sources-

We definitely think you should check out the Camino de Yara site, home to our guest, Carolina Gonzalez. While you’re there check out her sites on Maria Lionza and her shop, too!

The article I read is Blog Post 134 –Brujeria and Curanderismo: A (Very Brief) Overview. You can find links to all my references there as well.

I’m going to be at the Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day on August 30, 2014, if you care to stop by!

I will also be at the next Pagan Podkin Supermoot, hosted by Fire Lyte in Chicago (in conjunction with the Pagan Pride Day up there).

 

Please send in contest entries to compassandkey@gmail.com! We are giving away a copy of 54 Devils (my book, in either digital or print form, whichever you prefer) and a digital copy of Carolina Gonzalez’s book on reading the Spanish cards as well. All you have to do is send us your weirdest or most unique piece of personal holiday lore, along with a name we can read on-air and a general location (‘Illinois’ or ‘the Midwest,’ for example).

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page!

 Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Incidental music is “Corrido de Ixtlahuaca,” by Ixtlahuaca and “Arrancame la Vida,” by Chavela Vargas, both from Archive.org.

Promos:

1.  Gaia Update (with Kathleen Borealis)

Blog Post 190 – Magical Gift Giving

August 22, 2014

“Die Neujahrsbretzel für den Herrn Pfarrer”, 1884 (via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.

Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:

  • One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
  • “Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
  • A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
  • No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).

The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:

Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).

This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.

Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.

Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:

A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)

These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:

  • A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
  • It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).

Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.

Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:

  • Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
  • Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)

Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).

The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:

  • At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).

In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:

“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).

I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.

Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.

A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.

Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).

Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:

A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.

Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).

Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.

Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:

It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.

Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).

I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
  2. Carey, George G. Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Pub.: 1989).
  3. Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, & Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub.: 1975).
  4. Hines, Donald M. “Superstitions from Oregon,” Western Folklore, Jan. 1965.
  5. Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend (Llewellyn, 2012).
  6. Price, Sadie. “Kentucky Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1901.
  7. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover: 1964).
  8. Roberts, Hilda. “Louisiana Superstitions,” Journal of American Folklore, Apr-Jun 1927.
  9. Tallman, Marjorie. Dictionary of American Folklore (Philosophical Library, NYC: 1959).

Quick Update – Come See Me!

August 18, 2014

Hi all,

I just wanted to let you all know I’ve got posts coming, really I do (about 1800 words on one post, plus some book reviews and another post in the draft stage). However, I’ve also got lots of other things going on, including editing the August episode, which I hope you’ll enjoy, and getting started with the Ph.D. program. Laine is also very busy baking another human being in her proverbial oven, so please forgive her if she’s not around for a bit (she still gets emails and appreciates them greatly!).

I also wanted to let you all know about some upcoming events where you’ll be able to vent your frustrations with my slow blogging directly to me, in person! I’ll be at two upcoming events in late August/early September for those who want to come see me.

First, I’ll have a booth at the Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day on August 30th (see website for location and details). This event is going to be lovely, with classes on Manx folklore, playing card reading (no, not me teaching, though I’d love to attend), children’s activities, and lots more. My booth will (hopefully) have a small traveling museum of North American magical artifacts I’ve pieced together, and I’d love to chat with anyone about folk magic or other such things. Plus, I’ll be trying to collect some area folklore as well, so if you stop by please take a moment to speak into the mic (though you are not obligated to do so, of course). This year’s PPPD is benefiting the Mazzoni Center Food Bank, Forgotten Cats, Books Through Bars, and In-Reach Heathen Prison Services, so please bring donations for any of those fine organizations.

FolkMagicMuseumPoster

Next, I’m tentatively planning to be at the upcoming Pagan Podkin Super Moot #5 in Chicago! Fire Lyte, who is hosting the PPSM event this year, has generously offered to share his booth at the Chicago Pagan Pride Day on Sunday, September 14th, in Oak Park, Illinois, and I may try to bring that traveling museum along with me for that trip, too. I’m still waiting for a few pieces to fall into place for this even to be a go for me, but right now it looks very likely that I’ll be attending. Other podkin attending include Fire Lyte, Velma Nightshade, Peter Paddon, Dr. Hob & Dean from Lamplighter Blues, Faelyn from the Kindle Witch. A few other folks are tentative as well, so this is a good chance to meet folks if you live anywhere near Chicago.

So, that’s our current situation. If I get invitations for other events or chances to come out and meet fans and friends of the show, I’ll definitely keep you posted! For now, please stop by if you’re near either of those events, and I’ll look forward to seeing you soon!

All the best,
-Cory

Podcast 66 – Sacred Artistry with Bri Saussy

July 31, 2014

Summary:
In tonight’s episode (slightly belated, my apologies), we have an excellent discussion of Sacred Artistry and Enchanted Worldviews with the wonderful Bri Saussy. I bookend the interview with a pair of readings on the topic as well. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did!

Play: 
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 66
Play: 

-Sources-

  1. Of course, you should check out Bri’s excellent site, Milagro Roots.
  2. While you’re there, consider signing up for one of her courses, such as Star Magic or Diagnostic Tarot.
  3. Bri recommends Terri Windling’s Myth and Moor blog during the interview.
  4. I read from (and highly recommend) Draja Mickaharic’s  Spiritual Cleansing and Suzi Gablik’s Living the Magical Life.

Keep watching for information on the next Pagan Podkin Supermoot, hosted by Fire Lyte in Chicago (in conjunction with the Pagan Pride Day up there).

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page!

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promos:
1)      Betwixt and Between

Podcast 64 – Sex and Magic

May 29, 2014

Podcast 64 – Sex and Magic

Summary:

In this show, we discuss the use of sex as a magical tool (as well as magical tools that can be used for sex), and the ethics of mixing sex and magic from our points of view.

Play:

Download: New World Witchery – Episode 64

-Sources-
Some of the things discussed today include:

  1. Cory mentions the book, The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort
  2. The discussion of sex and scent brings up bay rum scented items, Bourbon French Parfums in New Orleans, and vanilla (oh, and you should also check out the scent-and-sex heavy book Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins)
  3. In Peter Paddon’s book, Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk, the deluxe edition has some additional material on sexual fluids in magic. He also has a podcast discussion on sex magic that is excellent.
  4. Cory mentions the use of Damiana liqueur as an aphrodisiac
  5. We talk about using turkey bones in the Ozarks as a sexual magnet. You can find a picture about it here, and lots about it in Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph.
  6. The Crowley quote about masturbation comes from his book Magick.
  7. Cory mentions he’s been watching the occult series called Salem on WGN, and that our previous guest Papa Toad Bone may have a role on it at some point.

Keep watching for information on the next Pagan Podkin Supermoot, hosted by Fire Lyte in Chicago (in conjunction with the Pagan Pride Day up there).

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page!

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune. Alternate title music was “Love Warrior,” from FOB, and can be found on MusicAlley.com.

Promos:
1)      The Crooked Path Podcast
2)      Lakefront Pagan Voice
3)      Down at the Crossroads

Blog Post 190 – Some Military Superstitions

May 26, 2014

“Jubilant American soldier hugs motherly English woman,” PFC Melvin Weiss (via the National Archives)

With the timing of Memorial Day (for those reading in the U.S., that is) and my brother’s recent entry into the American Armed Forces (he’s been in for just under a year), I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight a few of the superstitions surrounding life as a soldier, sailor, pilot, or marine. Some of these practices are magical in nature, and some simply traditional or an interesting way of adding a layer of significance to the world from folks who already make significant contributions to it. I will not attempt to paint any glossy pictures of military service, nor will I touch on some of the lore which might be construed as highly disrespectful in light of the holiday. I also doubt I’ll cover even a fraction of the total lore around these branches of service, as that could easily fill volumes, and I’m going to attempt to keep this under two thousand words.

For the sake of simplicity, I will look at the beliefs more or less by branch, although in fact it will essentially be by domain—land, sea, and sky. The Marines, while ostensibly a seafaring force and part of the Naval Department, are for all intents and purposes the force that crosses those three boundaries (although I should note that in the modern military, an Air Force pilot on a Naval carrier would not be unusual, and other service members work across branches frequently). I will basically be looking at lore for soldiers, sailors, and pilots, and cross-pollination of belief can be inferred as appropriate.

Soldier Lore
Some of the chief superstitions surrounding life in the Army focus on protection in battle, naturally. Protection from bullets, mortars, bombs, and any of the other myriad dangers on the battlefield is essential, and here are some of the magical methods used:

  • Soldiers would often wear bibles “tucked or pinned over the portion of a uniform covering the soldier’s heart” to fend off bullets (Watts 419).
  • Soldiers in World War I would sew black cats onto their uniforms for good luck (contrary to the traditional ‘bad luck’ association with the animal)
  • Mistletoe could provide protection for a solder, when pinned inside his or her uniform
  • “[S]hells etched with the soldier’s name” were considered lucky amulets (Brunvand 766)
  • The 91st Psalm would be carried or worn inside a uniform for luck and protection
  • Hair, clothing, or jewelry from a loved one back home would sometimes offer some safety from harm
  • A bit of clothing from a personal or national hero could be worn to provide vigor, courage, and insulation from battle damage
  • A soldier should always eat all the food on his plate before battle to ensure he survives it

In addition to tokens and talismans, a number of stories circulated surrounding apparitions which portended good or bad fortune for soldiers during wartime. For example:

“Legends about folk saints defending soldiers and citizens abounded. Variations include the saint appearing as an old man before or during battle, prayers by the soldier or a family member resulting in miracles, the saint healing injuries and aiding prisoners of war to survive or escape, or the saint appearing in a dream. Saints were also credited with disabling enemy weapons and altering the direction of enemy planes and missiles” (Brunvand 766).

Some of the saints to whom a soldier might appeal would include Saint Michael Archangel, for victory in battle, or Saint Christopher, for a safe journey back home. A Cross of Caravaca might also be worn to symbolize such divine protection.

One of the entities who seemed to travel everywhere the soldiers did was the astounding Kilroy. With his eyes, nose, and fingers peeping over the top of a fence, he was always first on the scene, and became something of a traditional bit of graffiti for soldiers:

“Kilroy lore calls for GIs to place drawings of the character in the most remote and unlikely locations, signifying the power and reach of the U.S. military. It is also customary for soldiers to claim that the marking was discovered rather than placed, making Kilroy always the first to arrive at a host of sites. He is rumored to adorn a range of places from the Statue of Liberty’s torch to the surface of the Moon” (Watts 237).

In addition to protective and comical apparitions (or drawings, in Kilroy’s case), there were also the less pleasant ‘death tokens’ which precluded a loss in battle or the death of a soldier. One such creature is the Ghost Dog of Flordia Island in Guadalcanal, essentially a derivation of the ‘Black Shuck’ figure of British lore, a demond dog who spells doom for those who see him.

A good bit of lore sprang up around soldiers who wanted to get a quick discharge from their unit, including such strange techniques as “eating a large stack of pancakes or sleeping with soap under both armpits” (Brunvand 767). Often, these were essentially hazing techniques other soldiers would use on those with cold feet rather than rituals that could actually earn a fast pass out of service.

Civilians could aslo help soldiers in their efforts in some cases, using magical methods. Children during World War II would jump on cracks in the belief that every time they did so, a Nazi soldier would fall. Wives of soldiers were told not to ask about missions, including ones the soldier had survived, and to refrain from watching their soldiers as they left for their tour of duty. Even the symbolic act of saluting or showing a ‘V for Victory’ with the hands and fingers was thought to bolster the soldier’s strength (and his or her morale).

Perhaps the saddest lore surrounding soldiers involves the fallen ones. There are many stories of ghost soldiers and even entire ghost units still fighting battles long after the wars are over (I had a personal experience with a group of Civil War soldiers, which I believe I mentioned on the show, for example). Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams, features a vignette of just such an occurance, where a lone soldier returning from battle meets his entire platoon of fallen comrades and tries to explain what happened to them.

Finally, I can’t resist mentioning the story of the “Soldier’s Almanack & Prayer Book,” in which a soldier accused of keeping gambling accessories (i.e. playing cards) defends himself by demonstrating that the deck actually functions as an almanac of sorts and a reminder of biblical stories and prayers. There’s a full account of it in the appendix of my book, 54 Devils, and you can find a slightly longer description of it with links to additional material in the short version of that book, “The New World Witchery Guide to Cartomancy.”

Sailor Lore
There are so many superstitions and customs surrounding the life of a sailor, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve covered a few of these in previous articles, notably the post on “Seaside Sorcery,” so I’ll try to mostly stick with new material here, but if I repeat myself please pardon the gaffe.

I will start with one reiterated bit of lore on cauls, the thin membrane which surrounds the head of some newborn babies. I did discuss these items briefly in the above-mentioned post, but I found a bit of expanded lore on them which I thought would be appropriate here:

“Many captains and crews would not leave port unless a cawl from a recently born baby was aboard the ship they were to be sailing on. Cawls were often traded from one vessel to another, as one ship came home and another sailed off to distant lands. Having a cawl aboard was a guarantee that the ship wouldn’t sink, and they were often sold to sea captains and shipowners for large sums of money” (Cahill 15).

The part that most interested me in this was the trading from one ship to another, a sort of ‘passing of luck’ from one boat to another. I imagine that to those who used such tools, a caul which had kept a crew safe through one set of voyages would seem doubly powerful to the next crew to inherit it. The enormous cost of the cauls is also worth noting, especially in the context of it being a captain’s purchase—I can imagine some sailors taking it as a bad sign that a captain was too stingy to purchase such an elementary piece of luck for their ship.

Among some of the other pertinent bits of folk belief for life onboard ship we find a similar theme to the soldiers—protection—with the added need for charms which allow a ship stuck in the doldrums to make its way out before the crew starve or go mad. Some of the most popular beliefs:

  • Perhaps the best known bit of sailor lore: Shooting an albatross as bad luck (see Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
  • A bucket lost at sea was a bad omen of impending drowning
  • A broom or a mop would likewise have been an ill omen if lost
  • Wearing gold earrings prevent drowning (so THAT’S why pirates have them!)
  • Eggs have a bad luck connotation to them, as they are reputed to conjure up bad storms and winds. The taboo is so strong that in some cases, sailors might not even say the word ‘egg,’ but instead use a euphemism, such as calling it a ‘roundabout.’
  • Other taboo words: Knife, salt, rat, mouse, salmon, and rabbit or hare.
  • Speaking of knives, a knife stuck in the main mast would summon a wind leading whichever direction the handle of the knife pointed
  • Pigs were sometimes kept on old ships because it was believed that a pig in water would always swim directly to the nearest land, even if it couldn’t see it. A ship off its navigational course would toss a pig overboard and follow the pig.

Animals on a ship have much lore surrounding them. Many people probably know about the idea of rats fleeing a sinking ship (sometimes even before that ship left port), but what about cats? There is a strange mix of lore surrounding cats, with some sailors claiming that you could raise a wind (or storm) by throwing a cat overboard (which might be good news for a becalmed ship during the days of sail power) and the somewhat more broadly accepted belief that a cat who drowned portended very bad luck for an entire voyage.

The weather was and is a major consideration for those out to sea, and sailors developed an extensive body of lore around buying wind (see the Seaside Sorcery post for more on that) and raising or quelling storms and predicting the weather. Whistling on board a ship was very bad most of the time, because it would stir up the wind and storms. However, if a ship were unable to move, whistling might be turned to as a way of encouraging the sea to offer up some wind. The best and luckiest day to go to sea was on a Sunday, especially if you could wait until after the morning service to embark. In fact, a counterpart to the famous ‘Red skies at morning…’ rhyme is the less-known but far more interesting: Sunday sail, never fail; Friday sail, bad luck and gales” (Cahill 14).

The final bit of lore concerns mermaids:

“It may be for this reason [mermaids acting as sirens to lure sailors to their doom] that a mermaid sighting is frequently regarded as a portent of imminent danger. The mermaid’s influence is not always unfortunate, however, and in some cases she holds the power and disposition to grant the sailor wishes” (Watts 266)

All of these superstitions barely begin to scratch the surface of maritime lore, and the sheer volume of traditions, practices, and omens observed by sailors throughout history fills a number of books.

The Gremlins, by Roald Dahl (picture via Wikimedia Commons)

Aviator Lore
Since the Air Force has been around significantly less time than the Army, Navy, or Marines, its body of lore is somewhat less robust in terms of sheer volume. What it lacks in quantity, however, it certainly makes up for in quality, as some of the most ritualistic performances of folk belief appear in Air Force stories. Some of the best ones:

  • Like soldiers, a pilot frequently keeps a bible or verse on his person as a protective talisman
  • “Aviators wore mismatched socks and shoes from successful missions, but they avoided apparel from fliers who had been shot down” (Brunvand 766)
  • A pilot would not allow a photograph to be taken of him immediately before flying a mission
  • The pre-flight toast or drink glass should always be tossed in the fire or smashed prior to take-off to ensure safe return
  • Carrying a silver dollar from a year with numbers adding up to thirteen (e.g. a 1903 silver dollar, as 1+9+0+3 = 13) would prevent harm from befalling an aviator
  • A plane with the word ‘boomerang’ somewhere in its name would always fly home safely (e.g. the B-29 Boomerang)

Perhaps one of the most interesting bits of Air Force lore is the ‘clinker’ plane—an aircraft in such bad shape it seems destined to crash right after liftoff. Any pilot who can safely get the plane out on a mission and back again would have been thought to be charmed for life and a safe bet to fly with.

A number of superstitions for airmen and women are more highly personal—a piece of clothing they might insist upon wearing every mission, or a standard phrase or action done immediately before takeoff (similar to the smashing of the glass).

And I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention my favorite bit of superstition and otherworldly interference for pilots: gremlins. No, not the ones from the 1980s movie, but the ones described by numerous air force pilots as intentionally climbing out over moving aircraft parts to destroy and sabotage them midflight. Children’s author Roald Dahl served as a member of the Royal Air Force in Britain and wrote a book about the little creatures (at one time the book was to be made into a Disney cartoon, but in the end its designs and general gist wound up as part of a Bugs Bunny short). The gremlins are sometimes thought to be monsters, and sometimes thought to be aliens, but almost always they are not of earthly realms.

I should also say that if I were to branch off from the magical side of the Air Force superstitions and into the alien-and-UFO side of things, there would be no shortage of material to share. If that’s something you’re interested in, I highly encourage you to look into it further!

So how’d I do? Let’s see, about 2,400 words, so I think that’s enough for this time around. But what about you? Do you know any interesting lore from the Armed Forces? Have you served in the military and heard any of these superstitions, or any ones not included here? I would love to hear them!

Thanks so much for reading,

-Cory

 

Sources:

  1. Brunvand, Jan, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (1996).
  2. Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
  3. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind (1972).
  4. “Gremlins, The.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gremlins
  5. Klesius, Michael. “One More for the Checklist,” Air & Space Magazine (2010).
  6. Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989).
  7. Wallrich, T/Sgt. Bill. “Superstition & the Air Force,” Western Folklore (1960).
  8. Watts, Linda S, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (2007).

Blog Post 188 – Visitors, Guests, & Strangers

May 8, 2014

Abraham and the Three Angels, by Gustave Dore (via Wikimedia Commons)

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:22)

And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat (Genesis 18:2-8).

Southerners are famous for their hospitality, so much so that the words are coupled together idiomatically in the phrase ‘Southern hospitality.’ Leaving aside potentially ironic implications of that expression (let us not forget that the ‘genteel’ South also maintained a bevvy of Jim Crow laws aimed at making life inordinately inhospitable for Southern Blacks), the concept of being a good host and treating those who arrive at one’s doorstep with dignity, warmth, and grace does have strong roots in American soil. Those roots are not exclusive to that soil, of course; the Ancient Greeks placed a tremendous value on the guest/host relationship, evidenced by numerous ancient writings and even the term the Greeks used for the practice of being a good guest/host, ghosti. Likewise, Hebraic culture values the right treatment of the stranger or alien in one’s land, as in the scriptural passages which launched this article, as well as dozens of other examples throughout the Bible. On American ground, however, this relationship found a variety of expressions among numerous peoples. While the performance of hospitality is inevitably different depending on its cultural context, the surprising homogeneity of value placed on hospitable action speaks to a core of humanity.

The practice of hosting and honoring the unknown guest also appears in a number of folk narratives with a distinctively supernatural bent—hosting angels unwares, so to speak, although in some tales the beings hosted are decidedly non-angelic. In this article we shall see some examples of these supernatural interactions, the rewards and risks involved, and some potential interpretations of the practical application of unearthly hospitality. We will also look at some of the rituals and traditions surrounding hospitality towards mortal beings, which is where we shall begin our examination.

In the Appalachian Mountains, traditions of hospitatlity are very strong, of course, but often mountain people might not see much of others except at major events. Being a good host extends to some of the most private moments in life, including the first night of marriage. The concept of a spontaneous wedding reception, called an ‘infare’ can be summed up thusly: ‘The word infare comes from Old English: in plus faran, to go in. It was a reception held in the home of the newly-married couple. Word was ‘spread around;’ no invitations wer issued, but people in the community knew that they were invited. Refreshments were served and games were played very much as at the play-party [essentially a bridal shower]. Neighbors often brought gifts of food and other things to be used in the home of the newly-wed couple’ (Gainer 32-33). The infare is a concept similar to the charivari or shivaree, which involved friends and neighbors of the newlyweds waking them the morning after with banging pots and pans, bells, whistles, hoots, and a number of innuendos about the wedding night. The function of these hospitality rites centers on a few concepts: celebration of a new union, blessing the happy couple, and community integration.

Sometimes extends to the idea of hospitality as an aspect of place versus people: ‘When you return to the house for something that has been forgotten, sit down in a chair before leaving again to avoid bad luck’ (Gainer 127). In a story from Hoosier folklore, it is neither a person nor place with an expectation of hospitality, but an object—a stove, in this case:

An old lady in St. Francisville sold her cookstove to a man who promised to pay her funeral expenses instead of giving her the price of the stove in ready cash. He didn’t do as he promised. Every time his wife tried to get a meal and cook on the stove, the stove lids would fly off. So he went to the priest and told him about it. “Have you made any promises lately?” asked the priest. Then the man had to confess that he had promised to pay the old woman’s funeral expenses in return for the stove but that he hadn’t done it yet. Then the priest told him to go right away and pay off his debt as quickly as he could. So the man did this and after that he and his wife had no more trouble about being able to cook on the stove, and the stovelids never flew off again (Smith 50).

This last example is essentially a haunting tale, although the aspect of returning a promised favor lets me slip it in edgewise to this look at hospitality. Weddings and ghosts aside, many examples of good housekeeping between the mundane and supernatural realms do follow the ‘angelic’ mode more closely.

In folklore from Mormon sources in the western United States, several stories center on visits from saints and angels. One of the best known versions of such tales is that of the “Three Nephites.”

According to the Book of Mormon, Christ, upon his coming to the American continent, had twelve apostles. When it came time for him to leave, he asked them if there was any wish that he might give them. Nine of them asked to go with him. The other three remained silent. They were told that they would never suffer death. Since then they have roamed the earth in a sort of immortal state. They appear at frequent intervals to give aid to those in distress or to give advice. Mormon literature is full of accounts concerning the mysterious appearance of one of these men and the wonderful things that they have done…Oral versions can be heard in almost every Mormon community (Dorson 500-502).

Dorson then recounts two different versions of the Three Nephites tale. In one, a sick brother is brought back from the brink of death on an isolated plot of land by a wandering stranger, who disappears almost the moment he leaves the house. Other Mormon tales include “The White Bread on the White Cloth,” in which an angelic visitor cures a sick baby from a hospitable household and “The Hungry Missionaries,” which tells the story of a pair of missionary Mormons near starvation who are gifted bread by a kindly stranger, only to find that their parents had given bread to a needy stranger that same night hundreds of miles away. Another version of the visitor tale that pops up frequently in Mormon lore involves the appearance of a “wee small voice” which provided emergency guidance in spiritually challenging situations. Some folklorists have equated the wandering Nephite tales with the tales of the “wandering Jew” found in some European legends (see Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face for a fictionalized version). While the “wandering Jew” tales frequently bear at least a small amount of anti-Semitic language or tone, Jewish custom also has its own version of the guest, with the empty plate set for Elijah during holy meals. My wife and I adopted a similar custom after seeing Christmas Eve practices in Prague.

Returning to the South, there are a few other places where strangers traveling in strange lands find succor among the locals. In Southern Protestant church circles, there are frequently tales of the wandering preacher being hosted by congregational family members, particularly for meals after Sunday service, often dining with a family while sharing extended prayers, blessings, and occasional sermons. Eventually, he becomes something of a comic character, giving rise to the popular proverb: “When the preacher come by for Sunday dinner it make[s] the chickens cry” (Courlander 500). In some versions, the preacher’s role can be turned into an abuse of power, even something evil or diabolical. Literary examples include Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Randall Kennan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. In addition to men (and occasionally women) of the cloth, African American communities put emphasis on the value of storytellers who would move between communities sharing lore and news. In this way, they were similar to a wandering bard figure, but more often the storytellers would be found in a centralized location (porch of a local mercantile—also becomes a literary figure, and a central piece of the narrative in Hurston’s Mules & Men).

The traditions surrounding hospitality, whether Southern or more broadly interpreted, form a core piece of American cosmology. Since one never knows just who one is hosting, graciousness is always a wise decision.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 


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