folklorelei: (the siren)

jimmy-choo-red-glitter-heels

Many have written about the ritual use of shoes, including me. This post isn’t about that, but it is about the fairytale-psyche-soulful aspects of shoes.

I’ve been reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes again. This is a book I have picked up and put down many times over the years. It’s as chewy as a chocolate caramel candy with almonds and each chunk of it takes a lot of mastication before you can swallow and digest. But it nourishes the soul and I love it. Ms. Pinkola Estes uses fairytales and Jungian analysis to help women reclaim—or never lose in the first place—their wild woman soul, that part of her that yearns for freedom and creativity and a life of standing on her own two feet.

In the chapter, “Self-Preservation: Identifying Leg Traps, Cages, and Poisoned Bait” she does a brilliant analysis of “The Red Shoes.” I’m not going to duplicate that here because, really, she’s already done it only better and I highly recommend reading what she says. However, the chapter does touch upon the special, deep-down meaning shoes have had for millennia.

Shoes send social signals, of course. Often people are judged by what they wear, especially on their feet. “Artists,” Ms. Pinkola Estes says, “often wear shoes that are quite different from those worn by, say, engineers.” However, if we’re talking ancient times, rulers had shoes, peasants didn’t. They were symbols of power. In a southern clime, shoes weren’t as necessary, but in a northern climate, they were vital to survival. Even the poor must find some sort of foot covering to withstand the winter.

The symbol of shoes can be understood as a psychological metaphor; they protect and defend what we stand on—our feet. In archetypal symbolism, feet represent mobility and freedom. In that sense to have shoes to cover the feet is to have the convictions of our beliefs and the wherewithal to act on them. Without psychic shoes a woman is unable to negotiate inner or outer environs that require acuity, sense, caution, and toughness.

It occurs to me when reading this that it might in part explain why so many women in these modern, privileged times tend towards shoe obsessions. Western society is divorced from so many of the soulful aspects of life that we seek that kind of toughness, that sense of freedom and creativity, from the outside in, rather than the inside out. It’s a strategy that can never work longterm. The soulful life is never an outer construct. It requires work, constant work, from the inside. As Ms. Pinkola Estes points out, “red indicates that the process is going to be one of vibrant life, which includes sacrifice.” You can’t buy that ready made. You can’t find your soul in an enormous shoe closet.

She also points out that in ancient matriarchal cultures in India, Egypt, parts of Asia, and Turkey, henna and other red pigments were given to young girls to stain their feet during threshold rites (a term Ms. Pinkola Estes prefers to the male-coined “puberty” or “fertility” rites). Onset of menstruation was one of the biggest of these rites, menarche being the symbolic crossing from childhood to the full power of womanhood. Girls were welcomed into the tribe of women, with all its attendant mystery and power and sacrifice, to become part of a larger group, a soul group, a belonging tribe.*

We in the privileged world no longer cross thresholds in the same way. We stagger through them as individuals, menarche is downgraded to a “curse,” we are made to feel ashamed of our bodies and their natural processes, and seek snake oil patents to cover “embarrassing odors.” We are privileged but deeply impoverished, caught up in a dance that has no meaning but goes on and on until we are exhausted and must amputate our own soles to get some semblance of rest. We are looking to cover our poor, naked soul-feet from the outside in, lining our caves with glittering, shining, must-have ruby slippers.

I have nothing against Jimmy Choo or Marc Jacobs or Van’s. I too have worshipped at the altar of the shoe fetish. But I recognize that the soleful life will never be the soulful life, and I try hard not to mistake the one for the other.

*Ms. Pinkola Estes sites no sources for these observations just gives a generalized bibliography at the end of her book.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)

old shoe

Shoes are magic. Many a woman will tell you that they have the power to ensorcell. Imelda Marcos, for instance, seemed to be the victim of a particularly strong shoe enchantment. But aside from the compulsion to buy these items, shoes have a traditional protective magic which seems just as strong.

I first learned of this aspect of shoe folklore when I read The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic by Ralph Merrifield, a wonderful survey of European (mostly British) folk magic and ritual from prehistoric to modern times. Shoes, as it turns out, were the most common protective magic for buildings, from at least the 14th century into the 20th. Generally they are found walled up in structures, sometimes pairs or new but usually an odd shoe and very worn, sometimes in groupings, but often solitary. These hiding places are usually spots where it’s unlikely they would have arrived accidentally: bricked up in chimneys, under well nailed down floorboards, behind pristine plastered or bricked walls and the like. This practice is found all over Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, and the USA—anywhere, I suppose, where the European diaspora happened. There may well be non-European examples of this belief.

It was apparently quite a secretive rite, considered bad luck to talk about. The last known examples of concealed shoes are from the early 20th century, but who knows? Given its secretive nature, the practice could still be going on. We can only speculate and piece together other superstitions to figure out what it may mean. Mr. Merrifield does an excellent job of this:

There are a few known superstitions about old shoes that may be relevant. There was a belief that a shoe thrown after someone setting out on a journey would ensure good luck and a safe return. This is a custom still observed when the bridal pair departs after a wedding…There is a strong association with fertility; we all know the fate of the old woman who lived in a shoe, and there used to be a custom in Lancashire of trying on the shoes of a woman who had just had a baby in order to conceive.

He also makes extensive use of the work of a paper written by June Swann, a pioneer in the study of shoe magic. (Thanks to the Apotropaios website for hosting a copy of this article.)

Concealed shoes might also be a magic device for containing evil spirits, a tradition at least dating back to the story of John Schorn, a 14th century priest in Buckinghamshire, who supposedly conjured the devil into a boot to trap him. This may be why shoes are often found near entryways to houses, so that they could contain evil spirits which might try to get in.

I can’t help wondering, and Mr. Merrifield also speculates about this, if it has something to do with a person’s soul being imprinted on items closely associated with them. Shoes and clothing were enormous expenses for people in centuries past and folks tended to wear things and repair them until they were in shreds, then repurpose parts thereof before actually discarding them. And if something has been worn that long and that extensively, might not a person leave some essence of themselves imprinted on the object? Might that essence bear some protective quality, some ability to guard and protect a building in the owner’s stead, a soul outside the soul?

I’m not sure I’d want to remove one of these shoes if I somehow found one in my walls. If tradition isn’t a strong enough motivator, the possibility of hauntings might give me pause.

There was an episode of Syfy Channel’s Haunted Collector featuring one of these concealed shoes—in this case, an old boot. (Episode 2.6 if this episode list from Wikipedia is correct.) Now, I think all paranormal T.V. shows should be taken with a grain of salt, sometimes an enormous boulder of salt. (And yet, I still watch them, a guilty pleasure.) But I found this episode genuinely fascinating because of my familiarity with the subject. John Zaffis, the curator of a Museum of the Paranormal, investigated a home from the 1800s in Lorain County, Ohio. The current owners reported that when they decided to renovate an old fireplace, they found various objects concealed within it, including an old boot. As soon as these objects were removed, they began experiencing paranormal activity. Zaffis determined that the shoe was the focus of the haunting (I can’t remember how), had it blessed in some way (memory fails me), and removed from the premises to his museum. According to the show, the paranormal activity ceased thereafter.

What’s interesting from a folklore perspective is that Merrified reports a similar haunting via June Swann:

Miss Swann is of the opinion that this is essentially a male superstition connected with the building trade, and understands that it is considered to be unlucky to remove the shoes from the house. There is even a story of an apparent haunting that began when a shoe was sent of the Museum of London for identification, and ceased completely when it was returned.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe. Please pass the salt.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

"Because I have heard that for those who enter Fairy Land there is no going back. They must go on, and go through it." —R. Macdonald Robertson, Selected Highland Tales

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