Popular Superstitions Of Lincolnshire
( Originally Published 1884 )
It may not be altogether uninstructive to place upon permanent record, in your venerable Miscellany, a few remarks on the popular superstitions which still exist in divers parts of this extensive county. I presume not to think that I have collected all the vulgar errors which prevail among the rustic population here; but my researches have been tolerably successful ; for, being thrown by my profession into the constant society of all descriptions of people, and having thus become acquainted with the various modes of life and habits of thinking which distinguish the different classes of society, not excepting the cottager and the mechanic, into Whose humble dwellings my pastoral visits have ever appeared peculiarly acceptable, I have never waived an opportunity of combating a prejudice, or endeavouring to eradicate a superstition which tended to weaken the influence of Christianity in an uninstructed mind ; and by this process I have acquired a pretty accurate knowledge of the numerous and diversified sources of amusement and terror which are indulged and fostered amongst us.
The death-omen, with all its appalling methods of conveying intelligence "of fearful import," still possesses the power of communicating alarm. A winding-sheet in the candle, that wellknown messenger of fate, retains its accustomed influence ; as does also the coffin when it explodes from the fire, though it requires some experience in the interpretation of omens to determine the exact form of this equivocal cinder; for the coffin and the purse are so nearly allied, that it would puzzle a common observer Ito pronounce accurately whether it were a sign of death, or of some accession of wealth. The howling of a dog at midnight has given many an unfortunate family the vapours for a month ; and it has been the universal belief of allantiquity that the howling of a dog portends the death of a relative or friend.
Many are the signs of misfortune with which our species contrive to make themselves miserable. If a stocking or petticoat be drawn on in a reversed position, and the error be rectified, it is a prognostic of ill-luck; but the omen may be averted by allowing it to remain. It is esteemed unlucky to walk under an erected ladder, or to break the small end of an egg ; or to suffer the cat to sit with her back to the fire ; but it is exceedingly fortunate to find a piece of money, or a broken horse shoe, particularly if it be studded full of nails. A knife or a pair of scissors is considered an unpropitious present ; for thus the tie of friendship or affection is supposed to be severed. If anyone would invoke success on another's undertaking, he will silently propitiate the goddess Fortuna by the offering of an old shoe, cast over the threshold of the door as his friend leaves the house. On a market-day it is not uncommon to see the stall-man spit on the first money he takes, to insure a prolific market. The right side of the body is accounted lucky, and the left unlucky. Thus, if the left ear or cheek burn or tingle, it is an intimation that some person is speaking evil of you; but if the sensation be felt on the right side of the face, you may enjoy the pleasing reflection that some one is speaking in your praise.
If the left hand itches, you are about to pay ; but if the right, you will receive money. This belief has been transmitted to us from the remotest antiquity. Solomon says, "A wise man's heart is at his right hand, but a fool's heart at his left."* And the scholiast upon Sophocles makes a similar observation : " The right hand signifies prudence, the left folly." At this early period it was esteemed unlucky to put on or take off the left shoe or sandal before the right. Even Augustus Caesar was not exempt from this weakness ; for it is well known that when his life was in danger from a mutiny amongst his soldiers, he imputed it to the circumstance of having that very morning put on his left shoe before his right.
There exist many methods of averting an evil omen. If salt be accidentally overturned, it is unlucky for the person towards whom it falls. But if that person, without hesitation or remark, take up a single pinch of the salt between the finger and thumb of his right hand, and cast it over his left shoulder, the threatened misfortune will be averted by the efficacy of the atoning sacrifice. Salt, the emblem of friendship, was anciently offered to the guests at an entertainment, as a pledge of welcome. If on these occasions it was scattered when presenting to any particular individual, it was accounted an unpropitious omen, and some dispute or angry disagreement was confidently anticipated. In Egypt and the neighbouring idolatrous nations, salt was a common metaphor for calamity and desolation. Thus the Persian Berhani Kattea, cited by Wait,* explains the phrase, " to have salt upon the liver," as a metaphor expressive of enduring calamity upon calamity, and torment upon torment. The inhabitants of Pegu still, as we are told, offer an indirect species of worship to his Satanic majesty, as the author of evil ; and in one of the ceremonies performed to his honour, they throw a small portion of provisions over their left shoulder, before th eat, as a sacrifice acceptable to him. This may refer to the custom already noticed. The salt is cast over the left shoulder as an offering to avert the impending calamity, by appeasing the Author Of misfortune or evil.
It is unlucky to meet a funeral Procession ; but the omen may be counteracted by taking off your hat, which is intended as a mark of respect to the evil spirits who may be hovering about the corpse. Seamen whistling for a wind, which I have repeatedly seen practised on board of the passage boats plying between Grimsby and Hull, before the introduction of steam packets rendered the wind, as an agent, of little value, was a direct invocation to "the prince of the power of the air" to exert himself in their behalf. Pliny tells us that in his time all nations worshipped flashes of lightning by whistling or chirping with the lips. The Finlanders, many of whose vessels come annually into Grimsby dock, use a kind of magical cord for raising the wind, and the effect is produced by untying certain charmed knots, accompanied by a wild song or incantation by the whole ship's crew.§ The ceremony used in Persia is more simple and characteristic. When' a peasant thinks his corn is winnowed too tediously, he takes a kind of bastard saffron, called bad engiz, which he rubs between his hands and scatters in the air, with the confident expectation that a favourable wind will immediately spring up." A single magpie crossing your path is esteemed an evil omen, and I once saw a person actually tremble and dissolve into a copious perspiration, when one of these birds flitted chattering before him. But the evil influence may be averted by laying two straws across, or by describing the figure of a cross on the ground. The use of straws in this charm may have been derived from the Runic mythology, which inculcated that "straws dissolve enchantments." The peculiar position in which these straws are to be placed, refers for its origin to the Church of Rome, whose respect for this emblem, in all its varieties, amounted almost to adoration ; and it was deemed of sufficient efficacy to drive away evil spirits. To this day it retains a secret influence over many minds, notwithstanding the ceaseless attempts of the Puritans during the Commonwealth to consign to eternal oblivion even the innocent use of this comprehensive symbol, which was denounced as superstitious, idolatrous, and profane. Fleck noe says, " Had they their will, a bird should not fly in the air with its wings across; a ship with its cross-yard sail upon the sea; nor profane tailor sit cross-legged on his shopboard, or have cross buttons to wind his thread upon." The magpie, however, is not always an ill-omened bird, but conveys good or bad luck by numbers. The doggrel proverb is,
"One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for death."
This superstition is evidently a remnant of the system of augury, or divination by birds. The buffoonery of April§ and Valentine days is so well known all over England, as to render it unnecessary for me to say more than that it is not omitted in the county of Lincoln.
Several ridiculous superstitions respecting the weather, receive implicit credence from some ignorant persons whom I have met with, although founded on proverbs equally groundless and untenable, which experience has falsified over and over again. Such as, Rainy Friday, rainy Sunday ; A sunshiny shower, bodes rain again to-morrow; St. Swithin's rain continues forty days, etc., etc., etc. At the change of the moon, if she appear with sharp horns, or assume the form of the heraldic crescent, commonly called lying on her back, it is accounted a certain prognostic of bad weather. We have an old saw which says, " Friday's moon, come when it will, it comes too soon." Shooting stars are signs of wind. Some persons will prognosticate a change of weather from certain aches and pains in their joints, or any diseased part of the body.
I break off abruptly, because I find myself unable to finish my subject within the usual limits of a single communication. If this be acceptable, I will proceed in my next to notice some of the superstitions extant in this county at weddings and christenings ; with certain divinations, and a few extraordinary sources of terror, which are not entirely eradicated.
There are few of our popular superstitions, however vague they may be, that have not some slight, colour of fact, and that do not originate in some incident of local history. But should this position be denied by any of your readers, they will at least allow that these traditions are often in themselves of great antiquity, and on that account interesting and valuable.
Sailors, it will be allowed, are generally extremely credulous; this may be caused chiefly by their having at times a great deal of leisure, which is employed in telling stories of a marvellous kind to each other. We have the authority of Lord Orford, that superstition is catching; and these tales during a long night-watch, when all is still, and courage in a measure had in requisition, rivet their attention, and get firm hold on their minds.
A correspondent at Maidstone writes : " We have a class of people in these parts called Ufflers, i.e.,men in the barging line out of employ, who attend as extra help to get the craft home in our inland navigation : most of them have been to sea, and are tinctured with notions of ghosts, witches, and daemons. You must know that between this town and Aylesford, we have two places noted for the appearance of fearful sights. One is that of a descendant of the Colepeppers or Culpeppers of Aylesford, who is seen flying across the path with his head under his arm !
" The other is that of a white horse enveloped in a body of fire.
" Let those who please laugh at these stories, but certain it is that most of our people would sooner make a large circuit than pass by either of these places on a dark night. It happened a few nights since, that two men and a dog had to pass the scene of these fearful incidents ; the dog frisked playfully before them, till on a sudden it gave a pitiful howl, and slunk back evidently in dismay ! 'What's that in the hedge ?' says one of the men. 'I don't know,' cries out the other ; ' but it looks like a reindeer.' ' No,' rejoins the other, ' it is a woman.' While they were gazing on it, the form moved gently across a field of clover. ' I'll follow it,' says one, ' be it what it may ;' and he was as good as his word. He ran it ran he quickened his pace, but it had still the start, till his courage was curbed by a thump against some sheep-gates thro' which the sprite had glided, little the worse for wear. He paused—' fear shrunk his sinews and congealed his blood,' a feeling of horror overwhelmed him, causing his knees smote each other, and he nearly fell, till on recovering a little he ran back to the place where he left his companion, who had made the best of his way towards a neighbouring hamlet."
The following remarks were elicited in a conversation with an old man, with whom I accidentally fell in just below Aylesford. He recollected (he said) a large stone in the neighbourhood being broken up, and displaced, alongside of which human bones were found; adding, that in " yonder field " " a mortal many " bones and skulls were ploughed up some time ago; and lately a human jaw and shin-bone. "There once stood a town on this spot," continued he,the cottage just at hand is built entirely of its stone foundations, which, were turned up by the plough. It was called Eckell Town, and that wood still hears the name of Eckell Wood.' "
In Cookstone or Cuxton Church, near Rochester, is the corpse of a woman, who, in her will, directed her coffin to have a lock, the key of which was to be put into her own hand, that she might be able to release herself at pleasure ! This legend is as old as my great grand-mother. In May, 1823, I made inquiry on the spot as to its truth, when I learnt that the said coffin, having mouldered away, had been committed to earth recently.
A superstitious practice of sticking pins in a stile whenever a corpse is taken over it, prevails in these parts. Its origin would oblige.
A skull, with a spear-head through it, was dug up at Deptling a short time since ; the remains of a helmet, supposed to be Roman, were dug up in Maidstone ; it was crowned with a knob, as if to receive a plume of feathers : an urn was also discovered here, but broken up in hopes of reasure !