shrews


shrews
   The shrew has a very bad reputation in English folklore. Its bite was believed to be poisonous to domestic animals, and if a shrew crawled over a cow, horse, sheep, or even human, that animal would suffer acute pains and swelling. In Britain, these beliefs go back at least to the 16th century and, indeed, Pliny includes them in his Natural History (ad 77). It was one of the superstitions reported by Gilbert White (The Natural History of Selborne (1776), letter 28), and see Opie and Tatem for further references. The reported cure and/or prevention was to bore a hole in an ash tree, or split a branch or trunk, catch a live shrew and imprison it in the hole or split and leave it to die and rot away. That tree, henceforth called a 'shrew-ash', would then have healing powers over shrew bites. According to N&Q (5s:9 (1878), 65), another method of making an ash effective against shrews was to bury a horseshoe at its roots. A further alternative was to enclose the shrew in clay, and hang it round the neck of the cow to protect it. It was also considered unlucky for a shrew to cross your path, and that shrews themselves could not cross roads or even tracks made by cart wheels without dropping dead on the spot. Some of these beliefs were also held about fieldmice.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 354-6; H. S. Toms, 'Shrew Folklore', Sussex N&Q 2 (1929), 178-9; Lean, 1903: ii. 647-8.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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