WHEN I was a youngster, I saw my grandmother putting a few corks into her bed one night. They were ordinary corks taken from bottles and she put them under the blankets, near the foot of the bed.
I thought this was odd and when I asked her what she was doing, she told me that they were to keep cramps at bay.
She apparently suffered from leg cramps and these were supposed to help.
I have no idea whether they did or not, but she was the local midwife, so people tended to listen to her when it came to health issues.
She had other remedies too and she always said that if you feel that you’re getting a cold or a flu, you should have a shower, or a bath, as soon as possible, and then put on fresh clothes to separate yourself from the contamination.
I remember having a sheet of brown paper shoved down the front of my shirt one time to cure some ailment and on another occasion, I had my head over a bowl of boiling water with a towel covering myself and the bowl. Something was added to the water because the smell was revolting.
The idea was to inhale the fumes and that would open the airways, which would help you breathe more easily, or maybe they just did it to keep me quiet.
The fact that I’m still alive proves that these remedies didn’t do any harm. Whether they did any good or not is debatable.
There were lots of those beliefs and piseogs back in the day, but many have disappeared since we got all modern and scientific.
It was said that hiccups were caused by somebody talking about you behind your back and one of the many cures was to say the name of everyone you knew and when you landed on the name of the culprit, the hiccups would stop.
I’m not sure how science could debunk something like that, it seems rock solid to me.
There were some other remedies too, like drinking nine small sips of water from a pint glass, followed by one big sip. Or alternatively, drinking a pint of water from the opposite side of the glass until it was empty. Another one was to drop a cold key down the back of your neck.
It was also said that you should never rock an empty cradle and that it was bad luck to carry a cradle upside down. I suppose it would be, particularly for the child sleeping in it.
There were lots of do’s and don’ts when it came to death as well. For instance, it was said that all clocks in the house should be stopped when somebody died, and the water used to wash the corpse should not be thrown out until after the funeral. Chairs and tables should be turned upside down as well as soon as a funeral left a house.
The poor old magpie has long been associated with superstition because they refused to enter Noah’s ark, and they sat out the flood perched on the roof. Perhaps they were just a little anti-social, but they’ve been under suspicion ever since. The sight of one on his own is a sign of bad luck, but if you see two together you’re sorted.
Sailors and fishermen are notoriously superstitious. They have a serious respect for the sea because of the power it holds, and they know how dangerous and unpredictable it can be.
In some coastal communities it was believed that blowing out a candle was bad luck as it meant that a sailor somewhere at sea would die, so they preferred to let their candles burn down and extinguish themselves naturally.
Not all sea-fairing superstitions were about death though, some of them were a bit of fun. A friend of mine in the UK, called Matt Stoves, spent some time in the British Navy and he told me about an experience he had while they were crossing the Equator.
“A long, long time ago, I was on a Destroyer heading to Sydney and we had what was called a ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony. This was a fun thing and there was a party atmosphere on board to celebrate crossing this line. We were novices, so we were lined up in front of King Neptune and his Sea Bears, and after a bit of a ceremony we were accepted as regular ‘Mariners of Neptune’s Court’.
“The occasion was meant to end with individuals being thrown over the side of the ship. Everything was being prepared, the ship had stopped its engines, we were drifting around, and the seaman branch were preparing for the event.
“One of the Chinese chefs went fishing and, to attract fish, he threw some of the fire-fighting foam mixture over the side from one of the many cans that were positioned around the ship. This mixture had several ingredients and reputedly contained ox blood. Well, this one certainly contained something, because within minutes we were surrounded by big and small ‘Nobby Clark’s’ (naval slang for sharks) and loads of them. The part of the ceremony requiring men to be thrown over the side was rapidly cancelled and instead a canvas pool was hurriedly arranged on deck and filled with sea water to fulfil that part of the ceremony.
“While that was going on, the chef caught one of the sharks and he was struggling with it, so a couple of hand grenades were thrown at it to kind of subdue it. It didn’t work quite like that. The Nobby thrashed like hell and snapped the wire and chain tracer and disappeared into the murky sea.”
With guys like Matt fishing with grenades, it’s no wonder that sailors are superstitious.