Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Disease, Protection, and Animism: Folklore from the Past

Everyone is talking about COVID19. How could we not? My five-year-old's school has closed for two weeks, like all other schools in the state, and we're having to postpone his 6th birthday party. Like many other families, we've been spending most of our time at home, although we do plan on battling the cabin fever with some family hikes in the mountains here and there. My husband remarked today that we've never seen a situation quite like this in our lives.


Even so, pandemics have happened before. Some have been drawing comparisons to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which severely affected my own city due to poor public sanitation (we're talking solid waste flowing in the muddy streets at the time!) and a lack of understanding about how quickly the disease could spread. Thousands of lives were lost.


It's also made me think in some ways of the Plague: how pervasive it is and how much panic it causes when it arrives. I remember reading an account of a man who met the Plague in Claude Lecouteux's The Tradition of Household Spirits:

"Around 1650 in Lower Saxony, a Wendish peasant encountered the Plague and spoke with her. Finally she promised to spare him, commanding him: 'Strip yourself bare, keep not a stitch of clothing, take your chimney hook, leave your house and run around your farm in the direction of the sun, then bury it beneath the lintel'" (75).

Lecouteux explains that a house without a chimney hook -- an essential household tool that was brought by families to new households -- was considered to be abandoned, thus giving the Plague no reason to visit the home. In addition, its burial beneath the lintel provided a protective barrier.


I also think it's important to note the animistic belief regarding disease: the Plague is a feminine spirit that visits homes, claiming lives and disfiguring bodies. The Instagram account krauterhexe.waldheimat mentions Pesta, describing Her as a Nordic Plague hag carrying either a broom or a rake. The broom was the worse of the two: it meant She was there to sweep away all who crossed Her path. The rake, however, meant that some would survive.


Lecouteux mentions another method of protecting against the Plague: digging a furrow with a chimney hook. A group of townspeople once did this, creating a spiritual hedge that the Plague supposedly couldn't cross (75). Of course, I don't recommend relying on a chimney hook to ward against COVID19, but these traditions reveal an essential belief held by our ancestors, one that Christianity couldn't eradicate: everything is spirit as well as body.


The chimney hook was an essential part of the household. The hearth was the focal point and spiritual center of the traditional home, being the source of heat and light and the place where food was cooked. The chimney hook functioned as an extension of one's arms and hands, enabling residents to safely hold onto and manipulate kettles and pots of food placed over the fire. It was attached to the inside of a fireplace, the place most intimate with the home's sacred fire.


Fire is universally sacred, even the ones in mundane homes. In Europe, food was offered to household spirits in the fire or onto the chimney hook, and divination could be performed before and within the fire. Fire not only provides warmth and light -- and thus life and understanding -- but also purification and therefore the power to heal and fortify. But fire can be dangerous, too: consuming homes if not carefully tended, and burning bodies. The chimney hook served as the intermediary -- both materially and spiritually -- between the living and the fire. It was treated with reverence and turned to as a savior against all kinds of threats against the household: poured with soup to prevent housefires, sore throats rubbed with it, and, as we've seen, used as a barrier against disease. More than a lifeless tool, it was viewed as an embodied spirit with power and agency.


Most of us have no need of a chimney hook these days, with our kitchen stoves, lighting, and HVACs powered by gas or electricity. But we still have intermediaries -- tools or features that are essential to functioning households that protect and help us. What are those things for you? What is your relationship with them? How do you express reverence and gratitude toward them, or seek out their help in times of need? It's worth taking a look around. After all, our ancestors' animism recognizes that spirits are everywhere, including those of disease, medicine, and everyday tools.

Works Cited


Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions: 2013.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. 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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