Thursday, 23 June 2016

What you can learn from a new moon

Last week’s #FolkloreThursday took me back to a comparative annotation assignment on my MA in Folklore at the late lamented NATCECT, University of Sheffield. Each student chose random items of collectanea from the NATCECT archives and/or from our own fieldwork collections, classified them, and offered an appraisal of comparative material from other folklore collections.

My heart soared, then, when Marianna Villanueva @mariannevill714 asked ‘what does a crescent moon mean?’ and @madebyfae replied ‘Bow 3 times to the crescent moon with money in your pocket & you'll have riches all month’, as this was one of the items I had researched. Below I have copied the assignment as originally submitted, with one addition. This assignment was designed to familiarise students with research in folklore collections and ways of thinking about items of collectanea. When I had completed the assignment a happy accident of conversation taught me a little bit more about fieldwork and terminology.

I had selected the following item from the NATCECT files: 
It is bad luck to look at a new moon through glass. When one does see a new moon for the first time, one should turn one’s money over in the pocket and wish. 
This was collected by C.V. Ibbotson in ‘1945 approx’ from Mrs A. Ibbotson, aged 90, of Millhouses, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Mr Ibbotson notes that Mrs Ibbotson ‘really believed’ this, which she had learnt from her mother in Sheffield.

Classification: This is an item of Customary Tradition – Traditional Belief (beliefs concerning cosmic phenomena and the weather). Under Mrs V.M. Halpert’s classification of Folk Belief and Custom, this falls into category K: Weather and Cosmic Phenomena.


This is one of the most widely documented items of customary belief in the British Isles, both geographically and historically. Virtually every regional collection of folklore published in the last 150 years contains some reference to it, and it is not confined to any one language group within the British Isles. (It is documented among Welsh-speakers, and it is recorded among communities where previously Scots Gaelic and Guernsey-French had been the first language). It is also recorded in the USA.

A few examples will suffice:

‘[the new moon] should never be first seen through glass’ (Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Sussex (London: Batsford, 1973), p.101);

‘It is unlucky to see the new moon through glass for the first time; you should … turn your money in your pocket’ (In the Troublesome Times: Memories of Old Northumberland, ed. Rosalie E. Bosanquet ([n.p]: Northumberland Press, 1929; repr. Spredden Press, 1989), p. 79);

‘An elderly Cambridge man recalled in 1958 that when he used to stay with his grandmother in Ely when he was a boy, he remembers being told by her to stand by the open kitchen door to warn her of the appearance of a new moon so that she could … see it from the doorstep and not through a window’ (Enid Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969), p. 59);

‘The widespread customs of bowing to the new moon and turning the money in one’s pocket are observed in the Highlands [of Scotland]’ (I.F. Grant, Highland Folk Ways (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 355);

‘It is considered unlucky to see the new moon the first time through the window’ (Jonathan Caredig Davies, Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales (Aberystwyth: [] 1911; repr. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1992), p. 219; and

‘You should never look at the new moon through glass … You must … rattle the money in your pocket’ (Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey ([St Pierre du Bois, Guernsey?]: the author, 1975), pp. 102-3).

Many more examples could be adduced (it features in most of the Folklore Society’s County Folklore Printed Extract series, published in the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, and also in most volumes of the Batsford county folklore series published in the 1970s), but these should be sufficient to disprove William Henderson’s idea that this was ‘a Durham superstition’ (William Henderson, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (London: Satchell, Peyton, 1879)).

Opie and Tatem give the earliest record for not looking at the new moon through glass as 1830 (Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 282), and for turning money over as 1808 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279), but both are related to other beliefs. A belief that it is unlucky to see the new moon through trees (emphasising the aspect of a distorted vision) is also widely reported, as is divination by looking at the new moon through a silk handkerchief.

Bad luck incurred through seeing a new moon through trees can also be counteracted by customs involving money, for example spitting on both sides of a coin (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 283). The turning over of money is related to an earlier recorded belief that it was unlucky to see the new moon without any money in your pocket. Opie and Tatem record instances back to 1507 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279). The penalties for breaching these customs vary. For an 88-year-old Ohio woman recorded in 1958, it meant the likely death of one of your family, but in most instances it brings bad luck for the duration of that moon. You will continue to have no money if you have none when you see the new moon. (This is the substance of the 1507 reference). This is in turn related to the equally well-documented custom of greeting the new moon, again with the intention of securing good luck for the remainder of the lunar cycle.

As spectacle-wearing has become more prevalent, this has been incorporated into the folklore concerning glass. In 1891 J.C. Atkinson was told that turning money in his pocket was useless because he always saw the moon through spectacles (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 280). A Warwickshire girl (born during the First World War) was told by her mother that ‘“Spectacles don’t count.”’ (Angela Hewins, Mary, After the Queen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 93). For one African-American informant in Illinois, however, the belief is not adapted to the spectacles, and your sight would weaken unless you took them off to see the new moon (Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folklore from Adams County Illinois, 2nd rev. edn ([New York?]: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1965). Both elements of the belief remain current, and are incorporating new developments.


I finished the assignment there, but there was more. I spoke to my dad on the ‘phone shortly after I had finished. He asked how the course was going and I told him about this assignment. I said that I had never heard of this belief before I drew out the archive card, and I had been somewhat surprised by the extent of its observation.

‘Oh,’ said my dad, ‘You should have asked your grandfather about that. He used to do that’.

I was stunned. His father, my grandfather, had died some 20 years earlier and I had no recollection of him mentioning anything of this kind. I had spoken to both my parents a few weeks earlier soliciting collectanea for another assignment, and I asked my dad why he had not mentioned this belief then.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just superstition.’

And with that I learned a number of important lessons. I continue to be uneasy about the word ‘superstition’: it implies a hierarchy of beliefs, sometimes used etically to distance the researcher from the subject but sometimes also used (as here) emically to assert the primacy of the informant’s beliefs.

But the word continues to be used, and it is negotiable. Explaining to an informant (who happened to be my dad) that I was interested in exactly these bits of undervalued (or secondary) belief and practice could both convince the informant that I was taking them seriously and encourage them to open up with what might otherwise have felt too trivial for consideration. It’s about taking apparently not very serious things very seriously indeed, and taking the people who believe or do them even more seriously. Otherwise you won’t find out anything.

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