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In folk tradition, St. Catherine's Day (25 November) and St. Andrew’s Eve (30 November) was the time when young people met and spent time on fortune-telling activities aimed at guessing the future, mainly in a matrimonial context. It is worth noting that this was the beginning of the whole autumn-winter cycle, during which fortune-telling practices were becoming quite popular. Why was it during this festive and ritual period that our ancestors tried to read from certain signs what awaited them? – comments Dr Damian Kasprzyk from the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Lodz.

The eternal desire to know the future – fortune-telling versus religious practices

Two things play a key role here. It is the dying of nature and the human reflection on death that accompanies this process. The relationship between these circumstances and fortune-telling becomes clear only when we realise that the idea of fortune telling is based on a belief in an instance that knows the future and is willing to inform us about it. Those who 'know the unknown' are those who have learnt the greatest secret by crossing the border of life and death. 

The time of the shortest days and the longest nights was filled with the belief in the presence of departed souls and all supernatural entities. Worshipping them was also an opportunity to take advantage of their power of telling the future. It could be said that in the traditional worldview, questions about the future asked when the spirit world was close was evidence of belief in its existence and a way of showing respect to it. It is not without reason that the period from All Saints’ Day to Epiphany was filled with moments of All Souls' Day and the propensity for fortune-telling practices. Incidentally, the syncretism of cultural practices during this period is a peculiar phenomenon. In parallel with the preservation of festive church forms, the people resorted to fortune-telling practices, disregarding the first commandment of the Decalogue. This dissonance was to be alleviated by dedicating the evening meetings to St. Catherine and St. Andrew.

Wax, slippers, nut shells – the customs of November fortune-telling

Going back to the specificity of customs practised on the last days of November, various objects and techniques were used to facilitate the transmission of information from the spirit world. Shape of the wax solidified on the surface of the water (or, more precisely, the shape of the shadow of this piece) was used to tell the future. The girls would make balls of dough soaked in fat, and then let a dog into the chamber. The girl whose dough ball was eaten by the dog first, was the one about to get married. Objects hidden under the bowls which symbolised various events, were drawn at random.

Slippers were put in a line on the floor – the person whose slippers crossed the threshold first could expect life changes. Nut shells that were floating on the water were observed, each of them was assigned to a particular boy or girl. The contact of the nut shells was supposed to be an omen of the actual meeting of the young. Fence rails, footsteps, people one met, animals, etc.were counted – an even number usually meant “a favourable omen”. In other words, the methods used for the purpose of fortune-telling were extremely diverse and resulted from people’s imagination, although some indeed became part of the regional tradition. During the period people often tried to remember and analyse their dreams.

St. Andrew's Eve experiment – what do we care about today, what do we dream about?

Regardless of the pattern of ethnographic description and interpretation, it is worth considering what the meaning of St Andrew’s Eve would be today. From an anthropological perspective, collective fortune-telling could be seen as a kind of experiment. What would it explain? Firstly, it would help to clarify the axiological issues – what do we care about today? Assuming that we would most like to know the development of the most important events from our life perspective, it could probably turn out how many desires and dreams we have today. How many directions our ambitions are going. How diverse the concerns of a modern man can be. The matrimonial area would probably be one of many areas exploited by fortune-telling. Health, friendships, careers, financial investments, self-development, media popularity, the fate of loved ones, the championship of a favourite football team would be no less important...  

Secondly, would it be even possible to establish the subject of common fortune-telling? Such an experiment would make it possible to establish the chances of establishing a community or determine the nature of an already existing one. Arguably, for most ladies and bachelors centuries ago, the issue of getting married was important. Is this the case today? We can have doubts. What consensus regarding the subject of fortune-telling would representatives of different professional, age, property, neighbourhood groups reach today? Although there is no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of fortune-telling, the 'St. Andrew’s Eve experiment' could provide answers to a number of interesting questions about culture and society.

Source: Dr Damian Kasprzyk, Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Lodz
Edit: Promotion Centre, University of Lodz