Animals in British Superstition

This post was first written as an article for the ‘Celtic Guide’ some years ago and is now posted here for your enjoyment – for more articles and information about the ‘Celtic Guide’ follow the link.

According to the Oxford Dictionary superstition can be defined as a “belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; fear of the unknown and mysterious; a religion or practice or opinion based on such tendencies.” 

Certain animals are often at the trench face of superstition – cats are the first to spring to mind- the following article is a brief overview of a few of the many British superstitions surrounding our furry and feathered friends.

Cats

The range of superstitions surrounding cats varies widely depending on where you are and what type of cat you have.  Black cats in Britain are believed to be good luck and white cats are unlucky however in any many other parts of the world the reverse is true, whilst tortoiseshell cats are said to be particularly lucky.  Even within the Britain there is some variation on the aforementioned luck.  Generally speaking it is believed that if a black cat enters your home uninvited this is very lucky but you must not shoo it away or disaster will befall the house.  But in East Yorkshire, the opposite is held to be true.

The cat has long been associated with magic, witchcraft and superstition – maybe because it lives on its on terms – the phrase ‘dogs have owners, cats have staff’ rings true…

For some occupations cats can either be a hazard or blessing.  Both miners and sailors avoid using the word ‘cat’ but for sailors it is lucky to have a ships cat (preferably completely black).  In contrast, in Cornwall if a cat wonders into a mine all work would stop and it would have to be killed before work would continue.  In the world of theatre it is considered very fortunate to have a resident cat, so long as it did not wander onto the stage during a performance.

There are also some strange tales of the healing power of a cat tail.  For example, a cat’s tail drawn across an eye will cure a sty and in a variation of this the tail of a tortoiseshell could cure warts when stroked but oddly only in the month of May…

Cats do not need to be alive to provide protection either.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall has several displays of dried, mummified cats which have been found in the roof spaces of old buildings.  It is thought they were placed there after death as protection against not only rats and mice but also other misfortunes and evil spirits.  At the Church of England school in Chelmsford (built 1887) ‘cat paws bricks’ were used in the walls as protection against witches.  These bricks had imprints of cat paws on them.

A mummified cat on display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.

In Celtic myth there is a fairy creature called the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe.  This creature is a large black cat with a white spot on his chest and is a common feature of Scottish folklore and occasionally Irish folklore.  It is said that the Cat Sith will steal a persons’ soul before it was claimed by God by passing over the corpse before burial.  Thus the corpse would be watched day and night to keep him away.  But like so much in folklore and myth the Cat Sith is not all bad.  At Samhain he would bless a house if a saucer of milk was left out but woe and betide those who did not – the house would be cursed and their cows’ milk would run dry.

Dogs

Unlike cats there are not as many superstitions surrounding dogs, perhaps as a result of the unique friendship humans have had with dogs unlike cats which are far more contrary creatures.  A dog howling at midnight is seen as a foretelling of a death, in fact it seems howling of any kind would appear to a prediction of a death.  Other superstitions associated with dogs include a dog to running between bride and groom on their wedding day was a bad omen or a completely black dog crossing a traveller’s path, but this may well be associated with the stories about supernatural hounds such as Black Shuck, Barguest and others which were always black, ferocious and terrified travellers.  

By Nbauers – Photo taken in 2018Previously published: Rural Rambles Round Bungay, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77202164

Horses and Sheep

The horse was a vital part of the economy for thousands of years and much of the superstitions which arose did so to protect them.  There are a variety of charms to protect your horse from evil ranging from plants such as birch to amulets worn by the horse (these later became horse brasses).  Different counties would have different superstitions although in general it was considered bad luck to see a white horse, to offset the bad luck you need to cross your fingers and not uncross them until you see a dog.  In Devon white markings above all four hoofs was considered ill but one white stocking was okay.

Horse using brasses as a charm/amulet. By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/1b/d7/3c1f5ba9d6cbb144f194e7199f9b.jpgGallery:

Superstitions associated with sheep involve cures for various ailments.  Whooping cough was in the past a common childhood ailment and one of the cures involved breathing in the breath of a sheep and if that didn’t work you could find a piebald pony and do the same.  Consumption was also common and relief could be found by walking around a sheepfold or inhaling the breath of a horse, any colour or type would do.

One of the many remedies for pneumonia was to attach the lungs of a slaughtered sheep to the feet of the person taken ill – the idea was that the infection would be drawn down and into the sheep lungs.  Offal was also useful in removing a witches curse – first take the heart of a sheep, stick pins in it, then roast it at midnight and the curse is gone.

Hares and Rabbits

Many of the superstitions associated with the hare seem to be some form of Christian propaganda against the pagan symbolism of the hare.  Most are concerned with bad stuff happening – to dream of a hare was either a warning of enemies or a foretelling of a death in the family.  Should a pregnant women see a hare then her child would be born with a hare-lip or similarly to the dog if a hare was to cross in front of a wedding procession…well, who knows what would happen (all references to this particular superstition were strangely silent on what exactly would happen). 

In Cornwall white hares were believed to be maidens who had died of grief over ‘fickle lovers’ who then haunted the very same men.  Witchcraft and hares are closely connected as it was believed that witches were able to transform themselves into hares.

Rabbits on the other hand were more kindly treated, the most obvious is the use of rabbit foot for good luck (not so for the unfortunate rabbit), originally it was a hares foot which provided the charm though.  For the traveller it was considered good luck if a rabbit crossed in front of you but not so much if they crossed behind you.  If you would like your month ahead to go well say the word ‘rabbit’ three times on the first of the month before you say any other word.  However, do not say it when visiting Portland Bill in Dorset, to utter the word ‘rabbit’ is to invite misfortune.

Rabbits in the medieval period seemed to get a fairly bad rap given the way they were often illustrated in some texts. Although this is more to do with allegory than superstition (I do like the drawings though).

Birds

Not all birds have superstitions attached to them, only a select few can make that claim, mainly crows, owls, robins and magpies.

Crows in particular have got a very bad rap over the centuries; their appearance is enough to put a superstitious mind into gear.  Basically it is unlucky to see or hear a crow, so for example a crow on his own is very bad and to hear a crow cry from the left in the morning is also bad.  Crows flying around your house is not good for the inhabitants either…They even have their own rhyme which would suggest not all was doom and despair.

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a letter, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Magpies also have their own predictive rhyme:

“One’s for sorrow, two’s for mirth,

Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,

Five’s a christening, six a death,

Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,

And nine’s the devil his own sel’”

Generally speaking the magpie is regarded as a bird of bad luck and to avert the bad luck the sign of the cross would be made.  As with crows many such superstitions involved death and dying, having said that, in some places it was believed to be good luck to see two magpies provided you acknowledged them by bowing. 

Owls don’t get off lightly either, firstly it is unlucky to see an owl in the day and they are often regarded as harbingers of death (even here in New Zealand the cry of the Morepork, our native owl is regarded as a portent of a death in the neighbourhood).  Interestingly, the hooting of an owl in Welsh villages is said to indicate a girl was about to lose her virginity.

Robins on the other hand are seen as an auspicious bird as a result of the tradition of how the robin got its red breast.  Christian folklore tells of how the robin pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and in doing so was stained by the holy blood.  Later traditions also have the robin covering those who have died in the open with leaves.  To kill or hurt a robin was considered very bad luck and to break a robins’ egg meant something of value of yours would also be broken beyond repair.  Unfortunately, the robin could also predict death, by either tapping at the window of sick person or entering a church and singing.

It would be easy to say many of the superstitions surrounding our animal and bird friends are connected to past Christian distrust of that which was not Christian.  Cats, owls, crows, hares, horses and dogs all have deep roots in our pagan Celtic past but the degree of bad luck versus good luck seems to come down to how useful the aforementioned animals were. 

Witchcraft and the fear of it often results in certain animals having a greater number of superstitions such as the hare and the cat (dogs were also known as familiars but there role is played down).  Cats are a difficult case, as their use in controlling the rat and mice population were often overlooked in the zeal behind witch hunts.  In the mid fourteenth century a mass culling of cats has often been cited as one of the reasons for the explosion in rat population and thus the onset of the Black Death.

Horses are rarely bad luck and even though stories of devil dogs abound in tradition, making it into popular culture, such as, Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their usefulness as hunting companions and guardians of the home ensure that dogs never get any truly bad press.  Both horses and dogs are easily trainable, their loyalty a given.  Animals such as cats, hares and birds can be tamed to a degree but will always have that aura of wildness and unpredictability.  It doesn’t require a great deal of an effort for a superstition to take root, no matter how illogical it may seem.

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