Tuesday 16 August 2011

Red Thread: A Charm to Counteract the Evil Eye

Red Thread
One of the most persistent superstitious beliefs to have survived until relatively late in the Western Isles (as well as on the mainland Highlands) was in the curative powers of the snàithle or thread. This, it seems, was often resorted to in order to negate or counteract the effects of the evil-eye especially, as is the case here, if it in any way involved cattle. At least two interesting points may be observed from Alexander Carmichael’s note: that a different colour was used to differentiate between animals and humans (although this might vary depending on the locality) and that an incantation (of which Carmichael had a few examples, some of which were published in Carmina Gadelica, iv, pp. 166–69) was recited over the thread in order to make the charm effectual.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael defines snàithle thus:

Thread. gearradh snàithle, ‘cutting the thread’, gearradh snàithle na beatha, ‘cutting the thread of life’, are symbolic phrases frequent among the old people and often symbolised on the old tombstones. On some of these shears only are shown, on some shears and thread, on some the shears, thread and ball of thread. The ball is down at the foot of the stone; from it the thread ascends, winding and twisting between the blades of the shears and thence ascends and disappears in cloud above. On some stones the thread is between the blades ready to be cut, on the others the thread is cut, the lower part falling in crooked coils on the ground.

Extraordinary. While travelling along the road
today – Friday the 5th July [recte: August] 1870 – I overtook a
woman who told me that she had a cow
very poorly and that she could not understand the
nature of her illness – diseased. Ultimately
she confided to me that she had just been away
at a “wisewoman” getting a “snai[th]le” made
for the cure of her cow. The wise woman told
my friend that 2 or 3 per[sons] put an eye in the cow
Bu leoir a h-aon ’s cha ionada i bhi fo ghealai[dh]
crai[dh] said the owner religiously believing her
witch friends. She got 2 Snai[th]les which
she kindly showed me each about 6 or 9 inches
long and twisted of natural dusky brow[n] wool
This is the colour “ciar” for brutes and
scarlet for human beings. The woman
witch des[ired] her to put on the shorter first and
to put it hide na h-earubal where it would not be
seen & if not efficacious to put in the longer
which would for certain efficacious. Her
snai[th]le is made with much mystery and
secrecy dipt [dipped] in some mystery water
saliva &c and incantations said over
it. Some ecclesiastics here are not
proof ag[ains]t the snai[th]le and I have heard of some upon
whose cattle the snai[th]le was put if not at their re
quest at least with their sanctions.

It is interesting to note that some of the clergy seemed to approve of (or did not actively condone) this method perhaps because some of their prayers were not being answered and resorting to the snàithle may have been a last resort. The longevity of this ‘occult’ method can be gauged by the observation of one of Scotland’s best ever collectors:

The making of a snaithle or charm of plaited wool of varying colours was common. The late Calum I. MacLean, of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, said in 1947 he saw an old woman spinning a charm and chanting a spell as she worked. This was a rare privilege as the spell was usually kept a secret of great potency. This woman was well known throughout the Hebrides and her charms were often so be seen adorning even the radiator caps of lorries or tractors.

Carmina Gadelica, vi, pp. 128–29.
CW116/105, ff. 32v–33r.
Thompson, Francis, The Supernatural Highlands (London: Robert Hale & Co., 1976), p. 51.
Image: Red Thread.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]