How divine….

I have always assumed that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) earned its name because of its remarkable healing properties and its use by the wise-women of the Middle Ages – it appears I couldn’t have been more wrong….

 

 

Four native species of Witch Hazel are to be found in North America: Hamamelis mexicana, H. virginiana, H. vernalis and H. ovalis; another is to be found in China, H. mollis and a further one in Japan, H. japonica….. It was the Native American Indian people who taught early settlers how to use the twigs of Witch Hazel as divining rods, providing an alternative to the Hazel and Wych Elm they were more familiar with back in the UK and Europe…. The name Witch Hazel derives from that connection; ‘wych’, an old Anglo Saxon word, meaning ‘to bend’ – and also from the Middle English word ‘wiche’ (that in turn coming from the Old English ‘wice’) – both meaning ‘bendable’ or ‘pliable’….

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Image pixabay.com

Divining or dowsing (water witching in the US) is a way of detecting underground water…. However, dowsing is not just restricted to locating water; it can be used to search for metal ores, oil, gemstones….ley lines, archaeological remains – even missing persons….pretty much anything with an ‘energy’ source. Sometimes it is also used to diagnose certain medical ailments; (this is permitted in the UK and Europe – but not in the United States)….

 

 

Dowsing, in one form or another, has been used for thousands of years – from time before written history. Perhaps the oldest reference to it discovered so far is from a cave drawing found in Tassili, Algeria – which is over 8,000 years old. The oldest known written record comes from China, 2205 BC….

Even the Christian Bible could be said to have interpretations: Moses striking the rock and releasing water (Exodus 17) or the Magi could be argued to have practised a form by their use of astrology as an aid to navigation…. Ironically, it is the Christian Church that in Medieval times declared dowsing as breaking the 1st Commandment ~ “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods afore Me”…. The Church believed dowsing was practising superstition, one of the deadly sins….it became associated with the Devil – his powers believed to control the divining rods….

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Image Wikimedia Commons

Certainly we know dowsing was used by the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese…. Possibly the original purpose was for predicting the future or determining if an accused person was guilty of a crime…. However, dowsing as we know it today seems to have originated in Germany, particularly in the Harz mountain area (incidentally thought of as a stronghold of Paganism), where it was used to locate metal ores underground for the mining industry…. Coins discovered in the region, dating to the 10th Century, appear to have been produced to celebrate the founding of a silver mine – the image depicted upon them being that of a dowser – proving the skill to have been very valuable in Germany at the time…. It was during the 15th Century that dowsing was introduced to the UK – when it came with German miners coming to work in British mines….

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Image Wikimedia Commons

In 1518 Martin Luther, a German professor, priest, composer and key figure in the Protestant reformation in the 1500s, condemned dowsing as witchcraft- it was he who claimed it broke the 1st Commandment….

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Martin Luther – Image Wikimedia Commons

Strangely, only twelve years after Luther’s condemnation, Georg Bauer, a German physician and mining expert, wrote a paper and it was to become one of the most important works on the subject of mining (and the use of dowsing was included within it) of the time…. Nobody condemned him….raising the question as to whether the Medieval Church had more of a problem with authority rather than the actual act of divining itself….

In 1659 Jesuit Gaspar Schott, a German scientist specialising in physics, mathematics and natural philosophy – and one of the most learned and knowledgeable men of his time – declared dowsing as satanic….

Despite opposition from the Church dowsing was still used up to the 19th Century as a way of finding metal, coal and water…. It was Victorian scientists who claimed it was an invalid method – and having no place in a world where science was coming along in leaps and bounds….

However, even in these present days of scientific knowledge – where dowsing is still treated with skepticism – there are a surprising number of professionals who use the method; surveyors, architects, engineers….to name just a few….

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Image Wikimedia Commons

It is thought just about anyone can dowse…. May be it is a natural instinct we have inherited from our ancient ancestors – after all animals can detect water from miles away, so once upon a time, did we possess a natural ability to do the same? Children especially are thought to have a natural flair….

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Image Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally – as mentioned before – Hazel or Wych Elm are the preferred choice of divining rod…. Elm and Hazel – along with Ash, Rowan and Willow – are thought to have magical powers…. Nowadays metals are often used, such as copper or aluminium – even wire coat hangers bent to shape have been proven to work…. (Occasionally a dowser may choose to work with a pendulum rather than rods)…. The idea is, when the rods are held in the correct way and the dowser moves slowly around the area he is searching if the source is found the tips of the rods may twitch, point down or cross over….

 

 

Of course there are the skeptics among us who will say it is because the dowser is so mentally in-tune with what they are looking for that they will involuntarily move the rods themselves…. Or perhaps the energy from the source stimulates the muscles in the nervous system – some sort of electro-magnetic impulse…. There are others who just ‘poo-poo’ the whole idea….

If you do happen to witness a dowser at work it can be quite an incredible thing to see….

Personally, I am very open-minded about the subject, being fortunate enough to have had some first-hand experience. It was during the early stages of the restoration work we undertook on the cottage….we were in the process of trying to work out where the underground LPG tank should be buried in the front garden – realising that one part of the garden seemed prone to ‘sinking’…. Being in direct line with the back door, one thought was that perhaps it was the site of a disused well…. A digger-driver friend, with us at the time to help with the groundworks, suddenly surprised us by whipping out a pair of divining rods…. He then proceeded to slowly cover the area, holding the rods out in front of him….and sure enough when he came to the sunken part the rods sprang to life…. We were amazed…. Unable to resist having a go myself, Colin showed me how to hold the rods correctly and I had a try….and no word of a lie – it worked! The rods, completely independently, dipped down and crossed at the tips – as if they had a mind of their own….

Sadly, even after digging quite a way down, no water was to be found at that particular spot…. Nowadays a flower bed lies there, although nothing really successfully grows in it as the ground continues to sink away – countless barrows of soil have been used over the years to top it up – so we are not entirely convinced there is nothing there to be found….We are planning to redesign that part of the garden this coming Spring – perhaps a little more investigation work is required….

“Where do you want me to stick the tree, Santa…?”

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?…”  John Lennon

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Believe I Tinkerbell chris.alcoran via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alc_chris/9723710634/

Do you believe in fairies? There’s plenty of folk who do…. How many among us have strapped on our ‘gossamer’ wings, slipped into a tutu, popped a plastic tiara on our heads and pranced around waving a sparkly wand, pretending to be one? Of course, as a child, I hasten to add – to do so as an adult would cause a few raised eyebrows; it would most probably be viewed as a borderline fetish…. But make-believe and fairy tales are as much a part of childhood as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny….

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Faeries Fouquier via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fouquier/6485890383/

Thanks to popular children’s authors, such as Enid Blyton – and the wonderful films of Walt Disney – the stereotypical fairy is a firmly fixed image in our minds….

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A Christmas Adventure in Disneyland 05 – Snow White Tom Simpson via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/randar/10919556055/

However, the term ‘fairy’ actually covers a large range of supernatural, mythical beings…. Elves, goblins, banshees, pixies, brownies, kelpies, sprites, leprechauns, mermaids, changelings, nymphs, gnomes and seelies, to name but a few, can all be described as fairy folk..

But our modern-day nostalgic, affectionate view of the Tooth Fairy or pantomime fairy godmother – (let’s face it, Cinderella would never have got to the ball without one) – has not always been the case…. Wind the clock back to the Middle Ages and people lived in constant fear of them….

“Fairies, black, grey, green, and white. You moonshine revellers, and shades of night. You orphan heirs of fixed destiny, Attend your office and your quality….” William Shakespeare

Fairy folklore is prevalent in Celtic regions…. There is a belief, by some, that they are an ancient race who have inhabited the Earth since long, long ago and that they are descended from the Tuatha De Danann – the tribe of the High Priestess Dana, one of the most ancient Celtic goddesses…. Fairies are said to be able to see the future; they know all about the secrets of herbs and animals….they perform magic…. Sometimes they are friendly and helpful to humans but at other times they can be evil and troublesome – meddling in human affairs….

In fact – so unpopular were the fairy folk that extremes were taken not to even utter their name – they became referred to as ‘Little People’ or ‘Hidden People’; they were often regarded as ‘fallen angels’ – not quite good enough to be accepted into Heaven but not bad enough to be sent to Hell…. The notion of the fairy goes back long before the advent of Christianity; indeed, Pagan beliefs tell us these little folk live within holly bushes and hawthorn trees…. Later the focus switched to the Christmas tree, from the Pagan celebrations of the Midwinter festival, particularly those of Germany and Scandinavia….

Here in the UK, the first Christmas trees didn’t arrive until the 1830s – when they were introduced to us by Prince Albert. In the beginning a figure or picture of the Baby Jesus was put on top of the tree. In 1841 pictures appeared in newspapers of the tree belonging to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, proudly displaying its angel perched upon the top; naturally the idea caught on…. Since that time most of our trees are adorned with either a star, to represent the Star of Bethlehem as seen by the Wise men – or an angel to symbolise Gabriel from the Nativity….over time many a tree topper evolved from an angel to a fairy….

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Winter fairy katmary via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/katmary/5227747833/

Although – there is another ‘tongue-in-cheek’ reason as to why we have a fairy adorning the top of so many of our Christmas trees…. It is the tale of a rather ‘bad day at the office’ for a poor, stressed out Santa Claus….

Santa was having a tough time of it; the elves were on strike, demanding more pay – so the toy making schedule was running way behind…. When Santa finally got around to loading the sleigh he found half the reindeer had bolted and the other half were pregnant…. On piling the sacks of presents into the sleigh, a floor board broke – sending toys tumbling in all directions…. At some point in the proceedings, Mrs Claus announced that her mother was coming to stay, which did not improve his humour…. With a sigh of frustration, Santa decided he needed a strong drink – only to find the elves had polished off all his booze. As if all this wasn’t enough, he somehow managed to clumsily drop the empty cider flagon and it smashed in to smithereens at his feet. Now in a somewhat foul mood he fetched the broom to sweep the fragments of broken pottery away, only to find the mice had been chewing at the bristles…. So, he really wasn’t in the best frame of mind when there came a knock on the door. Grumbling and cursing he flung open the door and found a rather sweet fairy standing there holding a Christmas tree…. “Merry Christmas, Santa…. Where would you like me to stick the tree?…”

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Fairy’s toadstool katmary via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/katmary/5513557007/

This story is obviously intended as a bit of fun. Fairies appear in so many of our well-known stories and in even more that have long been forgotten…. Perhaps the oldest record in English literature dates back to the 13th Century and was by historian, lawyer, Churchman, Statesman and writer, Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1220). He, of course, was writing at a time when belief in the Little People was common place. Not having scientific explanations for the many natural phenomenons of the World, supernatural causes took the ‘blame’, not least the fairy folk…. People would go to great lengths to deter fairy visitors; St. John’s wort and yarrow were thought to ward them off….whereas hawthorn, foxgloves and groundsel were all attractive to them. At the time of Hallowe’en offerings would be made in an attempt to keep them sweet….

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Water fairy katmary via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/katmary/4778581609/

In the time since Gervase of Tilbury fairies have been a subject explored by writers of all genres…. From verse penned by English poet Edmund Spenser to the writings of French author Charles Perrault.

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Image from page 34 of “Una and the red cross knight, and other tales from Spenser’s Faery Queene,” (1905) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596799959/

As children, we were all familiar with the stories by Hans Christian Anderson  and J.M. Barrie – who in his Peter Pan could arguably have created one of the most well-known fairy characters of all time – Tinkerbell….

“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling at a time….”  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Then, as part of our schooling, most of us would have studied the works of Shakespeare in one form or another….possibly coming across Titania, Queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or perhaps the mischievous sprite Ariel in the Tempest….

Maybe the musical among us relate more to the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy….from the Nutcracker – and probably one of the best recognised pieces of ballet music….

The Sugar Plum Fairy was not actually a character who appeared in the original story – ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ – written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann and upon which the ballet is based…. Tchaikovsky used some of the original numbers from the ballet to produce his Nutcracker Suite – he wrote ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy’ for a musical instrument he had excitedly purchased in Paris – the Celestra…. Looking like a small piano it produces a sound resembling tinkling bells…. Nowadays, we often associate this piece of music with Christmas….

For those who would like to believe that fairies really do exist there are obvious signs to look out for…. It is said that the time they are most likely to be seen is around Beltane, when Mother Nature is awakening from her slumber. For many, stumbling across a fairy ring is the only proof needed that they do indeed exist among us.

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Walter Jenks Morgan (British, 1847-1924), “A Fairy Ring” sofi01 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sofi01/11406300036/

A fairy ring is a naturally occuring circle of mushrooms or toadstools; it is believed to be a place where fairies dance and sing – and many view it as a dangerous place for humans – it is full of dark magic and best avoided at all costs…. In Germany they are known as ‘witches rings’; in Dutch superstition it is where the Devil churns his milk….

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Grote heksenkring in Lage Vuursche ednl via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dnet/8148844932/

The main part of the fungi that produce these rings is located under the soil; it feeds upon the nutrients it finds there, pushing further and further out in a circular shape, searching for new food – the circle increasing in size as time goes by…. Periodically up pop the toadstools, creating the ring we are familiar with…. Some rings can be hundreds of years old; the largest one ever found is in Belfort, France –  it is some 2,000 feet (600 metres) in diameter and about 700 years old…. So, are fairy rings magical? Perhaps not when one pops up in the middle of your well manicured lawn….

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Fairy Ring in a lawn Martin LaBar (going on hiatus) via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinlabar/6017436516/

As fairies are such a major part of European folklore it’s only fair to say every region, county or even village will have its own tales to tell….not least Dunsfold….

Vaguely, I remembered hearing there was some connection with fairy folk and the village, when we first moved here some twelve or thirteen years ago…. So, I thought a little digging was required….

Turns out the story originates from the building of the church back in the 13th Century…. Saint Mary’s and All Saints is situated about a mile from the centre of the village; in days gone by it would have been a long, wet, muddy walk every Sunday – wellie boots would not have been an option…. It is built on the site of an ancient chapel and close by is a holy well, sacred from very early times and most likely a place of Pagan worship…. It is believed the waters from the well have medicinal properties and are able to cure afflictions of the eye…. There are tales of the Virgin Mary making an appearance there and it has often been a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics…. When the time came for a new church to be built in Dunsfold, it is believed many of the villagers wanted it to be located nearer to the centre of the village…. However, traditionalists argued that it should be constructed on the existing sacred site (as was often the case at the beginning of Christianity). Naturally, the truth gets lost over the centuries – but it appears there were altercations between the builders and those who wanted the place of worship to remain at the existing Holy site…. Certain events were blamed upon the ‘Pharisees’….not to be confused with the biblical Pharisees and Sadducees; this is actually the Sussex and Wealden dialect double pluralisation of ‘fairy’…. The mortals wanted the church to be built within the confines of the village – the Pharisees desired it to remain at the sacred site….eventually tradition won….

Feeling a little guilty, that in all the years of living in Dunsfold, I have never once gone in search of this sacred well, I decided I had better go and find it…. So, on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by Jordan (my 17-year-old son) – I did just that…. A chilly, late November afternoon – but blessed with glorious sunshine – we set off on a winter’s stroll….albeit a very short one…. In all honesty I had been expecting a bit of a hike – but the well is only a short distance from the church – down a footpath and situated on a tributary of the River Arun….

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There is not a lot to see…. A covered shrine of the Virgin Mary which was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on September 29th 1933….

However, it has an air of mystery surrounding it – and I have a feeling it has many more secrets and stories to be uncovered…. Maybe this will be continued….

So….do you believe in fairies? Personally – as a woman – I think I might be one!

“There is a latent fairy in all women, but look how carefully we have to secrete her in order to be taken seriously. And fairies come in all shapes, colours, sizes and types, they don’t have to be fluffy. They can be demanding and furious if they like. They do, however, have to wear a tiara. That much is compulsory….”  Dawn French, A Tiny Bit Marvelous

“Don’t mess with the fairies….”  David C. Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

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Are you superstitious….?

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….

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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….

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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….

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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….

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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….

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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….

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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….

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Photo credit: acme via Foter.com / CC BY  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/acme/5926093323/

 

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….

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Photo credit: Image from page 425 of “Frolics at Fairmount” (1910) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14755803805/

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….

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