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History Corner: Do WE Know What They Mean?

History Corner: Do WE Know What They Mean?


I find, in teaching music to elementary children, I slide into sayings that they have no clue about.  They look at me like I just fell off a distant planet and maybe I have.  Sometimes I feel like my mother, but then who could argue with that?  Our mothers taught us about life and how to live it.  I spent three classes with fifth graders today, treating them to 50s Day, in my music class.  Hmm.  The 50s, for me, were some of the most memorable years of my childhood, even sitting, in the basement of my elementary school for a “lockdown” drill.  They didn’t call them that during the Korean War, but living in Stratford with all of the factories putting out wartime equipment, we needed to drill for a potential air strike.  I still have my dog tag with my blood type and address, which the children today found mildly interesting.

I loved hearing my collection of 45s, but since the kids couldn’t understand the words, I was more involved than they were.  Although I seem to have become more conservative in my “old” age, I realize that listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Anka, The Crickets, Buddy Holly, Guy Mitchell, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and the like was an everyday activity after school, on Saturday while dusting the furniture and listening to “our” music, whenever.  All of it was upbeat and LOUD.  I just broke up laughing at Mr. Custer, a most irreverent song about the 7th Cavalry but then, we were kids and not worldly about those things.  I think my Mom drew the line at the “One-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater” or maybe I just didn’t like it.

That life I spoke of has given us some very strange customs and one which I carry around with me is a childhood memory, but I would never buy one now.  A rabbit’s foot.  I catch mice in a Hava-Heart cage and let them go in the woods and I BOUGHT a rabbit’s foot?  What was I thinking?  There is a difference between a hare and a rabbit and tradition holds that it is the hare that brings one luck.  Certainly not to the hare.  The foot of the hare had magical powers pre 600 BC but the Europeans confused the rabbit with its larger relative and the feet were prized as potent good luck charms.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I keep the rabbit’s foot from my childhood on a set of keys, I don’t them use them but short of burying the rabbit’s foot, I keep it in the car….no I’m not superstitious.  I walk under ladders and I don’t own a horseshoe…I don’t have a horse and I haven’t pulled a wishbone apart in years.

The custom of tugging at the ends of a dried up clavicle of a chicken or turkey never appealed to me somehow but the custom is, are your ready for this? 2,400 years old originating with the Etruscans, the ancient people who occupied the area of the Italian peninsula between the Tier and Arno rivers.  Don’t stop reading now but you might get out your old high school maps and look for those rivers.  The hen and cock were known to be soothsayers because the hen foretold of her laying an egg with a squawk and the cock crowing, heralding the dawn of a new day.  So, wouldn’t you have thought the same?

In these ancient times, the hen, seen as an oracle, was given a circle, traced in the ground which was divided into twenty parts, representing the letters of the Etruscan alphabet.  Grains of corn were placed in each sector and a sacred hen was set in the center of the circle.  Are you ready?  Her pecking at the corn generated a sequence of letters which the high priest interpreted as answers to specific questions.  Kind of a living Ouija board.  After the death of one of these sacred hens, her collarbone was dried in the sun and picking up the bone continued the powers.  The term “lucky break” came from the breaking of the bone which came about with two people wishing on a bone and holding the larger part.

Now, if I tell you that the next time you want to “knock” wood, you better find something made of oak because this is the origin of that one.  The cult surrounding the oak tree sprang up from the North American Indians around 2000 BC and later among the Greeks.  Both cultures saw that lightning struck oak trees frequently making the assumption that it was the dwelling place of the sky god for the Native Americans and the god of lightning for the Greeks.  The North Americans thought that boasting about a future endeavor, personal accomplishment or battle would bring bad luck.  A boast could be neutralized by knocking at the base of an oak tree which would give them forgiveness for the boastful act.

Others held to this knocking of wood as with the Egyptians favoring the sycamore and the Germanic tribes, the ash.  For the Dutch, the variety was unimportant but it had to be unvarnished, unpainted, uncarved thus in every way, unadorned. So the next time you need to knock wood, find a stick on the ground.

Since this is allergy season, one finds it necessary to tell someone “God bless you” upon a sneeze or for the early generation, gesundheit.  Of course, my kids in music look at me with that incredulous look of “what?”  I then have to go to the generic saying that they all know but have no clue why it is said.  The sneeze, in ancient times, was considered a sign of great, personal danger, in 6th century Italy.  For centuries, man believed that the essence of life, the soul, lived in the head and that a sneeze could expel a vital force.  Some sneezes are very forceful.  A sneeze, held back was a sign of good luck but with the teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates, the sneeze was merely a reaction, in the head, by some foreign substance.  During the reign of Pope Gregory the Great, the term God Bless You was necessary to offset a pestilence that raged through Italy putting the ill in the grace of God.

For many of us, Friday is the beginning the weekend and no need to go to work.  Of course, many of us work 7 days a week but Friday is a good day, right?  Wrong.  Not if it’s Friday the 13th.  A focus on historical bad Fridays is one way to make a plea for its origin BUT there is another.  In Norse mythology, Friday is named for Frigga, the free-spirited goddess of love and fertility.  When the Norse and Germanic tribes converted to Christianity, Frigga was banished to a mountaintop and labeled a witch.  It was believed that every Friday, the spiteful goddess convened a meeting with eleven other witches, plus the devil, a gathering of thirteen, plotting ill turns of fate for the following week.  For many centuries in Scandinavia, Friday was known as “Witches’ Sabbath.”

Now this last one is my all-time favorite.  Spilling salt and throwing it over one’s shoulder.  Salt was man’s first food seasoning and spilling it, as precious as it was, would no doubt cause a person to fear back luck.  The practice of throwing it over the shoulder was practiced by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians and later the Greeks.  It was believed that the devil lurked behind the left shoulder and throwing it would land in his face, causing him to retreat.  For the Romans, salt was used as payment called salarium or salt money leading to the origin of our word, salary.  Archaeologists know that by 6500 B.C. salt was being mined in Austria near Salzburg meaning “city of salt”.  Salt purified water, preserved meat and fish, enhanced the taste of food and was used in major sacrifices.  Instead of revering salt, we stay away from it, to some degree, as it is bad for our health…well, it’s that time for some chips and dip…I’ll throw some over my shoulder to send the devil away…he made me eat those salty chips anyway…be gone you.

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