Love and death in British folk magic

In addition to healing, attracting good fortune, and so on, compulsion is often an important element in folk magical systems, particularly in regard to love and relationships. This is illustrated below, where we see reference made to two candle rituals aimed at compelling the appearance of a lover, as well as the allegation of the use of powders for a similar effect.

As folk magic emerges from within the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ people, and as it is integrally linked to the everyday and the earthy, it should come as no surprise that in addition to petitions to God and use of religious items and symbols, an appeal to the mysterious power of death itself is sometimes made, whether that be through attempting to harm another or through seeking restoration through the use of items touched by death. Examples of this are also found below.

Compelling others in matters of the heart:

‘Buckinghamshire damsels desirous to see their lovers would stick two pins across through the candle they were burning, taking care that the pins passed through the wick. While doing this they recited the following verse:

It’s not this candle alone I stick,
But A.B.’s heart I mean to prick;
Whether he be asleep or awake,
I’d have him come to me and speak.

By the time the candle burned down to the pins and went out, the lover would be certain to present himself’.[1]

Women in Durham placed the end of a tallow-candle stuck through and through with pins in a box to hasten the visit/return of a lover.[2]

‘Whenever the superstitious person is in love, he will complain that tempting powder has been given him’.[3]

Harnessing the power of death:

‘It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed. In Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, the patient shuts a large black spider into a box, and leaves it to perish…'[4]

‘Moss growing on a human skull, if dried, powdered, and taken as snuff, will cure the headache’.[5]

‘The chips or cuttings of a gibbet, or gallows, on which one or more persons have been executed or exposed, if worn next to the skin, or round the neck in a bag, will cure the ague, or prevent it’.[6]

18th Century Devonshire cure for convulsions: Make a ring, which ‘must be made of three nails, or screws, which have been used to fasten a coffin, and must be dug out of the churchyard’.[7]


[1] William Henderson (1866) Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties Counties of England and the Borders (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), p.139.

[2] Henderson (1866), p.138.

[3] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.308.

[4] Henderson (1866), p.118.

[5] Brand (1849), p.277.

[6] Brand (1849), p.277.

[7] Brand (1849), p.300-301.

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