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!

November 09, 2014

The History of Cranberry Sauce

In the year 1638, the Englishman John Josselyn sailed from his home country to visit a strange and wild land called New England. He stayed for just over a year, and enjoyed it so much he returned again in the 1660s for another visit.

Josselyn wrote several books describing what he saw in New England, including strange animals, Native American customs, and unusual plants. Among those plants was the following:

Cran Berry or Bear Berry, because bears use much to feed upon them, is a small trailing plant that grows in salt marshes that are overgrown with moss. The tender branches (which are reddish) run out in great length, lying flat on the ground, where at distances, they take root, over-spreading sometimes half a score acres, sometimes in small patches of about a rod or the like...

The berries, hanging by a small root stalk, no bigger than a hair; at first they are of a pale yellow color, afterwards red and as big as a cherry; some perfectly round, others oval, all of them hollow, of a sour astringent taste. They are are ripe in August and September...

The Indians and English use them much, boiling them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat. And it is a delicate sauce, especially for roasted mutton. Some make tarts with them as with goose berries. (John Josselyn, New-England's Rarities Discovered, 1671)

And that, as far as I can tell, is the first written mention of cranberry sauce*. Somewhere between 1638 and the 1660s people were already using cranberries, a native North American fruit, to make what is now a classic Thanksgiving dish.

 Before the English came the local Indians used cranberries in a dish called pemmican, which was made of dried meat, berries, and animal fat. When the English arrived they used cranberries in traditional British dishes. Cranberry sauce was the New England version of a traditional English barberry conserve, barberry being a sour fruit that grew in Europe. Here's a recipe from 1597:

To make a conserve of barberrries

Take your barberries and pick the clear, and set them over a soft fire, and put to them rosewater as much as you think good. Then, when you think it be sod enough, strain that, and then seethe it again, and to every pound of barberries, one pound of sugar, and meat your conserve. (Thomas Dawson, Second Part of the Good Housewives Jewel, 1597, quoted in James Baker's Thanksgiving. The Biography of an American Holiday, 2009)

At first that seemed like a pretty high sugar to berry ratio to me, but looking at some modern cranberry sauce recipes online I found it's really not. Most modern recipes call for one cup of sugar per twelve ounce bag of berries. A pound of sugar is just under two cups, and a pound is sixteen ounces. So really this old barberry conserve is a little sweeter than modern cranberry sauce, but not much. Of course, most people don't put meat in their cranberry sauce these days.

It took almost 200 years for the first cranberry sauce recipe to appear, although other recipes with cranberries appear in a lot of the earlier American cookbooks. America's first published cookbook, American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons, includes a recipe for a cranberry tart, but no cranberry sauce. In The American Frugal Housewife (1833), author Lydia Marie Child includes cranberry pie and cranberry pudding recipes, but again no recipes for cranberry sauce. (Child also discusses using cranberries to remove warts, which I don't recommend fort Thanksgiving dinner.)

Cranberry sauce recipes don't begin to appear in cookbooks in the middle 1800s. I suspect there is a simple reason the earlier cookbooks don't contain cranberry sauce recipes - it's just so simple to make. Boil berries with sugar and water. That's it! I suppose it would have been like including a recipe for making a peanut butter and sandwich.

*If you know a verifiably earlier reference to cranberry sauce, or an earlier recipe, please let me know. I've seen some references on Wikipedia to a "Pilgrim cookbook" from 1663, but I can't find that actual cookbook anywhere. Wikipedia also misquotes Josselyn's book, claiming he called it "sauce for Pilgrims," which is not the case, so I'm feeling a little skeptical about Wikipedia and cranberry history.

November 02, 2014

The Devil Builds A Barn

Although Halloween has sadly passed, the nights and weather are only going to get darker and gloomier from here on. It's still the season for spooky stories! Here's one from 19th century Massachusetts about the Devil himself.


A poor farmer living out in the country wanted a barn. He had a house and a couple small sheds, but no barn. Unfortunately he was just too poor to build one.

His desire for a barn must have been very strong, because the Devil caught wind of it. One night when the farmer was alone the Devil came to his house.

"I'll build you a barn", the Evil One said. "All you have to do is give me your soul when you die. Doesn't that sound like a bargain?"

The farmer may have been poor, but he was smart. He had heard tales of bargains made with the Devil. The tales usually didn't end well.

After thinking for a while, the farmer said, "I'll give you my soul... if you can build the barn before the first rooster crows in the morning. Deal?"

"Deal," the Devil said. They shook hands to seal it. The Devil's hand was hot like a frying pan.

The Devil immediately set to work. The farmer could hear him hammering and sawing away in the darkness. It sounded like the barn was going to be a good one.

It was just before sunrise, and the Devil was very nearly done. While the Evil One hammered away to finish the barn on time, the farmer snuck out his back door to the shed where he kept his chickens. He crowed like a rooster. This woke up his actual rooster, which crowed in response.

The Devil hadn't quite completed the barn, so he didn't get the farmer's soul. After he angrily vanished in a cloud of brimstone the farmer finished the last remaining details of the barn. He felt pretty good for outsmarting the Devil.

His satisfaction didn't last long. It turned out the roof leaked, the doors didn't close properly, and the whole structure fell apart within a year. But then what else would you expect from a barn built by the Devil?


I like this story. It's short, sweet, and to the point. It was told to Clifton Johnson in the late 19th century, and he included it in his book What They Say in New England (1896).  The motif of cheating an evil supernatural being who's building something for you is much older than the 19th century, though.

When I read this story I'm reminded of the old Norse myth telling how the gods hired a giant to build the walls around Asgard. They made a bargain with the giant. If he could build the wall in only one winter, with the help only of his horse, the gods would give him the goddess Freya, the sun and the moon. They made this bargain because they assumed even a giant couldn't finish a huge wall in just three months. After all, his only assistant was a horse.

Unfortunately for the gods, it turned out that the giant's horse was magical and was able to lay stones and spread mortar with its hooves. Things looked bad, but the trickster god Loki came up with a plan. Just before the wall was done, and just before winter ended, Loki turned himself into a beautiful mare. The beautiful mare lured the giant's horse off into the woods, and the giant was unable to finish the wall on time. Not only did he not get the sun, moon and the goddess Freya, but Thor smashed his head in with a hammer. Ouch! 

The gods got a 98% completed wall, and many months later Loki returned from the woods carrying the magical eight-legged colt that he had given birth to.

That might have been a little bit of a tangent, but I think you can see how the two stories are related.  New England folklore is just a little more bare bones than Norse mythology!