Fragments from the Forest, Part 6 – The Loss of a Popular Culture

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

It is hardly surprising that many beliefs and physical objects have not been recorded, when such a large proportion of the population, who lived with these sayings, superstitions and monuments were illiterate. They could not record them themselves and of what interest to others were a few rocks in a field or a curious belief about the efficacy of touching wood. What wasn’t ignored by the educated part of the population was ruthlessly supressed by the Church. So many possibly pagan customs and sculptures were campaigned against by a whole variety of people in the name of the Church and of decency.

It took a change of the attitude and perception of the literate classes for these things to noticed, valued and recorded. By looking at the rocks with a different eye they could see a pattern that could suggest that they were remnants of another culture and not something left over from glacial drift.

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Fragments from the Forest, Part 5 – The Age of Superstition

In The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, compiled by Steve Roud, touching wood for luck was seen in a 1998  survey as the tenth most common superstition, with 16% of the people surveyed quoting it. Roud goes on to say that this superstition is not nearly as as old as it is supposed to be and can only be traced back to the early nineteenth century, for that was when it was first recorded. But the fact that this was the first time that superstition was recorded in writing does not mean that it did not exist in some oral form before.

It had for example, to have been in existence  for it to be collected in the first place. How long had it been in existence before it was noted, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, a millennium? Consider too, that touching wood was a fairly common belief, not confined to one observation, but current all over the UK and apparently the USA as well. It would surely be unthinkable to suppose that from a few limited observations and records that it had spread almost instantaneously over such a large area at the time of collection. What we have to consider here is that the early 19th century was a time when a dramatic change in the attitude of the literate classes occurred for there to appear a serious interest in the culture of the common people. Collectors like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany collected their folk tales  from friends, neighbours and villagers and published them in German in their Children’s and Household Tales, in 1812. It took a few years for an English version to appear but by now there was a general interest in superstition, folk tales and folk songs throughout the literate classes.

Relying on the written word as a means for dating a saying or belief is fraught with difficulty and could lead to some major errors. For example there was no written evidence that the stone circle in Wiltshire known as Stonehenge existed before the 11th century when it was first recorded, yet we are assured that it’s origins lie some 9000 years earlier. Something similar occurred with the massive stone circle at Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe, again in Wiltshire, when it was first recorded by the antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukely in the 17th century, although archeologists assure us that it was constructed around 2600 BC.




Fragments from the Forest, Part 4 – Believing Today

In the past few blogs I hope I have established that for many people ‘touching wood’ is believed to have a beneficial effect.

It would seem that boasting or counting on good luck can be a very dodgy business and that touching wood is one way of ensuring continuing good luck or protecting yourself from bad luck, which is also the cessation of good luck, can be achieved.

I can claim this because of the way that this belief has become so embedded in both our personal and popular cultures. We are quite happy to accept it when someone stops a conversation to find some wood to touch or use the phrase in conversation. We may not necessarily believe it ourselves but will certainly accept that others do.

Going to the trouble of finding a piece of wood to touch and thereby risking looking ridiculous would suggest that that some of us believe  that there is some special power that can help protect us from our own folly or from the evil intent of others both spiritual and corporeal. But why does such a belief exist at all? What is it about wood that makes it so special? Is it wood that people believe in, or is it a tangible symbol for some unseen, unknown power that can influence our lives or be called on to do so? Then we have to ask does the type of wood make any difference? Is oak more powerful than hawthorn and are products like plywood and chipboard not effective at all as a protection?

Fragments from the Forest, Part 3 – Influencing the Fates

TOUCHING WOOD – a meaning.

It could also be that touching wood is a sign of humility, a gesture designed to placate some mysterious forces who might become annoyed and vengeful at too much boasting. This of course, brings in the idea that there are forces outside our control who can influence our destiny. This might be known as ‘the wrath of the gods’, or more specifically in the case of ancient Greece, the three fates who wove the destiny of man on their loom; Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, who measured out the length of the thread of life, and Antropus, whose job it was to snip the dangling thread when Clotho had finished weaving it into her fabric.
But we are not ancient Greeks and although some of their beliefs have filtered through to today, there have been other forces from other mythologies at work as well. Some of these early beliefs might well have filtered through via the Celts whose culture covered a large part of Europe and who occupied Britain many centuries ago. In the UK there is also a long history of Scandinavian folklore and belief infiltrating our culture, for example the names of their gods have become attached to our days of the week – Tuesday (Tiw’s Day), Wednesday (Woden’s Day), Thursday (Thor’s Day) and Friday (Freya’s Day).