LONDON – A hundred years or so ago, folklore traditions were still alive and well in Britain’s cities and countryside, despite the substantial changes precipitated by industrial development, war, and economic growth. This week, the Daily Telegraph reported a decline in superstitions in the UK, as the country gears up to celebrate Hallowe’en and Samhain.
For our knowledge of what people believed at the turn of nineteenth-century Britain, we are indebted to collectors and folklorists such as Edward Lovett (1852 – 1953), whose collection of charms and amulets give an insight into nineteenth-century British superstitions. His close association with Henry Wellcome and the latter’s museum resulted in the Folklore of London exhibition, held at the Wellcome Collection in 1916 and parts of it can still be seen today. This is indicative of cunning craft rather than ceremonial magic: the practices of the big occult societies of the Golden Dawn and its offshoots didn’t really filter into mainstream society, but the kind of charms and amulets that Lovett collected seem to have been pretty widespread among the working classes, at least.
Lovett himself does not seem to have been a particular believer in the power of the charms that he collected, although he did make an amulet for his son when the young man went off to the Front in the First World War. Most of his collection came from his walks around London and Surrey, but an interest in alpine plants gave him an introduction: he exchanged tiny plants grown in seashells for his contacts’ amulets. The charms that he collected are varied: lucky left-handed whelk shells from sailors, for instance.
Lovett spoke to all manner of people in his rambles: shepherds in Sussex, for example, who showed him examples of ‘cramp nuts’: charms against cramp. A number of these amulets are not man-made but are taken directly from the natural world – woody accretions from beech or ash, fossilized shark’s teeth, hag stones (pieces of stone with a natural hole running through them), pieces of amber carried as a cure for toothache… Who knows how old some of these charms and amulets might be? Lovett mentions little bags containing the forefeet of a mole, also to be carried against cramp. The curved appearance of these feet may be, Lovett speculates, a remnant of the doctrine of ‘like curing like.’ Presciently, but with accuracy, Lovett notes that he doubted whether these old customs would last much longer, as the professions which handed them down to father and son – fishing, sheep-herding, coster-mongering – were already beginning to change.
With the disruption of the 20th century, superstitions changed and the sort of charms that Lovett found are not in use today. When the writer was growing up, in the 1970s, some superstitions were still commonplace: that you should salute if you saw a magpie, that a red night’s sky betokened a fine day ahead, that it was unlucky to walk under ladders or bring peacock feathers or flowering hawthorn into the house.
This week, the Telegraph reported a warning by The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty that much of the country’s folklore is dying out, a result of the impact of social media and new technology. Jessica Monaghan, the National Trust’s Head of Experiences and Programming, has called on the public to share its knowledge of folklore from different regions of the UK in order to keep some of these old beliefs alive.
“These tales and traditions tell us so much about our ancestors and their relationship with the world around them and help us appreciate the layers of history and symbolism in the places we live now. We’re curious about the many variations of similar stories that helped shape local and regional identities. Through these tales – whether they’re about white harts, mirrors, water spirits or magpies – we can explore and celebrate what makes communities around the UK unique, but also the threads that tie us together, and have done for generations.”
The Telegraph also quoted Dee Dee Chainey, author of the National Trust’s A Treasury of British Folklore, who says:
“In the Doctrine of Signatures of the 16th century, the walnut was seen to cure diseases of the brain, purely because it resembles it. Few people today would believe this as we now have advanced medical knowledge and scientific methods through which to evaluate the success of medical treatments. It’s interesting though, that new folklore is being created all the time – often specifically in the internet.”
Chainey compares internet memes to the kind of folk superstitions passed around communities. Aliens, conspiracy theories, and perhaps even contemporary fears about health and diet, contribute to this new ‘folklore’.
“This new lore reflects modern needs. The things we dream about, and the fears that haunt us in the darkest nights today. Slenderman is an example of this. Some say he is a bogey man; tall, thin, faceless, and wearing a non-descript suit – very similar to the way the ‘men in black’ reputedly visit to quash rumours of aliens.”
Meanwhile, across the country, carved pumpkins are appearing in windows across the country (the writer’s village puts them in the window to let children know that it’s OK to knock on the door for trick or treat). Glastonbury will be holding a dragon parade in honour of Samhain with celebrations at the Goddess Temple and the Chalice Well. There are also a host of events celebrating Hallowe’en in London, including late-night opening at the Science Museum and a drag evening in restaurant Bala Baya. London speakeasy Barts says it’s turning into a “spookeasy” for the night with a murder mystery evening and Tobacco Dock will be holding a Hallowe’en on Ice party. Superstitions may be changing, but the festivities at this time of year are going from strength to strength across the UK, whether you’re a Pagan or not.