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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 18 April 2011

April A-Z: Omens

Good luck or bad?
Meaning has been ascribed to some pretty odd things over the years. We're adept at interpreting these signs: some people in dire terms, others in a more balanced way. Omens are usually seen as a negative, but there is such a thing as a good omen (and not just in the Pratchett/Gaiman world either!).  It's interesting that the adjective 'ominous', derived from 'omen' is (I would say) used specifically for things with a negative portent, though.

Traditional omens include sightings (or hearings) of birds and animals, bodily signs and found objects.  For example:

  • Magpies - "one for sorrow" etc (please note that exactly what a specific number of magpies seen might mean depends on where you're from, how old you are, and who you learnt the rhyme from)
  • An owl hooting has been seen as an omen of death (or as a sign a girl will lose her virginity that night)
  • Black cats may be seen as lucky or unlucky, depending on who you ask
  • An itchy palm may indicate money about to be found or lost (it may be left = leaving, right = arriving - but again, that depends on where you're from etc)
  • A burning ear is supposed to mean people are talking about you ("left for love, right for spite", but, again, your mileage may vary)
  • A found pin (or penny?) is likely to foretell good fortune ("see a pin/penny (and) pick it up; all day long you'll have good luck)
  • Finding a white feather means to some that an angel has been close by

Omens seem to be a very culture-specific thing, even more varied than many other superstitious or folkloric beliefs. It's perhaps surprising that there is such variation even within a relatively small country like England.

5 comments:

  1. Very interesting! It's amazing to me the number of omens/superstitions there are out there. I'd heard of all of these except for the magpie and owl...to be honest, I don't even know what a magpie looks like, so seeing one wouldn't make a difference! lol

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  2. I do believe in the last one...
    Omens are very interesting subject matter for writers. Good post.

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  3. Great topic for you "O" post! I'm so glad I found your blog. I'm stopping by from the A to Z challenge and I look forward to reading more from you.

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  4. I love superstitions and omens and learning about them. But I am so glad I don't really believe them. How confining that would be!

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  5. I have to admit to saluting lone Magpies and saying 'Hello Mr. Magpie, how are your wife and kids today'. Not sure why we assume all lone birds are male?
    Enjoyed the P fr protection post too.

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