I don’t think of myself as an overly superstitious person. I walk under ladders, although I do check first to see if there’s a can of yellow paint hovering over me. I don’t mind black cats walking in front of my path, although I admit I do get the feeling sometimes that cats see things I don’t see. Okay, I admit to having a wee tweezlet of discomfort considering the seven years of bad luck I might be in for if I break a mirror. I never think twice before putting a hat on the bed, but I have been known to toss a little spilled salt over my shoulder. I don’t know why I do this, only that it seems the right thing to do. Okay, maybe I’m a little more superstitious then I like to admit.
I’m in the midst of writing this book set in 7th century Britain, about a pagan woman, who is a seeress, a medicine woman, a woman who works with spirits. There are frustratingly limited resources available for research on the early Middle Ages, but I have managed to piece together enough information to keep me inspired and on track. One of the things that interests me is how similar such earth-based practices are to those of modern day traditional First Nations people — the drum, the sacred smoke, the idea of life energy in all things, the significance of visions and dreams.
I love the idea of perceiving the world around us as a sort of book, in which it is possible to read signs, and look for deeper meaning. No, I don’t believe that watching the flights of birds will provide me any useful information about which lottery number to buy, but I can’t help but wonder if animals don’t know a bit more about this sort of thing than we do — and perhaps that’s why rats are said to leave a ship about to sink, or a house about to burn down, or why animals seem to behave so oddly before earthquakes. Rather than being able to foretell the future, it seems to me they are perhaps able to perceive on a more sensitive level than I can. Gavin de Becker, who wrote a terrific book called THE GIFT OF FEAR some years ago, said, “you never see an antelope with a lion attached to its neck saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t see this coming!” Animals pay attention to the signs much better than we do.
So I try to keep my eyes open — I look for hazy rings around the moon, clouds that look like flocks of sheep to tell me it will rain tomorrow. When Mrs. Grumpy, the ground hog crosses the garden, looking for all the world like a fur-covered slinky, to drink from the pond for the first time, I know spring has truly arrived. Although most of the augueries I seek out have to do with weather, I’ve learned to read a few human signs as well. For instance, regular phone calls from a certain friend of mine means he’s trying to stay sober again. When the calls cease, I know he’s drinking again.
I am also drawn to that new show on television — “Lie to me” with the wonderful Tim Roth, who stars as Dr. Cal Lightman, the world’s leading deception expert who “by merely scrutinizing a person’s facial expressions and body language can determine if that person is being truthful.” The show reveals a number of ‘mirco-expressions’ people use more or less unconsciously, and involuntarily, such as scratching one’s face with one’s middle finger, which apparently means not only that one has an itch, but…. well, middle finger… I’ll let you figure it out. Simon Cowell, from American Idol, has been caught doing this more than once. And then there’s the head-shake when someone’s saying yes, that indicates they don’t believe a word they’re saying. Hilary Clinton gave such a head-shake when she was asked, just after voting, if she was looking forward to working with Obama. “Yes,” said her lips, “No,” said the head-shake. In fact, you can go to a link Fox has set up, FACES IN THE NEWS with all sorts of videos of famous people revealing themselves through gesture. Lots of fun.
Also in the course of my research, I’ve come across a book by E. & M.A. Radford (Edited and revised by Christina Hole) called THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERSTITIONS. Oh, what a great way to spend the day! The New York Times said of this book: “For the expert investigation of the human will to believe, we recommend THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERSTITIONS.’ Sadly, I think it’s out of print at the moment, but as any good bibliophile knows, there are ways to find such books, www.abebooks.com for one. Here’s a smattering of some of my favorites:
- Mice. If mice suddenly overrun a house previously free from them, or as suddenly leave an already infested house when nothing as been done to drive them away, it is a death omen for someone living within. So too, if one squeaks behind a sick-bed, the patient will not recover, and if one runs over any person, well or ill, he will die soon after. Another death omen is to see a ghostly white mouse running across the floor. These portents apparently spring from the ancient believe that mice are connected with, and sometimes visible manifestations of, the soul.
- Spade. To carry a spade on the shoulder through a house is very unlucky. It is a sign that a grave will soon be dug, most probably for someone living in the house.
I must say, a disproportionate number of superstitions seem to involve death, which is hardly surprising, I suppose, since it is the one certainly that haunts so many of us.
- Stones with natural holes in them were formerly believed to have magical powers of various kinds. In the Orkneys, a menhir (large upright standing stone) called the Woden Stone could marry those
who clasped hands through a hole in it and vowed fidelity. If they later desired to end the marriage, they could do so by going together to a Christian church, attending a service and leaving by different doors. (So sensible, that last one, and so time-saving!)
- It is lucky to touch a sailor’s collar, especially if it can be done without his knowledge.
- The word ‘knife’ must not be spoken at sea, bu the thing itself is sometimes thrust for luck into the masts of fishing-boats when they are out on the haaf, or deep-sea fishing.
To make toast on a knife is ill-omened and so is spinning one on a table.
- The howling of dogs is still widely considered an ominous sound. (I do wish someone would remind a certain neighbor of this!) If one howls in the night (and it does) it is a death omen, or at the very least, a herald of coming misfortune. A strange dog coming to the house means a new friendship, but one passing in between a bridal couple on their wedding day is a bad omen.
- “Dog” is another word that must not be spoken at sea and in some coastal area the tabu is extended to the animal itself, which must not be taken out in the boat.
- If an habitual drunkard is given owl’s eggs broken into a cup, he will henceforth detest strong drink as much as he formerly loved it. A similar idea existed in ancient Greece, where it was though that if a child was given such an egg, he would never be a drunkard. (This hasn’t worked for anyone I know.)
- Ear-rings worn in pierced ears are commonly believed to be good for the sight. (Sadly, though my ears are prettily festooned, I’m still blind as a bat.)
- Finger nails. Omens are often read from the shape and grown of finger-nails, and also from the little speck which sometimes appear on them. If a man’s nails grow crookedly, or are long and claw-like, it is a sign of an evil, or an avaricious disposition (or a cocaine habit, which amounts to the same thing, now that I think about it.) If they project in the middle, it is an omen of early death, and so too if the ‘half-moons’ at their base are small. If the ‘half-moons’ are large, long life and prosperity is to be expected.
- Nail-paring is completely safe to do only on Monday and Tuesday, moderately so on Wednesday and Thursday, but to pare one’s nails on Saturday is variously said to bring about losses, or to foretell a visit from a lover. Friday is uniformly ill-omened in this as in so many other respects, and whoever cuts his nails on a Sunday will have the Devil with him all week. Old sailors believe that to cut nails at sea during a calm will provoke a storm. In northern England, it is said that if a young married woman cuts her right-hand nails with her left hand, she will rule her husband. (Well, it’s worth a try.)
I’d love to hear some of your family superstitions — and whether you believe them! Do you, like me, still knock a little wood, like any good Druid touching the sacred oak, to ensure bad luck doesn’t find you? Do you shake a little salt over your shoulder just in case the devil is standing behind you and looking for an opportunity to gloat at the sinful, wasteful thing you’ve just done? A little salt in the eye is pretty effective, or so I’m told.
Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com