houses


houses
   The most substantial body of folk practice and belief concerning houses focuses on protecting them from witchcraft, evil spirits, fire, thunder, and lightning; this involved placing protective objects, generally near a point of possible entry - door, hearth and chimney, window. There are ample records showing that certain items (e.g. holed stones, horseshoes, houseleeks, rowans, thunder-stones, witch posts, a piece of Yule Log) were believed to ward off danger; in other cases this interpretation is more conjectural, though plausible (e.g. putting dried cats, horse bones, and shoes inside walls, and stone heads on the facade). It has recently been suggested (Lloyd, 1999) that certain patterns cut into timbers of East Anglian houses were protective. Some of these features, such as witch posts, must be the work of the builders, presumably by agreement with the owners; others could be added by anyone at any time. It is not always clear where magic ends and decoration begins; traditional features such as the finials on tiled roofs and plaited bird figures on thatches were probably regarded as lucky by some craftsmen and some customers, but as simply ornamental by others. Some trees and shrubs also protected against fire, witchcraft, or both; these include bay, elder, holly, and rowan.
   The only belief about houses themselves appears to be one mentioned by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son ((1848) chapter 51): 'Mr Towlinson . . . frequently begs to know whether he didn't say that no good would come of living in a corner house'. This prejudice was 'common in Herefordshire' (N&Q 5s:4 (1875), 216), and Opie and Tatem give a further reference from 1947.
   Also from the mid-19th century, and more regularly reported, is the idea that to enter a house with a spade (or axe, mattock, etc.) on your shoulder presages death, because these tools are used to dig graves. Standard collections mention this for several regions, including Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Dorset (Burne, 1883: 280; Leather, 1912: 119; Udal, 1922: 286); the first known reference is in N&Q 1s:12 (1855), 488. The somewhat similar taboo on opening an umbrella indoors is less easily explicable.
   See also building trade, foundation sacrifices. For beliefs about house furnishings, see beds, fires, mirrors, etc. Opie and Tatem, 1989: 97, 331, 367.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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