Archive for the ‘Folklore’ Category

A child born with a caul is a fortunate child indeed, according to legend. The ‘caul’ is most commonly formed from the membranes of the amniotic sac in which the baby develops during pregnancy; on rare occasions, babies are born with a part of this membrane covering the face and/or the head: they are ‘born with the caul‘. It shouldn’t be confused with a birth in which the baby emerges with its amniotic sac still fully intact around it(‘in the caul’); although this is also an uncommon occurrence, it is slightly different, as the membrane isn’t specifically enclosing the face or head.

Very few babies are born with the caul; the rarity of this phenomenon has contributed to its reputation as a good-luck charm.

A locket created to hold fragments of the bearer’s birth caul, from the V&A Museum collection

After the birth, the caul would be carefully removed from the newborn, taking care to keep it as intact as possible. It would then be preserved and would be kept with the child as a protective talisman.

“A lass if born in June with a caul
Will wed, hev bairns & rear ’em all.
But a lass if born with a caul in July,
Will loose her caul & young will die.
Every month beside luck comes with a caul
If safe put by,
If lost she may cry:
For ill luck on her will fall.
For man it’s luck – be born when he may –
It is safe be kept ye mind,
But if lost it be he’ll find
Ill-deed his lot for many a day” (Fairfax-Blakeborough, 1923) –¬† From the Pitt Rivers Museum website

It was thought that children born with the caul would never die of drowning, and so made good sailors; in Victorian times it was not unheard of for cauls to fetch good prices at auction, purchased by anxious seafarers wishing to gain protection. It was also thought to be an indicator that a child would have ‘second sight’, or supernatural powers of premonition. The Caul-Bearers United website makes for interesting reading concerning the perceived characteristics of a person born with the caul.


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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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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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…this was Childe The First’s request to me last night as I was getting him ready for bed. He’d been complaining that his mattress was too lumpy because of the wooden slats beneath it; I’d laughed and said he was like the Princess And The Pea. He hadn’t heard this story before, so I told him it while he sat on the edge of his bed, fingers on his chin, watching me intently as I described a towering pile of a hundred mattresses, a lonely prince, and a very sensitive princess.

Afterwards we looked through his books and found a written version of the story, complete with illustrations, but he seemed a little underwhelmed by it. He asked instead for me to tell him another story “from in your head Mummy” – as anyone who’s familiar with this blog can imagine, I was utterly thrilled by this request and more than happy to oblige him.

I have tried on many occasions to play ‘storyteller’ to my eldest son, but he has always preferred to have a tale from a book, so he can look at the pictures or follow the words with me. As much as I love reading to him (he gets at least one book a night), I often long for the freedom to tell a story in my own words, to build on the bones of a tale that lived for centuries in the minds and on the tongues of our ancestors.

When we speak of storytelling we are encompassing a vast heritage of lore, myths, epic tales, folk tales, travellers tales; tales of the creation of the world, tales of its destruction; sagas of Gods and men; all the great traditional legends from around the world. These stories are not learned by rote or read from books but retold by the tellers, making each interpretation unique. Storytelling is more than just performance or entertainment; it can also educate, heal, lead to better practice in business, inspire and change lives.”

– from The Society for Storytelling‘s website

Many of the stories in Katharine Briggs Dictionary of British Folktales are direct transcripts from recordings of the people she interviewed over the course of her work; dialect and strange grammar litter the descriptions of black dogs and devils-in-disguise. These are stories in skeletal form, the essence of a folk memory passed from parent to child to grandchild, embellished as each teller saw fit. One of my very favourite books is Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s British Folk Tales; its pages are rich with beautifully-told stories whose roots are discussed in an appendix at the back. He takes these roots and weaves them into evocative and striking prose that has stayed with me for over twenty years since my first reading; I can’t wait to share these stories with my children.

I promised Childe The First that I would tell him lots more of the stories from in my head, with a little help from Ms Briggs and Mr Crossley-Holland – and I can’t wait to get started.

Further reading:

Society for Storytelling

The Folklore Society

Kevin Crossley-Holland – official website

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The relationship between humans and the fairy world is well-documented in British folklore, with fairy folk described as a far darker, more troublesome force than their contemporary counterparts. Our ancestors found fairies suspicious and frightening, and British mythology is rich with stories of unwary humans being tricked or punished by Fey folk. You’d be hard-pushed to recognise the benign, sparkly wish-granting creatures with which we are familiar.

Changeling children as illustrated by Alan Lee

Tales abound of babies stolen from their cradles and replaced by fairies, of women shocked to find a hideous creature lying where their newborn once slept. These fairy impostors seem to be most common in stories from Ireland and Scotland, as well as Northern Europe; known as Changelings, they were something to be feared for a great many new mothers. For anyone living in today’s knowledge-rich society, it’s difficult to imagine how people could truly believe that a baby could be stolen by fairies, but several hundred years ago illness and death – especially that of children – was a very real part of life, and supernatural explanations for such events probably brought a degree of comfort to people who had no knowledge of modern science or medicine.

Tell-tale signs that the fairies had replaced a child with one of their own kind included: incessant crying and refusing to settle; unusual facial features or curiously distorted limbs; constant feeding at the mother’s breast, without ever seeming satisfied, and the ability to speak despite only being a few days old. Changeling babies were responsible for much ill-fortune for the poor ‘host’ family – their presence would cause fresh milk to curdle, and illness to plague the household.

Human babies could be taken for many reasons; to replace an ailing or unattractive fairy child, or to gain strength from the human mother’s milk, or even for the fairy folk to feed on (a particularly grisly variant). Perhaps it was a way to punish humans, who so often treated the fairy world with suspicion and disrespect. Conversely, some version of Changeling lore suggest that the fairy folk loved human babies and thought them beautiful – they stole the prettiest, most good-natured babies to raise as their own, replacing it with a more troublesome fairy baby. In Scottish folklore the baby was offered to the Devil as part of the fairy folks’ tithe to Hell, as in the Ballad of Tam Lin.

In some cases the creature left behind was not a baby but an older member of the fairy family – perhaps cast out, or left to die amongst the humans, osctracised from his own kind. It would fall to the human recipients to nurse this little person, for what choice did they have? It would have been unthinkable to anger the fairies further by neglecting their ‘cuckoo’.

In other stories, the baby was not replaced with a living creature but with a lump of wood ‘enchanted’ to resemble a child; this enchantment would wear off after a few days, revealing the true fate of the baby. Sometimes the wood (called a ‘stock’ or ‘fetch’) would seem to sicken and die, but instead of a corpse there would lie a pile of rotting wood.

There were various methods of revealing and even returning Changelings, some of them horribly violent. If the baby’s mother suspected she was host to a fairy child, she could try to trick it into revealing itself. For example, if she pretended to cook the family meal inside a single eggshell rather than a cooking-pot, the Changeling would be so confused that it would sit up and recite a rhyme:

“Acorn before oak I knew,
and an egg before a hen,
but never before have I seen
an eggshell brew dinner for harvest men.” (1)

Having revealed itself, it would flee back to its own kind and the stolen baby would be returned.

It was also said that a Changeling could be exposed by holding the baby over a hot stove on an iron spade, or holding it under water; as shocking as it sounds, it’s likely that many babies fell victim to such abuse in times when such legends were widely believed. Though it’s impossible to imagine inflicting such cruelty on any child nowadays, the truth was that most folk knew very little about what could really have caused these strange characteristics and behaviours in their babies. Genetic conditions, chromosomal abnormalities, diseases – all could give children a strange or even frightening appearance, and for people who had never come across such things, they could only rationalise it by declaring it the work of fairies.

Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century, suspicions of fairy magic were seen as a legitimat defence against a charge of murder. The most famous case is that of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman who was burned to death by her husband Michael after she fell ill. He and a group of fellow villagers were cleared of murder, as they claimed it was not Bridget they had killed but a Changeling who had taken her place.

Further Reading:

Changelings by Terri Windling

Wikipedia entry for Changelings

Changeling Legends from the British Isles – an excellent comprehensive resource.

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