Posted tagged ‘signs’

Blog Post 159 – Birthday Superstitions

June 5, 2012

Hi all! No, this is not a shameless effort to harvest as many birthday wishes as I can, but today happens to be my birthday and I remembered a bit of magical lore that says it is particularly good luck to receive white flowers on one’s birthday.  That got me to thinking about some of the other fun birthday folklore and little bits of magic, and so I thought I’d do a little compilation post on the topic. Some of this has likely been covered in our show on New Year’s, Anniversaries, & Birthdays, but I think I’ll get into some new material, too, so I hope you enjoy!

Starting with probably the most unpleasant aspect of birthday folklore, the birthday spanking, let’s look at a fairly detailed explanation of this superstition, which I am pulling from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lindsey Thomas:

“On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life. Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:

One to live on;

One to grow on ;

One to eat on;

One to be happy on;

One to get married on” (#96)

Building on the “instrument of pain” idea, Thomas also records this rather morbid tidbit:

“If you let your birthday pass without thinking of it, you will die before the next birthday” (Thomas #2854)

Here are several bits of birthday lore in the form of admonitions about what not to do on your birthday, from Europe and the Caucasus regions:

  • One should not celebrate one’s birthday before the actual date of one’s birth. It will bring bad luck.
  • It is bad luck to be wished a happy birthday if one is over the age of 40 (instead, many people will have parties on their ‘name day’ instead, which is the feast day of the Saint with whom they share a name).
  • If you stumble with your right leg, and your birthday is an odd day, it is good luck. If you stumble with the left and your birthday is an even day, it is good luck. But stumbling with the wrong combination (right leg, even day or left leg, odd day) is very bad luck.
  • You should always have an odd number of candles on the cake or pie for a birthday, even if you have to add an extra candle.

Of course, almost everyone knows that blowing out your candles brings you good luck and wishes, but they can also be divinatory tools. In an article which probably has my favorite title of any folklore article (“Signs & Superstitions Collected from American College Girls,” by Martha W. Beckwith), I found this bit of birthday augury:

“Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake will tell you how many years it will be before you are married:

(a) By the number of times you have to blow to put them all out.

(b) By the number of candles left lighted after the first blow.”

This latter belief is supported by superstition from Kentucky as well (Thomas #246, #247), so perhaps the birthday folklore from Kentucky isn’t all bad news. Vance Randolph notes that Ozark natives regard birthdays as powerfully divinatory days, especially in terms of determining bad luck:

“The typical hillman is upset by any trifling piece of ill luck which happens on his birthday, knowing that  one who is unfortunate on this particular day is likely to have bad luck all year” (Randolph 66).

Randolph also records a wonderful method of bibliomancy related to one’s birthday:

“Many hillfolk tell fortunes and predict marriages by means of certain quotations from the Bible. For example, the twentyfirst and thirty-first chapters of Proverbs have thirty-one verses each. Chapter 21 is man’s birthday chapter; chapter 31 is woman’s birthday chapter. A boy looks up his proper verse in the man’s chapter, according to the date of his birth. A man born on the twenty-third of any month, for example, reads Proverbs 21 : 23 the content of this verse is supposed to be especially significant to him” (Randolph 184).

My particular verse using this method (and the King James) is: “The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.” So apparently, I should spend some time in diligent thought, today? Hmm, I’ll need to think on that a bit.

A fairly common divination performed for young children is to place a number of items around them on their first birthday and see which one they pick up. That will determine their future occupation. Harry M. Hyatt records this belief in several forms:

“3529. On a boy’s first birthday lay before him on the floor a deck of cards, a bottle, a Bible and a piece of money: if the deck of cards is selected, he will be a gambler; if the bottle, a drunkard; if the Bible, a  preacher; and if the money, a hard worker.

3530. The day a boy is a year old put down before him on the floor a pocket- book, a whiskey bottle and a deck of cards: if he reaches for the pocketbook, he will be opulent; if for the bottle, a drunkard; and if for the cards, a gambler.

3531. A boy’s future can be discovered on his first birthday by laying in front of him on the floor a book, a dollar and a hat: if he clutches the book, he will be a good learner; if the dollar, a miser; and if the hat, a stylish dresser” (Folklore from Adams Co.)

Hyatt also records an interesting variation on the birthday-candle-wish belief, saying “The person whose candle burns out first at a birthday party may make a wish,” which indicates that perhaps each party guest lights one of the birthday candles on the cake (Hyatt #8715).

Mixing the good with the bad, American Folklore: An Encyclopedia shares these pieces of birthday folk belief:

  • The best day to start a business is on your birthday
  • If a slice of birthday cake tips over on your plate, you will not marry
  • You should put a pat of butter on your nose on your birthday for good luck (Brunvand 170-2)

The book also mentions the carnival-esque atmosphere of birthdays, in which an ordinary person might become “Queen” or “Boss” for the day—echoing the elevation of the Fool during Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations, and the idea of baking a birthday cake with little divinatory charms inside echoes the “King Cake.”

So there’s a bit of fun birthday lore for you. I don’t know which of these I’ll try out this year, though I might just secretly be hoping for that birthday spanking. One to grow on and all that. It’s all in the name of folklore, I promise.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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Blog Post 158 – The Doctrine of Signatures

June 1, 2012

Greetings everyone!

In this entry, I want to talk a little bit about a concept that can get very sticky, and which may very well put me at the outer limits of credibility. Before I dig into the meat of the subject, however, I think I should remind everyone that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG. NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE IS INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE FOR ANY ILLNESS, AILMENT, OR CONDITION. IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL NEED, PLEASE SEE YOUR PHYSICIAN OR QUALIFIED HEALTH PROVIDER. ALL INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN IS STRICTLY IN THE INTEREST OF PRESENTING FOLKLORE AND PERSONAL OPINION.

Now that the big, scary, all-caps part of the post is done, let’s talk about the Doctrine of Signatures. I was actually rather surprised after our last episode to hear from several people that the concept of the DOS was unfamiliar to them. I realized at some point that the ideas founding the DOS were so internalized, and I was assuming that most people who worked with herbs had heard of those concepts. Now I’m thinking that I may have just been sort of lucky to have picked that information up early on (I know my mother shared a bit of that with me based on herbs she grew and I learned a lot of it from my first few years as a practicing neo-Pagan hanging around rock and herb shops).

So what is the Doctrine of Signatures? In this case, I think I’ll leave the general explanation to better folklorists than myself. First, I’m going to quote a somewhat neutral (though erring on the side of skepticism) article by folklorist Wayland D. Hand:

“Advocates of nature’s way in natural and organically grown foods, probably still have a lingering belief in the doctrine that for every illness with which man is afflicted God himself has provided a healing agent. All one has to do is to learn to seek out these wondrous plants. It was on this essential premise that the Doctrine of Signatures was enunciated by Paracelsus, Giambattista Porta and the early botanists. This theory is most ably stated by William Turner, an English botanist, who in his The New Herbal of 1551, wrote: ‘God hath imprinted upon plants, herbs, and flowers, as it were, a hieroglyphic, the very  signature of their vertues, as on the nutmeg, which, being cut, resembles the brain.’ Writing a half a century later, Johannes Franck, one of the leading German botanists of his day, compiled a book which  he called Signature, that is, a Basic and True Description of Plants Created by God and Nature. This doctrine went somewhat beyond the shape and color of plants to their activity and function. One of the earliest examples of this kind of sympathetic connection is found in the writings of Pliny the Elder who flourished in the first century, A.D. Calcifrage was recommended to combat the stone. This prescription  comes form the fact that this hardy plant which could penetrate the fissures of the hardest face of a cliff, would certainly be able to break up kidney and gallstones, as the name of the plant itself suggests:  calci-frage, ‘stone breaking.’” (Hand, “Magical Medicine,” Western Folklore)

Next, let’s look at a much older (and much more cynical) opinion about this idea, from plant folk-lorist T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, whose Folk Lore of Plants is something of a classic:

“The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red ingredients were dissolved in the patient’s drink; and for liver complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and erroneous notion ‘led to serious errors in practice,’ and was occasionally productive of the most fatal results.” (Dyer, TFLOP, Chapter XVI)

The idea of plants bearing the divine mark which indicated their use is a very old concept. Hand notes that Pliny the Elder recorded such an idea, and it was debated even in his time with question to the validity of this method.  The idea—in one form or another—appears in herbal medicinal systems throughout the world, including Chinese traditional herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.  Many people swear by it, and a number of ‘yarb doctors’ have treated ailments with it for centuries with relative success. Yet at the same time, the doctrine has been misused, misapplied, or just plain wrong in some cases and has caused an increase in illness or injury.

I bring up the DOS at all because it’s so fundamental to New World magical concepts. The idea that God, the Creator, or some other spiritual force has set in motion a world which bears hallmarks of its design seems to have been taken as de facto truth among many early settlers in America, particularly poor folks with limited access to medical treatment. An entire profession of folk herbalism, or “yarb doctors” arose in the Appalachians, and similar practices (such as curanderismo in the Southwest) appeared elsewhere. In most cases, these medicine men and women did not make their primary living off of their knowledge of herbs and plants, but rather in many cases refused payment for such services, feeling that it was their God-given duty to render help when help was needed. Of course, such high-mindedness was not universal, but even in cases where money or goods changed hands, yarb doctors cost less than a typical doctor in most instances.

Determining which plants have which signatures is a strange and murky process. For instance, an herb with heart-shaped leaves might be good for treating a physical heart problem, an emotional disorder, working a love charm, etc. The hairy stems of mint might indicate that it has the ability to ‘prickle’ the lungs and stimulate respiration, or they might signal that rubbing mint on one’s scalp would stimulate hair growth. The tall and showy joe pye weed, which has the nickname ‘gravel root,’ is used to treat kidney stones—frequently referred to as ‘gravel’—but its hollow stems might signal a use in treating sore throats as well as problems of the urinary tract, which both feature hollow tubes leading to external orifices. In this latter case, we can see another important aspect of the Doctrine, in which many plants receive their folk names based on their folk medical uses (boneset, feverfew, eyebright, etc.). Critics of the DOS sometimes point out that the retroactive ascription of signs to the plants, such as noticing that joe pye weed has hollow stems and therefore would be good for urinary problems, does not indicate a heavenly marking of use, but rather makes for an easy mnemonic device for remembering what plants are good for what ailments.  Further complicating the matter, some signatures are not visual markings, but rather based on sounds the plant makes when shaken, for example, or perhaps on a specific odor the plant emits.

There are also potential problems separating out a ‘signature’ from a legendary or mythical ascription of plant demarcation. Passionflower, which I’ve written about previously, is a good example of layered interpretation, with the numerical and color symbology of the plant being so closely linked to Christian mythology that the flower essentially contains a sermon. Was passionflower marked, given its unusual structure by a Creator to illustrate a story? Likewise, a number of plants are reputed to have some tie to the Crucifixion in Christian myth, such as the holly berry. Thiselton-Dyer also records a similar blood-staining myth related to poppies, in which they have been dyed by the blood of St. Margaret. In these cases, the plants are ‘marked,’ but not necessarily for use. They bear the signs of an interested and involved divine power, but are not strictly Doctrine of Signatures material since those signs illustrate a story and not a practical application. Yet, by a stretch of imagination, one could link the poppy’s use as an opiate and intoxicant to the story of St. Margaret, who famously battled a dragon. Since the use of poppy-derived-opium (and its relative, heroin) was known for a time as “chasing the dragon,” the connection does, by a bizarre happenstance, make some degree of sense. But was the flower marked with foreknowledge of the phrase, and thus was it pre-figurative? Or is all of this just strange coincidence?

It’s probably time for me to come clean, as I’ve been sort of dancing around my opinion on the Doctrine of Signatures. I’m a believer. Not a hard-and-fast, every-plant-bears-a-signature-and-medical-science-is-quackery kind of believer, but I tend to think that the DOS has some validity. My personal work with herbs and plants has led me to see the connections between their form and their functions. I don’t think that we necessarily understand every signature in every plant, and I do think that we frequently misinterpret the signs we see, but I do think that there’s an element of deliberate design within most flora that has to do with its use. This probably hedges a bit close to the Intelligent Design argument for some folks, and I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion. I don’t make claims as to who marked the plants—perhaps they mark themselves in some way, for all I know. And I don’t necessarily think that I could wander into a meadow, find a foot-shaped plant, and use it to treat bunions and corns. I tend to agree with the skeptics about the retro ascription of plant signatures that human understanding of the plant signatures comes after we figure out what they are used for. But that does not diminish—to me—the idea that the design is implicitly connected to the use. It only emphasizes that we should be paying much more attention to what plants have to teach us, and to the hidden language of the world working around us.

So that’s my nutshell version of the Doctrine of Signatures. There are many authors who discuss this concept more handily than I have here, so please do some research and see what you think of the whole thing. Have you ever noticed signatures in plants (or even in animals, weather phenomena, etc., which are sometimes included in an extended version of this doctrine)?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 144 – Walnuts

November 22, 2011

“As soft as silk,
As white as milk,
As bitter as gall,
A strong wall,
And a green coat covers me all”
Walnut riddle from H.M. Hyatt, Adams Co., Entry No. 14379

Continuing with the Thanksgiving ingredient theme (i.e. Apples), I thought today it would be good to look at a fairly common tree and nut that has been woven into magic for hundreds of years. I’m speaking of course of the unassuming but delicious walnut which tops brownies, finds its way into salads, and makes a delicious candied treat. Don’t worry, though, my next topic will not be mayonnaise and I am not subtly leading up to any kind of enchanted Waldorf salad.

I’d like to briefly start in the Old World and mention a legend which had some influence on 19th-century occult folklorist Charles Leland. In “Neopolitan Witchcraft” by J.B. Andrews and James Frazer, a rhyme appears which translates roughly:

Beneath the water and beneath the wind,
Beneath the walnut trees of Benevento,
Lucibello bring me where I need to go.

This charm would help a witch magically fly to her Sabbat, supposedly. The idea of witches gathering beneath a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy clearly impacted Leland, who includes a tale in his “witch gospel” Aradia called “The House of the Wind” (which is what Benevento means in English). [EDIT: See comments below for a correction on this translation] Myth Woodling, who runs a marvelous set of pages on Italian folk magic and witchcraft, has this to say about the walnut:

Walnut shells, in Italian fairy tales, were often used to contain something precious or magical. A walnut branch was said to protect one from lightening. There were stories of witches and spirits gathering under walnut trees”

In the New World, walnuts gained a number of powers and attributes, while the lore about walnuts and lightning becomes reversed, as found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, where he tells how black walnuts are now thought to draw lightning and hillfolk refuse to plant these trees near their homes for that reason (72). Some of Randolph’s other interesting tidbits about walnuts are here:

  • “A big crop of walnuts indicates cold weather to come” (26)
  • A good season for tomatoes is a bad season for walnuts (39)
  • Fresh walnut leaves scattered about the house can deter insects (68)
  • Walnut shells must not be burned, or bad luck will come (71)
  • The juice of a green walnut can help cure ringworm (110)
  • “The shell of a black walnut is supposed to represent the human skull, and the meat is said to resemble  the brain, therefore people who show signs of mental aberration are encouraged to eat walnuts. I know of one case in which an entire family devoted most of the winter to cracking walnuts for a feebleminded boy. They kept it up for years, and I believe the poor fellow ate literally bushels of walnut goodies” (114)
  • “A mountain girl of my acquaintance placed a lock of her hair under a stone in a running stream,  believing that the water would make her hair glossy and attractive. Another way to promote the growth of hair is to bury a “twist” of it under the roots of a white walnut tree, in the light of the moon” (165)

Similar lore exists in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, with the addition of magical wart charming ascribed to the humble walnut. Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away. This makes for an interesting variant on the standard wart-charming method of cutting a fruit or vegetable in half before using it to cure the wart (but I’ll address those ideas in a different post entirely). Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:

  • Thin walnut shells mean a light winter, while thick shells mean a heavy one
  • A black walnut carried at all times prevents headaches
  • A mixture of boiled walnut leaves, water, and sulphur makes a powerful anti-itch wash
  • Dreaming of opening or eating walnuts means money is coming soon

In this latter example, we can see the walnut being used as a divinatory aid, which makes sense when we think of the strong ‘brain’ association with the little wrinkled nut (since it has a brain, it must know something, so why not the future, right?). Hyatt also shares a lovely little love divination with walnuts:

9033. Her future husband’s occupation can be learned by a girl who grates three nuts — a hazelnut, nutmeg and walnut — mixes these grated nuts with butter and sugar, makes pills of this paste, and swallows nine of them on going to bed: if she dreams of wealth, she will marry a gentleman; of white linen, a clergyman; of darkness, a lawyer; of noises, a tradesman or laborer; of thunder and lightning, a soldier or sailor; and of rain, a servant

This sense of a walnut as a ‘knowing’ curio seems to be tied again to its brain-like appearance, but also with the idea of the little nut containing some special knowledge the way it contained magical charms in an Old World context. The tree even seems to know what is growing around it in some cases. Patrick Gainer says that the presence of a white walnut tree indicates ginseng growing underneath it (120).

Another key use of the walnut in magic has to do—or at least I think it does—with its bitterness and perhaps the deep blackness of the flesh surrounding the nut. Walnuts can strip away negativity nearly as well as eggs, lemons, salt, or any of the other major magical cleansing agents. Draja Mickaharic includes a cleansing bath which uses walnuts in order to sever ties with an unwanted person or influence. He warns that it can only be used once, and that going back to the person after ties are severed will have dire results. The basic formula involves boiling six unshelled walnuts in a pot for three hours, adding water if needed. After that time, there will be a black broth that should be added to a bathtub, and the person using the bath should immerse themselves seven times in it, saying prayers as appropriate (Spiritual Cleansing 58).The dark color absorbs all negativity, and the galling nature of the fruit works the way a lemon does to sever evil from one’s person. Cat Yronwode suggests a similar bath to Mickaharic, adding the important step of disposing of the used bathwater at a crossroads. She also indicates that walnut leaves can be used in a spell to hurt an enemy’s luck (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic 205).

One use for a walnut I’ve never seen but which I really think would be interesting to try would be as a head for a doll baby working. Considering the brain associations and the fleshiness of the fruit, I’m not sure why this is not a common-place use of the walnut, but c’est la vie. If you happen to know why they’re not used in doll magic, I’d love to hear it! Or if you have any other uses of walnuts in New World folk magic, please feel free to share!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 139 – Eggs

October 10, 2011

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!

-Cory

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 120 – Divination in the New World (an Overview)

February 22, 2011

Greetings everyone!

First of all, sorry for the complete absence of posts last week.  I got a little swamped and didn’t get as much research time as I wanted, but hopefully today’s rather long article will make up for it.

We’re going to be looking over the next few posts at divination, fortune-telling, and other methods of forecasting fate.  Before we dive into details, though, I thought it might be good to tackle the topic generally and look at the types of divination which have been historically popular in the New World, as well as some more modern methods.  .  Some of these systems are ones which I can only cover cursorily, as my experience is relatively shallow with them.  I hope to cover each of these in more detail with time, or at least provide references to help anyone wanting to learn more about them, eventually.

So what are the most popular divinatory methods in the New World?

Arithmetic Methods – Probably the most common divinatory methods used in the modern New World are astrology and numerology.  Almost anyone can tell you his or her sun sign.  A Harris Poll from 2009 shows that about 26% of adult Americans believe in astrology.  Horoscopes related to these sun signs are printed in a majority of national newspapers in the United States, and a surprising number of folks know their ideal romantic compatibility as far as sun signs are concerned.  Less well-known but still fairly prevalent is numerology, particularly the form of numerology known as alphabetic numerology.  This is closely related to Gematrian numerology—a kabbalistic practice which uses Hebrew letters as symbols for numerals to understand a sort of universal mathematics arranged by G-d for the wise to know the world.  Another arithmetic method of divination which has found a certain degree of New World success is geomancy, which depends upon mapping energetic lines upon the earth and determining information based on their patterns and intersections.  The most commonly found version of geomancy in North America is the practice of dowsing, which seeks to uncover hidden water, mineral, oil, or other deposits within the earth using surface-based detection methods.  Science generally frowns upon all of these fields, despite their incredibly intricate mathematical structures, though there have been a few efforts to validate the powers of geomancy, and some large oil companies consult dowsers periodically to help determine ideal drilling locations.

Natural Objects & Phenomena – We’ve covered this a bit already, particularly the signs & omens which seem to pervade much of American folklore, but it is worth examining a few of the other natural-object-based divinatory systems, too.  For example, in many parts of the New World, some system of augury (divination based on birds) has been practiced.  One of the most interesting versions of this can be found in a practice known as alectromancy, which studies the patterns scratched by a rooster when grain is strewn for him.  Traces of this practice can be found in one of the primary influences on later hoodoo, The Black Pullet.  Other objects commonly used in various New World magical systems are cowrie shells (small whitish shells which bear a strong resemblance to the female genitalia) and chamalongos (ritually prepared and polished pieces of coconut shells).  These can both be “cast” in the same manner as dice might be (see “Games” below), and the resulting patterns interpreted to provide answers to specific questions. Another method which has fallen out of favor in modern times—though it was tremendously popular in ancient Rome—is haruspicsy, or the reading of livers or entrails from sacrificed animals.  A modern version of this, however, lives on in the wishbone ritual from the Thanksgiving turkey.  Luck is afforded whoever takes the biggest part of a wishbone snapped in twain between two people when the bird has been cooked and eaten.  Of course, there are a vast number of natural phenomena which are interpreted as portents of the future in traditional folklore—everything from weather to insect behavior to the color of certain animals can have deep meaning to the right person.  Since we’ve touched on that idea in other places, however, I’ll simply leave it at that.

“Gypsy” Methods – I will admit I don’t like the title I’m giving this section, but please understand that by “gypsy” methods I’m not referring necessarily to Romany traditional practices.  Instead, I’m really evoking the Hollywood and fictional version of the Gypsy so often mistaken for the real thing.  But, since the methods employed by those characters are actually relevant, I thought this might be the best category in which to assemble them.  Some of the best known methods are palmistry, cartomancy, and crystal gazing.  Each of these, despite its Hollywood glamorization, is actually a legitimate method.  Palmistry uses the lines on the palm of a person’s hand to determine the overall trajectory of his or her life.  It’s been popular as a parlor entertainment for over a century in America, and likely has been on New World soil for much longer than that.  Cartomancy is probably the best known fortune-telling method in the New World other than astrology, though a much smaller number of people seem to put stock in it.  One of the fun twists to cartomancy is that while tarot is a popular method (even immortalized in American poet Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy,” as a “Taroc pack” and associated with Jewishness), it has long been common for root workers in America to use simple playing cards to get answers to difficult questions.  Crystal gazing, a type of scrying which uses highly polished spheres of minerals like quartz or amethyst to relax the mind and allow visions to enter the mind of the seer, is another popularly seen method, though it is often ridiculed in modern society—poked fun at in cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, and The Simpsons, for example.  Other methods which commonly get attributed to Gypsies are candle reading—though this is a bit controversial because of something known as the “Gypsy candle scam”—and tasseomancy, which involves reading the patterns left in a cup after someone has drunk tea from it.  In this latter method, coffee is also fairly popular.  The reputation of these methods has suffered a bit due to public ridicule, but they also have their staunch supporters, and in many cases are the methods magical practitioners learn first.

Games – This is a peculiar but fascinating branch of divination which has been surprisingly prevalent in the United States.  I’ve already mentioned the use of playing cards as divinatory aids, and they certainly straddle this category nicely.  Dice and dominoes have also been used to predict the future in several magical systems, particularly those originating from Africa, a practice known as cleromancy which is also referred to as “casting lots.”  It seems to be related to older methods of throwing bones—such as knuckle bones from sacrificial offerings—and interpreting the resulting patterns.  A version of cleromancy is likely the primary version of divination condoned in the Bible (hence all the references to “casting lots” for things in Joshua, I Samuel, Proverbs, Jonah, and Acts (in the last case, lots are cast to determine who the replacement apostle for Judas Iscariot will be).  Famed Wiccan author Raymond Buckland has a book on domino divination for those interested entitled, appropriately enough, Buckland’s Domino Divination.  One of the methods for divination which took off rapidly in the United States after its introduction was the Ouija board.  This system, based on the automatic writing device called the planchette and a special board containing letters, numbers, and symbols, became a central method for communicating with the other world in movements like Spiritism.  Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America devotes an entire chapter to the “talking board” and its impact on American metaphysics, not to mention its economic impact (it outsold leading board games like Monopoly at times).  Other games have brought fortune-telling to the masses through clever marketing, as well.  The Magic 8 Ball which was created by Alabe Crafts in the mid-twentieth century, combined elements of the Ouija board and the crystal ball, and despite its novelty was actually inspired by the clairvoyant mother of one of the inventors.  We spoke a bit on our previous show about “cootie catchers,” the finger-mounted puppet-like devices used by young children to predict future happiness and misfortune.  There are several games played by children in this vein, including MASH (which stands for Mansion, Alley, Shack, House) and a plethora of predictive skip-rope rhymes.  Children, it seems, know a lot about divination and incorporate it into their play regularly.

Text-based Fortune-telling – This isn’t a particularly diverse branch of divination in the Americas, but it does seem to be important.  A recent correspondence sent to me by Arrow of the Wandering Arrow blog outlined a form of bibliomancy, which is the use of the Bible (or other important book) to determine things like marital candidates and the identity of thieves.  Bibliomancy is still practiced in many places, and the techniques involved can be as simple as opening to a random passage in a book and seeing if it has any relevance to the question at hand.  Methods can also be quite complex, involving for example a key placed at a passage in the book of Ruth while the Bible is held between the hands of two people standing opposite each other as they name people they know until the key moves on its own to reveal the perfect marriage partner.  Less prevalent in North America but still quite important is the Chinese predictive system of the I Ching, or Book of Changes.  This method, which combines elements of the “Natural Objects” casting in the form of yarrow stalks with significant markings on them that get thrown to reveal patterns, relies heavily on a book of short hexagrams.  These six-line poems match up to the patterns revealed by the yarrow stalks and provide insight into a particular problem.  The I Ching has become increasingly popular in the West, largely due to Asian immigration into population centers.

Other Methods – Plenty of other methods for determining the future exist which don’t quite fit one category or another (or which I have arbitrarily decided to lump in this “Other” category because, well, I’m the one writing this article).  One bit of outdated but once profoundly influential methods of determining someone’s fate is phrenology, the study of the bumps, divots, and ridges of the scalp.  During the late 19th century there were a number of scientists who supported phrenology as a way of understanding psychology.  It has since fallen much out of favor (partly due to its connection to eugenics—the “science” of building a better person which often involved rather racist and callous methods), but still may hold a bit of interest for those who like old-fashioned divinatory techniques.  Oneiromancy remains popular, and dream-interpretation guides are readily available in most bookstores.  Many folks who do hoodoo also keep dream-interpretation books around to help predict winning lottery numbers.  The biblical precedent (see the stories of Joseph or Daniel interpreting dreams) may have a lot to do with why this technique has stayed more or less legitimate even among conservative audiences.  Necromancy is a word that conjures up (pardon the pun) specters of horror for some, but which had tremendous impact on the American spiritual landscape through Spiritist séances and mediumship.  The practice of talking to the dead is common in a number of religions, and guidance from deceased ancestors is highly valued in Vodoun, Santeria, and Obeah traditions.  On the flip-side, the practice of cold reading takes the idea of necromancy and removes the dead from the equation completely, instead allowing “psychics” to use broad statements, on-the-spot observation, and leading questions to “interpret” messages which are fraudulent, but often quite comforting (I can’t help but think of the South Park episode on this subject, which I highly recommend).  There are other great techniques being generated on New World soil all the time, too.  For instance, Juniper from Walking the Hedge has adapted the old “stones and bones” casting technique to include other objects from her life and has developed a unique and beautiful divinatory system.

There are so many methods of forecasting the future that I haven’t even touched upon here, so please don’t feel left out if I omitted your personal favorite (in fact, feel free to share a little about it in the comments section!).  Many of these methods fall in and out of favor depending on the fashion of the time—phrenology was once almost regarded as fact, but is regarded by many diviners today as at best a quaint and outdated method of uncovering information.  Some of them seem outright silly on the surface or are utter fakery (the Magic 8 Ball for the former, cold reading for the latter).  A number of these techniques, however, still hang on.  The popularity of astrology remains strong, and bibliomancy seems to be indulged quite openly, as proven by the publication of things like The Book of Answers, which I’ve seen in not only bookstores but also in greeting card shops and trendy furniture outlets.  Of course, plenty of these methods are practiced just under the radar of mainstream society, too.

Whatever your preferred method of fortune-telling, I wish you well and hope this article has been useful to you.  More will be coming on specific subcategories within this list…but you probably knew that already.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 24 – Love Magic

February 11, 2011

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 24-

Summary

Tonight’s show is all about the love…magic!  We discuss different types of love spells, the ethics of casting them, the power of scent to inspire love, and the famous Love Potion #9.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 24

-Sources-
Earth Power – Scott Cunningham
Ozark Magic & Folklore – Vance Randolph
Mules & Men and “Hoodoo in America” – Zora Neale Hurston
Voodoo & Hoodoo – Jim Haskins
Witches, Ghosts, & Signs – Patrick W. Gainer
Buying the Wind – Richard Dorson
The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook – Denise Alvarado

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Forest Grove Botanica
Promo 2 – Wigglian Way
Promo 3 – The Infinite & the Beyond


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