Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).

Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.

Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:

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When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.

If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.

In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.

Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.

If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.

The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.

If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.

As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.

A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.

Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.

If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.

After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.

In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.

Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.

Funerals

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.

If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.

Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.

Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.

Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.

If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.

A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.

Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.

If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.

Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.besieged-house-ghosts-768

Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.

Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.

Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.

Graveyards

A graveyard
A graveyard

If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.

Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.

If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.

Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.

Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.

Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.

If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.

 

 

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The Secret Life of Statues

A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

As I was searching for local folklore for my customary dive into #FolkloreThursday on Twitter I came across the wonderful Enid Porter collection of local Cambridgeshire folklore, and it was here I discovered the wonderful story of the stone lions of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

That tweet seemed to capture the imagination of many people and I received some fascinating replies telling me about folktales of other stone lions or statues around the country which are said to come to life at night, and so I thought I should explore the legends further in a blog post.

The Fitzwilliam Lions

These four beautiful stone lions were carved by William Grinsell Nicholl (1796–1871) in 1839 with two adorning the south steps and two looking out over the north steps of the museum building. Lion statues are a familiar motif on public buildings, their majestic and powerful figures seen as worthy beasts to guard entrances.

A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Legend has it that at the stroke of midnight, the lions awake from their slumber, stretch and then pad down from their pedestals to take a drink from the guttering (flowing from Hobson’s Conduit further up the street) which runs along Trumpington Street. The lions might then take a stroll through the museum, letting out the odd roar, before settling back onto their perches ready to welcome visitors in the morning.

The story inspired Michael Rosen to write a poem called The Listening Lions in which he imagined what the lions might see and do when they awoke every night.

The British Museum Lions

These gorgeous Art Deco lions guard the lesser-used north entrance of the British Museum on Montague Place. At midnight they too are rumoured to have a stretch, yawn and take a drink of water, before settling back into position.

One of the lions outside the north entrance of the British Museum
One of the lions outside the north entrance of the British Museum

The lions were carved by Sir George Frampton RA in 1914, he is also famous for the Edith Cavell memorial outside the National Portrait Gallery.

The Landseer Lions

These four enormous bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer. The Column was erected in 1843 and the fountains added in 1845, but there was some delay over the lions. The original commission went to Thomas Milnes but his four stone lions were not thought to be grand enough for the great memorial to Nelson and so they were sold to Sir Titus Salt who installed them outside the former factory school in Saltaire near Bedford, where they sit to this day.

One of the Landseer Lions surrounding Nelson's Column (credit: Chris Dennis)
One of the Landseer Lions surrounding Nelson’s Column (credit: Chris Dennis)

Landseer, a renowned artist, took over the commission in 1858 and immediately began sketching the lions at London Zoo and he also took delivery (via a cab!) of a dead specimen from the zoo. Landseer was particularly thorough and the press began to complain that his research was taking overly long.

The lions were finally put in place in 1867, some nine years after Landseer had received the commission. The Spectator has this rather sniffy report about their unveiling (2 February, 1867):

Sir Edwin Landseer’s lions, so long ordered for the base of Nelson’s Monument, were uncovered on Thursday without any official fuss. The popular verdict upon them seems singularly uncertain, and the artistic one has yet to be pronounced.

The statues may look identical but if you look closely you can see that they are all slightly different. The paws on the lions have been criticised for not being very lifelike, resembling the paws of a normal cat rather than a lion, it is thought this is because the lion corpse he used to model from may have begun to decompose by the time he got them and so the paws were not in great condition.

These iconic statues are rumoured to come to life should Big Ben ever strike thirteen. Incidentally, it is also said that should Big Ben strike thirteen times then there would be a death in the Royal family.

Statue of King William III

Lion statues are not the only statues said to come to life, there is statue of King William III, in Hull, which is known affectionately as ‘King Billy’. This gilded statue of King William siting astride his horse was erected in 1734 and was created by Dutch sculptor, Peter Scheemaker.

Golden statue of King William III, known as 'King Billy' and his local pub
Golden statue of King William III, known as ‘King Billy’ and his local pub

The statue stands on the Market Square and it is said that when the church clock of Holy Trinity strikes midnight, King Billy gets off his horse and pops into the pub for a pint. If the clock ever strikes thirteen locals expect to see the horse also join them for a drink!

Do you know of any other examples of folklore of statues coming to life? If so, please do share in the comments below.

Gardening folklore

Gardening folklore often has a basis in fact, so it is fascinating to read through some of the old traditions and superstitions surrounding plants, planting and gardening. I have always enjoyed joining in with the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter each week, sharing snippets of folklore I come across while researching my books and articles.

For the last few weeks I have been tweeting on all things gardening to celebrate the upcoming publication on 4 May of my next book The Golden Age of the Garden and so I thought I would collate the best bits of gardening folklore to share on my blog:

Plant a single garlic clove next to your roses to protect them from flying insects, especially pesky aphids.

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Dandelion or pis-en-lit in French which translates as ‘wet the bed’

Water collected in the hollows of ancient oak trees was thought to be a good remedy for fever.

Traditionally if it was warm enough to sit on the bare soil with no trousers on then it was warm enough to sow seeds.

Never bring dandelions into the house, they will make you wet the bed.

Cow parsley is also known as ‘break-your-mother’s-heart’ and it is bad luck to bring into the house.

Pick blackberries before September is out as by October it is believed the devil pees on any remaining fruit!

In Appalachian folklore it is considered extremely bad luck to say thank you if someone gifts you with plants or cuttings.

Daisies keep fairies from your garden. To ensure your child is not stolen and replaced with changeling, tie a daisy chain around their neck.

Plant chives in orchards to prevent lightning strikes.

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Corn

In Midwest America if a girl found a blood-red corn in among the yellow ones, she would be married within the year.

Brambles in seventeenth century England were considered magical, if you stepped under a thorny arch it could cure any ailment.

Foxgloves were considered bad omens. Sailors beware! Bringing one on board a ship was especially unlucky.

Planting and sowing of seeds should be done according to the phases of the moon:

In the moon’s first phase crops that bloom above ground, such as corn, spinach & lettuce should be planted.

The second quarter up to full moon, above-ground seed crops should be planted, such as watermelon, squash & tomatoes.

The week after full moon is time to plant below-ground plants such as carrots and potatoes.

In the final quarter of the waning moon planting should be avoided altogether, and instead weeding should be priority.

Chilli peppers will turn out more spicy if you plant them while angry.

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Chillis

When shelling peas if you have 9 in a pod, throw one over your shoulder for luck.

Parsley and basil will only grow well if you swear profusely as you plant it.

Old American folklore recommends that corn should be planted when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.

Daffodils should be discarded before the head droops, a droopy daffodil is a harbinger of death!

Plant wild garlic to keep out rabbits, according to English folklore they will not pass a boundary planted with ‘ransomes’.

Parsley is especially tricky to germinate so gardeners would make 3 sowings, 2 for the devil and 1 for the gardener.

Do you know of any gardening folklore? Please share in the comments below.