Blog Post 164 – Superstitions and Omens, Redux
At the recent Pagan Podkin Super Moot, I had the privilege of teaching a class which I called “The Clear Moon Brings Rain,” focusing on living an “omen-ic” life. There’s a possibility that a recording of that class may surface at some point, and I really enjoyed getting to be a part of that experience, as it was mostly a directed conversation rather than a lecture-type of class, but I thought some of the notes and information I shared might be of interest to my readers.
I began with a question about the movie Practical Magic, which I love. I used the line “Broom fell; company’s coming,” to start talking about the way we learn and adopt signs and omens into our lives. Some people had not heard that particular sign prior to the movie, and some grew up with it. On some level, it seems that many people—especially those involved in a magical lifestyle of some kind—recognize that the world is essentially ‘speaking’ to them, if they are willing to listen. A prime example of living by signs transcends the purely magical and veers into the realm of science, specifically meteorology. People frequently use idiomatic expressions or folk methodologies to detect patterns in the weather around them and predict potential changes that will personally impact them. In some cases, these changes are immediate: a greenish sky and hail preceding a tornado in some parts of the country; animals freaking out prior to an earthquake in another place (like San Francisco, where PPSM3 took place). There is a wonderful infographic which displays a lot of weather lore quite succinctly, and touches on some of the scientific reasons behind each phenomenon:
From there, we looked at why we are able—as a whole—to accept signs related to imminent weather disasters, but we resist signs with more tenuous connections, like when wasps build their nests up high prior to a long, hard winter. Several people made excellent points about detachment from our surroundings, particularly nature, and I was very pleased to hear people making the point that when we don’t directly rely upon natural phenomena to feed us or make us comfortable (due to living someplace with regular access to food, climate control, and entertainment), we ‘unlearn’ the connective language of omens in the process. However, I then posited that we should develop a new set of omens in place of the old ones: predicting traffic based on certain sounds or sights, for example. Several folks attending said that they already did exactly that, which seems to me a prime example of being ‘tapped in’ to the world around you, no matter what environment you live in.
I asked if the signs and omens, then, were universal or personal, or some combination of the two. A marvelous array of answers suggested that for most folks, reading the world around you requires familiarity with it, with at least some aspect of personal interpretation involved. Likewise, it was pointed out that symbols register differently: an owl swooping across the road in front of your car may just be a raptor on the hunt. But a second owl doing the same thing may be a tap on the shoulder from the universe. We also brought up the point that ignoring a good omen frequently lands one in hot water in mythological circumstances, so paying attention can be more valuable than blissful ignorance.
Knowing how to discern signs is also important. A song stuck in your head may just be an infectious earworm surfacing for no reason, but if you live an “omen-ic” life, then frequently those sorts of little details can alter your perception enough to add enchantment and significance to everything. Taken to an extreme, however, omens can become superstition. While I tend to embrace the latter term, I also recognize that for most people, superstition denotes custom or tradition without substance, or a fear-motivated lifestyle, and I would absolutely agree that spending seven years in fear after breaking a mirror is not a life really lived anymore.
Near the end, we played some games involving reading omens from other people’s experiences, and I shared this passage from Toni Morrison’s Sula:
“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.
What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knonws that robins could fall” (89-90).
This comes after the return of the titular character in the novel to her hometown, where she is regarded as something of a wonder, something of a witch, and definitely not a welcome presence. So unwelcome is she, that the town endures a “plague of robins,” with hundreds of the birds roosting and dying all around the townsfolk after Sula arrives. My point in bringing up this passage was to focus on the cosmology implicit in it: Nature never askew, only problematic, and always offering hints as to what comes next; deciding when it is better to fight against Fate, and when stepping out of her way as she passes is best; and seeing great moments as personally symbolic in life. I think that Morrison’s words capture a bit of the sense of what I mean when I speak of the “omen-ic” life. It is a life lived fatefully, purposefully, and with a tremendous awareness of the vast interconnection of all the moving parts of existence. It is also a life in which fear becomes secondary to strength and wisdom—fear may be present, but it does not dominate.
All of this hardly captures the gorgeous conversation that those attending the class provided. They were deeply engaged and we had some incredibly sharp minds present. What I present here reflects more of my opinion than it does the dynamics of the group, but I hope that perhaps the conversation can continue. What are your thoughts on omens, signs, and fate? I’ve asked about such things before, of course, but it’s been a while, and perhaps you differently about them now, or perhaps not. Either way, feel free to leave comments below, or to email me and tell me about your interpretations of an “omen-ic” life.
Finally, I can’t resist the opportunity to share some more signs and omens from other sources. Here are some of the more common, and some of the most unusual, examples I’ve found (these were included in the class handout):
A Short List of Typical Signs & Omens of the Americas
1. If you cut your nails on a Saturday, you’ll see your sweetheart on Sunday.
2. The accidental crossing as four people shake hands together means that one of them will soon marry.
3. A baby smiling in its sleep has an angel speaking to it.
4. When passing a wagon-load of hay, you should grab a handful—it will bring good luck if you do, and bad luck if you don’t.
5. If the stars are thick, it is a sign of rain.
6. Lightning in the south means dry weather.
7. If you find an inch-worm on your clothes, you will soon have new garments.
8. You should never watch a friend walk out of sight, or you will never see him/her again.
9. If two persons say the same thing at the same time, they must lock their little fingers without saying a word and make a wish.
10. Dream of a funeral and attend a wedding.
11. It is bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast.
12. Cutting a baby’s hair before it is a year old will give it bad luck (also said of letting a baby look in a mirror).
13. A baby born with a caul over its face will be a prophet or a seer.
14. A whippoorwill which alights on a house and calls is announcing a death to come.
15. Misfortunes always come in threes.
16. A bride should not look at her complete wedding attire in the mirror until after she is married, or else the marriage will end badly.
17. If sparks from a fire favor someone (move towards him/her in unnatural ways or numbers) he/she has significant magical powers.
18. Hearing raps, knocks, bells, chimes, or ticking with no apparent cause announces a death in the near future.
19. The seventh son of a seventh son will be a naturally gifted healer, seer, or witch.
20. A cat, coiled up with its head and stomach showing, means bad weather is coming; if it yawns and stretches, good weather is not far behind.
21. A rooster crowing at night brings rain in the morning.
22. Seeing a “sundog” (a halo around the sun) indicates either a drought or a radical change in weather soon.
23. Fogs in August are snows in winter.
24. If you are walking or riding at night and feel a sudden warmth or chill, it is a spirit, and you should turn your pockets inside out to keep it from doing you harm.
25. Stepping over a broom forwards is bad luck, but you can reverse it by stepping over the broom backwards.
Some Unusual Signs, Omens, & Superstitons
1. People with short fingernails are tale-bearers.
2. If the first snake you see in spring is already dead, you will conquer your enemies.
3. For hot-peppers to prosper, they must be planted by a red-headed or hot-tempered person.
4. You shouldn’t cut a baby’s nails in the first year of life; you should bite them off.
5. If you catch a butterfly and bite off its head, you will soon have a dress the same color as the butterfly.
6. If a bird builds a nest in your shoe or pocket, you will die within a year.
7. If you find a hairpin in the road, you shall soon have a new friend. If the pin’s tines are of equal length, the friend will be a girl; unequal means a boy.
8. It is very bad luck to be photographed with a cat.
9. If you kiss a witch, all the silver in your pockets will turn black.
10. You can’t swear and catch fish.
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972).
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs (Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois. (Alma E. Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
- McAtee, W.L. “Odds & Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore (Autumn 1955).
- Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2007).
- Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folk Lore.” Journal of American Folklore. (March 1901).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Columbia Univ. Press, 1947).
- Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions & Beliefs from Central Georgia.” Journal of American Folklore. (Winter 1899).
- Thomas, Daniel L. & Lucy B. Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1920).
That’s it for today! Thanks so much for reading!
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