Archive for July, 2012



The entry in my Encyclopaedia of Superstitions about Barnacle Geese really caught my attention. I remember reading years ago about the supposed connection between barnacle geese and the little black-and-white crustaceans (not molluscs, thankyou Google!)  that can be found clinging to the wooden undersides of boats.

The book contains a passage from Topographica Hibernicae written in 1186 by Gerald of Wales, in which he claims to have witnessed for himself the spectacle of juvenile barnacle geese growing from timber on the seashore of the Irish coast:

“Bernacae […] are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. having thus in the process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh.”

The origins of this myth probably lie in the fact that Barnacle Geese are migratory birds, and thus never breed in the British Isles where they spend half of the year, choosing instead to nest in the colder climes towards the Arctic. It isn’t really that great a leap to imagine that there was more than just a passing aesthetic similarity between the clusters of molluscs clinging to driftwood, and the flocks of black-and-white geese that appeared along the coastline each year.




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Silent Sunday


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On Sunday I was fortunate enough to be lent a copy of this fantastic old book, first published in 1948: An Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, by E. & M.A. Radford. I’ve barely managed to keep my nose out of it since – it’s a fascinating collection of curious beliefs and ancient customs, and is staggeringly thorough – who’d have thought that front doors, eyebrows and ants all had their own little rituals?

There’s so much in this book that I want to share and explore here – far more than I could fit in one post. I’ve decided instead to pick my favourites, in alphabetical order, and post them here as an occasional series. We’ll start, predictably, with A:

Adder Stones

An adder stone (also known as a hag-stone, witch-stone or serpents’-egg) is a small rock or pebble with a naturally-created hole running through it. Usually found on beaches, they were thought to possess several magical properties. They were used as a cure for certain illnesses and ailments such as whooping cough, and were often worn as a charm to protect against witchcraft or evil. They were also thought to prevent nightmares.

The name ‘adder-stone’ is derived from the story of their origins: according to legend, the stones were formed from hardened snakes’ saliva, occurring as a result of a strange and rare phenomenon where a cluster of snakes would wind themselves together to form a living ‘ball’ or ‘egg’. The resulting stone could be used to draw venom from a snakebite wound, as described in the Encyclopaedia:

“Severe pains came on […] and a terrible swelling, which grew worse and worse, till a wise woman was summoned with her adder’s stone. On her rubbing the place with the stone, the swelling began to subside.”

I actually used to own an adder stone myself, though I didn’t know it as that at the time. I bought it in Gravesend Market one Saturday when I was perhaps 14 or 15 years old, and wore it on a string round my neck for a while. I remember the man who sold it to me telling me how rare they were, and how he travelled the coast of Kent looking for them on the beaches, and thinking it seemed a very exciting kind of treasure. I’ve no idea what happened to it, sadly…

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fairy ring

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