December 14, 2014

How to Predict Snow

The first official day of winter is coming up fast. With winter comes snow. Some people hate it, some people love it (like me), but we all want to know when the white stuff is going to fall from the sky.

Modern New Englanders have satellite technology and the Weather Channel to help us, but our regional forebears weren't so lucky. They had to rely on almanacs and their own senses to predict when snow was coming.

They also had a storehouse of folk knowledge to draw upon. For example, it was believed that you could predict snow by looking at the bottom of your tea kettle when you took it off the stove. Snow was on the way if the bottom was white. Similarly, you could be sure a snowstorm was coming if the wood in your fireplace hissed a certain way. Sadly, there's no record of what that certain way is.

The logic behind those two methods is a little murky to me, but these next three seem more practical:

1. When it starts to snow, look at the size of the snowflakes. Large flakes mean the storm will be over soon. Small, fine flakes mean the snow will continue for quite a while.

2. If the snow on your roof melts off, the next storm to come will be rain. If the snow on the roof blows off, the next storm will be more snow.

3. In the same vein, if the ice on the trees melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it is blown off by the wind, more snow is on the way. 

Unlike the kettle and firewood methods, these three seem like they're based on some empirical fact, which is the air temperature. If the air is warmer, the flakes will be bigger and the snow will melt off trees and roofs. It's still no guarantee the next storm will be rain, though, because a new cold front could always move in.

Of course, you can always throw practicality out the window and indulge your irrational side. It was believed that if you make a wish on the first snowflake your wish will come true. And if you're the betting type, writing down the date of the first snow storm will guarantee that you'll win a bet sometime that winter.

I culled this information from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896). It looks like 1896 was a good year for folklore books!

December 07, 2014

The True Story of Mary Sibley and Tituba

I've just started to watch the TV show Salem. It premiered last spring, but I don't get the channel it was on so I'm watching it now through Netflix. I'm only a couple episodes into it, but I'm already compelled to comment.

The show is a historical horror fantasy set in Salem during the 1692 witch hunts. Although we all rationally know weren't any real witches in Salem, just political turmoil and personal grudges, the show turns that on its head. Salem's premise is that although the people executed for witchcraft were innocent, they were framed by the town's real witches, who operated unseen and undetected.

This idea was also the premise of a 2008 comic book, Salem: Queen of Thorns. In that comic the real witch was a huge supernatural tree-monster (the Queen of Thorns), but in the TV show Salem people who really lived are being portrayed as Satanic witches. I have to say, it's a little weird. Weirder even than a giant tree-monster witch.

Salem: Queen of Thorns.

The leader of the witches is Mary Sibley, the wife of George Sibley, the wealthiest and most influential man in Salem. Mary was once in love with heroic soldier John Alden, but when he didn't return from war she became bitter, gave her unborn baby and her own soul to the Devil, and entered into a loveless marriage with George Sibley. Oh, and she controls George with a toad-shaped familiar that she placed in his stomach. That all happens in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode.

Mary is supported, but perhaps also controlled, by her sinister yet sexy Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba. There's lots of erotic lesbian energy between the two characters, and Tituba often rubs herbs and oils on Mary's naked body and reminders her of her vows to Satan. Again, this all happens in the first first episode.

Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) in Salem.
I suppose I should just relax and enjoy the show like the Puritan era True Blood knockoff that it is, but somehow I'd enjoy it more if all the characters were fictional.

The real Mary Sibley played a small but significant role in the actual Salem witch hunt. Mary and her husband Samuel (who was not particularly wealthy or influential) were neighbors of Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter of 1691 - 1692, Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams had been acting strangely. They had made been making odd noises, moving in unusual ways, and complaining of mysterious pains. The local physician thought it might be witchcraft. Reverend Parris and his wife tried to treat the girls' ailments through prayer.

On February 25, 1692, Reverend and Mrs. Parris left Salem to hear a minister speak in another town. Mary Sibley came over to the Parris house and told the reverend's slaves, Tituba Indian and her husband John Indian, to make a cake from the girls' urine and rye flour. Following Mary's instructions, the slaves baked the cake and then fed it to a dog. Mary, Tituba and John then watched the dog to see if it acted strangely.

This type of cake was known as a witch cake, and was method for diagnosing witchcraft. If the girls really had witchcraft in their body, it should also be in their urine. If the dog acted strangely after eating their urine it would be proof the girls were indeed bewitched.

History does not record how the dog reacted, but we do know how Reverend Parris acted. He was furious. All magic was considered evil magic, and he believed Mary Sibley's benign attempt to help the girls had opened the door to greater evil. He may have been right, since after witnessing Mary's magic the two girls began to actually see human forms tormenting them. Previously they had just suffered vague physical maladies. It seems likely that her actions strongly suggested to Betty and Abigail that they were bewitched, and they began to act accordingly from that point on.

Reverend Parris gave Mary Sibley a stern private lecture, and she publicly and tearfully confessed her errors to the Salem Village congregation on March 25, 1692.

Mary fades from history at this point and didn't play any further role in the Salem witch trials.  However, some writers have suggested that her witch cake was the incident that really kicked off the witch craze. They speculate that Betty and Abigail might have stopped their odd behavior if Mary hadn't asked Tituba and John to bake the witch cake.

That's something we can never know, but we do know that things didn't go too well for Tituba and her husband. Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, and John was accused soon after. Neither was executed, and they survived the trials the same way most others did - by accusing even more people of witchcraft.

When I was a child I learned that Tituba was the person who started the witch craze by telling Betty and Abigail stories of voodoo and black magic. But as I've since learned, this idea was started by historians in the 19th century who wondered why nice rational white people would do something as crazy as hunt witches. Clearly, they thought, the idea of witchcraft must have been introduced into Salem by Tituba, who they imagined to be an irrational black woman. It couldn't have been someone a nice white lady like Mary Sibley.

More recently,  historians have learned that Tituba has been misrepresented. The only act of magic she ever performed was to bake the witch cake, and she executed this piece of traditional English magic at the bidding of Mary Sibley. There was no voodoo involved at all. It also seems likely that she was not black, but was an Arawak Indian from the Caribbean. It had been assumed that her last name was Indian, but the word "Indian" may actually just have been a descriptor. Not Tituba India, bur rather Tituba, Indian.

We've also learned that no race or ethnic group - white, black, Arawak, etc. - is more rational or irrational than any other. Well, I hope we've learned that. But I think that's important to keep in mind if you watch Salem. Rationally, we all know there weren't any witches in Salem. We know Mary Sibley wasn't a witch, that Tituba was framed, and that she probably wasn't black.

But somehow, irrationally we're still entertained by a show where the Salem witches are real, Tituba is a manipulative evil black Jamaican woman, and Mary Sibley suckles her familiar with blood from her thigh. So as you watch Salem, and maybe even enjoy its trashy supernatural melodrama, remember what you're seeing is not true.

And when you shut off the TV just remember: there were no real witches in Salem. 

November 30, 2014

Conjuring by Sieve and Scissors

On September 8, 1692, Rebecca Johnson testified before the magistrates at Salem court. Like so many others, this Andover widow had been accused of witchcraft.

Rebecca Johnson pleaded innocent to the crime of witchcraft, but she did confess that in the winter of 1691 her daughter-in-law had used magic. She had conjured using a sieve and scissors.

One of her daughter-in-law's relatives, a man named Moses Hagget, had been kidnapped during an Indian raid. She wanted to know if he was alive or dead. With the help of two family members, the daughter-in-law balanced a sieve upon a pair of scissors and repeated the following spell:

By Saint Peter and Saint Paul
If Hagget be dead
Let this sieve turn around.

The sieve rotated, confirming her suspicion that Moses Hagget was dead.

Telling the future with a sieve and scissors was a common practice in Puritan New England, but like all magic it was frowned upon by the clergy. Cotton Mather wrote:

The children of New England have secretly done many things that are pleasing to the Devil. They say, that in some towns, it has been an usual thing for people to cure hurts with spells, or to use detestable conjurations, with sieves, and keys, and peas, and nails, and horseshoes, and I know not what other implements to learn the things for which they have a forbidden and impious curiosity.

This form of divination didn't originate in New England. Fortune-telling with a sieve and scissors has been practiced in the Western world for thousands of years, and is recorded by ancient Greek writers. The official name for the practice is coscinomancy, from the Greek word for sieve, koskinon. Feel free to use the term coscinomancy at a cocktail party to sound smart!

Although it has been around for millennia, there's currently some uncertainty about exactly how it should be done. (If anyone actually practices this please let me know how you do it!) Most instructions claim at least two people are needed to perform coscinomancy properly. For example, here is an old illustration floating around the Web that shows two people very gently holding the scissors.

That's a cool picture, but I'm not really sure how the sieve would rotate. Other writers say the sieve should be tied with string to the scissors or shears. The famous occultists Cornelius Agrippa (1486 - 1535) vouches for the string method, and also claims the following words (incomprehensible to humans) must be chanted: Dies, mies, jeschet, benedoefet, dowima, enitemaus. Agrippa thought this incantation compelled a demon to move the sieve.

You'll notice that in Andover the spell invoked Catholic saints instead of demons. The Puritan clergy was opposed to the idea of saints, but apparently they still lingered in folk religion and magic. Saints were often invoked in English and European magic, and Peter and Paul have been associated with coscinomancy for many years.

For example, in 1554 a London cleric named William Hassylwoode was brought to court on the charge that he used "witchcraft, or sorcery, with a sieve and pair of shears." Hassylwoode confessed that he had learned from his mother to invoke Saints Peter and Paul while trying to find lost items. This is just one of multiple cases from 16th century London where people were accused of using coscinomancy to discover thieves or find missing items.

To find a thief, the following spell was recited:

By St. Peter and St. Paul,
If (name of suspected thief) hath stolen (legitimate owner's name)'s (missing item)
Turn about riddle and shears and all.

Although this form of fortune-telling has a pre-Christian origin, it was believed in Renaissance England that Peter and Paul had invented the practice. Peter and Paul were also associated with using the Bible and a key for telling the future. As historian George Kittredge writes, "Almost the same formula has been utilized for the Bible and Key, where indeed, the saints' names seem more appropriate than in coscinomancy."

My sources for this week's post were George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929) and Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002).

November 23, 2014

Squash Pie and Burning Barrels for Thanksgiving

This week I'm making a squash pie for Thanksgiving. That's right, squash pie, not pumpkin.

Every year my mother makes three pies at Thanksgiving: apple, squash, and mincemeat. (I volunteered to help make the squash pie this year.) Her mother made the same three pies as well.

Squash pie is kind of old-fashioned. It's made just like pumpkin pie, but using canned squash. I think only Maine's One-Pie company still produces canned squash, and it can be hard to find in some areas. I suppose that if One Pie ever goes out of business my family's tradition of squash pie will end.

I often think of holiday traditions as ancient and timeless, but that's not true. Traditions come and go and the holidays change through time. For example, Thanksgiving (the archetypal New England holiday) used to be celebrated with dances:

... some gather in a neighbor's dwelling, and find rich jokes over the crackling of hickory nuts and eating of the good dame's preserves; some patronize the ball in my landlord's spacious chamber, and seek "no sleep till morn" in the excitement of the dance... (John Carver, Sketches of New England, 1842)

Sleigh rides were also quite popular in the 19th century, but of course Thanksgiving often occurred in December then, rather than November.

A giant bonfire made of barrels was once part of the Thanksgiving festivities in Norwich, Connecticut. Originally the bonfire was a simple (if large) pyramid of empty barrels stacked high. Large crowds would gather on Thanksgiving night to watch the fire, and over time the bonfire became more elaborate. Two pyramids of barrels, one on each side of the Thames River, replaced the original single pyramid, and tar-filled barrels were strong on a rope between them across the water. The whole structure was lit on fire, and people crowded onto the nearby hillsides to watch the fiery spectacle. (This information is from David E. Phillips's Legendary Connecticut, 1992).

When I first learned about the Norwich barrel bonfires I thought they were just a nineteenth century thing, but according to this article the last one took place in the 1980s. Unlike the earlier giant bonfires, these more recent ones were sponsored by different neighborhoods. But eventually the barrel-burning tradition faded away in Norwich. Some writers say it was because the barrel fires were too dangerous - at least one person died because of them - but others say it's just because wooden barrels are harder to find now.

I'm sure barrel-burnings were a crucial part of Thanksgiving to some people in Norwich, just like squash pie is a crucial part of the holiday for my family. But someday that squash pie might be replaced by pumpkin, and I guess I'll just have to accept that change when it comes.

November 17, 2014

Have You Seen a Fairy? Tell the Fairy Investigation Society!

Do you believe in fairies?

In some ways that's an odd question to ask in the 21st century. Even though many Americans believe in strange phenomena like UFOs, Bigfoot and ghosts, I think for most people fairies are a little anachronistic, like a relic from children's books written in Victorian England.

But not everyone feels that way. Last week a reader sent me a photo she had taken in October near a creek in Lincoln, New Hampshire. She was visiting from a southern state and staying at the Mountain Club, and the creek ran through the resort's property. In the photo there is a small blue and white object among the tree branches. It looks like it has wings...

The reader asked me if I thought it was a fairy.

She hadn't seen the fairy (if that's what it was) when she first took the photo, but it was pointed out to her when she was showing the photo to a friend who was familiar with the area. "Don't you see the fairy in the lower right hand corner?" her friend asked.

The friend went on to explain that she had seen a fairy in the area herself, and that the creek was the type of place fairies liked.

The reader also showed the photo to her husband, who was a little skeptical. He said, "Maybe it's just a plastic bag caught in a tree.."

For myself, I'm undecided. Last week when I first zoomed into the photo the blue object sort of looked like something stuck in the tree. But just now, when I zoomed in further, the blue object looked like it might be holding onto the tree, and it also looked like it had a face...

Perhaps it was just a case of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon where humans see faces and living beings in inanimate objects. Or perhaps there really was a visitor from the faerie realm hovering near a creek in the White Mountains.

Certainly, the American Indians who lived here for thousands of years believed there were small magical beings who lived in the forests, under the hills, and in the lakes and streams. The early English settlers also believed in fairies, although they didn't see many of them here. But even contemporary New Englanders have sometimes seen strange little beings, like the Dover Demon or the weird little green man found in a New Hampshire forest in the 1950s. 

Which brings me back to my original question: do you believe in fairies? The Fairy Investigation Society wants to know.

The Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was founded in 1927 by a British man named Quentin Crauford. Attracting mostly Theosophists who believed that fairies were elemental beings, the Society continued sporadically through the 20th century until finally disappearing in the 1990s.

In 2013 the Society was re-booted by Simon Young, an English historian living in Italy. While membership in the original Society was limited to people who believed in fairies, the current society is open to "all those who have an interest in fairylore, be they believers or ultra skeptics." I'm proud to be a member myself!

One of the first goals of the Fairy Investigation Society is to conduct a census of fairy sightings and beliefs. Do you believe in fairies? Have you or a friend seen one? Please tell the FIS. Complete the online survey and help the FIS understand more about fairies and fairy beliefs in the modern world.

The FIS is hoping to get thousands of submissions to the survey. I'm hoping some of those submissions will be from right here in New England!