"Celt envy" partly explains English at-titudes toward the folklore and cultural heritage of England. The colorful "pure" Celts of Ireland have their own long-running National Public Radio show in Thistle and Shamrock, leprechauns and the luminous Book of Kells, to say nothing of Guinness stout and James Joyce.
The English, in contrast, are defined by over-boiled vegetables, expressionless young palace guards in queer hairy hats, and a misbehaved and outmoded aristocracy. When I was about 14, I told the credulous neighbor kids we were French-Canadians, thinking even they were exquisitely exotic compared to the English (and was thoroughly insulted when their parents set them straight.)
There is, it turns out, a rich and entertaining font of English customs and beliefs, which the Folklore Society began collecting in 1878 from the island's eccentrically distinctive counties and hamlets. The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, summarizing these cultural roots, is an amusing tool in my quest to reconnect to my "inner-Englishman." While it probably won't become a bestseller in the Scandinavian strongholds of Astoria and Ilwaco, Wash., it is stuffed with luscious details from England's complex tribal past, a savory genetic stew of the prehistoric Celtic Brythons, the Romans, Saxons, Angles, Vikings, Normans and others.
Uncountable generations of my Great-grandmother Annie Weston's family have lived in and near Bishops Cannings, Wiltshire, the residents of which are known as moonrakers. "Once, some smugglers from Bishops Cannings had hidden barrels of brandy in a pond, and were spotted by Excise men while trying to retrieve them. Challenged, they replied that they were 'only raking for that big cheese down there,' pointing at the moon's reflection. The Excise men believed them - more fools they!" (Nowadays, the moonrakers continue to get the best of the outside world by promoting crop circles in this area, up the road from Stonehenge.)
The dictionary entry for "Dogs" provides a helpful charm to calm my 9-year-old's nerves after an evening watching the mildly scary TV shows she craves. (Hopelessly behind the times, we've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVDs.) From 1686 - "I believe all over England, a spaied bitch is accounted wholesome in a House; that is to say, they have a strong beliefe that it keeps evill spirits from haunting of a House." I always suspected our little corgi Bina was more powerful than she lets on, but a ghost buster? I'll be darned.
English traditions centered on fishing have a special significance here on the Columbia and Pacific. Befitting England's maritime heritage, there are a bunch of them. For example:
On his way down to his boat, fishermen thought it unlucky to see a rabbit, pig or woman. But worst of all was "to turn back after you had set off from home - even looking back was avoided." In a similar vein, families must not wave him goodbye.
"One of the strongest taboos was the word 'pig,' and fishermen and their families would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid saying the actual word," spelling it out instead or using euphemisms like "porker. "
A child's caul, a membrane that sometimes covers the heads of newborns, was believed to protect against drowning. Cauls were often advertised for sale up through World War I, with an asking price of 30 gold guineas in 1799.
Having now read one-third of the folklore dictionary, I haven't yet found many practices or beliefs I intend to incorporate into day-to-day life. But it's nevertheless charming to contemplate a place and a time when girls believed saying "Rabbits!" on a month's first waking moment guaranteed good fortune for the rest of the month.
All our ancestors, English or not, relied on whimsy and ritual to guard their passing days. We haven't just suddenly lost our need for these essential connections to the natural world and human traditions. Even Einstein acknowledged science can't provide all the answers. Humans are defined by the need to quench this thirst by seeking out the depths behind the surfaces of life.
Whether we search for still-relevant folklore from our past, or create brand new traditions, we owe it to ourselves and our children to honor the mystery and vitality of the world that gives us life.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer