Posted tagged ‘Ireland’

Blog Post 110 – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

December 24, 2010

“ ‘I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
‘You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,’ Scrooge pursued. ‘Is that so, Spirit?’
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.”
(from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol)

To mark Christmas Eve—which is probably my favorite winter holiday, simply because it’s the one I’ve always celebrated and the one I’ve always found most magical—I thought today I’d put up a few of the many fortune-telling techniques employed at this time.  While many of these are not specifically New World, they are often quite ethnically linked and so are found in a variety of ethnic communities both in the “Old Country” and the New.

Polish Customs
(you can read more about these customs here)

  • Girls who grind poppy seeds on Christmas Eve can expect a swift marriage
  • After dinner on Christmas Eve, a girl will leave the house and listen for a dog bark.  Wherever it comes from is the direction from which her future husband will arrive.
  • A maiden could go down to the river on Christmas Eve and dip her hand in the water, pulling out the first object she touched.  Wood meant her future husband might be a carpenter, leather a cobbler, iron a blacksmith, etc.
  • Straws could be placed under the tablecloth at dinner, then pulled by guests to foretell the future.  A green straw meant marriage, a yellow straw meant spinsterhood, a short straw meant an early grave.

Czech Customs
(you can read more about these customs here)

  • Every member of the family lays some bread on the floor, after which the dog is called in.  Whose bread the dog eats will go on a journey in the next year (or in some variations, be dead by that time).
  • Melted lead is dropped into cool water, and the shapes are used to interpret the future.  For example a sheep-shaped piece might indicate a future job in agriculture, or perhaps peace and rest in the near future.  I’ve heard of tin being substituted, and I imagine candle wax would be a reasonable replacement, too, if you lack the means to melt metal in your home.
  • Lighted candles could be placed in walnut shells, then floated in the bathtub.  Whoever had the shell which went the farthest would be making a long and important journey soon.
  • After dinner, guests take an apple and cut it crosswise.  If it reveals a star-shape, good fortune awaits the subject.  If it shows a cross, illness or death is coming.
  • Walnuts can also be cracked to reveal the future.  A kernel that is big and sweet reveals happiness and prosperity, while a shriveled or bitter kernel foretells sorrow or sickness.

Irish Customs
(you can read more about these customs here, here and here)

  • A sheep’s shoulder-blade could be “read” to indicate the future.  After the lamb was eaten at Christmas dinner, its shoulder would be scraped clean without using iron (preferably by the teeth or a wooden implement), and the spots left at the thinnest parts of the blade would show shapes to the reader indicating the future.
  • In a very grave ceremony, a round cake would be baked (sometimes of ashes or even cow dung) and a candle would be placed in it for each member of the family.  The order in which the candles burned out indicated the order in which family members would die.
  • The neighing of horses on Christmas Eve indicated whether there would be peace or war in the coming year.
  • A girl going to a well just before midnight on Christmas Eve could see her future spouse in the calm waters.
  • A girl could knock at a hen-house door on this night, and if the cock crowed, she would soon marry.  If not, she would remain celibate.

British Customs
(you can read more about these customs here and here)

  • Whoever lit the new Yule log with a piece of the previous year’s Yule log would have good fortune all year.  This concept was immortalized in verse by Robert Herrick’s poem, “The Yule Log.”
  • The plow was to be brought in and kept under the table all through the twelve days of Christmas in order to ensure good luck.  If you had a plow, that is.
  • A girl could place a sprig of hawthorn in a glass of water and if it sprouted on Christmas Eve, she would be sure to soon marry.

Italian Customs
(you can read more about these customs here, here, and here)

  • Each member of the family puts a heap of flour on the table and leaves the room.  The head of the family then comes in and stashes different presents or charms in the flour piles, and the family returns to find their fortune for the year based on the charm they received.
  • If Christmas Eve is moonlit, there will be bad fruit in the coming year.
  • A man in costume standing on the church steps can watch for those who attempt to enter the church on Christmas Eve but find themselves unable to do so.  The man then identifies those who did not make it into the church as witches.
  • Those born on Christmas Eve are thought to become either werewolves or witches, depending on their gender.
  • Anyone who invokes the Devil before a mirror on Christmas Eve may become a witch (not really divination, but I thought it was interesting anyway!).

If you have Christmas Eve fortune-telling or divination customs, we’d love to hear them!  I know this barely scratches the surface of all the various cultures which partake in a little bit of magic on Christmas Eve, but I must stop here.  I still have a few presents to wrap, and I think I may need to track down some lead, a plow, and maybe a mirror.
Have the very best of holidays, everyone!  Thank you all so much for reading, and all my wintry blessings go out to our readers!  May the light find you, wherever you are.

-Cory

Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I

May 12, 2010

Today, I thought I’d start to tackle in brief a subject which deserves its own book.  Or several books.  Perhaps even a library.  I’d like to do an overview of the loose collection of occult, healing, and divinatory practices practiced by the mountain folk found in the Appalachian range.  This is not going to be a comprehensive post, just a general snapshot of the different components of mountain magic, so if I don’t cover something in detail I will likely be coming back to it again eventually.  First, though, let’s start with a little bit about where this system comes from.

History
When European settlers moved into these mountains, they found that the lore and landscape they suddenly occupied was not entirely different than what they’d left behind in Europe.  Many of the Native American tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee already associated these ancient mountains with magic and otherworldly power.  There were even beings which very much resembled fairies living in those ridges and valleys, as illustrated in the Cherokee tale of the “Forever Boy”:

“As he looked behind him, there they were, all the Little People. And they were smiling at him and laughing and running to hug him. And they said, ‘Forever Boy you do not have to grow up. You can stay with us forever. You can come and be one of us and you will never have to grow up… Forever Boy thought about it for a long time. But that is what he decided he needed to do, and he went with the Little People” (Native American Lore Index – Legends of the Cherokee).

The presence of fairies in the mountains would have been familiar to groups like the Germans and the Scots-Irish, the latter of whom had their own tradition of “fairy doctoring” which would eventually shape a portion of Appalachian magical practice.

Germans also brought in astrology, particularly astrology associated with things like planting, healing, and weather.  Despite a strongly Christian background (and strongly Protestant and Calvinist at that), most settlers accepted a certain amount of magical living in the mountains.  As George Milnes says in his Signs, Cures, & Witchery:

“Among the early German settlers in West Virginia, religion was thoroughly mixed with not only astrology but also esoteric curing practices tied to cosmic activity.  Folk curing bridged a gap between the religious and the secular mind-set.  And forms of white magic were not disdained; in fact, they were practiced by the early German clergy” (SC&W, p. 31).

The Scots and Scots-Irish who settled in the mountains were often displaced due to land struggles back home.  After long struggles with England for an independence which clearly would never be theirs, clan leaders traveled across the Atlantic and began building new territories.  The mountains running between Georgia and West Virginia were a perfect fit for them, according to Edain McCoy:

“The Scots found the southern Appalachians very remote, like their Highland home, a place where they could resume their former lifestyle and live by their ancient values without interference from the sassenach, or outsiders.  So isolated were they that many of the late medieval speech patterns and terms remained intact in the region until well into [the 20th] century” (In a Graveyard at Midnight, p. 6).

Once these various elements were situated in the mountains together, they began to merge and blend, mixing Native and European sources to create something else.  The introduction of hoodoo elements eventually changed the mixture again, though much later, and there are still old-timers in the hills practicing many of these techniques even now, though it is unlikely the entire system will remain intact for more than a generation or two as many mountain folk are being forced by poverty or circumstance to give up their highland homes.  Still, for the moment, there are lots of people trying to get Appalachian folkways recorded and preserved before they perish from the earth (this blog being one very infinitesimal drop in the bucket as far as that goes).   So for that, at least, we can be thankful.

Okay, I’ll stop here for today.  Tomorrow, I’ll be picking up with a little bit on each of the current components of Appalachian magical practice.  Until then…

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 48 – Comparing Tales

April 20, 2010

Greetings everyone!  On Podcast 8, I mentioned two stories which share remarkable similarities.  I was speaking of a story in the W. B. Yeats collection Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, specifically a story called “The Witches’ Excursion” (I incorrectly called it something like “James and the Red Cap” on the podcast…my apologies to Yeats and anyone who went poring over that tome looking for that non-existent title).  For comparison, I cited the tale “Greasy Witches,” in The Granny Curse, by Randy Russell.  You can read most of that story here, on Google Books (though I can’t guarantee how long that much of the book will remain free to read).  Briefly, I thought it might be fun to go over a few of the similarities and commonalities found in these tales, for the sake of seeing how Old World witch lore migrates and transforms in the New World.

In the Appalachian version, the cabin is located on Roan Mountain.  In this case, I think that the “roan” referred to could be tied into the “red” of the red cap being used to induce magical flight in the Yeats tale.  Or, “roan” could be a variant on “rowan,” which is a mountain ash tree (which derives its name from its red berries, and thus could still have the “red” connection).  The rowan tree is loaded with magical significance—some of the most potent anti-witchcraft charms are crosses made from rowan twigs bound with red thread.  However, it could also be used to make magical tools as well, such as wands or staves.  Oh, I should also point out that Roan Mountain is actually a real mountain on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.  (Side note:  would there be any interest in me doing a sort of “Witch’s Travel Guide” to various parts of the US?  Places with strong witch lore or with a history of magical activity, perhaps?  Comment/email and let us know!)

There’s a strong indication that the Dobbs sisters use a powerful sleeping draught on Riley the same way that Madge and her cohorts attempted to drug James in the Irish version of the story.  I’m not sure if I’d prefer my witch-administered pharmaceuticals via nightcap or squirrel soup, though.

The unguent used in both stories seems to be, basically, a flying ointment.  In the version from Yeats, I would lean towards a mixture that uses amanita muscaria, but I base that almost entirely on the fact that the “red cap” is a key feature of the tale.  It’s not unthinkable that such entheogens  would grow on Roan Mountain, but it is a bit less likely.  In both stories, the mixture is activated by the recitation of a short, rhyming phrase, which seems to be a common enough way to trigger witch-flight in many stories.  In some tales, the non-witch makes a mistake, it causes some sort of comic misfortune, like being lifted up and dropped to the floor unexpectedly.

An interesting difference between the two tales comes during the heavy drinking portion of the tale (don’t all interesting things come during the heavy drinking portion of the tale?).  In the Irish story, Red James never tries to go home once he starts drinking—he just passes out.  Riley, in the American version, does try to leave (which is when he notices his body “felt like feathers or fur,” a sure sign of shape-shifting.  Another difference worth noting is that in the Old World version, James knows his witch-lore and remains silent while in flight, but in the “Greasy Witches” variant, Riley has to say additional magical words while in flight to follow the Dobbs sisters.  I’ve had a gifted witch tell me that when making a profound crossing like this, silence is better, and I trust that idea.   But there’s clearly some flexibility, too.

The stories end quite differently, with Riley finally having to do what the witches have been manipulating him into doing the whole time:  marrying one of them.  Red James faces no such fate, but merely gets his red cap back and flies off at the last possible moment, avoiding his hanging in dramatic fashion.  But they do both get away, and both with a little magical aid from witchcraft.  It’s nice to know we witches are good for something other than breaking-and-entering, right?

I’m interested in your opinions on these tales.  Is it all just metaphorical hedgewitchery?  Do you think these sorts of events might have happened?  And most importantly, do you think that as these stories evolve, anything is being lost or gained in the process?  I personally love how much alike they are, but I also find myself pausing over the differences, too.  What about you?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 47 – Fairy Tale Resources

April 16, 2010

For this week’s final post, I’m giving you a list of books, stories, websites, and other resources which you can use to dig into folklore and fairy tale magic a bit further.  It’s not comprehensive, but just a few things to scout for at libraries and book stores, and which have something to say about magic without being tucked into the “New Age” section.

Books

Haints, Witches, & Boogers, by Charles E. Price – This book is chock-full of neat ghost stories, plus a few witch tales and some bits about magic in the Appalachian region.  It definitely focuses more on the paranormal than the purely “fairy” aspects of things, but it also gives you locations for each of the stories, so you’d be able to visit them and connect the tale to a particular place, which I like.

Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, by W.B. Yeats – So why am I including this book on a blog about American fairy tales?  Well, if you look at these stories, and then look at fairy tales from the Appalachians (or anyplace where Irish immigrants settled), you’re going to see uncanny similarities.  This book provides a lot of good stories about “fairy doctoring,” too, a practice which resembles the root work, shamanism, and witch doctoring found in North America.

The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends of East Tennessee, by Randy Russell – This is another one that is focused mostly on ghosts, but also has some really wonderful stories about magical beings, too.  “Greasy Witches” is especially worth noting, because it is one of those stories that parallels an Irish tale found in the Yeats collection I previously mentioned.

Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis – I discussed this book in Tuesday’s post, but I will reiterate that this is a book worth getting if you can.  The stories are all sourced to their original tellers (mostly American sources east of the Mississippi) and provide a good overview of witchcraft in America (non-religious witchcraft, that is).  Definitely worth scouting for at used bookstores.

Favorite Folktales from Around the World, by Jane Yolen – Again, not one specifically devoted to America, though there are several Native American stories here.  What I like is that this book is a lot like North America in that it takes many disparate cultures and mixes them all together by common thread.  If you’re looking for stories about magic, check out the sections “Not Quite Human,” “Shape Shifters,” and “Fooling the Devil.”  They all have lots to say about witchcraft, without ever actually having to tell you that’s what they’re about.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – If you like fairy tales, you probably already have this.  If you don’t, you should, in my opinion.  Just try to find an unabridged copy, as there have been numerous versions which “clean up” some of the scarier bits of the stories (where the witchy stuff lies, usually).

Spooky America Series,  by S.E. Schlosser – This may be one of my favorite book series ever.  S. E. Schlosser also runs a great website devoted to American folklore which will give you a good idea what her books are like.  There are individual books for multiple American regions, including Spooky South, Spooky New England, and Spooky Southwest, as well as titles on individual states like Spooky New York or Spooky California.  I love this work, and while it is somewhat more focused on ghost stories, there are plenty of tales about magic, witches, and mystical beings to be found.  I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

I’m not mentioning Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in detail here because I think I’ve said a lot about it already.  But it is also worth reading for witchy folklore (albeit in less of a “story” format).

Websites

Sur la Lune – This is one of my favorite sites for fairy tales.  It contains annotated versions of classics like Snow White and Red Riding Hood, with references to variant versions and symbolism interpretation.  It doesn’t have just tons of stories, but there are at least a couple dozen of the best, and they’re wonderful.  Plus, the art on the site is gorgeous.

Nursery Rhymes:  Lyrics, Origins, and History – I referenced this site a few times in the post on Mother Goose, and it’s certainly a site worth checking out.  It has little historical or folkloric notes on each of the rhymes it presents, as well as the words to the rhyme and some accompanying illustration.

Faerie Magick – This site, hosted by Fiona Broome, a paranormal researcher and enthusiast of the unseen, has a lot of interesting information on different kinds of fairies.  Most of what she writes, she relates back to folklore, which is a big plus for me.

That’s it for this week!  I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray in to folklore.  I’ll probably come back to this topic eventually, so if you have any questions or topics you’d like to know more about, please leave a comment or email us and I’ll be happy to try and work them in next time around.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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