Weird and wonderful superstitions.

Even though you may not think of yourself as superstitious, the chances are that you will have told someone you will keep your fingers crossed for them, or you may have used the phrase ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’.

Most superstitions go so far back in human history it is difficult to be certain of their origins. Touching or knocking on wood is said to originate from the times when people believed that spirits inhabited trees and knocking on the bark of a tree was said to invoke the help of the spirits living there. Crossing your fingers to invoke good luck is thought to originate in early Christianity and the sign of the cross.

Though a few superstitions, like these, are still in common usage, most have fallen by the wayside including some of the more bizarre listed below.

Ass-riddling; A superstitious custom practiced in the north of England upon the eve of St.Mark, when ashes are sifted or riddled on the hearth. It is believed that if any of the family shall die within the following year, the shoe of the fated individual will leave an impression on the ashes.

Divination by apple-pips; To ascertain whether her pretended lovers really loved her or not, the maiden takes an apple-pip, and naming one of her followers, puts the pip into the fire; if it cracks in bursting from the heat, it is a proof of love. If it is consumed without noise, there is no real regard in that person towards her. (Davy’s M.S.)

Divination by flowers;

The campion flower was also called Batchelor’s Buttons after the ancient custom amongst country fellows to carry the flowers of this plant in their pockets, to divine whether they would succeed with their sweethearts. Hence arose the phrase ‘to wear batchelor’s buttons’ meant to be unmarried.

Divination by Bible;

One old superstition was to use a bible and key for the purposes of divination, and is described in the Athenian Oracle, as follows;

A Bible having a key fastened in the middle, and being held between the two forefingers of two persons, will turn round after some words said; as, if one desires to find out a thief, a certain verse taken out of a psalm is to be repeated, and those who are suspected nominated, and if they are guilty, the book and key will turn, else not. At the turn of the twentieth century, this was still practiced in Lancashire by young women who wanted to divine who their future husbands would be.

Blessing-the-fire-out is described thus in Moor’s Suffolk M.S;

“An operation performed generally, I believe always, by a female. She wets her forefinger with spittle, and moves it in a circular slow manner over and round the part that may have been scalded or burnt, at the same time muttering inaudibly a suitable incantation or blessing, in the mysteries of which I am not initiated. This I have often seen done, and have, indeed, not unfrequently experienced the benefits, be they what they may, of the process.”

Blind-days referred to the first three days of March which were formerly considered so unlucky that no farmer would sow seed at this time.

The following was a charm against sciatica, then known as bone-shave;

The patient must lie on his back on the bank of a river or brook of water, with a straight staff by his side, between him and the water, and must have the foregoing words repeated over him.

Bone-shave right,

Bone-shave straight,

As the water runs by the stave,

Good for the bone-shave.

In Wales, a corpse-candle was a not uncommon sight. This dancing light, seen hovering close to someone’s home at night, would portend that a person was about to die there. Corpse-candles get a special mention in Anywhere the Wind Blows.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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12 thoughts on “Weird and wonderful superstitions.

    • I think rural people everywhere tended to be superstitious. The corpse candles, along with fairies, were still believed in well into the 19th century, by many people in Wales.

  1. My word, you are a mine of historical information, Jenny. Keep this up and you’ll soon have a book. My favourite has to be the ass-riddling. Could have had quite a lot of fun putting peoples’ shoes in the ashes to leave an imprint when they weren’t looking!

    • Oh, you have such a mischievous streak, Malla! Imagine being the one whose footprint was in the ashes! I don’t know why anyone would want to predict such a thing but I guess it was a need for certainty in a world with few effective medicines and where death could take any one of them at any time.

  2. Fun and fascinating! A few from my childhood, growing up on the eastern slope of the Sierras in northern California: tommy-knockers were said to be the ghosts of miners and you could hear them in the old shafts. I think it was a story to scare children away from old mines. Water babies said to live in Lake Tahoe and the swimming hole we kids used in the Markleeville Creek. Water babies were spirits that could help you stay safe while swimming or fishing, but if you angered them, they would drown you. I knew people who could use two sticks to divine where water could be found for digging a well. Often they were called, “water witchers.”

    But ass-riddling? That’s priceless! I think that’s my favorite!

    • I’ve never heard of any of those that you mention, except the water diviners. I remember these from my childhood and there are still people who do this today to find underground springs. Here we call them ‘twitchers’. Thank you for sharing these, they’re wonderful.

  3. Jenny – a friend and I experimented with the Bible and key superstition when we were both young Army sergeants back in 1960 or thereabouts. I can’t remember the verse of the Bible we recited, but the Bible eventually moved, apparently of its own accord, without any undue pressure being applied to the key by either of us, Nor did we touch the Bible during the experiment at any time. We quickly gave up once the Bible started to move! I would love to see a rational explanation for this.

      • Thanks for your prompt reply, Jenny. Very interesting page – I enjoyed reading it, especially about water deviners. In my lifetime, water deviner was still a trade in the British Army, with its own badge worn on the sleeve. I’m not sure if it is still extant, but I suspect not.

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