Thursday 18 April 2024

Going cuckoo - by Lu Hersey

 For various reasons (mostly the time of year), I've become cuckoo obsessed this month. So here's something about cuckoos and cuckoo folklore which doesn't even touch on the subject of how they manage to replicate exactly the eggs of the different bird species whose nests they lay their eggs in. (There might be a scientific explanation, but it looks like magic to me...)

The arrival of the cuckoo in April traditionally heralded the coming of summer - to the point where it was popularly believed that the bird actually brought summer with it. At Towedneck in Cornwall, a cuckoo feast was held on the Sunday nearest 28 April, as that was the date the cuckoo supposedly brought the summer in.

According to the Cornish folk tale, one very cold, wet spring, a farmer threw a log on his fire on 28 April and a cuckoo flew out. The weather immediately changed to warm and sunny - and so that became the date of the fair.

At one time cuckoo fairs were held over much of the country, possibly the most famous being one at Heathfield in Sussex. Here, the old woman supposedly in charge of all the cuckoos bringing summer is known as Dame Heffle, and she lets a cuckoo out of her basket at the annual Heffle (the old name for Heathfield) fair . The fair was started in 1315 when the Bishop of Chichester obtained permission to hold a weekly market and an annual fair, and was only recently cancelled because of the pandemic - hopefully to be revived in the near future. Anyway, it was said that the number of cuckoos heard during the summer after the release of Dame Heffle's cuckoo would depend on how grumpy (or not) the chosen Dame Heffle was feeling that day...

In Wales, it's considered unlucky to hear a cuckoo before 6 April, but very lucky to hear it on 28 April. To hear it after midsummer's day is a possible death omen (there were so many possible death omens in country lore, it's amazing anyone managed to stay alive...)

Having said that, all over Europe the cuckoo was regarded as a bird of omens, both good and bad, depending on when you hear it and what direction you heard it - and this varied from region to region. However one commonly held belief was that it was a good idea to have coins ready in your pocket, so when you heard the first cuckoo, you could turn them over to bring you luck for the year ahead.

People didn't fully understand bird migration until relatively recently, and had various ideas (depending on local tradition) about where the birds went when they disappeared. Some believed they roosted in rotten logs, and some believed they flew into fairy hills and burrows. A widely held (and surprisingly persistent) belief was that cuckoos turned into hawks for the winter - even though Aristotle dismissed the idea over 2000 years ago.

As most of us live in urban environments these day, you might not hear a cuckoo from one year to the next. But I'd recommend getting out to the countryside to listen out for one - a sure sign that summer is coming. Probably around 28 April is a good time... :)

Lu Hersey

Patreon account: Writing the Magic
Twitter/X: @Lu Writes

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