“My ears are burning; who’s talking about me?”
“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”
“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”
I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.
Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:
Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:
- A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
- A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
- A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
- A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
- “Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
- Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
- Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
- And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.
What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).
Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).
Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:
- If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
- If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
- When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
- If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.
Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.
In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.
Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.
Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:
“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :
A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.
Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”
These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.
I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.
Thanks for reading!
- Bronner, Simon J. Explaining Traditions. 2011.
- Bronner, Simon J. American Children’s Folklore. 2006.
- “Dreams & Moles, with their Interpretation & Signification.” Published by the Royal Society of London, 1750.
- Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. 1980.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. 1935.
- Ingham, John M. “On Mexican Folk Medicine.” American Anthropologist. 17, (1): 76-87.
- Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore. 14, (52): 30-38.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. 1964.
- Smith, Grace. “Folklore from ‘Egypt.’” Hoosier Folklore. 5, (2): 45-70.