Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter III. Popular Superstitions

The superstitions of a race represent the religious beliefs of ancient peoples. They are exaggerated fear of the unknown. Religious superstition marks a degeneracy in religion, and is very rare among the Celts. Our Nova Scotian superstitions come under “good and bad luck,” “cures for man and beast,” the influence of the moon, and such like. It is practically impossible to discover in the case of some of these practices, which, are importations from the old country, and which, those of native, growth. In any case, they are here, and have been here for more than a century, although their origin is wrapped in obscurity.

Among the Acadians, if children should intentionally destroy swallows’ nests, it was believed that cows would give blood in their milk. This may be a survival from a time when certain birds were held as sacred! This sacredness may also account for the belief that if a bird flies into a room, death or misfortune is soon to follow. Or it may be accounted for by the ancient belief that the spirits of the dead often assumed the form of birds.

The superstitious practices resorted to in order to obtain cures are many and varied. Among the Acadians, only certain men in the village were endowed with the power of performing the cures. These men could stop the flow of blood from a bad cut, or cure a toothache simply by passing their hand over the part affected. Again, if an individual afflicted with warts went to them for a cure, they would take a pea, tie it up in a rag and thrown it into a well. With the pea went the wart. The sections of the country peopled by Highlanders, only the “seventh son” had the privilege of curing people by merely stroking the diseased member. These men, who were rare enough, were frequently sent for from long distances to give relief to some sufferer.

In these districts, too, warts were disposed of in a variety of ways, all of which point to ancient pre-Christian beliefs with regard to the transference of disease from one person to another, and for which witches were once tried and condemned to death. For example, blood from the warts was put on a cloth, which was then dropped in the path of a passer-by. Or stones, to the number of warts, were put into a bag, which was then thrown over the right shoulder on to the road so that it might be picked up. The person picking it up got the warts.

More significant still of pagan descent was the practice of rubbing stolen meat on the warts and then burying it. When the meat decayed the warts disappeared. Another certain cure was to take a string with one more knot than the number of your warts and throw it after the first funeral that passed, saying: ‘‘Take this with you and rot in the grave.”

Yet another example of the transference of disease to old mother earth is found in this cure for a pain, which the teller saw tried: “If when running you should take a pain, bend down, pick up a stone, spit on it, and put it back with the spit next the ground. The pain will disappear.”

Lumbago might be cured by the sufferer lying face downwards on the floor and one who was born feet first walking over him, putting his full weight on the sore back. An old lady tells this story with regard to this cure: *4 When I was a little girl one of my uncles had a very sore back, and the only one that could cure it was big Betsy, who lived ten miles away. They sent a horse and waggon for her, and she was received with all the respect due her skill. All the elders of the family assembled in my uncled room, but as I was considered too young to assist at the ceremony, I was sent out to play. But my curiosity got the better of me, and I was soon at the key hole. This is what I saw:

“My uncle was lying on his face on the floor, and old Betsy was beginning to walk around him in a circle, saying some kind of gibberish. He was supposed to keep perfect silence; but when Betsy stood with her bare feet on his back it was too much for him, so he began cursing and swearing, and, of course, broke the spell. I do not know whether he was cured or not; but I do know that old Betsy left the house in disgust.”

Sprains were cured by an old woman saying a rhyme over the injured member, or by placing around the sprain a string made from white spool thread knotted with seven knots. The person who is responsible for this bit of information asserted that she had actually had a sprained ankle cured in this way.

Toothache could be cured in a variety of ways. A person with a charm for it took a rusty nail into the woods, and drove it into a tree, saying at the same time: “May you be there all pains and aches.” The suffering person was cured as soon as the nail was driven.

A preventive of toothache was to chew the wood of a tree that had been struck by lightning. A Christian element was introduced into the cure when a prayer was written on a piece of paper, which was put into the mouth over the aching tooth.

A good toothache story is told by an old man, who enjoyed the telling of it very much, although he says it loses much by not being told in Gaelic. One day a man who was suffering terribly from toothache was riding along the East Bay Road when he met a stranger, who stopped him and inquired what ailed him.

“Och, I have an awful toothache, whatever,” he replied.

“Well, if you have, you have met the right man,” said the stranger, “for I can cure you in a minute.”

“If you can, do it,” he said.

Thereupon the stranger muttered an incantation and the suffering ceased. The man continued his journey until he came to the glebe house, where he called to see his parish priest. He told how he had been cured on the way.

“Do you know who cured you?” asked the priest. "That I do not,” he answered.

“Well, I know who he was.”

“Who was he, then?”

“Nobody but the devil himself.”

“Och, no, Father,” came the rejoinder. “How could that be, and him talking the Gaelic as well as yourself.” But it was generally a woman who had these charms, for witches were the lineal descendants of the Druidesses, who were remarkable for their magic. For example, a woman who had a charm would rub a sore throat with water and recite an incantation, and a cure would be effected.

There was a belief that silver coins were powerful against witchcraft. The reason for this idea is hard to find. Silver may possibly have been substituted for the iron of an older period, when the uses for the latter became very common. In the older beliefs, iron was thought to possess many magic properties, which were assigned to it on account of its recent discovery. May not the same thing have happened when silver, with its shining brightness, came to gladden hearts? In any case, silver coins were frequently pierced and hung around the necks of children. People, with whom these coins were scarce enough, would scarcely be lavish with them for mere decoration.

When an animal was sick it was believed to be charmed. The owner would then prepare a vessel of water, into which he would slip a silver coin, and have the animal drink. An elderly woman, to whom the writer had recourse for old traditions, told of her grandmother, who had what she called a luck penny, which bore on it the words: "In hoc signo vinces.” and the name of some ruler, John XXII. (?). When any animal in the neighborhood was sick, she would go to a spot on. the farm where two brooks met, part the water with the silver coin in the form of a cross, although she was not a Catholic, saying at the sanie time the words of the Sign of the Cross, then bring the water to the sick animal. The coin had been handed down in the family for hundreds of years, she said, and a family conclave had to decide its destination on the old lady’s death.

Apart from the use made in this instance of silver, there is the added incident of the meeting of the brooks. This may be a survival of the worship of the spirits, which were supposed to live in brooks and rivers (i), combined with the Christian Sign of the Cross. Be that as it may, the people had faith in the ceremony—a faith which the recovery of sick animals readily confirmed. The succeeding generation cured their animals by putting a blessed medal into their drinking water.

Good and Bad Luck.

What may be considered another survival of a belief in witches is the curious superstition that prevails with regard to meeting women. Here are some specimens: “On setting out on a trip, if you meet a woman it is bad luck; but if she is red-headed, it is worse — turn back. But if you meet a white horse and afterwards a red-headed woman, it is all right.” Evidently the white horse is so potent in luck bringing that he can override the terrors of even a red-headed woman.

Again, miners are sure of an accident if a woman should go down into the mine. If they meet a woman first on going to work, they are afraid. Women have been deterred from visiting mines because of this superstition. Good luck for the whole year was brought to a house by a man coming as first visitor on New Year's Day. A woman would bring only bad luck. It was also regarded as good luck for a man to come to a house on May Day. On this occasion he was not allowed to leave until he had eaten something.

A black cat running across your path indicated bad luck; a hare doing likewise was worse; but a squirrel brought good luck. Once upon a time witches were supposed to have assumed the form of black cats and of hares. This superstition may be a survival of the belief.

There are a number of superstitions in connection with the moon that may possibly trace ancestry to the days of moon worship. There is, however, no evidence of moon worship among the Celts, although its influence with them is very great.

There was a belief among the Highlanders that everything had a tendency to grow during the increase of the moon. In fact, they considered that the harvest moon caused just as much ripening as the sun. This belief gradually extended to other things; consequently a farmer would never kill an animal for food when the moon was on the wane; he waited until the. increase.

A girl would not have her hair cut except when the moon was on the wane; otherwise it would grow too fast. To see the moon over your left shoulder was bad luck; to see it over the right was good luck. Any wish you made, the first time you saw the new moon was sure to come true, provided you had something in your hand at the time you saw it, and that you made the Sign of the Cross.

Meeting a funeral was regarded as very bad luck for anybody, but especially for a wedding party. An old saying has it that:

“Happy is the corpse that the rain falls on;
Happy is the bride that the sun shines on.”

To go in the same direction with the funeral was regarded as all right.

The toad, although looked upon with more or less of superstitious dread on account of its being one of the witches’ familiars, according to local tradition, was yet the means of securing preservation from evil, and acquiring earthly goods could be found in its skeleton; but the searcher was not to kill the creature. But how were the potent bones — one shaped like a fork the other like a spoon — to be secured without doing so? The question was answered for me by an elderly woman.

She and her little brother were very anxious to get these wonder-working bones, for they had heard from their elders that with the fork-shape in their possession no wild animal nor reptile could touch them; and with the spoon-shape they could gain any favor desired by secretly touching with it the person from whom they wished to get what they wanted. At last they managed to get the directions, and they set to work. They took a box and pierced it with a great many holes. Into it they put a live toad; then carried it to an ant hill, where they buried it quickly. After the burial they ran away as hard as they could, lest they might hear the toad cry when it was attacked by the ants; for if they did so, total deafness would ensue. After several seasons had passed away they were to return to the ant hill and get the bones; but the mark they had carefully placed on their particular hill was gone, so they had to be content with remaining poor.

Once upon a time there was a plague of grasshoppers in Judique, Inverness County, and one man, who was convinced that they were the evil spirits in disguise, went to the parish priest to get water blessed to sprinkle on them. When he got it, he returned home and got after the grasshoppers. He went over the whole field sprinkling it vigorously, saying as he did so: "Now, get to Hell with you.” And they went.

“The sea will claim its owTn,” was a favorite expression used in connection with drowning accidents. This may derive its origin from an ancient belief in fate, or it may go back to the days when the spirit of the sea had to be appeased by a human victim. (Gomme’s Ethnology in Folklore).

O men of Greece! with blood, a virgin’s gore,
Ye soothed the winds, then sought the Trojan shore.—

Virgil’s Aeneid, bk. 2, 115-134.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.