Miners have more than their fair share of superstitions. The more you dig into the world of mining lore and myths, the more you realise how hard a job it was. The nasty, smelly bowels of the earth aren’t kind to those who choose to grub around down there. Death was everywhere, and most men underground counted themselves lucky to live past 40. If rockfalls or dead air didn’t get them, silicosis would be waiting in line. So no surprise that they looked for any signs to warn them away from danger and protect what little longevity they had.
I’m a scientist at heart and not generally a believer in the supernatural. But I do hold a few superstitions, ones that by and large are grounded in common sense: for example, never stick your head in a honey wagon tank. It’s really unlucky and your friends will stop inviting you to the pub. Or, another one that’s seen me safely through to a ripe old middle age: don’t smoke huge cigars in fiery coal mines.
The old timers took a much broader view of omens than my boring scientific approach. Here’s a partial list, gleaned from the internet, of some of the things that used to frighten the willies out of them:
Black cats in the mine — someone’s going to die.
Dogs in a coal mine — someone’s going to die.
If mice or rats run out of a mine, there’s going to be a cave in — someone’s going to die.
A white rat in a coal mine was a sign of a coming accident — someone’s going to die.
Don’t kill spiders— someone’s probably going to die if I had to hazard a guess
It’s pretty easy to see how the superstitions arose. Mine safety inductions weren’t that common in the change houses of a 1,000 years ago. It was “suck it and see” every shift, and hope you come out alive. Who can blame the old timers for taking anything unusual as a warning of a tunnel collapse or other nasty happening? Obvious common sense lies behind the superstition of a man’s candle or lamp going out. If it went out, they were … you guessed it … going to die. Bad air or lack of oxygen in the days before ventilation came along explains this one.
As I said, common sense: Anything unusual that happens underground can get a man killed.
The last shift holds a very anxious, cold-sweaty place in the hearts of many who work or worked in dangerous professions, myself included. It was the one superstition that did feel real to me. Never plan or fix a date for your last shift. It’s unlucky and fate is likely to intervene in bad way, just because it can.
In 1987 I was drawing to the end of a three-year contract in South Africa down the deep-level mines, with the promise of a return flight home paid for by Mother Anglo. Young and stupid with an interest in history, I’d planned a once-in-a-lifetime five-week trip backpacking around Egypt and Israel on my way home — a journey I wouldn’t be able to do on crutches or in a wheelchair.
As the end date drew closer, I kept thinking back to my predecessor, Malcolm, the aging geologist I’d replaced three years before. He’d lost part of a finger in an underground mishap and actually considered himself lucky. I remembered watching him leave the office so gleefully; so bloody happy that he was done after 20 years, and heading to Cape Town to spend his pension with only a missing finger. Which is why, one fine sunny day, at the end of a shift in late October 1987, I pulled the plug on my underground mapping career. No more.
The shift had been a bad one. I was climbing a chain up an ore pass when something come loose above me. A largish rock—maybe 2-3 kilograms in weight — was bouncing down the pass and there was nowhere to hide. It would hit me, or it wouldn’t. I was lucky. It breezed merrily past my face and landed on my big toe. Crunch. For the next minute or two all I could feel was warm blood filling my boot. I got to the bottom and hurriedly took it off expecting to be missing a chunk of toe, but all I saw was a nice, bruised nail, a lot of sweat, but no blood. Bugger this, I thought. I’m done. And the funny thing is, nobody in the geology department or at the shaft office complained. I had a week or two to go but everyone understood; my last shift was over and that was it.
Another common belief is that dwarves, demons or other beasties inhabit the darker corners of tunnels and stopes. The superstition crops up everywhere that men have dug mines and must date to the earliest days of underground mining. In the 1800s, Cornish miners claimed to come across little dwarf-like creatures in the mines, which they called Tommyknockers. Knockers were good luck or bad luck, depending on your experience of them (there’s a certain infallible logic to that approach.) They made knocking noises, warnings to the miners of an imminent rockfall. But the noises might also be the Knockers weakening the rock face so it would fall on the hapless workers.
Tommyknockers were supposed to be ugly, bad tempered little things, bent over from years of breaking rocks. Other believers were a bit more specific, claiming in only-slightly anti-Semitic terms that the vertically challenged tricksters had hooked-noses and were the ghosts of Jewish miners enslaved by Romans to work in the mines. Some thought they were the spirits of those who had died in the mines and were stuck in purgatory.
Tommyknockers could also be friendly and might lead the miners to a rich seam of tin or copper. But heaven help anyone who whistled a cheery tune underground, because whistling was a sign of disrespect towards the Knockers, and they could be vengeful.
These myths are stubborn and persist to the present day. In the 1980s when I was underground in South Africa, the Zulu and Xhosa miners believed in a sprite called Tokoloshe. I heard the name used more than once as a warning not to go into the quiet, dark back areas of worked-out stopes. Tokoloshe was there and he’d get you. Even my underground assistant, Dunkel, who worked with rational old me for two years, believed in it and would occasionally warn me not to go into a certain tunnel or dead stope.
Another variation on the vindictive dwarf theme is the Bolivian miners’ belief in El Tio, the Lord of the Underworld. A mash-up of Satan with a couple of indigenous demons, he doesn’t have much going for him really. Living down a hole, he is usually portrayed as a horned goaty looking red-skinned chap, sometimes … er … priapic, with a fulsome moustache and a cigarette stuck in his mouth. The miners make statues of him and leave offerings to keep his temper on an even keel while they mine silver. He has a bunch of bad habits and is rather fond of sweets, booze, cigarettes and coca leaves which implies a) he doesn’t sleep very much, and b) he probably has bad breath. To make things worse, his effigy is only allowed out from underground once a year when the communities celebrate his defeat at the hands of Archangel Michael. No wonder he’s grumpy.
One superstition that was still prevalent to some degree in the 1980s across all levels of underground workers and management, was that the presence of women underground brought bad luck. In my three years on Vaal Reefs, I don’t think I ever saw a woman underground. The presence of a menstruating women was considered even worse.
In my time, I helped shepherd a few groups of visiting dignitaries and senior management around underground, but no women. There was resistance to the idea among the labourers, which generally rubbed off on their immediate bosses. The crews would sulk or down tools if a woman from human resources turned up to see what working conditions were like (Hint: hard).
I read one explanation of this particular phobia that makes sense. Women were usually only seen at the mine when there’d been an accident. They’d come to find out if their husband had been squished or blown up, so their presence at the shaft or underground became associated with accidents and death. Entirely logical, I have to say, although I didn’t share the sentiment.
Not content with branding women underground as unlucky, the old-timers went one step further and decided that ginger-haired gals were particularly bad luck — and yet another omen of impending death. This must be why Ygritte — famous for the line “You know nothing, John Snow” in Game of Thrones — is never seen hauling a jack leg around in a deep-level crosscut: it’s just too risky a scenario to contemplate.
Rodents figure prominently in mining lore as omens of bad luck. If you happened to see tons of rats or mice heading en masse to catch the cage out, it’s time to leave because there’s going to be an accident. Again, a certain logic inhabits this superstition: people all over our unstable little planet have long claimed that animals can sense when an earthquake is going to happen. Depending on who you talk to, they might become strangely quiet or noisily alarmed when a temblor is imminent. I never saw any rats or mice in my time underground and, luckily, never had a chance to test this one.
There are many regional variations on the handful of common themes that crop up time and again in mining lore. The incorporation of local myths or religious figures adds colour to what is really only a small handful of legends. The stories seem to have originated in Europe’s ancient metal mines and spread around the world as the regional empires came and went. The Romans, the Spanish, the French and the English — they all needed metal, and the miners, whether paid or forced to dig, shared the same day-to-day need for clues or omens to help them survive in the hostile subsurface environment.
—Ralph Rushton is a geologist and has worked at mines and exploration projects around the world including stints in South Africa, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan. He is currently the president of Aftermath Silver (TSXV: AAG; US-OTC: AAGFF), a silver development company with projects in Chile and Peru. In his spare time, he writes about mining and exploration for his popular blog, urbancrows.com. He graduated with a geology degree from Portsmouth Polytechnic in the U.K., and completed a masters degree in geology at the University of Alberta researching the source of the placer gold in the Klondike.