I’ve written about the Halloween fortune telling games in the old cards: kale-picking, apple-peeling, and mirror games. And I’ve talked about how some of the cards played with this trend by making up their own ridiculously complicated “spells.”
But there were plenty of other traditions that show up from time to time. You won’t see these repeated too often, but they’re fascinating (and even creepy out of context).
Luggie bowls are a tradition that seems to go back to old Celtic areas, particularly Scotland. (Note the hint at tartans in the woman’s dress above.) The game was incredibly popular, and you can find so many versions that it’s hard to pin down anything authoritative. But it generally went like this:
‘Luggies’ are small bowls with handles (‘lugs’). In this tradition, three of them would be filled with different substances and arrayed before a blindfolded fortune-seeker, whose future was fortold by whether he touched the dish of clean water (marriage to a virgin), dirty water (marriage to a widow) or nothing (no marriage would occur). (43)
That’s from Lisa Morton’s excellent Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, which you should just go buy. Morton’s a wonderful horror writer and anthologist to begin with, but she’s also written a lot about Halloween history, and I’ve quoted from this book I don’t know how many times. It’s an incredibly intersting and thoughtful history.
James Joyce uses the game in his story “Clay” from Dubliners where a woman plays only to have her fate (a continually sad life) turn out just as awful. Robert Burns also makes fun of the game in his poem “Hallowe’en” when a character gets so frustrated at bad fortunes that he throws all the bowls into a fire.
Yarn in the Kiln
These cards show lime-kilns, a kind of stove used on farms to make quicklime which was would kill the stench of dead animals or people in burials. But they were pretty common. Somehow, it became a Halloween tradition to take a ball of blue yarn, and – I’ll just let Morton explain again:
“In the classic version of this fortune-telling stunt, the girl threw her clew (or ball [of yarn]) into the kiln and would soon find something tugging on the yarn, at which point she cried out, ‘Who holds?’ She would then hear the name of her future husband which – needless to say – was likely uttered by the hidden boy himself.” (38).
I’m still not sure exactly why the kilns became the place for this, but I recall reading somewhere that there were beliefs that fairies of some sort lived in them like burrows.
In practice, this became a chance to play all kinds of tricks on people, too, and Morton quotes a story I adore:
There is a story of a tailor having hid himself in anticipation of this mode of divination being resorted to, and when the ball was thrown he caught it and gave the thread a tug. In answer to the question ‘who is this at the end of my little rope?’ he said, ‘I am the devil’ … and the woman to whom this frightful answer was given never tried divination again. (39, from John Gregorson Campbell’s Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland)
The yarn game itself moved around and left the farm, even showing up in cities as well:
I’ve only seen this once, but it’s just so weird-looking:
Egg divination! Apparently called oomancy (I picked that link because the site is so amazingly cheesy), which was new to me, and I thought I was a specialist in weird crap. But from what I can tell, the trick was to read the egg whites for the initials of your future lover. The card shows it making a face that I guess you’re supposed to recognize. But I imagine the actual process was made up on the fly.
Your Lover’s Nuts
There were lots of traditions about roasting nuts over the fire. Sounds like a certain ex-girlfriend, but never mind that. A few of the cards allude to some of them, but no overall trend. Some say the cracks in the shells would be the initials of your lover. Others were more like “he loves me/he loves me not” games, where a nut falling into the fire was bad news. There was even a period where Halloween was called “Nutcrack Night” in northern England because the game was so popular. (Morton, 53)
A lot like the King Cake from Mardis Gras, baking a cake with a small token in it was a common practice in Ireland and Scotland. Whoever got the ring or prize would either get married in the next year, or marry the cook, or need dental work. Accounts vary. But it does explain why there are a lot of Halloween cards that feature some serious cake lust:
“The Dipping of the Sark Sleeve”
I’m not 100% certain, but I think this card is showing something like the tradition of the “sark sleeve.” Again, Lisa Morton explains it better than me:
Many of the now obsolete fortune-telling rituals involved water, but perhaps none was as popular as the ‘dipping of the sark sleeve.’ [Robert] Burns says this must be performed ‘whare three lairds’ lands meet at a burn’, and at that point a young woman would dip her sleeve in to the water, then return home to set the shirt to dry by the hearth-fire. The lass would then retire to bed, and during the night would see her intended enter the room and turn the shirt, so that the other side would dry as well. (42)
Now, if that’s what’s going on here, that poor person’s love life just got weird…
See any other cards that need ‘splainin’? Let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.