Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Festival of the Dead: Trick or Treat

The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic world and lasts from Halloween to New Year (Hogmanay). 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 associated with spirits and monsters on the prowl. Many ancient superstitions surrounding Samhain were concerned with the darkness and the evil it was thought to harbour.

The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic and Hispanic world and was traditonaly the time of plenty as the harvast was gathered and the stocks returned from the hills in preparation the severe winter ahead. This was a great time for kinship as the hill dwellers came to 'the gathering.'

Samhain was a time where the 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 Samhain can be found in the customs of Halloween and Hogmanay. Kissing under the mistletoe is thought to be an ancient Druid (Celtic) tradition. Drinking of wassail (alcohol) is another Celtic tradition. The Vikings used to slaughter a boar at Yule time in honour of the god, Freyr.

A common practice among medievil Christians was during certain celebration days to temporarily reverse order. During “All Hallows Eve,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints Day” for example, the faithful dressed up as saints, angels and demons. Children and poor adults at Hallowmas, went from door to door in disguise (guising) begging for food (soul cake). As they went from house to house they entertained (or mummed) and to ignore them was thought to bring bad luck. Children were likely to play tricks on the less charitable.It has been suggested modern 'trick-or-treating,' evolved from impersonating spirits, or the souls of the dead. A long held belief is souling dressing like the spirits or souls, by itself protects the guiser from evil doing.

"Guising" has long been a Scottish and Irish tradition from the 16th century. The children are only supposed to receive treats if they perform a party trick for the households they go to. In North America, trick-or-treating has been a Halloween tradition since the late 1920s.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Chinese Valentine's Day

The 28th August is Chinese Valentine’s Day or the Qiqiao Festival (乞巧節), and celebrates a fairy tale from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Qixi Festival always falls on the seventh day of the 7th month on the Chinese calendar and is sometimes called the Double Seventh Festival, or the Magpie Festival.

The original tales tells of two lovers, Zhinü a goddess renowned for her weaving skills and Niulang, a mortal cow herder and was first told in a classic poem 2.5 k years ago. When the young Zhinü came to Earth looking for adventure she met and fell madly in love with the cow herder and they got married and had two children. However, when her mother the Goddess of heaven, found out about what her seventh daughter had done , she was angry and stole Zhinü back. The lovers were heartbroken. Niulang vowed to reunite and when an old ox from his herd revealed to him he too was once a god and if Niulang killed him he could use his hide to make magical shoes to fly to heaven.

When the Goddess of heaven discovered his plan she used her hair pin to create a river of stars that would become the Milky Way to separate the two lovers. Their cries touched the magpies and thousands formed a bridge for the couple to walk over. Eventually, Zhinü 's mother relented and agreed to let the couple meet one night out of every year on Qi Xi, (the seventh night).

Qi Xi came to symbolize true love. During the festival, girls make a display of their domestic skills and needlework and will offer fruit, flowers, tea, and face powder to Zhinü on the night of the festival. In temples, girls recite traditional prayers for dexterity in needlework and to marry a good and loving husband. Children will also pick wild flowers to hang on an ox’s horns in memory of the cow-god who sacrificed himself. In some parts of China young girls hide in pumpkins farms or beneath grapevines, hoping to hear the whispers of Niulang and Zhinü in the hope it would help them find a boyfriend. Hair washing ceremonies in early morning dew are common in the belief the dew is the tears from the separated couple.

In Taiwan, people release floating lanterns into the sky to make wishes for love. The Qi Xi festival inspired Tanabata festival in Japan and the Chilseok festival in Korea.

Amor Vincit Omnia

Monday, June 5, 2017

Feet, shoes, and Superstitions: Wart cures: Old wives' tales

In the Dark Ages, verrucae or plantar warts caused by a viral infection came in for their fair or unfair share of alternative treatments. Why this is, is not particularly clear? However the life cycle of the virus, which cause warts, is reasonably short and under certain conditions can appear to vanish as if by magic. In times gone past when people looked for signs of good and bad physical appearance was important and skin blemishes such as warts were associated with the dark side and many witches reported to have them. It is unlikely however viral infections were influenced by occult worship and they would appear equally on the righteous as they did on those from the dark side. The populous were gullible however and always prepared to believe the incredible when simpler explanations suffice. This may well be why so much mystique surrounds the occult cure for warts. Physiological changes do arise from the psychological state and the belief in the power of spells, voodoo, magic or even the odd concoction of animal, vegetable or mineral applied to the skin made for credible means of removing warts. Remnants of which are now collectively known as Old Wives’ Tales. What follows is a collection of occult practice given in good faith and in the interests of historical interest. The contents should not be taken as health care advice. If you have verrucae then please consult your physician.

Most occult cures involved one or all of four factors i.e. touch, transference, repetitive behaviour, and nocturnal activities. Touching usually by rubbing vigorously the surface of the wart with a variety of solutions was common. Old rags were recommended and soaks included the juice of milkweed, radishes, marigold flower seeds, and limes. Dandelion sap, cinnamon powder, caster oil, potato peelings and even the water used to boil potatoes were all thought to cure warts. If that failed blood, spit or menses were also commonly used. Another innocent variation on the touching theme was to rub the wart with a wedding ring for three consecutive mornings. More macabrely the wart was rubbed with the skin of a black snail or dead corpse.

Transference usually involved touching the wart with something like plant seeds then putting them into the ground. Regional variations included grains of corn, beans, grapevines, and even rotten apples. Sometimes these had to be fed to livestock in order for the remedy to work. Alternatively the juice of raw or baked vegetables in ash were commonly smeared on the wart before being thrown away (usually over the head or left shoulder) and without watching where it fell. Onions or potatoes were used for this purpose too. Perhaps the most bazaar cures involved twisting a chicken's gizzard above the person’s head before throwing it backwards. An alternative to this to bury a dead cat in a graveyard in the dead of night after passing a crossroads. More commonly bacon was rubbed over the wart before burying it. Beans too were commonly thought to rid warts and some people buried them whilst others left them under the front doorstep to decay. As the matter decayed, the wart got better, or so the theory went. One other common practice was to pick the wart with a pin then stick it into an ash tree, reciting:

"Ashen tree, ashen tree, pray take away these warts from me."

The warts will then be transferred to the tree.

A common belief of our forbears was they could pass the wart onto someone or something else. This may relate to the times when illness was considered to be the possession of demons. Righteous people could rid themselves of ailments by giving up demons to sinners. In small communities strangers was frequently viewed as sinister interlopers. Many people thought by selling the wart to a stranger and keeping the money blemishes would miraculously disappear. One of the mildest transference cures was to place a pebble, previously rubbed over a wart, into a bag of pebbles then leave it at a crossroads. Who so ever picked up the bag would inherit the warts. Seems rather rough justice but for those who believe in the occult, a crossroad was a magical place and not always white magic. One cure for warts was to write a wish on a piece of paper, presumably relating to the end of suffering, then taking it to a crossroads before tearing it up and throwing it to the four winds. Another was to bury a bag at the crossroads containing the same number of stones as the person had warts. Complete eradication would follow.

Repetitive behaviour such as cutting notches in wood was at one time thought to clear up warts. Several versions appear in folklore. A small branch of a peach tree was cut the same number times as there were warts to cure. Placed in the ground where water dripped the branch decayed and as it did, the warts vanished. A variation was to cut tree bark and as they grow over, the warts disappeared. Cutting notches in a matchstick before burning it still thought in some parts to have the same efficacious effect. The belief that gently stabbing the wart with a needle (sterilised, of course) would caused it to disappear particularly when the needle was burnt. Stopping the blood supply by tying a silk thread or horses hair around the wart before burning it was also a common belief. Many of these rituals were considered more effective when undertaken in the dead of night. Finally an old wives tale was to touch each wart with chalk before inscribing a cross for each on the back of the fireplace. As the crosses became obscured by soot, the warts vanish.

Psychological states do influence skin physiology as random controlled experiments undertaken to compare hypnosis and auto suggestion have verified. People suffering from verrucae were divided into two groups for treatment. Some were hypnotised once per week for five weeks, and told their warts would disappear. After three months, six of the group had lost all their warts, and three more got rid of up to 75%. In the control group, where they were not hypnotised, not one patient lost a wart in the same time span. A similar experiment using tap water was undertaken and the population was divided into Catholic children and non-catholotic children. Each group were told the water was Holy Water and the clear-up rate in Catholic children was significantly higher than in the group of non-catholic children.

Now if you suffer from warts, or think you do, I would recommend you see your podiatrist or health care professional.

Rinzler CA 1979 The dictionary of medical folklore London: Magnum Books

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Even more factoids

At some time in our lives we are all guided by superstition. Whether we avoid walking under a ladder, take extra special care on Friday 13th, or use a lucky coin to play scratchy. All of us a prone to believe our future can be influenced by events and things that probably have no obvious bearing upon it. Belief in superstition gives people the idea that they can, to some degree, predict the future. Good or bad, seeing our destiny is obviously compelling and being able to avoid certain courses of action or conversely, by performing certain rituals seems a fair exchange. < br>

Some superstitions may have certain logic such as the obvious dangers of walking under a ladder with someone working overhead; others are less obvious like avoiding cutting your toenails on a Sunday. To believe in every superstition would be impossible so people tend to put store by the folklore they are familiar with. This is a possible reason why there are so many minor variations on common themes across the world.

On the whole feet and shoes are associated with good luck. Old shoes were often hidden in the roofs of medieval buildings for good luck. It was a common belief old shoes retained the character of their owners. One explanation of this belief is shoes in the Dark Ages were very expensive and it was a common practice to bequeath them to family members. This custom was thought to be where the phrase, "following in your father's footsteps" came from. A gift of shoes from loved ones was considered good fortune. So by extension leaving old shoes in buildings would also bring good luck.

Perhaps not so easily explained was the old Egyptian habit of inhaling the fumes from burning shoes to cure headaches. One explanation might be the shoes (sandals) were made from vegetable materials which contained natural salicylates. The smoke released these to the atmosphere and like aspirin offered an analgesic effect. In pre-Hellenic times people burnt their shoes to scare away evil spirits, perhaps in this case the unpleasant smell had the desired repellent effect.

The demon king seemingly does not like human things like smelly feet or bottoms burps. It was customary in days gone past to ward off evil spirits by either "farting loudly" or "mooning" (showing your bare bottom). The sight of female genitals was also thought to heal the sick or scare away storms and devils. Stone carvings of vaginas date back to 35,000 BC. These were carved in a round stone with three line indentations.

Later this took the form of a horseshoe which as everyone knows brings good luck when nailed upside down above a door. The symbolism of entering through door, I shall leave to your fertile imagination.

It is widely believed people with holes in the soles of their shoes would become wealthy. This refers to following in your father's footsteps. People in the Middle Ages believed it was proper to live within the station of society they were born into and thought it unnatural to move socially upward (or downwards). Holes in your shoes meant hard times now, but good fortune round the corner. An old Lancashire was "Clogs to clogs in three generations" Meaning no matter how the family rises from their humble station in life their offspring will be poor again within three generations.

In the past traveling carried with it many pearls and to avoid bad Karma or ill omens many people believed in rituals such as before setting out on a journey it was considered good luck to drop an old shoe outside your front door. Throwing shoes at someone who going on a journey was considered very good luck and today throwing confetti at weddings is thought to be a remnant of this custom. Journeys were viewed with great suspicion. If on a journey the path of travellers was crossed by a barefooted woman, then this was thought to be bad luck and could only be rectified by drawing blood from her forehead. To dissolve the spell meant a return to your abode, cross the threshold with the right foot, eat and drink then set out again. Meeting a barefooted woman on the way to a wedding was a particularly bad omen and likened to meeting a witch. An old greeting to the bride and groom is "a happy foot" and when traveling to the wedding it was customary for the bride to kiss fellow travellers. It was also the done custom for travellers met on the way to a wedding to join the party otherwise to continue of their original journey would bring bad luck to the couple.

Reviewed 2/03/2016

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Spooky Scotland: Green, Grey, and White Ladies

Scotland is widely thought to be one of the most haunted countries in the World. There are reputedly more ghosts, ghouls, banshees and long-leggety beasties than anywhere else. Reference to spectres stretch back centuries, and have their roots in the mists of time. From brutal murders and injustice to crimes of passion and unrequited love, the hereafter is full of spirits attached to the place where it happened or so the para-normalists would have us believe.

Acceptance of ghosts and ghoulies is all rather Celtic with the common belief we walk not only with the dead but also the unborn. That is what the Festival of Samhain is all about (The Mid-Winter Festival from Halloween to Hogmanay). Most Jock Tampson’s bairns take it with a pinch of salt and like Robert Burns as he wrote Tam O’ Shanter, we roar with laughter at the gullibility of others. It is however always good for the tourists and there are plenty of Scottish castles and stately homes with famous ghosts (some of which you can stay in).

Lady ghosts are the most commonly reported in haunted castles. They fall mainly into three catagories: Green, grey or white ladies.

Green ladies are peculiar to Scotland and most are called ‘Jeanie.’ There are two varieties: the most frequently seen is a benevolent slender young woman with long flaxen hair who wears a long green gown which reaches the ground. Sometimes called a gruagach or a brownie they are friendly water spirits. The others are demons or glaistigs and have hairy goat like bodies with cloven hooves for feet. The long gown covers their hideous body. Good Green ladies help protect the home and family. Bad Green Ladies, usually spirits of a previous mistress, prefer to be alone and dislike dogs.

Many historical buildings have Green Ladies:-
Ardblair Castle, Balgonie Castle, Ballindalloch Castle, Comlongon Castle, Crathes Castle; Dalzell House in Motherwell, Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll, Fernie Castle , Fyvie Castle, Knock Castle (Isle of Skye), Skipness Castle near Loch Fyne, Stirling Castle, Tulloch Castle Hotel, Dingwall, Scotland.

Grey Ladies are the ghosts of women who died violently for the sake of love or through the heartless actions of a family member. They are tragic figures and wander endlessly forever lost. Historical buildings have Grey Ladies include:-

Brodick Castle , Dalhousie Castle Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh, Dalzell House, Motherwell, Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, south of Melrose, Fyvie Castle, near Turiff, Aberdeenshire, Glamis Castle, Angus

The White Lady (or Weeping Woman) is associated with some local legend of tragedy. Common theme is losing or being betrayed by a husband, boyfriend or fiancé. In some myths, the women have murdered their children after betrayal by their spouse, followed by suicide. White Ladies do not have any special powers, other than being visible to some. Like the Irish banshee they do foretell a death. And are most often seen by children and elders. Popular belief says if a child sees a White Lady, that she will bless it and protect it throughout its life. In contrast, when an older person sights a white lady it foretells their death i.e. usually a peaceful and painless death after a long life, surrounded by friends and family.

Historical buildings have White Ladies:-
Castle Huntly, Dalzell House, Motherwell, Drumlanrig Castle

"Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll get to Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond."

An old belief was when a Scotsman died in a foreign land, their spirits would return to their place of birth by an underground fairway called “The Low Road.” This was also the route taken by the 'fairies' and ‘little people.' The lyrics to the traditional air, Loch Lomond is thought to refer to two Scottish soldiers from Bonnie Prince Charlie's army, who were imprisoned in Carlisle gaol, after the retreat in 1745. One soldier was to be released so that he could return home to Scotland by the High Road; the other was to be executed at dawn. He in turn would travel home more quickly as a Dead Soul by way of the Low Road.

Reviewed 14/02/2016

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : 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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : 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