TOTEM: an introduction to British Folklore
TOTEM: an introduction to British Folklore
Published in 2013 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanitcal, including photocopy, record or any information storage and retrival system, without the prior permission in writing from the author. Written by Annachiara Biondi annachiarabiondi.com Designed and llustrated by Mary Alice Beal www.maryalicebeal.tumblr.com Book Concept and art direction by Annachiara Biondi & Mary Alice Beal Photography credits to Yining He www.heyinging.com Rachel Wilberforce www.rachelwiberforce.com Marco Pereira www.marcopereira.co.uk Marianne BjĂ¸rnmyr www.marriannebjornmyr.com
Printed in London, England
TOTEM: an introduction to British Folklore
by Annachiara Biondi
celebrations burning bartle straw jack horn dancing druid equinox pearly harvest festival
17 18 36 50 64 82
places savernake forest devils dyke trossachs
140 145 154 164
Preface Talking about folklore is a challenge, because, as I have discovered during the research for this present book, everything that constitutes the common and widespread idea of it is superficial, imprecise and, ultimately, wrong. Thus, writing this book, I had to go through a painful process of re-education, erasing concepts that I have always considered undoubtedly true and embracing others, surprising ones, which have made the study of folklore much more interesting, inspiring and stimulating than I could have ever imagined. Given the quantity of theoretical material written on folklore, the preparatory study I have conducted prior to my writing can, at best, be considered introductive to the topic. Furthermore, considering the huge variety of celebrations, superstitions, legends and traditions that are part of British culture, I have had to focus only on a few, excluding the majority of them. For these reasons, I consider it very important to highlight the function of this book, which should be understood as an extremely general and concise introduction to British folklore, which gives more space to images than to words. Therefore, the choice of the material that has been included has been a completely personal one, based on my own personal taste and interest, and it will surely be questioned by more competent writers on and scholars of folklore. However, the aim of the book is not to critically engage with the theory of folklore or to supply a comprehensive guide to Britainâ€™s customs and superstitions. My aim is to present folklore, and in particular British folklore, in an interesting, inspiring and visually intriguing way, without giving too much attention to the historical and theoretical controversies connected to the academic discipline and definition of the subject. Hence, I have chosen to produce a photographic book, only briefly focusing on the description of the traditions, customs and beliefs illustrated, summarizing their origins and development. The hope is that, approaching the last pages of this book, the reader would be inspired, intrigued or maybe even confused, but with a desire to commence his or her own discovery of folklore, using other, more detailed, sources.
Introduction The first thing I have learnt about British folklore is that all the notions I have always had about it were completely wrong. All the books, articles and studies I have read were eager to point out how the majority of traditional customs and celebrations that I have always considered to be ancient cannot actually be traced back to earlier than the eighteenth century and many of the ideas relative to folklore that I have always taken for granted â€“ such as the theory that many customs are survivals of an ancient pagan religion â€“ are theoretical constructions created by folklorists of the past. Consequently, faced with this sheer amount of fabrication and misunderstandings, I naturally wondered why and whether people, including myself, should still be interested in folklore. The answer is not an easy one, especially considering that todayâ€™s seemingly trustworthy theories on folklore appear much less interesting than the older ones. However, after the initial disappointment, I found folklore to be much more interesting and personally engaging in its newer and more authentic adaptation.
What is folklore? Folklore, the English term that is now known worldwide, was first used by the antiquarian William Thoms in 1846 to describe ‘the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc. of the olden time,’ probably deriving it from the German Volkskunde. In late-eighteenth-century Germany, Volkskunde was used to illustrate the study of the customs of the local and European peasantry, as opposed to Volkerkunde, the study of the traditions and cultures of the peoples of other continents. Both terms referred to studies which analysed and rationalised the ‘Other’, whether it be a recently discovered tribe in Africa or the undereducated rural folk, and fulfilled two different necessities – the ‘colonial’ need of imperialist nations, such as England, to justify their ‘civilising’ actions towards the primitive peoples of other continents, exposing their irrational beliefs, and the ‘national’ need of politically unstable and ethnically different states, such as Germany, to understand their inhabitants and to form a solid cultural identity based on supposedly ancient traditions. In the British Isles, folklore particularly developed from the science of Popular Antiquities – the empirical and factual study of antiquities, ancient manuscripts and any other material remnants of the past, extremely popular during the eighteenth century. At first, the beliefs, traditions and superstitions held by common people and collected by the antiquarians were regarded as fascinating, but undoubtedly filled with anachronistic and erroneous notions, which had to be erased through education. Thus, for example, many annotations regarding old superstitions and traditional medicine were recorded and dismissed as ‘vulgar errors’, incorrect ideas that had to be mended. Soon after, however, under the influence of Romanticism, antiquarianism became a quest for an ancient, civilised and unifying heritage, which could be unveiled through the discovery of Roman and Celtic monuments, popular traditions and customs. These discoveries were used to create an ideal national cultural identity in England and, especially, in Scotland and Wales. In this last stance, the ‘folk’ was not disregarded as before, but instead it was idealised and depicted as the keeper of the nation’s authentic traditions and timeless wisdom. At the same time, however, the ‘folk’ was considered unable to correctly preserve the nation’s glorious past and, therefore, folklorists assumed the role of collecting and protecting as many customs, legends and beliefs as possible, saving them from the oblivion they were condemned to. In many cases, folklorists and folklore enthusiasts did not confine themselves to the collection of customs, but actively encouraged the revival of many celebrations, often modifying them to make them more appropriate to the nation’s heritage they were reconstructing. The customs were not only stripped of all their vulgar elements, including sexual references, violence and drunkenness, but were also linked to an imaginary and idyllic past, a time when people lived simple lives in contact with a luxuriant and unspoiled nature. Thus, the ancient rural peasantry became a symbol of peace, community, patriotism and noble values in opposition to the contemporary urban working class, considered devoid of any positive value. Together with the romanticisation of the countryside, the revival and artificial reconstruction of ancient customs and the use of folklore for nationalistic purposes, another process had a fundamental role in the elaboration of the study of folklore – the application of Darwinism through cultural evolutionism. Since the publication of Darwin’s theories, the majority of scholars held the belief that each culture and society develops following a precise and identical path, from savagery and primitivism to civilisation. Folklorists believed that traces of Western primitive culture could be found in the survival among the uneducated peasantry of ancient customs and traditions, often connected to supposedly pre-Christian and pagan cults. This theory was particularly validated by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, a study of magic and religion which, using a comparative method which is nowadays scorned by many, linked the majority of folklore customs to pagan fertility rituals, a vision which still constitutes the modern perception of folklore among the general public. Therefore, since folklore’s earliest stages, folklorists not only depicted the ‘folk’ at the centre of their studies in an ambivalent and contradictory way – both as an uneducated and slightly primitive peasantry, and as simple, content and authentic people – but also used folklore to fulfil particular political and theoretical necessities. As a consequence, much of what we consider authentic folklore today has been filtered, reshaped, reconstructed and sometimes even forged during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the same folklorists whose mission was to ‘preserve’ the ancient traditions. Along with this process, the nationalistic and patriotic instances of Romanticism caused what Eric Hobsbawm has defined as the ‘invention of tradition’ – the practice of creating a series of habits presented as continuous from a mostly fabricated past, which were used by nations in the construction of their national identity. For example, one of the most famous invented traditions is the modern Scottish kilt, invented by an Englishman in the eighteenth century.
What is folklore for real? Firstly, folklore is much more about us than about some fictitious and ideal ‘Other’ we can’t relate to. As Bennett and Trubshaw have explained, the term is currently explained by dividing it into its two major components – ‘folk’ and ‘lore’ – with ‘lore’ intended as a set of beliefs and practices which are informally learnt, typically through oral channels and in various environments, including family, the workplace and other social spaces. Following this definition, the ‘folk’ is no longer characterised by fixed class belonging, economic status or educational levels, but, as Alan Dundes has stated, it ‘can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.’ Subsequently, it follows that today the definition of folklore is much wider than before, not only including the traditional customs, celebrations and beliefs that have been recorded by scholars in the past, but also encompassing all the gestures we carry out without realising we are actually producing folklore, for example during weddings and birthdays, and the folklore we include in modern activities, such as the legends incorporated inside video games and films. Thus, folklore is much more intertwined with our everyday lives than we might think, and has a greater personal meaning. As an example, aside from all the Christmas traditions we consider as folklore – holly, mince pies and the Christmas tree – it is possible to find each family’s own and unique Christmas folklore, which is no less fascinating or intriguing. At the same time, the very notions of continuity with the past, tradition and authenticity of folklore have been reconceptualised in postmodern terms, to sustain the wider definition of the term. As Richard Bauman has explained, without diminishing the importance of the investigation of the origins of customs and celebrations, tradition is today viewed more as an interpretation of the past that helps us to connect practices and beliefs of the present with the past itself, justifying them, and less as the continuous and invariable transmission of a fixed element from the past to the present. In this way, the object of the study of contemporary folklorists and our understanding of it can be truly comprehensive. Aside from these new and revealing interpretations, there are certain aspects of folklore that have always been present, constituting much of its appeal. Celebrations, rituals, dances and traditional food are manifestations through which people express their belonging to a particular local community and their pride in being part of it. Therefore, if it’s true that customs are too different from one to the other to be used to draw conclusions on the English, Scottish or Welsh national characters, given that such things exist, it is also true that they can be useful instruments to reveal and discover the character of specific local or regional communities. Above all, folk customs were, and still are, occasions in which the normal rules of everyday life can be overturned and even abolished for a while, exceptionally accepting behaviours usually disdained, such as heavy drinking, shouting, begging and cross dressing. At the same time, given that observing the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance can give us an interesting insight on the people living in the parish, discovering the legends and myths connected to particular places around Great Britain is a beautiful way to explore the country’s natural landscape and to approach its historical one. Similarly, the study of superstitions shows us how people in Great Britain have reacted to life’s uncertainty and have tried to control life’s positive and negative events empowering common objects, animals and even plants with particular meanings, in the past and in the present. Aside from being interesting from a cultural and historical point of view, some of these superstitious beliefs still linger on in today’s common knowledge or have been integrated in today’s popular culture. British people might no longer believe that seeing a magpie will bring sorrow and seeing two joy, but the rhyme associated with the superstitions is still widely known all over Britain and is part of its people’s culture. Finally, beyond all the theoretical definitions, I believe that folklore should be valued as an instrument to better understand the history and culture of a country, producing a more personal portrait of its people using their beliefs, fears, hopes and entertainments. Discovering British folklore, with all of its facets and contradictions, is not only a way to discover British people and the country they live in, but is also an opportunity to directly participate in and appreciate their culture.
photographs by Yining He
Burning Bartle West Witton , North Yorkshire Taking place at night along the old and narrow streets of West Witton, the Burning of the Bartle is one of the most intriguing and original events still happening in England. On the Saturday nearest to San Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th of August, and as part of the village two-day Feast, the Bartle, a larger-than-life human figure made of straw and with flashing eyes is paraded through the village, accompanied by a singing and drinking crowd who cheerfully await its final burning. The parade usually starts on the top of a small hill at the western end of the village, where people gather a few minutes before nine o’clock and impatiently wait for the Bartle to appear, carried on their shoulders by two local men. The carriers are joined by the shouter, another local man, who is armed with a wooden stick and occasionally pokes and threatens the Bartle. The procession makes a few stops at the village pubs and houses along the main road, where drinks are offered to the carriers, and the shouter, as its title suggests, shouts the doggerel dedicated to Bartle’s doomed end: On Penhill Crags he tore his rags, Hunters Thorn he blew his horn Capplebank Stee he brak’ his knee Grassgill Beck he brak’ his neck, Wadhams End he couldn’t fend, Grassgill End we’ll mak’ his end. Shout, lads, shout! The rhyme is accompanied by a series of joyful hoorays and general excitement from the audience, who become more and more enthusiastic as the parade draws near to its conclusion. Finally, when the Bartle reaches Grassgill End, he is hurled to the ground next to a drystone wall, stab by the shouter, drenched in petrol and burnt. The burning, which lasts for at least twenty minutes, is celebrated with hoorays and traditional songs until its end, when people usually go back to the local pubs. Despite being a popular celebration among the locals, visitors and folklore-enthusiasts, no one seems to know exactly how it all began – its origins are unknown. Some of the existing hypotheses link the Bartle to San Bartholomew and it is difficult to deny a sort of connection, even if minimal. After all, the event takes place close to the saint’s festivity, the parish church is dedicated to him and the name Bartle can easily be associated with Bartholomew. According to one of these conjectures, the custom would have begun as far back as the sixteenth century. The locals may have been trying to save the statue of the saint from the Reformation raids, would have transported it through the village and finally lost it around Grassgill End. This explanation, however, does not take into account the overtly disrespectful doggerel, the negative connotations of the Bartle and, most importantly, the fact that there are no records of the celebration taking place any earlier than the beginning of the nineteenth century. Another religion-related theory describes the Bartle as a religious official who, because of some kind of misbehaviour, was despised by the villagers. They may eventually have chased and killed him, probably setting him on fire. Misconduct by religious officials was quite common during the reign of Henry VIII, at least as common as burning undesirable people was, hence the ‘incident’ could have taken placed during those days. However, as with the previous hypothesis, there are no written records that could support this theory, which is nevertheless plausible. From a mythical point of view, a legend states that the Bartle was originally a pig-farming giant living near West Witton, who was killed by the angry villagers, unfairly accused of have stolen one of his boars. This explanation would justify the Bartle dimensions, usually larger than life, but it is not particularly well known. The most widely accepted theory is that the Burning of the Bartle recalls the misfortune of a pig or sheep stealer, who was discovered by the villagers and subsequently chased, stabbed and burnt. This hypothesis would clarify the doggerel, which refers to real names of places on the moors near the village, and it would explain why, despite the brutality of the rhyme, the event is celebrated and perceived positively. The unfortunate thief would have been named Bartle only for convenience’s sake, as the commemoration of the event takes place during the Witton Feast, close to the saint’s festivity. Burning figures made of straw was, and still is, a common custom in England, most famously for Bonfire Night, the 5th of November, but also on many other occasions, such as Ash Wednesday, Easter Monday and various harvest celebrations. As is true of many customs, the Burning Bartle shares a number of aspects with other celebrations. However, the custom also presents unique features in its format, such as the doggerel, the aesthetic of the effigy and the time of the day when it occurs. Despite being well known among locals and receiving media coverage, the Bartle has remained a small-scale event with a distinctive ‘homely’ feeling. At first it is easy to feel a bit out of place: the village is small, some families have been living there for years and everyone knows each other. But after a while, in the middle of the cheerful crowd under the dark sky, with the countryside peace broken by the angry doggerel and the hoorays, it’s very easy to feel part of it.
Interview with Andrew Blackburn (Blacky), owner of The Fox & Hounds Pub, West Witton, North Yorkshire. Could you tell me a bit more about the Burning Bartle? Do you know when the custom started? As with quite a few of these traditions, the origins are all of a muddle, with no hard evidence for any one story to be preferred over another. Ask any dozen people in West Witton and I’m sure you would get twelve different stories. What I believe is what I have gleaned from listening to folk over the years. I think that the basis for our Burning Bartle has to be found in the Bartholomew’s Day Fairs (Bartle Fairs), which were common in other places around Great Britain, such as Reeth and London, and in Ireland. The community would get together to celebrate the summer just gone, possibly coupled with an auction mart to buy and sell livestock and hire labour. These fairs might have been linked with harvest festival celebrations, maybe with a pagan element. Quite possibly a vagabond sheep stealer was apprehended around the time of the local festival, and instead of the fatted calf being sacrificed, he was. This might be the origin of the Burning Bartle. Has the Bartle always been so followed by locals and visitors or has the participation changed in the past years? The Burning of Bartle has always been very well attended ever since I can remember. Nowadays more non-local people tend to come to experience it, possibly due to improved communications, TV programmes and websites dedicated to it. Fifty years ago, however, it was very much a gathering of families. Nearly all family members who lived and worked in other places would make their way home for Witton Feast and the Burning of Bartle. What does it mean to participate in the Burning now? What does it mean for the village? This is a difficult question, and one that changes as one gets older. It is an excitement akin to Bonfire Night crossed with Christmas when you’re a young child; it becomes thrilling, like New Year’s Eve or a birthday party, throughout your teens; and turns into a feeling of gathering of clans as you get older, mostly a chance to meet up with old friends and acquaintances. What it means to the village is somewhat different as the old families are now outnumbered by residents who have no ties to the village as they just recently moved in. In recent years it has become an attraction for tourists, with the focus being more on the Fun Day on the Sunday rather than Bartle on the Saturday. This is a feeling I have, though I think that the Burning of Bartle will endure nonetheless.
During the procession, the Bartle makes different stops and drinks are offered to the carriers and the shouter. Is there any specific reason for the stops and the drinks? Is the Bartle’s itinerary fixed or does it change from time to time? The stops, or at least a large amount of them, are a fairly modern addition. The ones I remember were the obvious ones of the three pubs in the village. The other stops used to be for people who had history with Bartle and the village. For example, they would always stop at the Smorthwaite’s house as a sign of respect for the family, who had set up trusts for the village. Apparently, before I can remember, they used to add verses to the doggerel every year to stop outside certain houses and chant, in recognition of the person that lived there or something that they had done. These extra verses would often be humorous, and sometimes even a little bit cruel, though never malicious. Do you know when the doggerel was composed and why? Nobody knows, or nobody is willing to say. It is a somewhat crude retelling of the pursuit, capture and subsequent killing of the vagabond, sheep stealer, or whoever he was, by the village. It is, I suppose, an admission in hindsight of the village’s collective culpability in a murder, though it possibly wouldn’t hold up in court. How is the Bartle made and who carries out the job? Are there specific guidelines to follow to make a good Bartle? The two carriers – the shouter and an ex-shouter – get together and make Bartle a matter of days before the event, and secrete him away in an outhouse in the village. It is made similarly to a Guy Fawkes, by stuffing old clothes with straw so they resemble a grown man, with possibly some wood used to stiffen the effigy. The mask and flashing eyes are recent additions, from around fifty years ago, and are saved to be used the year after. While the Bartle burns, people usually sing some songs, among them On Ilkla Moor Baht’at, the Yorkshire anthem. Could you tell me a bit more about it? In standard English the title can be translated as On Ilkley Moor Without a Hat and the song is a word of warning for you not to go out on the moor without your hat on, as you could catch your death of cold - Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o` cowd / Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee. The song then recounts all the creatures and animals that would come to eat you, until eventually, as the song goes, we will eat the duck that has eaten the worms that had feasted upon your corpse – Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee. All for the sake of not wearing a hat!
Straw Jack Carshalton, London The Carshalton Straw Jack is a local, small-scale harvest celebration that takes place every year at the beginning of September in the borough of Sutton, forty minutes away by train from London Victoria. The procession, open to everyone who wishes to participate and accompanied by music, songs and dances, starts in front of the Duke’s Head in Wallington Green at midday and finishes around 5.30pm in front of The Hope pub, where the Straw Jack is ceremoniously burnt. The parade begins with a couple of drinks at the Duke’s, where all the participants, dressed in colourful rural costumes, gather and pose for the few curious passers-by. The Straw Jack, a straw-made conical figure about three meters high, is then brought over and a tiny door opened on its back to let the carrier step inside. The Jack has to be guided by two men during the procession as the carrier does not have a clear view from inside the figure and it proceeds quite slowly, swaying from one side to the other because of its considerable weight. Every follower who possesses an instrument, usually a violin, drum or squeezebox, engages in the Straw Jack original tune, a cadenced melody which is repeated for the most part of the day. The procession, similar to a pub-crawl, makes a few stops along the road at the local pubs, where drinks are consumed and some of the food brought by the participants is offered around. While the carrier regains his breath, new faces join the parade at each pause, until the procession consists of around thirty people. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Straw Jack is undoubtedly the followers’ looks and costumes. Many costumes are homemade, even handmade from scratch in some cases, while others are made from remnants and old clothes. One of the Milkmaids proudly told me that her costume looks different every year even if it is always the same old vintage wedding dress. She alters it every time in preparation for the event, dyeing it in different colours and adding or cutting pieces of fabric. The Straw Jack’s participants and organisers warmly welcome anyone who wants to join the parade, doing their best to make them feel welcome even if they not wearing the appropriate clothes. ‘Come and join us!’ says an old lady elegantly dressed in Victorian style, smiling at almost everyone she passes. After a while she murmurs, ‘I ask everyone to come and join us, but no one does. Oh, never mind!’. The custom is still not very well known and while there are many people who stare at the parade with wonder, pointing at the passing Scarecrows, Drummers and Milkmaids with amazement from a Costa café, there are very few people who decide to follow the procession out of curiosity, despite the invitation from the followers. The reason why might be that the Straw Jack is a new event – its first appearance dates back to 2004. There are many other recently born celebrations in the UK, especially from the 1980s and 1990s, which usually follow older, extinct festivity. Unlike these revivals, the Straw Jack is not a reproduction of a specific pre-existing occurrence, but was created from scratch by a group of people who decided to celebrate the harvest in their own way. As one of the participants told me during the procession, the parade is mainly ‘an excuse to enjoy ourselves and a party that our bosses can’t object to. It has nothing to do with all that pagan non-sense.’ With the expression ‘pagan nonsense’, he is referring to the theories first elaborated by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, a study of magic and beliefs which has had an enormous influence on the study of folklore and on the literature of the twentieth century. According to Frazer, the harvest customs already common in many parts of the British Isles during the sixteenth century would have been survivals of pre-Christian worshipping of corn goddesses and spirits. His theories have been soundly discredited by folklorists since the 1970s, mainly because of the lack of any documentation. Nevertheless, they remain widely known to the general public, especially because of their undeniable appeal, and form the basis of many commercial books on folklore and magic. Naturally, however new and independent the Straw Jack might be, it includes many elements common to other festivities. The Straw Jack figure looks like the autumn version of the more famous Jack-in-the-Green, the foliage-covered man usually paraded during the May Day celebrations of spring in many parts of the UK. Similarities can also be found with the Whittlesea Straw Bear, a medieval custom revived in the 1980s, which originally was performed once a year by farmers as a begging practice. The Jack that is paraded down the streets of Carshalton is also a reference to the figures traditionally crafted during the harvest customs in the countryside by the workers at the end of the harvest. These figures were often created using the last patch of crops and could assume different shapes, usually human or bear-like, and were then greeted and disposed of in different ways depending on the geographical area. Most of the time, large figures like the Straw Jack were drowned in water or burnt, while smaller creations were often kept in the barn for good luck during the year. In past centuries, harvest customs were a significant part of the British year, celebrating the importance of the crops and the richness of the harvest. The various festivals included different activities depending on where they were celebrated, but most of them included an Harvest Supper, a meal prepared and offered by the owner of the farm for the workers, and which included dressing up, heavy drinking, games, songs and dances. The convivial atmosphere created by the end of the hard work and the temporary suspension of some moral rules typical of the harvest customs can be revived today through the Straw Jack defiance of the status quo.
Horn Dance Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire Every year on Wakes Monday, the Monday following the first Sunday after the fourth of September, a multitude of curious visitors, including photographers, designers, artists and folklorists, gather in the parish of Abbots Bromley to attend one of England’s oldest customs, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. There aren’t many certainties about the Horn Dance, but its constant appeal, grounded in the custom’s mysterious origins as much as in its unique execution, is indisputable and gives the ever growing audience enough strength to follow the dancers for more than twelve hours, covering almost ten miles around the village. In contrast with the vast crowd that surrounds the celebration, the main performing group is quite small, traditionally involving twelve male participants who, usually but not necessarily, belong to the two families in charge of organising the event, the Bentleys and the Fowells. The group is formed by the six men carrying the six heavy reindeer horns and a series of fixed characters, including the hobby horse, a man disguised as Maid Marian, the Jester, a boy with a triangle, a boy with a bow and arrow, and a musician who plays the accompaniment for the dance with a concertina. They all wear medieval-style costumes, including green printed plus fours, red or greyish blouses and vests, and a cloth beret. Despite having a distinctively old-fashioned feeling, the clothes were apparently designed around the end of the nineteenth century by the then vicar’s daughters, while in earlier times it was common for the dancers to wear their usual clothes, occasionally adding some ribbons for decoration. The eighteenth century designs have been renewed many times and the current costumes are from 1997. On the morning of the Dance, usually around seven, the dancers meet at St. Nicholas Church, where the horns are stored during the year, and receive the blessing. An hour later, after the service is concluded, the group can collect the antlers and perform the first dance on the village green. From there, the dancers start their procession, following a traditional route which includes various ‘stations’, places where they will stop and perform the brief dance, which usually lasts for about ten minutes or less. The ‘stations’ mainly include houses, farms and pubs whose owners warmly provide food and drinks for the dancers and the crowd. The most important stop happens around midday, when the performers reach Blithfield Hall, the grandiose mansion of the Bagot family, whose lords and ladies, who have lived in it since the fourteenth century, are honoured with the dance every year. Between one stop and the other the dancers walk around without a set formation, but as soon as they approach one of the stations they usually form a single line behind their leader. The performers consequently proceed in line, sometimes weaving a small serpentine shape while at other times forming a circle, until they reach the appointed destination. There, the six carriers, the hobby horse and the boy with the arrow usually split into two facing rows and start performing the main moves of the dance, alternatively making a few steps toward and away from the facing line and finally swapping sides to repeat the movement again. The heavy horns are usually kept chest high, sometimes raised above the heads of the other line’s dancers in the swapping. During the dance, Maid Marian assumes her traditional role of collecting the offerings from the crowd, while the Jester fools around, annoying the dancers, and occasionally hitting them with his bladder full of water. In between the official dances, any of the spectators, from the enthusiastic visitors to the traffic wardens and the various farms’ or pubs’ owners, can pick up the horns and try the Dance. However, only certain people are asked to join the Dance by the performers – this is considered a special honour. Around eight o’clock the procession closes its circle and comes back to the village green, where the celebration reaches its end and the horns are deposited back in the church to rest. As often happens with folklore, the Dance has frequently been portrayed as a pagan fertility ritual with origins going back to Celtic times. This notion doesn’t have any proven ground and it was somehow openly discredited by the discovery that the horns, or at least one of them, are almost a thousand years old, dating back to 1065, with a variance of eighty years. Unfortunately, the carbontest can only prove the age of the antlers and cannot be used to define when the custom was first held, or for what reasons it was organised. One of the most widespread theories asserts that the Dance was first performed in 1226 during the fair established by Henry III in honour of St. Bartholomew, possibly to celebrate the villagers’ re-conquered rights to the nearby Needwood Forest. Following this unproven account, it would be easy to explain the use of the reindeer horns as a symbol of the forest’s rich fauna and it would be reasonable to see in the dance a sort of re-enactment of hunting. Although there are written records that attest the existence of the ancient fair, the first mention to the Dance is from Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, which dates the celebration only as far back as the years before the Civil War, around 1620. Other sources have dated the existence of the Dance – which would have then included the hobby horse but not the antlers or Maid Marian – to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Either way, the ancient celebration usually occurred during the winter celebrations of Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night, the period of the year when it is most common to see animal disguise customs. Even though it is not possible to define its origins and, least of all, the reasons why it started, the Horn Dance remains one of the most appreciated celebrations in Great Britain. The cause of its reputation can probably be found in its exceptional continuity and in the community’s attitude towards it. Firstly, the custom is not a mere revival of an older one, but has been kept well alive through the years, at least from the sixteenth century. Furthermore, although the villagers are understandably proud of the Dance and its tradition, they are not afraid to adapt it to unexpected occurrences, such as using a minibus for the longest parts of the route during bad weather, or having the triangle boy with his broken leg pushed in a wheelchair for the whole procession. One of the most relevant aspects of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is precisely this harmonious alternation of respect for and disregard of tradition, which testify to how dynamic the custom still is today. When a celebration is such a lively part of a village life, there is no need to over-protect its ‘purity’ with strict theoretical rules, nor is it vital to fully understand its origins to validate it in the eyes of the community and, consequently, the audience.
Autumn Equinox – Alban Elued Primrose Hill, London It might seem impossible to find something that can still wake Londoners from their distinctive indifference, used as they are to counter-cultures, diversity and individual originality, but the view of more than twenty hooded druids gathering at Primrose Hill on a Sunday morning certainly proves to be an exception. Indeed, the annual celebration of the Autumn Equinox organised by the Loose Association of Druids always manages to attract a spontaneous and well-assorted crowd, including passers-by, runners taking a rest, and giggling children, with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. Nevertheless, the ceremony and its participants proceed quietly, almost unaware of the staring audience, elegantly completing the ritual gestures and formulas. The Primrose Hill Autumn Equinox, or Alban Elued in druidry, is usually held on the Sunday nearest the twenty-third of September and is open to anyone, whether to watch the ritual or to spiritually participate in it. During the ceremony, which starts at one o’clock at the top of the hill, the assembly of druids, which is called a ‘grove’, forms a wide circle and performs a series of ritual gestures, including passing around a horn full of cider, putting fruit and leaves on the ground and reading aloud the oracle cards, which contain concepts on druidry and advice for the lives of the participants. After the ceremony the druids form a long line and slowly walk back to Hawthorne Grove, where the festivity is celebrated with food and drinks. Alban Elued is the second and concluding harvest festival in the druidic eightfold wheel of the year, which includes the four solar festivities, Solstices and Equinoxes, and the four lunar festivities connected to rural life and livestock. All eight festivities are observed by modern druids and are considered essential moments in which to disengage from daily routine and reconnect with nature, honouring its life cycle and generous gifts. In particular the Autumn Equinox, which marks the end of harvest time, is considered an important moment to share the last products of the earth and thank her for her generosity. The practice of putting fruit, flowers and leaves on the ground and pouring cider before consuming it during the ceremony is a way of showing gratitude to her, giving back some of the products she has offered. The Autumn Equinox is also the time of the year when druids reflect upon personal failures, draw conclusions on past achievements and realise what each one has got or lacks. Consequently, not only giving thanks for what has been received, but finding the inner strength to face life’s struggles and accepting faults and shortcomings are the themes at the centre of the oracle cards. Considering that Alban Elued is the last festival in the druid wheel of the year, which starts again with Samhain, the time of death and rebirth, it is easy to understand its constant invitation to this reflection and self-analysis, the same process that some people face approaching New Year’s Eve. In other parts of the ritual it is possible to find reference to more general druidic motives, such as the call for peace through the Gorsedd Prayer and the celebration of the three druidic freedoms: thought, speech and association. When observing the rite on Primrose Hill, one experiences a rare feeling of peace and detachment from reality – it seems to travel out of time as you witness gestures and movements which belong to another era. If the emotional impact is undoubtedly strong, its rationalisation in the definition of what constitutes modern druidry – its beliefs, precepts and practices – is not an easy task. When looking at its origins, how it has developed from the ancient druids of the Iron Age and how much it has in common with that tradition, one can see reality becoming so perfectly intertwined with myth, erroneous historical reconstructions and forgery, that it is difficult, almost impossible, to separate them. Due to the lack of evidence regarding the Celtic people, which, being part of a mainly vernacular culture, did not produce any written account, their history has been particularly exposed to rewritings and interpretations, transmitted through the worlds of other peoples, mainly the Greeks, to whom the Celts were barbarians, and the Romans, to whom they were enemies to be conquered. These partially reliable sources tell us that the druids were members of one of the social classes in which the Celtic tribes of Britain and Gaul (roughly modern France) were divided. Their functions included the preservation and transmission of knowledge, the administration of justice, together with the chief tribe, and the supervision of religious rituals. The ancient texts highlight their high influence on the life of the tribe they belonged to and occasionally infer a connection between them and the practice of magic and human sacrifices, mainly to discredit the Celtic tribes as savages in need of civilisation. Furthermore, all the other notions that have formed our common image of druids, including their various depictions as wise bearded sages in white robes, defenders of Britain’s independence from the Romans through violent rebellions and cruel executors of human sacrifices, have been proved to be the product of the romanticisation of druidry started around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Druids were firstly used in the shaping of the national identities of, respectively, Germany, France and Great Britain, where they were depicted as pious and extremely erudite philosophers, proto-Christian sages and fervent patriots. At the same time, many of the druid orders and associations still existing today were founded by scholars and enthusiasts, often using forged texts to prove their continuity with the ancient druids. Nowadays, with much of the historical core of modern druidry having been discredited, including the connection with the stone circles and much of its own rituals, druids have been forced to face fundamental problems regarding their practice, their history and their beliefs. Some have consequently completely refused to accept the romanticisation, founding their practice only on the sources that can be considered trustworthy, while others have started considering druidry as a modern invention, highly inspired by the ancient druids, but born from the romanticisation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This ambivalence of thought shows one of the central concepts of contemporary druidry: the acceptance of everyone’s opinions, beliefs and experiences without judgement in ‘perfect tolerance and perfect equality’. The movement, which is not considered by everyone to be a religion, is mainly a celebration of nature and our ancestors, a faith or a philosophy in which coexists a mixture of different gods, concepts of deity and beliefs. Despite the unresolved debate on its origin, druidry today lives in harmony with its mixture of myth and reality and, considering its remarkable openness and high respect for diversity and individuality, proves to be strikingly modern.
Pearly Harvest Festival
Pearly Kings and Queens Society Costermongers Harvest Festival Guildhall Yard, City of London Every year at the end of September, a quiet Sunday morning in the deserted City of London is overturned by an eccentric crowd of sparkling Pearly Kings and Queens. They all join forces with Morris dancers, donkey’s carts, marching bands and many other traditional characters to celebrate the annual Costermongers Harvest Festival, a spectacular show set up for charity which ends with a procession to the church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, where the final celebratory service is held. It is among many events organised throughout the year by the Pearly Society, including the New Year’s Parade and the monthly collections in East London and Covent Garden, but the Costermongers Harvest Festival is undoubtedly the most spectacular. The festival takes place in Guildhall Yard, a small square built on the remains of an old Roman amphitheatre in front of the Guildhall, the administrative headquarters of the City. The square is ringed with red seats especially for the occasion, where the Pearly royalty, the mayors and the lucky, early spectators wait for the show to begin. Sitting on his Pearly throne, which is also embedded with pearly buttons, the Pearly King of the Festival overlooks the celebration, which lasts two solid hours and includes maypole and Morris dances, drumming, music and songs. Finally the Pearlies and the mayors parade around the square, accompanied by popular rhymes, and start the procession towards Saint Mary-le-Bow, followed by all the other characters, food carts and visitors. There are few things that symbolise London and its quintessentially cockney spirit more than the pearl-encrusted outfits of the Pearly Kings and Queens. Born out of the costermongers’ tradition of ‘the poor helping the poor’ at the end of the nineteenth century, the modern Pearlies carry on the extensive charity work of their predecessors, sporting the same indispensable qualities: humour, friendliness and, most importantly, pride. Just as in olden times, money is never asked for free, but as an offering in exchange for the entertainment created by the Pearlies and their helpers. The costers, the English street vendors who were the forefathers of the Pearlies, first appeared in London in 1292. Deprived but tenacious, they invented their own job, buying goods from London’s central markets and re-selling them to the poor people in the outskirts of London who did not have enough money to travel to the city centre. The costermongers often pushed their heavy barrows for more than ten miles a day, crying their goods, beating a bucket with a stick and trying not to stop, to avoid being charged with loitering and, consequently, arrested. The coster trade was not only tough, but also illegal. It included fights with other vendors as well as frequent conflicts with the police. To protect themselves, each group of costermongers, usually divided by geographical area of trade, decided to name a king, a member designated to stand for the group, both physically, against the trade rivals, and formally, as a spokesperson with the authorities. The costers were deeply aware of their difficult conditions and firmly believed on the importance of protecting and helping one another, often collecting or lending money to fellow vendors and poor neighbours. The only official institution where the costermongers did not feel unwelcomed was the local hospital, which itself was often striving to survive with insufficient staff, equipment and space. To collect funds, the hospitals used to organise parades and carnivals, to which East Enders and costers happily contributed with fancy-dresses, music and games. The costers Kings and the benevolent hospital ‘Rags’ of the end of the nineteenth century built the foundation for the forthcoming Pearly Society. According to the tradition, the first Pearly King was Henry Croft, an orphan roadsweeper profoundly aware of the harshness of life, who spent much of his life helping those in the same conditions. He is believed to have collected more than £5,000 during his lifetime, an extraordinary amount that today equates to £200,000. Elected Pearly King of Somerstown by his coster friends in 1880, Henry used to wear a jacket with the inscription ‘World King of the Pearlies’ embroidered with pearl buttons on the back. Soon, each London borough had its Pearly Royalty, amongst a total of almost 400 Pearlies who distinguished themselves from the other costers thanks to their unique costumes. The title, like any royal title, was hereditary and not transferable, but the handmade decorated outfits were often passed down from one generation to the other. Proud of their work and identity, the costers had already developed a unique way of dressing, but it is with the Pearlies that the waistcoat and the pearl buttons, which were the costers’ take on the sparkling and luxurious West Ender outfit of the time, became the staple symbols of costermonger royalty. Each costume was made to be unique and no Pearly King or Queen was allowed to copy another Pearly outfit, whose most important purpose was to highlight each one’s realm through the engraving at the back. The Pearly regalia was also decorated with a large variety of good luck symbols and protective signs such as horse-shoes, crosses and anchors. In addition, there were symbols connected with coster daily life, such as flowers and donkey carts, as well as caps for men and wide, ostrich-feathered hats for women. Unfortunately, today there are far fewer Pearly members than the current number of London boroughs, some of which have consequently lost their royalty. Nevertheless, the families who have survived are still fighting in full cockney spirit to keep the tradition alive, often welcoming new members from outside the Society and trying to involve the younger ones, grandchildren and nephews who could be the future of the Society. Despite having been a London institution for over a century and regardless of all the current difficulties they are facing, the Pearlies have not changed their heartfelt and straightforward approach to charity, neither has their pride in their mission diminished. On the contrary, it is their pride that has been pushing them for a hundred years and, hopefully, will continue to do so.
Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner by Hubert Gregg London isn’t everybody’s cup of tea Often you hear visitors complain Noisy, smokey city but it seems to me There’s a magic in the fog and rain Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I love London so Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I think of her wherever I go I get a funny feeling inside of me Just walking up and down Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I love London so. People take to saying as the years go by London isn’t London anymore People may be changing But this town and I We are even closer than before Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I love London so Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I think of her wherever I go I get a funky feeling deep inside of me Just walking up and down Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner That I love London so Don’t you know that I love London Town Oh, I love London so.
photographs by Rachel Wilberforce
Interview with Roy Vickery, botanist, compiler of A Dictionary of Plant-lore and author of plant-lore. com. How did you develop your interest in folklore and plants? I have been interested in plants for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory, dating back to the age of four, actually involves a plant. Later, when I became interested in folklore through folk dance and folk song, I realised that there was nothing much written specifically on plant folklore, so I thought that could be a good spot to cover. Furthermore, the works on plant folklore available at the time were mainly materials which were first collected in the 1870s and had been recycled for the next 100 years. No one was collecting anything new, no one thought there was anything new to be collected, so I decided to dedicate my time to it. I’ve tended to concentrate on England, mainly because I am English, but also because in Wales, Ireland and Scotland folklore has always been collected as a way to establish their national identities, whereas England has never needed to do so. Consequently, English folklore has been neglected for many years. I thought it was important to show that there is folklore in England and that it is as good as that you can get elsewhere. On your website Plant-lore.com you invite people to contribute with traditional beliefs regarding plants, local names, herbal remedies and so on. How is the response? Rather poor actually. I’ve got about 4000 views last month, so obviously people are using it quite a lot to look for information, but the actual people who contribute are very few. It hasn’t worked as well as I would have liked as it is obviously used in a passive way. Furthermore, I’m not very technological and even if there is a guy who helps me with the technical side, I believe the website is not user friendly enough. Interestingly, most of the information collected has come from Australia and New Zealand, especially from people who spent their childhood in the UK or have parents who lived in the UK. I think they are driven by a sort of nostalgia. Are there any more successful ways of collecting? When I’ve started, around the 1980s, I used to write letters to local papers enquiring for any useful information people could give me about plants and beliefs. Now, of course, there are fewer local papers and it’s more difficult to get published. Even when they put my letters on their website I get very little response, so I have figured that is not a very good way of collecting. I think the more successful way to collect is actually leading walks around places like the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum. Moreover, the front house staff at the Garden are mostly young people from different places in Europe, and they often like to share what they know or what they grandparents knew. I think it’s very interesting to compare traditional beliefs from places like Hungary or Belgium with our English plant-lore. Another interesting place for collection is the Horniman Gardens where I recently did a walk. In general, I try to do as many lectures and walks as I can, because it’s the best way to involve people.
In West Dorset Folklore Notes you wrote about the superstitions and beliefs that you encountered during your childhood in Dorset. Have you maintained any of those beliefs? To be honest, I don’t think I have inherited any particular belief from my family. I have only one big superstition, which has anything to do with my parents or my childhood – it’s a personal one. I never buy train tickets in advance, because I think that if I buy train tickets in advance something is going to happen to make me miss that train. So, I know it costs a lot more to buy them on the day, but I always do it anyway. Have you ever tried one of the herbal remedies you collected? Yes, there are two that I have tried. One consists in tying ivy leafs on corns. I did once have a corn and I decided to try it. It worked incredibly well, so I can recommend that. The other thing is, when you have warts, anything with white sap can be used on it. For example, I have got a record on my website from someone in Italy who uses the white juice of young figs for this remedy, but dandelion can also be used and apparently everything with white juice should work. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for me, but I have discovered that I can use greater celandine instead, which has bright yellow sap. Can you tell us something about your new book A Folk Flora? It’s going to be rather like the dictionary I compiled before, but I’m planning to write more about the distribution and the history of beliefs, as well as about local plant names. I have a page on the website which is dedicated to the collection of local names and, even if I haven’t get many contributions, I managed to collect about 1300 names, which gives you an idea of how much material there is to discover about local names of plants. I think they are interesting because, even if it might not seem obvious, there are all sort of folklore stories behind a name. Which is the most interesting thing about plant-lore? I’m interested in both plants and folklore, so obviously plant-lore brings my two main interests together. The idea of plant-lore is something that I have invented myself to stress the importance on stories and superstitions behind plants and I think it’s essential to record and preserve these beliefs, because they are part of our own culture. Furthermore, when I’m giving walks I notice that people relate to nature again, so I’m very keen on getting people looking at local plants like nettles, elder and so on, so they can connect with their local environment. I know that talking about nettles and exploring the Wildlife Garden here at the Natural History Museum can seem a bit dull compared to the big things inside the museum, such as the dinosaurs gallery. But I always think, when you visit the gallery you can obviously see the dinosaurs, but you can’t really experience seeing a dinosaur in your daily life. On the contrary, what you learn on common plants and their uses is relevant for you in your everyday life. I believe it is less a dead end than looking at a dinosaur.
Hair, like other disposable parts of the body such as nails and teeth, has always been perceived as connected to the body in a particularly meaningful way. For this reason, it has been a frequent component of magical practices based on the principle of sympathy, the belief that objects can influence each other at a distance. Following the definition elaborated by Frazer in The Golden Bough, Sympathetic Magic can be divided into two sub-categories: magic based on similarity, the belief that ‘like produces like’, also known as Homeopathy; and magic known as Contagion: the belief that items that have been in contact with other objects maintain a special connection with them even when separated. Hair is believed to have been used by witches in their curses, which usually combined Homeopathy and Contagion. One of these spells consisted of creating a miniature effigy resembling the person the witch wanted to curse, by shaping wax and the person’s hair together. Then, to make the hated person go to waste, the little doll would be left to melt next to a fire, or pins and needles could be inserted in the effigy to inflict pain on the victim. Alternatively, if the hair was caught by a bird and woven into its nest, it might have given a strong headache to the hair’s owner. To avoid any inconvenience of this kind, the disposal of cut or fallen hair was carefully managed, usually by burying it in the ground. Despite being widespread in the past, these beliefs are less and less known today and have been replaced by other, more mundane, beliefs. For example, it is quite common to hear that, although unwanted by many, a grey or white hair should never be pulled out as this will cause many more to grow in its place. Another belief acknowledges that women whose hair forms a cowslip – a natural curl near the hairline – are luckier than others, while women whose hairline is slightly pointed on the forehead, forming what is called a widow’s peak, will suffer the loss of their husbands. Hair is also believed to be connected to personality, revealing a person’s traits and characteristics through its colour, length and type. In past centuries and at least since 1200, red-headed people have been connected with lust, anger and general moral degeneration, while red-headed children were sometimes taken as proof of their mother’s infidelity. The origin of these beliefs is not known, but the most common explanation is that some of the most evil characters of the past, like Judas and Cain, were believed to have red hair. Even today, adults and children with red hair are still victims of bullying and prejudice in the UK and in some cases they are discriminated or are attacked because of the colour of their hair.
The hawthorn could be defined as the unluckiest plant in Great Britain and it wouldn’t be an overstatement. According to the survey of unlucky plants organised by the Folklore Society, the plant was still considered as such in 1984, associated mostly with bad weather, illness and death. Many explanations for the hawthorn’s negative reputation have been collected throughout the years, some of them of a religious nature, associating it with the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross. Others instead condemned the flower as a symbol of carnal and outlawed love, as demonstrated by references to it in medieval allegories. Following the most established belief, the plant was believed to bring serious illness and almost certainly death upon the family if brought inside the house. For many people the flower literally smelled like death and others more directly believed that its scent was similar to the odour of the Great Plague of London of the years 1665–1666. Surprisingly, this last conviction was proved to be correct around the 1950s, when it was discovered that the flower contains trimethylamine, a component that can also be found in the corrupting bodies of dead animals and human beings. In the past, and especially during the Plague, people were often in contact with the odour produced by the decaying bodies of the deceased, which were kept inside the house for some time before being buried. Considering this, it‘s easy to understand why the hawthorn and its perfume weren’t welcomed in the home. The only positive note regarding the plant was its edible nature. In the past, during particularly harsh economic times, the flower, known through its nickname of ‘bread and cheese’, was picked up and consumed as a substitute for food. More recently this practice has remained common mainly among children, and it is still possible to meet people who use hawthorns in sandwiches or as a cooking herb.
As constant part of everyday life, clothes are naturally at the centre of many superstitions, some concerning luck and misfortune, others related to particular events such as weddings and funerals, where clothes assume significant meanings. One widespread belief in the past indicated that the order in which clothes were put on in the morning could influence the pace of the day ahead. For this reason it was important always to start with the right hand or right foot, carefully paying attention to wearing the clothes on the right side. If one item was accidentally worn inside out, it had to be left that way for the whole day to annul the expected misfortune. At the same time, wearing a particular item inside out was a method used by travellers to confuse fairies who wanted them to lose their way and it was also believed to dissolve a witch spell cast on the wearer. The custom of wearing ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ when getting married is not as old as it might appear – its first appearance dates at the end of the nineteenth century – but it is certainly one of the most currently widespread traditions relating to wedding ceremonies. In some cases the characteristics have also been associated with particular, fixed objects. For example, the garter has often to be blue and the veil old, possibly a gift from a happily married friend. Furthermore, since clothes are constantly in contact with the body, they easily comply with the rules of contagious magic and its system of thought. For example, the clothes that belonged to a dead person were believed to suffer the same fate as their owner, decaying as his or her body decayed, thus some people refuse to wear or use them. Given the fact that in the past clothes were usually sewn onto the bodies of the deceased, it is also easy to understand the belief that clothes should never be mended while being worn. In this case, applying Frazer’s law of similarity, mending a particular item of clothing worn by a living person would imitate the funereal action, bringing death upon the person in question. Finally, clothes are of a particular interest because, unlike other items, they are at the centre of personal and unique beliefs that change depending on the person. For example, a particular item of clothing can often be used by students as a good luck charm for tests and exams, but, although the practice is widespread, the item in question is different from one person to the next, and often has a specific, personal story behind it. Similarly, some people choose to dress up when facing a particularly complicated or demanding task, while others prefer to dress down.
The bright yellow dandelion has been part of common plant-lore and folk medicine for a long time, probably because of its widespread presence along country roads and in public gardens. Its name, originally from the French dent de lion, derives from its indented leaves, which do indeed resemble lion’s teeth, but the flower is also known by a number of other epithets. Its almost endless list of names include ‘pee-beds’, ‘wet-the-beds’ and ‘pissabed’, which are all connected with the belief that whoever picks a dandelion will wet his or her bed, a belief that is still widely held in rural as well as urban areas of Great Britain. Surprisingly, it is possible to encounter the same belief in other European countries, where the flower’s name has also been altered with nicknames. For example, the dandelion is called pissenlit in French and piscialletto in Italian, both names referring to its bedwetting properties. The belief has been proved to be somewhat valid, as it has been discovered that the flower’s roots have diuretic components which if ingested could lead to the aforementioned result. However, both now and in the past, its fluffy, seeded head has not always been believed to have such effects and has therefore proved suitable for children’s games and love divination techniques. One of the most common practices was the game of ‘telling the time’, in which the flower served as a clock. The children would blow away the seeds of the dandelion with a series of successive puffs. The final number of puffs needed to strip the flower of all of its seeds was used to indicate the time of day. Puffs and seeds, using the exact same method, were also used to find out how many years were left before marriage or to predict the number of children a little girl should expect herself to have in the future. In some cases, the seeds were also considered lucky if caught.
Some superstitions employ very common objects that are part of our everyday life and invest them with magical powers that transform these simple items into healing and protective instruments. The beliefs related to thread belong to this category, describing it not only as a powerful amulet capable of alleviating and curing sprains, teething, rheumatism and bleeding, but also as a weapon against witchcraft and evil spirits. In the case of a sprain, a piece of common thread was tied around the aching part and a charm was then recited aloud to alleviate the soreness. In some cases, the thread had to present a particular number of knots, probably metaphors of the pain suffered by the muscle in question. Other beliefs were more detailed, specifying the material and colour of the thread, usually requiring silk or velvet ribbons. The former was mostly used to cure rheumatism, typically knotted around the affected part of the body, while the latter could be worn by children around the neck to ease the teething process and guarantee good teeth. It is also possible to find a series of particular customs related to red thread, which was specifically employed in relation to blood following the principle of sympathetic magic. A piece of red thread, usually silk, was commonly used to stop nose bleeding, knotting the thread around the neck of the patient. For the cure to be completely effective, the belief also stated that the action had to be completed by a member of the opposite sex. Another use suggested tying red thread around one of the thighs of a woman who was giving birth in order to mitigate pain and avert any potential issues. Finally, red thread was considered to be a highly successful protection against sorcery and evil spirits, especially if combined with rowan. This belief was already known in Britain in the twelfth century and it was particularly advised for cattle â€“ which usually had the thread knotted around their tails â€“ and for young children.
Cats, together with few other animals, bear the highest number of symbolic meanings and have been widely associated with witchcraft, supernatural powers and, in some cases, divine offspring. The reasons for these beliefs have often been connected to the animal’s independent behaviour and contemptuous natural disposition, which made it easy to depict it as an unfriendly, suspicious and menacing creature, putting it at the centre of many, mostly ominous, superstitions. Since the sixteenth century, cats’ supernatural perceptions have been believed to be expressed through a series of actions, in particular in relation to weather and death. In the case of weather prediction, rain had to be expected when the cat washed itself by passing its paw behind its ears, while if the animal sat with its back to the fire, snow was foretold. The worst weather, usually in the form of a storm, was believed to occur when the cat ran incoherently around the house or manifested nervous behaviours such as scratching the furniture or chasing its tail. Finally, when the cat refused to stay inside the house, a death in the family was expected. This distrust associated with cats and their assumed cruelty was mainly expressed through the belief that they could be dangerous for the people living in the household, which was summarised with the salute ‘God save all, barring the cat’ on entering a house. Cats had also to be kept away from babies because they were believed to willingly suffocate them, sitting on the newborns’ chests and then ‘sucking the breath away’, or killing them with their poisonous breath. Some also believed that witches could turn into cats and for this reason avoided speaking of personal or important matters in the animal’s presence. In Great Britain, the majority of ancient beliefs have been forgotten and simplified into the widespread notion that a black cat crossing one’s path will bring bad luck, which is among today’s best-known superstitions. Few other beliefs have resisted the challenge of time, including the fact that a black cat is still recognized as a symbol of good luck, the belief that cats have nine lives and the association of cats with sorcery. Despite the gradual fading of old beliefs, cats, especially when black, still play a considerable role in today’s popular culture, including Halloween imagery, horror films, cartoons and children’s books, where they are usually depicted as the inseparable companions of witches.
Salt is one of the materials most connected with superstitions, past and present. The origins of these beliefs are mostly unknown, but they may have been caused by the central importance and high value that salt has always had, especially in times when it was used to conserve food, preserve the dead and, sometimes, as salary instead of money. Therefore, most of the superstitions concerning salt maintain a positive view of it, conferring on it protective powers and reproving its waste. Nowadays the most widely known superstition regarding salt is that accidentally spilling it will bring bad luck, a belief that has been known in the British Isles since the sixteenth century. In addition to the economic value of salt, which would explain the taboo on wasting it on the floor, another possible cause for this superstition could be found in the conviction that Judas spilt the salt during the Last Supper, an omen of his betrayal. To nullify the misfortune, it is necessary to throw a pinch of salt in the fire or over the left shoulder, usually using the right hand. People believed that in this way the devil, traditionally placed on your left shoulder, would have been blinded, making him unable to do any damage. Salt was also considered to have special protective and cleansing powers, and was therefore used against ill omens, bad luck and evil spirits. For this reason it was often brought inside a new house, where a child was sometimes sent to every room to throw some salt on the floor as a mean of protection. In other cases, salt was thrown in the fire for a various number of times. Burning salt was believed to reverse bad luck and to protect from witches and revoke their spells. In some parts of England, salt was also sprinkled on the doorstep after an unwanted visitor had left the house to prevent him or her from returning. Today, salt is also used by Wicca and neoPagan practitioners to mark the magic circle within which rituals and spells are practiced. In this case, salt is not only considered protective, but it is also used to contain and concentrate power.
Despite their modern association with good luck, hares were constantly feared and avoided in the past, when they were considered an omen of natural disaster and misfortune. The origin of the animal’s particularly negative reputation can probably be found in the ancient and pervasive belief that witches could turn into hares, which was first recorded in Wales in 1182 and reported in a series of legendary tales commonly told in the past. According to one version, after a long and difficult chase, some local huntsmen finally managed to shoot a hare, which, badly wounded, ran away, taking shelter in a farmstead. The hunters then entered the house to catch the animal, finding instead an old woman showing the same wounds suffered by the hare. Following the association with sorcery, meeting a hare was commonly regarded as a sign of bad luck, especially if the animal crossed one’s path. In particular, if the creature did so in the presence of a pregnant woman, she would have had to immediately rip her shift to stop her baby being born with a harelip. The hare was also listed by fishermen and their families as part of their ‘forbidden words’, a group of names that couldn’t be pronounced at sea or while doing activities related to fishing and nets, because it would have brought misfortune upon the boat. The uncanny nature of the hare also created a series of popular errors, notions that were considered scientifically true but that have since been proved wrong. For example, considered extremely timid and gloomy, the animal was often named ‘melancholic hare’ and the consumption of its meat had to be avoided, because it was believed to have the power to pass the melancholy character to people. Hares were also supposed to always keep their eyes open, even when asleep, and it was commonly acknowledged that they could change their sex every year. Today, the relatively recent custom of carrying a hare’s or a rabbit’s foot as a lucky amulet – in the past especially associated with protection against witchcraft – is definitely the most widespread belief connected to the animal. This practice, despite probably having been introduced to Great Britain from North America in the 1950s, has completely change the reputation of the animal, which is now commonly seen as sign of good luck.
The modern and revived corn dolly, a refined and handcrafted small ornament which is often taken as a simple good-luck charm, is the commercial evolution of the ancient harvest custom of disposing of the last bundle of corn, which varied around Great Britain according to place and tradition. It was an essential part of the many harvest celebrations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it wasn’t limited to the crafting of corn figures, but often involved rituals that established a set of rules on the cutting. In many parts of Scotland it was the youngest person on the field who would cut the final sheaf, whilst in other regions that honour was reserved to the field’s owner, to one of the young female reapers or to the unmarried girls in the village. In some areas the cutting of the last bundle was known as ‘Crying the Neck’, because the act was accompanied by a series of shouts and hoorays, and later celebrated with cake and cider. Another ceremony included a competition that saw the reapers, all together, throwing their sickles toward the sheaf, while in the Orkney Islands the farmers apparently left the final patch uncut to feed the birds. Once modelled into an effigy, the sheaf assumed a number of names, for the most part feminine, which referred to its positive or negative personification, including kern baby, cailleach (old woman), corn maiden, neck and hag. When positive, the corn figure was adorned with flowers and ribbons and paraded on a wagon or it was hung up inside the manor. In Wales, the cutter and bearer of the dolly had to protect it from the attempts to soak it in water. Managing to bring the dry dolly inside the house would have guaranteed him or her a special place during the harvest supper, while a wet dolly wasn’t admitted inside the manor. When representing a negative figure, usually called hag or cailleach, the corn effigy was considered unlucky and many rituals focused on how to get rid of it. In some cases, a reaper was sent to throw the dolly into a field nearby where the reaping process was still in progress. The action had to be completed as fast and silently as possible because, if caught, he would have been shaved, beaten and stripped of his clothes. Another similar custom included passing the hag from field to field until reaching the last to be reaped, which would have been condemned to poverty for the next year. Today, even though many people still tend to accept the unfounded theories elaborated by Frazer in The Golden Bough, which see in the corn dollies a survival of the pagan cult of the corn God and a symbol of fertility, the majority consider them only as a way to celebrate the harvest or as a good-luck charm.
References to the magical and powerful properties of the mandrake, a pronged root with anthropomorphic shape, can be found in many literary works, from Shakespeare’s plays and John Donne’s poetry to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, attesting to the influence of the legends associated with the plant over time. One of the oldest beliefs, attributing to the plant a powerful fertility property, was already widely known in biblical times as proved by an episode in the Book of Genesis, when Rachael, unable to conceive a baby, asks Leah to bring her some of the herb’s roots. At the same time, the plant was already used as an opiate, anaesthetic and hallucinogen in Ancient Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. The combination of these qualities, as well as the possibility of inducing delirium and coma in a patient by using large quantities of the plant’s roots, led to the portrayal of the mandrake as one of the fundamental components of medieval sorcery. It was especially feared for its assumed capacity to control the destiny of other human beings and for this reason, in the Middle Ages, owning a mandrake was enough to be accused of witchcraft. Gloomy legends connected to the plant spread over Britain in Tudor times, probably emerging from continental Europe. One sinister belief noted that mandrakes could spring from blood or semen spilled by dead men and thus they were believed to grow easily under gallows. A more famous one, recently recalled in Harry Potter, forbade people to uproot the herb. When pulled from the ground the root, believed to be inhabited by a demon and for that reason resembling a human figure, would have shrieked, making the unfortunate person insane and, in some cases, causing his or her death. Some measures were especially recommended to prevent this ominous result. One of the most commonly suggested was to use a dog to complete the task, luring it next to the plant with meat or any other palatable food. Alternatively, a horn could be blown exactly at the same time as the uprooting, or wax could be used to protect one’s ears from the screaming. A common error associated with the plant was the belief that the word ‘mandrake’ referred to the male sex of the plant, thus, in certain parts of England, ‘womandrake’ was used to refer to the female specimen. However, despite being at the centre of much folklore and superstition, mandrake roots rarely grow in Britain due to the harsh climate. For this reason white briony, another herb with anthropomorphic roots, was commonly used in place of mandrake.
Eggs embody Easter as much as holly embodies Christmas, not only in Great Britain but throughout all of Europe. Being associated with the concepts of birth and creation, they were used during the festivity to symbolise Christâ€™s resurrection and, more specifically, the stone rolled away from his tomb beforehand. Nowadays, one of the most widespread Easter traditions is clearly represented in the giving of chocolate eggs to children and friends, a custom more or less invented by Cadbury in 1875, but in the past eggs had a much more central role in the Easter celebrations, being used in many games, practices and even mummersâ€™ plays. Aside from their symbolic aspects, their importance during the festivity was also connected to the habit of fasting during Lent, the period of forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday dedicated to renunciation and penance, when eating eggs, cheese and meat was prohibited. As a result, eggs were hard-boiled and stored away until the Holy Sunday, when the ban was finally over and eggs were rightfully celebrated. In some cases the stored eggs were painted, using wax or boiling them with other products that could give them colour, such as onion peel, coffee or spinach, while sometimes they were simply donated to friends and relatives to be consumed. One of the most widespread customs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was pace egging, the practice of going door-to-door to collect hardboiled eggs from the neighbouring families. The custom was usually carried out by poor children or young people, who performed a brief song or a doggerel to accompany their requests. The eggs collected could have been simply eaten, brought home to be painted if not already decorated, or used by children in various games, such as egg-rolling or egg-dumping. In other periods of the year, eggs were also at the centre of a variety of superstitions, and most often love divination techniques. According to one of these, the egg white had to be poured into water and its shape would have outlined the profession of the inquirerâ€™s future lover. To make the craft more effective, in some cases it was advised to use the first egg laid by a hen, or to practice it on midsummer. Another love-prediction technique suggested boiling eggs, substituting the yolks with salt and eating nothing but those all day, including the shells, and without drinking any water. The inquirer had then to go to sleep walking backwards and the future lover would have appeared in his or her dreams. Finally, eggshells were also part of many superstitions, especially related to sympathetic magic. In some case burning them was believed to be extremely unlucky, because the hen would have stopped laying, while sometimes it was considered one of the most effective ways to dispose of them, preventing witches from using them in their witchcraft. It was believed that witches could use the eggshells as ships, reaching real ships out in the sea to destroy them, as first recorded in 1580 or, alternatively, they could have used the shells as a puppet or voodoo doll, sticking them with pins to harm the person who had previously consumed the egg.
Magpies, along with cats and hares, account for the largest number of appearances in British animal-lore. Most importantly, the magpie is also associated with one of the oldest superstitions, recorded for the first time in 1159. According to this belief, which nowadays is almost completely lost, hearing a chattering magpie near the house would announce the visit of a stranger and was thus considered a good omen. Currently, the notion that meeting or seeing a single magpie brings misfortune is far better known. First recorded in 1507 and probably not accepted by many people today, the belief is still largely known even by the youngest generations and is common in many other European countries. As with other well-known superstitions, its origin is not clear, but from the late nineteenth century it has been linked to the biblical episode of Noah’s Ark. According to this theory, the magpie had supposedly refused to quietly enter the ark like all the other animals, preferring to stay outside, enjoying the view of the flooding world. Another conjecture relates the bird’s ominous character to its conception. As proved by its plumage, the magpie would be the progeny of the white dove and the black raven, the two birds that were first sent out from Noah’s Ark. This conception was not only considered an ill omen in itself, because it was against nature, but would also have prevented the magpie from being baptized, condemning it to a fallen existence. Many remedies to the misfortune brought by magpies have been reported, all of them falling within a specific tradition of protective gestures and actions. The most often reported ones included making a sign of respect toward the bird, such as taking off one’s hat or bowing, spitting over the left shoulder, and making the sign of the cross – one of the most used counter-spells. Without doubt, the most familiar belief regarding magpies is represented today by the nursery rhyme that associates luck or misfortune with the number of birds one meets or sees, its first recording belonging to the end of the eighteenth century. Despite being widely known, many people only remember the first two lines of the poem, which has many versions, some accounting for up to eleven birds. The following is one of the most common: ‘One for sorrow Two for joy Three for a girl And four for a boy Five for silver Six for gold Seven for a secret never to be told’
Due to their unpleasant nature and their association with illness and dirt, mice and rats are mainly protagonist of ominous superstitions. Furthermore, being seen as omens of death and destruction, their presence in the house was not only deeply unwelcomed but also feared. Hence many beliefs and charms were created to persuade these animals to leave. Today, none of these superstitions is particularly widespread, but the saying ‘like rats leaving a sinking ship’ is still recognised by some. The phrase probably originated from the old belief, first recorded in the sixteenth century, that rats and mice could actually foresee the sinking of a ship or the falling down of a house and they would consequently have left it soon before. In the nineteenth century, the same ill omen was connected to a large invasion of mice inside a building. Another ancient belief, its first references found as early as around 319 BC, considered the finding of mice or rats gnawing on one’s clothes or on the house’s furniture as a death omen. Consequently, finding a way to remove the animals from one’s house was essential, not only to preserve the healthy and clean environment of the house itself, but also to prevent all the negative consequences of their presence from happening. One of the techniques used was based on the belief that mice and rats were particularly sensitive to kindness and for this reason they had to be respectfully asked to leave. The request could have been presented in person directly to the mouse, through oral charms, or in written form, putting the piece of paper used next to or inside the rat’s nest. Oddly, despite their generally negative reputation, mice were widely used in folk medicine up to the twentieth century, especially to cure whooping cough and treat bedwetting. Most of the methods dictated that the patient should eat a mouse, some requiring just on one occasion and others on several. There was no fixed rule about how the mouse should have been prepared and different records of different ways of cooking it can be found, including boiling it, frying it and making a mouse pie.
The apple has a superstitious reputation in many cultures, being the subject of several Roman and Greek myths and at the centre of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In Great Britain in particular it has been associated with love divination, popular games and wassailing and, despite the fact that the majority of traditional customs and beliefs have already disappeared from popular awareness, a limited number of apple-related superstitions have survived. For example, the saying ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’, first recorded in 1866 in the much longer form of ‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread’, is still widely known, even among the youngest generations. In the game realm, ‘apple bobbing’ is often played in the UK, especially at Halloween parties and celebrations, when several apples are put in a bucket full of water and the participants try to catch the highest number of them using only their mouth. Among the love divination practices, usually based on the peel or seeds of the fruit, one in particular is still quite familiar. It consists in carefully peeling the fruit, producing a long and unbroken string that has to be thrown over the shoulder. The letter that the peel forms on the ground will indicate the initial of your future lover. The tradition of gathering in the orchards to bless the apple trees, drinking, eating and singing to awake the tree spirits and chase away the evil ones, has been quite common in Southern England in past centuries, with its first records being from the sixteenth century. In Carhampton, Somerset, the tradition has been kept alive for 150 years whilst in other towns it has recently been revived by cider companies, Morris dance groups and local communities. The applewassailing ceremonies, also known as apple howling, vary in their execution from place to place, but all include large quantities of cider and producing as much noise as possible to scare the evil spirits and guarantee a good harvest. In some cases, pieces of toast are soaked in cider and then hanged on tree branches to attract robins, which are believed to protect the tree spirits. Finally, since 1990 the apple has had its own festive day, officially on the 21st of October, but usually celebrated on different days during the month. Initially organised by Common Ground, an environmental group, Apple Day honours the 3000 or so varieties of British apples and includes a number of applebased games, markets, food and drinks.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and until the beginning of the twentieth, bees featured in numerous well-known beliefs across Great Britain. It is thus strange to notice that nowadays these superstitions have almost completely disappeared from popular awareness. The main reason for this change can probably be found in the gradual reduction of apiculture and beekeeping activities, which has removed bees and their hives from people’s lives, diminishing their importance and their influence on our daily life. In the past bees were a central source of profit for many households, which usually respected and admired them for their natural disposition to organization, order and hard work. Bees were also believed to be sensitive, upstanding and rational creatures, able to comprehend human situations and occurrences. This particular depiction of the insect’s nature was probably the origin of one of the most common customs of the past, the practice of ‘telling the bees’. According to this habit, bees had to be informed of all the significant events taking place in the bee-keepers’ houses, including funerals and weddings. In some cases, the hives were turned, moved or decorated with black cloth or wedding garlands and food was offered to the bees, which were invited to the ceremonies and treated as guests. Other common signs of respect included telling the bees about any plans to move their hives to another place and the belief that, being considered not as domestic animals but as genuine helpers, they should not be either bought or sold, but rather bartered. Due to their nature, bees were also supposed to be particularly oversensitive to swearing and quarrelling, which would have caused them to leave, and consequently both actions were strictly avoided around the hives. The special treatment reserved for bees, and their honourable reputation, have been linked to the fact that farmers considered them to be unpaid but generous contributors to the household economy, and for this reason they had to be shown constant gratitude. Finally, a lone bee flying inside the house was often reckoned to be an omen of future prosperity, while when the insect alighted on a dead branch near the house, a death in the family was predicted.
Nowadays, holly has become inseparable from our festive imagination, insomuch as it would be impossible to look at the plant without automatically thinking about Christmas, mince pies and sparkling lights. The custom of using holly as a Christmas decoration has ancient origins, starting at least from the sixteenth century, when the only decorations were composed of natural elements such as flowers and plants. Although at the time holly was only one of the many evergreens brought into churches and houses during the festive season, the red-berried plant was already a favourite. For this reason, almost all superstitions related to the plant are also connected with Christmas, its decorations, the appropriate time to put them up and how to dispose of them after the holidays. One of the most common beliefs, still acknowledged today and associated with other festive decorations, is the notion that it is unlucky to have holly inside the house except at Christmas. This conviction was already widespread in the past, with the only difference being that then it was applied literally, so that at least until the Victorian era it was crucial to wait until Christmas Eve before decorations were brought inside houses and churches. Today, however, they are usually put up at least two weeks in advance and appear well before the beginning of December on the streets of many cities. Although the belief has not changed over time, its common interpretation has been altered so that today we consider it unlucky to use decorations outside the Christmas season, a period of time that usually lasts a month, rather than outside the actual Christmas day. Another difference can be found in relation to the date after which it is advised to dispose of decorations. In past centuries it was usual to keep them until the second day of February, known as Candlemas, while today it is considered unusual, if not unlucky, to leave them up after Twelfth Night. Almost forgotten today is the effect allocated to the two different varieties of holly: prickly and smooth. The first was believed to be male and if brought first inside the house it would have helped the husband to dominate the family for the upcoming year, while the latter, perceived as female, would have empowered the wife. Thus, it was advised to bring them inside the house at the same time, so that the future year would benefit from an even and balanced relation between husband and wife. Lastly, holly might have been seen as an unlucky plant to keep inside the house, but its presence was much appreciated outside, where it was believed to exercise its protective influence against lightning, witches and other evil creatures. Hence, it was often planted in churchyards and protected from harm.
They may not look very attractive, but according to British animal-lore spiders should be treated as real treasures, bearing good luck, money and protection. Consequently, they were often protected from harm and much attention was paid to avoid killing them, as their death would have caused a life of poverty for the offenders. The specific reasons for the emergence of the positive reputation of the spider are not clear, but two legends are mainly reported as possible causes, both of them highlighting the protective role that a spider’s web might have assumed in two different occasions during Christ’s life. According to the first one, the web was woven over Jesus’ cradle on the night he was born, while the second legend maintains that the cobweb would have protected the Holy Family in their flight into Egypt, concealing from the eyes of the soldiers the entrance to the cave in which the family was hiding. In the past, the only exception to the non-harming rule was represented by the use of spiders in many healing techniques, which, to be successful, almost always included the spider’s death. In particular, they were considered essential components in the cures for ague and whooping cough, commonplace illnesses in the past. The healing processes for the former included swallowing the spider alive, preferably mixed with more pleasant ingredients such as jam or bread, or making ‘cobweb pills’, rolling the spider, its web and some bread together and eating the result. The main healing process for the latter consisted in catching the spider and imprisoning it alive in a little bag, which was then worn around the neck by the patient. In this way the disease was believed to be transmitted to the arthropod and to waste away with it. Nowadays it is still considered lucky to find spiders inside the house and their connection with money is still acknowledged, especially when they are small. According to a belief first recorded in the sixteenth century, this kind of spider, also referred to as a ‘money spider’ or ‘money spinner’, would bring wealth and luck when found on one’s body and, to avoid poverty, mustn’t be harmed or killed. In the past, in some cases it was necessary to throw the tiny spider over the left shoulder or to put it inside a pocket in order to ensure this good luck.
photographs by Marianne BjĂ¸rnmyr & Marco Pereira
Interview with Averil Shepherd, author of calendarcustoms.com
love to visit a variety of events like me. We may be a select group, but it’s good to know we’re not alone.
Your website Calendar Customs is an endless source of British folklore, from pictures and personal stories to useful information and historical overviews. How did it all start? It all started with a visit to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in 2009. Every year I have a trip away with my friend Lisa – we call it the Man-Free Weekend and we used to tour country houses, churches and places of historic interest. Our to-do list was getting shorter when we saw some photos of the dance in the village church and decided that it would have been fun to see the event. For me it was a true epiphany – I made an important discovery about myself and realised that this was something I really wanted to do again. Having enjoyed it so much I was keen to find other annual events so I made a list and soon realised that, if I wanted to participate in so many annual customs, I would need to work out precisely their dates, which often vary from year to year. My researches into this led directly to the website, which I started writing up in late 2010. I thought it would be useful for other people to find all the information regarding the events together in one place. A website is also the ideal medium for calendar-based information as it can be regularly updated – as soon as an event has passed, the page can be amended for the next year.
Could you share with us one of your best memories about the festivals that you have seen in the past few years? I think the Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary is truly unique and memorable. I remember squashing into the side of the narrow street waiting for the barrel run, the smell of burning pitch and singeing, moving to the town centre through a very dense crowd, slipping on the many discarded bottles underfoot which you couldn’t see because of the press of people. There were lots of youngsters, many in varying stages of inebriation, screaming wildly as the flames came close. I’ve never been to anything else quite like it. Even the anarchic Bonfire Night at Lewes wasn’t as wild as this.
Are there many people interested in the calendar customs you talk about? I find that many people I speak to are interested in the subject. Throughout the year there are events to suit most tastes and in most areas of the country. Many people are unaware of events outside their area and are keen to hear about them. I know the website has at least some regular readers, as a few have made contact and, starting from a very small beginning, the website readership has currently grew up to about 13,000 readers a month, which I believe is a good result. What does folklore mean to you? The most interesting aspect is that this traditional stories and customs have been passed down from our ancestors. Much of history is focused on high-status individuals, but folklore is of the people for the people, and should be relevant to everyone. All our forebears are part of our history and even though their names and lives remain unknown, we can share their heritage and their traditional knowledge through customs and folklore. I also appreciate the fact that these special seasonal events have often evolved from a totally different and now unusual way of life, but still feel relevant today. Finally, I think it’s good to always have something special to look forward to. My year has always been punctuated by observing certain dates and seasons and having a calendar of events to visit is an extension of this. If you need comforting after Christmas and New Year have passed, a great antidote to the winter blues is to go to a wassailing or a Plough Monday event. What is the most unexpected thing about folklore and celebrations that you have found out thanks to your trips? The first unexpected thing was the number of celebrations around the country. I’ve got over 500 on the site now and fully expect to add some more as I find out about them. One of the other surprises was how friendly and welcoming people are at such events. The organisers are rightly proud of their own events and keeping them going requires much hard work and commitment, so I think they like to see a few new faces taking part. And, of course, meeting other “customs junkies” who also
Is there a celebration or a festival you used to go to when you were a child? The strongest memories of celebrations I have from my childhood are of Bonfire Night and New Year at Allendale. We used to have our own bonfire and fireworks on November 5th, and made our own Guy to burn on it. The fireworks these days are bigger and better but we always enjoyed the pack at home, and I especially loved the gunpowder smell. Maybe that’s where my love of fire-based customs stems from. New Year at Allendale was always magical, singing Auld Lang Syne beside the bonfire after the Guizers tipped their tar barrels onto the pyre to get it going – a truly great way to start the year. Why do you believe so many people still participate in calendar customs and celebrations? I think people like the fact that these events are in part anachronistic. It’s good to do something a bit different from all the bland everyday things like work, shopping and watching TV. But the main reason of course is that it’s fun. I think the customs that have survived or been revived are the ones that people enjoy taking part in. Morris dancers and mummers always look as though they’re having a great time and I think they enjoy the licence that customs give them to behave in ways that would perhaps normally be frowned upon. Events also give people an outlet to perform, share their talents and dress up. Finally, what is your advice for someone who would like to start visiting Britain’s festivals and celebrations? Firstly, pick a few of the best-known traditions to start with, as they’re often justly famous because they’re very good to watch. Don’t ignore recent revivals or new events. Some comparatively modern festivals are refreshing and great to visit, such as Mistletoe Day at Tenbury Wells or October Plenty in London. Remember that it doesn’t really matter if a tradition hasn’t been going on for hundreds of years as long as it’s fun. If you get a chance to join in, do so, it doesn’t matter if you’re not that talented. For example, I made a mess of Abbots Bromley Horn Dance but enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve also waved flags at Yorkshire Day and Wallace Day, set off Fenny Poppers, helped carry Barwick Maypole, rung the Scarborough Pancake Bell, danced badly with Morris dancers, shared Wassail bowls, eaten special foods, cheered, booed and generally always had a fantastic time. My philosophy on the subject is to go if you’re interested, because reading about it’s no substitute for being there and experiencing the event for yourself. Visiting and taking part in customs is also important because it helps them to survive in perpetuity. If nobody goes, they die out. Finally don’t sit at home wishing you could see something, just get off your backside and go.
Savernake Forest Wiltshire, England The fascinating Savernake Forest extends for about 4,500 acres near Marlborough in Wiltshire, the parish in which, according to legend, Merlin was buried. It is one of Great Britain’s ancient woodlands, forests that naturally developed from before 1600, when the human practice of planting woods was rare, almost still unknown. Indeed, Savernake was first referred to as ‘Safernoc’ in 934 AD by the first king of England, the Saxon Athelstan, and it is possibly the oldest English forest, dating more than a thousand years old. In the past, many of its trees, especially oaks and beeches, were pollarded, a technique which helps new branches to develop more easily, sawing the existing ones in a specific way. As a consequence of this practice, the trees have developed extremely broad trunks to sustain their long and heavy side branches, whose weight can sometimes cause the trunks to part, forming a large interior cavity. These twisted and bent trees along with the tall yews, maples and birches, create a particularly evocative atmosphere, which has made Savernake a haunted forest. The sudden appearance of a beheaded lady swiftly riding her magnificent white horse on the Grand Avenue, the road crossing the wood, and then suddenly vanishing is the ghost story most reported by visitors. Her manifestation is sometimes preannounced by the unsettling sound of a galloping horse, while other times the sound is the only signal she uses to uncover her presence. She is believed to have encountered her tragic death during a royal hunt, when her horse lost its way and brought her inside the tangled forest, where she would have lost her head against one of the many low branches. Other apparitions have been reported around the forest, usually human or animal spirits who wonder around at night time. The most frequent is one of a lonely white stag, which would appear and disappear in front of the visitors without making a sound. The suggestive atmosphere of the forest has also expanded to the nearby Savernake Hotel, now privately owned, where the ghost of a black dog has often been seen in the kitchen and the bar. The hotel’s other frequent appearance is a late-eighteenth-century man sitting at the bar smoking a pipe or walking through the rooms’ locked doors. Savernake is also the home of the Big Belly Oak, which is believed to be the oldest oak tree in England. The cavity formed inside its trunk is so broad that, to avoid it splitting the tree in two, a metal bar had to be tied around the oak. The shape of the tree as well as its old age had an influence on its mythical reputation and connection with evil. Therefore, according to one well-known legend, whoever dances naked around the tree twelve times and in an anti-clockwise direction will find herself or himself in the presence of the Devil. The wood has also a special history of ownership, having been owned by the same family for thirtyone generations and remaining the only private forest in Britain. One of the interesting stories related to Savernake precisely concerns one of its owners, or, better, his daughter and her encounter with her future spouse. History tells us that during the sixteenth century the forest was under the patronage of Sir John Seymour and was frequently visited by Henry VIII, who enjoyed deer hunting in the forest. It was during one of his stays that the king met Jane for the first time, probably at Littlecote House, a residence nearby the forest. The two apparently sojourned there for some time together before the execution of Anne Boleyn and their consequent marriage.
Devil’s Dyke Brighton, East Sussex The Devil’s Dyke is the world’s longest and deepest dry valley, cutting through the East Sussex Downs for almost a mile and forming two 700-foot-high slopes on its sides. The cleft was probably naturally cre3777ated around 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, when a large quantity of ice melted and the resultant water eroded the soft, chalk-made soil of the valley. The area, described by John Constable as ‘the grandest view in the world’, was much appreciated by tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Britain’s first cable car was built to transport the Victorian visitors over the dyke. Today it is still possible to see the abandoned old shafts and, although the cable car is no longer in use, the Devil’s Dyke is still a popular destination for national and international visitors. Because of its particular and suggestive shape, the valley is also at the centre of a number of legends, through which people have tried to explain its creation, usually associating it with the devil. The bestknown story, reported in 1810 in The Gentleman’s Magazine, narrates that the devil, raging because of the growing number of churches built throughout Sussex, decided to dig the dyke, so that the sea could inundate and destroy the inland villages. He set out to excavate the deep valley as soon as twilight approached, throwing mud and rocks away. He knew he had to complete it in just one night, as he could not bear the sunlight. According to the story, an old lady living in Poynings was woken up in the middle of the night either by the noise, by nightmares or by painful cramps, and she saw outside her window the huge shape of the devil, complete with horns and tail. To prevent him from completing his evil plan she lit up a candle, putting it behind a sieve to give the impression of the sun rising, and woke up her cockerel, which started to crow. A this point the devil, scared that he would have been caught by the sunlight, ran away, leaving his work incomplete. Another version of the legend tells that the devil was stopped by an equally clever trick, this time the merit being attributed to St. Cuthman of Steyning. The saint was walking on the Downs, content with the growing number of conversions and worshippers in Sussex, when he encountered the devil, who, for the very same reason, was instead furious. Livid at the joy of the saint, he threatened to destroy the villages, digging a long and deep valley from the English Channel to the inland. Horrified, St. Cuthman ran to his sister Cecilia, who was living in a nearby convent, to advise her to light all the convent’s candles, keeping them alight from midnight to dusk, and to organise a series of sung Masses. The candles, placed on the windowsills of the convent, created so much light that the cockerels in the yard woke up, crowing at the false rising sun. Their crowing, combined with the Masses and the candles’ lights, forced the devil to run away before he could finish his work. During his consequent flight, the devil would have been responsible for the creation of other parts of the British landscape. According to some sources, he was so angry that, before running away, he threw a colossal rock over the hills, which landed near Hove. The stone is now known as Goldstone and is conserved at the centre of Hove Park. Following other legends, while he was running away, a mixture of mud and stones fell from one of his hoofs into the sea, creating the Isle of Man. Finally, the third version of his escape tells that he simply decided to jump from Sussex to Surrey, where his landing would have formed the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a deep natural hollow near Hindhead.
The Trossachs Stirling, Scotland The Trossachs is a scenic natural area part of one of Scotland’s two national parks, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, which includes woodlands, hills, mountains and twenty-two lochs. The valley and the wildness of its nature have charmed poets and artists during the centuries, and in particular they struck Sir Walter Scott’s imagination. Inspired by the memories of the time spent in the Trossachs, he wrote The Lady of the Lake in 1810, ‘a labour of love’ set among the beautiful scenery of Loch Katrina. The poem, which is not particularly well known today, became extremely influential towards the Highland Revival of the nineteenth century. The region and especially its numerous lakes have been associated with one of the most known and terrifying figures of Highland folklore – the Each Uisge. Its name can be translated in English as ‘water horse’ and for this reason it has often been confused with the Kelpie, another shape-shifting water horse that inhabits only rivers and streams. The Each Uisge is instead a water spirit that can be found exclusively around lakes and near the sea. Its appearance has been often described as one of a glimmering horse, usually black or greenish, but it usually appears as a beautiful horse, a pony or a handsome man, to deceive passers-by and travellers. One of the most known legends related to the spirit advises not to touch or trust a lone, wandering horse next to a lake’s edge. In fact, this is not a real animal, but a Each Uisge in disguise waiting for an unaware traveller to mount on its saddle. Once mounted on the horse, the victim, unable to detach himself or herself from the animal’s sticky hairs, is dragged to the deepest point of the lake, where he or she will miserably drown. Finally, the evil creature is believed to devour the victim’s body, leaving only the liver to float on the surface of the peaceful loch as a sign of death. Apparently, when far away from the sight of water, the Each Uisge behaves normally and can be ridden just like any other perfectly fine horse. It is only the sight of water that will remind it of its ominous intentions. According to the belief, the Each Uisge doesn’t restrict itself to eating human beings, but also eats cattle and other animals. For this reason, the spirit can be tricked away from the lake where it lives and consequently killed using roasted meat as bait, as described in More West Highland Tales by John McKay. Following the story, a blacksmith, whose daughter had been slaughtered by the evil creature, decided to take revenge for his loss, killing the evil spirit. He and his son built a shed near the lake and started to prepare their ploy, roasting a sheep on the fire and heating up a number of metal hooks. The Each Uisge, attracted by the tempting smell of the roast meat, rose from the lake and ventured into the nearby wood. There, while it was distracted by eating the meat, they plunged scorching hooks into its flesh, leaving it to an excruciating death. The next morning, the blacksmith could not find any trace of the Each Uisge’s body, except for a gluey substance, which is sometimes called ‘starshine’.
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I would like to thank my family for their continuous love and support, no matter where I am and what I am doing. All my sincere gratitude goes to all the people that have made this project possible. First of all, Mary Alice Beal for her astonishing work in designing the whole book, with which I couldn’t be happier, and the amazing photographers Yining He, Rachel Wilberforce, Marianne Bjørnmyr and Marco Pereira , because without their wonderful photographs Totem wouldn’t have existed. I would also like to thank Averil Shepherd, Blacky, Emily, Roy Vickery and everyone at the Straw Jack event for their helpfulness and kindness, two rather rare qualities. A special thank you goes to Catherine Lamb and Jay Smith, who have proof read the texts, giving me useful and essential advice. A final, but not less important, thank you goes to everyone who has put up with me during the making of Totem, making me take things a bit less seriously, including Gaia, Jay, Laura and Lisa.
Published on Feb 3, 2014
Totem documents a number of contemporary manifestations of British Folklore through images and words. Concept, creative direction and words...