Posted tagged ‘tokens’

Blog Post 184 – Comets

December 4, 2013

The Comet of 1680, by Lieve Verschuier (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Like a comet burn’d
That fires the length Ophiuchus huge
In the Arctic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war” (Milton, Paradise Lost)

With the ISON comet drawing eyes to the night sky, I started thinking a lot about the superstitions and magical beliefs surrounding the appearance of comets in the sky. Comets have long inspired people in strange, occasionally beautiful, and sometimes disturbing ways. Mark Twain’s life was framed by the appearance of Haley’s Comet, a point the author himself noted. The Heaven’s Gate cult engaged in a group suicide surrounding the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet.

Increase Mather, famed early American religious writer, dedicated an entire work to explaining the spiritual importance of comets in his Kometographia of 1683. He was responding to the presence of the Great Comet of 1680, which had captured the attention of most of the Western world, and felt that many people would be afraid at this sign and misunderstand it as a phenomenon which directly influenced the course of events on earth, rather than a sign from God of some important event to come (see more here). Generally speaking, comets have historically been associated with strife and woe to come. My Opie/Tatem Dictionary of Superstitions gives a laundry list of examples of ill-omen presaged by what the Venerable Bede called “long-haired stars”:

  • A comet as portending a change in governance (Tacitus, Annals)
  • Famine or pestilence or war or “fearful storms” (Byrhtferth, Manual)
  • A comet [the Great Comet of 1680] appeared two days before the Duke of Monmouth died, and all over Europe before the death of Charles II (J. Case, Angelical Guide)
  • An appearance before the plague struck London (Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year)
  • A wry observation that those who laugh at comets as tokens of disaster will studiously insist on “times and situations proper for intellectual performances” (Johnson, The Idler)

In the New World, comets seem to have retained much of their wicked reputation. In some cases the danger foretold by the comet is vague and ill-defined: “When a comet appears there will be trouble” (Roberts, “Louisiana Superstitions”). In other places, the significance of the hairy star was more direct and its consequences very  clearly understood: “A comet is a sign of war” (Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions).  Why should these astronomical phenomena, which had been showing up in night skies for ages, have such a bad rap? Considering even Classical authors like Tacitus cite the comet as woeful, the impulse must run deep. The unique cosmological view of Calvinism, though, which influenced much of Atlantic American colonization, both denigrated occult practices like witchcraft and supported an enchanted view of a univers under Divine direction:

“The Calvinism of the colonial awakenings also paralleled important occult ideas. The fatalism inherent in Calvinism’s concept of predestination found an occult equivalent in the idea fundamental to astrology that motions of star and planets revealed a future that individuals could not control. Calvinist evangelists and occult practitioners also explained catastrophes in similar ways. Believers in occult ideas thought the coming of comets and eclipses had inescapable and usually disastrous consequences; not even kings and queens escaped their verdicts. No one escaped judgment by the Calvinist God either. Sometimes He damned seemingly model Christians simply to demonstrate His sovereign” (Butler, “Magic, Astrology, & the Early American Religious Heritage”).

The shared cosmology of the colonists saw the universe as inhabited by spiritual consciousness, and an intelligence that wished to convey its meaning to human beings for one reason or another. Signs, omens, and portents were one such method. Comets, with their placement among the stars, their strange and ill-understood movement, and temporary nature made perfect fodder for prognosticators of all stripes—religious, occult, and both (they did exist, even during the Colonial period).

Lest we make the mistake of thinking that the observation of comets was the purview of only a few dusty old white occultists or a lot of fiery former Englishmen with strong religious convictions, I’d also like to point out that the cosmology which imbued comets with significance stretched across a broad swath of New World denizens, including Native Americans, Spanish and French colonists, and of course, the imported Black slaves.

“English Protestants often read unusual events as evidence of the divine presence in everyday life, acknowledging the activity of a creator deity who operated through omens and portents within the natural order, or signs and wonders in the heavens, philosophy known as Providentialism. “Comets, hailstorms, monster births and apparitions” and other disruptions of the ordinary were demonstrations that foretold God’s will or signaled His displeasure withhumankind. Africans’ understandings of the universe were also inspired by visible manifestations of spiritual forces within nature. They too viewed thunder, lightning, and other elements as heralds of sacred hierophanies,the awesome presence of numerous divine beings.” (Chireau, Black Magic).

The Providentialism Chireau notes fits the cosmology of the English and other European settlers, but it is clearly not unique to them. A world with Divine presence not only innate to its component parts, but in which those component parts act as mediums for communicating with humans, is also very much an African perspective. And while it is tempting to think that such beliefs can be relegated to history’s dustbin, we should also remember that in our time comets stir up a lot of strange excitement. Religious scholar Camile Paglia notes, for example:

“The Children of God, founded in 1968 as Teens for Christ by “Moses” David Berg in Huntington Beach, California, were negligible in number but came to public attention when they loudly prophesied that the us would be destroyed by Comet Kohoutek in January 1974. The group continues under the name “The Family” and is regularly excoriated by conserva tive Christian watchdog groups for its practice of free love (called “Flirty Fishing”) as well as its heretical beliefs that Jesus was sexually active and that God is a woman. (Paglia, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness”)

Paglia also references the Hale-Bopp comet mentioned earlier, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult. I have, so far, not heard of any particularly distressing phenomena surrounding ISON’s appearance, but if nuclear war breaks out, I may have to blame that particular “long-haired star.”

If you have comet lore you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part III

May 14, 2010

Today I’m finishing up the introduction to the magic of Appalachia by looking at “yarb Doctors” and some of the other magical oddities of the mountains.

Yarb Doctors
The final part of the mountain magical triumvirate is the “Yarb Doctor.”  These are often seen as the male counterparts to the Granny women already discussed.  These were folks who knew enough herbal medicine to make cures and remedies for all manner of ailments.  Vance Randolph describes them thusly:

“Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with ‘yarb doctors’…who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin’ on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and “horse doses” of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup” (OM&F, p.92)

Often, this is what we think of when we talk about “snake oil salesmen.”  The yarb Doctor basically dealt in herbal formulas for treating common ailments.  Some of these formulas became fairly well-known.  When a particular yarb Doctor’s formula reached a particular level of renown (and often even if it didn’t and an unscrupulous “doctor” was simply chasing a dollar) these medicines would become a famous “patent medicine.”   This is not to say that the yarb Doctor (variously known as an “herb doctor,” “rubbing doctor,” or “nature doctor”) was simply a quack making money off of ignorant mountain folk.  In most cases, these were locals with a knack for making formulas and medicines from the indigenous flora of the area, including roots, barks, flowers, and leaves.  Some of the mixtures are still in use today, albeit changed much from their original purpose.  Root beer is a prime example of what happens when you make a patent medicine out of sarsaparilla and sassafras roots and mix it with a little sugar and soda water.  Appalachian yarb Doctors had good reason to make medicines:  they lived in the pharmaceutical breadbasket of the country.  According to Dave Tabler’s Appalachian History blog:

“Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on ‘western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,’ according to an article in Economic Geography that summer”

The remedies proffered by yarb Doctors were not limited only to plants and their components, but often included a few more unusual ingredients.   For example, dealing with a toothache was a common enough problem in the mountains, where access to regular dental care was limited or non-existent:

“There were many treatments for a toothache.  Some of the more common ones were holding tobacco smoke, a sip of red oak bark decoction, or whiskey in the mouth; chewing ragweed leaves; applying cinnamon or clove oil, camphor, or persimmon juice to the tooth and gum; placing a ball of cotton soaked in paregoric, camphor, turpentine, or kerosene on top of the tooth; and holding a bag of warm ashes or salt against the cheek.  If a large cavity was present, it was stuffed with soda, salt, cow manure, spider webs, aspirin, burned alum, dried and pulverized buckeye skin, or crushed puff-balls” (FMSA, p.107)

There are a number of remedies used by these mountain medicine men which are still in common practice.  Clove oil, for example, is still used to numb the pain of a toothache.  Some methods, though, such as packing a cavity with cow dung, seem to have fallen by the wayside (I’ll not say whether I think that a good or bad thing, though I’m less than eager to put cow dung in my own mouth if I’m being entirely honest).

Other Aspects of Mountain Magic
There are, of course, many areas of mountain magic which don’t fall neatly into the three categories I’ve laid out here.  yarb Doctors and Granny women had much in common and there is a great deal of crossover in their particular lines of work.  Likewise, one who could dowse for water could usually also perform some other occult action, such as simple curing.  I have an in-law whose great-grandfather (the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) could dowse and “buy” warts off of people in order to effect a cure, for example.

Other aspects of mountain magic have already been touched on in this blog.  Some of the areas we’ve covered here which have a huge place in the folk magical practices of Appalachian peoples include:

One of the biggest areas I’ve not yet covered in detail is the Appalachian preoccupation with death, dying, corpses, and graveyards.  Edain McCoy’s In a Graveyard at Midnight includes a great deal of this lore in her chapter on “Death, Dying, and ‘Haints,’” which focuses mostly on the rituals surrounding death and burial as well as protection from the dead.  At some point, I’ll be doing a bit more on this topic, but for now I think the most important thing to note is that death and birth were—and are—the two most important events in a human life, and the mountain folk treated them with respect, awe, and not a little fear.

A final area of interest for mountain dwellers where the occult was concerned had to do with divining the future.  Rather than foreseeing events having to do with money or fame or anything like that, almost all Appalachian divinations performed in the home had to do with love.  This is, again, a topic I’ll be delving into with more depth at another time.  But often the “games” played by young girls in the mountains revolved almost entirely around divining the name, appearance, or attributes of a future husband.  And there are also plenty of tales which deal with the terrible consequences of treating these sorts of divinations lightly (such as the story of the “dumb supper” which eventually leads to a young girl’s brutal murder).  Suffice to say, Appalachian folk know that life has its dark side, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.

That’s it for mountain magic this week.  I hope this has been a useful introduction.  This, like many of the other topics here, only scratches the surface, and I hope to return and look at Granny women, yarb Doctors, dowsers, power doctors, signs and omens, death lore, and just about everything in more depth at a later date.  But for now, I’ll wish you a happy weekend.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 28 – Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…

March 12, 2010

Do I date myself by referencing that song in the title of this blog post?  Oh well…
I thought I’d wrap up the week with a few more examples of signs, tokens, and omens from American folklore.  We’ll be up in the mountains today, both the Appalachians and the Ozarks.
From the Appalachian History blog:

News Bees

“In both Appalachian and Ozarks folklore, news bees appear as omens to those wise enough to read them.”

News bees are not actually bees, but flower flies from the Syrphidae family.  They are marked with bands of black and yellow, much like bees, but are harmless.  They do look an awful lot like sweat bees, however, which can sting a person (though not as severely as other bees or wasps).

News bees, which also go by names like “sand hornets,” “sweat flies,” or “Russian hornets” derive their folk name from the belief that these hovering insects watch the events of humanity unfold, then fly off to deliver their news to others.  According to the folklore, “There are yellow news bees, which mean that good things are in the offing– it’s good luck if you can get one to perch on your finger–and black news bees, which warn of imminent death. The black news bees fly in the windows and out again, and fly straight for the nearest cemetery; they hover making a sound like a human being talking.” (Tabler, par.2)

From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore:

Some Animal Lore

“It is very generally believed that the appearance of an albino deer is a bad sign ; some hillfolk think it has something to do with witches’ work, others that it is an indication of disease among the deer, and that venison will be unwholesome for seven years” (p. 241)

“Groundhogs are hunted by boys with dogs, and young groundhogs are very good eating. But some of the old-timers frown on the modern practice of shooting groundhogs. They don’t mind if city sportsmen do it but often forbid their own children to shoot groundhogs, because it is supposed to bring bad luck” (p. 243)

Household Signs & Omens

“The Ozark housewife seldom begins to make a garment on Friday never unless she is sure that she can finish it the same day. Many a mountain man is reluctant to start any sort of job on Saturday, in the belief that he will ‘piddle around’ for six additional Saturdays before he gets it done” (p. 69)

“It is bad luck to burn floor sweepings or shavings that have been produced inside the house. An old-time Ozark housewife seldom sweeps her cabin after dark, and she never sweeps anything out at the front door” (p. 70)

The fantastic Appalachian blog Blind Pig and the Acorn has a fascinating entry on a death omen called a “belled buzzard.”

Belled Buzzards

According to the site, which cites a newspaper story about this phenomenon, in King George County, VA, a buzzard was observed flying low by houses with a bell around its neck and streamers tied to its body.  Similarly adorned birds figure in tales from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.  According to the blog’s author:

“Most of the sightings or ‘hearings’ caused folks to believe the belled buzzards foretold death. One legend even tells the story of a belled buzzard harassing a man after he killed his wife-to the point of the man turning himself in for her murder” (Tipper par.2).

So if you happen to see any big birds around your neighborhood with bells, chimes, or any musical instrument on their person, take heed!

Personal Lore

Finally, today, I thought I’d share a few of the things I was brought up believing.  Most of this information is from my mother.

  • When cooking soups, stews, and sauces, she’d often include a bay leaf in the pot.  Whoever found the bay leaf was thought to be in for some good luck.
  • If rain broke out of a clear sky, my mother always said that “the Devil is beating his wife.”
  • She taught me that if your ears burn, someone’s talking about you.  If your nose itches, someone wants to kiss you.  And if your hands itch, money’s coming your way soon.
  • You should never kill a spider or a frog indoors, as it will bring bad luck, she always said.  Unless the spider was a black widow or brown recluse.  Then it seemed to be okay.
  • She always kept an aloe plant in her kitchen window, both for an easy source of bug-bite and sunburn treatment and to bless the house in general with good fortune.

Okay, that will do it for today, I think.  Please feel free to share your own lore.  I’m always eager to hear it!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 27 – More Signs & Omens

March 10, 2010

Hi everyone.  I received a fantastic email From Sarah R. about a number of traditions she remembered from a book called The Fortune Telling Book, by Gillian Kemp.  I thought I’d share a few of the wonderful tidbits she sent me, along with some other signs and omens we didn’t get to in the podcast.

Marriage Omens (from Sarah R.)
1. It is considered unlucky to be married in a church where there is an open grave.
2. A solitaire cut engagement ring indicates a solitary existence.
3. If three women sitting together at a dinner table possess the same initial to their Christian name, one of the three women will soon marry.
4. It is considered lucky to have an even number of guests at the wedding and unlucky to have an odd number.
5. Wedding Dress Omen:

Married in white you will have chosen alright,
Married in green ashamed to be seen,
Married in grey you will go far away,
Married in blue you will always be true,
Married in yellow you’re ashamed of your fellow,
Married in black you will wish yourself back,
Married in pink of you he will think.

6. To see a flock of birds in flight on your wedding day is a sign of fidelity and a long and happy marriage blessed by heaven.

Here are some signs from Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind, from the “Illinois Egyptians” section.  The “Egyptians” he refers to occupy the southern “triangle” of Illinois, beginning “when the flat prairie lands of grain-rich central Illinois turn to foothills” (p.289).  The culture here is influenced by several ethnic groups, including the Irish, the French, and African-Americans.

A Death Omen
The McConall Banshee
Before anyone of the McConnal family died, a banshee [sic] would scream, and it would take the route that the family would go to the cemetery.  The neighbors along the route would hear it.

When old lady Brown died—she was a McConnall—the banshee came into the house and got in bed.  It looked like a little old woman about a foot high, with a rag tied around its head.  John Gentry was going to kill it, but Mrs. Brown said, ‘Don’t bother that.  That’s my baby.’

Some folks said that the banshee was a curse sent by the church, for the McConnalls had once burned a church.

When Walter Fraley’s baby died, the banshee cried all over the place, but no one could see it” (p.313)

Birth and Infancy Signs
“A baby speaks with angels when it smiles”
“An ugly baby makes a pretty adult.”
“It is bad luck to name a first child after its parents.”
“You should not cut a baby’s hair before it is a year old.”
“A baby will be a prophet if it is born with a veil over its face.”*
*This veil is known as a caul, and is somewhat common in births.  I’ve got more about it in Blog Post 8 – Seaside Sorcery

Dream Signs and Omens
“Dream of a funeral and attend a wedding.”
“It is bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast.”
“It is bad luck to dream of muddy water.”
“It is good luck to dream of clear water.”
“You will have enemies if you dream of snakes.”
“Count seven stars for seven nights, and you will dream of the man you will marry”
“You will be successful if you dream of being dead.”
“Marry soon if you dream of a corpse.”
“You will make true friends if you dream of ivy.”
“Dream of letters and receive good news.”
(all preceding quotations from Dorson, pp. 338-340)

That’s plenty of prophetic phraseology for today, so I’ll wrap it up.  But I still have many more tokens to tell of, so I’ll likely do another post on them later this week.  If you have any folklore regarding forecasting future events (or even current or past ones) via dreams, signs, etc., we’d love to hear them!  Feel free to add them as a comment to this post, or send us an email.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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