Omens

Omens of prosperity for the year could be drawn from the number and size of the new crop of POTATOES, more especially those of the first digging, when a stem each was taken for each member of the family (north-east Scotland). It is said that at Plouer, on the Cote-du-Nord, it was at one time the custom before the fishing fleet set out, to hang a LEEK from one of the joists of the kitchen ceiling. If the plant kept alive, this was regarded as a good omen, but if it dried up and died, then it could be taken as certain that a member of the family had died at sea (Anson). CABBAGES, too, provided omens. If one ran to seed the first year, or one grew with two heads on one stalk, then that was a sign of death (Whitney & Bullock; Fogel). If one of them has white leaves, it meant a funeral (Stout).

When plants bloom out of season, it often foreboded some disastrous event. Thus, when BURNET ROSE acted in this way, the belief around the Bristol Channel was that it was an omen of shipwreck (Radford & Radford). COWSLIPS or PRIMROSES blooming in winter were an omen of death (Hole. 1937), as are PLUM trees blooming in December ( M Baker. 1980). When BROAD BEANS grow upside down in the pod, it is an omen of some kind. They did so in the summer of 1918 apparently, and then it was remembered that the last time they did that was the year the Crimean War ended. Unfortunately the correspondent of Notes and Queries who reported it dated his letter in 1941, when once more they were growing upside down, but that war took a few more years yet to end.

If a RUSH-light curled over, it was a sign of death, and if a "bright star" appeared in the flame, a letter could be expected (Burton).

There are a number of death omens connected with APPLES, particularly with out of season blooms. If it happens when there is fruit on the tree, it is a sign of death in the family, put into rhyme as:

A bloom upon the apple tree when apples are ripe,

Is a sure termination of somebody's life (Baker.

The "somebody" being a member of the owner's family, it must be understood. Never leave a last apple on the tree, for that too would mean a death in the family. Not in Yorkshire, though, for there one must be left, as a gift for the fairies. But if one stayed on the tree until the spring, that too was a sign of death in the family (Gutch. 1911). A better-known, and ancient, death omen is connected with BAY trees. Shakespeare voiced the superstition:

'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay,

The bay-trees in our country all are wither'd

See also Holinshed (Chronicles): "In this year 1399 in a maner throughout all the realme of England, old baie-trees withered, and contrary to all men's thinking grew greene againe, a strange sight, and supposed to import some unknowne event". This belief is traceable at least to Roman times. It was the custom for a successful general to plant a bay at his triumph in a shrubbery originally set by Livia. This tree, too, was believed to fall after his death.

The dropping of the leaves of a PEACH TREE is a bad sign (apart from being a bad sign for the tree, that is), for it was said to forecast a murrain (Dyer. 1889).

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