The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Crossing the line

And the little bears growl to each other "He's mine,  
As soon as he's silly and steps on a line."

Have you ever heard the expression "he's living on the edge"? And have you ever considered what it actually means? There's an obvious interpretation, that someone too close to the edge is in danger of falling, but there is a much more complex idea behind the concept of edges: liminality.

The word derives from the Latin for threshold and has been adopted by anthropologists to describe events in people's lives and the rituals and traditions associated with them.  Liminality is neither one place nor another - the junction between two known factors, where one fades to another but there is no definite boundary. For millennia this state of 'betweenness' has been associated with potential danger, and so mankind has surrounded himself with rituals designed to protect those passing from one state to another: rites of passage, steeped in tradition, that must be followed to the letter.

Often people are unaware of the reason for their actions at such times. Think weddings, for example. It is important for the bride to have 'something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue'. But why? Any book of folklore will list hundreds, if not thousands, of similar examples, and the origin of most is lost in time. From childhood to adult, from single to married, from life to death, each stage is marked by movement across some form of threshold. Those changes are associated with special rituals, baptism, marriage, initiation or funeral rites. Ancient humans saw these times as part of the soul's journey through life. Such boundaries were risky, fraught with danger, because the soul did not belong in either place until the change was complete.

The something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue are not just to ensure a long and happy marriage. It is significant that the bride must have the four elements on her wedding day but does not need them afterwards. They are therefore to protect her before the ceremony takes place. Once she is in the gown and on her way to be married she is no longer a part of her original family but has not yet joined her new one. It is for that time that she needs the talismans.

Similarly the rituals of death are mostly associated with the time that the corpse is above ground or before it is consigned to the fire. Covering mirrors, sitting with the corpse, lighting candles and the hundred and one other rituals observed by the Victorians before a funeral were designed to ensure that the spirit would rest easy. To make sure that the soul did not wander the earth because it had no proper "send-off". The burial, headstone and inscriptions ensured that the body stayed where it was put, the other observances were to guarantee that the soul went on its way and did not hang around to hamper the living.

The belief spilled over onto the physical world too. Think about horsehoes hung above doorways to keep out evil from the home; captains being piped aboard ship; taking off your shoes before entering a house, the hazards of stepping on a line on the pavement. How many folk tales involve bridges and the possible dangers that lurk as you cross? The Three Billy Goats Gruff risked a troll's anger as they tripped across their rickety-rackety bridge. A tale associated with Devil's Bridge in West Wales tells how the Devil agreed to build a bridge across the very deep ravine in exchange for the soul of the first creature to cross it. The very clever woman who lived next to the crossing sent her dog ahead of her on the first journey, so the Devil left without the human prize he'd hoped for. Many cultures believe that evil spirits cannot cross bridges.

So take care next time you're out in the street and never forget:  It's ever so portant how you walk.

A.A. Milne. 1925


  1. Fascinating! I was also thinbking of the New year ritual of carrying coals over the threshold at midnight, used to happen when I was a child, also as children we used to say 'step on a crack and you break your mother's back' - sounds awful now doesn't it? We also used to have a horseshoe hung over the doorway to the old shed where my Dad kept his motorbike:)

  2. An interesting and thought provoking post!


Why not add your two pennyworth?