Folk-Lore/Volume 28/The Belief in Charms

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The Belief in Charms.

An Exhibition in London.

Superstitions die hard, but the German submarine campaign is prolonging the life of at least one of them. In Nelson's time there was a limited trade in cauls, then popularly believed to be sure charm against death at sea by drowning, and in those days a single specimen would fetch as much as £20. Since Nelson's time there has been less demand for these objects, and five years ago they sold at 2s. apiece. Now, thanks to the activities of the German under-water craft, they are being sold at the London Docks for £2 10s.

This is one of many interesting facts brought out by an exhibition of charms illustrating a faith in the supernatural that apparently still obtains in London. The collection, which has been got together by Mr. Edward Lovett, a member of the council of the Folk-Lore Society, is to be seen at the Southwark Central Library, Walworth Road. It has no relation to what may be called religious superstitions, but it shows how widespread is the belief, especially in East and South London, that the fortunes of individuals can be affected by some inanimate object deemed to be lucky or potent against disease.

Love charms, of course, are prominent. One that is shown is "dragon's blood" gum, red in colour, and it is claimed that if this is burnt at midnight, preferably on a Friday, it will not fail to win a lover. Mr. Lovett states that this practice still survives, and many young girls in London carry out these mystic rites religiously. Another charm of the same sort is the root of a little yellow wild flower (potentilla tormentilla). It also has to be burnt, but its efficacy lies in the fact that it renews a dead or waning affection rather than influences an existing one.

Medicinal charms form a large part of the collection. There are necklaces made of the stems of the night-shade which, if put around the neck of an infant, will help it to cut its teeth. A necklace of acorns is a specific against other infant ills. A knuckle-bone, carried in the pocket, will ward off rheumatism, the theory being that as the dead bone does not suffer from the complaint the disease will go into it. Another cure for rheumatism is a potato. A specimen shown was carried by a rheumatic subject for many years. A third charm against the same complaint is a small bottle containing mercury, hermetically sealed and covered with leather. Mr. Lovett states that it is sold in London by one of the largest chemists in the world.

Those who suffer from nightmare may welcome this prescription. A pair of horseshoes covered in blue and red cloth, or a string of stones, naturally perforated, should be hung up at the head of the bed. A necklet of blue beads will protect a child against bronchitis, while red beads or coral will avert sore throats. A small bag containing a tooth should be placed round the neck of an infant as an antidote against teething convulsions. Since the beginning of the war another charm against disease has been introduced by Belgian refugees—the wearing of cat's skin for rheumatism and chest troubles.

One of the most curious of the exhibits is a sheep's heart, pierced with pins and nails to break the spell of a black witch. It was prepared by an old woman who practised witchcraft in London as late as 1908. She learned the secret of the charm from her grandmother in South Devon, where it was popular with farmers. The black witches were supposed to bring about the death of sheep and cows by casting a spell over them, or by surreptitiously introducing the poisonous leaves of the yew tree into their food. By taking the heart of a sheep which had fallen victim to these machinations, piercing it with pins and nails, and hanging it up in the chimney, the spell was supposed to be broken.—The Times, 5th March, 1917.