Archive for the ‘Superstitions’ 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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