Superstitions, as part of our belief systems, occupy an important place in our daily lives. Lead-pouring or lead-casting, also known as molybdomancy, is only one of them, as a method of divination using a molten lead poured into a bowl of cold water to provide protection from evil spirits and as a means of future-telling.
Depending on your geography, lead-pouring gains different meanings, since it is practiced for different reasons and interpreted in various ways. For instance, in countries like Turkey, Algeria, and Hungary, lead-pouring is a ritual performed to ward off evil spirits. However, in Nordic countries such as Switzerland, Finland, and Germany, it is related to New Year’s Eve and fortune-telling. This blog will introduce you to the different rituals of molybdomancy. And you will see that lead pieces turn into legible figures for the conjurers, who perform the purifying sessions.
Lead-pouring in Turkey
Lead-pouring or “kurşun dökme” in Turkish was a very common practice in Turkey, a practice which was handed down from one generation to another. People who practice and believe it still exists but the percentage has fallen to 10%. In Turkey, a country well-known for blue eye beads, the ritual of lead-pouring is performed to ward off evil and provide protection. Actually, it has the same function as blue beads.
Here is how it is practiced. First, the person who is assumed to have “nazar ” or evil eye sits on a chair or on the ground. Secondly, two or more people stretch a white sheet over her/his head. Thirdly, another person, mostly an old lady, performs a few prayers as she/he pours the molten lead into a bowl of cold water. The lead forms new shapes, which have specific meanings for the interpreter. Here are some examples:
- During the pouring, if the molten lead doesn’t make much noise, it means there was no negative energy.
- If the formed lead pieces have extra shining, it implies that the ritual went well, freeing the person from the evil spirits.
- Newly formed shapes with spiky edges imply that the person has “nazar.”
- If lead-shapes have holes, it means that person has been overthinking certain issues which keep affecting him/her negatively.
Additionally, it’s believed that if the one who performs this act keeps yawning during the ritual, it implies that the one believed to have nazar is really under the influence of an evil eye. If the person keeps a small piece of lead, it will keep providing protection.
Bosnia- Herzegovina: Melting the fear
Bosnia has ethnomedicine methods composed of rituals to relieve people from their illnesses and psychic problems. As a form of molybdomancy and an example of folk remedy, lead-melting is one of them used to “melt fears.” It is called “salivanje strahe” or “salivanje zrna”, whereas the conjurer is called “stravarka“ or “stravaruša.”
Lead-pouring is mostly done for people with mental struggles such as psychic crises and nervousness. To perform the ritual, one needs a metal spoon, a bowl of water, a few pieces of lead, and a red towel. The first step of technique is lead-melting, by means of which the conjurer interprets the newly formed shape of the molten lead and gives it back to the “patient”, asking him/her to throw it back over his/her shoulder without looking back while saying a prayer. The aim is to free the patient from evil influences. The conjurer repeats the same ritual two more times on different parts of the body. For instance, the second part is done on the stomach and the third one on the feet.
At the very end of the ritual, the patient washes her/his face 3 times with water where the lead pieces were melted and drinks a little too. Then, the patient continues washing the hands, elbows, legs, and knees with the same water. The rest is poured under a rose bush. At the end of these steps, according to the belief, the fear gets washed away. Additionally, if the patient doesn’t believe in this practice, her/his patients contract the treatment on behalf of the patient. What they have to do is to spray the water onto the clothes of the patient.
Bosnia’s sun-worshiping cult
While the Bosnian conjurers perform the ritual and circle the lead around the patient’s head and, during the prayer-chanting over the bowl of water, they rotate in a clockwise circle, following the path of the sun. Its origin comes from the old Bosnian sun-worshipping culture.
Last but not least, articles published in the journal by the National Museum founded in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevı included colorful reports on folk medicine, including strava among them (920). In regard to that, we can say that it is a cultural legacy and treasure with a national character in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bleigießen in Germany
The traditional method used by Germans to divine their future or foretell what is expecting them in the coming year is Bleigießen or lead-pouring. In Germany, they sell a kit that comes with all that you need for lead-pouring, including a guide to help you interpret the meanings of the formed figures (These kits are also sold in Switzerland and Germany). For instance, a frog shape means a lottery win, an epee is linked to the courage to take a risk. Chalice is associated with a happy future. Unlike in Turkey and Bosnia, Germany practices lead-casting only for the purposes of having fun.
Finland’s uudenvuodentina: New Year’s Tin
Finland is another country that practices lead-casting or “uudenvuodentina” as a New Year activity. The Finnish buy leads in the shape of horseshoes, which is associated with good luck, and interpret the newly formed lead-shapes in cold water. For instance, a bubbly surface refers to money, a fragile or broken shape, misfortune. Ships refer to travelling, keys to career advancement, and a basket to a good mushroom year.
Lead-casting in Hungary: Székely folk medicine
“Blue eyes, black eyes. I will wash it with water by hand. If the cause of the spell be a man, may his buttock burst; if it be a woman, then may her breast break out.” (Johns & Kropf 102)
This charm belongs to a lead-casting session in Hungary, where diseases were categorized into two groups: one caused by natural reasons and the second by superstitions, leading to lunacy, madness, and possession. Lead-casting falls into the second category, associated with frenzied feelings.
As Jones and Kropf explain, “A dish full of water is placed on the patient’s back and a piece of molten lead of about the size of an egg is poured into the water, a short prayer being recited, which may run as follows: ‘ My Lord, my God, take the frenzy out of this person’s heart! ‘”(101). If the disease is serious, then lead-casting is repeated nine times. If not, 5 times is considered enough. Each time, the dish is placed on a different part of the body. Poured lead solidifies and takes shape in the form of a man, dog, or anything, depending on your interpretation. The first part of the ritual is completed with a cross drawn on the ground and placing the dish on the sign.
The second part involves drinking water. And it’s followed by washing the forehead, spine, nose, the soles of the feet, and palms of the hands. If it’s still daytime, the remaining water is thrown away. If it’s night, the water is hidden somewhere where no one can reach. It is very important that nobody should touch the water. Otherwise, they will also get the disease.
In Szekely’s belief system, animals and plants can also get afflicted with the disease
If you see a red cloth tied to an animal (E.g., foal, and calf), or a plant in a Székely house, it is done for the purposes of precaution, to prevent animals and plants from the enchantment. For the same reason, they draw red tassels through a lamb’s or kid’s ears (102). The color red is important and considered a preventive (102).
Lead-pouring in Algeria
The belief in the evil eye and the charms used against it are very prevalent in Algerian culture. The single cowrie shell, a single string of European glass beads around the neck, a cooking pot hidden to protect the building, red pepper, an iron bracelet that is worn upon the left wrist by people of all ages and both sexes (230) are only some examples. It is also believed that certain women possess the power to detect spells cast on others for bad intentions. These are the same people who do lead casting.
According to Hilton-Simpson’s article, “one of these women takes three leaden bullets which have been fired out of a gun and melts them together, pouring them when molten into a metal mortar filled with water” (237). After hardening in water, the lead is removed and examined to discern the nature of the spell. If small fragments of black stuff fall out of the molten lead, “jenoun” or the evil spirits leave the victim. However, if they are attached to the mass, it “implies that a written charm has been suspended to cause harm to the person who is seeking her aid” (237). This operation is repeated seven times.
Metaphysical therapy and its psychological benefits
“Fahra further information in a bowl, in patterns formed when molten placed in it solidified in contact with water. In this way, she found a younger woman was likely to win over the heart of her sweetheart, conclude their long-distance love affair with a translational marriage” (Jasarevic 914).
As in the example above, solidified shapes tell many stories to the interpreter or something that people want to know or need to know, who are looking for answers to the problems in their lives. The number of people visiting these healers is countless. And they do so with one common goal: to seek a peaceful mind. With regard to that, would you consider lead-pouring as “ a medical intervention in competition with psycho-pharmaceutical treatments of anxiety disorders and depression” (915)? There are some views held on this subject. Here are some excerpts from Jasarevic’s article:
- “Sadik Ugljen mentions strava as an ‘excellent cine’ for fear, ‘the remedy for illness’ and something that ‘cannot be found in contemporary pharmacies’ (921).
- “Healing rituals recruit symbols to restate or restore coherence of individual or collective meaning” (918).
Folk medicine is rich in its own context. They supply us with significant materials to see how different cultures find pseudo-scientific solutions to their problems. As stated in a NY Times article, “So to believe in magic — as, on some deep level, we all do — does not make you stupid, ignorant or crazy. It makes you human.”
Dangers posed by lead-pouring to human health
Even though it is seen as a ritual treatment providing protection from evil spirits and bringing spiritual relief, some versions of lead-pouring are hazardous to human health and cause antimony and lead poisoning. The symptoms or signs of lead poisoning are headache, vomiting, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, tingling, memory problems, and infertility. Long-term exposure to antimony can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, and lungs, and potentiate pneumoconiosis, altered electrocardiograms, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach ulcers, results. According to a 2015 report concerning lead-poisoning in Turkish women,
“Ocak healers [ the conjurers]…were at risk from lead and some other toxic metal exposure as it is practiced indoors in poorly ventilated houses. Blood samples of three lead pouring ocak healers were collected for whole blood metal analysis with ICPMS. Surprisingly, blood antimony levels of all ocak healers were found almost three times higher than the reference value. However, blood lead, arsenic, and cadmium levels were lower than reference values. Thus, antimony but not lead poisoning should be considered in lead pouring Ocak healers, possibly the health of their unborn babies.”
Germany, for instance, banned the use of iron and replaced it with tin some time ago. In short, an important message would be that, for health reasons, lead-casting should be avoided.
Cultural significance of lead-pouring in anthropology
“Come on spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.” Shakespeare- Macbeth
Lead-casting has been a very common practice and a ritual used to free people from the negative energy and bad spells cast by envious eyes. This tells us about how diseases were connected to evil spirits and the evil eyes in the old times. There are still believers and practitioners of this superstition. It is still a running business as people seek help for their anxiety issues, existential uncertainties, and their desperateness to cope with the growing needs of the ever-changing world.
Above all, this method of divination brings psychological relief to many who can’t cope with stress or daily dramas. Perhaps it could only heal because people assume that the evil spirits were repelled with charms. This, in return, makes them feel relieved. However, at the same time, it poses a serious threat to human health. Embedded in cultures and as examples of folk medicine, lead-pouring is intriguing for both cultural and medical anthropology and even symbolic anthropology.
Hilton-Simpson, M.W. “Some Algerian Superstitions Noted among the Shawia Berbers of the Aurès Mountains and Their Nomad Neighbours”. Folklore, Sep. 30, 1915, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1915), pp. 225-254.
Jones, Henry and Kropf, Lewis L. “Székely Folk-Medicine.” The Folk-Lore Journal, Apr., 1884, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Apr., 1884), pp. 97-105.
Jasarevic, Larisa. “Pouring out Postsocialist Fears: Practical Metaphysics of a Therapy at a Distance.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, OCTOBER 2012, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 914-941.