The superstitions of a
race represent the religious beliefs of ancient peoples. They are
exaggerated fear of the unknown. Religious superstition marks a
degeneracy in religion, and is very rare among the Celts. Our Nova
Scotian superstitions come under “good and bad luck,” “cures for man and
beast,” the influence of the moon, and such like. It is practically
impossible to discover in the case of some of these practices, which,
are importations from the old country, and which, those of native,
growth. In any case, they are here, and have been here for more than a
century, although their origin is wrapped in obscurity.
Among the Acadians, if children should intentionally destroy swallows’
nests, it was believed that cows would give blood in their milk. This
may be a survival from a time when certain birds were held as sacred!
This sacredness may also account for the belief that if a bird flies
into a room, death or misfortune is soon to follow. Or it may be
accounted for by the ancient belief that the spirits of the dead often
assumed the form of birds.
The superstitious practices resorted to in order to obtain cures are
many and varied. Among the Acadians, only certain men in the village
were endowed with the power of performing the cures. These men could
stop the flow of blood from a bad cut, or cure a toothache simply by
passing their hand over the part affected. Again, if an individual
afflicted with warts went to them for a cure, they would take a pea, tie
it up in a rag and thrown it into a well. With the pea went the wart.
The sections of the country peopled by Highlanders, only the “seventh
son” had the privilege of curing people by merely stroking the diseased
member. These men, who were rare enough, were frequently sent for from
long distances to give relief to some sufferer.
In these districts, too, warts were disposed of in a variety of ways,
all of which point to ancient pre-Christian beliefs with regard to the
transference of disease from one person to another, and for which
witches were once tried and condemned to death. For example, blood from
the warts was put on a cloth, which was then dropped in the path of a
passer-by. Or stones, to the number of warts, were put into a bag, which
was then thrown over the right shoulder on to the road so that it might
be picked up. The person picking it up got the warts.
More significant still of pagan descent was the practice of rubbing
stolen meat on the warts and then burying it. When the meat decayed the
warts disappeared. Another certain cure was to take a string with one
more knot than the number of your warts and throw it after the first
funeral that passed, saying: ‘‘Take this with you and rot in the grave.”
Yet another example of the transference of disease to old mother earth
is found in this cure for a pain, which the teller saw tried: “If when
running you should take a pain, bend down, pick up a stone, spit on it,
and put it back with the spit next the ground. The pain will disappear.”
Lumbago might be cured by the sufferer lying face downwards on the floor
and one who was born feet first walking over him, putting his full
weight on the sore back. An old lady tells this story with regard to
this cure: *4 When I was a little girl one of my uncles had a very sore
back, and the only one that could cure it was big Betsy, who lived ten
miles away. They sent a horse and waggon for her, and she was received
with all the respect due her skill. All the elders of the family
assembled in my uncled room, but as I was considered too young to assist
at the ceremony, I was sent out to play. But my curiosity got the better
of me, and I was soon at the key hole. This is what I saw:
“My uncle was lying on his face on the floor, and old Betsy was
beginning to walk around him in a circle, saying some kind of gibberish.
He was supposed to keep perfect silence; but when Betsy stood with her
bare feet on his back it was too much for him, so he began cursing and
swearing, and, of course, broke the spell. I do not know whether he was
cured or not; but I do know that old Betsy left the house in disgust.”
Sprains were cured by an old woman saying a rhyme over the injured
member, or by placing around the sprain a string made from white spool
thread knotted with seven knots. The person who is responsible for this
bit of information asserted that she had actually had a sprained ankle
cured in this way.
Toothache could be cured in a variety of ways. A person with a charm for
it took a rusty nail into the woods, and drove it into a tree, saying at
the same time: “May you be there all pains and aches.” The suffering
person was cured as soon as the nail was driven.
A preventive of toothache was to chew the wood of a tree that had been
struck by lightning. A Christian element was introduced into the cure
when a prayer was written on a piece of paper, which was put into the
mouth over the aching tooth.
A good toothache story is told by an old man, who enjoyed the telling of
it very much, although he says it loses much by not being told in
Gaelic. One day a man who was suffering terribly from toothache was
riding along the East Bay Road when he met a stranger, who stopped him
and inquired what ailed him.
“Och, I have an awful toothache, whatever,” he replied.
“Well, if you have, you have met the right man,” said the stranger, “for
I can cure you in a minute.”
“If you can, do it,” he said.
Thereupon the stranger muttered an incantation and the suffering ceased.
The man continued his journey until he came to the glebe house, where he
called to see his parish priest. He told how he had been cured on the
“Do you know who cured you?” asked the priest. "That I do not,” he
“Well, I know who he was.”
“Who was he, then?”
“Nobody but the devil himself.”
“Och, no, Father,” came the rejoinder. “How could that be, and him
talking the Gaelic as well as yourself.” But it was generally a woman
who had these charms, for witches were the lineal descendants of the
Druidesses, who were remarkable for their magic. For example, a woman
who had a charm would rub a sore throat with water and recite an
incantation, and a cure would be effected.
There was a belief that silver coins were powerful against witchcraft.
The reason for this idea is hard to find. Silver may possibly have been
substituted for the iron of an older period, when the uses for the
latter became very common. In the older beliefs, iron was thought to
possess many magic properties, which were assigned to it on account of
its recent discovery. May not the same thing have happened when silver,
with its shining brightness, came to gladden hearts? In any case, silver
coins were frequently pierced and hung around the necks of children.
People, with whom these coins were scarce enough, would scarcely be
lavish with them for mere decoration.
When an animal was sick it was believed to be charmed. The owner would
then prepare a vessel of water, into which he would slip a silver coin,
and have the animal drink. An elderly woman, to whom the writer had
recourse for old traditions, told of her grandmother, who had what she
called a luck penny, which bore on it the words: "In hoc signo vinces.”
and the name of some ruler, John XXII. (?). When any animal in the
neighborhood was sick, she would go to a spot on. the farm where two
brooks met, part the water with the silver coin in the form of a cross,
although she was not a Catholic, saying at the sanie time the words of
the Sign of the Cross, then bring the water to the sick animal. The coin
had been handed down in the family for hundreds of years, she said, and
a family conclave had to decide its destination on the old lady’s death.
Apart from the use made in this instance of silver, there is the added
incident of the meeting of the brooks. This may be a survival of the
worship of the spirits, which were supposed to live in brooks and rivers
(i), combined with the Christian Sign of the Cross. Be that as it may,
the people had faith in the ceremony—a faith which the recovery of sick
animals readily confirmed. The succeeding generation cured their animals
by putting a blessed medal into their drinking water.
Good and Bad Luck.
What may be considered another survival of a belief in witches is the
curious superstition that prevails with regard to meeting women. Here
are some specimens: “On setting out on a trip, if you meet a woman it is
bad luck; but if she is red-headed, it is worse — turn back. But if you
meet a white horse and afterwards a red-headed woman, it is all right.”
Evidently the white horse is so potent in luck bringing that he can
override the terrors of even a red-headed woman.
Again, miners are sure of an accident if a woman should go down into the
mine. If they meet a woman first on going to work, they are afraid.
Women have been deterred from visiting mines because of this
superstition. Good luck for the whole year was brought to a house by a
man coming as first visitor on New Year's Day. A woman would bring only
bad luck. It was also regarded as good luck for a man to come to a house
on May Day. On this occasion he was not allowed to leave until he had
A black cat running across your path indicated bad luck; a hare doing
likewise was worse; but a squirrel brought good luck. Once upon a time
witches were supposed to have assumed the form of black cats and of
hares. This superstition may be a survival of the belief.
There are a number of superstitions in connection with the moon that may
possibly trace ancestry to the days of moon worship. There is, however,
no evidence of moon worship among the Celts, although its influence with
them is very great.
There was a belief among the Highlanders that everything had a tendency
to grow during the increase of the moon. In fact, they considered that
the harvest moon caused just as much ripening as the sun. This belief
gradually extended to other things; consequently a farmer would never
kill an animal for food when the moon was on the wane; he waited until
A girl would not have her hair cut except when the moon was on the wane;
otherwise it would grow too fast. To see the moon over your left
shoulder was bad luck; to see it over the right was good luck. Any wish
you made, the first time you saw the new moon was sure to come true,
provided you had something in your hand at the time you saw it, and that
you made the Sign of the Cross.
Meeting a funeral was regarded as very bad luck for anybody, but
especially for a wedding party. An old saying has it that:
“Happy is the corpse that the rain falls
Happy is the bride that the sun shines on.”
To go in the same direction with the
funeral was regarded as all right.
The toad, although looked upon with more or less of superstitious dread
on account of its being one of the witches’ familiars, according to
local tradition, was yet the means of securing preservation from evil,
and acquiring earthly goods could be found in its skeleton; but the
searcher was not to kill the creature. But how were the potent bones —
one shaped like a fork the other like a spoon — to be secured without
doing so? The question was answered for me by an elderly woman.
She and her little brother were very anxious to get these wonder-working
bones, for they had heard from their elders that with the fork-shape in
their possession no wild animal nor reptile could touch them; and with
the spoon-shape they could gain any favor desired by secretly touching
with it the person from whom they wished to get what they wanted. At
last they managed to get the directions, and they set to work. They took
a box and pierced it with a great many holes. Into it they put a live
toad; then carried it to an ant hill, where they buried it quickly.
After the burial they ran away as hard as they could, lest they might
hear the toad cry when it was attacked by the ants; for if they did so,
total deafness would ensue. After several seasons had passed away they
were to return to the ant hill and get the bones; but the mark they had
carefully placed on their particular hill was gone, so they had to be
content with remaining poor.
Once upon a time there was a plague of grasshoppers in Judique,
Inverness County, and one man, who was convinced that they were the evil
spirits in disguise, went to the parish priest to get water blessed to
sprinkle on them. When he got it, he returned home and got after the
grasshoppers. He went over the whole field sprinkling it vigorously,
saying as he did so: "Now, get to Hell with you.” And they went.
“The sea will claim its owTn,” was a favorite expression used in
connection with drowning accidents. This may derive its origin from an
ancient belief in fate, or it may go back to the days when the spirit of
the sea had to be appeased by a human victim. (Gomme’s Ethnology in
of Greece! with blood, a virgin’s gore,
Ye soothed the winds, then sought the Trojan shore.—
Virgil’s Aeneid, bk. 2, 115-134.