In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with skin as soft as silk,
Within a crystal fountain clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold
Yet thieves break in to steal the gold (from “Riddles,” American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, p. 1318)
This riddle (a variant of which appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit during Bilbo’s riddle-game with Gollum) probably isn’t very hard to figure out. Eggs are one of the food staples which exist nearly worldwide, and almost every culture has traditions dealing with eggs. They are cooked, painted, dyed, emptied and filled with dioramas, and the shells are even ground up and added to the soil to prevent garden pests.
Today we’re going to look a little at some of the magical traditions surrounding eggs, particularly the ones we find in the New World.
Much of the lore about eggs has to do with their production or bewitchment, such as these tidbits (from Folklore of Adams Co. Illinois, by Harry M. Hyatt):
- 1772. Hit a hen on the back and she will lay an egg.
- 1773. A hen never lays eggs near a potato patch.
- 1774. Eggs are not laid by hens on a windy day.
- 1823. If you set a hen in the dark of the moon, half of the chicks hatched will be deformed.
- 1824. Set a hen at sunrise in the light of the moon and all the eggs will hatch.
- 1825. If you set a hen to hatch in the light of the moon, more of the eggs will be hatched.
- 1848. To procure chickens of different colors, set the eggs on Sunday morning as the congregation leaves church; the various colors in the clothing of the church-goers produces this result.
- 1849. Chickens of various colors are procured by setting the eggs on Ash Wednesday.
- 1892. For white diarrhea among chickens [sometimes believed to be caused by witchcraft], drop a piece of iron into their drinking water and also let them eat corn saturated with urine.
Eggs are frequently used to heal magical illnesses or to help with prophetic work. John George Hohman records several uses of eggs in magic among the Pennsylvania Dutch, including a method for curing “falling away,” a folk sickness characterized by physical weakness, by boiling an egg, putting three holes in the shell, and then leaving it on an anthill to be devoured. A common belief among several traditions says that eggs left in the hands of a murder victim will compel the murder to return and be caught before the eggs rot. A bit of folklore related to Midsummer festivals (which may be from Latin American or Slavic sources, as the book is unclear to which culture it is referring): “In one divination, a girl seeks her betrothed by reading the shape of a egg white in a glass of water; in another, the index is a wreath floated on a stream” (“Solstices,” Amer. Folklore: An Encyclopedia, p. 1412). This seems to be related to a more general set of European folklore focused on St. John’s Day and Midsummer Eve, such as this ritual from Madeira:
On St. John’s eve at ‘Ave Maria’ the village maidens in Madeira try their fortunes in various ways. They take a newly laid egg, break it in a tumbler of cold water, and place it out of doors in a secluded place. Should the white rise in lines that in any way represent a ship, they will soon take a voyage. If it at all resembles a house, it means marriage and settling down. If a coffin or tombstone, it means death (Ecyc. of Superstitions, Folklore & the Occult Sciences, by Cora L.M. Daniels, p. 1551)
This practice may sound familiar, as it is very similar to the curandero method of egg reading done during a limpia, or spiritual cleansing. In that process (which I touched on briefly in Blog Post 137 – Curandero Spells, part I), an egg is used to rub and mark a person’s body in order to cleanse them of curses, witchcraft, bad luck, and general spiritual illness. An Ozark superstition says that if a man eats owl eggs it will cure him of alcoholism (this is not recommended, especially due to the potential environmental damage it could cause).
Eggs can also be used to cause harm as well as to cleanse it. Newbell N. Puckett records that among Southern African Americans eggs put into a couple’s bed will cause them to quarrel and fight (perhaps because they smash the eggs and get into a row about who’s going to clean it up?). A curious German method recorded by Harry M. Hyatt uses “a glass of salt water that will hold an egg up”and a picture of a person (usually a former lover). The egg is floated in the glass, the picture put upside down over it, and the water swirled around while making a wish for ill (or good, if the conjurer is so inclined) fortune for the person (Folklore of Adams Co., 16006). Hyatt also records that a witch can give a person a ‘gift’ of three eggs in order to curse them. In his extensive masterwork on folk magic (Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork), Hyatt records a number of other curses using eggs, including using buzzard’s eggs to cause someone harm or this spell, which allegedly forces a straying spouse to be faithful:
WRITE YOUR HUSBAND’S NAME
AND THE NAME OF THE WOMAN HE’S FOOLING AROUND WITH
ON AN EGG.
THROW THE EGG AWAY FROM YOU
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER,
AGAINST THE EAST CORNER OF YOUR HOUSE.
DO THIS FOR NINE CONSECUTIVE MORNINGS,
AND THAT AFFAIR WILL BE OVER.
Yes, ah learnt dis on chicken aigs. Yo’ take a aig, if a woman is runnin’ wit yore husband, an’ yo’ git chew a aig an’ bust a aig fo’ nine mawnin’s – an’ write dere names on dat aig – an’ bust de aig in [the] east fo’ nine mawnin’s. Throw it away from yo’ “In the Name of the Father” in de east – in de cornah of de house fo’ nine mawnin’s. Dat bust ‘em up an’ yo’ nevah will be bothahed wit ‘em no mo’ – yo’ won’t have tuh worry. Jes’ write dere names on dose aigs an’ bust ‘em fo’ nine mawnin’s – yeah one each mawnin’.
(Whose house do you bust that on, your own house?)
Yore own house, yeah.
(Despite the ‘on’ of my question, these eggs are broken inside the house. This is a rite to separate a man and woman, not to make someone move from a house. The eggs are busted against the wall, thrown away from you so that the dangerous substance will not spatter on you.)
[Memphis, TN; A lady who once worked in Louisiana; Informant #1419. D15:3-D23:6 = 2698-2706.] (Vol. 2, p.1581)
Eggshells also have magical uses completely on their own and apart from their high-protein filling. A curious southern tradition involves using eggs as a method to deter predators from killing young chickens on a farm: “Hawks may be kept from catching your chickens by sticking a poker in the fire; by threading eggshells, from which chickens have recently hatched, on a piece of straw (or putting them in a covered tin bucket) and hanging them in the chimney” (Puckett, Folk Beliefs…, p.323). Vance Randolph records that a tea made from “toasted egg shells in water” was taken by a girl near Forsyth, Missouri, for ailments unknown, but likely related to stomach issues. And I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention the magical ingredient of cascarilla, or powdered eggshell, which is used in Santeria/Lukumi as well as a few other traditions. It is usually sold in little paper cups (though it is not hard to produce yourself if you just wash and save your eggshells from a few breakfasts), and used to ward off evil and occasionally to draw sigils for ritual work.
Dreaming of eggs is supposed to be good luck, indicating everything from monetary gain to a wedding or children on the horizon. Traditions conflict about whether the eggs must be whole or broken to indicate good news, with convincing arguments presented on both sides (a fragile relationship situation—such as one affected by a lover’s quarrel–could be deemed finished by dreaming of broken eggs, or the possession of whole eggs might mean wealth, for instance). Randolph records this tidbit about the use of eggs to produce prophetic dreams:
Sometimes a mountain damsel boils an egg very hard, then removes the yolk and fills the cavity with salt. Just before bedtime she eats this salted egg. In the night, according to the old story, she will dream that somebody fetches her a gourd filled with water. The man who brings her the water is destined to be her husband. It is surprising how many young women have tried this, and how many feel that there may be something in it (Ozark Magic & Folkore, p. 174)
While this method seems popular, I think it would probably not be good for anyone’s blood pressure.
Wow, that’s a lot of material about eggs! And I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are so many more superstitions, spells, and sayings about eggs that I couldn’t begin to cover them all. So I’ll just recommend that if you want a good, easily available household tool for magic, you just can’t beat the humble egg. Hm, speaking of beaten eggs, I wonder if there are any magical meringues out there?
Thanks for reading!