Posted tagged ‘Georgia’

Blog Post 164 – Superstitions and Omens, Redux

October 9, 2012

Hi everyone!

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:

Source: http://dailyinfographic.com/how-to-forecast-weather-without-gadgets-infographic

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.

References:

That’s it for today! Thanks so much for reading!

-Cory

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Blog Post 121 – Watching Birds

March 1, 2011

Today we’ll be looking at birds and their place as divinatory aids in the New World, something we touched on briefly in the second post on Magical Animals.  Birds have historically been turned to by humans for secret knowledge, largely owing to their unfettered freedom to fly from place to place.  Virtually all mythologies have some tale of a great mythic bird:  the Roc in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Zeus’s swan-form, the Thunderbird of some Native American stories, and the haunting Crane Dance of Japan are some of the better-known examples. A creation myth of the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands says that a raven, lonely in his long flight, spit upon a clam and opened it up, freeing the first humans (see Magical Creatures by E. Pepper & B. Stacy for more on this).  What have birds to do with divination, though?  Many readers probably already know about the branch of fortune-telling known as augury, but for those who haven’t heard of it, it simply means predicting fate by observing the flights of birds.

So how does one go about performing augury?  Here things get a bit fuzzy—in some cases, the future comes as a vision released by a relaxed mind observing with detachment the loops and turns of soaring birds.  Portuguese writer Paulo Coelho incorporates this type of augury into his novella, The Alchemist when he has a young shepherd accidentally catch a glimpse of coming war while he watches two hawks diving over desert sands.  The other method, and the one which makes up a good bit of North American lore, simply involves noting the behavior of birds and interpreting it by means of known connotations.  This sort of augury has numerous manifestations, and is especially prominent in Appalachian lore.  Folklorist W. L. McAtee recorded a number of bird-related divinations in an essay from 1955:

From “Odds & Ends on North American Folklore on Birds,” by W. L. McAtee:

  • “[I]f ever a bird builds in your shoe or pocket, or any of your clothes, you may prepare to die within the year.”
  • “The loon, a favorite with folklorists, is called ‘Bad Luck Bird’ by the natives [of the Sea Islands of Georgia], who will not speak of it, or if possible even look at it when they meet it in a journey by water.”
  • “While recording the common beliefs as to the storm petrels, that ‘Their appearance portends bad weather,’ Mrs. Simcoe [McAtee’s informant] adds: ‘To kill them is unlucky. Each bird is supposed . . . to contain the soul of a dead sailor.’
  • “The Reverend J. H. Linsley in his Birds of Connecticut (1843) noted that the cry of the bittern is a cause of superstitious fear and recorded that one man hearing it ran a mile, saying, that the Devil was after him.”
  • “’A token,’ said Archibald Rutledge [another informant], writing of the Santee Country, South Carolina, ‘is an apparition foretelling death,’ and cites as examples an eagle feeding with black vultures, a wild turkey standing alone under a certain great oak tree, and an albino robin.”
  • “[An] Abundance of people here look upon [whip-poor-wills] . . . as birds of ill omen, and they are very melancholy if one of them happens to light upon their house, or near their door, and set up his cry (as they will sometimes upon the very threshold) for they firmly believe one of the family will die very soon after.”
  • “Canada Jays are supposed to embody the souls of hunters or lumbermen who die in the north woods and it, therefore, brings bad luck to kill them.”
  • “In western North Carolina, it means seven years of bad luck to kill a raven.”
  • “To end this section on a more cheerful note, we cite the Ozark fancy that ‘If a redbird flies across a girl’s path . . . she will be kissed before night.’”

Other mountain lore about birds tends to focus on weather prediction (a subject we’ve covered in our posts on Signs & Omens to some extent, but you can never have enough weather-prediction lore).  Patrick Gainer observes: “When the geese wander on the hills and fly homeward squawking, there will be a storm within twenty-four hours,” and “When the red birds call in the morning, it will rain before night.”  Vance Randolph records some Ozark lore along the same lines:

  • Chickens or turkeys standing with their backs to the wind and with ruffled feathers mean a storm’s coming.
  • A rooster crowing at nightfall portends rain through the dark hours.
  • A sudden burst of robin-song foretells of bad weather.
  • Kingfishers nesting near the water mean a dry season to come.

Birds seem indelibly linked with concepts of luck and death, too.  Anyone who’s seen the 90’s cult film The Crow probably remembers the voice-over at the movie’s opening telling a pseudomyth about how people once believed that a crow ferried souls between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and occasionally allowed one to come back for vengeance (I call this a pseudomyth not because there’s no truth in it, but rather that I’ve never been able to find exactly that myth borne out in folklore, though there are certainly close correlatives to it—corvids are often associated with death).  There are many other pieces of Appalachian lore in this vein:

  • Barn swallows bring good luck where they nest, and it is bad luck to shoot one. (Randolph, OM&F)
  • Redbirds or roosters lingering near one’s doors or windows tend to mean tragedy will come soon after. (Randolph, OM&F)
  • Whippoorwills nesting at a home mean death will soon come to it. (Randolph, OM&F)
  • If a bird flies in the window, someone in the family will die. (Gainer, WG&S)
  • It is bad luck for a hen to crow. (Gainer, WG&S)
  • “Owls are omens of great ill.  If you spot one nearby while you are inside your home, the direction in which it flies away is an indication of the fate of your household.  If it flies off to the left of the cabin, very bad luck can be expected, but if it flies off to the right, it indicates an evil influence has chosen to pass you by.”(Edain McCoy, In a Graveyard at Midnight)
  • “Many western occult traditions regard peacocks as omens of ill fortune and their feathers as tokens of bad luck.” (Pepper & Stacy, MC)

Finally, in the category of “Odds & Ends,” there are some really spectacularly unique bits of North American folklore about birds which come from all over:

  • Buzzards will vomit upon anyone guilty of incest. (Randolph, OM&F)
  • “When you hear the first robin sing in the spring, sit down on a rock and take off your left stocking.  If there is a hair in it, your sweetheart will call on you soon.” (Gainer, WG&S)
  • “If a bird flies down and gets tangled in your hair, it is an indication that the bird has linked itself with your soul, and whatever befalls the bird is likely to befall you also.” (McCoy, IaGaM)
  • Richard Dorson records a legend in Buying the Wind found amongst Illinois “Egyptians” (or what many would call “Gypsies”) about a mouse, a bird, and a sausage who all keep house together until the sausage is eaten and the mouse accidentally kills himself that feels like it must have some embedded magical meaning, though I’ve yet to figure it out.

That’s it for our bird-watching entry.  If you’ve got lore you’d like to share about birds, we’d love to hear it!  It certainly gives me a good reason to keep watching the skies, so please feel free to comment with any augury methods you’ve got.

As always, thanks so much for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 80 – Horseshoes

August 17, 2010

Following in the vein of recent posts, today I’m looking at another luck charm:  the horseshoe.  One thing Laine and I discussed in Podcast 13 was that the horseshoe seems to be a rather ubiquitous talisman.  It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that many folks may not even realize it has any magical connotation at all.  In an article from Western Folklore entitled “Lucky Horseshoes,” Jeannine E. Talley writes:

The horseshoe as a bestower of luck is so frequently encountered that it has become a cliche, but at the same time an isolated belief without a context. Barnet’s comment that the mule has been “pounding it full of luck” provides not only the ‘logic’ explaining why the horseshoe is full of luck but also reveals that luck is ac-cumulative. His insistence that the old nails must be used to hang the shoe is not found in standard collections for folk belief, but is akin to the notion that if the hardware is hung with prongs down, the luck will “run out.” This instance is a prime example that collecting the item is not enough; the contextual background of any item is of equal importance since it often contains the rationale which makes the belief credible. (p. 129)

I like this particular examination of the horseshoe because it details two points:  1) the horseshoe’s luck comes from its association with the horse itself and 2) as Talley states, the luck is accumulative, so the longer a shoe has been on a horse, the luckier it is.

Of course, there are plenty of other theories about why a horseshoe might be lucky.  Robert M. Lawrence, in his article,  “The Folk-Lore of the Horseshoe” describes the horseshoe as a talismanic emblem with many possible folkloric connections, including:

  • The Jewish Passover – like blood spread on doorposts/lintels and rowan trees in Scotland
  • Serpent emblem – “In front of a church in Crendi, a town in the southern part of the island of Malta, there is to be seen a statue having at its feet a protective symbol in the shape of a half-moon encircled by a snake”
  • Moon emblem – “the brass crescent, an avowed charm against the evil eye, is very commonly attached to the elaborately decorated harnesses of Neapolitan draught horses, and is used in the East to embellish the trappings of elephants.”
  • Phallic Emblem of some kind
  • Prong-shamed talisman – like protective horns of animals (connected to African symbols)
  • Horse as Sacred Animal (as mentioned above)
  • Iron as “Virtuous” metal capable of dispelling harmful forces (Journal of American Folklore, v.9, n.35, 1896, p. 288-292)

I hope to get into some of these symbols and ideas in other posts at another time—particularly iron, which shows up a lot in fairy doctoring practices and other magical systems—so for now I think it suffices to say that horseshoes have a lot of lore to build upon and are quite lucky, though no one seems to know exactly why they are so.

So how does one use horseshoes?  First of all, the shoe needs to be one which actually has been on a horse at some point (remember all that pounding of luck into it in Jeannine Talley’s article?).  Likewise, there are some who say that hanging a horseshoe involves using a spent horseshoe nail, too.  That seems to be a slightly less stringent requirement, but if you happen to have a spare horseshoe nail with your horseshoe, why not use it?

The issue of which way the “horns” of the shoe are pointing seems to be hotly contested by those who concern themselves with such things.  Both opinions seem to have some sound reasoning behind them, which I mentioned in the most recent podcast.  The general idea boils down to whether you think the horns up are “holding in the luck” or whether the horns down are “pouring the luck out on you.”  Either way, I think this is where instinct kicks in.  If you feel like you’ve hung it the “wrong way,” you probably have and  you should switch it.  But if you feel like your luck’s in good condition and your horseshoe’s “right,” then leave it be.

As to how specifically a horseshoe might be used, Harry M. Hyatt has a few examples of horseshoes in hoodoo work:

1) From Vol.2,p.1547

NAIL A HORSESHOE UP
OVER YOUR FRONT DOOR.
NAIL A PENNY DOWN IN THE FRONT
DOOR TOO. SCRUB IT ALL THE TIME.*
THESE WILL BRING YOU GOOD LUCK.

Dey kin use a horseshoe. Yo’ take a horseshoe an’ yo’ kin nail it up
ovah yore front do’ an’ take a penny an’ nail it down in de front do’; an’
yo’ jes’ let dat penny stay dere all de time an’ yo’ scrub ovah dat penny
all de time, an’ jes’ leave it dere an’ dat’ll be good luck fo’ yo’.
[Savannah, GA; Madam Pauline; Informant #1274. C575:1-C586:10 = 2136-2167.]

2) From Vol.2,p.1443

A HORSESHOE OVER THE DOOR
KEEPS SPOOKS OUT AND BRINGS LUCK.
& A MULESHOE OVER THE DOOR OF A BUSINESS
BRINGS BUSINESS SUCCESS

Keep a horseshoe – keep it ovah de do’ to keep de spook outa dere an’
fo’ luck, specially a man who does business. He’d have a new [mule] shoe ovah
de do’ – like he do’s a business roun’ in a shop or a restaurant or somepin
lak dat, because a mule is a hard-workin’ thing, hard-workin’. All right.
An’ jes’ lak ah’d have de mule when he hitch out an’ go to his stall to
eat, people be coming to his place and say….
[Sumter, SC; Informant #1387; Cylinders C885:1-C902:4 = 2366-2383]

(Both of these can be found in Hyatt’s book or in the excellent Yahoo! Group  “HyattSpells”)

I like the first example because it combines the lucky penny with the lucky horseshoe, and places luck at your head and your feet, so every time you enter a door,  you get caught between the two and get a double dose of luck.  I also like the rationale for using a mule shoe to boost business (because the mule is so hard-working).

Finally, Vance Randolph describes the Ozark methods of horseshoe deployment in Ozark Magic & Folklore:

  • Most hillfolk of my acquaintance use a horseshoe instead of the stone (to protect chickens from hawks), and some think that a muleshoe is even better. It is frequently fastened in the firebox of the stove rather than in the oven. In the old days the muleshoe was hung up in the fireplace, or even set into the mortar at the back of the chimney (p. 43)
  • Many hillfolk think that the man who finds a horseshoe with the closed end toward him will do well to “leave it lay.” If the open end is toward the finder, he sometimes spits on it and throws it over his left shoulder, a procedure which is supposed to bring good fortune. Or he may place it in a tree or on a fence,saying: “Hang thar, all my bad luck!” In this case, whoever touches the hanging horseshoe falls heir to the misfortune of the man who placed it there (p. 62)
  • Probably the commonest way to keep witches out of the house is to nail a horseshoe over the door; this is regarded as a sort of general prophylactic against witches, bad luck, contagious disease, and other evil influences (p. 283)

So that’s the lucky horseshoe.  Another long article, so I apologize for that, but hopefully you aren’t too bored.  Skimming is probably a good skill to apply when reading these blogs.  At any rate, if you have any questions or comments about horseshoes, please feel free to post them!

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 73 – Book Review

July 28, 2010

I know, I know, two book reviews in a row may seem excessive, but I spent a lot of time reading over the past few weeks, so bear with me.  Plus, you may find some new books to investigate!

Today’s book is Blue Roots by Roger Pinckney.  It’s about rootwork, hoodoo, and conjure, but not the broad, general kind so often discussed in other books and on blogs and webpages (including this one).  Instead, Pinckney focuses on the healing and magical traditions of one particular group:  the Gullahs.  Primarily associated with the Savannah, Georgia area, the Gullah people inhabit a large swathe of the lower Atlantic seaboard, especially the islands just off the coast of George and South Carolina.   They are often referenced as an “untouched” enclave of African-American culture, and portrayed as a sort of quaint and folksy pocket of rural Americana.

Pinckney does little to disabuse the reader of those notions, creating a fairly warm, nostalgic book about folk healing practices (and a little bit of magic, too) found on the Southern Atlantic coast.  The author also spends a good bit of time examining the spiritual practices of the Gullah, with an emphasis on spirits, the dead, ancestors, and African Diaspora remnants.  From a section on the “haint blue” paint commonly found around doors, windows, and porches in the Southeast:

“Prior to the [American] Revolution when coastal plantations produced indigo dye for English cloth, planters gave their slaves the dregs from the boiling pots, which the slaves used to decorate window frames and porch posts, in the believe the blue color kept the plentiful spirits at bay.  When indigo cultivation declined in the 1780s, Gullah slaves continued the custom with blue paint.  It is a practice that survives to this day, perhaps no longer for a spiritual repellent, but as a tradition, nevertheless” (p. 72).

The book generally does a good job of highlighting some of the beliefs and practices associated with the Gullah, and also pays wider homage to the Southern incarnations of hoodoo and African religion.  Pinckney sometimes seems uncomfortable with rootwork as a magical practice, and prefers to refer to those who use herbs, roots, and animal parts as “root doctors” rather than “conjurers.”  His attitude in general is that of a journalist who does not believe most of what he’s told, but who really wants to.  He explains a lot of rootwork’s more magical components as methods of psychological intimidation.  In his chapter “The Power of the Root,” he describes an hypothetical visit to a root doctor in detail, then concludes with this sentiment:

“And will the root actually help him?  Probably so.  If rootwork were not effective, the practice would have died out centuries ago.  Most likely, one of the man’s [the client] confidants will mention the conjuration to another, and the news will go whispering through the community until the rejected woman [the target] hears that she has been rooted.  And since she knows in her heart that all her subversion was wrong in the first place, she will immediately desist her sundry annoyances” (p. 62).

This perspective is not one I particularly endorse, as I truly think rootwork has power in and of itself, and that the spiritual and magical components are far greater than the psychological ones, but it is certainly not an invalid point of view.

Some of the best chapters in this book are about Sherriff J. E. McTeer and his battles with the infamous Dr. Buzzard.  I mentioned both of these famous conjure men in my post on Who’s Who in Hoodoo, Part II, and they both feature prominently in Jack Montgomery’s work, American Shamans.  Pinckney spends a lot of time on their lore and their recorded history, which sometimes differ quite a bit.  Actually, the lore he presents in most of his chapters is quite good, and he uses a journalist’s nose for facts to substantiate or repudiate certain points, while never discounting the broader nature of a story’s “truth.”

This is a book that I recommend to those interested in Southern rootwork, particularly its history and social relevance.  It’s not one you can learn a lot of new tricks from, but you can certainly pick up a few things as you read.  If nothing else, Pinckney has a deep love and reverence for the Gullah, the South, and rootworkers at large, so the book feels like a conversation with a good friend.  If you think hoodoo, particularly the kind found in the Carolina/Georgia islands, is your thing, check out Blue Roots.


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