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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…

fairy ring

…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

 

Love All Blogs

 

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.

Not so much mythology as ancient practice, the tradition of lighting bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve continues even now in some parts of Britain. Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough contains a brief passage describing the various incarnations of these Midsummer Fires:

“In Wales three or nine different kinds of wood and charred faggots carefully preserved from the last midsummer were deemed necessary to build the bonfire, which was generally done on rising ground. In the Vale of Glamorgan a cart-wheel swathed in straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant harvest was expected. On Midsummer Eve people in the Isle of Man were wont to light fires to the windward of every field, so that the smoke might pass over the corn; and they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times. In Ireland cattle, especially barren cattle, were driven through the midsummer fires, and the ashes were thrown on the fields to fertilise them, or live coals were carried into them to prevent blight. In Scotland the traces of midsummer fires are few; but at that season in the highlands of Perthshire cowherds used to go round their folds thrice, in the direction of the sun, with lighted torches. This they did to purify the flocks and herds and to keep them from falling sick.” 

– Frazer, The Golden Bough, Ch. 62 ‘The Fire-Festivals Of Europe’

At a time when entire villages would rely on a good harvest to feed them through the long, dark winter months, it is not surprising that folk turned to these rituals in an attempt to ensure good fortune for their crops and livestock. The lighting of the Midsummer Bonfire was a salute to the sun as it reached its highest point in the Summer sky, and an acknowledgement that the slow descent into shorter days and harder nights had begun.

The annual fire ritual is still a popular part of the Cornish Midsummer celebrations; in Penzance, as part of the Golowan Festival around the 24th of June each year, a firework display takes place. There are also various Midsummer Bonfires across the county as listed on the Federation Of Old Cornwall Societies website.

The nearest I personally have ever come to a Midsummer celebration was at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2000; we spent the Saturday night on the hill by the standing stones, and were rewarded with the incredible sight of the Tor rising from the mists below us in the early morning sun, as the bonfires burnt behind us. Hardly traditional, but I like to think it was as earnest a celebration as any that took place all those hundreds of years ago – though perhaps slightly louder…