"'Tis a history
Handed from ages down; a nurse's tale,
Which children, open-eyed and mouth'd, devour;
And thus, as garrulous ignorance relates,
We learn it, and believe."
THE life of woman from the cradle to the grave has always, from the earliest period, been surrounded with all manner of curious beliefs, some of which have already been incidentally alluded to in the preceding pages. And, strange to say, even at the present day, these old-world fancies--childish as they only too frequently are--exercise, not unfrequently, a strong influence even in high places upon womankind, and oftentimes they crop up in the most unexpected manner when urged in support of some event in a woman's life--either for weal or woe--which, by the credulous, is held to be the natural outcome of fate as expressed in what may be termed folk-lore formulas.
Thus, to give a few popular illustrations, many a woman has attributed her misfortune in life to having been a "May chet"--that is, born in May; for, as the adage runs:--
Bad luck begets;"
whilst, in the West of England, a girl's future is still supposed to be, more or less, determined by the day of her birth, for "Sunday's child is full of grace," and as an old couplet says:--
"The child of Sunday and Christmas Day
Is good and fair, and wise and gay."
And, in the same way, popular imagination his gathered from certain features of a woman's person supposed indications not only of her character, but also of events likely, sooner or later, to befall her. A mole on the neck, for instance, denotes that there is wealth in store for her, a local rhyme, often quoted in the county of Nottingham, running thus:--
"I have a mole above my right eye,
And shall be a lady before I day;
As things may happen, as things may fall,
Who knows but that I may be Lady of Bunny Hall?"
and, according to another version, of which there are several, we are reminded that--
"If you've got a mole above your chin,
You'll never be beholden to any of your kin."
Similarly, inferences of various kinds have, at one time or another, been drawn from the eyes, although these have not always been of a very auspicious character, for it is said of the eyebrows--
"They that meet across the nose,
Will never live to wear your wedding clothes."
But superstitious fancies connected with the eye have existed everywhere, and a piece of Indian folk-lore tells us that--
"When the right eye throbs, it's mother or sister coming;
When the left eye throbs, it's brother of husband coming;"
An omen which, by the by, is very old, being mentioned by Theocritus, who says: "My right eye issues now, and I shall see my love." And this notion survives to-day, for, according to the popular adage, "When the right eye itches, the party affected will shortly cry; if the left, they will laugh." And in the old days, when one of the terrors of daily life was the "evil eye"--to which both sexes were thought to be exposed, an allusion to which delusion is made in "Titus Andronicus" (act ii. sc. I). where Aaron speaks Timora as--
". . . fettered in amorous chains,
And faster bound to Aaron's charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus"--
the "wise woman" was much in request, her advice in case of emergency having been freely sought to the lucrative profit of her own pocket. Sometimes the woman was the guilty person in the matter of the "evil eye," as appeared from a case brought some years ago before the Guardians of the Shaftesbury Union, in which an appellant for relief stated that he was unable to earn his livelihood through having been "overlooked" by his sister-in-law. It was stated in evidence that, although his wife had resorted for help to a "Wise Woman," it was to no purpose, as her efforts were perfectly ineffectual to remove the spell under which he lay.
Among other indications that some influence, either good or the reverse, is at work, is what is commonly called "cheek burning," and, in case it should be the latter, the following curse has long been repeated at such a time by the fair sex:--
"Right cheek, left cheek, why do you burn?
Cursed be she that doth me any harm:
If she be a maid, let her be staid;
If she be a widow, long let her mourn;
But if it be my own true love--burn, cheek, burn!"
A "blue vein" across the nose has, from time immemorial, been regarded by the fair sex as "a hateful sign," and oftentimes it has been the cause of much needless alarm. Among the many instances given of this folk-lore belief may be quoted one narrative in Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England": "A fond mother was paying more than ordinary attention to a fine healthy-looking child, a boy, about three years old. The poor woman's breast was heaving with emotion, and she struggled to repress her sighs. Upon inquiring if anything was really wrong, she said 'The lady of the house had just told her that the child could not live long, because he had a blue vein across his nose.'"
But just as lucky is the young girl supposed to be whose teeth are wide apart, such a peculiarity being held to be a sure indication of her bright and prosperous future. A correspondent of Notes and Queries writes thus: "A young lady, the other day, in reply to an observation of mine, 'What a lucky girl you are,' answered, 'So they used to say I should be, when at school.' 'Why?' 'Because my teeth were set so far apart; it was a sure sign that I should be lucky, and travel.'" Indeed, there is scarcely a part of the human body which has not had some piece of folk-lore attached to it; and Suffolk girls are still in the habit of humming the well-known doggerel when occasion requires:--
"If your head itches
You're going to get riches;
Rub it on wood,
Sure to come good;
Rub it on iron,
Sure to come flying;
Rub it on brass,
Sure to come to pass;
Rub it on steel,
Sure to come a deal;
Rub it on tin,
Sure to come agin."
And, it may be added, with slight variation, this rhyme is used of the right ankle and hand.
There are a good many curious items of folklore relating to the growth of the hair; and, according to a Yorkshire belief, when a woman's hair grows in a low point on the forehead, it is commonly supposed to presage widowhood, and is hence nicknamed "a widow's peak." A great deal of hair on the head has, in the case of both sexes, been said to be indicative of a lack of brains, a belief embodied in the familiar proverb, "Bush natural, more hairs than wit." Thus Shakespeare alludes to this popular fancy in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (act iii. sc. 2) where he makes Speed say: "She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than brain, and more wealth than faults." It is interesting, again, to note that in German folk-lore the idea of hair as a substitute for its owner is discernible; where a practice known as "hair-snatching" is observed. By this means, on St. Andrew's Day, anxious aspirants to matrimony may ascertain what coloured hair their future husbands have. The mode of procedure is for the young lady towards midnight to take hold of the latch of the door, and to call out three times, "Gentle love, if thou lovest me, show thyself!" She must then open the door a few inches, make a sudden snatch out in the dark, when she will find in her hand a lock of her future husband's hair. One of the indespensible conditions for the success of this charm is that she should be quite alone in the house, and make the trial unknown to any one. The same notion of substitution occurs in the love-charms of this country; and, according to one old formula, two girls must sit in a room by themselves from twelve o'clock at night till one o'clock in the morning, without speaking. During this time each must take as many hairs from her head as she is years old, and having put them into a linen cloth, with some of the herb true-love, as soon as the clock strikes one, she must turn every hair separately, saying--
"I offer this my sacrifice,
To him most precious in my eyes;
I charge thee now come forth to me,
That I this minute may thee see."
Indeed the anxious maiden, in her natural longings to lift the veil of futurity, has rarely failed to find a sign or token of the kind required, not only in some natural objects, such as birds, animals, insects, moss and plants, but even in such trivial objects as those connected with her own dress. Thus girls when in a strange bed would, in years past, tie their garters nine times round the bedpost, and knit as many knots in them, repeating these lines by way of incantation--
"This knot I knit, this knot I tie,
To see my lover as he goes by,
In his apparel and array,
As he walks in every day;"
there being various versions of this rhyme, one of which runs thus:--
"This knot I knit
To know the thing I know not yet:
That I may see
The man that shall my husband be;
How he goes and what he wears,
And what he does all days and years."
In the same way, on a Friday night, the young girl would draw her left stocking into her right, saying:--
"This is the blessed Friday night
I draw my left stocking into my right;
To dream of the living, not of the dead,
To dream of the young man I am to wed."
Many omens have long been drawn by women from the shoe, and according to the teaching of a Suffolk rhyme:--
"Tip at the toe, live to see woe;
Wear at the side, live to be a bride;
Wear at the ball, live to spend all;
Wear at the back, live to save a deal."
And the time-honoured practice for young girls to place their shoes in the form of the letter T still survives, with its couplet--
"Hoping this night my true love to see,
I place my shoes in the form of a T."
But leaving dress, with its many superstitions, we find even the cat the object of superstition, for it is commonly said in the northern counties:
"Whenever the cat of the house is black,
The lasses of lovers will have no lack."
And there is the deep-rooted but groundless belief of many a young mother that pussy stiffles the breath of the baby if she gets the chance, and peasant girls in our northern counties, too, still cling to the notion that--
"Kiss the black cat, an' 'twill make ye fat;
Kiss the white one, 'twill make ye lean."
The old belief of placing, as a charm, a knife near a sleeping child has not died out, and what Herrick long ago described is repeated to-day:--
"Let the superstitious wife
Near the child's heart lay a knife,
Point be up, and haft be down;
While she gossips in the town.
This 'mong other mystic charms
Keeps the sleeping child from harms."
In the midland counties, grandmothers exclaim, "God help you!" when they hear a child sneeze; and Scotch folk-lore tells us that a new-born child is considered by its nurse to be in the fairy spells until it has sneezed.
According to a Shropshire belief, it is said that:--
"She that pricks bread with fork or knife
Will never be a happy maid or wife;"
for this little act should always be done with a skewer. A common notion, too, is that if a loaf accidentally part in the hand of an unmarried girl, she will have little or no chance of getting married during the next twelve months; and the same result is supposed to follow, if at a social gathering a girl is inadvertently placed between a man and his wife.
Imaginary impediments to matrimony of this kind are very numerous in a woman's folk-lore, and it is through the same fear that Swedish young ladies abstain from looking into the glass after dark, or by candlelight, for fear of forfeiting the good opinion of the opposite sex. Similarly, in this and other countries, there is a strong antipathy among the fair sex for one to even look at a man, however attractive he may be, whose name commences with the same letter as her own; for, in marriage--
"To change the name and not the letter,
Is a change for the worse and not the better."
And we may note here that among the many reasons assigned for the ill-luck of May marriages is that not only from such union, "All the bairns die and decay," but that women disobeying the rule would be childless; or, if they had children, that the first-born would be an idiot, or have some physical deformity; or that the married couple would not live happily in their new life, but in a very short time grow weary of each other's society--popular fancies which are still held by women.
Strange to say, a somewhat similar penalty is said, in the North of England, to overtake the rash young lady who is present at church when the banns of marriage are put up, as any children she may hereafter have run the risk of being born deaf and dumb. The same notion prevails in Worcestershire, and some years ago a correspondent of Notes and Queries tells how a girl urged as an excuse for not hearing the publication of her banns the risk of bringing the curse of dumbness on her offspring, adding that one of her friends who had transgressed this rule "by hearing herself asked out at church," in due course had six children, all of whom were deaf and dumb.
Omens from dreams have, at all times, held a prominent place in a woman's folk-lore, and one may often hear a Shropshire damsel use the proverbial old couplet which tells how--
"A Friday night's dream on Saturday told,
Is due to come true be it never so old";
which is much after the same fashion as a couplet current in Gloucestershire:--
"Friday night's dream mark well,
Saturday night's dream ne'er tell."
Indeed, Friday's dreams would seem to be regarded by women with special favour, in illustration of which belief may be quoted a rhyme current in Norfolk:--
"To-night, to-night, is Friday night,
Lay me down in dirty white,
Dream whom my husband is to be
And lay my children by my side,
If I'm to live to be his bride."
The interpretation of dreams has, in most countries, been made the subject of much ingenious speculation, and many a "Dictionary of Dreams" has been framed to help the fair sex in this matter. But, of the thousand and one incidents which are ever nightly being repeated in dreamland, there would seem to be a consensus of opinion in dream books that dreaming of balls and dancing indicates some stroke of good luck in the marriage way to the young lady, it being said that those
"Who dream of being at a ball
No cause have they for fear,
For soon will they united be
To those they hold most dear."
And a further example we may quote from "Mother Bunch's Closet Newly Broke Open" (Percy Society, xxiii. 10-11), because this mode of divination has been one, perhaps more than any other, practised both at home and abroad by young girls anxious to gain a sweetheart:--
"Yet I have another pretty way for a maid to know her sweetheart, which is as follows: Take a summer apple of the best fruit, stick pins close into the apple to the head, and as you stick them, take notice which of them is the middlemost, and give it what name you fancy, put it into thy left-hand glove, and lay it under thy pillow on Saturday night when thou gettest into bed, then clap thy hands together, and say these words--
"'If thou be he that must have me
To be thy wedded bride,
Make no delay but come away,
This night to my bedside.'"