It’s a standing joke but it’s a commonly held belief around here that I don’t have to do much more than look at something in order to break it — which is a problem when you’re trying to slowly restore an old house. Call me a clumsy clogs but like that boy at the art exhibition in Taiwan this week, from tools to tea cups, nothing is safe when this Murphy is considering his Yallambie legalities. So when a mirror got broken recently, it was clear from the outset who would be getting the blame.
“I guess I must have been looking at it when it cracked,” I said in an admission not altogether accurate but aimed at setting up a Dad joke. “You know, that glass was a real pane.”
It’s said that a broken mirror will bring you seven years of bad luck. If that’s true then I’m afraid that the total around here is currently running into several lifetimes. The superstition dates from an early belief that the reflected image in a mirror somehow contained a part of the soul of the observer with any damage to the mirror surface leading to obvious consequences.
Superstition and folk magic have been a part of the human experience throughout history and this has sometimes manifested itself in our building practices. The Chinese have their Feng Shui but to varying extents, every culture has had its own folk traditions for harmonizing the environment. In this age of scientific enlightenment however, there is no longer any room for superstition. We live in a world we are told that can be explained by a series of scientific laws using the universal language of mathematics but when Alice returned to Wonderland through a looking glass the writer of her story, himself a professor in mathematics, was telling a tale of pure, artistic invention.
So if all matter is energy held together by the very dubious laws of quantum mechanics then I for one am quite happy to hedge my bets. Inside and in front of our front hall, guarding the eternal verities, can be found not only a BaGua Mirror but a Hand of Hamsa, a Ganesh and a rather tatty but ethereal looking plaster angel.
The angel was saved many years ago from where it was found abandoned in an up country junk yard and it has stood poised in our hallway ever since, long before Dr Who put a whole new spin on the presence of winged statues. It’s a bit worn around the edges but it has very realistic glass eyes which can look a bit spooky if you catch them watching you under a spectral light when coming through the front door after a late night out. Now it’s a funny thing but it is a fact that I did find that angel one day with a very obvious tear welling under one eye and streaming down a painted plaster cheek. The logical if only explanation for this was that a possum had been inside the house (it has been known to happen) and had climbed the angel leaving a stream of piddle behind as a calling card. Maybe perhaps, but I really dunno. It was a strange thing to happen all the same.
Possum magic aside, more than one mummified moggy cat has been found under the floor here. I have been told that poor pussy may have been placed there by a superstitious labourer, possibly during the initial building phase at the start of the 1870s. Such folk magic was supposed to stop witches entering the house through a doorway or by flying down a chimney. Similar entombed cats have been found in buildings all over Victoria including this one from Her Majesty’s Theatre in Ballarat.
Personally I’m not so sure. Those late, lamented cats may simply have stumbled in like that magical possum and been trapped under the floor. We once lost a pet rabbit through a hole in the boards in similar fashion. The rabbit was missing for days before being miraculously found inside a chimney breast and rescued by me dangling down the inside of the chimney with my father’s old fishing net and my father in law holding me upside down by the ankles. Bunny emerged into the daylight none the worse for wear while I staggered around next to her, filthy and my clothes cut to ribbons by sharp brick work.
According to Ian Evans, writer and researcher of old Australian buildings, walled up cats were just one form of ritual object associated with early colonial building practices. Old shoes were sometimes placed within the fabric of a building for the same reasons as cats:
“There is a legend that in the 14th century a pastor named John Schorn, from the parish of North Marston, Buckinghamshire, conjured the devil into the boot. I think that’s where the idea of putting a shoe into a building came from. They believed, it seems, that an evil spirit or a witch flying over the landscape in the night would be attracted to the shoe in the chimney and would be trapped there, instead of attacking the people living in the house. You have to put aside your 21st-century logic and think of a time when people constantly lived in fear of death. You could die from the plague or appendicitis.” (Ian Evans)
Of course not all abandoned foot wear can be put down to folk magic. In the pages of her very entertaining book “Bearbrass, Imagining Early Melbourne”, Robyn Annear tells the tale of the loss of a new pair of boots in the mud of Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in October, 1838. Elizabeth Street was of course originally a stream, the so called Rivers Townend and Enscoe, and the boots were lost on a dark night somewhere near the Collins Street corner in what is now modern day Equitable Place. The punch line to Annear’s story is that in 1889, during building of the foundations for the Equitable Building, the curiously well preserved remains of a pair of boots were found. Less a case of early folk magic I’d say, more a case of the wet roads.
The presence of boots and cats may be debateable, but a suede bag of coins was found by the Tembys inside the stone and brick walls of the Bakewell era stables when they were demolished at the start of the 1980s. At that time of discovery it was assumed that they were placed there for luck by the builder of the stables in the 1840s.
Following this theory I placed a cache of copper coins inside the walls of our house when those coins were withdrawn from currency. The verdict’s still out on that one but in the meantime my faith resides elsewhere, in the form of a simple half brick.
Growing up in Rosanna, my childhood home featured a steep concrete drive constructed down one side of the house. My father used to park his vehicles on that slope in front of the garage and would push a half brick under the tyres with the seemingly sage advice, “Never trust a handbrake, son.” After a couple of decades of this sort of thing, that brick was worn down to less than half of its original thickness. When I moved to Yallambie what was left of the brick came with me as a sort of family heir loom. It’s now built into the walls of the homestead, our very own Yallambie Stone of Scone you might say.
Another form of lucky talisman is the iron horse shoe which has been considered to be a lucky object for centuries. It is a belief that may date back even as far as the introduction of the Iron Age, an era that was ushered in at the expense of earlier, Bronze Age customs. As a former farm, you don’t have to dig very far here to turn up an old horse shoe from the agrarian age. Years ago I observed one which had been nailed up in the far off past in the large Bakewell era oak growing near the south west corner of the house. By then the bark of the tree had half consumed the iron.
With this blog in mind I went back to that tree yesterday with a camera and ladder to record the horseshoe in situ but for the life of me do you think I could find it? I had climbed halfway to the top of the tree without success before coming to the conclusion that when I had seen it all those years ago, it was located at a point nowhere near as high as I had climbed. I eventually spotted the horseshoe, or what’s left of it, on the way back down. Only the merest edge of the shoe is today visible, certainly not enough to photograph, the bark of the tree having grown almost completely over it.
Opinion seems divided on the correct way of hanging a horse shoe. There is another horse shoe, the large clodhopper from a draught horse, bolted over a door at Yallambie with the prongs pointing upwards, the idea being that the luck will collect inside the shoe there for safe keeping. By contrast, Annie Wragge was photographed on the front steps at Yallambie on her wedding day in 1903 with silk horse shoes, prongs facing down. The counter argument being that the luck runs out from the prongs, enveloping all around in its good fortune.
At the end of the day, as Sam Pickles never quite fathomed in the pages of Tim Winton’s “Cloudstreet” when contemplating what he called the “shifty shadow” and the “hairy hand of God”, all the lucky rabbits’ feet, four leaf clovers and assorted talismans never beat a bit of simply rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it. In another era Thomas Wragge might have called that the Protestant work ethic. In this modern age of entitlement, it may just be possible that we make our own luck.