Bee Folklore and Superstition: Telling the Bees

Image by Bernd Buchfeld from Pixabay

Bee Lore

Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica.  There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee.  It is this species that this work mostly refers to.  Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies.  This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs.  Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.

Bee Products

Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used.  Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more.   They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system.  An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted.  Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.  

Telling The Bees

It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in.  This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed.  Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld.  The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought  bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife. 

Deaths

There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper.  This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.

When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly.  Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.

Image by Charles Napier Hemy – Public Domain

An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune.  In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,

“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; 

Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)

Whereas in Germany the song was, 

 “Little bee, our lord is dead;

 Leave me not in my distress.” (2)

In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees.  Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person.  Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.

Funerals

Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees.  Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.

In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive.  Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.

In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died.  Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.

Weddings

In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings  and happy events  as well as funerals.  A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees.  A Scottish  newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive.  A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.

Messengers of the Gods

There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung.  Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.

Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity.  Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the  pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth. 

Importance of Bees

Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases. 

© 19/08/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

Collection of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image by Edmund PatrickCC BY-SA 3.0

A Very Peculiar Practice

Footwear such as shoes have been part of folklore and folktales for centuries and there are many tales and rhymes that refer to them.  For example Cinderella’s glass slippers, The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Anderson, the nursery rhyme of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and I am sure you can think of many other examples. There are also many traditions and customs concerning footwear and a very strange practice of concealing them in buildings.  Presented here is a brief discussion concerning this very peculiar practice of concealment.

Hidden Footwear

In many parts of Europe and other parts of the world footwear has been found concealed in the  structure of buildings for many centuries. They are often found hidden in parts of the structure such as under floors, in ceilings, roofs, chimneys and other structural cavities.  The reason for this is unclear.  Some people suggest  they may be lucky charms intended to bring good luck or ward off evil supernatural beings such as ghosts, witches and spirits. 

Another suggestion is that they were intended to bring fertility to the females in the home and may have been an offering to a household deity.  This may have been a deity or spirit of some kind such as Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home, the family, domesticity and the state.

Footwear has been found concealed within the structure of many different types of buildings.  For example, some but not all, public houses, country houses, a Baptist church and a Benedictine monastery and many other ordinary and less ordinary buildings have been discovered to hold hidden shoes.   

The Concealed Shoe Index

The English town of Northampton has a strong tradition of shoe making.  The local museum keeps a Concealed Shoe Index that has collected 1900 reports of findings of concealed shoes by 2012.  About half are believed to date from the 19th century.  It appears the majority of  finds had been worn or repaired and strangely most finds were of single items, rather than pairs and approximately half were children’s shoes.  The practice of concealing footwear  appears to have faded out during the 20th century.

Spiritual Middens

Since the late Middle Ages it was quite a common practice to hide different objects in the structures of buildings.  Many different kinds of objects have been found including such peculiar items as horse skulls, witch bottles, dried cats, charms written on paper and many other strange objects.  There is an idea that the items were intended as lucky charms to ward off evil or perhaps attract good luck. Hidden caches of such items are sometimes called spiritual middens.

Modern Practice

After 1900, the practice seems to have tailed off. Although it is rarely practised, documented, or  admitted today, there have been a few instances in recent years of such concealments.  The shoe manufacturer, Norvic deliberately placed a pair of women’s  boots in the foundations of its new factory in 1964.  More recently, after finding an old court shoe behind wood paneling, at Knebworth House, an English stately home in Hertfordshire,  it was replaced by one of the estate worker’s shoes to maintain custom.

Location of Finds

The custom of shoe concealment seemed to have been more prevalent in Europe and the USA, especially in New England and northeastern states.  There were many immigrants to these areas from places where the custom was practiced such as East Anglia, in England and other European regions.

A study by June Swann a British footwear historian,  revealed the Concealed Shoe Box Index, in Northampton Museum showed 22.9% of items found were hidden ceilings and floors and the same number accounted for roofs, while 26% were hidden in chimneys, fireplaces and hearths. Other places of concealment were around doors and windows, under stairs and buried in foundations.

Footwear has been found concealed in many different types of build used for many different purposes.  For example, thay have been uncovered in public houses, factories, warehouses, ordinary and stately homes and even in the Oxford colleges of St. John’s and Queen’s.  An English Baptist Church in Cheshire, England and a Benedictine monastery in Germany have also rendered up concealed footwear.  The earliest known find was discovered in Winchester Cathedral at the back of the choir stalls dated from 1308.

Characteristics of Hidden Footwear

There have been many different fashions, styles and types of footwear found that have been deliberately concealed.  Although the majority were made of leather;  rubber boots and wooden clogs have been found and others made from other materials.  From what has been found 98% appear to have been worn or repaired at some time prior to concealment.

All ranges of sizes have been found from babies to adult footwear. Slightly more female footwear has been found making about 26.5% against 21.5% of male and about 50% accounted for children’s footwear.  It is usually single items that are found rather than in pairs.

Although the custom of concealing shoes may seem quirky, finds do render up important information to archaeologists and historians.  As well as giving clues to what fashions and styles people from another time wore they also tell us about the different types of materials that were available.  They also give clues to the social status of the dwellers or uses of the building and the different types of occupation they were involved in and the local economy.

Explanations

Of course, the big question is why would anyone want to conceal such items in the first place?   There are many answers possible but one is that they were fertility charms.   There has been a long association between footwear and fertility.  For example, there is the custom where a shoe is thrown after the bride as she leaves or tied to the back of her car or carriage. Another example is the nursery rhyme called The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.  There are many versions similar to the one below,

Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-) – Public domain
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. 

In the English county of Lancashire when a woman wanted to conceive she tried on the shoes of another who had successfully given birth.  This practice was called smickling.

Witch Traps

There is an idea that the hidden footwear was deliberately placed to act as a protective charm against supernatural beings such as demons, ghosts, witches and other undesirable entities. There was an old belief that witches were attracted to the human odour found in used footwear and attempt to enter the shoe.  However, once they entered they became unable to turn around or go backwards to get out and were trapped.

Another idea is that shoes had protective powers and may be associated with an unofficial 14th century saint named John Schorne.  He was the rector of the English Buckinghamshire village of North Marston. He was a very devout and godly man who was credited with a number of miraculous cures including toothache and gout.   According to legend, one year during a particularly bad drought he discovered a  well whose waters had wonderful curative properties.  He was renowned for his piety and dedication to God and there is a tradition that he trapped the devil in a boot.   Nevertheless, the idea of trapping the devil in a boot or shoe existed long before Shorne and gout was also sometimes called “the devil in the boot.”

Household Deities

Archaeologists and historians think that the custom of hiding footwear in buildings may be connected with ancient pagan deities and spirits and the legend of Shorne may relate to the protective power footwear was once seen to hold.  Therefore an old shoe under the floorboards or buried under the fireplace may be seen as an easy and prudent tactic to thwart malevolent beings just in case.

Substitute for Sacrifice

Another idea is that the hiding of footwear was a substitute for sacrificing something live such as an animal or even a child.  In some places around the world babies and children were sacrificed or placed in foundations.  From  Geofrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-history, “History of the Kings of Britain,” we learn when King Vortigern was looking to build a stronghold the walls kept collapsing. His wise men advised the sacrifice of a child to put a stop to this.  The child chosen for this sacrifice was the young Merlin who persuaded the King there was an underground pool that held two fighting dragons.  Vortigern excavated the pool and found the dragons. Merlin was set free and went on to fame and glory with King Uther and King Arthur, while Vortigern had to find another site.  Certainly an offering of footwear is much more humane than a human or animal sacrifice and leather is an animal product.

The Essence of the Wearer

There may also be another reason.  Many types of footwear adapt shape to suit the wearer.  It is not unusual for new shoes or boots to have to be “broken” in by the wearer before they feel comfortable. They are seen as containers and were believed to contain some of the “essence” of the wearer possibly guarding against evil but perhaps also preserving that essence for the future.  Nevertheless, the concealing of footwear in buildings is still very much a mystery and will probably remain so.

© 12/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Folklore, Superstitions and Customs around Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Image by Chris Reynolds – CC BY-SA 2.0

Puddingstone Folklore

Hertfordfordshire puddingstone is mostly found in areas of England in the county of Hertfordshire and  Plumstead Common in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London. It is a conglomerate silicrete composed of pebbles embedded in a mass of silica making it very hard and enduring.   There are different types made of different materials from different regions. Here we look at the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have become associated with Hertfordshire Puddingstone.  

Supernatural Qualities

In folklore and tradition Hertfordshire puddingstone was believed to possess certain supernatural qualities and local people long believed it protected against witchcraft.  According to the parish records of the village of Aldenham in 1662 a local witch had a piece of puddingstone placed upon her coffin lid before it was covered over to prevent her from returning from the dead (1). Because of the supernatural connotations it was also given various names reflecting this. For example it was also known as Witch stone, Hag stone, or Woe stone.

However, there was a less sinister side to puddingstone, though arguably more bizarre.  Although geologists are not in exact agreement how puddingstone was formed local people believed it grew from the ground and gave birth to new stones which also grew and gave birth. Proof of this was seen when it was split open revealing many smaller pebbles and stones stuck together inside and was called the Breeding stone.  Because it appears out of the ground and said to grow it was called the Growing stone. A piece of puddingstone was given to the happy couple at weddings possibly to promote their fertility and bring luck.

This tendency for it to appear from the ground made it troublesome for arable farmers who can damage their ploughs upon it but its association with breeding makes it a good luck charm for dairy farmers  and it was believed to increase milk production. Pieces of it were kept in the milking shed for this purpose.

Uses for Puddingstone

Puddingstone was used in construction of the Church of St John the Baptist. (2), During Roman times it was used as a millstone for grinding corn.  It was later built into the walls of a number of Hertfordshire churches such as the tower of the church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.  Nevertheless, it was not widely used for building because although it was a good material it was scarce. 

Puddingstone was used for grave markers and coffin stones and it was placed on top of the coffin to protect the deceased from evil spirits.  It was also used in this way to ensure witches could not come back from the dead. In the churchyard of Great Gaddesden there are still large pieces of puddingstone marking the graves.

 Despite having an unattractive  surface similar to concrete when it was sliced and polished it became something very attractive and desirable.  After it had been sliced and highly polished the sliced surface displayed a variety of multicolored pebbles turning it into a very attractive and beautiful material.  In Victorian times it was made into ornaments, jewellery and small table tops (3).

Lucky Charms

There are many superstitions centered on puddingstone and local people often used pieces of it for a good luck charm.  Because of its associations with good fortune it was also placed in doorways and gate posts. People also carried a small piece in their pockets for luck.

Names of Puddingstone

As well as those already mentioned, Puddingstone has many alternative names that reflect the use it was put to.  For example, to ward against witches it was called Witchstone or Hagstone. For good luck and positive purposes it was called Angel stone. It was also known as Plum puddingstone because it looks like a plum or Christmas pudding when sliced.

© 08/4/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans