We never know what’s going to happen in the future, but that’s never stopped us from guessing.
In my novel The Arrival of Missives, Shirley Fearn, a teenage girl, is infatuated with her teacher. He served as a soldier during World War I and now keeps himself apart from the locals of the small English village where he lives. As Shirley tries harder to become part of his life, she discovers he has a secret. He believes that he is being shown the future. His method of predicting events to come is too unusual to spoil here, so instead here are a few other traditional British methods of predicting the future:
In John Gay’s 1714 poem “The Shepherd’s Week”, he wrote of taking home a snail and letting it crawl through the embers of the hearth to spell out the initial letter of the name of his future wife (It spelled out a “curious L” if you want to know…) Those snails who were forced to crawl through embers or flour got lucky; some were also baked alive so they would writhe more, upping the chances of forming an initial as they died.
Putting the white of an egg into a glass of water was thought to reveal the shape of a woman’s future husband, along with his profession; for instance, a webbed pattern might suggest rigging, meaning that the lucky man in question was a sailor. This could be done at any time of year, but was best known as a Midsummer practice.
Ever wanted to know how long you might live? Then save the clippings from your next haircut. A person from the nineteenth century might throw their old hair on to a fire; the brighter their hair burned, the longer they would live. Hair that did not burn – well, that meant either that your time of death was very near, or that you would die by drowning.
Most commonly practised in Scotland, Robert Burns mentioned this method of finding out what your future might hold in his 1785 poem “Halloween”. A dish of clean water, a dish of dirty water, and an empty dish were placed by the hearth, and a blindfolded person was led to them and told to stick his left hand in one of the dishes. Whichever one he chose revealed whether a future bride might be a maid (clean water), a widow (dirty water), or no marriage at all.
Spare a thought for the poor mole, who was often used as an ingredient in cures for diseases which could involve cutting off its nose or skinning it alive. Even seeing a mole was considered to be a bad omen. Molehills in a circle around a house was thought to mean a death was imminent. A mole burrowing under the dairy or wash-house would mean the death of the mistress of the house, and a mole found in the cabbage patch suggested the death of the master. And seeing a white mole – that meant your own death.
In earlier times, when death was always close by, there were a thousand ways to predict it. But there were also many ways to predict happier events, like a marriage. The future could bring great joy or sorrow in a moment. Shirley in The Arrival of Missives is asked to believe that the future can be predicted and altered by her own actions, leaving her with life-changing decisions to make. If you could see the future, and change it for the better, would you?
Also on CR: Interview with Aliya Whiteley (2017)