Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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The Whispering Hearth

The hearth has long been a place of power. We have already explored its position as a place of healing and protection. In many European cultures, it is also traditionally a place for communion with spirits, where offerings are left and knowledge from them can be gained. In Germany, the space between the back of the stove and the wall was called Hölle, “hell” (Lecouteux 70). It’s important to note that the words Hölle and hell originate not in Christianity but from a Proto-Germanic word meaning “a hidden place,” i.e. the underworld (Online Etymology Dictionary). People have long sought out the insight of the dead and other spirits regarding the future, and the hearth or stove was one common site for divination.

 

Some of these rituals occurred only at certain times in the year. Christmas and New Year were particularly popular for divination. Claude Lecouteux writes in The Tradition of Household Spirits of an Eastern Prussian tradition in which the stove was contemplated during this time to gain insight about the coming year (72). He also describes a tradition in Vogtland region of Germany in which  a cauldron would be filled with water on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Epiphany and left on the fire overnight. The next day, the water would be checked to see if it had overflowed or decreased, which would predict “whether the price of grain would increase or decrease over the next three trimesters, with each feast representing one trimester”; however, if the water evaporated completely, it was believed that “a soul in torment had used it to purify himself” (78). The Twelve Days of Christmas, within which the three above dates fall, was deeply connected with chthonic spirits, including Holda (Holle), a leader of the Wild Hunt with a connection to both grains and water, which raises some questions about the lost origins of this tradition (Thorpe 98-100).

 

Other divination traditions could be observed at any time of year. If the fire in a stove crackled, a quarrel would happen in the house (Lecouteux 72). If a chimney hook fell of its own accord, a visitor could be expected (76). Lecouteux also mentions furnascopy (divination by the behavior of the furnace) as a popular form of love divination, although he does not go into detail about how this might be performed (72).

 

There were several rites that could be performed to foretell death. Blessed olive branches or grains of wheat from a manger would be placed in a hearth fire to learn if someone would live or die (Lecouteux 72). In another rite, a vase filled with water, topped with ivy leaves representing the fates of particular people, would be left on the hearth stone overnight. In the morning, if any leaves turned black, that person was predicted to die within twelve days; if any leaves had red spots, the death would be a violent one (Anatole Le Braz, qtd. in Lecouteux 72). Additionally, a copper kettle left in the hearth would be regularly filled with water, and if it ever sang, it would herald the approach of the cold or a death in the family (78).

 

Cineromancy, or divination by ashes, is another hearth activity that was performed across Europe. A fire would be built, and the resulting ashes (with the unburned wood or coals removed) would be examined to divine the answer to any number of questions. John Robinson describes an ancient Greek tradition:

 

“A word, phrase, name, or question would be written in the ashes with a finger or stick. The individual would wait for a breeze to disturb the ashes, which would form new letters or omens and provide an answer.” (281)

 

George Soane mentions an English wintertime rite that was done after supper for marriage predictions: an unmarried person would smooth the ashes from the hearth fire and then draw lines in the ashes with a stick, designating each line as a representative of another unmarried person. If someone came to the hearth and sat in a place that one of the lines pointed to, the person indicated by the line would be the querent’s future husband or wife (271).

 

A similar rite called ash-riddling is another method of predicting death or health. According to Elizabeth Mary Wright, ashes are “riddled” or scattered on the hearth at bedtime. The next morning, if any household member’s prints appear in the ashes, that person would die within the year (264). It was often performed on April 24 (St. Mark’s Eve) but could also be done on Halloween or New Year’s Eve. Alternatively, a Manx tradition states that death is only imminent if the print is pointing toward the door; otherwise, it indicates a birth in the home (Radford 24).

 

In older times, the hearth or stove was at the center of the home and human activity. It provided illumination in both a literal, physical sense as well as a spiritual sense. It seems such a humble place to gain knowledge of love, prosperity, and life or death, and perhaps that’s why it’s such a powerful, sacred place in the home -- it is so ingrained in the fabric of our lives that we are deeply attached to it without realizing it, and when we pass on, our spirits return to it again and again, bearing secret, wide-seeing knowledge.



Works Cited

 

“Hell.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 19 May 2017. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hell

 

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2015.

 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. Accessed 19 May 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=-YI8DAAAQBAJ&pg=PT166&lpg=PT166&dq=berchtentag&source=bl&ots=RQdd0VDsrk&sig=qxxRp6jlcmQFKgNXKJJ20i6cmBM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiagYXft_3TAhXIYiYKHVHhCtwQ6AEIYTAP#v=onepage&q=berchtentag&f=false

 

Radford, Edwin & Mona Augusta. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions. Accessed 19 May 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=r7AZ4U2HA3UC&lpg=PA24&dq=riddling%20ashes%20divination&pg=PA24#v=onepage&q=riddling%20ashes%20divination&f=false

 

Robinson, John. Archaeologia Graeca, or, The Antiquities of Greece. R. Phillips, 1807.

 

Soane, George. New Curiosities of Literature: And Book of the Months. Vol. 2. Accessed 19 May 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=yE0HAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q&f=false

 

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851. Accessed 20 May 2017. https://archive.org/stream/northernmytholog03thoruoft#page/n111/mode/2up/search/holda

 

Wright, Elizabeth Mary. Rustic Speech and Folk-lore. Accessed 19 May 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=rB1AAAAAYAAJ&dq=riddling%20ashes%20divination&pg=PA264#v=onepage&q=riddling%20ashes%20divination&f=false

 

*Image Source: The Victorian Web, uploaded by Philip V. Allingham

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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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