At the Crossroads: Medieval Folklore and Practices

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

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It’s Nearly Halloween: The Widow’s Peak

paul-ryan-coward-apSeeing way too much of this smarmy face recently has made me wonder why that little pointy dip in the center of Ryan’s hairline is called a “widow’s peak”. Many celebs have them; check out Leo DiCaprio, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Bullock, and Jake Gyllenhaal, to name just a few. Movie vampires and werewolves often sport them, slicked down. When a man’s hair recedes, it sometimes leaves hair behind in a prominent peak. According to Wikipedia, the widow’s peak is an inherited trait, but that idea is disputed among geneticists. While both men and women can have them, there is a lack of data concerning what percentage of the population has them. Pointed hairlines, however, are definitely an anomaly.  All very mysterious, but there does seem to be a credible explanation of the etymology of the term itself.

image0042The origin of  the phrase “widow’s peak”  appears to date from the middle ages, when women wore headdresses called hoods. Some of them were designed with “peaks”, or points, in the center of the brim.   It became customary for women in mourning to wear a peaked hood to symbolize their widowhood, and the style became known as a widow’s cap.   This portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, provides a nice example.  Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, wore widow’s caps for the rest of her long life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert.

article-2374304-01ebdedf00000578-189_306x423Over time, a superstition developed that women with this peaked hairline would be more likely to see their husbands predecease them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, even in the absence of evidence, Hollywood began to associate a widow’s peak with dark inner qualities, even evil tendencies. 170px-evil_queen_wdwThe evil queen in Disney’s Snow White is wearing a pointed hood beneath her crown, and Maleficent, most recently portrayed by Angelina Jolie, wears one with  horns.

Today, while some people with widow’s peaks would like to get rid of them, most just accept them, and now there are many websites that suggest very attractive hairstyles for them. The old superstitions seem largely forgotten.

 

Folklore in My Garden: St. John’s Wort

imageEach year on Midsummer’s Eve, when summer begins here in New England, I stroll around my garden searching for the little yellow blooms of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I’ve never planted any. Around here it grows as a wildflower, and a few volunteers show up each year, in various places, sometimes the same and sometimes not. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it was considered to have magical powers to ward off evil and protect against diseases, and since early Christian times, the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24,  has been considered the best day on which to pick the plant for such uses. Some sources have said the red spots appear on the leaves on August 29, said to be the anniversary of his beheading.

Other ideas stem from folk beliefs. The bright yellow blossom was associated with the sun, which made St. John’s Wort popular for divination and fortune telling. In Germany, for example, young girls dreaming about marriage in the coming year would pick a sprig in the evening; if it had not wilted by morning, her chances were good. The red juice from the crushed leaves was called Witch’s Blood, and made effective love potions. A poem translated from the German:

“The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”

Similarly, it could foretell who in a family would die the soonest. Bringing the flowers indoors on Midsummer Eve would protect from the evil eye, ward off witches, promote good fortune, and prevent fires and lightning strikes.  (Guess I’d better bring some in tonight!) Placing a bunch beneath a pillow could banish nightmares, and in one case it rid a house of poltergeist activity! From an English poem:

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

Be sure not to step on this plant, or a Faerie Horse just may steal you away. But perhaps you can avoid that fate by wearing a few leaves and flowers as a necklace.

Medicinally, noted herbalists used St. John’s Wort in ointments to heal deep wounds, bruises, and venomous animal bites. In infusions, it could dissolve stones in the urinary tract or kidneys, and  cure fevers, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism. It was also good for bed sores, lockjaw, and insomnia. Native Americans made use of St. John’s Wort against diarrhea, skin injuries, bleeding, and snake bites. In Europe, it has been used for centuries to alleviate nervous disorders, hysteria,  and insanity, and very recently, St. John’s Wort has been newly discovered as  a modern treatment for depression and virus infection. Today, there are many commercial preparations available as standard oils and liquid or powdered extracts. Now that researchers are taking this herb seriously for medicinal purposes, who knows what knew applications might be discovered?

 

 

 

 

 

Fiber Folklore – Baa, baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes marry, have I,

Three bags full;

One for my master,

One for my dame,

But none for the little boy

Who cries in the lane.

This nursery rhyme probably dates to the Middle Ages, when England was the major player in the international wool trade. A tax had been placed upon wool, with 1/3 going to the”master” (local lord), 1/3 to the “dame” (the church), and the rest to the “little boy” in the lane (local farmer). In recent years it has become a subject of controversy, with early childhood teachers converted black sheep to rainbow sheep to avoid any hint of racism.

The color of the sheep in the rhyme must also be of some significance. Black wool is difficult to dye and would therefore seem to have little use in making textiles. However many shepherds prized black fleece and kept one dark sheep in a flock of white ones. When the fiber was carded for spinning a little of the black was mixed in with the white to produce a light-grey wool. The cloth made from ‘grey’ wool was believed to be warmer and more weather proof than that made from only white fleece. Unlike the pure black wool it could be easily dyed.

On the other hand, a single black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock’s fleece. This is probably the source of the unflattering phrase, “black sheep of the family.” The first record in print is from Charles Macklin’s The man of the world, a comedy, 1786:

“O, ye villain! you – you – you are a black sheep; and I’ll mark you.”

I’m not sure that a breed of sheep with pure black wool actually exists.  In days of yore, a “black” sheep was any sheep that wasn’t white. Most  dark fleeces have at least a tinge of noticeable brown or gray in their fleece. If anyone knows of a pure black, I’d like to see a picture and know the breed.

It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

View all my reviews

More on Connecticut’s Witch Trials

imageFrom Coastal Connecticut magazine, an article dealing with witch scares in 17th century Connecticut. The author, Tom Sobolesky, interviewed me by phone last Friday, in connection with our upcoming Witches and Tombstones tours at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. As per usual, he didn’t get everything quite right, but here is his take on what actually happened.

Fear of Witches in Early Connecticut

Decades before Salem’s witch panic, the fear of witches (wiccaphobia) in early Connecticut was pervasive and contagious. In fact, the state executed more women accused of witchcraft than anyplace else in the colonies. “One of the hardest things for people to understand today,” Connecticut’s State Historian, Walter Woodward, explained to the Litchfield County Times in 2001, “is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil. The world was a different place then. It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”

In this boiling atmosphere, nine women and two men were marched to the gallows in Connecticut. Two married couples, including John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, were among those to meet the hangman. Documentation of their case is thin, but what exists says that John was arrested and fined for bartering a gun with a Native American. Their indictment is similar to many of the time: “thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan . . .”

They were hung in Hartford in 1651.

Before the Carringtons, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was whipped for theft and, in 1648, confessed to murdering a child. Her indictment included licentiousness, in addition to familiarity with Satan. While in prison, Johnson had a baby boy. Since she didn’t meet the hangman’s noose until 1650, some historians speculate that the baby’s father was the jailer’s son. Linda Pagliuco, a guide at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, who has done a lot of research on the era, conveyed this theory. That son of the head jailer consented to raise the child, and this was agreed to by the court.

The topic of the Wethersfield witches will be covered in a Witches and Tombstones Tour hosted by Webb-Deane-Stevens on October 24 & 25. Reservations are advised.

In that era of fear, neighbors didn’t trust neighbors and looked down on you even if you were struggling. “People were not charitable,” says Pagliuco. “They didn’t like for their neighbor to need charitable assistance.” Many of the women accused were poor. If you were suspected of witchcraft, those neighbors could comprise the jury. If the court’s verdict didn’t call for punishment, the neighbors themselves might inflict it.

The colonial governor, John Winthrop Jr., also believed in witchcraft, but was more skeptical of the specific allegations and thought that the lax evidentiary court standards of that time were insufficient. A newly released book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, by Walter Woodward, traces how Connecticut’s settlement was influenced by witchcraft, religion, local tribes and more.

“Winthrop was a man ahead of his time,” Pagliuco says. “He dabbled in magic and alchemy,” – things that would make women suspicious. But because he was from a prominent family, he would not be targeted.

The colonists’ attitudes about religion and witchcraft are in sharp contrast to the positions attributed to the present day practice of Wicca. According to wicca.com, “Satan, or the devil, has absolutely no place in Wicca or witchcraft,” and it, “does not engage itself in criticizing the beliefs of other people…Witches do object to religions that attempt to suppress the religious beliefs of others.”

Pagliuco likens today’s bullying to the witch paranoia, saying people are called names or harassed for being perceived as different, just as women were back then. “If you become unpopular, something bad could happen to you. If you’re different and make someone mad,” they may come after you. “If you look at the mechanisms, it’s similar but with a different vocabulary.”

Resources for Further Study

A full list of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut (and their verdicts) is contained in a report by the Office of Legislative Research, 2006-R-0718. Other sources to research the history of the state’s witchcraft hysteria can be found on the state library website.

A full transcript of the 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 can be found within this link – (note: you have to scroll about ⅔ of the way through to get to the portion on witchcraft). Copies of supporting documents that were submitted to the committee, including written requests for forgiveness from several present day descendants, can be found here. Included are charts tracing the lineage of two of the descendants, and a brief by UConn history professor, Lawrence Goodheart.

Suggested books on this topic include, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R. G. Tomlinson, and The Devil on the Shape of a Woman, by Carol F. Karlsen

History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.