Traditionally Halloween was a time celebrated because of harvest and was said to be the day of the year where our world and the ghostly world were most closely aligned. Because of this, many divination rituals or ways of foretelling one’s future, especially regarding death, marriage and children became popular. During the Middle Ages, these rituals were done by a rare few in rural communities as they were considered to be “deadly serious” practices. In recent centuries, these divination games have been a common feature of the household festivities in Ireland and Britain.
The games often involved apples and nuts; in Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality, while certain nuts were associated with divine wisdom. Some also suggest that the games derive from Roman practices in celebration of Pomona. The following activities were a common feature of Halloween in Ireland and Britain during the 17th–20th centuries. Some have become more widespread and continue to be popular today.
The bairin breac or barmbrack is a sweetened Irish bread filled with various dried fruits. Objects were baked into the bread and were said to tell of the future. The man or woman who found a ring in their piece of bread was assured good luck in the coming year. As the tradition evolved, other tokens were added; one might find a penny, a button, a thimble, a piece of wood, or a piece of cloth. Not only might you break a tooth if you get carried away enjoying the barmbrack, but not all of those symbols mean good luck. While a penny means good fortune and a button hints at a carefree life, the thimble means spinsterhood, the wood foretells spousal abuse, and the cloth represents loss of fortune.
Tradition states that if a young, unmarried woman wants to see what her fate holds she should stand before a mirror lit by candlelight and slowly slice and apple. If she is destined to marry, the face of her future husband will appear in the mirror to claim the last bite; but a skull will appear if she is destined to die alone.
Another version of this tradition involves peeling the apple in one continuous piece. Take the peel and toss it over your shoulder and the peel will form the letter of the first name of the person you’re destined to marry.
This game is played with everyone at once. Each person ties a string to the stem of an apple, and begins to spin them over a fire. The first peron’s apple to fall into the fire represents the person of the group who will be the first to be married.
A much more popularized game, bobbing for apples is played by filling a tub or a large basin with water and putting apples in the water. Because apples are less dense than water, they will float at the surface. Players then try to catch one with their teeth without the use of their hands. The first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry. Girls who won and would place the apple they bobbed under their pillows were said to dream of their future lover.
Luggie Bowls/Saucer Luck
Luggie bowls are little handled bowls made of wood, ceramic, or metal. Another version of this game can use saucers. Take the three small bowls; fill one with clean water, one with dirty water, and keep one empty. Taking turns, the blindfolded party guests dip their fingers in one bowl each. Those who choose the bowl of clean water can expect clean and pure spouses. Those who get the dirty water will may marry widows and widowers, or else find their partners anything but pure by the wedding day. Those who pick the empty bowls won’t be getting married at all, at least not anytime soon.
Nut Burning is a game traditionally played among friends to determine who will remain friends and who will drift apart. Each person is given a nut, and they name their nuts after themselves. The nuts are then placed next to each other on the hot coals of a fire. If they burn together, they are destined to be good friends. If they pop and jump apart then the friendship is destined to fail.
Another popular variation of this game is to give each guest two nuts. The guest names one nut for themself and another for the object of their affections. If the nuts burn quietly alongside one another then love will grow, if the nuts part then the relationship is doomed.
This is played at the stroke of midnight; all the girls are gathered together in a dark room. The host of the event lights a candle and each girl is given an unlit candle. One by one they light their candle from the host’s and they are told to follow her lead. As she says this a side door is opened revealing a small child dressed in a fancy costume and mask. The child approaches the girl, bows, and then leads the way out of the room to a distant part of the house where there is a closed door.
The child tells each girl that they must enter and take a numbered box from a chest of drawers in the room but not open it. She must continue in silence and close the door behind her on the way in and out. After she has retrieved the box and if she has luck, on the way back to the door she will see the shadow of her future husband walking beside her.
Once each girl has gone and they’re back to the party they may open their boxes, inside are small presents or party favors.
Throughout the evening prior to the girls participating in the chest game, the hosts would plant ideas as to what dark, ominous, or even dangerous things are inside the room so as to scare the young girls and test their bravery when they entered.
Sitting on a Church Porch
In old Ireland, a tradition found people sitting on the porch of their local churches. It was said that if one sat on the porch and gazed into the night, apparitions of the people who were destined to die in the coming year would appear.
These are just a few examples of the many and varied forms of Halloween divination. Maybe try a few on Halloween this year and see what your future holds.
This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:
- Washington Ghost Stories
- Out of Place Artifacts
- Henry Rathbone
- Charon and the Journey to Hades
- Post-Mortem Photography
- All Hallows Eve Divination Games
- Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
- Halloween Coins
- Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
- Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
- Superstitions Around the World
- A Brief History of Halloween