Paws and the power of piseogs

THE spirits of the dead have their annual night out this week. Ghosts, goblins and witches will be on the prowl, so carry a rabbit’s foot for good luck and don’t walk under any ladders.

Rabbits’ paws are just one of a plethora of objects which, like the ‘miraculous medals’ stitched to the vests of my childhood, kept danger at bay.

A conker in the pocket eases the pain of backache and a badger’s tooth will help you to win at cards. It’s easy to see why ladders are to be avoided. Pots of paint, or worse, have been known to fall on hapless passersby, but how can a rabbit’s foot protect you?

Piseogs, or superstitions, are an extension of folk medicine and the Doctrine of Signatures applies also to them. If an animal or plant resembles an organ of the body, then, according to the famous Doctrine, it offers a cure for ailments of that organ. Likewise, the special qualities of an object will be transferred to a person who carries it. Oaks live to a ripe old age; keep an acorn in your pocket and some of that longevity will rub off on you.

Puppies and kittens are born with their eyes closed, but rabbit kittens, apparently, arrive in the world with their eyes open. Rabbits, therefore, must be especially perceptive. Perhaps they can even see into the future.

Also, rabbits are such notoriously prolific breeders that the gods must surely favour them, so a rabbit’s foot brings good luck.

Crows feature in more than their fair share of negative piseogs but this is hardly surprising. The rook, our commonest crow, is an agricultural pest, which raids the farmer’s crops. Ireland, a few centuries ago, had more trees than it has today. Rooks, being woodland birds, had plenty of places to nest. There must have been enormous flocks of them roaming the countryside.

Grey crows and ravens visited battlefields and execution sites to feed on the bodies of the dead. No wonder they are birds of ill omen.

Surprisingly, ravens are thought to have a positive side. Odin, the God in Norse mythology, had two ravens which perched on his shoulders. These Norse equivalents of MI5 and MI6 would make reconnaissance sorties high into the sky to foresee what lay ahead. Flóki Virgerdson carried ravens with him in his Viking longship. He would release them at sea and sail in the direction in which they flew. This is how he discovered Iceland. The tale has a plausible ring to it; ravens released at sea would have to return to the ship unless they found land.

Belief in the clairvoyant powers of ravens persists; during World War II, people kept a close eye on the ravens in the Tower of London. Tradition has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, England will be invaded.

But the lion’s share of anti-crow superstition is heaped on the magpie. It’s difficult to see why; magpies may have visited the odd scene of carnage but they haven’t the ravenous ferocity of their larger cousins. The magpie, apparently, refused to enter Noah’s ark, preferring to sit out the flood perched on its roof. He has been an outlaw ever since. Another complaint concerns disrespect to the dead. When the crows attended a funeral, they dressed in black. The magpie, however, did not bother to dress properly for the occasion. He put on some of his black clothes but failed to remove his blue and white ones and so he insulted the deceased.

“A robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage,” said William Blake. So, perhaps, a robin venturing indoors of its own accord must be trying to warn us of something.

Just over a hundred years ago, a notorious series of Welsh mining disasters seemed to confirm the piseog about robins. In 1890, a robin was seen underground in a coal mine or colliery near Port Talbot. Shortly afterwards, an explosion there killed 87 miners. Eleven years later, a robin entered another Port Talbot colliery and 81 people were killed.

In 1901, a robin built a nest in a mine in Caerphilly. Shortly afterwards, eight miners perished. Were the robins warning the miners, trying to save them from disasters? Robins are always seen in a positive light. The bird, after all, received its red breast when it tried to pull the thorns out of Christ’s head.

Another little bird, the wren, is seen as a baddy and fares rather badly in folklore. It cheated in the great contest, by hitching a ride on the eagle’s back, to become the King of the Birds. The gaoler guarding St Stephen fell asleep but the noisy wren woke him up before Stephen could escape. Irish wrens, ever since, have been hunted down and killed on the feastday of the martyr.

But it’s the cat which figures most prominently in the iconography of Halloween. It consorts with witches, who often take the form of cats. On the other hand, as everybody knows, cats have nine lives and a black cat is a sign of good luck. Are these piseogs dim echoes of ancient Egyptian beliefs? Cats were sacred animals to the Pharoes and were mummified when they died.


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