Book Notes: Animal Superstitions

Today, I am continuing with my notes on David Pickering’s Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions. Last time, I shared notes on general supernatural superstitions. This time, I’m focusing on animals. As Pickering writes, “Innumerable species  of animal are credited with supernatural powers, including the ability to seethe future and kingship with the spirit world.” “Belief in the magical nature of the animal world,” Pickering writes, “was once much stronger than it is now, and in many cultures animals were considered almost the equal of humans” (p.7). Below are some of the more interesting notes I found while reading this book.

Bat (p. 22-3):

  • “The appearance of a bat in a church during a wedding ceremony is considered a bad omen, and if a bat flies three times round a house or hits a windowpane this is a sure prophecy of the impending death of someone within.”
  • “A near miss when a bat flies close by is a warning that the person concerned is threatened  by betrayal or witchcraft at the hands of another.”
  • “Other traditions suggest that witches sometimes turn themselves into bats in order to enter people’s houses and that the sight of bats flying vertically upwards and then dropping back to Earth is a sign that the witching hour has come. Witches, it is said, often include a few drops of bat’s blood in the flying ointment they are said to smear on their bodies before taking off on their broomsticks: the idea is that they will then be safe from collding with anything […].”

Bear (p. 25): “According to popular superstition, bears obtained their sustenance by sucking on their own paws, and literally licked their newborn cubs into a bear shape when first delivered.”

Birds (p. 33): 

  • “Dark-coloured birds that fly around trees without ever seeming to settle are said to be souls of reincarnated evil-doers, though another popular superstition (from France) maintains that when unbaptized children die they become birds for a time until accepted into heaven.”
  • “The death of a caged bird on the morning of a wedding indicates that the marriage will not prosper, and pet birds must be kept informed of important family events or they will languish and die.”

Cow (p.73): A cow trespassing in a garden means imminent death, and 3 cows means 3 imminent deaths.

Dolphin (p. 85): Dolphins change color when death is near.

Donkey (p. 86): “[…] it is claimed that plucking three hairs from a donkey’s shoulders and placing the in black silk or muslin bag worn around the neck of a person suffering from measles or whooping cough – which sounds not unlike the braying of an ass – is certain to cure the disease, as long as the animal is the opposite sex to the patient.”

Duck (p.89): Ducks that flap their wings while swimming are warning us of approaching rain.

Eel (p. 93): “It was once said that witches and sorcerers clad themselves in jackets made of eelskin in the belief that these were impervious to gunfire.”

Fox (p. 110): In Scotland farmers nailed the head of foxes to the barn door to scare off witches.

Muskrat (p. 183): “The [American] Indians believe that the construction of the muskrat’s home can reveal much about the coming season’s weather. If the muskrat builds its home well clear of the water, heavy rains are due, but it constructs a house with thin walls the winters will be mild.”

Pig (p. 204): “According to the Irish, children suffering from mumps and other ailments should rub their heads on a pig’s back so that the disease will be transferred to the animal.”

Sheep (p. 225): “Consuming a little sheep dung in water will relieve both jaundice and whooping cough.”

Want more? 

Black Dogs and Death 

Cats and Death: A Very Brief History 

Book Notes: Supernatural Superstitions

Each week, I walk many blocks to the used bookstore to explore its supernatural and horror section. It’s one of those book stores where shelves are filled and the floor is covered with stacks of books. You can usually find me sitting on the floor, turning the pages of some new find.

Now that I have my own room for my reading and writing, I have the space to build a substantial supernatural library. And, nothing could make me happier. I have always taken notes when reading, because I don’t want to forget what I’ve read. I also like something to reference when I return to a topic. This is why I’ve always kept a commonplace book. In fact, the first post of this blog was book notes from Herbert Thurston’s Ghost and Poltergeists.  

Today’s notes are from a recent find, David Pickering’s Dictionary of Superstitions. This book contains superstitions about food, body parts, weather…really, a variety of subject areas. Below are notes I took the interesting supernatural entries. Enjoy!

Fariy (p. 100): “Great care should be taken to avoid dark green ‘fairy rings’ in the grass, which mark the place where the fairies have held a circular dance at midnight (the rings are actually made by a fungus). It is said that these may even indicate the whereabouts of a fairy village. It is throught very dangerous to sleep in one of these rings or even to stop into one after nightfall – especially on the even of May Day or Halloween – and livestock are also reputed to keep their distance from these phenomena.”

Ghost (p. 116): “Measures that may be taken against encountering ghosts include, according to Scottish tradition, wearing a cross of rowan wood fastened with red thread and concealed in the lining of one’s coat.”

Gremlin (p. 122): “The only way to foil the activities of gremlins, apparently, is to lay an empty bottle nearby – the mischievous creatures will crawl inside and stay there.”

Hallowee’en (p. 125-6):

  • “Hallowe’en is generally considered a time where extra care should be given not to linger in churchyards or do anything that might offend the fairies or other malicious spirits.”
  • “It is also risky to look at one’s own shadow in the moonlight and the most inadvisable to go on a hunting expedition on Hallowe’en, as one may accidently wound a wandering spirit.”
  • “Children born on Hallowe’en will, however, enjoy lifelong protection against evil spirits and will also be endowed with the gift of second sight.”
  • “In rural areas farmers may circle their fields with lighted torches in the belief that doing so will safeguard the following year’s harvest, or else drive their livestock between branches of rowan to keep them safe from evil influences.”
  • “According to Welsh tradition, anyone going to a crossroads on Hallowe’en and listening carefully to the wind may learn what the next year has in store and, when the church clock strikes midnight, will hear a list of the names of those who are to die in the locality over the next twelve months.”
  • “Several of the most widely known Hallowe’en divination rituals relate to apples. Superstition suggests that, if a girl stands before a mirror while eating an apple and combing her hair at midnight on Hallowe’en, her future husband’s image will be reflected  in the glass over her left shoulder. A variant dictates that she must cut the apple into nine pieces, each of which must be struck on the point of the knife and held over the left shoulder. Moreover, if she peels an apple in one long piece, and then tosses the peel over the left shoulder or into a bowl of water, she will be able to read the first initial of her futures partner’s name in the shape assumed by the discarded peel. Alternatively the peel is hung on a nail by the front door and the initials of the first man to enter will be the same as those of the unknown lover.”

Nightmare (p. 189):

  • “Superstition maintains that nightmares are sent by the devil and his minions to trouble the dreams of sleepers. Such demons steal into bedrooms in the dead of night, often taking the form of spectral horses (hence ‘nightmare’).”
  • Remedies for nightmares
    • “These include pinning one’s socks in the shape of a cross to the end of the bed or else placing a knife or some other metal object nearby, on the grounds that the latent magic of the iron or steel will see off malevolent spirits.”
    • “Carefully placing one’s shoes under the bed so that the toes point outwards is also said to be effective.”
    • “Other precautions include sleeping with the hands crossed on the breast and fixing little straw crosses to the four corners of the bed.”
    • “Any lingering ill effects resulting from nightmares may be dismissed by spitting three times on waking up.

More notes form this book to come!

The Jesuit and the Poltergeist


Recently, my grandmother passed. She was a devout Catholic and left behind piles of rosaries, saint amulets, and containers of holy water. When looking through her books, I found Herbert Thurston’s Ghosts and Poltergeists.  I wasn’t surprised to find the text, because she passed on to me her interest in ghosts. We would sit for hours recounting ghost stories we had heard during our lengthy times apart. I distinctly remember the lecture she gave me on the risks of using the Ouija board.

She had once told me that she wanted to see a ghost before she died. This never happened, but my aunts have reported visits following her death. Reading this text reminded me of our old talks, and was a visit from her of some sort.

And on to Ghosts and Poltergeists

Herbert Thurston, S.J. (15 November 1856 – 3 November 1939) was a English priest of the Roman Catholic Church, and also a member of the Jesuit order. Thurston was highly prolific, writing nearly 800 articles (over a span of 61 years). He also produced 150 entries for the Catholic Encyclopedia on more sensitive topics including “Witchcraft,” “Mary Tudor,” and “Shakespeare.” Thurston’s bold approach to controversial topics in the church earned him quite the reputation.

Thurston’s writings were marked by painstaking research and a refusal to allow pious sentiment, tact, or his own pride in the English Catholic tradition to cloud his scholarly judgements. His reputation for exposing popular legends of the saints and pious myths led to the apocryphal story that he had been begged by a dying Jesuit to ‘spare the blessed Trinity’ (Crehan, 66). His equally impartial scrutiny of the claims of spiritualists and psychics led some orthodox Catholics to fear that his treatment of the paranormal was too sympathetic to be compatible with his priesthood. But this same quality made him, as was tacitly recognized by many of his Catholic contemporaries, a strong apologist for Catholicism, and has given his work enduring value. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Ghosts and Poltergeists (1953) is a collection of documented poltergeist activity, which he discusses with some skeptical distance. The following notes are copied from my notebook (with some edits). I generally wrote down stories and quotes that stood out to me. I have bolded text for you skimmers.

Chapter 1: A General View of Poltergeist Phenomena

He tells the story of Rev. Dr. Phelps and his family’s experiences with a peculiar poltergeist in Stratford, Connecticut in 1850.

Written communication appeared in unexpected places (sometimes letters signed with the names of local clergy, huh). Once in his study, Dr. Phelps found (in fresh ink) a message on a sheet of paper: “Very nice paper and very nice ink for the devil” (12).

Once after breakfast, multiple “images” (maybe 11 or 12 total) appeared in the middle room: “They were formed of articles of clothing, found around the house, stuffed to resemble the human figure […] These all but one represented females in the attitude of devotion, some having Bibles or prayer books placed to complete the figure” (13).

Chapter 2: Ghosts That Tease

Thurston repeats often that there has never been a case of a poltergeist killing anyone. He writes, “‘Death by Poltergeist’ is not a formula sanctioned by coroners, but it would make a good newspaper head-line, and if any suspicion of this sort were aroused the world could hardly fail to hear of it” (27).

Chapter 15: A Rare Type of Poltergeist

In this chapter, Thurston talks about the Dagg family’s poltergeist troubles during December 1889 in the Province of Quebec . What I found most interesting was the disembodied voice heard by the family members, specifically the eldest daughter, Dinah. This story was shared widely by a Mr. Woodcock, an international artist.

On the Saturday morning of Mr. Woodcock’s visit, he tried to have a private talk with Dinah. She declared see had see something and said into the emptiness: “Are you there mister?” In a deep gruff voice, sounding four or five feet away from Mr. Woodcock, was a reply in “a language that cannot be repeated here” (164). Mr. Woodcock said to the voice, “Who are you?” In response the poltergeist said, “I am the devil. I’ll have you in my clutches. Get out of this or I’ll break your neck” (164).

This went back and forth for a few hours, then Mr. Woodcock demanded proof of the written communication the family had claimed:

Putting a sheet of paper and a pencil on a bench in the shed he saw the pencil stand up and move along the surface. As soon as the pencil dropped, he stepped over and examining the paper said: “I asked you to write something decent.” To this the voice replied in an angry tone: “I’ll steal your pencil,” and immediately the pencil rose from the bench and was thrown violently across the shed. (164)

News of this poltergeist reached the public and the family began to receive curious visitors. On one occasion a visitor asked the spirit why it stopped using filthy language (a key characteristic of earlier communications). The voice responded: “I am not the person who used the filthy language. I am an angel from Heaven sent by God to drive away that fellow” (165).

Mr. Woodcock believed this was a lie, of course.

Appendix: The Exorcism of Haunted Houses

Thurston laments on the fact that many guidebooks used for exorcisms acknowledge people possessed by evil spirits and not places possessed by evil spirits. While exorcisms already presented in guidebooks are similar in nature, Thurston assures of some differences:

But in all these exorcisms it is the activities of Satan and his myrmidons which are the direct object of attack. There seems to be no recognition of ghosts or of spirits of the dead as such, and there is no suggestion that the souls of men are likely to return to haunt the scenes amidst they formerly dwelt the earth. (205)

Luckily, in the appendix of Rituale Romanum (published with full authorization of the Council of Inquisition 1631), there appears a document titled Exorcismus domus a demonio vexatae (The exorcisms of a house troubled with an evil spirit). 

Overall, the book is an interesting text produced by a member of the Roman Catholic church. While it (unfortunately) doesn’t give first hand accounts of exorcisms themselves, it’s an excellent collection for those interested in stories of poltergeists. I can see my grandmother now, clutching her rosary, and enjoying these tales of the supernatural.


I look forward to posting more on this blog, both about what I research and the spooky places I visit. For more information on my blog, please read the About page. I plan on posting Sunday mornings, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. You can also follow this blog on various social medias. Thanks for stopping by!