Folklore Thursday

21/06/18: folklore of the Sun, stars and seasons

For this week’s theme we have returned to an old favourite, the College of Art diaries. With themes for each year the images below include anthropomorphic representations of the seasons and astrological signs and scenes of the seasons around Leicester.

College of Art diary, 1949

College of Art diary, 1961

This diary has A lovely front cover showing the Sun for the summer solstice.

Sun cover

College of Art diary, 1953

Make sure you catch lots of sun (with sun cream) on the longest day of the year.


14/06/2018: folklore of cities and urban spaces

For this theme we have consulted magazine “Leicestershire and Rutland Notes and Queries” (1889-1891) which is rich in stories of customs and legends of this area.

The magazine provides an interesting story about the foundation of Leicester, which is said to have been established by King Lear or Leir – he of the Shakespeare play.

The source of this information are the ancient chroniclers Matthew of Westminster and Geoffry of Monmouth, as related by Raphael Holinshed, writing in 1509:

Other urban customs are described in the magazine, many of which relate to religious festivals and pageantry through the town’s streets. On St George’s Day, for example, a custom known as the “Riding of the George” involved decorating a statue of the saint on horseback in a luxurious and extravagant manner.

Statue of St George from the church of Visnums-Kils in Sweden

The Corpus Christi Guild, founded in 1349, used to process through Leicester on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The Mayor and other officials would carry a canopy under which a priest would carry the Host. Banners, crosses and wands were displayed and hymns were sung.

Legends also grow up around famous visitors to towns. Leicester is well known as the last place visited by King Richard III before his death at the Battle of Bosworth. The inn where he is said to have stayed became the subject of many stories. When Richard stayed there it was called The White Boar, but was later renamed The Blue Boar. Richard was said to have left behind “a large wooden bedstead gilded in some places, boarded at the bottom, which became a piece of standing furniture, and was passed from tenant to tenant with the Inn.” A further embroidering of the tale related that in the Tudor period the landlady shook the bed too hard while making it and a gold coin fell out. She discovered it had a double bottom with the gap in between filled with gold coins left by Richard. This good fortune did not help the innkeeper, who was later murdered for her wealth. The bed was later recorded on public display and was thought to be the same as an ancient bed held at Beaumanor Park.


07/06/2018: folklore of birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations

#FolkloreThursday is celebrating its third birthday with an appropriate theme.

We Tweeted them “Here’s wishing you a nice rainy day to gather snails, followed by a big dinner, a little music and a nice nap: Mr Duck’s perfect birthday party (according to Louis Wain, 1903)

31/05/2018: folklore of arts, crafts and creativity

We’ve found some Japanese customs relating to arts and legends of famous artists for today’s #FolkloreThursday theme, from Hadland Davis Myths and Legends of Japan, 1920.

A common scene in Japanese popular art is the Gods of Good Fortune as passengers on the Takara-bune, the Treasure Ship. The ship contains magical cargo including the Hat of Invisibility, the Lucky Rain-coat, the Sacred Key and the Inexhaustible Purse. On New Year’s Eve sleeping with a picture of the treasure ship under your pillow will bring dreams of luck.

Image by Hiroshige, held at the V&A, Public Domain, source:

There are several tales where paintings or sculptures come to life, à la Pygmalion, such as the story in which a group of peasants, when annoyed by the destruction of their gardens, investigate the suspected intrusion of a wild animal. On discovering a horse they give chase and follow it back to a temple where inside they find ‘Kanoaka’s painting of the black steed steaming with its recent exertion.’ The artist at once paints a tether into the artwork and the gardens are not disturbed again.

Another such example includes a rather spooky corpse bride tale in which the forlorn couple Sawara and Kimi after declaring their love are separated while the former trains to be an artist and establishes a suitable living for them both. After much confusion, believing kimi has been married off, Sawara marries his employer’s daughter. The pair meet up again by coincidence and Kimi having not re-married is so distraught on hearing of her lover’s new life kills herself. The artist Sawara wanting to capture the beauty of his first beloved produces a sketch on the spot from which he later creates a kakemono (wall hanging or scroll) to hang on his wall at home.

The story of Sawara and Kimi from ‘Myths and Legends of Japan’

From the first night the ghost of Kimi emerges from the painting visiting her lost love. Unable to bear the visitation Sawara presents the kakemono to a temple where the priests pray for Kimi until her spirit is at peace.

Kat and Nat


24/05/2018: folklore of magical creatures

A belated Folklore Thursday, or Friday, if you will, featuring the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this gorgeous edition illustrated by Heath Robinson, 1914.

Quuen of the fairies, Titania, and her fairy train doing the fairy ’round’ in the Forest of Arden.



A fairy guards the Queen’s bower


Oberon’s story of Cupid’s arrow missing its mark and instead hits a flower creating therein a powerful love potion

King of the fairies, Oberon, administers the love potion

The cheeky Puck


18/05/2018: sport and leisure folklore

For this weeks’ Folklore Thursday, discover the god of skiing in our post on Norwegian Constitution Day

10/05/2018: folklore of the gods

Two of the oldest known sacred sites in Greece for  #FolkloreThursday today, taken from Art in Primitive Greece, 1894.

For the first, the author’s hypothesise that the Temple on Mount Ocha located on the island of Euboea, was in fact, according to local legend, the site where Zeus and Hera got married and that midsummer festivals would have taken place here to celebrate the godly couple.

From ‘Art in Primitive Greece’, 1894.

The second, the sacred grotto of Cynthus found on the island of Delos is thought to be the location where Leto gave birth to twins, Apollo and Artemis.

From ‘Art in Primitive Greece’, 1894.


03/05/2018: folklore of hearth and home

When thinking about what to include for this week’s #folklorethursday theme we naturally thought of household deities and, of course, Cinderella. But in the end we couldn’t resist the pudgy cuteness of Polly Flinders seen in the image below:

While the origins of the nursery rhyme are unknown its link with Cinderella have been noted in terms of the child’s association with the hearth and the cruel beating she receives for sitting too close. However, it is most likely that we can think about the song as a type of cautionary tale typical of those found in Victorian children’s literature.

From Old King Cole’s Book of Nursery Rhymes, 1901.

In the images we discovered Polly does not look impoverished in the same way as Cinderella and as the song indicates she is punished for ‘spoiling her nice new clothes’ suggestive of a more privileged upbringing. While the illustration above is gorgeous, at close inspection it becomes rather macabre as the two dollies with scorched faces hint at the dangers of an unattended child left in front of an unguarded fire.

From Little Songs of Long Ago, 1912

A similar scene of danger and punishment can be seen in this later publication and the image below with the fire licking high almost seems to be engulfing little Polly.

From The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes, 1968

The double-sided nature and multiplicity of nursery rhymes and folktales never fails to horrify!



26/04/2018: Fire and heat

This week for #FolkloreThursday we have consulted Donald Mackenzie’s Myths of Babylonia and Assyria c 1915 where we discovered that there are four Babylonian fire gods: Girru, Gish Bar, Gibil and Nusku.

The wonderfully decorated front cover

Mackenzie asserts that the Babylonians associated fire with magical properties and purification ceremonies, able to banish demons and cure  diseases but he questions whether its was linked to the belief that fire and heat are the vital sparks of life seen in other myths and legends.

Ishtar in Hades

However, we would like to challenge this as when Ishtar, a contradictory Mother Goddess linked to the region and associated with love and war,  fire and fire-quenching is banished to the underworld the world becomes barren, lacking that ‘vital spark’.

We would also like to challenge the representation of Ishtar here as we think it unlikely she would be white with red hair! A stark example of colonial white-washing in art.


19/04/2018: #Body Lore

According to Jungian psychoanalytical approaches, the transformative power of fairy tales is one of the reasons why they are so popular with children and why we keep on returning to them: unlike the idiom “a leopard never changes his spots” the magical make-overs seen in ‘Cinderella’ and the restoration of human form seen in animal bridegroom tales act as metaphors for the journey of individuation where we can all aspire to change, grow and develop, not just from child to adult but from immaturity to maturity.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known of animal bridegroom tales is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ where the transformative power of love restores the beast to his human form. So, for Folklore Thursday this week, below are two illustrated examples of the story from our rare books collection:

First, from a Victorian Story Book c 1850 these hand coloured illustrations depict the beast as a bear, an animal typically associated with strength, authority and knowledge (cough: patriarchal constructs ahoy)!

Second, from Six Old World fairy Tales c 1920, the Beast can only be described as a chimera, appearing as a combination of part lion, part human, part snake.

The Beast as chimera

The Beast transformed, shedding his animal body like a snake

While the lion is similar to the bear in terms of it being symbolic of power and authority, the chimera and serpent are forms typically associated with temptation and female evil suggesting a fear of gender fluidity.

From a feminist perspective ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is certainly problematic, but the power of transformation at the heart of the tale should not be confused or conflated with the way it has been represented and illustrated.


12/04/2018: Good and bad Luck

I guess as its Friday 13th tomorrow, a combination of date and day traditionally associated with bad luck in some countries, it is only fitting that this week we explore folklore surrounding good and bad luck for #FolkloreThursday.

According to the book, Amulets and Superstitions, however, it is not only Friday 13th we should be ‘concerned’ about as in fact every day of every week has a period that is considered unlucky. The good news is there is also a corresponding period of good luck!

Amulets and Superstitions, 1930

Luck lore abounds in the natural world, from the way certain flowers are given to the sightings of various animals:

The dandelion for instance is meant to bring good luck to a newly married couple when woven into a wedding bouquet. From Wild Flowers, Vol 2, 1853.

And the daffodil should always be given in bunches, as to give a single stem bestows bad luck on the recipient. Image from ‘The Art of Walter Crane’, 1905.

At sea, it is considered lucky to see an albatross but very unlucky to kill one, as most famously told in Samuel taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, 1834.

The albatross guides the sailors out of treacherous anatarctic waters

After the mariner kills the albatross the crew are beset with troubles and the mariner is forced to wear the body of the dead albatross around his neck as a way of atoning for the suffering he caused.

So, don’t say we didn’t warn you: do not give daffodils as single stems, do not kill an albatross, especially one that helped you, and mind out for those witching hours every day!


05/04/2018: the #sea and sea-related lore.

For this week’s #Folklorethursday I’ve chosen two beautiful books illustrated by Edmund Dulac with a distinct #sea theme, The Kingdom of the Pearl and Sinbad the Sailor.

In The Kingdom of the Pearl Leonard Rosenthal explores humanity’s fascination with the beautiful gemstone, examining their origins, place in history, and, of course, the myths and legends associated with them.

Front cover c 1919


Formed inside the shell of an oyster after the building up of many nacreous layers, one such myth is that the finest of pearls are only to be found in the deepest waters. Their watery origins has perhaps also led to the belief that ‘pearls foretell tears or bring them upon their owner’ and they are often thought to be the transformed tears of ‘angels, naiads or sirens’.


‘The Birth of the Pearl’


In Sinbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights we can read five of seven of Sinbad’s voyages as he encounters magical creatures and visits extraordinary places as well as being repeatedly shipwrecked.


Front cover, c 1914


The image below is taken from Sinbad’s first voyage in which he sets ashore on what he thinks is an island but which turns out to be an enormous sleeping whale.


From the first voyage, ‘Sinbad and the Whale’


29/03/2018: #nature and wildlife

It has been a long cold winter in the UK this year with more than average snowfall and the #beastfromtheeast, and it looks set to turn cold again for Easter this Sunday. But, believe it or not, #Spring is here and coming from a family of birdwatchers we are all looking forward to the arrival of the first swallows next month as a true sign that the seasons are changing and that the frosts will start to abate. So, I couldn’t resist including this beautiful bird for #FokloreThursday this week.

Spinetailed Swallow

According to A History of British Birds (1903) “the swallow always makes a friend among us… and is almost as respected and cherished as the Redbreast”. This is most likely not just because he heralds the arrival of warmer weather but bird lore says that if you get a swallow nesting in the eaves of your house they will bring you good luck and prosperity.


Coincidentally, we also included a feature on Nature in our current Newsletter, which will be available online soon – or you can always pop in and pick up a hard copy!


22/03/2018: #birds

#FolkloreThursday this week has a bird theme. Our feathered friends appear in many traditional stories, fairy tales, nursery rhymes and legends. Below is a small selection from our collection.

Thumbelina is rescued from marriage to a mole by a kind Swallow in this peepshow book from 1976

“Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” From Aunt Louisa’s Nursery Rhymes, c.1860

The nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is extensively illustrated in this version from R Caldecott’s Picture Book of 1879.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

The first illustration shows a child given sixpence by an elderly relative, the charitable child then passes the coin to an elderly woodcutter in return for a song.

A Pocketful of Rye

The woodcutter is shown heading home and tipping his pocketful of grains over the table, presumably purchased with the sixpence.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds

The blackbirds are shown in flight and then the woodcutter’s son is seen waiting beside a trap, baited with the rye grains. Beside him birds already caught are held in a wicker basket.

Baked in a Pie

When the Pie was Opened

The Birds began to sing

The women of the household are shown preparing the pie, then the whole family gather for the wonderful moment when the crust is cut open:

Was not that a dainty dish

To set before the King?

The woodcutter is shown dashing off with the pie, trailed by his hungry family, before handing it over to a palace official who take it to the King and Queen:

The King was in his Counting-House,

Counting out his money.

The Queen was in the Parlour,

Eating Bread and Honey.

The Maid was in the Garden,

Hanging out the Clothes;

There came a little Blackbird,

And snapped off her Nose.

The unfortunate maid is shown hanging out the laundry watched by a patrolling palace guard, who shoots at the blackbird causing it to drop the nose.

But there came a Jenny Wren

and popped it on again.

The rhyme finishes with the maid showing the King and Queen the helpful Jenny Wren:

08/03/2018: #women and #International Women’s Day 2018

As this week’s #Folklore Thursday coincides with International Women’s Day we think it splendid to combine the two to explore women in folklore!

Female curiosity is a prominent theme in religious stories, myths and legends, and folklore, and is frequently used as a way of reinforcing patriarchal frameworks. Often associated with forbidden knowledge, women’s supposed inability to control their impulses means their curiosity frequently unleashes terrible things upon the world.

However, curiosity is better understood as the impulse to investigate, to discover what is unknown, to use knowledge to create a better world and to challenge the limitations that have been imposed upon us, such as the oppressive social structures of patriarchy and  class.

From ‘The Work of Walter Crane’ 1981

Our first discovery is this engraving of the Greek heroine Pandora by Walter Crane. Pandora supposedly unleashed all the horrors of the world when curiosity compelled her to open the jar in her charge. But in doing so, she also released hope.

‘The Temptation of Eve’ Engraving by Angelo Biggi

In the Old Testament Eve can not resist partaking of the forbidden fruit, the apple, offered to her by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In doing so, she and Adam gain worldly knowledge but are cast out of Paradise forever.

Bluebeard gives the key to his forbidden chamber to his new bride. From ‘Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales’, 1967.

In the folk tale ‘Bluebeard’, a husband gives his new bride the key to his forbidden chamber with strict instructions not to look inside. Once he has left the castle the heroine can not resist the temptation to peep inside. And this is what she found:

Extract from Fitcher’s Bird, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms’ version of Bluebeard in Grimms’ Folk Tales, 1965.

While the discovery varies between versions, (sometimes it is Bluebeard’s seven previous wives – all murdered for disobeying their husband and succumbing to their curiosity) the new bride becomes aware that her husband is in fact a serial killer. Armed with this knowledge she seeks help and avoids death. While the story still punishes female disobedience it undoubtedly demonstrates that curiosity helps us to discover the truth.

The Grimms’ version is particularly pertinent as the heroine’s actions also helps other women. While these are all Western European examples, Special Collections stands in solidarity with all women today. Embrace your “female curiosity”, #pressforprogress and new knowledge to bring about gender parity.