Guernsey superstitions

18th July 2016

By Alfred M Naftel, antiquarian and member of the Société Guernesiaise. From the Guernsey Evening Press, December 23, 1909.

Spectres, ghosts, and other reputed 'powers of darkness' play a considerable part in Guernsey superstitions, and they are supposed to be more than usually active at this period of the year. In years gone by few people cared to leave their homes after dusk for fear of meeting 'Le Feau Bellengier' (known in England as the Jack o’Lantern or Will o’the Wisp) which was supposed to lead them astray, causing them to wander about all  night until, in the small hours of the morning, they found themselves near their destination. But the terrors of the Feau Bellengier were not to be compared with the ‘Bête de la Tour’ or ‘Tchi-co,’ the tour being the infamous Beauregard Tower that stood at the bottom of Hauteville. For six weeks before Christmas, and six weeks after, this beast, supposed to resemble a dog, was believed to rush down Cornet-street and along Fountain-street to the peril of anyone abroad at the time of its nocturnal expeditions. Another dog, a black one, quite as notorious as ‘Tchi-co’, known as ‘Le Chen Bodu,’ was said to haunt the Clos du Valle. It is generally believed that to hear it portends an approaching death.

In the wake of these two great dogs we have a number of lesser carriers of evil. At St George there is ‘Le Cheval de St George;’ at the Ville-au-Roi, a headless dog; ‘La Bête de la Pendue’ and ‘Le Varou’ are supposed to roam about the neighbourhoods of l’Erée.  It is said that to hear ‘Le Varou’ rolling over the cliffs and rocks at l’Erée in his ‘Char’ denotes the death of a great one of the earth. At the Forest a black dog ‘haunts’ a portion of the Forest road;  at St Sampson’s, a spectre known as ‘The Spectre of the Gran'Maisons’ roams; at St Andrew’s, a great beast keeps vigil in the ‘Rue de la Bête;’ and at St Martin’s we have ‘La Bête de la Rue Maze,’ 'La Bête de la Devise de Saumarez,' ‘La Biche’ of the Coin de Biche, and near St Kilda, a small white hare accompanied by the ‘Feau Bellengier' is supposed to appear before stormy weather. Such are the superstitions connected with supernatural animals. 

Apparitions and ghosts are represented by the ‘Spectral Cortège’ of Le Mont Duval in the Castel Parish; ‘La Gran’Garce’ and many other restless spirits which are believed to roam about the rooms of houses  in which they breathed their last. These are expected to make known their presence by wild shrieks, clanking of chains and slamming of doors. In many cases, to see or to hear them portends a speedy death, therefore Guernsey is not without its Banshee.

The sea with its mysteries is accountable for a number of superstitions. We are told that at L’Erée mermaids have been seen, and that their appearances denote a terrible storm or a great calamity. To hear the sea roar on a fine day, to see cuttlefish floating on the top of the water, and porpoises leaping out of the water, are signs of rough weather, and fish (small) are supposed to bite and sport about more at the approach of rain. A fisherman will consider it unlucky if, on his way to his boat, he sees a cormorant, for no fish will be caught that day; but if a gull is seen, then he can expect a good haul in a short space of time.

Sailors when at sea will, in a dead calm, whistle for the wind; and if they see the stormy petrel skimming the water they will consider it a warning of an approaching storm. The sight of rats leaving a vessel, portends that she will founder; and neither sailors nor fishermen will take cake with them when leaving port.

The Ship, or Necked Barnacle (Pentalasmis anatifera) is supposed in some extraordinary way, to when full grown acquire legs and a beak, and after dropping of in to the sea to grow feathers and become transformed in to the fowl known as the Bernicle Goose (sic). So grounded became this absurd idea that, Gerarde, a writer in 1626 stated, that  he saw the process with his own eyes. In Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia Universalis, there is an illustration of a mystic goose tree, in which the geese are represented as dropping off.

This idea is still current in Guernsey, and it is considered unlucky to destroy these barnacles, if the flotsam to which they adhere is brought to land.

Holy wells are supposed to have wonderful virtues. St George’s well in the Castel, ‘La Fontaine St Martin’ in the Forest, ‘La Fontaine de Lesset’ at St Saviour’s, ‘La Fontaine Fleurie’ in Havelet, and a number of others are celebrated for their healing virtues. Erysipelas, rheumatism, and inflammation of the eyes, are supposed to be speedily cured by the application of water drawn from these wells.

Wishing at the wells is also a common practice here.

The monoliths and other sacred stones are also greatly held in veneration. It is said that people in days gone by deemed it lucky to put a little drop of spirits in front of ‘La Dame de la Belieuse’ which stands as a gate post in the church yard of St Martin’s parish church.

Household superstitions are after all the closest to the heart of the Guernseyman. During the early part of the last century, the sole illuminant of the time was a curious old lamp locally known as ‘un crasset.’ This lamp, owing to its peculiar shape, as well as the quality of the home-made oil used to feed it, required frequent snuffing. Before snuffing the crasset, the superstitious Guernseyman would notice the manner in which the wick was burnt. If a bright head or ball appeared, then it denoted death, either in the family or in the neighbourhood; if very small, it denoted news from abroad, or letters; if the burnt end was flat, this was a sign of a supernatural visitation, and denoted a shroud; and if a spark flew out while snuffing, the for the person towards whom it flew was a letter sure to come. If the crasset burnt blue, a windy day must be expected; and if it spluttered, then the White Witch must be called, for the witch was in the house.

But as time went on the crasset was replaced by the dip-candle, which also required snuffing. Quite naturally, many of the omens connected with the lamp became almost identical with the dip-candle, and others were added owing to the various fantastical shapes assumed by the tallow as it melted and ran down the candle stick. The following are three examples:

If the tallow rises up against the wick it is called a winding-sheet and denotes a death in the family; if it takes the form of a handle, it portends death to the one who sees it; and a kind of fungus in the candle, signifies a visit from a relative from afar off. Three lights lit in one room is also a sign of death. (These must be portable lights.)

Here are some very interesting ‘signs:’

The coal fire, if it burns dull denotes rainy weather; if bright, then an easterly wind and dry weather should be expected; if a bluish flame, rough weather and probably a gale; a greenish one, then a witch is at work. If a piece of coal flies out and bears any resemblance ot a ship or a boat, then it denotes a sea voyage by the person towards whom it flies; and if it resembles a coffin then it portends death.

At dinner time, if 13 sit at the table, then one of that number will die during the course of that year (many people have a horror of the number 13); if the knife and fork are crossed on the plate, then an awful calamity will befall the person who crossed them. For a knife to fall from a table, denotes a visit from a gentleman; if a fork, then a lady will arrive. If salt falls on the table, it signifies good luck for the person towards whom it falls.

If in the morning a she-cat in washing passes its paw over its ear, this is the sign of a visit from a stranger, during the day; if at night then the visit will take place the next day. If the paw passes well over the left ear, then the visitor will be a lady; if it be over the right, then a gentleman may be expected; and for this feline prophetesse to do both ears, then a lady and a gentleman will arrive together.

There are many people today who profess that they are able to charm away warts, by simply counting them, pronounce an incantation over them, or by buying them. Other cures are to steal a piece of raw meat and rub the wart with it, and afterwards bury it in the ground. It is believed that as the meat rots so will the wart disappear.

Recitations of portions of scripture have been supposed to stop bleeding and cure ague. The key of the church door was frequently in request for stirring up home-made herb medicines. Dreams have revealed to wives the drowning of their husbands. It is lucky to see the new moon; to taste seven kinds of Christmas pudding; to be the seventh son; and to find a horse-shoe, and to nail it over your door, or to close your eyes and throw it over your shoulder. And unlucky if one passes under a ladder without crossing the 2nd and 3rd finger of the left hand; breaks a looking-glass (this is 7 years bad luck); or hears the howling of dogs at night (this is also supposed to be a sign of death.)