In my role as intangible cultural heritage development officer for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, I often give workshops about local culture and folklore. One topic that often comes up is folk belief, or what some people call superstitions.
At one workshop, we were talking about the folklore surrounding horses.
While Newfoundland has never had the same horse-based culture as other, more agricultural, places, horses and ponies were still an important part of life in pre-automobile Newfoundland. Alongside horses were a lot of folk beliefs about the animals themselves.
A woman whose name I have forgotten, from somewhere around the Torbay area, spoke up at the workshop. She said she remembered being told that a pregnant woman should never look at a white horse. To do so, according to the tradition, was to invite problems during childbirth.
In previous columns I have written about ghostly horses, and the ability of horses to see things which the human eye cannot. I have heard stories about horses bolting at, or refusing to pass by, spots known to be haunted by ghosts or the devil. But I had never heard of this particular bit of folklore.
When I hear something like this, though, I tend to file it away, and keep my ears open. Sure enough, in early November of this year, I was doing a workshop as part of a new public folklore program being developed on the Baccalieu Trail. Much to my delight, Linda Kane of Cupids had heard of the old belief as well. She, too, had heard that a pregnant woman seeing a white horse would mean trouble in childbirth.
“White horses are often thought to be harbingers of ill fortune,” writes David Pickering in the Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions. In fact, white horses seem to crop up a lot in folklore. In Lincolnshire, England, it was believed that if you saw a white dog, you should stay silent until you saw a white horse. In other places, dreaming of a white horse meant a coming death, and in the New Testament, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rides astride a white horse.
In 1923, British author Elizabeth Villiers argued that “… in the Midlands and Southern counties you will be told you should always spit, preferably over the left shoulder, should you meet a white horse face to face. The reason for this is not far to seek. All the Southern part of England and much of the Midlands as well, was laid waste by the Saxon hordes who poured into the country under the banner emblazoned with the sign of the White Horse, hence white horses are associated with raping and murder in the popular mind.”
Villiers’ explanation is neat and tidy, and so I am tempted to take it with a grain of salt. Peering through the mists of time and coming up with clear origins for bits of folklore like this is a murky business. Culture is messy, and there is generally not one authoritative solution to the question of origins.
Some archeologists have suggested that horses were domesticated in the Ukraine around 4,000 years ago. That is a long time for a lot of stories and superstitions to attach themselves to a thing.
I learned of one other “bad luck” association with horses from the late George Jones, originally of Riverhead, Brigus. A man who worked on boats most of his life, latterly as a ship’s engineer, Jones told me once that they would never talk of horses while at sea. To do so, he said, was to call up a storm.
Perhaps this belief is linked to an ancient idea that waves resemble horses’ manes. It is also probably linked to other nautical beliefs related to preventing, or calling up, bad weather.
For me, at least, the idea of conjuring up a storm by talking about horses is less familiar than the idea of whistling up a storm, another old Newfoundland tradition. Writer P.J. Kinsella wrote in 1919 about a clergyman heading to La Poile who encountered the tradition while becalmed at sea.
“Going forward shortly after,” writes Kinsella, “to have a chat with the ‘skipper,’ the clergyman was much surprised and not a little startled to find that gentleman’s body pressed close against the mast, the lips puckered up, and issuing therefrom shrill blasts of ‘whistles.’”
A breeze came up a short while later, aiding them on their way.
If any of these stories sound familiar, drop me a line. Wild horses will not drag me away from your comments!
Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.