The Long-Lost Friend: Running (from) Water

Hohman’s book has a number of puzzling passages.  Some have meanings that can be teased out with a little effort, some might elude all analysis.  One that’s puzzled me for quite some time is this admonition at the end of a charm for the “77-fold fevers”:

Neither dare the sick person speak to any one till after sunrise ; nor eat pork , nor drink milk, nor cross running water , for nine days.

One can understand the dietary prohibition against pork, and perhaps even the drinking of milk, but what’s with the running water?  As any vampire fan knows, crossing running water is a good way to ward off dark spirits and the like.  If a sick person was supposedly attacked via evil spirits, then one would think that the person should cross a stream to ward off these creatures.  So, why the opposite prohibition?

Using the Handworterbuch, which describes a good number of cases of running water warding off spirits, I was able to track down a mention in Theodor Bindewald’s Oberhessiches Sagenbuch on the topic.  One story therein tells of a folk belief in Hesse that one who is followed by an evil spirit should not cross running water, as that will place the person completely under the spirit’s sway.  An example is given of a gentleman pursued by a ghost who, when he came to running water, turned to confront the spirit, thereby driving it off.

It’s an explanation, but it’s not a particularly good one, I believe.  Does anyone else want to take a stab at it?

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. When crossing running water, does the spirit go away or wait for you to return?

  2. I found this:

    http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/madge-e-madge-evelyn-pickard/the-midwest-pioneer-his-ills-cures–doctors-kci/page-7-the-midwest-pioneer-his-ills-cures–doctors-kci.shtml

    “Once a fever was contracted, a polite and holy
    exhortation might cause it to leave: “Good morning, dear Thursday! Take away from [name] the 77-fold fevers. Oh! Thou dear Lord Jesus Christ, take them away from him!” A black cat might eat some of the soup fed to the patient, or a black dog could feast on a pound of beef boiled in the sufferer’s urine. A small grasshopper, placed in a rag and provided with a lunch of a crumb of rye bread and a little salt, could be hung on the patient’s skin without his knowledge of the contents of the sack. On the ninth day the charm was to be removed and cast upon the waters; relief would return after not too many days.”

    From context it sounds a bit like a combination between a neck-charm and a poultice – the prayer might be written on a piece of cloth hung around the neck, and after nine days after the charm had drawn the sickness spirit/poison out, casting it out into the waters would banish the spirit. The nine-day admonition might be to give the charm time to work in getting the spirit out. Admittedly, that’s a lot of conjecture.

  3. In many types of folk magic running water is often seen as a means to dispel charms or render them inert, so to speak. Running water is often used in hoodoo to dispose of used charms and mojo hands. Since this is an ongoing procedure (nine days), perhaps crossing running water before the charm is finished would negate the spell’s progress, effectively cutting it short before the magical operation is complete?

  4. Crossing running water is the equivalent of using iron to break a spell or charm. The “charm” would be broken or ‘shorted’ by the living water’s (i.e. running water’s) current. There’s a few other things I can tell you about different kinds of water if you’re interested.

    As for the fevers, I have a few ideas.

  5. […] Saint Lawrence, the Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus, German hymns, beer, the rheumatism letter, running water, the use of the devil’s name – or lack thereof, in the book, and […]


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