#SuperstitionSat Highlights: Agriculture & Farming

Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome to another pick of some Highlights of our #SuperstitionSat Sessions on Twitter. Yesterday (06/08/22), we began an adventure through beliefs related to old jobs and crafts of the past. Throughout the month of August, we shall be looking at various sectors and our first one was Agriculture & Farming.

In Britain and Ireland, jobs in agriculture and farming were once advertised in local hiring fairs or markets. These were also called “mop fairs” – as every prospective labourer would carry a symbol of their trade (such as milk pails for dairymaids), and those without any particular experience were said to carry mop heads instead. Hiring fairs usually took place twice a year – in May and November, around Martinmas – but there were some regional variations as farm contracts could run from October to October. There were often pickpockets in these fairs, as well as many distractions like rides and shooting stalls, so job seekers often had to contend not only with these dangers and distractions, but also with the possibility of being swindled by employers. Having reached an agreement on wages and sometimes lodging too, a symbolic token of money would then be exchanged between employer and farm servant as a gesture of contractual obligation – followed by the future worker wearing a ribbon to signify they had been hired. Some of the jobs that could be found in farms were: dairyman/dairymaid (to milk cows or goats), haybinder (to collect hay), hind (doing menial jobs), pigman (looking after pigs), or ploughman (ploughing fields).

So, our first Highlight looks at a superstition that might have been shared by dairymaids as they collected milk from cows. The belief that animals can foretell weather patterns is widespread, as we saw in our Weather Highlights from our July 23rd Session concerning cats. As for bovine divination, the saying shared by Kerria below seems to have been listed in places such as the The Old Farmer’s Almanac from the United States (in print since 1792), as well as in a Weather Lore book compiled by Richard Inwards in 1893. This publication (available to read for free here) says that the full rhyme, reported to have been found in New Jersey, went like this:

When a cow tries to scratch its ear,
It means a shower is very near;
When it thumps its ribs with its tail,
Look out for thunder, lightning, hail.

Kerria’s tweet also included a hilarious image: the famous “rectangular” cows of the 19th century, as painted by John Vine (b. 1808, d.1867) and others. Livestock portraiture was quite popular at the time, commissioned by farmers to show off their prized animals. Pigs, sheep, cows and even horses with exaggerated larger-than-life features would then be circulated in journals and animal husbandry books, to attract potential buyers and breeders. Indeed, these animals are so funny-looking that these days, the MERL (Museum of English Rural Life) has even made a meme out of them, often calling them “absolute units” on social media. For more about livestock portraiture, check out one of their articles here.

Tweet says:

"When a cow endeavors to scratch its ear, it means a shower is very near. From the Farmers Almanac. Rectangular cow paintings are relics from 19th century Britain when a painting of your enhanced cow was the latest status symbol)."

Includes painting of a very large, very rectangular white and brown cow.
Tweet by Kerria. Image credit: John Vine (1808-1867). Housed by the Museum of English Rural Life.

Our second Highlight was from Folklore, Food and Fairytales, who told us another superstition related to the weather and milk. Dairy workers really were one of the most superstitious people working on farms, as it was believed that milk could spoil for a large variety of supernatural reasons, before there was an understanding of storage conditions and use-by dates. One such supernatural spoilage belief was that lightning curdled milk. In that case, charms or herbs would have been used to prevent this misfortune – such as marjoram and thyme – which would have been stored together with pails in the dairy sheds. According to Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal, houseleek was another plant that could have also protected a house from lightning, while the Romans extended that superstition to bay leaves. Failures related to milk curdling and butter churning were so intensely feared, that these household disasters were often attributed to witches!

Tweet says:

"Lightning damage aside, storms can affect more than you might think. A bunch of wild thyme, laid by the milk in a dairy, prevents its being spoiled by thunder. Sunflowers will do the same in season. You can add nettles to brewing barrels to the same effect."

Includes photo of lightning in a field.
Tweet by Folklore, Food & Fairytales. Image credit in original tweet.

With so many chores to think about, on top of a multitude of supernatural farming disasters to prevent (plus the possibility of being conned in hiring fairs), it’s no wonder that agricultural labourers deserved a break. And what better way to make sure no one would be working in the fields under the worst time of the day, than a superstition about noonwraiths. Shared by Natalja Saint-Germain, the Poludnitsa was a demon from Slavic lore that haunted the fields at midday, especially on hot Summer days. Appropriately also called “Lady Midday”, Poludnitsa was a personification of heatstroke, offering an explanation to the symptoms of weakness and fatigue of someone who ignored a call for a lunch break.

In popular culture, the Poludnitsa can be found in The Witcher too – a book series with Slavic folklore influences written by Andrzej Sapkowski, that is now also a major videogame franchise and Netflix series. For instance, in The Witcher 3 videogame, one of Geralt of Rivia’s missions is to find the “Noonwraith”: a sun-burned woman “born at high noon out of heat, sadness and the sweat of ploughmen”.

Tweet says:

"According to old Slavic beliefs, cornflowers are the eyes of Poludnitsa - a lady demon who punishes people working in the field at noon. Picking cornflowers before August 2nd can provoke hailstorms."

Includes painting of cornflowers.
Tweet by Natalja Saint-Germain. Image credit in original tweet.

Today, we have a fourth Highlight for you – shared by the Folklore Museums Network, with whom we are collaborating with for our Crafts Month Special. Every Saturday in August, alongside our #SuperstitionSat Sessions on Twitter, there will be one article on our Blog featuring a Folklore object found in British Museums, chosen with the help of Dr Peter Hewitt (founder of the Folklore Museums Network), and related to each of our weekly themes. This week, we picked “The Witch’s Plough” – a bizarre object found in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’s collection. To read all about it, including whether or not it was just a concoction from Museum founder Cecil Williamson, click here!

As for the Highlight shared by FMN, it tells us of another Museum object once found in a Church in Wales, in Llanddewi Brefi – now housed in St Fagans Museum. This ox horn was called Madcorn yr Ych Bannog, and legend has it that it once belonged to one of the Bannog Oxen of the hero Hu Gadarn, whose deeds were responsible for driving a creature called Afanc out of Llyn Llion. The Afanc was a Welsh mythological monster that was said to dwell in lakes, shaped like a crocodile or giant beaver. Looks like once more, cattle has saved the day!

Tweet says:

"Long preserved in Llanddewibrefi Church and now in St Fagans Museum, a horn of wild cattle of Britain prior to Roman occupation. Tradition holds that this is the horn of Yr Ychen Bannog, that rid the world of evil water monsters (afanc).

Includes photo of a very old horn, and an engraving of a monster being bound in chains.
Tweet by Folklore Museums Network. Image credit unknown.

And that is all for today. I hope you enjoyed this selection and take a look at our Folklore Object related to Agriculture & Farming. Join us next week (13/08/22) for another museum item and a new theme:


You already know that whether you’re old, new or just passing through, your presence is very much appreciated and I am glad to see you stop by. Thank you so much for coming along. See you next Saturday!

– Superstition Sam 🐾

Further Reading:
Farm Servants and Hiring Fairs, by History Scotland.
History of Mop Fairs, by Heritage Hunter.
Folklore of West and Mid-Wales, by Jonathan Ceredig Davies (1911).