Bad luck

There is a unique snippet among the medico-magical texts of the Anglo-Saxons. They had absorbed at some point a Roman belief in good and bad days (they apparently came by it through the Egyptians). We really cannot say exactly how long the practices were around in Anglo-Saxon culture – if they predated Christianity’s arrival or not. However, it is likely that the practices were absorbed while leechcraft was still primarily pagan. In the very least we can say that the practice itself is a pagan one and was adopted by Anglo-Saxon leeches by the conversion era. The belief held that there were two days in every month that were unlucky, sometimes to the point of dangerousness. There was a one hour period on each of those days that were especially unlucky, in that hour if a person became injured (or had a medical procedure such as bloodletting) they would die or simply become deathly ill to the point that there would be no recovery.

 

Now here are the days as is said here.

In January, the first, and the seventh from the end.

In February, the fourth, and the third from the end.

The first day in March, that is, in the month of Hlyda, and the fourth day before the end of it.

In the month of May, the third day is mischievous, and the seventh before the end of it.

In the month of June, the tenth day, and the fifteenth before the end of it.

In July, the twelfth, and the tenth before the end.

In August, the first day, and the second before the end.

In September, the third day, and the tenth before the end.

In October, the third, and the tenth before the end.

In November, the fifth, and the third from the end.

In December, the seventh, and the tenth from the end.

(as a note, the version that was translated here by Cockayne originally had March as the first month because the Christian who wrote that particular copy later listed March as the month of the Earth’s creation. I have put January at the beginning of the list instead of after December for ease of viewing but I otherwise kept to the Cockayne translation.)

 

I’m not going to tell you that these days are actually unlucky; calculating the shift in the days listed here from this calendar to that of today would be nearly impossible with so few points of reference to go on (the calendar of today is vastly different from the calendar of that time). Basically, they wouldn’t really fit our current days even if they really were unlucky. Instead, the list is interesting simply because it exists.

 

This belief informs us not only about the strange practice of looking out for these days but it also informs us on how this could fit within a heathen worldview. Simply put, these beliefs give good evidence that the ancient heathens had a concept of good luck and bad luck. The belief in these good and bad days resonated with the culture of that time and was absorbed into their practices; but it could not and would not have been absorbed so readily if it did not already fit within the heathen worldview.

 

The pre-Christian leeches absorbed these lucky and unlucky days into their own culture and passed them along into the Christian era. It shows us that the ancient heathens had a concept of luck not dissimilar from that we have today. Not only is bad luck dangerous, it can also be mischievous. Bad luck also in this case has very little to do with who a person is or what they are doing – some bad luck is just the universe taking a massive dump on you for no other reason than it’s an unlucky day.

Cockayne, Rev. Thomas Oswald, trans. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. (London: The Holland Press, 1961) vol. III p.153.

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