Saturday, February 6, 2016

Basts and laptej : Russian Superstitions

If you have the good fortune to have Russian friends or neighbours next time you are visiting them have a look for a lucky talisman many Russian families keep to fend off evil spirits. The old custom was to keep a pair of bast shoes fastened to the door to fend off the evil eye. Bast shoes are basket weave, often miniature, and filled with dried flowers. The custom dates back to the Dark Ages and of course no one is sure of its origins.

How the bast came about was really through sandal making. The early Russian sandal makers would weave the sole using bast (the inner bark of the lime, larch, birch, willow and even juniper trees) and these were called Lapti.

The bark was prepared by soaking a long time, and then straightened under a press. It took 3 or 4 saplings to make one pair with a double sole, these were fragile and might only last one week.

Lapti were worn by the rural peasants. Bast was also used to weave shoes and these were less expensive than leather but basket was not so robust. Eventually shoemakers combined bast and leather straps to make longer lasting Lapti.

From the 12-14th centuries, city dwellers wore shoes made from "cuts" of fabric, little pieces of smooth wool cloth and even of silk ribbon and these were called pleteshki (wicker/weaving). Depending on the traditions and ethnic region various weaving patterns were used (oblique, straight). The form of laptej (plural of lapti) also varied depending on locality: southern and Poleski lapti were open, while northern - "bakhili" - had the form of a narrow boot. The bast shoe was used all over European Russia, but not in Siberia. They were worn over leg wraps with the whole thing secured by straps.

In the winter, furs and felt were used extensively. Felt boots (valenki) were worn on the coldest, driest days. Melting snow or mud will ruin felt boots and make the wearer miserable with soaked, cold feet. But when the weather was cold and dry, felt boots remained impermeable, and provided warm footwear. Leather boots were also common.

Archaeological finds support leather boots became fashionable in Russia about 14th century and were worn by young and old alike. Boots were worn by the Tatar and Mongol tribes, in the Middle Ages and shoemaking was a popular trade in Russian towns. Improved skills meant more robust boots became available by 16th century. They normally attached the wooden heel under the sole, the heel was covered by leather and the boots were worn knee-high and cut at an angle. Red boots were very popular and boots for men and women were cut alike with no allowance made for left and right. There is some evidence of specially made shoes to accommodate flat feet. (circa 16th century). By this time a multiplayer heel became fashionable in Moscow. Then, shoemakers used the heel (6-7cms) as an arch support which made walking laboured. Later heel plates (crescent shaped heel protector) were nailed onto the heel. Later the calks (small screws) were replaced by nail holes.

Foot note

Chubby Checker and Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, were often photographed wearing basket weave shoes. No one is sure if they hoped to fend off the evil eye or just like wearing very comfortable shoes.

Read more at:
Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies Footwear in Early Russia

Reviewed 7/02/2016

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Superstitions and Chinese New Year

Whilst the Chinese New Year's Day always falls on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, the date varies each year on the Gregorian calendar, between January 21th and February 20th. Only the first three days of Chinese New Year (February 8–10, 2016) are statutory holiday, but many people take 7 consecutive days off. This year is the Year of the Monkey and for people born in a year of the monkey (1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004), 2016 it is considered a bad year. "Monkeys" are witty, intelligent and have a magnetic personality but must ensure they protect themselves from bad luck Red in Chinese culture is associated with luck, so is important Monkeys wear red. Favoured items of clothing include a red belt, red socks, red shoes, or red clothes, but red underwear is highly recommended during the zodiac year. To ensure good luck however it is important the red underwear should be bought by a spouse, family member, or friend. Jade too is a lucky talisman and pendants, earrings, rings, and bracelets are ward to ward off bad luck. According to traditional belief,Tai Sui the God of Age, is offended by people in their zodiac year and they can incur his curse so it is important people in the year of their birth sign should always seek the help of lucky talisman in the zodiac year.

As an agricultural culture, the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival holiday traditionally was set to start at the beginning of the growing season, which nowadays corresponds to the beginning of a new business year. The hope is always the new zodiac year will bring prosperity and success so it is important to get a good start to the year. During the Chinese New Year thousands flock to the temple, to pray for good fortune in the coming year. In preparation, family’s homes and surrounds are cleaned prior to the festival in order to rid the home of any bad fortune from the previous year. Old decorations are removed and replaced with new ones for the Spring Festival. Having a clean home also makes way for good luck in the New Year. Domestic cleaning is never undertaken during the festival in case it sweeps away good fortune.

Chinese New Year is a time for family and get together. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a major event with certain foods are prominent because of their symbolic meanings, based on their names or appearances. Fish is a must, as the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus. Eating fish is thought to bring a surplus of money and good luck in the coming year. Other favourites include dumplings, spring rolls, glutinous rice cakes, and sweet rice balls.

Pyrotechnics are a tradition at Chinese New Year. The significance of the fire crackers is to "sound out" the old year and "sound in" the new year. Displays start with one string of small firecrackers, followed by three big firecrackers. The louder and more colourful (red) the three firecrackers are the better and luckier it’ is for the coming year. Evil spirits have an aversion to anything red and loud noises.

During the Spring Festival, gifts are exchanged with the most common Hong Baos or red envelopes, containing an even number of new bank notes. Traditionally these are given to children, young unmarried adults and (retired) seniors but sometimes employers will reward their workers with red envelopes. In the cyber age young people exchange cyber money via red envelope apps for fun. The practice of giving Mandarin oranges (always in pairs) is also a symbol of good luck. Giving gifts of clocks, watches or other time pieces should be avoided. To the superstitious these symbolise time running out, as well as relationships coming to an end.

Families follow a set of beliefs and superstitions to start the year on the right note and there are many superstitions observed during the Spring Festival season. These taboos usually apply up to a month before the festival and continue to the end of the festival (day 15, the Lantern Festival).

Washing Hair in the first three days is considered bad luck for fear of washing away good luck.

Crying children is bad karma and so the young are placated fastidiously. Children are also spared from all punishments even if they are misbehaving.

It is normal is clear all debts before the beginning on the new year and asking for a loan, lending or begging during the festival is not a done practice, as it is believed it will only bring misfortune.

Talking about anything related to death is strictly forbidden as is wearing black clothing.

Using knives or scissors should be avoided as they may cut off fortune.

In the Year of the Monkey, Tai Sui sits in the southwest of the zodiac calendar. Some Monkeys believe to get Tai Sui behind them will bring them good luck. They adjust their beds, seats, desks, and even where they live and work to face away from Tai Sui. When doing something important, such as a business negotiation, they prefer to face northeast, during negotiations. It is not a consensus however, and some believe facing in the opposite direction to Tai Sui will bring them good fortune.

> Zao Jun is the Kitchen God (or Stove God) and he is a popular domestic deity. Many household keet paper effigy in his honour and he has a very important role to play. At the Spring Festival. The common belief is he returned to Heaven ach year at this time to report on the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor The Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). who will in turn either reward or punish a family based on Zao Jun's yearly report. To prevent Zao Jun from giving too much information about the family sticky sweet cakes (Chinese New Year's cake) are left as offering in the hope his mouth will be too sticky to tell all on the family. The lips of Zao Jun's paper effigy are often smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burnt and replaced by a new one on New Year's Day. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of Zao Jun it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the new year.

A Happy New Year.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Spookie Tales: Footprints and concealed shoes:

Practitioners of Black Magic manipulate the course of nature by controlling supernatural forces through ritual and spell. The intent to do harm to others is enhanced by sympathetic magic which treats an image such as sticking pins into a doll; contiguous magic deals with things the intended victim has touched. Clothing, hair, toe nails and especially footprints are considered valuable prizes.

Many cultures are sensitive to the power of the footprint and consider it as an imprint of the sole. Those who control the footprint control the sole. Spooky is it not? The foot is the only part of the human body to be in contact with Mother Earth, and as such, is considered to have many mystical associations.

Woman of the American Indian tribe, Zuni, keep the soil of their husbands' footprint where they sleep believing this will dampen their spouses ardour thus ensuring their fidelity. Others take the earth footprint and hide it in an attempt to protect their men folk from harm.

A common practice in the Middle Ages was to leave an old shoe in the roofs and fireplaces of houses during building work, as a primitive form of protection against evil spirits. The shoes were traditionally believed to take on the essence of the wearer.

No less than the Masonic Order uses reference to an old shoe as part of its symbolism to depict the Mother Lodge (and it is a female shoe).

Footwear also appears prominently in many marriage rituals. In the Middle Ages, for instance, grooms kept their feet on their brides shoes to assure a lifetime of compatible and productive physical union. This reference remains with us today, with the car of the bride and groom traditionally decorated with old shoes and tin cans. The shoes were a guarantee of a happy (and fertile) life, with the noise of cans to fend off ill-wishers and evil doers. French brides still keep their wedding shoes as a good luck charm.

We have all heard the nursery rhyme.

"Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,"

but many people are not aware the traditional rhyme finishes with the line

"and a lucky sixpence in her shoe."

Monday, January 11, 2016

Getting married: Stockings, garters and avoiding the Evil Eye

In the North of England, an old custom at the end of the wedding ceremony was for male guests to rush at the bride to the alter and remove her a chivalrous garter, a symbol of her purity. In the panic this usually meant the bride was knocked over and trampled on. Gradually manufacturers made garters easier to detach and finally to avoid threat of injury, brides tossed their garters towards the groom’s men at the end of the ceremony. This custom may also relate to flinging the stocking.

In the past it was common practice in many countries for the wedding couple to be escorted to their wedding chamber by their family and guests. In many cultures the mutual divesting of intimate apparel such as stockings was considered to represent the couple’s sexual commitment to each. This was celebrated by the bride throwing (or flinging) the stockings in the direction of the expectant crowd. This may be the origin of throwing a posy to the brides-maids. Catching the garter (males) and posie (females) is generally taken as a sign of who will be married next.

In pagan times (pre-Christian) people relied on ritual and lucky talisman to bring good fortune. The coming of modern religions like Christianity saw massive inclusion of pagan ritual into new religious ceremonies which was a deliberate attempt by the Church to encourage people to become part of the new religion. The amalgam of the secular (worldly) and religious beliefs is now almost impossible to separate. Bridal wear of today does however, contain remnants of ritual and superstitions although most people are unaware of their meaning. The more common amulets (ornaments) and traditional accents of the bride’s ensemble are known to represent merriment, virginity and abundance. Traditionally brides wore a chivalrous garter (for safety), an heirloom (usually a brooch) meaning innocence, and silver buckles on her shoes (for prosperity). These were lucky talisman to ward off the Evil Eye.

Read more
Getting married: “Something old, something new”
Getting Married: Shoes and Wedding Superstitions

Friday, May 30, 2014

Fending off the Evil Eye

The Evil eye is found in nearly every culture with the earliest reference found in the cuneiform script of Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, around 3000 BC.

The ancient Egyptians used eye shadow and lipstick to prevent the evil eye from entering their eyes or mouths. Both the Old and New Testaments mention the evil eye. Superstitions surrounding the evil eye strongly persist in Mediterranean countries. The deliberate use of the evil eye was thought to produce misfortune such as illness, poverty, injury, loss of love, or even death. The power of the evil eye was so greatly feared in the Middle Ages, witches had to walk backwards toward their judges.

Almost anything could cause the notion someone possessed an evil eye. Observed looking at children or livestock prior to illness or death was definite confirmation to the superstitious. Strangers were viewed with great suspicion and anyone with unusual characteristics such as eye colour or physical disfigurement like flat feet were in danger of being classified as evil eyed. Some babies were thought to be born with the evil eye corrupting everything they looked at. These children were referred to as demonically possessed.

The evil eye was likely to strike in good and fortunate times. Many of the family's riches were deliberately hidden from children just in case they gave them the evil eye. Likewise, success was never bragged about. Animals thought to be under a spell were referred to as "blinked".

The community sought help from their wise elders in matters of the evil eye, and amulets were commonly used in antiquity as protection.

In Roman times the phallus was used as protection from the evil eye. Today Italian men still hold their genitals as protection from evil or any misfortune. Another name for Priapus was Fascinus and some referred to the evil eye as fascination.

Spitting is thought to be a powerful aversion to the evil eye. Frogs and horns were common shapes used by witches. Horse brasses on the harness were thought to protect from the evil eye as was tying ribbons on children's underwear. Garlic and the shamrock have also been used as a protection and many gardeners plant jack beans around their gardens to the same effect. Hindus believe barley can help and represented a symbol of thunderbolts of Indra.

Other cures against the evil eye included reciting incantations usually passed down from mother to daughter within the family. Suspicious Italians put a few drops of olive oil in a bowl of water (occasionally salted) The oil would either scatter into blobs or sink to the bottom. The final formation is interpreted to determine the source of the attack. Once complete more oil is added to the water while reciting the incantations and making the sign of the cross on the victim's forehead. If this fails a powerful sorceress is sought for a more effective cure.

In the New Year, many cultures believed the first foot to cross the threshold brought the house good fortune for the coming year. "First footing" is an ancient custom and tradition demands the first person to pass the threshold must be a sonsy (trustworthy), a stranger of dark complexion and full head of hair, carry a lucky talisman. It was considered very unlucky to have a first fit who was a person with fair complexion. Suspicious people refuse to leave their home until they were first footed. 'First footing’ were used to ward off the Evil Eye.

Reviewed 31/01/2016

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The origins and practice of hogmanay

Although the well known Scottish tradition of Hogmanay (originally a type of three cornered, biscuit) is celebrated on New Year's Eve, its origins are age old and grounded in Celtic culture. Despite the long association with the Scots, Hogmanay is not a Scottish custom but practiced, all over Europe. The following is a brief outline of Hogmanay, custom and practice.

Hogmanay was first recorded in 1604 in the Elgin Records as hagmonay (delatit to haue been singand hagmonayis on Satirday) and again in 1692 in an entry of the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, "It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New-years Eve, crying Hagmane." Etymology of hogmanay remains obscure and may arise from a French, Norse or a Goidelic (Insular Celtic) root.

The Festival of the Dead
In the old Celtic calendar, New Year fell on the 1st November and was called Samhain. This was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where spirits of the dead and those not yet born walked freely among the living. It was a time of plenty as the stocks were returned from the hills before the severe winter ahead and a great time for kinship as the hill dwellers came to the gathering. The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic and Hispanic world and lasts from Halloween to New Year.

Samhain was a time where darkness of night was thought to prevail over the lightness of day. Lun the Sun God was defeated by his darker side and became the Lord of Misrule. Good people needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Much of the sacred symbolism of Samhaimn can be found in the customs of Halloween and Hogmanay.

First Footing
In the New Year many cultures believed the first foot to cross the threshold brought the house good fortune for the coming year. "First footing" is an ancient custom and tradition demands the first person to pass the threshold must be a sonsy (trustworthy), a stranger of dark complexion and full head of hair, carry a lucky talisman. It was considered very unlucky to have a first fit who was a person with fair complexion. Suspicious people refuse to leave their home until they were first footed.

The Talisman
Bearing gifts echoes the 8th Century beliefs of the Vikings that good luck charms made the New Year a thriving one. Black bun (pastry covered rich current bun), and wassail (hot toddy) represent food and sustenance for the coming year. The coal symbolized good luck and prosperity.

Foot Arch
In the Isle of Man (UK) a good first footer was a man of good appearance and dark complexion with in-steps high enough to allow a mouse to run through. The significance of the arched foot remains unclear but early Christians believed men were made in the image of God and the Christian Foot had a perfect arch. Flat feet or splayed feet were considered the sign of evil and hence unlucky omens.

The Evil Foot
Functional feet were important to the early Christians as walking was the only means to spread the Gospel. Subsequently well formed feet became associated with joy and happiness. Literature abounds with reference to this. Prior to modern medicine illness and deformity were regarded as a form of demonic possession. Many contagious diseases of the time left deformities like flat feet.

After the Bells
First footing remains a strong tradition in rural areas. The modern interpretation is after hearing the Bells of the New Year ring, friends visit each other's homes sharing goodwill and treating them to intoxicating liquor. The Celts held alcohol in very high esteem and was an important part of ritual. In the past first footing had practical purpose to small communities which allowed everyone in the village to meet the New Year with good cheer and d more importantly be able to leave their abode after being first footed.

New Year’s Family Dinner
In Scotland families gather on Ner’day (New Year‘s Day) and feast like the traditional Christmas Day. This represents the modern “gathering of the clans.” Certain foods are thought to bring good fortune for the New Year. These include a thick and tasty bowl of Scotch broth: Steak pie and a Clootie dumpling (a sweet fruit pudding). It is not uncommon in Celtic tradition to have an extra place set at table for unexpected guests.

Auld Lang Syne
Auld Land Syne is a traditional air given lyrics by Robert Burns but this was not traditionally sang at Hogmanay until the 20th century after it was played at a New Year celebration in New York. The song and sentiment expressed was perfect for the occasion and have been associated ever since.