At one time natural events such as floods, thunder and lightning, and hail or snow showers were regarded as occult occurrences.
Methane gas bubbling up from the marshes and occasionally bursting into flames were regarded as "Will O' th' Wisps", or the boggarts in a hurry. Jinny Greenteeth would be waiting for anyone who trespassed in these regions.
The feathers of a barn owl occasionally became impregnated with slivers of wood full of decaying bacteria would cause the the feathers to glow (bioluminescence). In olden days this glowing white form flying through the night sky was regarded as a portent of death and the eerie screech of the bird only enforced this belief.
These and other superstitions passed from one generation to the next, only with the advent of better education and learning have the superstitions been explained, or have they?
Stories of Witches on broomsticks, taking the shape of animals, still abound, and animals were also full of folklore. "Its raining cats and dogs" may well take us back to these superstitious days. A cat scratching at a cushion was a sign of gales to follow, "Tek a sken at yon cat, its rasin its wind". To play with or stroke a cat was a way of improving your health.
And so to the faithful dog. Its howling when sick was a sign of imminent death, and the poor dog at its master grave side was a sign that the the soul had not yet departed the earth.
The list is endless with animals, your first spring lamb seen with its face toward you would bring you good luck, Swallows, wrens and robins were birds of good fortune, and to injure one of these was courting trouble. If the Swallow or Martins built their nest about a house or barn then it was a sure sign of good luck to the occupier. For a farmer to kill a robin would taint his cows milk with the birds blood.
"A cock robin and a Jenny Wren
Are God almightys cock and hen
A spink (chaffinch) and a sparrow
Are the Devils bow and arrow.
The jackdaw landing on the window of a sick persons room was an imminent sign of death, the white dove meaning the opposite. The magpies rhyme can be heard around the Country, locally it was something like;
One for sorrow,
Two for Joy,
Three for a girl
and Four for a boy
Five for silver (rich)
Six for Gold (poor)
Seven for a secret never to be told.
The breeding season amongst the birds can still be used now. One bird, and it was said it was cold, two and the weather was good. Its a logical explanation, one bird out looking for food means the other is sat on the egg keeping it warm, during cold weather, but both birds out looking for food means that it is warm enough for the egg to be left alone.
The value of the plant was even greater than that of the animal! There follows some of the plants found in Lancashire and the uses they were put to.
Bog Asphodel - (Narthecium ossifragum). Also known as the yeller plant, this grows on wet moorland. It has star like yellow flowers and reddish stems, which were boiled by Mill girls to use the liquid to dye their hair blonde. Bog Asphodel is a conspicuous plant of raised and blanket bog preferring open, wetter areas. It grows between 10 and 40 centimeters tall and consists of an erect leafy stem, which terminates in a group of 6 - 20 star-like yellow flowers at its apex. These flowers appear between July and September after which the whole plant takes on a warm orange hue before dying back over winter. It was once thought that cattle grazing on this plant suffered from brittle bones and this is reflected in the plants Latin name of ossifragum, meaning 'bone breaker'. In fact the lack of calcium in bog plants as a whole would have lead to nutrient deficiencies in those cattle that grazed there.
Kecks - The hollow stem of the common Hemlock were used by children as peashooters. This was recorded by many prominent writers, Shakesphere's Henry V, who spent time at Houghton Towers, Ben Brierley in 1868, and the Rev W Gaskell in 1854, who was husband to the novelist Elizabeth. Poison hemlock is a perennial member of the Umbelliferae (parsley) family. The plants are up to 6 feet tall with smooth, hollow stems covered with purple spots. Leaves are finely divided, resembling those of parsley or carrots. Crushed leaves have a mouse-like odour. The plant is sometimes confused with wild carrot (Daucus carota, Queen Anne's lace). There is a large white to pale yellow taproot.
Keddle Dock - Ragwort and the common dock.
Moss Crop - Cotton Grass, found on the moorlands, the flower head is white.
Passion Dock - Amphibious bistort, which is common in Lancashire. Boiled into a pudding with suet, flour, onions and sometimes egg, it was known as Easter Ledger pudding.
Sweet Cecily - Also known as the roman plant, this grows well were the climate is wet. It has white flecked fern like leaves with a white flower and black seeds which all smell of aniseed. It was used as an inhalant in steam baths.
Witchcraft, or more likely the fear of witchcraft, lasted longer in Lancashire than any other County, no doubt because of the Trail of the Pendle Witches in 1612.
Hundreds and thousands of walking sticks were used to keep witches at bay, the EVIL EYE was feared until well into the 19th Century, and the gentry stuck cake decorations to their sticks and placed the artefacts on the doorstep. The red dots in the confectionary were thought to scare the witches and warlocks.
In some areas witch bottles were hung around the neck, filled with urine, human hair and other materials in the hope of stopping the witches coming down chimneys or changing into animals.
Witch wood was thought to be a powerful charm, it was cut from a Rowan tree with a domestic knife. Once the twig had been cut the cutter had to return home by a different route.
The word "Rowan" is said by some to have come from the same base as the Nordic word "Rune," which means "magic, secret." Some say the Runes (a type of alphabet used by Germanic tribes for over a thousand years) were traditionally carved from sticks from the Rowan tree, with each letter of the alphabet being named for a different tree. An early name for the Rowan tree was "Luis," which is the second letter of the Rune alphabet. "Casting the Runes" is a practice similar to using tarot cards to predict the future.
Rowan trees were said to guard against the evil effects of "black" witchcraft. Berries were sometimes strung like beads and hung as a necklace around the neck of a supposed victim of sorcery. Some believed that one way to protect your soul from the devil was to touch a witch with a branch from a Rowan tree. Then, if the devil came demanding a soul, the witch would be taken instead. A cross carved from Rowan was sometimes placed above a child's cradle to protect it from bewitchment or from being stolen by faeries. These crosses were traditionally renewed each May Day. It was believed that the power of the Rowan was particularly potent if the person making the charm had never seen the tree before cutting the wood.
In the yard there
grows a Rowan.
Thou with reverent care
Should'st tend it.
Holy is the tree there growing.
Holy likewise are it's branches.
On it's boughs the leaves are holy.
And it's berries yet more holy.
From The Kalevala, a compilation of
oral poems dating back to the first century A.D.
The Rowan tree (also known as Mountain Ash, Quicken Tree, Quick Beam, Witchwood, Wiggen, Witcher and Sorb Apple) grows throughout northern Europe (Sorbus Aucuparia) as well as in the northeast part of North America (Sorbus Americanus). They are members of the Rose family and grow to be about 50 feet tall. They can strive in poor soil and colonize easily in disturbed areas. In some parts of Europe they are very common around ancient settlements and Stone Circles. The Rowan is noted for having lovely white flowers in May and, every third year, berries that turn bright red in winter.
Lanky Twang by Ron Freethy, published by Countryside books 2002, ISBN 1-85306-770-9.