Saturday 18 November 2017

Tied up in knots - the art of wind charming, by Lu Hersey

Here’s a true story. I wrote a weather charm into my debut novel, Deep Water. It consisted of three intricate knots, tied in a piece of rag. Each time my protagonist untied a knot, it unleashed stronger weather, until she undid the third, when all hell let loose. I got the idea from the sign at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, where it’s said that ‘selling the wind’ to fishermen was once a common practice on the quayside. But I had no idea what their weather charms looked like. They could have been Cornish piskies for all I knew, so I made mine up – or at least I thought I did.

I later discovered that knot charms like mine are actually a thing. Some months after my book was published, I read a chapter on The Magical Control of the Wind in James Gordon Frazer’s The Golden Bough

The following extract sent a shiver down my spine:

‘Finnish wizards used to sell wind to storm-stayed mariners. The wind was enclosed in three knots; if they undid the first knot, a moderate wind sprang up; if the second, it blew half a gale; if the third, a hurricane.’

How had I managed to make up a weather charm that actually existed (or at least once existed) in the real world? Is it embedded somewhere in the human psyche that three is a powerful number, and that knots are used to tie magic? Possibly. The power of three comes into so many of our folk and fairy tales. Or maybe the idea of weather charms has been around so long, it’s part of our collective unconscious.

Wettersegen - wonderfully action packed folk weather charm from Austria

It turns out that our ability to control the weather by some form of magic is a widely held belief, spread across all continents and very different cultures. It also makes for some fascinating research. If you’re interested, The Golden Bough is a great place to start reading up about them, as thankfully Frazer was an anthropologist at time when many of these arts were still being practised, and he was a fantastic collector of information.

Rokeyok - Micronesian weather charm

From Frazer I learnt about the Yakuts (originally from Siberia, around Lake Baikal), who were able to conjure up a cool breeze on a hot day - simply by waving a wind charm around tied to stick, while uttering a particular spell. The charms were made of horse hair wound around a stone taken from the gut of an animal or a fish. Sadly, Frazer isn’t too specific about the wording of the spell – otherwise I might be tempted to try it out.

Yakut woman shaman (1902)

The Fuegians (the original three tribes of Tierra Del Fuego – later practically wiped out, and deliberately so, by European settlers) were known to be able to control the wind using a particular method of throwing shells against it. And in Greenland, a woman during the time of childbirth could calm a storm by going outdoors, filling her mouth with air, and coming back inside to blow it out again.

Selknam people from Tierra del Fuego - a culture sadly lost

A tribe in New Guinea controlled the wind with a ‘wind stone’, a special stone that you tapped lightly with a stick for breeze, and rapped hard for a hurricane. And in Scotland, ‘Scottish witches’ would raise the wind by dipping a rag in water and hit it against a stone, uttering the words

‘I knok this rag upone this stane,
To raise the wind in the divellis name,
It sall not lye till I please againe.’

Whether or not this was the spell the witches actually recited (which seems unlikely as they almost certainly spoke Gaelic), I don’t doubt they were able to conjure a wind, or at least that people believed they could.

Sorceress conjuring a hailstorm

Which brings me back to the three knot charm. Frazer tells us such wind charms are made by ‘wizards in Lappland, witches in Shetland, Lewis and the Isle of Man.' And that 'Shetland seamen still buy winds in the shape of knotted handkerchiefs or threads from old women who claim to rule the storms. There are said to be ancient crones in Lerwick now who live by selling the wind.’

If only that were still true. If you happen to know any such ancient crones are still around and could teach me the art, please let me know. I can think of worse fates than ending up making a living by selling weather charms. But though the magical art of conjuring the weather has been lost almost everywhere, it’s exactly the type of thing I try to revive in my writing. For surely that is the gift of writers – creating worlds where all things are possible.

by Lu Hersey
Book: Deep Water
Twitter: @LuWrites


Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post, Lu! And don't we always secretly believe that wishing (or even praying) will affect the weather?

LuWrites said...

Thanks Penny - and yes, maybe we do. Maybe we can? :-)

Rosie H said...

Masefield used the idea of untying knots to unleash a storm in The Box of Delights.

Sarah said...

I have been researching Wind Witches, so thanks for your input. I do believe there are shamans that still manipulate weather, wouldn't it be great if the powers that be used this method, instead of poisoning the skies with chemicals, to do the same thing.