How do I tell who I will marry?

This is one of the great questions in life, something that people have asked as long as marriage has existed. "Will I know true love? Will I live happily ever after? Who will my sweetheart be?" Historically this has been more greatly the concern of women (see below for an explanation why), and to answer the question a large number of superstitions have sprung up.

What follows is a list of methods derived from northern European folklore that help to tell you something about who you will marry.

Superstitions regarding love divination can be divided into three categories:

1. Clues about the future loved one: what colour is his or her hair, what is their occupation, what letter does their name begin with?

2. The identity of the future loved one: they might appear in a vision or in a dream, or a spell might pick one from a number of possible suitors or list of names.

3. Whether an existing relationship will last: signs that will tell you if you are soon to break up or be separated from the one you love, or to tell if the love will endure and happiness will accompany it, or to show if you will not marry at all.

Most of these were traditionally used by women. However, there is little reason why they may not be used by men, and a few male-specific rituals are given.

Where are they from?

Most of these rituals are British in origin, although others come from other parts of Europe, and some relate to practices of European settlers in the new world. Many of these beliefs are now dismissed as old wives' tales or nonsense, but some have been revived with the modern resurgence in Wicca and related forms of pagan Magick. A number of the beliefs exist in related but differing forms, indicating that ideas have been passed around and changed with time and distance.

Some appear to relate to very ancient rites, while others are much more recent. The older ones may have a basis in old pagan religious practices. (Throughout this article, the word "pagan" is used to refer to the various religious beliefs and observances of pre-Christian northern Europe, particularly those local to Britain. Aspects of these religions have been revived in recent years in various forms of spirituality including Wicca and New Age beliefs.)

This list is not intended as a scholarly discussion of the geographical origins of different beliefs, but simply to show the range and large number of superstitions regarding love and marriage among the people of northern Europe, especially those of British origin. And to help you find your true love.

Why are there so many?

In the past in some places, especially in poor agricultural communities, life offered few opportunities to women. If they stayed unmarried, they would remain at home helping with the household chores. The alternative was to marry a man, and live with him raising children and looking after the house. However, in many communities the population was sparse and there was a shortage of menfolk. Also, a dowry might be required, and if the woman's father could not pay it, her prospects would be further reduced.

In situations in which people have little control over their lives, superstitions commonly arise to give people the illusion of power and knowledge. And even in communities which give women more rights and life choices, the topic of love remains a central concern of most people.

What do I need?

Many of these rituals use simple everyday objects. Mirrors have long been considered to have magical powers (hence the belief that breaking one will give you seven years bad luck). Water also offers reflections and has a strong place in many magical rituals, as well as being an essential for human life. Hair and fingernail clippings are used in a variety of magical practices, representing the body of the person from which they came.

Common fruits and vegetables feature strongly, some of which have inherent magical significances. Apples were a pagan symbol of spring, fertility and love, as well as being one of the most widely-available fruits in northern Europe, and therefore occur commonly in folk religion too. Hazel trees are sacred in Wicca and pagan witchcraft, and hazelnuts feature in some rituals. Herbs have been used in magic and medicine (the difference not always being clear) for thousands of years. Salt was formerly a luxury good of considerable value, and is associated with a number of superstitions (for instance, that it is unlucky to spill.)

Birds are associated with romance, partly because of their links with St Valentine's Day, which is supposed to be the day that all birds find a mate. Birds have also been widely used in divination, for example by the ancient Romans. White horses are distinguished by their colour, with its associations of purity and virginity.

Some beliefs rely on apparently trivial or chance events, into which meaning may be invested: hiccups, spots on your fingernails, itches, stubbing your toes, or random occurrences. For these it is sufficient to keep your eyes open.

The only real problem in obtaining equipment, apart from the herbs required for a few spells, is in those things that were once found in every home but are now a rarity: proper fires, hearths and grates. Many assume a traditional stove, which might have been fuelled by wood, peat or coal, and these may not work with your electric oven or microwave. And a couple use dangerous substances like molten lead. But there is an idea for almost every means and circumstance.

When should I perform the rituals?

A number of the following superstitions are linked with specific days. More generally there are a few days of the year in which it is considered auspicious to perform love divination rituals. Put the following dates in your calendar:

  • January 20, St Agnes' Eve, a date recommended for love divination, as described by John Keats in the poem "The Eve of St. Agnes".
  • February 2, Candlemas, a Christian feast day believed significant in some places.
  • February 14, Valentine's Day, dedicated to the patron saint of love. This day might be expected to be very important for love divination, but in fact features in few rituals, perhaps because it is Christian not pagan in origin.
  • May 1, May Day, an ancient pagan festival still celebrated (in modified form) in Britain and elsewhere. In Celtic parts, Beltane was celebrated from nightfall on April 30 until nightfall on May 1.
  • June 21, Johnsmas in the Christian calendar, and Midsummer in the northern hemisphere.
  • October 18, St. Luke's Day for Christians. St. Luke is the patron saint of physicians but also prayed to in matters of the heart.
  • October 31, known as Halloween to Christians and Samhain to pagans, perhaps the most propitious day of the year for magic.
  • December 1, a good day for a woman to see her future husband in a dream.
  • December 31, New Year's Eve, the subject of many superstitions.

Disclaimer: These superstitions are presented for their folkloric and historical value only, and should not be relied upon for making life choices. The author accepts no responsibility for any consequences that arise from following the rituals and practices detailed below, and neither (I am sure) does Everything 2, its staff or their familiars.

1. Clues to the loved one

(a) Appearance

Go into a cabbage patch with your eyes blindfolded or closed and pull up a cabbage. Look at its roots. Straight roots mean a handsome husband, crooked roots mean an ugly husband, and if there is a lot of soil clinging to the roots you will marry a rich man.

The person who takes the last piece of pie from a plate will gain a handsome husband.

If a dog is following a girl home, a handsome husband will follow the dog.

If you find a hair on the heel of your shoe, it will be the colour of your future true love's hair.

If you hear a dove cooing, turn round three times, take off your shoe and look in it. You will see a hair that will match that of your future lover.

Alternatively, if the sun shines while it is raining, pick up a stone and look for a hair.

A hair may also be found in the hole made by turning your right heel three times.

Or a girl may run round the house three times, touching the same rock each time. After the third time, she will find a hair which will match her future husband's.

In the Orkney islands, off the north coast of Scotland, there are a number of rituals designed to tell a girl who she would marry. After the regular festivities involving bonfires, a girl would carry home a partly-burned piece of peat from the fire. This would be extinguished in a tub of "strang bing" (urine) and then placed on the lintel above the door. The next day, the peat is taken down, and broken in two. The peat within is the same colour as the girl's future husband.

Another Orcadian tradition, which appears somewhat related, was for a girl to remove a burning coal from the fire and place it in a bucket of water to extinguish it. The piece of coal was then placed under a piece of turf and left overnight. Next morning, the turf was broken in two and examined. If a hair was found, it would match that of her future spouse.

(b) Income and occupation

Seeing different birds on Valentine's Day will reveal the occupation of your lover. Birds were traditionally supposed to mate on Valentine's Day (a belief described by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Parliament of Fowls). A woman who sees a robin flying overhead will marry a sailor. A sparrow means she will marry a poor man but still be happy. A goldfinch means a very rich man.

A girl who has hairy legs will marry a rich man.

A girl who has dirty elbows will end up marrying a poor man.

If the lines in your hand form an M, you will marry a rich person.

Also, if you have heavy, close-together eyebrows, you will marry a rich person.

On the first of May, look out for a snail. The first snail you see, if it has a shell, means you will marry a wealthy man with a house. If it has no shell, you will marry a poor man.

On Halloween take a small vessel of molten lead. Pour it through the hole in a key into water. The molten lead will solidify and form the shape of the tool your future spouse uses in their occupation.

The skipping chant "Stone Brick Wood" will tell you what sort of house you will live in, depending on which word is being said when you trip.

The rhymes

Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,
Doctor, merchant, lawyer, chief.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.
can both be used to find the occupation of your future husband. This may be done by counting buttons, or by counting cherry pits or other fruit stones (e.g. from a pie), or as skipping rhymes.

(c) Where he lives

A custom in Orkney, Scotland, was for a girl at Candlemas to startle the first crow that she saw. She would watch what direction it flew. Her future husband would come from that direction, unless it flew over a churchyard, in which case she was doomed to spinsterhood.

(d) When you will meet

On the day you find a four-leaved clover (for extra luck, put the clover in your left shoe).

If you drop a pan and it lands upside down, you will see your loved one soon.

If you drop your brush or comb while brushing or combing your hair, you will see your loved one before your hair gets messed up.

After stubbing your toe, kiss your thumb and face in the opposite direction. You will see your loved one. Alternatively:

If you stub your toe
You'll see your beau
Kiss your thumb
He'll be sure to come.

To find if you will see your loved one soon, take an apple and peel it in one continuous strip. Throw the strip over your shoulder, and if it does not break, you will see him soon.

(e) First letter of name

If you notice a pin is about to fall from your dress, touch it, and each time you touch it say a letter of the alphabet. The letter spoken when the pin falls out will be the first initial of your future spouse.

Place a snail on a piece of paper, and place another sheet of paper on top. The snail will spell out the initials of the person you will marry.

Twist an apple's stem while chanting letters of the alphabet. The letter at which the stem breaks is the first letter of his or her name.

2. Identifying the loved one

(a) Dreams

The simplest way to find the identity of a loved one would be to see their face in a dream. There are a number of rituals designed to make this happen, but also a number of ways to see their face in a mirror, in water, or elsewhere.

One easy way to see your future lover in a dream is to sleep with a mirror under your pillow.

Or lay a four-leafed clover under each corner of your sheet.

There are various rituals in which salt is eaten before bedtime so that you will dream of your lover. If you hard-boil an egg and remove the yolk, then fill the hole with salt and eat the salty egg, your future husband will bring you a drink of water in your dream.

Or you can eat a thimbleful of salt without drinking and walk backwards up the stairs to bed, to dream of your future lover.

If you eat a thimbleful three nights in succession and go to bed without drinking, you will dream of your future husband two nights out of three.

Another salt superstition requires you to eat a salted herring before going to bed, and a man will bring you a drink of water in your dream.

A more complex spell to reveal a girl's prospective lover in a dream involves making a potion with marigold, and should be carried out on Saint Luke's Day (October 18). First you should make a love salve with marigold, thyme, marjoram, honey and white vinegar. This is used to anoint the breasts, hips and stomach. Then go to bed and while lying down say the rhyme:

St Luke, St Luke,
Be kind to me,
In dreams let my true love see.

Drop a stick in a glass of water and place under your bed. You will meet your lover in a dream, crossing a bridge.

If you count thirteen stars each night for thirteen nights, on the thirteenth night you will dream of the man you will marry. This ritual is practiced in other places with seven stars. And with nine stars: place a mirror under your pillow after the ninth night to dream of your future love.

A single woman who goes to sleep with a piece of wedding cake beneath her pillow will dream of her future husband.

Pass a piece of cheese through a wedding ring and place it under a girl's pillow: she will dream of her future lover.

(b) Apparitions, visions, voices

A variety of rituals involve a mirror and water and result in you seeing the image of your husband reflected in the mirror. One such ritual is to hold a mirror over a spring on May 1; the mirror will show you your future husband at his work.

A good night to see a vision of the person you will marry is Saint Agnes' Eve. At midnight in parts of England, young men and women would run through a field while throwing grain upon the ground and saying

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see The lad or lass who is to marry me.
They would go home and stare in a mirror. The shadow would appear behind them of the person they would marry.

Another ritual was described by John Keats in "The Eve of St. Agnes":

They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
(John Keats, "The Eve of St. Agnes", stanza 6)

Hold a mirror over your shoulder and walk backwards round your house on a moonlit night. You will see your future lover over your shoulder.

Alternatively, at dusk walk backwards towards a well, while looking at a mirror over your right shoulder. You will see your future husband in the mirror.

On Halloween, take a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. Walk down your cellar steps backwards, and you will see your future husband in the mirror. Others recommend simply looking in a mirror on Halloween.

Another thing to try on Halloween is to place a bowl of water by your bed, turn off the lights and go to bed. Quickly look in the water, and you will see his face.

Look in a well at midnight.

There are a number of Orkney traditions that are supposed to summon an apparition of a girl's future husband. Many of these were traditionally carried out on Halloween night. One requires a sieve, a pair of scissors and a knife. The girl goes into a barn or other building and stands in the dark with the door open. She places the knife and scissors in the sieve and winnows "three wechts o naitheen" (three weights of nothing). An apparition of her future husband will pass by the door.

In another one, the girl would throw a ball of wool into the kiln that was used for drying grain on the farm. She would ask, "Wha taks had o me clew's end?" (Who takes hold of the end of my ball of yarn?) and the voice of her husband-to-be would answer.

A third Orcadian superstition said that a girl should run round the farm's stackyard at night with her arms outstretched. When she completed a full circle, she would embrace the spectre of her future husband.

Something not confined to Orkney is that if you see a new moon, recite

New moon, true moon,
Dressed in blue,
If I should marry a man,
Or he should marry me,
What in the name of love,
Will his name be?
Make a wish, and your wish will come true.

Cut your fingernails at bedtime, and drop the clippings into the chimney of your oil lamp. Hang your bloomers or underwear over the stove, and while the fingernails are burning, the image of your future spouse will appear in a mirror on the wall.

Look down a well at sunrise on the first of May, and you will see your future husband.

On New Year's Eve, pour molten lead on a flat surface, and you will see your lover's image or their initials.

Another New Year's Eve custom is to sweep the room backwards while looking into a mirror. In the mirror you will see your future lover.

Find a deserted house, and enter it at midnight. Light a candle, and stick a pin into the candle. When the pin falls out your future spouse will appear.

Just before you go to bed, place a lighted candle on the floor and step over it. Reflected on your nightgown will be the shadow of your future husband.

Count one hundred stars, and look to your left.

(c) Chance meetings

If you count 100 white horses, the next man you see riding a white horse, you will marry.

In a more modern variation, count men with blue neckties. The 100th you see will be your husband.

There are many other beliefs involving white horses: one suggests you count one hundred, then put a wishbone over your door, and the third man who enters, you will marry.

More generally, you may put a wishbone, horseshoe or four-leaved clover over your door, and you will marry the first (single) man who enters.

Write "Come in, come in, my dear" on a piece of paper, and wrap nine peas up in it. Place the paper on the doormat, and the first person to cross it you will marry.

On the first day of spring, shout into a rain barrel. If you get an echo, you will marry the first man who comes round the corner.

Walk across nine cellar doors and you will marry the first person you meet.

Catch a dove, bite its head off, and throw the head over your left shoulder. The next person you meet, you will marry.

(d) Selecting from options

Take four onions and assign each the name of a prospective partner. Place them under your bed. The one which sprouts first will tell you which will be your spouse.

Alternatively, name two onions and place them on the hearth or stove. As before, the one which sprouts will be your true love.

Instead of onions, apple-seeds can also be used in divination. Name a number of apple-seeds and place them on the grate of the fire. The first to jump off will be your true love. (This can also be done with popcorn or chestnuts, or by throwing holly leaves into a fire and seeing which pops out first.)

If you want to choose between one of four suitors, name each corner of your room after one of them and go to bed. When you wake up in the morning, the first corner you look at will be the man you will marry. If you have a bed with a post at each corner, you can name the posts instead.

At Halloween, it is common to bob for apples in a tub of water or to suspend apples from strings and try to bite them. Halloween being a time for witchcraft, this can be used for divination. Each apple can be assigned the name of a person, and the person who succeeds in biting that apple will marry that person. Alternatively, you can assign a single apple a name, and if you bite it you will marry that person.

To choose between two lovers, tie a string to each of your big toes, tie the other end to each thumb, and the one which does not come off is the one you will marry.

Write names on pieces of paper, and place then in a pot coming to the boil. The first to rise will be the one you will marry.

3. Signs of love or lasting love

If your lover gives you a knife as a gift, the relationship will soon be over (even if the knife is not used in anger).

In the Ozarks, the plant Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is used to tell if your beloved really loves you. Traditionally, the man would bend the stalk in the direction of the house where his loved one dwelt. If the stalk grew back upright, that showed that she loved him; if it remained lying flat, she did not.

If a man and a woman reach for the same thing on the dining table at the same time, there is romance brewing between them.

If the soup is salty the cook is in love.

Finding a spider on your neck shows you have a secret admirer.

Take three cups. Fill one with milk, one with vinegar and one with water, and place them on a table. With a blindfold on, dip a finger into a cup at random. Choosing milk means the marriage will be successful. Vinegar means a spouse with a sour disposition. Water means you will not marry at all.

Most people know how to play "he loves me, he loves me not" while plucking petals. A similar ritual can be done with an apple. First choose and eat an apple, while thinking of the loved one. Then count the seeds according to the following rhyme (which can be changed she for he for the opposite sex):

One I love
Two I love
Three I love I say
Four I love with all my heart
Five I cast away
Six she loves
Seven he loves
Eight they both love
Nine he comes
Ten he tarries
Eleven he courts
Twelve he marries.

Hazelnuts were used for divination in Scotland. They were placed on a grate or the embers of a fire. If they split or rolled apart, the relationship was doomed. If they stayed in place, then the union would last. Or throw one nut in the fire, recite this rhyme, and follow its instructions:

A hazelnut I throw in the flame,
to this nut I give my sweetheart's name,
If blazes the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For 'twas my nut that did so brightly glow.
A similar thing was also done with pieces of straw on a fire or grate.

Acorns placed in a crystal bowl of well water under a full moon will perform similarly to hazelnuts on a grate: name them after you and your lover and if they stay side by side the relationship will last.

Sources (all websites visited November 11 - 12, 2002):

Corsinet, "Superstition", in Unusual Trivia Collection,
Damiana Fey SilverCloud, "More of the Magickal Year," in Damiana's Wiccan Grove,
Melanie Fire Salamander, "Beyond Eggs: Ways to Celebrate Oestara", in Magickal Musings,
George Knowles, "In Worship of Trees", in Controverscial.Com,
San Diego Books, "Love, Lovers, Faithfulness, Superstitions, Folklore and More",
Karyn Siegel-Maier, "Mullein", in Moonlit Garden,
Skye, "Herbal Magic", in Merry Meet,
Sigurd Towrie, "Marriage Divinations," in Orkney Jar,
And my family

Good luck, and tell me if you know any interesting superstitions I've missed. Or if any of them actually works.