‘Who will I marry?’ is a question which comes to the minds of most young women, even in these modern days when independence is so prized. If you lived in old Lancashire a century or two ago, there were several ways this question could be answered, not least by the use of a dandelion seed-head. Nowadays children call the delicate balls of seeds ‘dandelion clocks’ and they blow on them, counting the number of blows it takes to empty the seed-head completely, thereby telling the time. But years ago, the dandelion seed-head was blown to divine one’s age at marriage.
Once you had decided how old you would be at marriage, the next step was to find out who would be your spouse. A common method was to use a large key and a Bible and here is how to do it; after finding the phrase ‘Whither thou goest will I go’ in the Book of Ruth, place the key upon it, leaving the end of the key protruding from the pages. The bible should then be tied shut firmly and held aloft by inserting both little fingers under the key. Now begin to say aloud the names of all those eligible bachelors in your village. When the Bible falls from your hands, the last name you spoke will be your husband.
If that seems an irreverent use of the Holy Bible, a gentler method is to place a sixpence – preferably a crooked one – onto those same verses in Ruth, and sleep with the book under your pillow. Your future husband will come to you in your dreams.
Another way of provoking dreams of your future lover is to pin three ash-leaves to your clothing, wear them all day and then sleep with them under your pillow. This little ritual most likely came from our Viking forefathers – the ash was regarded as a magical tree in Norse belief. It was named Yggdrasil or the ‘World Tree’ and was associated with knowledge ever since Odin deliberately hung from it to gain wisdom.
You could also wait for a full moon and ask assistance with this spell;
All hail, New Moon, All hail to thee!
I pray, good moon, declare to me
This night who my true love shall be.”
Alternatively, you could wait till New Year’s Eve and arm yourself with some soft lead and a glass of cold water. Melt the lead over a fire and drop a small amount of the liquid metal into the glass of water. The lead will swirl and set into a shape which will resemble the tools of the trade your future husband will follow. Or, on All Hallows Eve, throw some hemp seed over your shoulder and look back to see the man who will be your husband – and if that doesn’t work, place a snail in the ashes of the dying fire and watch it’s progress as he traces the initial of your future husband’s name.
In those old days, when a child was born the father would celebrate by providing a large cake and a large cheese for relatives and friends to share. These were charmingly known as the ‘groaning’ cheese and cake and when they were cut, the first piece of each would be given to a young unmarried girl. She would take it home and sleep with it under her pillow – and dream of the man she would marry. A shame that we no longer see ‘groaning cakes’; the nearest we have today is a christening cake, so if you know of a child being christened, it may be worth begging a piece of the cake! You don’t have to say what it’s for…
Once you’ve found your true love (whether by one of the above wonderful methods or not), be careful never to accept a gift of knives from him. Ever since Viking times, these have foretold the cutting of ties between lovers. And if you are apart and unsure of his feelings, stir the fire as it’s dying; if it bursts into flame again quickly, he’s in a cheerful mood and thinking kindly of you.
Finally, don’t worry if he keeps Friday nights for himself, for Friday is the unluckiest day of the week and old Lancastrians would never start anything new on that day. Farmers would not start ploughing or harvesting, sailors would not start a new trip, and housewives would not begin a new piece of needlework. They knew that anything started on that day – including a love affair – was doomed to failure. Any young man caught ‘courting’ on a Friday evening would be chased home by his friends who would noisily banish the bad luck he had started by banging on pan-lids with pokers. A quiet night in the pub certainly sounds preferable to that!
How fun! Manly Wade Wellman wrote about a couple of “Who will I marry?” traditions from the Appalachian mountains in his story “Call Me From the Valley.” I’m not sure where the traditions originally came from.
“And the farmer, who next to me was the youngest there, mentioned love and courting, and how when you true-love someone and need your eyes and thoughts clearest, they mist up and maybe make you trouble. That led to how you step down a mullein stalk toward your true love’s house, and if it grows up again she loves you; and how the girls used to have dumb suppers, setting plates and knives and forks on the table at night and each girl standing behind a chair put ready, till at midnight the candles blew out and a girl saw, or she thought she saw, a ghosty-looking somebody in the chair before her, that was the appearance of the somebody she’d marry.”
I wonder where the term “dumb supper” originated?
I love the way that’s written! Obviously I’n not familiar with Appalachian customs & folklore so thanks for sharing. It’s likely, I suppose, that at least some of those traditions came down the generations from the first English/British settlers. Would make sense. Certainly ‘Dumb Supper’ must have come to Appalachia from Britain – it’s an old Celtic tradition, still performed today by some pagans, and only performed on All Saint’s Eve which, of course, is Hallowe’en. Except that the end result is not to see one’s future husband, but to invite the spirits of one’s dead loved ones to sit at table with you one more time. The ceremony was performed in silence, hence ‘dumb’.
Oh of course! “Dumb Supper” = “silent supper”. I should have seen that.
I’m very fond of Wellman’s “John the Balladeer” stories; they have a lovely, lyrical language that he wasn’t able to indulge in most of his other writing (science fiction and fantasy for pulp magazines). There’s an online collection of the stories here: http://www.library.beau.org/lib/ebooks/baen/03/John%20the%20Balladeer/0671654187_toc.htm
They were out of print for a long time (but not out of copyright); I think there’s a small press that’s reprinting them in a premium hardcover edition, but the link above is a good place to introduce yourself to them.