Encyclopedia of Superstitions
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Encyclopedia of Superstitions

Edwin Radford, Mona A. Radford

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eBook - ePub

Encyclopedia of Superstitions

Edwin Radford, Mona A. Radford

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"For the expert investigation of the human will to believe, we recommend The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." — The New York Times Why is it said that breaking a mirror or walking under ladders will bring bad luck and misfortunate? Ever wonder why so many people throw salt over their shoulders after spilling it, or wish on shooting stars? The Encyclopedia of Superstitions holds the answers to these questions and more. This classic and captivating reference book catalogs the origins of hundreds of superstitious beliefs and includes a rich history of charms, spells, folklore, and rural remedies drawn from cultures around the world used to commemorate births, marriages, deaths, to ward off evil, or invite good fortune. Edwin and Mona A. Radford uncover why catching a falling leaf in autumn is believed to stave off colds all winter and explain the traditional Norse mythological roots of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas. They explore the myriad of beliefs surrounding the moon or what spotting a rainbow portends and why. This thought-provoking collection provides a wealth of entertaining entries—stories that have the power to thrill, intrigue, and perhaps send a chill down the spine of even the most skeptical of readers.

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SOME years ago the idea occurred to us that there was need for a work containing as complete a collection as possible of British superstitions presented in encyclopædic form, giving easy and quick reference to the reader.
There were, and are, in existence many excellent books on Folklore which review customs and superstitions of our people, but none containing in one volume a comprehensive catalogue. Moreover, all have a laborious indexing system necessitating voluminous notes and research.
We accordingly began collecting and authenticating all the superstitions we could trace. The task occupied more than four years, and is brought to a conclusion with the presentation of this volume, containing more than two thousand superstitions of Britain ranging over the past six hundred years, and extending down to the present day.
Individual classification has been carried out, and the title headings enable the reader to obtain within a few minutes the list of beliefs attached to any one subject—and, where it is possible to present it, the origin, or possible origin, of the belief.
Care has been taken to distinguish between superstition and custom. Except in one or two instances, where the line of demarcation is barely distinguishable, customs have been omitted as lacking any spiritual origin. The “maypole” is an exception since, though more of a custom than a superstition, its origin, in all probability, lies in the ancient worship of the Tree Spirits by our people.
Early in our examination of beliefs prevalent in Britain, and of superstitions as a whole, we were confronted with a succession of coincidences in the form of exactly similar spiritual remedies for disease in these islands and in countries which, at the time, were uncivilized judged by Western standards. Deeper research was undertaken; as a result several hundred examples of this correlated belief are given in this volume.
They raise a topic of peculiar and fascinating interest—whether, indeed, there are such things as “British” superstitions, or whether, on the contrary, those superstitions are world-wide, inherent in all peoples of the world in exactly identical forms of fear, of avoidance, and of remedial measures?
Take, as an example, childbirth. To ensure easy labour for a woman it was the custom in North-west Argyllshire, Scotland, to open every lock in the house. Regard this in the light of the Roman custom of presenting women in labour with a key as a charm for easy delivery. The Argyllshire custom could be stretched into a corruption of the Roman key by reason of the occupation of these islands by the Romans, and the consequent copying of custom and beliefs; but what can be said in explanation of the beliefs of the natives of the Island of Salsette, near Bombay, and of parts of Java, or Chittagong in the East Indies where, from the earliest times, all doors were opened to ease a mother in her labour?
Equally with the days following the birth. Ancient Scottish belief, dating beyond the sixteenth century, entailed that the closest watch had to be maintained over the babe lest evil spirits wreaked their will; and no person must pass between the infant and the fire during the first eight days of its life. The Greeks held that a child must not be left alone for eight days after birth; the Danes that fires in the house must not be extinguished for eight days.
When Western man penetrated into the island of Saparoca and Hanockoe, and in Nyassaland, and delved into their ancient superstitions, it was found that so long as native memory had existed the people at childbirth had known that a light must be kept burning until the eighth day of a new-born babe’s life in order that the spirits should not harm the infant.
Even more marked are the examples of homœopathic magic. In Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries superstition encouraged the belief that a child could be relieved of whooping cough by its elders passing it through an arch of brambles formed by one branch of the parent stem having made root in the earth. The peoples of the area round about Lake Nyassa had, at the same period, a cure for such ailment of the chest: the sufferer was made to pass through an arch formed by bending down a branch of a bush and inserting the free end in the ground.
A child with a rupture was, in Britain, at one time passed three times through a sapling, the stem of which had been cleft longitudinally with an axe, and the halves of which were held apart for the ceremony. In Uganda, the Medicine Man from time immemorial had split a tree stem and held the two halves apart while a sufferer stepped through the opening.
The M’Bengas of Western Africa on the birth of twins planted two trees; henceforth, it was believed, the lives of the children were bound up with the trees; if the trees withered and died, the children withered and died with them. In Britain the belief existed in strong measure that the health, and even the life, of a child passed through a cleft tree for rupture depended upon the progress of the tree; if the cleft, bound together, would not heal, the rupture in the child would not heal. Should the tree wither and pine away, so would the child pine away.
In a Sussex village when a portion of land changed hands and the new owner announced his intention of cutting down a row of trees, the population protested in horror; for years their children had been passed through those trees, the sides of which showed plainly for all to see the scars left by the cleavings. They protested that to kill trees would be to spell the death of their children.
A farmer near Birmingham throughout his life would not have a bough lopped or a branch clipped of a tree through which forty years earlier he had been passed for rupture. He maintained that to do so would mean that the rupture would return, fortify, and he would die.
In the heart of darkest Africa, in the jungles of Central America, the Tree Spirits were the gods, beneficent or otherwise. British people for generations nailed their headaches to a tree in the shape of a lock of hair wrapped round a nail which was then driven into the bark; they lost their headaches, the tree gained it. The hill tribes of South Mirazapur, as did other races discovered long after the practice in Britain, in like manner believed that they could transfer their evils to the beneficent Tree Spirits.
What explanation can be offered of this correlation of superstition in civilized and uncivilized countries?
Communications of people?
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—and between countries some of which had not then been discovered?
Between the peasants of the Scottish Highlands and the wild natives of the M’Bengas?
Is the alternative the presence of a sameness of fear inherent throughout the human race; a mysterious sameness of escape also inherent from primitive times?
The authors in the following pages have given tabulated lists of superstitions immediately beneath the classified headings, and have enlarged and illustrated them in the text beneath.
Where no source is mentioned it may be assumed that the beliefs enjoyed general circulation. Where a county or area are named, the practices described were prevalent in the places mentioned.
Our thanks are acknowledged to the many people who have so kindly supplied us with details of superstitions and beliefs within their ken; to the authors of works mentioned in the bibliography; to Mr. C. E. Leese, for Cornish beliefs; to many correspondents; and last, but by no means least, to Sir John Hammerton, who not only wrote the foreword, but so kindly helped with suggestions.
Hampton Court
Surrey, England
Accidents are most frequent when the broad bean is in flower.—East Midlands.

For many years the people in the rural areas of the East Midlands held firmly to this belief, and they took special precautions to avoid injury during the few weeks that the broad bean was flowering.
In Yorkshire it was held by old country people that the beans contained the souls of the departed, and even to-day a bean shape is associated, in some connection, with death—a relic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
As to the origin, it is likely that the belief or connection of beans with death is a revival, in the seventeenth century, of the earlier Roman occupation, for during the three days in May when the Romans held a festival in honour of the ghosts, the head of each family arose at the dead of night, and having made certain magic signs to ward off ghosts, he threw black beans over his shoulders without looking behind him. As he did so he repeated: “With these beans I re...

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