In today’s world where the internet rules, the desire to send and receive Christmas cards is fast losing favour. Instead people send memes, GIFs and quick texts to celebrate the event. However, a study of old Christmas cards can be informative of times past. The earliest cards rarely featured winter or religious themes, often preferring scenes of fairies, flowers and such as a reminder that Spring was on the way (like many midwinter traditions). War time cards had a strong patriotic theme, whilst later cards gave emphasis to the religious aspects and others encourage values that were felt to be important to a well functioning society – the first commercial card produced showed a scene of three generations of a family toasting the recipient with scenes of charity to one side. But perhaps for me personally it is the quirky cards from the Victorian era which often has me wondering what the card designers were thinking.
The following is less a history of the Christmas card then a gallery of some of the strange, bizarre and downright weird designs found on Christmas cards.
Frogs tend to feature quite often in Christmas card design – although it is hard to say what exactly is being said with the first card…
The following few card designs feature food but not in ways you would expect.
Kittens often feature on Christmas cards, sometimes cute, sometimes not and as the card above shows not always in ways we expect either.
The following cards are simply those which are too weird for explanations.
For more interesting and quirky facts about Christmas please check out the other blog on Christmas traditions here (there are also some more carzy cards…)
The British countryside is littered with the enigmatic remnants of its ancient past, there are somewhere in the region of ten thousand pre-Roman standing monuments. Modern archaeological techniques and science may be helping us to understand such sites today but once upon a time the people who lived with them found other ways to explain their redoubtable presence. Dating back thousands of years, monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, burial mounds (round and long barrows), stone rows and other such megalithic remains, provide a wealth of folklore as answers to the how, why and who questions of the past.
There are many tales to be told but the following is simply a selection of some well known and some not so well known.
One of the most well-known megalithic sites in Britain is that of Stonehenge with its own fair share of fantastical tales attached. In the 12th century Stonehenge was referred to as the ‘Hanging Stones’ because they appeared to float in the air. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the same century declared that Merlin (of Arthurian fame) was responsible for the building of the stones, something which was taken as fact for many centuries.
In Geoffrey’s account the king Aurelius Ambrosius told Merlin he wanted to raise a monument for his nobles who had been killed at Amesbury by the Saxon invader Hengist. Merlin tells the king to fetch a circle of stones in Ireland called the Dance of Giants that had healing properties. Aurelius went to Ireland with an army and fought the local Irish who did not want to give up the Dance of Giants eventually winning. On seeing the size of the stones, they found it impossible to move them, but Merlin was at hand who with the use of ‘his own engines, laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe’.
Of course, we know through scientific endeavor that the largest stones come from nearby Marlborough Downs and the smaller blue stones are from the mountains in Wales, not Ireland. However, it is interesting that there did still seem to be some knowledge, a folk memory, that a part of Stonehenge came from far enough away to be a wonder. It is also of interest that these stones were believed to have healing qualities, as new theories suggest that there was strong connection between healing and the presence of the blue stones in the early phases of construction. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that they washed the stones and poured the water into baths ‘whereby those who were sick were cured’.
The healing power of certain stones is an enduring feature of the tales associated with them. The most well known is that of Men-an-Tol in West Cornwall, here there is a round upright stone with a hole in it situated between two small uprights. Children were passed through the hole as a cure for rickets; it was also believed to be good for a ‘crick in the neck’ and was sometimes referred to as the Crick Stone – having personally struggled through the aforementioned holed stone, it can be suggested that it causes the ‘crick in the neck’ rather than cures. At Horton in North Somerset there is a similar stone known as the Crick Stone.
In Scotland, at the chamber tomb of Carraig an Talaidh, the portal stone is known as the Toothie Stane as a result of local people who were suffering from toothache would drive a nail into the stone. The idea being that in causing pain to the stone their own would cease. At the Rollright Stones it is said that they confer fertility upon women who touch them with their bare breasts at midnight. In addition, they are offer the power of prayer for the sick a boost if the prayers are said at the center of the Kings Men (the stone circle). The Kings Stone has a peculiar kink as result of the practice of chipping off pieces as good luck charms and amulets against the devil.
One of the most enduring tales associated with stone circles and standing stones is that of dancing. The Merry Maidens, a stone circle near St Buryan in West Cornwall, is said to be a circle of young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. In field nearby are several standing stones known as the Blind Fiddler and the Pipers who were playing music for the dancers and when they saw their fate, they tried run but God struck them down turning them into stone. A similar tale is told of the Nine Maidens, also in Cornwall.
A common theme in the folklore of standing stones is of people who broke the Sabbath being punished by being turned to stone, something which would have been encouraged by the Church at the time. The stones represented the pagan and ungodly past, any idolatry of such places was to be discouraged. A classic example of the pagan vs the Christian can be seen in the story of Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria. It was the wizard Michael Scott who when passing the place saw it was a witches sabbath and turned the participants into stone – the use of magic in this instance would appear to not sit comfortably alongside Christian beliefs but then if it is used to do God’s work.
In some cases, Christianity has taken an active role in the creation of the folktales surrounding sites. For example, the Long Stone near St Austell in Cornwall is said to once have been the staff and hat of the Saint Austell. The tale states that the saint was one day walking over the downs when his hat was blown off by a sudden violent gust of wind, he thrust his staff into the ground and chased after it. Unfortunately, the violent wind turned into an equally violent storm, driving the saint back to his home without both his staff and his hat. On returning the next day to retrieve his hat and staff he found that the Devil had turned them into stone.
The Devil also features in a legend regarding the Rudston in Yorkshire, this huge monolith stands tall in the local churchyard and the story says that the Devil was up to his usual tricks of throwing stones at Christian places. Picking up a large stone he hurled it at Rudston church, but his aim was lousy, and he missed. The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge consists of three stones and is all that remains of what would have been a very impressive stone row. Legend says that these stones were bolts thrown by an irate Devil aiming for the town at Aldborough and as we have already established his aim was lousy…
An example wrong doer being turned to stone comes from Gwynedd in Wales. The Carreg Y Lleidr stone is said to be a thief who stole some books from a neighboring church and was turned to stone along with the sack of books slung over his shoulder. Here folklore is being used to deter would be thieves and encourage moral behavior.
The connection between dancing and standing stones can also be seen in the notion that at certain times of the year certain stones are reanimated. Thus, Wrington’s Waterstone comes to life and dances on Midsummer’s Day but only when it coincides with a full moon. The previously mentioned Nine Maidens are said to sometimes dance at noon. On Orkney the Yetnasteen, a standing stone in Rousay, comes to life on New Year’s morning when it goes to the Loch of Scockness for a drink. Whilst at the Rollright Stones, the Kings Men are said to resume their human form on occasion, hold hands and dance to a nearby spring to drink.
The Rollright Stones (Oxfordshire) have their own creation myth associated with witches and magic. The name itself refers to a group of megalithic structures which includes a circle of seventy-seven stones called the King’s Men, a trio of standing stones which lean together and are called the Whispering Knights and a single standing stone called the King Stone. The legend first recorded in 1586 in Camden’s Britannia tells of how a king was once heading off in an expedition to become the High King of England. When he and his men reached the site where the stones are today, the owner of the land, a formidable witch appeared and told the king:
‘Seven long strides thou shalt take,
And if Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be.’
Determined to do just that, he strode forth but as he took his final step a large hillock appeared magically, hiding Long Compton from view. The witch then said:
‘Rise up, stick, and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stone shall be
And I myself and elder tree’
Thus, the King and his men were turned to stone and between them up sprouted an elder tree.
Although the elder tree is no longer present, its inclusion in the tale is significant as it represents the pagan aspects of the site. Elder trees were regarded as the most sacred of trees and there are many superstitions and folklore associated with them. The Whispering Knights are said to either be knights who were plotting against the king or praying for him depending on who you talk to. A local legend tells of women who question the stones, leaning in close to receive their wisdom. The King Stone was known as the meeting place of Long Compton’s witches but was also believed to mark one of the entrances to the fairy halls under the circle.
The Rollright stones also have a connection with King Arthur; the tale of King Arthur finishes with him and his knights lying in an underground chamber waiting for time when Britain is in great need. Where this is exactly is of course left to the imagination but for Oxfordshire locals the chamber is located beneath the Rollrights. There are many sites around Britain which attest some connection with the legend of King Arthur, far too many to go into detail here (may be in another post). Suffice it to say that there are very few counties that do not have a stone or two attached to the name Arthur.
As mentioned before Christianity has on numerous occasions used the presence of stone megaliths to demonstrate their own power of good over evil and the importance of being pious. However, they do not always have it their own way. It was the practice of the early church to build their churches on sites of pagan significance, not always with good results. In Scotland near Garioch there is a site called Chapel o’ Sink stone circle, so named because once there were attempts to build a chapel within the stone circle but each night the walls would sink into the ground to such an extent that work was eventually halted, never to be resumed. There are several other similar legends connected with stone circles in Scotland – those called the ‘Sunken Kirk’.
There are also numerous tales of folk who have interfered with the stones much to their own detriment. Death and sudden illness were not uncommon, acting as a deterrent for those who respected the legends. Animals in particular, are said to be affected by changes made to megalithic sites. When the sites of Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall and the Cairnford stone circle in Grampian were threatened with destruction the local farm animals all fell ill – in time when your livelihood depended on those animals this was a disaster. Another tale tells of two stones being removed the Mains of Hatton stone circle in Scotland and being used as gate posts, they had to be replaced as the horses refused to go through them. Similarly in Scotland a stone was taken from the Grenish circle and used as a lintel over the entrance to a cow shed, but no animal would enter from that day on.
At the Rollrights there are also tales of farmers trying to take the stones to use in farm buildings; one farmer in particular, tried to use the capstone from the Whispering Knights as a mill dam, but every night the uncooperative stone returned to its proper place.
The final site type to consider is that of the barrow. A barrow is in essence a burial mound, some look like pimples on the face of a smooth landscape and others are long mounds built as a statement, many have long gone under the plough and only archaeology can tell they are there. They can range in date from the Neolithic up to the Anglo-Saxon period. The most common stories associated with these types of sites associated these places as the entrances to the Otherworld, a place where the fairy folk abide. Perhaps recalling the stories of the Tuatha De Danaan who were said to have retreated underground on their defeat by the Milesians.
In Tyne and Wear there is a barrow that goes by the name of the Fairies Cradle, it is said that on moonlit nights it is a favorite spot for fairy parades and celebrations. Near Carmyle in Strathclyde there is another barrow called the Fairy Folk Hillock where similarly revels are held by the fairy folk. These are just two examples of the many stories relating to fairy revels at ancient burial sites.
In Humberside the story goes a bit further, here there is a Neolithic long mound called Willy Howe. A chronicler writing in the twelfth century recorded how a man passing the mound found a doorway open on the side, curiosity got the better of him and peered in to find a brilliantly lit chamber in which a gathering of fairies were enjoying a feast. However, he was soon spotted gaping at the door and invited in. His hosts offered him a goblet of wine – anyone who knows anything about the fairy world knows that accepting food or drink there will seal your fate – but not wanting to offend his hosts he accepted and whilst they were not looking emptied the wine onto the ground, fleeing with the goblet. When his story got around, and the goblet inspected no one could identify the metal it was made from. The last recorded location of the goblet was when it was in the possession of Henry II.
The theme of treasure in these enigmatic humps in the landscape is highlighted by the stories of a King Sil and his treasure who was believed to be buried under Silbury Hill in Wiltshire or the gold horse and rider also said to be under Silbury. There are many tales of gold or treasure within the barrows, often such tales resulted in unscrupulous people digging into the mounds in search of such treasure but also tales of the retribution of the fairy folk for those who would dare to interfere with their sacred places. The traditional guardians of hidden treasure are the Spriggans – they would wait whilst the treasure hunter had dug a substantial hole before appearing threatening the would-be robber. Their appearance is said to be so ghastly that the mortal would depart with haste, and should he return later he would find his hole filled in. The stories tell how Spriggans had the ability to grow in size at will and in other tales they are referred to as the ghosts of the ancient giants.
On Dartmoor there is a triple stone row at Challacombe and at its northern end is Chaw Gully, said to be a ‘dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirits, where rumors of buried gold have led many greedy treasure hunters to their doom’ (A Burnham ed The Old Stones – A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland).
In Fife there is a hill named Largo Law where it is ‘said that there so much gold buried in it that the wool of sheep turned yellow through eating the grass that grew upon it’ (M Alexander A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain 2002). But there is also a rhyme that warns against blowing a horn at Largo Law – something a young man named Norrie failed to heed. Norrie blew his horn, no sooner had he finished then he fell down dead, buried where he lay and covered by a cairn now known as Norrie’s Law. Interestingly, a silver hoard was found nearby in 1819, giving some credence to the legend of treasure.
As we read and listen to the stories connected to these ancient monuments we begin to see the world as it may have been to those who came before. The need to explain their presence in the landscape, to understand how they were built and why within a world view that was perhaps much narrower than ours. Even though the number of fringe explanations in todays world would suggest otherwise – the continued insistence that Stonehenge was built by aliens etc is but one example. Telling stories is an integral part of the human world, often as a way of teaching morals and histories, the difference between right and wrong. Thus, whilst some might dismiss folklore as simply fantastical stories they do provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of our ancestors, helping us to understand the past in different ways, to give the past color and multiple facets.
With thoughts of the Christmas season looming large in the minds of those who choose to follow this very western tradition, it seemed a good idea to look at some of the more quirky aspects of Christmas.
Food has had a central role in Christmas festivities since the beginning and more so in recent decades when the modern table groans (as do our stomachs) under the weight of a variety of dishes. There was a once a superstition to ensure good luck the Christmas dinner had to have nine dishes – an interesting take on the pagan belief of the importance of the number three and three by three being of extra special significance. In addition, if you really want to increase your luck, fish scales need to be placed under each plate (sorry, no idea why…).
Mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake all have their own peculiar superstitions. Have you ever wondered why ‘Uncle Derek’ ate so many mince pies? Well apparently the number of mince pies consumed equals the number of months of future happiness…a useful excuse for just one more. Christmas cake should only be eaten on Christmas Eve, otherwise bad luck will follow (perhaps we could all go back to eating the cake on Christmas Eve and 2021 will be a better year…). The Christmas pudding also has its own traditions, when making it should be stirred east to west by every member of the household (a nod to the Christian faith) but woe and betide if you are an unmarried woman and you don’t get to stir the pudding – you shall remain unmarried for the next twelve months (sounds like a good reason to be absent from home that day). Perhaps one of the more well known traditions surrounding the Christmas pudding is the placement of a silver coin in the mix; whoever gets it in their slice will have good fortune in the coming year (provided you haven’t broken a tooth on it).
Oddly, bread and apples also have an association with Christmas. It is said that eating an apple on Christmas Eve will bring good health for the coming year. Bread baked at Christmas will protect the household from accident, misfortune and fire for the next twelve months. But do hang onto some of the Christmas bread because when crumbled into hot water it can cure dysentry and diarrhoea.
Decorating the house, inside and out, is also a big part of the season. Once upon a time the decorations would have been all natural – foliage suitable to the season was used to liven up the celebrations and although many of the decorations used today are of the reusable kind it hasn’t stop families from coming up with their own traditions associated with decorating for the season. In our house, there is a long standing tradition of who gets to sit on top of the tree – will the Christmas pug (yes you read that right) be the victor or will the USS Enterprise win the day…actually what usually happens is a compromise and both get an equal footing on the top of the tree. In some parts of the world decorating the tree doesn’t happen until Christmas Eve but in others it earlier the better – a sign of how fed up everyone is with 2020 is evidenced by the numbers of people who had the decorations up at the beginning of November.
The taking down of the decorations has long been dictated by the twelve days of Christmas. According to tradition they much be taken down on the twelfth day (which is January 6th), to do so before or after will endanger the households prosperity (again for the sake of a better year…). In the days of real foliage being used as decoration it was customary to keep one sprig of evergreen as further insurance for a good year. The rest was either burnt or not burnt – here there was no definitive answer as to which was best.
Holly and mistletoe are traditional, (real) decorative elements most commonly found in the northern hemisphere – the southern hemisphere, plastic versions dominate. Their importance to this time of the year date back to before the birth of Jesus. Holly with its bright red berries were a reminder that even in the depths of winter life can prevail and the green would return to the world in Spring and so boughs of it were brought indoors as a reminder of this. It was also believed that it could repel witches and demons thanks to its harsh foliage and prickly thorns. Not forgetting its ability to protect the house from lightening. Certainly the evergreen of choice for the wise householder.
Later traditions developed as Christianity developed; early Christians would place holly over their doors to prevent persecution (later these became the holly wreaths we hang on the doors). As Christianity developed the holly’s prickly foliage became a reminder of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the red berries were representative of drops of his blood.
Mistletoe is another of those plants whose association with Christmas traditions began back before the beginnings of Christianity. In several ancient cultures some varieties of the plant were prized for its healing qualities, its aphrodisiac powers, as an aid to fertility to name a few. For Celtic Druids the mistletoe represents an affirmation of life, as it blossoms in the middle of winter. In ancient Babylonian mistletoe was hung over the temple of their love goddess. Which begs the question, where did kissing under the mistletoe originate? There are several suggestions but the favourite comes from a Scandinavian legend of Baldur, a much loved god and son of Odin and Frigg. His mother sought to protect him from the dangers of the world, to do this she asked all things on the earth to swear an oath not to harm Baldur. Unfortunately she neglected the mistletoe which sat high up in tree, unnoticed. However, Loki noticed and made an arrow from the plant using it to kill Baldur; anyway the long and the short of it is that the other gods were able to bring Baldur back to life and Friggs tears became the berries on the mistletoe who then declared the plant to be a symbol of love and would place a kiss on anyone who passed under it.
One of the traditions at Christmas is to send or give cards, although this too like so much has become less important during recent years. But it is fun to look at some early examples of the Christmas card, the following quirky cards are from a time when card producers had not yet got the hang of what constitutes appropriate seasonal greetings. Some of these are bizarre to our modern eyes, one can only imagine what the recipients may have thought…
Their are two final superstitions from a long ago time worth mentioning here. Firstly, as with so many of the above traditions/superstitions the following needs to be done to ensure the households prosperity. At midnight on Christmas Eve all the doors of the house were to be opened to expel any evil spirits and at the same time a candle was to be lit and hope it burns all night long. It says something for the fragility of a households fortunes that so many of the traditions are concerned with ensuring good fortune and prosperity.
Secondly, and this is an odd one, there is a rural superstition that at midnight on Christmas Eve all the cattle would develop the power of speech. The only trouble was you could not stick around to hear if this was true because to hear them would mean certain death…
Its that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that some folks thoughts turn towards all things supernatural. Halloween or Samhain, to give it its traditional name, is said to be a time when the veil between the world of the ancestors and our world is at its thinnest. The celebration of this festival varies from person to person depending on age, background and of course where you live. Some choose to trick or treat, some go on a ghost hunt, whilst others use this time to remember and celebrate their ancestors.
The history of the festival of Samhain is comprehensively covered in main different parts of the internet and it is not my intention to rehash the topic here. Instead want to consider the idea of hauntings and deep past, after all the roots of Samhain can be found within the distant past with the ancestors.
Hauntings and ghosts in the UK are most commonly associated with castles, old country houses, old pubs and the like – the age and history of these places are enough to provide copious amounts of storytelling fodder. But what about the truly ancient places in the landscape? Surely based on age alone they too should have their fair share of tales…
Stonehenge is probably one of the most famous ancient sites in the UK (for more information feel free to check one of my earlier articles here). However, it does come with some of its own spooky stories…
In 1971, when it was far easier to get up close and personal with the stones, a group of hippies decided to camp out in the center of the circle. All was going well until at sometime around 2am a violent and sudden thunderstorm struck the Salisbury Plains. At the same time a farmer was checking on his stock and a policeman was in the area. Both spoke of a bright blue light illuminating the stones and of hearing screams from the campers. When they rushed to the campsite all they found were the ashes of the fire and smoldering tent pegs – the hippies had vanished.
Stonehenge sits within a much wider ‘ritual’ landscape, surrounded by numerous Bronze Age burial mounds known as barrows. One such group of barrows sits on a ridge known as Kings Barrow Ridge and it was in the woods nearby that a man in the 1950s had a strange encounter. It was late at night and the man in question was on his way home when he became disorientated. Climbing one of the barrows to get a better idea of where he was, he saw some lights in the distance and assumed them to be a farmhouse. Climbing down the barrow he became alarmed when he realised that the lights were moving towards him and they were not electric lights but flaming torches. Assuming they were a group of modern druids enacting some pagan ritual and not wanting to disturb them he hid and waited for them to pass.
Once they had passed he quietly followed them hoping they would be heading back to the main road from whence he would be able to get himself home. After awhile the silent procession reached the edge of the wood and the man recognising where he was, slipped away not wanting to disturb them. Unfortunately, he made that small mistake of looking back, he watched in horror as one by one the torches flickered out and the robed figures disappeared into thin air.
Other interesting phenomena associated with Kings Barrow Ridge are the strange blue flashes of light that are occasionally seen arcing across the barrows and the simultaneous loss of electrical current.
Another well know stone circle is that of Avebury, not far from Stonehenge (please check out my earlier article for more information about Avebury here). Perhaps one of the salient points to remember about Avebury is that a number of the stones have been removed, broken up and used as building material whilst others have simply been pulled over and buried where they lay as a result of anti-pagan fervor during the medieval period. It is said that the buildings which were built using the old standing stones are subject to a poltergeist type manifestation known as ‘The Haunt’. Then there are a number of stories which include moving lights, phantom singing and spectral figures around and within the stones themselves.
One such figure may even be the ghost of the man who died some time in the 1320s. When Alexander Keiller decided to re-erect some of the stones in the circle. Under one such stone the skeleton remains of man were found, the coins and tools on him dated his death to the 1320s, his trade as a barber-surgeon (this stone is now known as the Barber stone). It seems he was helping to dig the burial pit for the stone when it fell and crushed him. His compatriots deciding it was not worth the effort to dig him out for a proper burial and perhaps superstition got the better of them.
A similar story is told about the Caratus Stone (possibly a fifth century AD memorial stone) in Somerset. Here the tale tells of a foolish carter who tried to uproot the stone to get at the treasure which supposedly lay beneath it. Unfortunately for him, the stone (or should that be the ancestors) had different ideas, it fell on him crushing him to death. His apparition is said to frequent the area on foggy nights.
Another story regarding Avebury tells of a young woman called Edith Olivier who during World War One decided to drive to Avebury for the first time. She wrote of the looming avenue of megaliths that lined her route from the west and how once in the village she noticed a crowd of villagers attending a fair. It was not until sometime later she discovered that not only had the avenue she had seen disappeared by 1800 but that there had been no fair in the village since 1850.
Barrows and the Fae
There are many tales of the fairy folk and in different parts of the UK they often have local names, such as in Cornwall where you get piskies who have acquired the status of ‘supernatural vermin’. Also in Cornwall there is a variation of the piskie called a spriggan (a more malevolent type of fae) and it is these which are said to guard the treasures hiding in the barrows. Such traditions of fairy folk protecting the barrows of the ancestors are widespread and perhaps hark back to a distant religion.
On Wick Moor in Somerset there is a barrow surrounded by barbed wire and set within the middle of the Hinkley Nuclear Power Station. Known as Pixie’s Mound, the story goes a man found a small broken toy spade. He mended it and left it by the barrow. When he next passed that way he found the spade gone and a plate of cakes in its place, these he ate and forevermore enjoyed good fortune. During the power stations construction the builders were warned that if they built over the barrow nothing would work. Advice which they took seriously.
Throughout the UK there are many landscapes and places associated with the fairy folk. Often it is the vast lonely moorlands which seem to have more than their fair share of tales told of unwary travellers being befuddled and lead astray by the fae. In the far west of Cornwall there is a lonely stretch of moorland between Woon Gumpus and Carn Kenidjack, here not only does the Devil ride the fairy path on a black horse but dancing lights are often seen while the granite tor wails in the wind. Fairy paths are the dead straight paths which lead between fairy forts and barrows; it is on these you are most likely to encounter the fae.
Bona fide prehistoric ghosts are a rare phenomena but one of the best substantiated ghosts in the Dorset area and most probably the oldest is that of Bronze Age ghost seen on Bottlebrush Down. Here a respected archaeologist R C Clay witnessed (in 1924) whilst driving home one evening from an excavation the apparition of man on horseback galloping beside his vehicle. He wore a long dark cloak and rode bareback, brandishing a weapon angrily. Approaching a barrow Mr Clay was astonished to see the horse and rider suddenly vanish into the burial mound. He is only one of many who have seen this particular spectre.
Other ghostly figures at archaeological sites include a horse and chariot at Ruborough Camp in Somerset which is said to be guarding treasure buried there. Near Thetford in Norfolk on the banks of the river Thet there is a barrow known as Thet Hill. It is regarded as being very haunted, here a red-haired chieftan has been seen. In Wroxham (Norfolk) you may come across the apparition of a Roman soldier who will order you away, it seems he is clearing a passage for a ghostly procession of prancing horse, chariots, gladiators, lions, centurions and their prisoners who make their way from Brancaster to the arena which once stood there.
In the Welsh county of Glamorgan is one of the UK’s oldest archaeological sites. On the coast are the Paviland Caves where a burial of Paleolithic hunter was found and excavated at the end of the 19th century. Labelled the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ stories abounded about it being a woman imprisoned there during a storm whilst hunting for treasure amongst other things and of course she was said to haunt the cave. However, this is definitely one of those cases where the human imagination was allowed a little too much free reign. The Red Lady was later proven to be a man and considerably older then first imagined.
Worth a mention though and not far from the above site is Rhossli, behind the village is a moorland area which the locals admit to feelings of being watched and menace. Here it is said the air seems full of evil foreboding…
Over the years I have visited many prehistoric sites and have heard the stories of many others. There are often those who speak of feelings of foreboding, of not being welcome. At West Kennet long barrow several people have said they have felt unwelcome. But it would seem that this depends on the person and the when of the visit. I know from my own experience that walking into a stone circle invites contemplation and even unruly children become quiet and reflective without being told. Perhaps this too is a type of haunting when only the energy remains.
Landscapes imbued with meaning, with the rituals of the past; vast stretches of empty wild rugged land; brooding moorland; mysterious stones; cursed burial mounds; noises in the mist; shadows at the corner of your eye…Samhain…a time when the veil is thin…a time to honour the ancestors…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Its October (surprise!) and with it comes the inevitable Halloween displays in the shops (followed closely by the Christmas decorations…) and although here in the Southern Hemisphere we should be celebrating Spring and the coming of Summer, those good old Northern Hemisphere traditions have a firm hold. So in the mode of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ I have compiled a wee list of some strange but true superstitions associated with Halloween. But first a bit of history…
In the northern hemisphere the first of November marks the beginning of winter and on the Christian calender is referred to as All Hallows Day when all the saints would be celebrated (‘hallows’ = very holy). Thus the day before became All Hallows Eve which in turn was eventually shortened to Halloween. Originally, the Western Christian Church observed All Saints/Hallows Day on May the first but in the ninth century AD it was moved to November the first.
A seemingly much older tradition says that it is a time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, when it is possible for the spirits of the ancestors to walk the earth. Referred to as Samhain – a term mentioned often in Irish mythology when many important and heroic events happen. Such traditions may well have a long pedigree. There is some evidence that the Neolithic passage tombs were aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain. In early Irish literature it is often seen as a liminal time when Aos Si (spirits/fairies) could come into our world more easily and offerings of food and drink were left out for them to ensure the people and their livestock survived the winter.
As an extension of this it was later believed that the souls of the dead would visit homes seeking hospitality and so feasts were held with a place being set for them at the table. Increasingly, this tradition is being adapted for the modern age with families now using Halloween as a time to remember loved ones who have passed away.
As a time between the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter it also became a time when people would take stock of food supplies, cattle would be brought down from summer pastures and animals would be chosen for slaughter. As part of the rituals associated with this time bonfires would be lit, sometimes two bonfires would be lit and people (plus livestock) would pass through the middle as a cleansing ritual. In parts of Scotland torches from the bonfire would be carried sunwise around the homes and fields to protect them.
Strange but True
Many of the superstitions associated with Halloween are often connected with the tradition of the spirits walking the earth and the assumption that some of these may have an evil intent. Thus, it was said if you wanted to keep evil spirits away you should walk three times around your house backwards before the sun sets. Or spend the evening with your pockets inside out and no evil spirit will accost you (and most likely neither will the living…). If you are lucky enough to be born on Halloween you will forever be protected from evil spirits.
Then there are those superstitions aimed at the overactive imagination – so if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night…DO…NOT…TURN AROUND…Furthermore, if you are out and about in the evening and the moonlight casts a shadow do not look at your own. Both of these only make me want to look.
There are some Halloween superstitions which are not so bad (depending on your perspective) – if you stand at a crossroads and listen to the wind you might here your future…just make sure it’s not a busy crossroads or your future might be rather short…For the unmarried make a dish of mashed potatoes and bury a ring in it, whoever gets the ring will be the first to marry. However, if that fails you can eat a salted herring on that night and you will dream of your future lover. Traditionally games such as apple bobbing all have their origins in divination traditions of Halloween – the first person to get a bite of the apple will be the next to get married…or you could peel an apple in one long strip and throw it over your shoulder, the shape it forms is said to be your future spouse whilst eggwhites dropped in water foretold the number of children you would have.
Spiders on All Hallows Eve get a reprieve from broom welding maniacs for it is considered bad luck to kill a spider on this day – it could be the soul of dead person from your family visiting.
Traditions associated with Halloween which we are more familiar with such as trick or treating, dressing up and pumpkin carving all have their origins in much earlier superstitions.
Thus dressing up was a way to confound the evil spirits who might wish you harm whilst pumpkin carving began as turnip carving. In the United Kingdom a turnip would be hollowed out and a crude face carved into it, then a candle would be placed inside and the whole scary apparition would be positioned in a window – a declaration to all potential ghouls that this house was already haunted. It was also considered a wise course of action to carry said turnip when travelling out and about on this night as a warning to the spirits to keep away. The proliferation of pumpkin jack o lanterns in North America essentially comes down to a lack of turnips…
Trick or treating (every childs reason for celebrating Halloween) is a much evolved version of the earlier tradition of ‘guising’, ‘mumming’ and ‘souling’. Guising was were ordinary folk would dress up in bizarre costumes and then would wander door to door singing and performing for wealthier people (mumming). Often the wealthy would share sweetmeats or a cake known as a soul cake in exchange for their prayers for dead relatives (souling). Guising and mumming were not restricted to Halloween. Even today, in the far west of Cornwall guising and mumming are carried out during the midwinter festival of Montol.