Blog Post 230 – Changing Your Luck

Image of silhouetted animals including cat, skunk, and rabbit
Any number of animals crossing one’s path was considered bad luck and required turning around and beginning a journey again. (Image by author (c) 2021).

As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.

Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:

  • Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
  • Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
  • Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)
Image of salt shaker
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper. (Image by author (c)2021)

Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).

Image of Grandpa Simpson telling rambling story about tying an onion to his belt
Beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good. So Grandpa Simpson may have been on to something. (Image from “The Simpsons,” (c)Fox Studios).

Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:

  • Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
  • Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
  • A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375) 
  • “It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
  • Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
  • Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
  • Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
  • Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)
Image of a snake
Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. (Image by author (c) 2021)

In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.

Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:

  • Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
  • Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
  • Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
  • Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38). 

Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.

Image of pocket knife
Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck. (Image by author (c) 2021)

Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.

Image of nine pins
Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” to reverse bad luck. (Image by author (c) 2021).
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):

  • A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
  • “The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck. 
  • (Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
  • Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153). 

You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore). 

Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!

Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 6, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  2. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  3. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.
  4. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935. 
  5. Martin, Kameelah L. Conjuring Moments in African American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
  6. Thomas, Daniel, and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton Univ. Press, 1920.
  7. Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, and Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3 (Jul. 1968), pp. 180-83.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.

Episode 155 – Names and Magic

Summary:
We’re discussing the power of names, both magical and mundane (and if there’s really a difference). We discuss the names we keep, the names thrust upon us, the names we lose, and the power of knowing a “true” name.
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Producers for this show: Heather, Donald, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Clarissa, Leslie, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Jess, Laura, Emily, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Bo, Drew, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
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We pull in a whole heap of sources for this episode, including:
Promotional image modified from image via Pixabay, public domain.
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Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.
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Episode 111 – Magical Travel

Summary:

We cover magical travel from a few different angles in this episode, including protection while traveling, bringing magical supplies with you when you’re on the road, and folklore about traveling.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast,  Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Jessica, Victoria, Daniel, Plum Deluxe Teas, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Montine, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, and Hazel (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

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Download: Episode 111 – Magical Travel

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 -Sources-

If you like the theme of this episode, you might want to check out our page with all of our Travel-related episodes, too.

We both mention Cunningham’s Earth, Air, Fire, & Water and Earth Power.

Some of the lore mentioned can be found at S.E. Schlosser’s AmericanFolklore.net site, the AtlasObscura site, and in the books under the Weird US imprint. Make sure to check your local bookstores as well for regional folklore materials (look under Dewey Decimals 390 and 398).

Cory also brings up some folklore about travel superstitions you can find in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, Patrick Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, and the Foxfire series.

Laine mentions the groups MUFON and BFRO, both in connection with finding sites for strange occurances like UFOs and Bigfoot.

We mention our excursion on June 3rd to see the ancient magical artifacts exhibit at the Penn Museum and we’d love for you to join us! You can find out about it in our Special Update post on it, or check out the Facebook Event page. We’ll also have a cemetery tour/ghost walk that afternoon!

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.

Blog Post 190 – Some Military Superstitions

“Jubilant American soldier hugs motherly English woman,” PFC Melvin Weiss (via the National Archives)

With the timing of Memorial Day (for those reading in the U.S., that is) and my brother’s recent entry into the American Armed Forces (he’s been in for just under a year), I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight a few of the superstitions surrounding life as a soldier, sailor, pilot, or marine. Some of these practices are magical in nature, and some simply traditional or an interesting way of adding a layer of significance to the world from folks who already make significant contributions to it. I will not attempt to paint any glossy pictures of military service, nor will I touch on some of the lore which might be construed as highly disrespectful in light of the holiday. I also doubt I’ll cover even a fraction of the total lore around these branches of service, as that could easily fill volumes, and I’m going to attempt to keep this under two thousand words.

For the sake of simplicity, I will look at the beliefs more or less by branch, although in fact it will essentially be by domain—land, sea, and sky. The Marines, while ostensibly a seafaring force and part of the Naval Department, are for all intents and purposes the force that crosses those three boundaries (although I should note that in the modern military, an Air Force pilot on a Naval carrier would not be unusual, and other service members work across branches frequently). I will basically be looking at lore for soldiers, sailors, and pilots, and cross-pollination of belief can be inferred as appropriate.

Soldier Lore
Some of the chief superstitions surrounding life in the Army focus on protection in battle, naturally. Protection from bullets, mortars, bombs, and any of the other myriad dangers on the battlefield is essential, and here are some of the magical methods used:

  • Soldiers would often wear bibles “tucked or pinned over the portion of a uniform covering the soldier’s heart” to fend off bullets (Watts 419).
  • Soldiers in World War I would sew black cats onto their uniforms for good luck (contrary to the traditional ‘bad luck’ association with the animal)
  • Mistletoe could provide protection for a solder, when pinned inside his or her uniform
  • “[S]hells etched with the soldier’s name” were considered lucky amulets (Brunvand 766)
  • The 91st Psalm would be carried or worn inside a uniform for luck and protection
  • Hair, clothing, or jewelry from a loved one back home would sometimes offer some safety from harm
  • A bit of clothing from a personal or national hero could be worn to provide vigor, courage, and insulation from battle damage
  • A soldier should always eat all the food on his plate before battle to ensure he survives it

In addition to tokens and talismans, a number of stories circulated surrounding apparitions which portended good or bad fortune for soldiers during wartime. For example:

“Legends about folk saints defending soldiers and citizens abounded. Variations include the saint appearing as an old man before or during battle, prayers by the soldier or a family member resulting in miracles, the saint healing injuries and aiding prisoners of war to survive or escape, or the saint appearing in a dream. Saints were also credited with disabling enemy weapons and altering the direction of enemy planes and missiles” (Brunvand 766).

Some of the saints to whom a soldier might appeal would include Saint Michael Archangel, for victory in battle, or Saint Christopher, for a safe journey back home. A Cross of Caravaca might also be worn to symbolize such divine protection.

One of the entities who seemed to travel everywhere the soldiers did was the astounding Kilroy. With his eyes, nose, and fingers peeping over the top of a fence, he was always first on the scene, and became something of a traditional bit of graffiti for soldiers:

“Kilroy lore calls for GIs to place drawings of the character in the most remote and unlikely locations, signifying the power and reach of the U.S. military. It is also customary for soldiers to claim that the marking was discovered rather than placed, making Kilroy always the first to arrive at a host of sites. He is rumored to adorn a range of places from the Statue of Liberty’s torch to the surface of the Moon” (Watts 237).

In addition to protective and comical apparitions (or drawings, in Kilroy’s case), there were also the less pleasant ‘death tokens’ which precluded a loss in battle or the death of a soldier. One such creature is the Ghost Dog of Flordia Island in Guadalcanal, essentially a derivation of the ‘Black Shuck’ figure of British lore, a demond dog who spells doom for those who see him.

A good bit of lore sprang up around soldiers who wanted to get a quick discharge from their unit, including such strange techniques as “eating a large stack of pancakes or sleeping with soap under both armpits” (Brunvand 767). Often, these were essentially hazing techniques other soldiers would use on those with cold feet rather than rituals that could actually earn a fast pass out of service.

Civilians could aslo help soldiers in their efforts in some cases, using magical methods. Children during World War II would jump on cracks in the belief that every time they did so, a Nazi soldier would fall. Wives of soldiers were told not to ask about missions, including ones the soldier had survived, and to refrain from watching their soldiers as they left for their tour of duty. Even the symbolic act of saluting or showing a ‘V for Victory’ with the hands and fingers was thought to bolster the soldier’s strength (and his or her morale).

Perhaps the saddest lore surrounding soldiers involves the fallen ones. There are many stories of ghost soldiers and even entire ghost units still fighting battles long after the wars are over (I had a personal experience with a group of Civil War soldiers, which I believe I mentioned on the show, for example). Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams, features a vignette of just such an occurance, where a lone soldier returning from battle meets his entire platoon of fallen comrades and tries to explain what happened to them.

Finally, I can’t resist mentioning the story of the “Soldier’s Almanack & Prayer Book,” in which a soldier accused of keeping gambling accessories (i.e. playing cards) defends himself by demonstrating that the deck actually functions as an almanac of sorts and a reminder of biblical stories and prayers. There’s a full account of it in the appendix of my book, 54 Devils, and you can find a slightly longer description of it with links to additional material in the short version of that book, “The New World Witchery Guide to Cartomancy.”

Sailor Lore
There are so many superstitions and customs surrounding the life of a sailor, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve covered a few of these in previous articles, notably the post on “Seaside Sorcery,” so I’ll try to mostly stick with new material here, but if I repeat myself please pardon the gaffe.

I will start with one reiterated bit of lore on cauls, the thin membrane which surrounds the head of some newborn babies. I did discuss these items briefly in the above-mentioned post, but I found a bit of expanded lore on them which I thought would be appropriate here:

“Many captains and crews would not leave port unless a cawl from a recently born baby was aboard the ship they were to be sailing on. Cawls were often traded from one vessel to another, as one ship came home and another sailed off to distant lands. Having a cawl aboard was a guarantee that the ship wouldn’t sink, and they were often sold to sea captains and shipowners for large sums of money” (Cahill 15).

The part that most interested me in this was the trading from one ship to another, a sort of ‘passing of luck’ from one boat to another. I imagine that to those who used such tools, a caul which had kept a crew safe through one set of voyages would seem doubly powerful to the next crew to inherit it. The enormous cost of the cauls is also worth noting, especially in the context of it being a captain’s purchase—I can imagine some sailors taking it as a bad sign that a captain was too stingy to purchase such an elementary piece of luck for their ship.

Among some of the other pertinent bits of folk belief for life onboard ship we find a similar theme to the soldiers—protection—with the added need for charms which allow a ship stuck in the doldrums to make its way out before the crew starve or go mad. Some of the most popular beliefs:

  • Perhaps the best known bit of sailor lore: Shooting an albatross as bad luck (see Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
  • A bucket lost at sea was a bad omen of impending drowning
  • A broom or a mop would likewise have been an ill omen if lost
  • Wearing gold earrings prevent drowning (so THAT’S why pirates have them!)
  • Eggs have a bad luck connotation to them, as they are reputed to conjure up bad storms and winds. The taboo is so strong that in some cases, sailors might not even say the word ‘egg,’ but instead use a euphemism, such as calling it a ‘roundabout.’
  • Other taboo words: Knife, salt, rat, mouse, salmon, and rabbit or hare.
  • Speaking of knives, a knife stuck in the main mast would summon a wind leading whichever direction the handle of the knife pointed
  • Pigs were sometimes kept on old ships because it was believed that a pig in water would always swim directly to the nearest land, even if it couldn’t see it. A ship off its navigational course would toss a pig overboard and follow the pig.

Animals on a ship have much lore surrounding them. Many people probably know about the idea of rats fleeing a sinking ship (sometimes even before that ship left port), but what about cats? There is a strange mix of lore surrounding cats, with some sailors claiming that you could raise a wind (or storm) by throwing a cat overboard (which might be good news for a becalmed ship during the days of sail power) and the somewhat more broadly accepted belief that a cat who drowned portended very bad luck for an entire voyage.

The weather was and is a major consideration for those out to sea, and sailors developed an extensive body of lore around buying wind (see the Seaside Sorcery post for more on that) and raising or quelling storms and predicting the weather. Whistling on board a ship was very bad most of the time, because it would stir up the wind and storms. However, if a ship were unable to move, whistling might be turned to as a way of encouraging the sea to offer up some wind. The best and luckiest day to go to sea was on a Sunday, especially if you could wait until after the morning service to embark. In fact, a counterpart to the famous ‘Red skies at morning…’ rhyme is the less-known but far more interesting: Sunday sail, never fail; Friday sail, bad luck and gales” (Cahill 14).

The final bit of lore concerns mermaids:

“It may be for this reason [mermaids acting as sirens to lure sailors to their doom] that a mermaid sighting is frequently regarded as a portent of imminent danger. The mermaid’s influence is not always unfortunate, however, and in some cases she holds the power and disposition to grant the sailor wishes” (Watts 266)

All of these superstitions barely begin to scratch the surface of maritime lore, and the sheer volume of traditions, practices, and omens observed by sailors throughout history fills a number of books.

The Gremlins, by Roald Dahl (picture via Wikimedia Commons)

Aviator Lore
Since the Air Force has been around significantly less time than the Army, Navy, or Marines, its body of lore is somewhat less robust in terms of sheer volume. What it lacks in quantity, however, it certainly makes up for in quality, as some of the most ritualistic performances of folk belief appear in Air Force stories. Some of the best ones:

  • Like soldiers, a pilot frequently keeps a bible or verse on his person as a protective talisman
  • “Aviators wore mismatched socks and shoes from successful missions, but they avoided apparel from fliers who had been shot down” (Brunvand 766)
  • A pilot would not allow a photograph to be taken of him immediately before flying a mission
  • The pre-flight toast or drink glass should always be tossed in the fire or smashed prior to take-off to ensure safe return
  • Carrying a silver dollar from a year with numbers adding up to thirteen (e.g. a 1903 silver dollar, as 1+9+0+3 = 13) would prevent harm from befalling an aviator
  • A plane with the word ‘boomerang’ somewhere in its name would always fly home safely (e.g. the B-29 Boomerang)

Perhaps one of the most interesting bits of Air Force lore is the ‘clinker’ plane—an aircraft in such bad shape it seems destined to crash right after liftoff. Any pilot who can safely get the plane out on a mission and back again would have been thought to be charmed for life and a safe bet to fly with.

A number of superstitions for airmen and women are more highly personal—a piece of clothing they might insist upon wearing every mission, or a standard phrase or action done immediately before takeoff (similar to the smashing of the glass).

And I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention my favorite bit of superstition and otherworldly interference for pilots: gremlins. No, not the ones from the 1980s movie, but the ones described by numerous air force pilots as intentionally climbing out over moving aircraft parts to destroy and sabotage them midflight. Children’s author Roald Dahl served as a member of the Royal Air Force in Britain and wrote a book about the little creatures (at one time the book was to be made into a Disney cartoon, but in the end its designs and general gist wound up as part of a Bugs Bunny short). The gremlins are sometimes thought to be monsters, and sometimes thought to be aliens, but almost always they are not of earthly realms.

I should also say that if I were to branch off from the magical side of the Air Force superstitions and into the alien-and-UFO side of things, there would be no shortage of material to share. If that’s something you’re interested in, I highly encourage you to look into it further!

So how’d I do? Let’s see, about 2,400 words, so I think that’s enough for this time around. But what about you? Do you know any interesting lore from the Armed Forces? Have you served in the military and heard any of these superstitions, or any ones not included here? I would love to hear them!

Thanks so much for reading,

-Cory

 

Sources:

  1. Brunvand, Jan, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (1996).
  2. Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
  3. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind (1972).
  4. “Gremlins, The.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gremlins
  5. Klesius, Michael. “One More for the Checklist,” Air & Space Magazine (2010).
  6. Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989).
  7. Wallrich, T/Sgt. Bill. “Superstition & the Air Force,” Western Folklore (1960).
  8. Watts, Linda S, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (2007).