The Appeal of Coin Trees

 

 

One of the most fascinating folklore traditions may also one of the newest: the coin tree. Contrary to popular assumptions, coin trees seem to be a relatively new tradition, though they grew out of a very old one.

 

 

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Clootie tree near Madron Well, Cornwall. Photo credit: Jim Champion, used under CC by SA 4.0.

In ancient times, wish trees were a common way to give offerings to local deities, or in an attempt to rid oneself of disease. Valuable items might be dropped into a pool at the foot of a tree, or attached to the tree itself. For the cure of an ailment, one might wash the affected body part with rags (known as cloughties or clooties), then tie the rag to the tree; as the rag decays with time, the disease goes with it. Pins were also commonly used to transfer illnesses from bodies to trees, and it’s possible that this is the origin of inserting coins into the bark of a tree.

 

 

While coins have been used as votive offerings and good luck charms for millennia, the phenomenon of coin trees may be relatively new. Ceri Houlbrook, a folklorist who specializes in coin trees, reports that no coins found at the Ardmaddy Coin Tree date to before 1914.

 

 

In one of her posts about the Ardmaddy dig (please go read the entire multi-post story on her blog, it’s fascinating!), Houlbrook says, “[Visitors] were all very interested in how old the tree was (I deal with people’s preoccupation with age in my thesis) and wanted to know what we’d found. A few of the local residents we’ve spoken to have been convinced that the wishing-tree is far older than the testimony of the coins would suggest; either we’ve not been digging deeply enough/in the right places, or it’s a case of that preoccupation with age again. A lot of people tend to over-estimate the ages of coin-trees, claiming that they’ve ‘always been there’, when they’re in fact only 10 or so years old. Obviously this coin-tree is much older than 10 years – if I had to estimate, I’d say that it possibly began in the 1920s, but didn’t become popular until the 1940s/50s – but I doubt that it’s ‘centuries’ old, as they claim in The Heritage Trees of Scotland. But like I said, I find the contemporaneity of these coin-tree fascinating; unlike my fellow archaeologists, the more modern these folk customs are, the more I’m intrigued by them.”

 

 

Hundreds of trees have been documented, and there are certainly more that are known locally without being on any historic registry. It will take a great deal more work from folklorists, historians, and numismatists to be able to tell the full story of when coin trees began to make their appearance.

 

 

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Modern hiker adding a coin to the coin tree at Bolton Abbey. Photo credit Zakhx150, used under CC by SA 4.0.

Whether any given coin tree is ancient or modern, the fascination with them is consistent. It’s almost impossible to pass such a tree without depositing a coin; Houlbrook once witnessed twelve families pass by a tree and decide to pound coins into the bark with a simple stone. The desire to leave an offering, for luck or simply as an “I was here,” is palpable. Human beings use coins to make purchases and exchanges every day; is it any wonder we would use them as good luck offerings, too?

 

 

[The image at top is from Ceri Houlbrook’s Twitter feed; and yes, even that ancient looking coin tree is quite modern! Many thanks to her for permission to use the photo and for answering questions! You can follow her on Twitter here.]

Past and Present Mix in a Coin Rite

 

It’s long been thought that rituals involving the sacrifice of a coin (wishing wells, coins on the eyes of the dead, etc) date back to ancient practices of sacrificing precious metals to appease or garner favor with the gods.

 

One of the more interesting variants on this basic rite can be found at Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow from the Neolithic era. It’s located near the famous White Horse of Uffington, a figure that dates to the late Iron Age or early Bronze Age. The barrow itself likely dates back to a time shortly after agriculture was introduced to Britain from the main European continent. It is one of the better-preserved barrows of a type known as the Severn-Cotswald group.

 

The mound originally measured 185 feet long by 43 feet wide, though it currently looks somewhat different due to excavations. The burial remains of at least twenty-two individuals have been found in and around the barrow so far.

 

Völund.jpgThe name of the barrow indicates it was associated with Wolund, a smithing god of the Germanic peoples (Volund in the Norse legends); however, research indicates the name was only given to the place when the Saxons settled there, about 4000 years after it was built. The name was first documented by Saxon King Eadred in 955AD.

 

 

 

Sometime between 955 and 1738 (when the ritual is mentioned by Francis Wise, a tradition arose around the barrow: if one had a horse that had thrown a shoe along the road, he need only tie it to the barrow and leave a coin. When he returned later, the coin would be gone and his horse would be perfectly shod. Coins have been left at the site in modern times since at least the 1960s; visitors began wedging coins into cracks in the stones. The coins are currently removed by wardens and donated to local charities.

 

Ceri Houlbrook, a folklorist, stated that the coins “contribute to the ritual narrative of a site.” By participating in these ancient traditions, we feel connected with the peoples that have passed that way for millennia; by leaving our coins, regardless of what we believe about the legends, we offer our respects for humanity’s long-ago past.

 

Cover image is by Wikipedia user Msemmett, used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Lucky Pennies and Passports for the Dead

Coins have been in use for thousands of years, so it’s no wonder that folklore has arisen about them.

 

In folklore, coins often have the ability to change fate or create good fortune: this power may be tied to the value of precious metals that most coins have been made of. Little to no folklore exists about base metal coins.

 

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Most people are familiar with the legends of leprechauns, small mischievous folk with magical stores of gold. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, claimed that this gold came from “treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time.” Given the number of coin hoards dug up in the British Isles, this legend isn’t so far-fetched!
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Wishing wells and fountains are some of the most innocuous–and widespread–folklore about coins. It’s possible that this practice dates back to pagan sacrificial traditions of gods or spirits living in wells and springs; an offering of precious metal brings about one’s desired outcome.

 

 

 

 

Mercury_dime.jpgSometimes the coins themselves are held to have special properties. The American “Mercury dime” is one of the favorites for “lucky” coins. ue in part to the silver in the coin, as well as its association with Mercy, the Roman god of games of chance and prestidigitation (though the image on the front of the coin is Liberty, not Mercury.) Mercury dimes struck in leap years during the 29-year run of the coin are considered particularly lucky, and the coin is often used as a hoodoo token and an aid to gamblers. It’s even been said to fight off evil; just punch a hole in the coin, thread a piece of red string through it, and tie it onto your ankle. If someone tries to curse someone wearing a silver dime, the dime will turn black and deflect the attack. If you suspect you’ve already been cursed, folklore suggests putting a silver dime under your tongue to detect the spell.

 

Many old household chores, such as churning butter, are said to be vulnerable to witchcraft, and can be protected by placing a silver dime in the area (under the churn, for instance.) Some say the coin must be heated and tossed into the churn; others think the “In God We Trust” motto is the efficacious aspect, though the motto only dates back to the 1860’s on coinage. (If this proves ineffective, the milk can be scalded in fire or whipped with sticks, inflicting pain on the evil person inflicting the curse.)

 

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Some hold that pennies are luckier than dimes; the Indian Head cent is a special favorite for a “lucky penny.” A copper cent coin minted from 1859 to 1909 (when it was replaced by Lincoln cent), the Indian Head penny is considered especially powerful in folklore. Nailed around doors or windows, they are said to be able to keep unfriendly viewers away from one’s property.

 

Lee_Penny.gifCoins have also been said to be very powerful for purposes of healing. The famous Lee Penny, an Edward I groat obtained by Sir Simon Lockhart while on crusade in the Holy Land, is one of the most legendary healing coins. Set with a triangular red stone, the coin was exempted from the Church of Scotland’s ban on charms, and is said to cure rabies, bleeding, and other medical issues. During the reign of Charles I, it was borrowed by the citizens of Newscastle as protection against the plague. The charm is used by dipping the coin twice in water, with a final swirl; no words must be spoken during this process, lest the user be accused of sorcery. In the Appalachians, someone with a gift of healing are said to be able to rub a wart with a coin, then instruct the former wart-sufferer to spend the coin, giving away the wart in the process.

 

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One of the more potent uses of coins in folklore is their use as “totenpässe,” passports of the dead. In many traditions, the dead must pay a price to enter the afterlife or be shut out forever as wandering spirits. Many funerary rites include placing coins on the eyes or in the mouths of the dead, so they can pay their fare and move on to the next world.

 

 

 

Whether you believe any of the tales or not, coin folklore is old, established, and here to stay. It’s something to think about the next time you stumble across a penny lying in your path.

Traveling with Art: Bray, Berkshire in England

Have you ever wanted to escape to the English countryside? This watercolor painting by Albert Rosser offers a small escape into a village in England. Here, Rosser has painted St. Michael’s Church in Bray, Berkshire, a small but accomplished town in the UK.

Bray is just one of many subjects that Albert Rosser has painted in England, which also include lakes and mountains in British National Parks. He’s a go-to artist for natural English beauty. (Here‘s the link to the above painting.)

“And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.”
A ballad commissioned by the Singing Vicar of Bray in the 17th century

St. Michael's Church and its graveyard (via Rob Neild under creative commons)

St. Michael’s Church and its graveyard (via Rob Neild under creative commons)

This particular Bray church was built in 1293 to replace a Saxon church, taking some of the former church’s statues along with it. According to folklore, the builders of the church ran into a little trouble that they attributed to a demonic presence. Work progressed quickly on building the church, but on the night after the first building day, something horrible happened: the start of the structure had been torn down and reduced to rubble. Well, the builders had no choice but to start over again, but the situation occurred again, and again, and again. Citizens attributed the issue to the work of demons who did not want the church built. Finally, they moved the structure’s location and, after prayers to St. Michael from the villagers, no more demons wreaked havoc on the building.

A local cottage reportedly has a tunnel which leads to the church as an escape route for clergymen.

The Fat Duck, a critically acclaimed restaurant. (via geograph.org under creative commons)

The Fat Duck, a critically acclaimed restaurant. (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

Bray has two internationally recognized restaurants, one of which, The Fat Duck, was voted as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. The restaurant plays with molecular gastronomy to create exotic tastes that will surprise your taste buds. Scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, anyone?

A view of Monkey Island (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

A view of Monkey Island (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

A hotel called the Monkey Island Hotel sits on the nearby Monkey Island. The island got its name from the Old English term Monks Eyot, or Monk’s Island, based on the monks who used to reside on the island. Rubble from the Great Fire of London was dumped on the island, giving it a foundation solid enough and high enough to risk flooding. One can find grotesquely painted monkeys in the pavilion inspired by the island’s name.

Bray, Berkshire has many undiscovered treasures and hidden history within its borders, and at its finest it is a quaint English town with pleasant scenery and historical architecture. Who knows what you might discover if you visit?