Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Stones, Bones, and Blood: Rituals to Prevent a House Fire

If you’re familiar with household folklore and traditions, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of concern about housefires. While fire was a necessary element for survival – keeping warm, cooking food, boiling water to make it safe to drink and clean wounds with – it was also a hazard, especially in homes made of wood and thatch. Lightning could strike during a storm, and the roof would be set ablaze. An accident or malfunction could happen in the hearth, and the house would be consumed from within. Loss of a home spelled disaster, just as it does today, although fire codes and emergency response units have reduced risks for many of us.

Fiery Gods and Devils

Many household spirits were associated with fire. The German kobold is one example. Kobolds, like alps, were often described as fiery spirits that dwelled near or within the stove and, if they were treated poorly, could cause housefires in vengeance. Feeding the kobold regularly, refraining from speaking ill of him, and keeping the house clean and tidy were good ways to keep him happy and supportive of the household.

Housefires were also attributed to the wrath of storm deities, and so they were often petitioned or guarded against. One method of preventing a fire caused by lightning was finding and keeping a thunderstone. Thunderstones are ancient stone artifacts or meteorites associated in Germanic countries with Thor/Donar/Thunor, god of storms. Benjamin Thorpe writes in his third volume of Northern Mythology: “if any one finds a thunderstone, he carefully preserves it; because thunder will never cause any injury in a house where there is such a stone” (57). Similarly, oak acorns can be set on windowsills to prevent lightning striking the house – the oak being sacred to Thor and other Indo-European thunder gods.

Powerful Sacrifices

I recently joined a folk magic book club, Queer as Folk Magic, founded by a good friend of mine. The book for last month was The Long Lost Friend by John George Hohman. Naturally, it includes charms and rituals to prevent household fires. One such charm, “To Prevent Conflagration,” recommends taking:

 

“a black chicken, in the morning or evening, cut its head off and throw it upon the ground; cut its stomach out, yet leave it altogether; then try to get a piece of a shirt which was worn by a chaste virgin during her terms, and cut out a piece as large as a common dish from that part which is bloodiest. These two things wrap up together, then try to get an egg which was laid on maunday Thursday. These three things put together in wax; then put them in a pot holding eight quarts, and bury it under the threshold of your house, with the aid of God, and as long as there remains a single stick of your house together, no conflagration will happen.”

I read about a similar, French tradition for home protection for newly constructed houses in Claude Lecouteux’s book The Tradition of Household Spirits:

“An old woman holding a black chicken in her hand entered the first room; once she passed over the doorsill, she secured the bird between her legs and slit its throat with the blade of a knife. She poured its blood in front of the house and when the animal was on the verge of expiring, she spilled the last drops on the threshold. The dead bird would then be roasted and served at the meal following the sacrifice.” (29)

When asked why she does this, the old woman replies that it prevents anyone living in the household from dying during the first year of occupying the house – in other words, becoming a sacrifice for the household deity. Similarly, a practice in Russia and Poland involved burying the head of either a chicken or black rooster beneath the first stones of a new house (38). Black animals in general are considered to have protective or luck-generating powers in certain cultures, including the UK.

So we can see that the tradition of sacrifice to prevent disaster in homes has a long lineage, traveling across the sea from the Old World to the settlers’ New World. Most of my research has been into European traditions – the UK, Germany, and Slavic countries such as Russia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Reading American texts and seeing similarities with European traditions has shown how European settlers kept some traditions and developed new ones with old foundations. We can do the same: keep what is useful and lean upon the old foundations to build new traditions for our places and times.

 

Works Cited

Hohman, Johann George. Pow-Wows, or Long Lost Friend. Sacred Texts.

      http://www.sacred-texts.com/ame/pow/index.htm.

 

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 3. Lumley, 1851,

      https://archive.org/details/northernmytholog03thoruoft.

 

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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