In Ireland Hallowe’en is the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provides much amusement and excitement. As summer turns to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld are believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in jest and partly in earnest, with the object of gaining insight into one’s fate.
One activity involved setting several objects out in saucers or plates, which were then laid on a table. The chosen objects varied from one region to another, and even between different households, but generally a few of the following were included; a ring, a piece of wood, clay, a bean, a coin, salt, water, a button or a thimble. Once the saucers were set, a blindfolded person, seat before them would pick one, the item which the person touched was symbolically believed to indicate their future situation in life. A ring meant the person would be married, a piece of wood or clay meant that they would die young, a bean or a rag meant that they would always be poor, while a coin indicated that they would be wealthy, salt was for luck, water meant that the person would emigrate or travel, while if one picked the saucer with a button or thimble it was believed they would die bachelor or a spinster.
In another divination game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after a pair, usually both being present, and placed on the grate or on the turf ashes of the fire, to burn side by side. Chestnuts, wall-nuts and hazelnuts were traditionally the most popular for this activity, while grains of wheat were also sometimes used. If the nuts burned together it was taken as a sign that the young couple would end their days happily married to one and other, however, the pair would not marry if one hopped off, while if one burned fully and not the other, it was taken as a sign of unrequited love.
Other activities took place outside the house on Hallowe’en, for example, cabbages were picked by blindfolded young women*on that night, in the belief that the appearance of the cabbage would reflect the attributes of their future husbands. If a well grown cabbage was picked it indicated that the girl would have a handsome husband, while if the cabbage had a rotten or crooked stalk it was said to signify that the girl’s husband would be a “stingy old man”. A cabbage with two heads was said to protend that the girl would end a widow, while if the cabbage was hollow in the centre it foretold that the young woman would never marry and end her days as a spinster. Additionally, the number buds on the cabbage were believed to correspond the number of children the marriage would produce, and many accounts state that the cabbage must be stolen.
While the above practices were generally carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out a person alone. These practices often commenced at midnight, and were always performed in the name of the devil. One described by Lady Jane Wilde as “the most fearful of all” involved a girl uttering an incarnation before a looking-glass, in the expectation of catching a glimpse of her future husband, it happened sometimes that instead of seeing their future love, the looking-glass instead reflected an image “too terrible to describe”, and the girl from shock would either die or spend the rest of her days in a state of great distress.
Many of divination rites practiced on Hallowe’en were aimed at inducing a dream of one’s future lover. One method of achieving this was to eat a salted egg, a smoked herring, or some other food that would cause thirst – in the hope that whilst asleep your future lover would come to your aid in a dream with a glass of water. Another rite, which was supposed to give you a glimpse future love while sleeping, involved gathering ten ivy or yarrow leaves – cut with a black handled knife, and without speaking a word. The tenth leaf was thrown away, while the remaining nine were sneaked into the house once everyone was asleep, and were then placed under a pillow in a sock or stocking, with only the following words uttered:-
“Nine ivy leaves I place under my head,
To dream of the living and not of the dead.
If ere I be married or wed unto thee,
To dream of her to-night, and her for to see,
The colour of her hair, and the clothes that she wears,
And the day that she’ll be wedded to me.”
* In some areas, including parts of County Mayo, both young women and men participated in this activity.
Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh, 1838.
McGlinchey, Charles, The Last of a Name
Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. 1890
Folklore, various articles, 1881-1916
Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1908