From the dictionary of superstitions by
Apples have apparently been regarded as sacred
or magical in almost every country in which they grow, and from very early
times. In ancient Ireland the apple-tree was one of three things which
could only be paid for by living objects. To destroy an orchard was in many parts
of England almost sacrilegious, and it was said that if an orchard
was destroyed to make way for another crop, the crop would never prosper.
In Yorkshire it was considered unlucky to strip an apple-tree completely, and
an apple or two (even deformed or inedible fruit would do) was always
left as a gift for the birds (or faeries).
An old Samhain charm was for all the district's
unmarried young people to tie an apple onto a piece of string and whirl it
around before a fire. The one whose apple fell off first was said to be the
first to marry; the last left with an apple was fated to die unmarried. An
apple could also be peeled in one long strip and tossed backwards over the
left shoulder, and the shape made by the peel was said to show the initial of the
An old cure for warts was to cut the apple into
as many pieces as there were warts, rub each piece on a wart and then
bury the pieces in the earth. A variant of this stated that the apple should be
cut in half and each half rubbed on each wart, after which the apple
should be tied together and buried. As the fruit rotted, the warts would
The ancient custom of Wassailing the apple trees
was intended to awaken the sleeping tree-spirit, drive away bad luck, and
ensure a good harvest. It usually took place around Yule, and involved the
farming folk choosing one tree in the orchard to represent all. The people
would drink to the tree with cider, throw cider over its roots and put a
piece of bread or toast soaked
in cider into a fork of the tree's branches.
Guns were fired through the topmost branches of the trees and much noise was
made by blowing cow-horns and beating on pots and pans. Often the trees were
danced around, and in most places some variant of the Wassailing Song was sung.
Omitting the ritual was thought to bring bad luck and a poor yield of apples that
The making of bread is laden with ancient
beliefs and portents. Not only has bread been sacred as the representation of
the entire harvest, but it has always had a deep religious significance for Christians because of its
associations with communion. At one time it was
universally considered to be bad luck to throw away bread, and it was said
that whoever did so would live to know hunger.
In some parts of Scotland, it was considered
ill-omened to sing while baking bread, or to bake while a dead body lay
in the house. Bread must be put into the oven by one person only, as if two
people share the task they will quarrel. During the baking, no other bread must
be cut or the fresh bread will be spoilt; bread that is required during
baking should therefore be broken, not cut. If a loaf of bread comes apart in a
girl's hand, she will not be married until the next year; in some places this
portends a quarrel in her family. It is ill-omened to put a loaf of bread
on the table upside down, to cut it at both ends, or to grab the bread
while someone else is cutting it.
Charms and spells in which bread was used often
involved healing. In the sixteenth century it was considered to cure
toothache if a piece of white bread marked with a cross was laid against the aching tooth. A piece of
bread wrapped in cloth and buried for three
days, then dug up and eaten, was supposed to cure whooping-cough in Suffolk.
It is unlucky for anyone to take the last piece
of bread and butter from a plate without its being offered first; if an
unmarried girl does this, it is said that she will never marry. However, if
the last slice is offered it should always be taken, as this is said to
guarantee good luck in love and money.
The making of butter is also surrounded by
charms and omens; it was considered that fairies could overlook the dairy
and enchant the cream from a distance to prevent it turning to butter and many charms
were used to nullify their power.
A churn made of rowan wood, or with rowan set
about the handle, was considered to protect the cream; in England salt
was thrown onto the fire beforehand to neutralize evil, and in Ireland a smoldering
turf under the churn was held to purify the butter-making. A silver coin, or
three hairs from a black cat's tail, thrown into the cream would also help;
plunging a red-hot poker into the cream when the butter would not come was
also considered to be effective, burning out the evil. A dairymaid would often
murmur a special charm while churning the cream, such as:
Churn, butter, dash
Cow's gone to the marsh
Peter stands at the
Begging butter for his cake,
Come, butter, come!
Nuts are ancient symbols of fertility, and have
therefore been used as fertility charms, intended to promote healthy
childbirth, in wedding rituals in many cultures. In France they were
once thrown at weddings as rice or confetti are today; in ancient Rome and in some
parts of England they were offered to a bride and groom as they left the
church after marrying. In Britain a good crop of nuts in a district is
said to herald a large number of births there during the next year; an old
country saying states 'Good nutting year, plenty of boy-babies'.
Nuts have often been used in charms and
fortune-telling. One old love- divination was for a girl to take two hazelnuts,
name one for herself and one for her lover, and set them both on the
grate of the fire. If the nuts burned together their love would last, but if
they failed to burn, or flew apart, her lover would not be true. A way to tell
whether a wish would be granted was to toss a nut onto the fire; if it flared up and
burned the wish would be granted.
A nut with two kernels in a single shell was
always a lucky sign. An old charm to gain the love, friendship or favour of
someone was to offer them one of the kernels of a double-kernelled nut; if they
ate it and the giver ate the other at the same time, both in silence, the
charm would succeed. The double-kernelled nut could also be wished on by eating
one kernel and tossing the other over the left shoulder while wishing; this
had to be done in silence, and silence must be kept until the wisher was
asked a question to which he or she could answer 'yes'.
A raw onion carried in the hand is supposedly a
preventative against snakes, who are commonly believed to dislike
their smell. A peeled onion was supposed to attract germs, and therefore they
were often left about in a house to prevent everything from plague to the common
cold (although in the latter case eating the onion would have been more
effacious!) Another cure involved peeling an onion in a house where a sick person
lay, and then burying the onion far from the house; it was believed that
the onion would draw germs and diseases into itself and then carry them
from the house. Onions are still used in poultices for chilblains; they were also
used in cough syrups, and even as hangover remedies.
An old cure for warts involved taking a pod with
nine peas in it, rub it on the warts and then throw it away, saying 'Wart,
wart, dry away'. Another wart remedy was to touch each wart with a
different pea on the first day of the new moon, wrap the peas in a cloth and throw it
away backwards, or to wrap each pea separately in a piece of paper and bury it.
As each pea decayed, the wart it had touched would disappear.
When shelling peas it is considered good luck to
find a pod containing just a single pea, or a very large number of peas,
and a pod with nine perfect peas in it is by far the luckiest pod.
Since it is incorruptible and also preserves
other things from decay, salt is a symbol of immortality and eternal life, and
also means the creating of bonds. To eat another person's salt was to forge
a mythical bond between guest and host which was always binding; in
Scotland the First Foot, who is the first person to enter a house in the New Year,
usually carries salt with him.
One of the first things carried into a new home
was often a plate of salt, along with a piece of coal and loaf of bread;
they represent prosperity and health, warmth and plenty. Salt was also amongst
the first gifts given to a newborn baby, and was frequently carried in the
pocket as a protective charm.
Spilling salt is a bad omen, and many people
today will still throw a pinch of salt over their left shoulder if they spill
it. An old saying states that a tear will fall for every grain spilt, and a salt-shaker that overturns
between two friends means they will quarrel.