Animal Folklore

Bees

Bees have often been regarded as wise and even holy insects, having foreknowledge as well as knowledge of many secret matters. In antiquity they were sometimes divine messengers, and their constant humming was believed to be a hymn of praise. Because of their status it is still considered unlucky in some places to kill a bee. If a bee flies into the house it is a sign of great good luck, or of the arrival of a stranger; however, the luck will only hold if the bee is allowed to either stay or to fly out of the house of its won accord. A bee landing on someone's hand is believed to foretell money to come, while if the bee settles on someone's head it means that person will rise to greatness. They were once considered to deliberately sting those who swore in front of them, and also to attack an adulterer or unchaste person; it was once held to be a sure sign that a girl was a virgin if she could walk through a swarm of bees without being stung.

There is believed to be a very strong link between bees and their keepers; bees cannot prosper in an atmosphere of anger or hatred, and will either pine away and die or fly away. There is still a common belief that bees should be told about deaths that occur in the beekeeper's family; in past times this was extended to include every birth, marriage or other notable event in the life of the family. It was especially important to inform the bees of the death of their owner; traditionally this was done by the eldest son or widow of the owner, who would strike each hive three times with the door day and say "The master is dead". If the procedure was not followed, the bees would die or fly away. In many districts the hives were put into mourning by having black crepe draped around them, and the funeral feast sugar or small amounts of the food eaten by the mourners were brought out for the bees.

An old country tradition states that bees should not be purchased for money, as bought bees will never prosper. It is acceptable to barter for goods of the same value in exchange for bees, and in some districts gold was an acceptable form of payment. A borrowed swarm or one given freely is more likely to do well; a stock of bees was often started from a borrowed swarm on the understanding that it would be returned if the giver was ever in need of it.

Bee-stings were once thought to prevent rheumatism, and in some places a bee-sting was also through to cure it.

Cattle

Cattle were highly regarded by the Celts, being the most important animal for their sustenance and welfare and also a basis for wealth and prestige. They were also believed to have close ties with their human owners and to be aware of human activities and festivals. In some areas it is thought that cattle should be informed of any deaths in their owner's household, or the cows, sensing that something was wrong, would sicken and probably die. During medieval times the superstition arose that cattle would kneel at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve; in some parts of Europe they were also believed to gain the ability to speak on this night, although it was considered dangerous for any human to hear their speech as misfortune would befall anyone who overheard them.

There are many English, Irish and Welsh tales of fairy cows who gave never-ending milk until their generosity was abused by some greedy human, causing a loss of the cow or her powers. A Lancashire tale tells of a dun cow that appeared during a famine to save the people with her unending milk supply, until one person tried to get more then her fair share by milking the cow through a sieve, leading to the cow's death from exhaustion and sorrow at the trick. Fairy cattle could be dun or red but were more usually white with red ears.

It was once considered unlucky if an offer were made to purchase cattle which were not for sale, leading to their illness and perhaps death. In some districts it was also considered unlucky to strike cattle with human hands; a stick should be used to drive them from place to place, and should be thrown away once the destination was reached. Cattle who stand close together on low ground, and feed hard together, are said to be foretelling rain, but if they stand on high ground the weather will be fair.

Cattle diseases were often attributed to the machinations of fairies, elves or witches, and many charms were used to fend off these magical attacks. Horseshoes or holed stones hung above the door of the byre, or crossed made of rowan wood fixed over cattle-stalls, were believed to ward off evil influences. In the sixteenth century wax from a Paschal Candle would be molded into a special candle, and wax from it dripped between the ears and horns of the beasts; the remaining wax was then set over the main door, or on the threshold, so that all the cattle had to pass the spot. Written charms were also obtained from local wise-women or cunning-men to ward off evil, and concealed in the roof or under the floorboards.

It was traditional to drive cattle over the embers of the Beltane and Midsummer fires, as a magickal protection against cattle plague and other diseases. As recently as the nineteenth century, some farmers would sacrifice one healthy calf or cow (sometimes burying it under the threshold of the byre with feet pointing upwards) as a symbolic sacrifice that the herb might be spared from cattle plague.

Dogs

Dogs have always been credited with the power of sensing supernatural influences and seeing ghosts, spirits, faeries or deities which are invisible to human eyes. In Wales only dogs could see the death-bringing hounds of Annwn; in ancient Greece the dogs were aware when Hecate was at a crossroads foretelling a death. Dogs are believed to be aware of the presence of ghosts, and their barking, whimpering or howling is often the first warning of supernatural occurrences.

There are many instances of black dog ghosts which are said to haunt lanes, bridges, crossroads, footpaths and gates, particularly in Suffolk, Norfolk and the Isle of Man. Some black dogs are said to be unquiet ghosts of wicked souls, but others are friendly guides and protectors to travelers; the Barguest of northern England could also appear as a pig or a goat, but most commonly a huge black dog with large eyes and feet which left no prints. Packs of ghostly hounds have also been recorded all over Britain, often heard howling as they pass by on stormy nights rather then actually seen; these hounds generally foretell death, or at least disaster; if they are seen and the proper action is to drop face-down onto the ground to avoid spotting them.

When a dog howls in an otherwise silent night, it is said to be an omen of death, or at least of misfortune. A howling dog outside the house of a sick person was once thought to be an omen that they would die, especially if the dog was driven away and returned to howl again. A dog which gives a single howl, or three howls, and then falls silent is said to be marking a death that has just occurred nearby.

Dogs are feared as possible carriers of rabies; sometimes even a healthy dog was killed if it had bitten someone, because of the belief that if the dog later developed rabies, even many years afterwords, the bitten person would also be afflicted. Remedies for the bite of a mad dog often included the patient being forced to eat a part of the dog in question, such as its hairs or a piece of its cooked liver. Dogs were also used to cure other illnesses; one old charm which was often used for children's illnesses was to take some of the patient's hairs and feed them to a dog in-between slices of bread and butter; the ailment was believed to transfer to the animal, healing the patient.

In Scotland, a strange dog coming to the house means a new friendship; in England, to meet a spotted or black and white dog on your way to a business appointment is lucky. Three white dogs seen together are considered lucky in some areas; black dogs are generally considered unlucky, especially if they cross a traveler's path or follow someone and refuse to be driven away. Fishermen traditionally regard dogs as unlucky and will not take one out in a boat, or mention the word 'dog' whilst at sea.

Donkeys

Christian tradition stated that donkeys originally had unmarked hides, and that it was only after Christ's entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey that they received the dark cross on their backs. The hairs from the cross were widely believed to cure a number of ailments, and were often worn in a charm around the neck to guard against whooping-cough, toothache, fits, and to ease teething pains in babies. Sometimes the hairs were eaten in a sandwich instead. Riding a donkey was also believed officious, especially if the rider faced the donkey's tail end, and was sometimes used as a preventative for toothache, measles and other children's complaints. One cure of whooping-cough and ague stated that the patient should be passed under a donkey and over its back either three or nine times; the trick of feeding an animal some of the patient's hair to transfer the illness was also used with donkeys. The donkey was also used to help cure the complaints of other animals; letting a black donkey run with mares in a field was thought to stop the mares miscarrying.

An old saying claims that no one ever sees a dead donkey; however, there is also a tradition that to see a dead donkey means great good fortune, and even as recently as this century it was considered a good luck charm to leap over the carcass of a dead donkey three times.

Hens and Roosters

A hen which crows is considered to be unlucky, as in a hen with tail-feathers like those of a rooster; preciously these birds would be killed on most farms. Hens which roost in the morning are said to be foretelling a death, usually that of the farmer or someone in his household. A hen which enters the house is an omen that a visitor will arrive, and this is also the case if a rooster crows near the door or comes inside.

Roosters have long been connected with the sun, as they crow to herald its arrival at dawn, and are considered watchful protectors of humankind. When a cock crows at midnight a spirit is passing; in England it is a death omen if one crows three times between sunset and midnight. Crowing at other times is often a warning against misfortune. If a cock crows while perched on a gate, or at nightfall, the next day will be rainy. A white rooster is considered very lucky, and should not be killed as it protects the farm on which it lives; black cocks, however, were more ill-omened, being often associated with sacrifice.

Horses

Horses have been sacred animals in Indo-European cultures from very early times, and it is easy to see why; their great importance in farming, travel and warfare would make them extraordinarily important. The Celtic goddess Epona presided over horses, and the Norse Odin was said to ride through the heavens on an eight-footed white horse. Horses were used as valuable sacrifices by many ancient people, including the Romans, and their bones were concealed in the walls of houses, or horse skulls placed on the gables of houses, as a protection.

In some places it is lucky to meet a white horse; in others, unlucky; either way, tradition states that upon meeting a white horse one should spit and make a wish, or cross one's fingers until a dog is seen. In many places it is lucky to lead a horse through the house; this belief may stem from the association of horses with fertility and crops, which has lasted in form of hobby-horses which were originally part of Beltane (May Day) revels.

It was once thought that whooping-cough could be cured by going to the stables and inhaling the breath of a horse; being breathed upon by a piebald horse, or riding on its back, was another supposed cure. Horse-hairs, chopped very finely and fed to a child in bread and butter, were thought to be a certain cure for worms, and the horse-spurs (calluses which appear on the sides of a horse's leg) were believed in the eighteenth century to be a cure for cancer if dried, ground and drunk frequently with new milk.

Rabbits and Hares

It is believed to be unlucky to meet either a hare or a rabbit, one variant stating that a rabbit which crosses one's path in front is a good omen and one which crosses behind is a bad one. In some English counties it is considered unwise to shoot a black rabbit, as it may be an ancestral spirit returning in rabbit-form; in Suffolk it was believed that white rabbits were witches, which was also unlucky to shoot. Rabbits and hares were never mentioned at sea, as they were considered ill-omened words, and to meet one on the way to sea was a very bad omen.

An old custom is to say "Rabbits" or "White Rabbits" either once or three times on the first day of the month, as a good luck charm; it must be the first word said that morning, otherwise the charm is not potent. A rabbit's foot is a well-known lucky charm in most English-speaking countries, said to ensure success in many fields. Actors may keep a rabbit's foot in their make-up cases for good luck, and will meet with misfortune if the foot is lost. In Wales an old belief is that a new-born child rubbed all over with a rabbit's foot will be lucky for life.

Sheep

To meet a flock of sheep on a journey is an omen of good luck. An old Manx belief states that sheep cannot be counted accurately unless the person counting them has washed his or her eyes under running water first. Peaceful sheep, lying in the field, are said to herald fine weather, but rain is foretold if they are restless and baa for no apparent reason.

The knuckle-bone from a piece of mutton was once thought to be a preventative charm against rheumatism if carried about in the pocket; similarly, a certain T-shaped bone from the sheep's head was believed to protect its carrier from bad luck and evil. A strip of sheepskin on a horse's collar was once used as a prevention against the evil eye, and a rather gruesome method of breaking a curse was to stick a sheep's heart full of pins and roast it at midnight in a room where all doors, windows and openings had been firmly closed.

Parts of sheep were often used in folk cures; a sheep's lung was once applied to the feet of a pneumonia sufferer, and was thought to draw the disease downward into itself. People could be wrapped in the skin of a freshly killed sheep in an attempt to cure an adder bite; children with whooping-cough were thought to be cured by letting a sheep breathe on them. Sufferers from consumption were once advised to walk around a sheepfold many times a day, beginning early in the morning.

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