- Of all the varieties of 'divination in English folklore, by far the most common is concerned with love, courtship, and marriage, and most 'regional collections include several examples. Love divinations take a wide variety of forms but the basic principles are clear enough, and the underlying premiss is as follows: If you (1) do something (2) in a certain way (3) at a certain time (4) you will discover or influence the future of your love-life. For any particular instance of divination, the instructions for elements 1-3 can be plotted on a continuum from simple to complex ingredients and actions, and these correlate closely with a scale from easy to do to difficult to do. More striking, however, is the scale subsumed in element 4 - ranging from information to compulsion. The desired result can at the simplest end be to find out something about one's future spouse (the first letter of his name, his occupation, etc.), while at the other end the actions can be designed to force the man of your choice to take notice of you, which is where divination shades off into ' magic. At a point between these extremes are actions designed to make him appear to you - either safely in a dream or less safely in a mirror or even as a sort of spirit or 'wraith who is drawn to your presence.In older records, love divinations cluster around certain days of the year ('Halloween, 'Midsummer, 'St Agnes's Eve, St 'Valentine's Day, 'New Year), and the symbolic power of the particular date is thus added to the potency of the time of day (usually midnight), as well as the prescribed ingredients and actions.At the simplest end of the spectrum are the cherry-stones, buttons, petals on a daisy, and so on, chanting 'He loves me, loves me not ...', or the ubiquitous 'Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor ...'. The first recorded version of this type of procedure only dates from the 1820s, but it is commonly reported from then on.A little more complex are those which use everyday objects:To meet your future wife or husband count seven stars in the sky on seven successive nights, and on the eighth day the first person with whom you shake hands will be your wife or husband. (Addy, 1895: 76)To find out whether your husband will have light or dark hair, take a table-knife with a white haft and spin it round on a table. If it stops with the blade towards you your husband will be a dark-haired man; if with the haft, he will be a light-haired man. (Addy, 1895: 82)More complicated:If a girl wishes to dream of her future husband let her go upstairs backwards on a Tuesday or a Friday night with a garter in her hands, saying these words as she ties it:I tie my garter in two knotsThat I my beloved may seeNot in his best apparelBut in the clothes he wears every day(Addy, 1895: 78)The following charm is practised on Midsummer Day - A bucket of spring-water is set in the middle of a yard at midnight. If a girl looks therein at the hour of twelve she will see the face of the young man whom she is to marry. If she does not see it she will die an old maid. (Addy, 1895: 78)If you eat an apple at midnight on All Halloween, and, without looking behind you, gaze into a mirror, you will see the face of your future husband or wife. (Addy, 1895: 84)Those designed to conjure the man's wraith or spirit are understandably more complicated still:The following charm is to be practised at midnight on St Anne's Eve (July 26). A stool is set in the middle of a room and a bowl of water put thereon. A string or piece of rope is then hung across the room. Seven unmarried girls, who must not speak till the ceremony is over, come in, and each hangs a smock on the line. Then each of the girls in turn drops a bay-leaf into the bowl of water, and sits down immediately opposite to the smock which she has hung up. Soon afterwards a young man will enter the room, take a bay-leaf from the bowl, and sprinkle the smock of the girl whom he intends to marry. He will marry her that year. (Addy, 1895: 78)On All-Halloween or New Year's Eve a Border maiden may wash her sark, and hang it over a chair to dry, taking care to tell no one what she is about. If she lie awake long enough, she will see the form of her future spouse enter the room and turn the sark. We are told of one young girl who, after fulfilling this rite, looked out of bed and saw a coffin behind the sark; it remained visible for some time and then disappeared. The girl rose up in agony and told her family what had occurred, and the next morning she heard of her lover's death. (Henderson, 1866: 79)Alternatively, the procedure could be designed to compel the man in real life. These are often told in narrative form, as they had happened to someone, and invariably with an unhappy ending as a warning:In another instance related in East Yorkshire the girl took a live frog, stuck it all over with pins, put it in a box, kept it shut up for a week, after which she looked in and found that the frog was dead. She kept it until it was consumed away to bones. Then she took out of the frog a small key-shaped bone, got into the company of the young man she wanted, fastened the bone to his coat, and said:I do not want to hurt this frog But my true lover's heart to turn Wishing that he no rest may find Till he come to me and speak his mind.After this he had a week's torture, as the frog had, and then he went to her and said he had had a queer sensation for a week, but he didn't know what it meant. 'However', he said, 'I will marry thee, but I know we shall never be happy'. They were married and lived very uncomfortably together'. (Addy, 1895: 79)(Compare this frog-bone procedure with that listed under 'horseman's word).Worst of all, the divinatory actions of the girl might cause rather than predict a real-life tragedy. Henderson (1866: 79-81) gives an example from the Scottish borders which describes a complex procedure involving 'holly leaves and three pails of water, designed to summon up the future husband. In one reported case, however, the lover who had thus been summoned 'let fall a rope with a noose at the end, which the young woman took up the next morning and laid in her press'. They were soon married, but within a fortnight the husband hung himself with the rope she had hidden away. Henderson gives one or two similar tales from European sources.' Weddings are an obvious time for love divination, but the ones that cluster around this event have less of the complicated rigmarole and few of the frightening elements. The simplest is the throwing of the bouquet or stocking, or putting a piece of wedding cake under your pillow to dream of your future spouse, but several demand the use of a wedding ring (Addy, 1895: 78).Amidst the wide variety of items used and actions prescribed, recurrent motifs can be discerned. Doing things 'backwards, staying silent, washing things, placing items under the pillow, the rhyme commencing 'It is not this - - I mean to hurt', or the promise that 'The first person you meet ...', are all regular ingredients, as are pails of water, 'pins, apples and apple pips, seeds and 'leaves of various sorts, and, common enough to warrant their own entries, 'dumb cake, and 'dragon's blood. In sum, most of the recipes combine everyday objects in unusual ways or places. Those which are not designed to conjure the form of the man, usually result in symbols which need to be interpreted - shapes of molten 'lead (or 'tea leaves) to denote a trade, a letter of the alphabet to indicate his name, and so on.Young women have certainly not stopped wanting to learn about their future love-life, but the complex and frightening procedures detailed above are no longer reported, although some may be practised in private. What does exist is a series of formulas by which schoolgirls use numbers and letters of the alphabet to compare boys' and girls' names to calculate their chances with each other, and diagrams on which answers to questions are plotted and their future revealed, and these are regularly printed in girls' magazines, as well as being passed on informally at schools (see Folklore Society Children's Folklore Newsletter 2 (1988), 17; 3 (1989), 10-12; 4 (1990), 20-2). Younger girls also have a range of 'skipping rhymes which appear to be divinatory. It is difficult for the outsider to know where the line between game and seriousness lies in these matters, but it is ever the privilege of the young both to believe and not believe at the same time. Opie and Tatem, 1989: 472-3.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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