Two most superstitious groups of people are probably sportsmen and those who are involved in agricultural work. It follows that equestrians are bound to have twice as many superstitions as ordinary folk. With this in mind, I asked Edgar, who, like me, has a lifelong interest in horses and local history, to provide a top pick of the most interesting horsy superstitions recorded in Latvia, and he duly obliged.
These superstitions were collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by local folklorists, but some of them are likely to date to pre-Christian times. Translating them into English for the first time and exclusively for my blog, Edgar has added some commentary on the logic behind the superstitions.
Enjoy! But please bear in mind that we in no way encourage you to try these on your horses, and, if you do, we are not going to take responsibility for any damage incurred by the horses or their handlers!
- When a foal loses its first tooth, bury it in its stall, then the horse will never be stolen, or even if it will, it shall return.
A similar ward for adult horses is recorded elsewhere:
Take a straw from the roof of your house and put it into horse’s hay. After the horse eats it, it will be enchanted and unable to leave you.
Burying a part of the horse in the stable or feeding it a part of the house inseparably links the horse to the house.
- When a foal is born, rub it down with a living mole. Then the foal will never be thin. However, if an adult horse is sick, use a dead mole, and the horse will get well soon.
“Plump as a mole” is indeed used as the justification in some versions of the charm. Why use dead mole on a sick horse though? Maybe the idea is that the dead animal will draw death and disease to itself?
- Do not release horses into pasture on St. Jones night, as witches and demons (“Lietuvēns”) may ride them.
Ghost would be an equally valid translation of “Lietuvēns” – a malicious spirit, usually a soul of the person who died an unnatural death, such as being struck by lightning, drowning, or committing suicide. This spirit wanders the Earth for as long as the person was destined to live, tormenting the living, man and beast alike. If in the morning an owner found his horse covered in foam, as if after hard work, it was said the ghost rode it by night.
- Two magic ways to boost horse sales:
(1) If you want many buyers for your horse, wash its front left foot and give that water to other horse to drink.
(2) Pull a needle with a thread through the horse’s tail, saying “Let buyers come to me as clients come to a tailor”.
While the second is yet another example of sympathetic magic, the first is more difficult to explain. My guess would be that giving a horse water that was used to wash another horse would prevent buyers from noticing faults. Perhaps it is one of the charms intended to cause confusion similar to a seller handing the buyer a lead rope wrapped in the sleeve or the other part of his jacket to prevent a horse from resisting its new owner.
- When taking a mare to the stallion, put a gloved hand on the spot where you want a future foal to have a white mark. Also, try to lead your mare past a big horse if you want the foal to grow into a big horse as well.
Concerning the glove: the speaker probably meant a mitten, rather than the glove with separate fingers. A traditional Latvian mitten itself is often a talisman in itself, with magic symbols incorporated in the design.
- Drinking the water of which a horse has drunk prevents a person from sleeping.
What is interesting, while this belief is fairly widespread, it is treated differently in different parts of Latvia. In the east it is a bad thing, because “causes insomnia”, whereas in the west it is seen as good, drug to be used “if you must stay awake”.
- Probably the strangest of all: During the Lent, before sunrise, wrap yourself in a clean white sheet and nothing else, then go sit on a beehive and watch the sunrise. Do this three mornings in a row, and throughout the next year all foals born on your farm shall be healthy and strong.
Ok, the bees, especially in their idle periods, were believed to possess magic and prophetic powers, but the rest of it… Probably, with a late enough Easter, you could choose three days when it is already warm enough not to freeze in the sheet, but still cold enough not to get stung by angry bees.