skulls


skulls
   Several farms and manor houses formerly kept a skull on display, allegedly that of someone who had lived there and had insisted that this be done; the luck of the house and family was said to depend on its presence, and if anyone tried to remove or bury it, it would either return of its own accord, or cause violent and noisy haunting until replaced. There were examples at Wardley Hall, Osbaldeston Hall, and Timberbottom Farm near Bolton (Lancashire), Brougham Hall and Calgarth Hall (Westmorland), and Threlkeld Place (Cumbria); some were explained as relics of Catholic martyrs, but they too took revenge if disturbed. At Warbleton Priory (Sussex), there were two, allegedly a former owner and his murderer, supposed to cause ghastly noises and bring ill luck if moved; they were still there in 1947 (Simpson, 1973: 47-8).
   The *origin tales are very varied. At Bet-tiscombe Manor, near Lyme Regis (Dorset), the skull is said to be that of a Negro slave enraged at not being sent home to Africa for burial; in fact it is female, fossilized, and possibly prehistoric. At Burton Agnes Hall (Yorkshire, now Humberside), it is the youngest of three sisters in Elizabethan times, who on her deathbed made her sisters swear to keep her head on a table so that she could see the Hall completed. The famous 'Dicky' of Tunstead Farm (Derbyshire), already installed in 1790, is said to have been a rightful heir in Elizabethan times, murdered by his cousins (Folk-Lore 41 (1930), 98-9); he was buried in the garden in 1985 (Billingsley, 1998: 165-6).
   Skulls were used in traditional cures, usually for epilepsy but sometimes also for headaches and plague; either water was drunk from them, or fragments were grated into food. Moss scraped from an old skull was said to staunch bleeding; a tooth from one cured toothache (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 359-60). In Devonshire in the 1880s, a woman whose husband had left her tried to buy from a chemist a substance called 'Oil of Man', made by distilling the skulls of hanged men, believing that by burning it she would call him back; she was disappointed to learn that 'that article cannot be had now' (Transactions of the Devonshire Association 21 (1889), 113-14).
   See also *bones.
   ■ The fullest listing of protective skulls is by Andy Roberts and David Clarke, Fortean Studies 3 (1996), 126-58; the same authors have collected current beliefs and tales about them in their Twilight of the Celtic Gods (1996), 138-46; see also Westwood, 1985: 13-4, 327-8.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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