June 11, 2020

Charming and Grim Folklore from Maine

I am working from home today and sitting next to an open window to let in the breeze. It's also letting in the pollen. The table I'm sitting at is covered with fine yellow dust.

I sneezed three times just now. That's not unusual for me. If I sneeze, I usually sneeze three times. That's probably more information than you want to know, but according to some old folklore from Maine, it means I should get ready to encounter a stranger soon.

Gertrude DeCrow, writing in The Journal of American Folklore in 1892, noted "Sneezing three times in succession is a sign of a stranger coming." In the same article she also wrote "To sneeze between eleven and twelve is sign of a stranger." I sneezed well after noon, so I guess only one stranger is coming.

DeCrow's article, simply titled "Folk-Lore from Maine," contains lots of charming tidbits like that. Here are a few more:

If ants build sand up around their holes, it is a sign of rain.  
If you step over a mop-handle it is a sign you will never be married. 
If the palm of the right hand itches, you shake hands with someone that day; if the left hand, you will receive money.  
If a broom, standing beside a door, falls over across the door, it is a sign of a stranger.

DeCrow doesn't explain where in Maine she found this folklore, but it seems like it's from a small town or rural area. In urban areas you meet strangers all the time, but that's not the case in small towns or the country. Meeting a stranger would be a big deal and therefore worthy of an omen.

She also includes a lot of folklore about the weather and about love. This old-fashioned type of folklore is kind of charming. It makes me think about a simpler, slower way of life. I picture myself riding a horse and farming and talking with neighbors at church socials. It's an idyllic image, particularly to a city person like myself. This folklore also makes me feel like people were living in a world filled with meaning and enchantment, something that can be missing from modern life, particularly in 2020. After all, I am working at home today due to a pandemic.

Vintage whippoorwill illustration from Etsy

But my idyllic image is only a fantasy. Rural life can be hard, and was probably really hard in the 19th century. Why else would DeCrow include a section called "Death Signs?"

If a person, carrying a corpse or empty coffin by a house, speaks with a member of the family residing in it, there be death within the year in the house. 
Instance: Mrs. Mary P. stopped a man thus to inquire who was dead, and one of her own children died within a few months. 
If there is a white horse in a funeral procession, it is a sign that another person in the same family will die before the year is out. 
If a tick bug is heard, it is a sign of death.

I'm not sure what she means by a "tick bug" and I don't want to find out. Omens of death also appear among some of the other beliefs she describes. For example, under "Moon Signs" she mentions that seeing the new moon first through a window means you'll hear about someone's death within the week. If you see it through an upper pane, an older person will die; through a lower pane, a younger person. That's grimly specific.

"Folk-lore from Maine" also includes some beliefs about birds: "Bird Signs." Much of this folklore is also focused on death:

If a whippoorwill sings night after night near a door or under a window it is a sure sign of approaching death in the house.  
Instance: A whippoorwill sang at a back door repeatedly; finally the woman's son was brought home dead, and the corpse was brought into the house through the back door. 

Even if you make it through the night without hearing a whippoorwill you still may not be safe. If you see a partridge on the doorstep in the morning you should be afraid - it's another omen of death.

That's a lot of death omens. Let's face it, the good old days weren't really that good. Certainly life was slower-paced and people may have felt more connected to their community (for good or ill), but all these omens show us the truth behind the idyll. Life was hard in 19th century New England, and medical care was primitive by modern standards. Death was a constant worry. 

The fantasy is nice, but the truth actually makes me feel more connected to those Mainers in the past. 


Those of you who are familiar with the writer H.P. Lovecraft might have perked up when I mentioned whippoorwills above since they appear in some of his stories. I wrote more about whippoorwills in more detail a few years ago.


Ian Hamilton said...

I'm going to guess that the tick bug is probably a deathwatch beetle ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathwatch_beetle ), which attracts mates with a tapping or ticking sound. It was apparently very fond of the oak timbers used in older buildings. So you're probably not going to hear one too much today! Safety!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Ian! Thanks for the comment. That makes a lot of sense. I live in an old building now but it's mostly made of brick. Counting my blessings!