Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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

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Silence Before Dawn: Folk Magic, Darkness, and the Taboo Against Speaking

Imagine waking in the hour before dawn, rising in the cool darkness -- no electricity, no gaslights, just the stars and what's left of the moon, and perhaps a candle to light your room. You pull on your clothes, no sound but that of your feet shuffling and the ruffling of fabric. You put on your shoes and grab a bucket and head out in the darkness. You walk down the road, the air chilled and moist. If you pass someone, you nod your head but don't dare to speak. Their footsteps shuffle away, and the scent of cold earth and dew fills your nostrils as you continue on your way. Soon, you hear the faint trickling of a creek. You come to the edge of it, and the faint light glints on the ripples as you dip your bucket down into the freezing water. You pull it up again, and it's heavier than before. The faint light glints silver on that, too, almost as if you've captured some of the stars in it. Then you head home, the water sloshing softly in the bucket, and still you don't speak until dawn breaks on the horizon.

 

Blessed Water

This is an old tradition in some parts of Germany, in which water is gathered before dawn under the strict taboo of silence. Karen Anne of the German Girl in America blog writes in “Easter Water - the German Legend of Osterwasser”:

 

“In some parts of Pomerania, Germany it was customary for a young un-married girl to go to the local stream and gather water on Easter morning. She must not talk to any one on the way there or the way back. Lest the water not be special... Osterwasser must be collected before the sun touched it!”

 

This blessed water was believed to have the power to improve eyesight and keep animals healthy. Benjamin Thorpe notes in Northern Mythology that the Easter water only has value if the wind is blowing east while it is being drawn.

 

When Germans came to America, they brought their traditions with them, as did many other immigrant peoples. In The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman -- a manual of folk cures of Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Deutsch, or German) heritage -- there's a cure for “falling away" that instructs:

 

“Let the person in perfect soberness and without having conversed with anyone, catch rain in a pot, before sunrise; boil an egg in this; bore three small holes in this egg with a needle, and carry it to an ant-hill made by big ants; and that person will feel relieved as soon as the egg is devoured.”

 

For general sickness, Hoffman recommends that “the sick person, without having conversed with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight” and then place it in a locked box for three days while carrying the box's key in one's pocket. There are more rituals throughout the book with similar motifs of silence, water gathering, and darkness. Symbols of freshness, purity, and renewal mark these traditions. Like attracts like: rebirth and purity begetting renewal and cleansing.

 

Magic in Silence

The time between midnight and dawn is a sacred, powerful time. For us humans, night is generally a time for rest, for dreaming, for mystery and uncertainty.But, like light and movement, it is only temporary. As the world spins on its axis, daylight returns. The time before daybreak, then, is the crux of renewal, budding with all the unexpressed potential for the day to come. But you cannot speak, not a word, or the power will be lost.

 

Silence is powerful. It is a cradle for mystery, for subtle powers wending through the earth and wind and light and water -- through the whole of the cosmos, in fact. We have too little of it these days: we fill it up with guided meditations, ambient sounds, chants, rhyming charms, song and choreographed movements. Noise and activity has its place, but we need silence to attend to the spirits. Activity works best as framework, a nest for the silence into which the great powers creep and whisper in a language we cannot hear but nonetheless understand if we just still ourselves long enough to receive it.

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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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