This post is part of our ongoing creative exploration of the 64 Arts.
As I’ve done more research and reading about omens I’ve noticedÂ two common elements ofÂ mostÂ omens:
- The appearance and incidence isÂ natural in origin (as opposed to man-made).
- The appearance or incidence isÂ naturally scarce or rare.
This kinda goes back to my hooting owl example: not so powerful if its a regular thing.
I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover
Clover is plentiful in fields all over the place, but most only have 3 heart-shaped leaves per stem. Since the 4-leaved variety is rare, obviously it’s a sign of good luck, right?
Well, maybe to an naturally optimistic soul. But if there’s one constant among the undeveloped cultures (where belief is superstitions and omens is more common), it’s that the different and unusual will be feared as often, if not more so, than praised.
But what’s lucky for one could mean ill for another.
The Case of Halley’s Comet
Before science was anywhere near explaining the various lights in our sky, people made stories up about them–what they were, what they symbolized–and still do. Astrology is still practiced (seriously by some, casually by others) all over the world and while some do invest the stars with the ability to predict the future, their divinations aren’t exactly omens (or at least not all of them, we’ll go that far in safety, I think).
But when I star streaks across the sky, a meteor shower rains light from the heavens, or a comet burns its way over the horizon… that’s apt to get some folks’ attention!
As early as men and women could conceive of some higher power, the sky was often where those celestial beings lived. Any changes in the sky were considered their judgement on the actions of the mortals below. So when Halley’s comet streaked across the sky back in 1066, with war looming in England, a war that saw Â the death of their king? Well, Â obviously, a comet is bad news. But what about the other guy (William the Conqueror) who rose to power thanks to that same battle.
Two sides to ever coin. Even the fiery ones.
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy
And speaking of balance, some omens do take that into consideration from the get-go.
Magpies (please excuse my alliterative choice in the title of this post) were, apparently, pretty scarce once upon a time, and to see them was considering auspicious, indeed. Of course, how many you saw–whether it was at one time or over the course of a day I’m a little unclear of–definitely mattered.
There are many versions of the old nursery rhyme/folk song but they all start with
One for sorrow
Two for joy(or mirth)
Then they continue along, diverging between the overall good or neutral and the more negative.
Three for a wedding
Four for a death (or birth)–see, now we’re getting into weird territory
Some even had three for a girl and four for a boy. Â Some versions stop at four, but for those that continue on, five and six stay pretty constant at silver and gold, respectively, so I suppose we can take that for people being as concerned with wealth then as we are now.
Seven for a secret is pretty common, though, again, a secret can be good or bad, and some versions I’ve read or heard referenced say seven for a witch. The version recorded in an 1846 book finishes
Seven for a secret
not to be told
Eight for heaven
Nine for hell
And ten for the devils own self.
I guess you really didn’t want to see more than 8 magpies for sure, right?!
While it was a non-reference book that reminded me of the magpies, I first heard of this rhyme many years ago while listening to a Guggenheim Grotto album and one of the tracks was “One For Sorrow” and I wondered what the symbolism behind the magpie was in the lyrics.
Incidentally, magpies are no longer scarce in England, so your chances of seeing a tidings of magpies (not a typo, that is their correct collective noun) are a lot higher than they used to be. So maybe take that, and all of this, really, with a grain of salt and a flutter of feathers.
These ominous examples are all from ages past, what sort of things would constitute omens in this day and age, were one to believe in such things. In the natural versus man-made distinction all that crucial as we continue to innovate and automate and rely on technology? Does a clap of thunder out of a clear blue sky make you think twice about something you just said or thought or are planning to do?
Definitely worth pondering, I think…