It was whilst foraging in the garden the other day, looking for wild strawberry leaves to tempt a poorly rabbit that I am caring for, that I came across a white spider…. My instinctive reaction was to recoil in horror – not because I have any fear of spiders, they don’t usually bother me – but because of something my mother always says….
I don’t think I have ever actually seen a pure white spider before…. I have come across some very pale ones which I thought to be white but this little fella was unmistakable….
A bit of detective work (good old Google) meant I was able to identify the arachnid as a crab spider (misumena vatia). Apparently, it is quite a common chap here in the South of England and can often be found between April and September. Usually they prefer yellow or white flowers, which are good camouflage, so they can pounce on unsuspecting flies and bugs, trapping them in their crab-like front legs. The interesting thing about these particular crab spiders, is their ability to change colour to match their surroundings. This can take a few days but they are able to appear white, yellow or green….
So, now you are probably wondering what all the fuss was about…. Why my horror at finding what is fundamentally a harmless little creature just minding its own business? Well, ever since I can remember my mum has always told me that to come across a white spider means a death is soon to occur, either within the family or someone closely connected to it….
Being of a superstitious nature, it wasn’t just the identification of this small soul I was Googling, I wanted to see if I could find any reference to the old wives tale…. I discovered all kinds of beliefs surrounding our eight legged friends; money spiders bringing wealth, how seeing a spider weave its web in the morning is a bad omen, killing a spider means extreme bad luck and having cobwebs in the house is seen as lucky – but nowhere could I find anything about the impending doom and gloom a white spider is supposed to bring….in fact all my searching revealed quite the opposite. To find a pure white spider is a sign that changes for the better are due to arrive and an increase in wealth could well be in store….
So, where did Mum’s belief stem from? When I asked her, she told me it was something her granny always used to say…. This got me thinking about how such tales and folklores vary from region to region and from family to family. Superstitions are often a family ‘thing’, passed from generation to generation, it gives a sense of belonging. Most of these beliefs involve luck, whether the bringing of good fortune or keeping misfortune at bay…. Many require some kind of ritual; an action we repeat which is symbolic – to give us security and comfort…. A vast majority of the superstitions we know today can be traced back to the Middle Ages or even before….
During Mediaeval times, the World was both a wondrous and terrifying place; due to the lack of scientific understanding, general illiteracy and yet a need for an explanation of the unknown, people turned to other sources for answers – namely magic, evil spirits, witches and demons…. The World became obsessed with witchcraft, it is estimated some 200,000 people were executed after being accused of practising it…. I have already touched on some of the ways people protected their homes from witches in a previous blog (Within these walls…) – but there are so many other superstitions and their associated customs and rituals that also originate from this time….
Throwing spilt salt over the left shoulder is something I for one have done on occasion but never really knowing why. Back in the Middle Ages, salt was an extremely expensive commodity, certainly not to be wasted. Rather than just discard spoiled salt, why not try to get some use from it….by chucking it over the shoulder, into the eyes of any evil spirit that might just happen to be lurking behind….
Keeping evil out of the house was a priority. Placing rosemary by the door was thought to deter the likes of witches; growing ivy on outside walls was also meant to protect a property. An iron horseshoe above the door made a witch hesitate before entering a building. It had to be the correct way up to prevent the luck from escaping and it had to have come off of the horse naturally rather than being purposely removed….
Sometimes evil spirits could sneak into the home unnoticed – they could hide in things brought indoors, such as between the leaves of certain vegetables, like cabbages and lettuces. Do you cut a cross into the bottom of your Brussel sprouts whilst preparing them for the pot? Contrary to belief, doing so doesn’t help them to cook any better – it comes from an old belief that tiny demons hide inside them. If these demons happen to be swallowed, they can enter the body….
Occasionally accidents happen, such as the breaking of a mirror. In the Middle Ages it was commonly believed that the reflected image was actually the soul of the person looking into the mirror; so if it were to break, it meant the fracturing of the soul…. To counteract the predicted forthcoming ill-luck, it was necessary to wait for seven hours before clearing up the broken shards and then disposal required burying them outside, under the light of the moon….
Great pains were taken to avoid tempting ill-fate, something we often do unconsciously today. How many times have you stepped off the pavement in order to divert from walking under a ladder? When a ladder is in position, for example leaning against a wall, it forms the shape of a triangle. The triangle is the sign of the Holy Trinity; it was once thought to be seriously unlucky to break the triangle by walking through it….
Thirteen, for some, is an extremely unpopular number. The number of people at the Last Supper equalled thirteen, the thirteenth guest being Judas – he who betrayed Jesus. The Crucifixion occurred on a Friday – thus explaining the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th…. For centuries people avoided having thirteen diners around the table….in fact having thirteen at a gathering could warrant being accused of witchcraft….
The term ‘bless you’ comes from times of the plague. It was at this time that people began to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing, to stop the spread of germs. Saying ‘bless you’ was thought to stop the Devil from entering the body during the sneeze….
Of course, there were lots of ways to entice good luck, many of which have stayed with us. Crossed fingers for instance, making the sign of the cross, to protect from bad luck and evil spirits – we all do it when willing something positive to happen…. (or perhaps when making a promise we don’t intend to keep)…! Touching wood is another; this comes from the old belief that sacred trees, oak, ash and hawthorn, had spirits that protected from evil and demons….
Tossing a coin into a wishing well stems from the idea that certain wells and pools were the home to water spirits – coins were thrown in as offerings….hoping a wish would come true…. Of course, nowadays many a charity may benefit from our wishful thinking….
Then there are occasions that require good luck blessing rituals….such as weddings. Bridal clothes were considered to be especially luck – there was once a time when a bride could expect to have the clothes she wore physically ripped from her….gradually, the focus moved on to the garter, which represented sexuality and fertility. Batchelors would fight to obtain the garter as the belief was that he who gained it would be delivered of a beautiful, fertile wife….
Cutting the wedding cake was a ritual born of the belief that if a bride did not cut the first slice then the marriage would be childless….
Still today, we follow so many wedding traditions that have been with us for centuries. The same can be said for so many other areas of our lives, all those little quirks that have stayed with us…. So, whatever superstitions you observe, be it black cats, avoiding the cracks in the pavement, not putting you umbrella up indoors, saying ‘white rabbit’ on the first day of a new month or looking for four-leaf clover…. Be lucky X ….
Oh look! I’ve just spotted a pair of magpies outside….