Is there a difference between lore and superstitions when it comes to the weather? Surprisingly, yes, there is. Superstitions are widely defined as being irrational beliefs. But weather lore?
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud explain that “[l]ore about the weather consisted mainly of practical information and advice, based on observation of nature, and transmitted orally” (2003: 381).
These familiar weather sayings are often less like superstitions because they’re so heavily based on what people have noticed. Turned into verse, they’re easier to share and remember.
Jane Struthers shares one: “Haloes around the moon or sun mean that rain will surely come” (2009: 101). It includes what you need to look for and what it means.
All very fascinating! So let’s dig in and discover some more weather lore. Hit play to hear the podcast episode or keep reading!
Weather Lore for Specific Days
Specific days become important within the calendar for year-long weather predictions. We’ll come back to St Swithin’s Day, but St Paul’s Day (January 25th) was also significant. Fine weather meant the harvests would be good. Snow or rain meant famine and scarcity later in the year. Clouds or mist meant pestilence would strike the land, and high winds meant war (Reader’s Digest 1973: 23).
Someone should check what the weather was like on January 25, 2020.
According to Simpson and Roud, the weather conditions on each of the twelve days of Christmas predicts the weather of each month of the following year (2003: 381). I’m sure we can all spot the flaw in that one unless you’re accustomed to blazing sunshine on the 7th and 8th days of Christmas…
Groundhog Day is another obvious choice.
It falls on 2 February. The groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil, is supposed to leave his burrow in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it means spring is on the way. But if he does see his shadow, he returns to his hole because six more weeks of winter are coming.
This tradition in Pennsylvania dates to 1887. The celebration was originally devised by a newspaper editor in the area. Some think it’s the same Phil, which would make him 133. He’s also got a fairly poor success rate, being right only 40% of the time (History.com 2019).
But it’s not without its precedent. History.com explain that it’s originally from a German legend (2019). Some thought a sunny day on Candlemas (2 February) meant 40 more days of winter. The legend extended this to mean the day was considered ‘sunny’ (and thus a portent of winter) if small animals could see their shadows. This evolved into a groundhog when German immigrants brought the legend to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.
So much for the lore of specific days. What about specific types of weather?
Rain, rain, go away…
Disney’s Bambi captured the joyful rhythm of the ‘Little April Shower’ in its famous song. Though most of us don’t really want to see rain, a fact captured by plenty of weather lore.
Want to know if it’s going to rain soon? Look at the moon.
“If the moon rises with a halo round, soon we’ll tread on deluged ground”(Struthers 2009: 101)
You can also look at the flowers in your garden. Open flowers like daisies will “close up their petals before it starts to rain” (Struthers 2009: 99). If you see bees, butterflies, and wasps suddenly disappear, rain is on the way. It’s not esoteric, it’s just common sense: insects hate getting wet.
If ducks quacks more or louder than usual, rain is on the way.
A famous weather belief is that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15), it’ll continue raining for forty days. Where does this come from? St Swithin was the Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Before he died, he said he wanted to be buried outside where the rain could fall on his grave. A century later, the monks decided he should be inside, as befitting his status.
According to the legend, St Swithin made it rain violently for forty days so the monks gave up on their plan (Reader’s Digest 1973: 188). Elsewhere, people believed forty days of rain prevented St Swithin being buried outside in the first place. Either way, people still believe the lore now.
One of the positive effects of rain is the rainbow. Strangely, while we see rainbows as a joyful symbol now, this wasn’t always the case. 19th-century children would lay crossed twigs on the ground to drive rainbows away. Pointing at them even invited bad luck (Simpson 2003: 289).
Rain may be annoying, though at least it would water crops. Storms, on the other hand, brought danger. An old saying attempted to provide guidance as to where people should, and shouldn’t, stand during one.
Beware of an oak(Simpson 2003: 359)
It draws the stroke
Avoid an ash
It courts the flash
Creep under the thorn
It can save you from harm
Simpson and Roud note an old belief that thunder could spoil stored liquor. Laying an iron bar across the top of a barrel was one way to protect the beer inside from going sour (2003: 359).
But what do you do if you’re indoors and a thunderstorm starts? Some people advocate opening all the windows and doors to let the storm pass through the house. They also advise you to cover any shiny metal or mirrors so you don’t attract lightning. Jane Struthers vehemently disagrees and advises you to close all of the windows and doors. Stay inside until the storm passes (2009: 95).
If a wedding took place during a thunderstorm, the couple wouldn’t have children. Simpson and Roud explain the belief that mothers shouldn’t breastfeed during storms. If they do, “brimstone and sulphur” would taint the milk (2003: 359).
Witches and Storms
Witches often got the blame for storms, particularly at sea. The horrendous storms in the North Sea that almost thwarted James I’s attempts to reach his new bride no doubt contributed to his penning of Daemonologie. David Bressan traces some of these beliefs to a thunderstorm in central Europe in August 1562 (2014). The devastation caused by the storm led some to believe it had supernatural origins – witchcraft.
This is one reason why you should always break up your eggshells. If you didn’t, people believed witches would sail out to sea in them and raise storms.
Witches might raise a storm by emptying their cauldrons into the sea, or tying knots into a rope. They’d untie them to raise the wind. Some witches were even reputed to be able to raise the wind by whistling. Jacquetta, mother of Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV), was accused of raising storms by whistling.
The Newcastle Courant even included a fairly easy spell. All you’ll need is a wet rag and a piece of wood. Beat the rag with the wood and chant the following three times;
“I knock this ragg upon this stane,
To raise the will in the Devilis nam;
It sall not lye until I please againe.”
When you want to end the storm, dry out the rag and repeat this charm another three times;
“We lay the wind in the Devillis name,
It sall not ryse quhill we lyk to raise it againe.”
(Both taken from ‘Witches Riches’, 1890).
How do you know if a storm is coming?
If you’re inland, pay attention to flies. They “will swarm before a storm” (Struthers 2009: 102).
Hanging mistletoe over your door was believed to protect your house from thunder and lightning (Reader’s Digest 1973: 41).
For coastal regions, pay attention to seabirds. They’ll fly inland when a storm is on the way (Struthers 2009: 102).
According to some superstitions, some sailors also believe cats cause storms at sea.
I’ve talked about the link between cats and predicting the weather before. As an example, English folklore claims cats are predicting high winds when they claw the curtains. Cat sneezes mean rain is on the way, while frisky cats indicate windy weather (Reader’s Digest 1973: 45).
You might be wondering why this post dwells on rains and storms if we’re looking at weather lore. That’s because a lot of it relates to bad weather.
It’s not all bad news, because some lore relates to good weather. As Simpson and Roud point out, “rooks, gulls or swifts flying high are a sign of fine weather” (2003: 381). Bats flying late in the evening also meant fair weather was on the way (Daniels 1903: 574).
When spiders weave webs by noon(Struthers 2009: 102)
Fine weather is going to follow soon
In a way, though, most weather lore essentially works both ways. If you look out for the omen that foretells bad weather, and you don’t see it? Logic dictates that good weather is on the way!
So can we actually use weather lore?
Not everyone believes in the usefulness of weather lore. Fanny D. Bergen and W. W. Newell explain that the number of sayings that are true fall in the minority. Those that aren’t true don’t represent the result of observation, but rather an adoption of tradition or common beliefs (1899: 204).
H.A. Hazen agrees, adding that for the lore to be worthwhile, it needs to be based on enough coincidences between the event and the resulting weather (1900: 191). One swallow doesn’t make a summer, after all!
But talking about weather lore in 1946, D. Brunt explained many of the proverbs dated back to Theophrastus, writing in the 4th century BC. They were largely accepted until the 17th century when people started studying the weather (1946: 66). It’s only by studying the weather that we can see if they’re right.
For Brunt, many sayings have a sound basis, but they’re also not based on meteorology so they’re unreliable (1946: 66).
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore them as snippets of lore rather than scientific fact. Bergen and Newell think studying weather lore is more important for anthropology rather than meteorology (1899: 204). They show us what people believed and, in some cases, continue to believe! That gives them all the value you need to justify studying them.
Which of these weather sayings do you still use?
Bergen, Fanny D. and W. W. Newell (1889), ‘Weather-Lore’, The Journal of American Folklore, 2:6, pp. 203-208.
Bressan, David (2014), ‘Medieval Witch Hunts Influenced by Climate Change’, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/history-of-geology/medieval-witch-hunts-influenced-by-climate-change/. Accessed 24 April 2020.
Brunt, D. (1946), ‘Meteorology and Weather Lore’, Folklore, 57:2, pp. 66-74.
Daniels, Cora Linn, and C. M. Stevans (1903), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. 2, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Hazen, H. A. (1900), ‘The Origin and Value of Weather Lore’, The Journal of American Folklore, 13:50, pp. 191-198.
History.com (2019), ‘Groundhog Day: History and Facts’, History.com, https://www.history.com/news/groundhog-day-history-and-facts. Accessed 24 April 2020.
Reader’s Digest (1973), Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, London: Reader’s Digest Association.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Struthers, Jane (2009), Red Sky at Night: The Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom, London: Ebury Press.
Unnamed author (1890), ‘Witches Riches’, Newcastle Courant, July 5, p. 1.
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