Or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century
With an Appendix,
Shewing the Probable Relation of the Modern Festivals of Christmas, May Day, St. John's Day, and Hallowe'en, to Ancient Sun and Fire Worship
JAMES NAPIER, F.R.S.E., F.C.S., &c.,
Author of Manufacturing Art in Ancient Times, Notes and Reminiscences of Partick, &c., &c.
Paisley: Alex. Gardner.
PREFACE, v. Introduction, 1 Birth and Childhood, 29 Marriage, 43 Death, 56 Witchcraft, Second Sight, and the Black Art, 67 Charms and Counter Charms, 79 Divining, 105 Superstitions Relating to Animals, 111 Superstitions Concerning Plants, 122 Miscellaneous Superstitions, 132
Yule, Beltane, and Hallowe'en Festivals, 145 Yule, 149 Beltane, 161 Midsummer, 170 Hallowe'en, 175
The doctrine taught concerning Satan, his motives and influence in the beginning of this century, supplied the popular mind with reasons to account for almost all the evils, public and private, which befell society; and as the observed ills of life, real or imaginary, greatly outnumbered the observed good occurrences, the thought of Satan was more constantly before the people's mind than was the thought of God. Practically, it might be said, and said with a very near approach to truth, that Satan, in popular estimation, was the greater of the two; but theoretically, the superiority of God was allowed, for Satan it was believed, was permitted by God to do what he did. It was commonly said, "Never speak evil of the Deil, for he has a long memory." This Satanic belief gave rise to a great amount of Folk Lore, and affected the whole social system. Historians who take no account of such beliefs, but regard them as trivialities, cannot but fail to represent faithfully the condition and action of the people. Folk Lore has thus an important historical bearing. Every age has had its own living Folk Lore, and, beside this, a residuum of waning lore, regarded as superstitious, and so it is at the present day. When we speak of the Folk Lore of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, we believe that we are speaking of beliefs which have past away, beliefs from which we ourselves are free; but if we consider the matter carefully we will find that in many respects our beliefs and practices, although somewhat modernized, are essentially little different from those of last century. Among the better educated classes it may be said that much of the superstitions of former times have passed away, and as education is extended they will more and more become eradicated; but at present, in our rural districts especially, the old beliefs still linger in considerable force. Many think that the superstitions of last century died with the century, but this is not so; and as these notions are curious and in many respects important historical factors, I have thought it worth while to jot down what of this Folk Lore has come under my observation during these last sixty years.
In this collection I do not profess to include all that may come under the head of Folk Lore, such, for example, as the reading of dreams and cups, spaeing fortunes by cards or other methods—that class of superstitions by which designing persons prey upon weak-minded people.
One principal object which I had in view in forming this collection, was that it might supply a nucleus for the further development of the subject. The instances which I have adduced belong to one locality, the West of Scotland, and chiefly the neighbourhood west of Glasgow, but different localities have different methods of formulating the same superstition. By comparison, by separation of the local accretion from the constant element, an approach to the original source and meaning of a superstition may be obtained.
I have hope that the Folk Lore Society, just instituted, will consider such details and variations, and endeavour to trace their history and origin, and fearlessly give prominence to the still existing superstitions, and exhibit their degrading influence on society.
The primary object of the following short treatise is to give an account of some of those superstitions, now either dead or in their decadence, but which, within the memory of persons now living, had a vigorous existence, at least in the West of Scotland. A secondary object shall be to trace out, where I think I can discover ground for so doing, the origin of any particular superstition, and in passing I may notice the duration in time and geographical distribution of some superstitions. But, on the threshold of our inquiry, it may be of advantage to pause and endeavour to reach a mutual understanding of the precise meaning of the word Superstition—a word apparently, from the varied dictionary renderings given of it, difficult to define. However we may disagree in our definitions of the word, we all agree in regarding a superstitious tone of mind as weak and foolish, and as no one desires to be regarded as weak-minded or foolish, we naturally repel from ourselves as best we can the odious imputation of being superstitious. There are few who seek to know what superstition in its essence really is; most people are satisfied to frame an answer to suit their own case, and so it happens that we have a multiplicity of definitions for the word, many of which are devoid of scientific solidity, and others have not even the merit of intelligibility. A recent definition, extremely elastic, was propounded by a popular preacher in a lecture delivered before the Glasgow Young Men's Christian Association and reported in the newspapers,—"Superstition is Scepticism," which may be legitimately paraphrased "Superstition is not believing what I believe." Although this definition may be very gratifying to the self pride of most of us, we must nevertheless reject it, and look for a more definite and instructive signification, and for this end we may very properly consult the meanings given in several standard dictionaries and lexicons, for in them we expect to find precision of statement, although in this instance I believe we shall be disappointed. Theophrastus, who lived several centuries before the Christian era, defines "Superstition" according to the translation given of his definition in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, as "A cowardly state of mind with respect to the supernatural," and supplies the following illustration: "The superstitious man is one, who, having taken care to wash his hands and sprinkle himself in the temple, walks about during the day with a little laurel in his mouth, and if he meets a weasel on the road, dares not proceed on his way till some person has passed, or till he has thrown three stones across the road."
Under "Superstition," in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, the following definitions are given:—
1st.—Excess of scruple or ceremony in matters of religion: idle worship: vain reverence: a superfluous, needless, or ill-governed devotion.
2nd.—Any religious observance contrary to, or not sanctioned by, Scripture or reason.
3rd.—All belief in supernatural agency, or in the influence of casual occurrences, or of natural phenomena on the destinies of man which has no foundation in Scripture, reason, or experience.
4th.—All attempts to influence the destiny of man by methods which have no Scriptural or rational connection with their object.
"Unnecessary fear or scruple in religion: religion without morality: false religion: reverence of beings not properly objects of reverence: over-nicety: exactness: too scrupulous."
"A being excessive (in religion) over a thing as if in wonder or fear: excessive reverence or fear: excessive exactness in religious opinions and practice: false worship or religion: the belief in supernatural agency: belief in what is absurd without evidences: excessive religious belief."
These dictionary meanings do not, of course, attempt to decide what should be the one only scientifically correct significance of the term, but only supply the varying senses in which the word is used in literature and in common speech, but they suffice to show that it is used by different persons with different significations, each person apparently gauging first his own position, and defining superstition as something which cannot be brought to tell against himself.
After pondering over the various renderings, it occurred to me that the following definition would embrace the whole in a few words: Religion founded on erroneous ideas of God. But when I set this definition alongside the case of an otherwise intelligent man carrying in his trousers' pocket a raw potato as a protection against rheumatism, and alongside the case of another man carrying in his vest pocket a piece of brimstone to prevent him taking cramp in the stomach; and when I consider the case of ladies wearing earrings as a preventive against, or cure for, sore eyes; and, again, when I remembered a practice, very frequent a few years ago, of people wearing what were known as galvanic rings in the belief that these would prevent their suffering from rheumatism, I could not perceive any direct connection between such superstitious practices and religion, and the construction of a new definition was rendered necessary. The following, I think, covers the whole ground: Beliefs and practices founded upon erroneous ideas of God and nature. With this meaning the term "Superstition" is employed in the following pages, and if the definition commend itself to the reader, it will at once become apparent that the only way by which freedom from superstition can be attained is to search Nature and Revelation for correct views of God and His methods of working. Notwithstanding our pretensions to a correct religious knowledge, a pure theology, and freedom from everything like superstition, it is strange yet true, that, if we except the formulated reply to the question in the Westminster Catechism, "What is God," scarcely two persons—perhaps no two persons—have exactly the same idea of God. We each worship a God of our own. In one of the late Douglas Jerrold's "Hedgehog Letters" he introduces two youths passing St Giles' Church at a lonely hour, when the one addresses the other thus:—"The old book and the parson tell us that at the beginning God made man in his own image. We have now reversed this, and make God in our image." A sad truth, although not new; Saint Paul made a similar remark to the philosophic Athenians; but the remark applies not to this age or to Saint Paul's age alone—its applicability extends to every age and every people. As Goethe remarks, "Man never knows how anthropomorphic he is." Our minds instinctively seek an explanation of the cause or causes of the different phenomena constantly occurring around us, but instinct does not supply the solution. Only by patient watching and consideration can this be arrived at; but in former ages scientific methods of investigation were either not known, or not cared for, and so men were satisfied with merely guessing at the causes of natural phenomena, and these guesses were made from the standpoint of their own human passionate intelligence. Alongside the intelligence everywhere observable in the operations of nature they placed their own passionate humanity, they projected themselves into the universe and anthropomorphised nature. Thus came men to regard natural phenomena as manifestations of supernatural agency; as expressions of the wrath or pleasure of good or evil genii, and although in our day we have made great advances in our knowledge of natural phenomena, the majority of men still regard the ways of providence from a false standpoint, a standpoint erected in the interests of ecclesiasticism. Churchmanship acts as a distorting medium, twisting and displacing things out of their natural relations, and although this influence was stronger in the past than it is now, still there remains a considerable residuum of the old influence among us yet. For example, we are not yet rid of the belief that God has set apart times, places, and duties as specially sacred, that what is not only sinless but a moral obligation at certain times and places becomes sinful at other times and places. Ecclesiastical influence thus familiarises us with the distinctions of secular and sacred, and we hear frequent mention made of our duties to God and our duties to man, of our religious duties and our worldly duties, and we frequently hear religion spoken of as something readily distinguishable from business. But not only are these things separated by name from one another, they are often regarded as opposites, having no fellowship together. Hence has arisen in many minds a slavish fear of performing at certain times and in certain places the ordinary duties of life, lest by so doing they anger God. In certain conditions of society such belief, erroneous though it be, may have served a useful purpose in restraining, and thereby so far elevating a rude people, just as now we may see many among ourselves restrained from evil, and influenced to the practice of good, by beliefs which, to the enlightened among us, are palpable absurdities.
Before reviewing the superstitious beliefs and practices of our immediate forefathers, we may, I think, profitably occupy a short time in gaining some general idea of the prominent features of ancient Pagan religions, for without doubt much of the mythology and superstitious practice of our forefathers had a Pagan origin. I shall not attempt any exhaustive treatise on this subject, for the task is beyond me, but a slight notice of ancient theology may not here be irrelevant. The late George Smith, the eminent Assyriologist, says:—
"Upwards of 2000 years B.C. the Babylonians had three great gods—Anu, Bel, and Hea. These three leading deities formed members of twelve gods, also called great. These were—
1. Anu, King of Angels and Spirits. Lord of the city Eresh.
2. Bel, Lord of the world, Father of the Gods, Creator. Lord of the city of Nipur.
3. Hea, Maker of fate, Lord of the deep, God of wisdom and knowledge. Lord of the city of Eridu.
4. Sin, Lord of crowns, Maker of brightness. Lord of the city Urr.
5. Merodash, Just Prince of the Gods, Lord of birth. Lord of the city Babylon.
6. Vul, the strong God, Lord of canals and atmosphere. Lord of the city Mura.
7. Shama, Judge of heaven and earth, Director of all. Lord of the cities of Larsa and Sippara.
8. Ninip, Warrior of the warriors of the Gods, Destroyer of wicked. Lord of the city Nipur.
9. Nergal, Giant King of war. Lord of the city Cutha.
10. Nusku, Holder of the Golden Sceptre, the lofty God.
11. Belat, Wife of Bel, Mother of the great Gods. Lady of the city Nipur.
12. Ishtar, Eldest of Heaven and Earth, Raising the face of warriors.
"Below these deities there were a large body of gods, forming the bulk of the Pantheon; and below these were arranged the Igege or angels of heaven; and the anunaki or angels of earth; below these again came curious classes of spirits or genii, some were evil and some good."
The gods of the Greeks were numbered by thousands, and this at a time when—according to classical scholars—the arts and sciences were at their highest point of development in that nation. Their religion was of the grossest nature. Whatever conception they may have had of a first cause—a most high Creator of heaven and earth—it is evident they did not believe he took anything to do directly with man or the phenomena of nature; but that these were under the immediate control of deputy-deities or of a conclave of divinities, who possessed both divine and human attributes—having human appetites, passions, and affections. Some of these were local deities, others provincial, others national, and others again phenomenal: every human emotion, passion and affection, every social circumstance, public or private, was under the control or guardianship of one or more of these divinities, who claimed from men suitable honour and worship, the omission of which honour and worship was considered to be not only offensive to the divinities, but as likely to be followed by punishment. The vengeance of the deities was thought to be avertable by the performance of certain propitiatory deeds, or by offering certain sacrifices. The kind of sacrifice required had relation to the particular department over which the divinity was supposed to be guardian; and these deeds and sacrifices were in many cases most gross and offensive to morality. The phenomena of nature, being under the direction of one or more divinities, every aspect of nature was regarded as an expression of anger or pleasure on the part of the divinities. Thunder, lightning, eclipses, comets, drought, floods, storms—anything strange or terrible, the cause of which was not understood, was ascribed to the wrath of some divinity; and men hastened to propitiate, as best they might, the divinities who were supposed to be scourging or threatening them. These deputy-gods were supposed to occupy the space between the earth and moon, and, being almost numberless and invisible, their worshippers held them in the same dread as if they possessed the attribute of omniscience.
For the purpose of guiding men in their relations towards these gods, there existed a large body of men whose office it was to understand the divinities, their natures and attributes, and direct men in their religious duties. This body of men acted as mediums between the gods and the people, and not only were they held in high esteem as priests, but frequently they attained great power in the State. Often this priestly incorporation had greater influence and control than the civil power; nor is this to be wondered at, when we remember that they were supposed to be in direct communication with the holy gods, in whose hands were the destinies of men.
The sun, the giver and vivifier of all life, was the primary god of antiquity, being worshipped by Assyrians, Chaldeans, Phoenicians, and Hebrews under the name of Baal or Bell, and by other nations under other names. The priests of Baal always held a high position in the State. As the sun was his image or symbol in heaven, so fire was his symbol on earth, and hence all offerings made to Baal were burned or made to pass through the fire, or were presented before the sun. Wherever, in the worship of any nation, we find the fire element, we may at once suspect that there we have a survival of ancient sun-worship.
The moon was regarded as a female deity, consort of the sun or Baal, and was worshipped by the Jews under the name of Ashtoreth, or Astarte. Her worship was of the most sensual description. The worship of sun and moon formed one system, the priests of the one being also priests of the other.
Apart from the priestly incorporation of which we have spoken, there was another class of men who assumed knowledge of supernatural phenomena. These were known as astrologers or star-gazers, wizards, magicians, witches, sooth-sayers. By the practice of certain arts and repetition of certain formula, these pretended to divine and foretell events both of a public and private nature. They were believed in by the mass of people, and were consulted on all sorts of matters. By both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities their practices and pretensions were sometimes condemned, and themselves forbidden to exercise their peculiar gifts, but nevertheless the people continued to believe in them and consult them. Their pretensions were considerable, extending even to raising and consulting the spirits of the dead.
This leads me to notice the ancient belief concerning the souls of the departed. By almost all nations, Jews and Gentiles, there was a prevailing belief that at death the souls of good men were taken possession of by good spirits and carried to Paradise, but the souls of wicked men were left to wander in the space between the earth and moon, or consigned to Hades, or Unseen World. These wandering spirits were in the habit of haunting the living, especially their relations, so that the living were surrounded on every side by the spirits of their wicked ancestors, who were always at hand tempting them to evil. However, there were means by which these ghosts might be exorcised. A formula for expelling wicked spirits is given by Ovid in Book V. of the Fasti:—
"In the dread silence of midnight, upon the eighth day of May, the votary rises from his couch barefooted, and snapping his fingers as a sure preventative against meeting any ghost during his subsequent operations, thrice washing his hands in spring water, he places nine black beans in his mouth, and walks out. These he throws behind him one by one, carefully guarding against the least glance backwards, and at each cast he says, 'With these beans I ransom myself and mine.' The spirits of his ancestors follow him and gather the beans as they fall. Then, performing another ablution as he enters his house, he clashes cymbals of brass, or rather some household utensil of that metal, entreating the spirits to quit his roof. He then repeats nine times these words, 'Avaunt ye ancestral manes.' After this he looks behind, and is free for one year."
Some nations in addition to a personal formula for laying the ghosts of departed relatives, had a national ritual for ghost-laying, a public feast in honour of departed spirits. Such a feast is still held in China, and also in Burmah. In 1875 the following placard was posted throughout the district of Rangoon, proclaiming a feast of forty-nine days by order of the Emperor of China:—
"There will this year be scarcity of rice and plenty of sickness. Evil spirits will descend to examine and inquire into the sickness. If people do not believe this, many will die in September and October. Should any people call on you at midnight, do not answer; it is not a human being that calls, but an evil spirit. Do not be wicked, but be good."
But I do not propose to write a treatise on Pagan theology, nor do I propose to trace in historical detail the progress through which Christian and Pagan beliefs have in process of time become assimilated, when I have occasion, I may notice these things. I intend, as I said at the beginning, to deal with superstition, no matter from what source it may have arisen, recognising superstition to be as already defined—beliefs and practices founded upon erroneous ideas of God and the laws of nature. In many things, I believe, we are yet too superstitious, and our popular theology, instead of aiding to destroy these erroneous beliefs, aids them in maintaining their vitality. Orthodox Christians believe in a general and also in a special providence; the ancients, on the other hand, believed that all events were under the control and direction of separate and special divinities, so that when praying for certain results, they addressed the divinity having control over that phenomenon or circumstance by which they were affected, and when their desires were gratified, they expressed their thankfulness by offerings to that divinity. If their desires were not granted, they regarded that circumstance as a token of displeasure on the part of that divinity, and besought the aid of their priests and sooth-sayers to discover the reason of his anger, and offered sacrifices and peace offerings. Now, orthodox Christians in the same circumstances pray to God for special and personal blessings, and when they are granted, they feel grateful, and sometimes express their gratitude. A common method of expressing this gratitude is by giving something to the church. Thus we find in our church records entries like the following:—
From —— ——, As a thank-offering for the recovery L S. D. of a dear child. ———- " —— ——, Peace-offering for reconciliation with an old friend. ———- " —— ——, Offering for the preservation of a friend going abroad. ———- " —— ——, Thank-offering for a fortunate transaction in business. ———-
Such offerings are remarked upon favourably by the leaders of the Church, and regarded as examples worthy of being imitated by all pious Christians. But should the prayers not be granted, there is no gift. The non-fulfilment of their desires is regarded perhaps not altogether as an evidence of God's displeasure, but at least as a token that what was asked it was not His pleasure to grant. They make little enquiry concerning the real cause of failure, but take credit to themselves for humbly submitting to God's will. This unenquiring submission is often, however, both sinful and superstitious. Every result has its cause, and it is surely our duty, as far as observation and reason can guide us, to discover the causes which operate against us. The great majority of the afflictions and misfortunes which befall us are punishments for the breakage of some law, the committal of some sin physical or moral, and this being the case, it behoves us to find out what law has been transgressed, what the nature of the sin committed. This principle is acknowledged by our religious teachers, but the laws which have been broken, have not been wisely sought after. The field of search has been almost exclusively the moral, or the theological field; whereas the correct rule is, for physical effects, look for physical causes; for moral effects, moral causes. This rule has not been followed. A few cases illustrative of what I mean will clearly demonstrate the superstitious nature of what is a widely diffused opinion among the religious societies of this country at the present time.
Forty-six years ago, when cholera first broke out in this country, it was immediately proclaimed to be a judgment for a national sin; and so it was, but for a sin against physical laws. I well remember the indignation which arose and found expression in almost every pulpit in the country, when the Prime Minister of that day, in reply to a petition from the Church asking him to proclaim a national fast for the removal of the plague, told his petitioners to first remove every source of nuisance by cleansing drains and ditches, and removing stagnant pools, and otherwise observe the general laws of health, then having done all that lay in our power, we could ask God to bless our efforts, and He would hear us. All sorts of absurd causes were seriously advanced to account for the presence of this alarming malady. One party discovered the cause in a movement for the disestablishment of religion. Another considered it was a judgment from God for asking the Reform Bill. The Radicals proclaimed it to be a trick of the Tories to prevent agitation for reform, and added that medical men were bribed to poison wells and streams. The non-religious displayed as great superstition in this matter as did the religious. Large bills, headed in large type "Cholera Humbug," were at that time posted on the blank walls of the streets of Glasgow. The feeling against medical men was then so intense, that some of them were mobbed, and narrowly escaped with their lives. In Paisley, considered to be the most intelligent town in Scotland, a doctor, who was working night and day for the relief of the sufferers, had his house and shop sacked, and was obliged to fly for shelter, or his life would have been sacrificed to the fury of the mob.
When we read that epidemics which broke out in the times of our forefathers, were ascribed to such absurd causes as the introduction of forks, or because the nation neglected to prosecute with sufficient vigour alleged cases of compact with the devil, we wonder at and pity their ignorance, and rejoice that we live in a more enlightened age. But the fact is, that among the mass of the people there is really no great difference between the present and the past. There is a close family likeness in this matter of superstition between now and long ago, and this state of matters will continue so long as a knowledge of physical science—that science which treats of the laws by which God is pleased to overrule and direct material things—is not made a religious duty. There are physical sins and there are moral sins, and the punishment for the first is apparently even more direct than for the second, for in the case of physical sins we are punished without mercy. Through neglect of these laws, we are continually suffering punishment, shortening and making miserable our own lives and the lives of those dependent upon us; and periodically judgments descend on the careless community, in the form of severe epidemics. Any religion which advocates practices, or teaches doctrines inconsistent with our physical, intellectual, or moral well-being, cannot be from God, and vice versa; and this is a strong argument in favour of Christianity as taught by its Founder. I wish I could say the same of the Christianity taught by our ecclesiastics, either Protestant or Catholic.
The introduction into the heathen world of the fundamental truths that there is but one God, omnipotent and omniscient, who overrules every event, that He has revealed Himself through His Son as a God of love and mercy, and that man's duty to Him is obedience to His laws, was a mighty step in advance of the gross conceptions of idolatry formerly prevalent among these nations. But neither heathens nor Christians had for a long time any clear idea that the overruling of God in Providence was according to fixed laws. Being ignorant on this point, they ascribed to unseen supernatural agency, working in a capricious fashion, all phenomena which appeared to differ from, or disturb the ordinary course of events. Upon such matters heathen and Christian ideas commingled, and thus heathen ideas and practices were incorporated with Christian ideas and practices. Then, when ecclesiastical councils met to determine truth, and formulate their creeds, these combined heathen and Christian ideas being accepted by them, became dogmas of the Church, and henceforth those who differed from the dogmatic creed of the Church, or advocated views in advance of these confessions, were regarded as enemies of truth. Naturally, as the Church became powerful she became more repressive, and opposed all enquiry which appeared to lead to conclusions different from those already promulgated by her, and finally, it became a capital offence to teach any other doctrines than those sanctioned by the Church. The beliefs of the members of these councils being, as we have already seen, a mixture of heathen and Christian ideas, the Church thus became a great conservator of superstition; and to show that this was really so, we may adduce one example:—Pope Innocent VIII. issued a Bull as follows:—"It has come to our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with the infernal fiends, and that, by this service, they afflict both man and beast, that they blight the marriage bed, destroy the births of women and the increase of cattle, they blast the corn on the ground, the grapes of the vineyard and the fruits of the trees, and the grass and herbs of the field." The promulgation of this Bull is said to have produced dreadful consequences, by thousands being burned and otherwise put to death, for having intercourse with the fiends.
We regret to say such beliefs and such means of repressing free enquiry were not confined to one branch of the Christian Church. Protestants as well as Roman Catholics, when they had the power, suppressed many of the practices of heathenism after a cruel fashion, but at the same time fostered the superstitions and Pagan beliefs which had originated these practices, and punished those who protested against these beliefs. The same method of procedure is in operation at the present day. Nevertheless, the introduction of Christianity into the heathen world made a wonderful revolution in their religious practices as well as in their beliefs. Their idols and the symbols of their divinities were abolished, along with the sacrifices offered to these. Their great festivals, at which human sacrifices were offered and abominable practices committed, were so modified as to be stripped of their immorality and cruelty, and while being retained—retained because they could not be utterly abolished—they were Christianized,—that is, a Christian colouring was given to them,—and they became Church festivals or holydays,—a subject I will treat more fully of in another chapter.
It is not, as I have already said, my intention to trace the gradual development of our modern idea of Providence, our ascription of universal government, of all direction of the phenomena of nature and of life to the one only omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God, but rather to place before the reader the practices and beliefs which prevailed in this country during the early years of the present century. And from this survey we shall discover what a mass of old Pagan ideas still survived and influenced the minds and practice of the people,—how they yet clung to the notion that many of the phenomena of nature and life were under the control of supernatural agents, although they did not regard these agents, as what in olden times they were considered to be—divinities, but believed them to be a class of beings living upon or within the earth, and endowed by the devil with supernatural powers.
In the northern sagas, and in the old ballads and saintly legends of the Middle Ages—supernatural agents who played a prominent part—there are giants of enormous size and little dwarfs who can make themselves invisible, and do all sorts of good to their favourites, and harm to their enemies. We are also introduced there to dragons and other monsters which have human understandings, and, guided by a wicked spirit, could do great mischief. Such beings took the place of the ancient divinities, and in many cases when the hero or saint is in great straits, in combat with these evil spirits or fiends, Jesus Christ comes to their assistance. One instance will exemplify this:
"O'er him stood the foul fiends, And with their clubs of steel, Struck him o'er the helmit That in deadly swound he fell. But God his sorrow saw, To the fiends his Son he sent; From the earth they vanished With howling and lament. The Christian hero thanked his God, From the ground he rose with speed, Joyfully he sheathed his sword, And mounted on his steed."
Illustrations of "Northern Antiquities."
By the beginning of this century these ideas of the personel of supernatural agencies had become slightly modified in this country at least, giants and dragons having given way to fairies, brownies, elves, witches, etc. The Rev. Mr. Kirk, of Aberfeldy, published a work descriptive of these supernatural beings. He says they are a kind of astral spirits between angels and humanity, being like men and women in appearance, and similar in many of their habits; some of them, however, are double. They marry and have children, for which they keep nurses; have deaths and burials amongst them, and they can make themselves visible or invisible at pleasure. They live in subterranean habitations, and in an invisible condition attend very constantly on men. They are very fond of human children and pretty women, both of which they will steal if not protected by some superior influence. Women in childbed stand in danger of being taken, but if a piece of cold iron be kept in the bed in which they lie, the spirits won't come near. Children are in greater danger of being stolen before baptism than after. They sometimes, to supply their own needs, spirit away the milk from cows, but more frequently they transfer the milk to the cows of some person who stands high in their favour. This they do by making themselves invisible, and silently milking and removing the milk in invisible vessels. When people offend them they shoot flint-tipped arrows, and by this means kill either the persons who have offended them or their cattle. They cause these arrows to strike the most vital part, but the stroke does not visibly break the skin, only a blae mark is the result visible on the body after death. These flint arrow-heads are occasionally found, and the possession of one of these will protect the possessor against the power of these astral beings, and at the same time enable him or her to cure disease in cattle and women. These flints were often sewed into the dresses of children to protect them from the Evil-eye. There were many other means of protection against the power of these beings, which we shall have occasion to refer to again. There is one method, however, which may be mentioned now. If, when a calf is born, its mouth be smeared with a balsam of dung, before it is allowed to suck, the fairies cannot milk that cow. Those taken to fairyland lose the power of calculating the lapse of time, although they are not unconscious of what is going on around them. Those spirited away to fairyland may be recovered by their friends or relatives, by performing certain formula, or—and this was often the method resorted to—by out-witting the fairies, getting possession of their stolen friends, and then doing or saying something which fairies cannot bear, upon which they are forced to depart, leaving the recovered party behind them.
The following information concerning the government, &c., of fairyland, is taken from Aytoun:—The queen of fairyland was a kind of feudatory sovereign under Satan, to whom she was obliged to pay kave, or tithe in kind; and, as her own fairy subjects strongly objected to transfer their allegiance, the quota was usually made up in children who had been stolen before the rite of baptism had been administered to them. This belief was at one time universal throughout all Scotland, and was still prevalent at the beginning of this century. Charms were quite commonly employed to defend houses from the inroads of the fairies before the infants were baptised; but even baptism did not always protect the baby from being stolen. During the period of infancy, the mother required to be ever watchful; but the risks were especially great before baptism. It is difficult to define exactly the power which the queen of elfland had, for besides carrying off Thomas the Rhymer, she was supposed to have carried off no less a personage than James IV. from the field of Flodden, and to have detained him in her enchanted country. There was also a king of elfland. From the accounts extracted from or volunteered by witches, &c., preserved to us in justiciary and presbyterial records, he appears to have been a peaceable, luxurious, indolent personage, who entrusted the whole business of his kingdom, including the recruiting department, to his wife. We get a glimpse of both their majesties in the confessions of Isabella Gowdie, in Aulderne, a parish in Nairnshire, who was indicted for witchcraft in 1662. She said—"I was in Downie Hills, and got meat there from the queen of the fairies, more than I could eat. The queen is brawly clothed in white linen, and in white and brown cloth; and the king is a braw man, well-favoured, and broad-faced. There were plenty of elf bulls rowting and skoyling up and down, and affrighted me." Mr. Kirk says "that in fairyland they have also books of various kinds—history, travels, novels, and plays—but no sermons, no Bible, nor any book of a religious kind." Every reader of Hogg's Queen's Wake knows the beautiful legend of the abduction of "Bonny Kilmeny"; but in Dr. Jamieson's Illustrations of Northern Antiquities we have found amongst these heroic and romantic ballads another legend more fully descriptive of fairyland. In this legend, a young lady is carried away to fairyland, and recovered, by her brother:—
"King Arthur's sons o' merry Carlisle Were playing at the ba', And there was their sister, burd Ellen, I' the midst, amang them a'. Child Rowland kicked it wi' his foot, And keppit it wi' his knee; And aye as he played, out o'er them a'. O'er the kirk he gar'd it flee. Burd Ellen round about the aisle To seek the ba' has gane: But she bade lang, and ay langer, And she came na back again. They sought her east, they sought her west, They sought her up and down, And wae were the hearts in merry Carlisle, For she was nae gait found."
Merlin, the warlock, being consulted, told them that burd Ellen was taken away by the fairies, and that it would be a dangerous task to recover her if they were not well instructed how to proceed. The instructions which Merlin gave were, that whoever undertook the quest for her should, after entering elfland, kill every person he met till he reached the royal apartments, and taste neither meat nor drink offered to them, for by doing otherwise they would come under the fairy spell, and never again get back to earth. Two of her brothers undertook the journey, but disobeyed the instructions of the warlock, and were retained in elfland. Child Rowland, her youngest brother, then arming himself with his father's claymore, excalibar—that never struck in vain—set out on the dangerous quest. Strictly observing the warlock's instructions, after asking his way to the king of elfland's castle of every servant he met, he, in accordance with these instructions, when he had received the desired information, slew the servant. The last fairy functionary he met was the hen-wife, who told him to go on a little further till he came to a round green hill surrounded with rings from the bottom to the top, then go round it widershins (contrary to the sun) and every time he made the circuit, say—"Open door, open door, and let me come in," and on the third repetition of this incantation they would open, and he might then go in. Having received this information, he fulfilled his instructions, and slew the hen-wife. Then proceeding as directed, he soon reached the green hill, and made the circuit of it three times, repeating the words before mentioned. On the third repetition of the words the door opened, and he went in, the door closing behind him. "He proceeded through a long passage, where the air was soft and agreeably warm, like a May evening, as is all the air in elfland. The light was a sort of twilight or gloaming; but there were neither windows nor candles, and he knew not whence it came if it was not from the walls and roof, which were rough and arched like a grotto, and composed of a clear transparent rock incrusted with sheep's silver, and spar and various bright stones." At last he came to two lofty folding doors which stood ajar. Passing through these doors, he entered a large and spacious hall, the richness and brilliance of which was beyond description. It seemed to extend throughout the whole length and breadth of the hill. The superb Gothic pillars by which the roof was supported were so large and lofty, that the pillars of the "Chaury Kirk or of the Pluscardin Abbey are no more to be compared to them than the Knock of Alves is to be compared to Balrimes or Ben-a-chi." They were of gold and silver, and were fretted like the west window of the Chaury Kirk (Elgin Cathedral), with wreaths of flowers, composed of diamonds and precious stones of all manner of beautiful colours. The key stones of the arches, instead of being escutcheoned, were ornamented also with clusters of diamonds in brilliant devices. From the middle of the roof, where the arches met, was hung, suspended by a gold chain, an immense lamp of one hollowed pearl, and perfectly transparent, in the centre of which was a large carbuncle, which, by the power of magic, turned round continually, and shed throughout all the hall a clear mild light like that of the setting sun. But the hall was so large, and these dazzling objects so far removed, that their blended radiance cast no more than a pleasing mellow lustre around, and excited no other than agreeable sensations in the eyes of Child Rowland. The furniture of the hall was suitable to its architecture; and at the further end, under a splendid canopy, sitting on a gorgeous sofa of velvet, silk and gold, and "kembing her yellow hair wi' a silver kemb,"
"Was his sister Burd Ellen. She stood up him before, God rue or thee poor luckless fode (man), What hast thou to do here? And hear ye this my youngest brother, Why badena ye at hame? Had ye a hunder and thousand lives Ye canna brook are o' them. And sit thou down; and wae, oh wae! That ever thou was born, For came the King o' Elfland in, Thy leccam (body) is forlorn."
After a long conversation with his sister, the two folding doors were burst open with tremendous violence, and in came the King of Elfland, shouting—
"With fi, fe, fa, and fum, I smell the blood of a Christian man, Be he dead, be he living, with my brand I'll clash his harns frae his harn pan."
Child Rowland drew his good claymore (excalibar) that never struck in vain. A furious combat ensued, and the king was defeated; but Child Rowland spared his life on condition that he would free his sister, Burd Ellen, and his two brothers, who were lying in a trance in a corner of the hall. The king then produced a small crystal phial containing a bright red liquor, with which he anointed the lips, nostrils, ears and finger tips of the two brothers, who thereupon awoke as from a profound sleep, and all four returned in triumph to "merry Carlisle." The Rev. Mr. Kirk's descriptions of the subterranean homes of the fairies and of their social habits are just the counterparts of the fairyland of this beautiful ballad legend. There can be little doubt that such beliefs are but survivals in altered form of what were in still more ancient times religious tenets. What were formerly divinities have given place to the more lowly fairies, brownies, &c., and from the position of Pagan gods they have, through the opposing influence of Christianity, been removed to the other side, and became servants of the devil, actively opposing the kingdom of Christ. Some have supposed that the fairies may have originally been considered to be descendants of the Druids, for some reason consigned to inhabit subterranean caves under green hills in wild and lonely glens. Others have identified them with the fallen angels. One thing is certain, that the notion that there exists supernatural men, women, and animals who inhabit subterranean and submarine regions, and yet can indulge in intercourse with the human race, is of very great antiquity, and widely spread, existing in Arabia, Persia, India, Thibet, among the Tartars, Swedes, Norwegians, British, and also among the savage tribes of Africa. In the west of Scotland there was a class of fairies who acted a friendly part towards their human neighbours, helping the weak or ill-used, and generally busying themselves with acts of kindness; these were called "brownies." The fairies proper were a merry race, full of devilment, and malicious, tricky, and troublesome, and the cause of much annoyance and fear among the people. Besides these supernatural beings—brownies, fairies, &c.—there existed a belief in persons who were possessed of supernatural powers—magicians, sorcerers, &c. About the Reformation period, these persons were considered to be in the actual service of the devil, who was then thought to be raising a more determined opposition than ever to the spread of the kingdom of God, and adopting the insidious means of enlisting men and women into his service by conferring upon them supernatural powers; so that by this contract they were bound to do mischief to all good Christian people; and the more mischief they could do the greater would be the favours they received from their master. This belief was not confined to the ignorant, but was equally accepted by the educated and by the Church. Measures were taken to frustrate the devil, and the faithful were recommended to make search for those who had compacted with his Satanic Majesty, and laws were enacted for the punishment of the compacters when found. The faithful, under the belief that they were fighting the battle of the Lord, brought numbers of poor wretches to trial, many of whom, strangely enough, believed themselves guilty of the crime imputed to them. After trial and conviction, they were put to death. The belief that the devil could and did invest men and women with supernatural powers affected all social relations, for everything strange and unaccountable—and, in a non-scientific age, we can readily conceive how almost everything would be brought into this category—was ascribed to this cause, and each suspected his or her neighbour; even the truest friendship was sometimes broken through this suspicion. The laws against witchcraft in this country were abrogated last century, but the abrogation of the law could not be expected to work any sudden change in the belief of the people; at most, the alteration only paved the way for the gradual departure of the superstition, and since the abrogation of the law the belief has been decaying, but still in many parts of the country it lingers on till the present time, instances of which appear every now and again in the newspapers of the day.
BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD.
When writing of fairies I noticed,—but as it is connected with birth, I may here mention it again,—a practice common in some localities of placing in the bed where lay an expectant mother, a piece of cold iron to scare the fairies, and prevent them from spiriting away mother and child to elfland. An instance of this spiriting away at the time of child-bearing is said to have occurred in Arran within these fifty years. It is given by a correspondent in Long Ago:—"There was a woman near Pladda, newly delivered, who was carried away, and on a certain night her wraith stood before her husband telling him that the yearly riding was at hand, and that she, with all the rout, should ride by his house at such an hour, on such a night; that he must await her coming, and throw over her her wedding gown, and so she should be rescued from her tyrants. With that she vanished. And the time came, with the jingling of bridles and the tramping of horses outside the cottage; but this man, feeble-hearted, had summoned his neighbours to bear him company, who held him, and would not suffer him to go out. So there arose a bitter cry and a great clamour, and then all was still; but in the morning, roof and wall were dashed with blood, and the sorrowful wife was no more seen upon earth. This," says the writer, "is not a tale from an old ballad, it is the narrative of what was told not fifty years ago."
Immediately after birth, the newly-born child was bathed in salted water, and made to taste of it three times. This, by some, was considered a specific against the influence of the evil eye; but doctors differ, and so among other people and in other localities different specifics were employed. I quote the following from Ross' Helenore:—
"Gryte was the care and tut'ry that was ha'en, Baith night and day about the bonny weeane: The jizzen-bed, wi' rantry leaves was sain'd, And sic like things as the auld grannies kend; Jean's paps wi' saut and water washen clean, Reed that her milk gat wrang, fan it was green; Neist the first hippen to the green was flung, And there at seelfu' words, baith said and sung: A clear brunt coal wi' the het tangs was ta'en, Frae out the ingle-mids fu' clear and clean, And throu' the cosey-belly letten fa', For fear the weeane should be ta'en awa'."
Before baptism the child was more liable to be influenced by the evil eye than after that ceremony had been performed, consequently before that rite had been administered the greatest precautions were taken, the baby during this time being kept as much as possible in the room in which it was born, and only when absolutely necessary, carried out of it, and then under the careful guardianship of a relative, or of the mid-wife, who was professionally skilled in all the requisites of safety. Baptism was therefore administered as early as possible after birth. Another reason for the speedy administration of this rite was that, should the baby die before being baptised, its future was not doubtful. Often on calm nights, those who had ears to hear heard the wailing of the spirits of unchristened bairns among the trees and dells. I have known of an instance in which the baby was born on a Saturday, and carried two miles to church next day, rather than risk a week's delay. It was rare for working people to bring the minister to the house. Another superstitious notion in connection with baptism was that until that rite was performed, it was unlucky to name the child by any name. When, before the child had been christened, any one asked the name of the baby, the answer generally was, "It has not been out yet." Let it be remembered that these notions were entertained by people who were not Romanists, but Protestants, and therefore did not profess to believe in the saving efficacy of baptism,—who could answer every question in the Shorter Catechism, and repeat the Creed, and Ten Commandments, to the satisfaction of elder and minister. But all this verbal acquaintance with dogma was powerless to eradicate, even, we may venture to say, from the minds of elder and minister, the deeply-rooted fibres of ancient superstition, which had been long crystallised in the Roman Catholic Church, and could not be easily forgot in that of the Protestant.
When a child was taken from its mother and carried outside the bedroom for the first time after its birth, it was lucky to take it up stairs, and unlucky to take it down stairs. If there were no stairs in the house, the person who carried it generally ascended three steps of a ladder or temporary erection, and this, it was supposed, would bring prosperity to the child.
A child born with a caul—a thin membrane covering the head of some children at birth—would, if spared, prove a notable person. The carrying of a caul on board ship was believed to prevent shipwreck, and masters of vessels paid a high price for them. I have seen an advertisement for such in a local paper.
When baby was being carried to church to be baptised, it was of importance that the woman appointed to this post should be known to be lucky. Then she took with her a parcel of bread and cheese, which she gave to the first person she met. This represented a gift from the baby—a very ancient custom. Again, it was of importance that the person who received this gift should be lucky—should have lucky marks upon their person. Forecasts were made from such facts as the following concerning the recipient of the gift:—Was this person male or female, deformed, disfigured, plain-soled, etc. If the party accepted the gift willingly, tasted it, and returned a few steps with the baptismal party, this was a good sign; if they asked to look at the baby, and blessed it, this was still more favourable: but should this person refuse the gift, nor taste it, nor turn back, this was tantamount to wishing evil to the child, and should any serious calamity befall the child, even years after, it was connected with this circumstance, and the party who had refused the baptismal gift was blamed for the evil which had befallen the child. It was also a common belief that if, as was frequently the case, there were several babies, male and female, awaiting baptism together, and the males were baptised before the females, all was well; but if, by mistake, a female should be christened before a male, the characters of the pair would be reversed—the female would grow up with a masculine character, and would have a beard, whereas the male would display a feminine disposition and be beardless. I have known where such a mistake has produced real anxiety and regret in the minds of the parents. We have seen that it was not until after baptism that the child was allowed out of the room in which it was born, except under the skilful guardianship of a relative or the midwife; but, further than this, it was not considered safe or proper to carry it into any neighbour's house until the mother took it herself, and this it was unlucky even for her to do until she had been to church. Indeed, few mothers would enter any house until they had been to the house of God. After this had been accomplished, however, she visited with the baby freely. In visiting any house with baby for the first time, it was incumbent on the person whom they were visiting to put a little salt or sugar into baby's mouth, and wish it well: the omission of this was regarded as a very unlucky omen for the baby. Here we may note the survival of a very ancient symbolic practice in this gift of salt. Salt was symbolical of favour or good will, and covenants of friendship in very early times were ratified with this gift; sugar, as in this instance, is no doubt a modern substitute for salt. Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, as well as among less civilised nations, salt was used in their sacrifices as emblematic of fidelity, and for some reason or other it also came to be regarded as a charm against evil fascinations. By Roman Catholics in the middle ages, salt was used to protect children from evil influences before they had received the sacrament of baptism. This practice is referred to in many of the old ballads and romances. In a ballad called The King's Daughter, a child is born, but in circumstances which do not admit of the rite of baptism being administered. The mother privately puts the baby into a casket, and, like the mother of Moses, sends it afloat, and as a protection places beside it a quantity of salt and candles. The words of the ballad are—
"The bairnie she swyl'd in linen so fine, In a gilded casket she laid it syne, Mickle saut and light she laid therein, Cause yet in God's house it had'na been."
Let us return to the mother and child whom we left visiting at a friend's house, and receiving the covenant of friendship. It was unsafe to be lavish in praise of the child's beauty, for although such commendation would naturally be gratifying to the mother, it would at the same time increase her fears, for the well faured ran the greatest risk from evil influences, and of being carried off by the fairies. There was also the superadded danger of the mother setting her affections too much upon her child and forgetting God, who then in jealousy and mercy would remove it from her. This latter was a very widespread superstition among religiously-minded people, even among those who, from their education, ought to have known better. I well remember the case of a young mother,—a tender loving woman, who, quite in keeping with her excitable affectionate nature, was passionately fond of her baby, her first-born. But baby sickened and died, and the poor mother, borne down with grief, wept bitterly, like Rachel refusing to be comforted. In the depth of her affliction she was visited by both her pastor and elder. They admonished her to turn her mind from the selfish sorrow in which she was indulging, and thank God for His kindly dealing toward her, in that He had removed from her the cause of sin on her part. She had been guilty, they said, of loving the baby too much, and God, who was a jealous God, would not suffer His people to set their affections on any object in a greater degree than on Himself; and therefore, He, in his mercy toward her, had removed from her the object of her idolatry. The poor woman in her agony could only sob out, "Surely it was no sin to love my own child that God gave me." The more correct term for such a theological conception would not be superstition, but blasphemy.
Another danger from which children required to be shielded was the baneful influence of the evil eye. Malicious people were believed to possess the power of doing harm by merely looking upon those whom they wished to injure. This belief is very ancient. From Professor Conington's Satires of A. Persius Flaccus, I extract the following notice of it:—"Look here—a grandmother or a superstitious aunt has taken baby from his cradle, and is charming his forehead and his slavering lips against mischief by the joint action of her middle finger and her purifying spittle; for she knows right well how to check the evil eye. Then she dandles him in her arms, and packs off the pinched little hope of the family, so far as wishing can do it, to the domains of Licinus, or the palace of Croesus. 'May he be a catch for my lord and lady's daughter! May the pretty ladies scramble for him! May the ground he walks on turn to a rose-bed.' But I will never trust a nurse to pray for me or mine; good Jupiter, be sure to refuse her, though she may have put on white for the occasion."
The Romans used to hang red coral round the necks of their children to save them from falling-sickness, sorcery, charms, and poison. In this country coral beads were hung round the necks of babies, and are still used in country districts to protect them from an evil eye. Coral bells are used at present. The practice was originated by the Roman Catholics to frighten away evil spirits.
I have quite a vivid remembrance of being myself believed to be the unhappy victim of an evil eye. I had taken what was called a dwining, which baffled all ordinary experience; and, therefore, it was surmised that I had got "a blink of an ill e'e." To remove this evil influence, I was subjected to the following operation, which was prescribed and superintended by a neighbour "skilly" in such matters:—A sixpence was borrowed from a neighbour, a good fire was kept burning in the grate, the door was locked, and I was placed upon a chair in front of the fire. The operator, an old woman, took a tablespoon and filled it with water. With the sixpence she then lifted as much salt as it could carry, and both were put into the water in the spoon. The water was then stirred with the forefinger till the salt was dissolved. Then the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands were bathed with this solution thrice, and after these bathings I was made to taste the solution three times. The operator then drew her wet forefinger across my brow,—called scoring aboon the breath. The remaining contents of the spoon she then cast right over the fire, into the hinder part of the fire, saying as she did so, "Guid preserve frae a' skaith." These were the first words permitted to be spoken during the operation. I was then put in bed, and, in attestation of the efficacy of the charm, recovered. To my knowledge this operation has been performed within these 40 years, and probably in many outlying country places it is still practised. The origin of this superstition is probably to be found in ancient fire worship. The great blazing fire was evidently an important element in the transaction; nor was this a solitary instance in which regard was paid to fire. I remember being taught that it was unlucky to spit into the fire, some evil being likely shortly after to befall those who did so. Crumbs left upon the table after a meal were carefully gathered and put into the fire. The cuttings from the nails and hair were also put into the fire. These freaks certainly look like survivals of fire worship.
The influence of those possessing the evil eye was not confined to children, but might affect adults, and also goods and cattle. But for the bane there was provided the antidote. One effective method of checking the evil influence was by scoring aboon the breath. In my case, as I was the victim, scoring with a wet finger was sufficient; but the suspected possessor of the evil eye was more roughly treated, scoring in this case being effected with some sharp instrument so as to draw blood. I have never seen this done, but some fifty years ago an instance occurred in my native village. A child belonging to a poor woman in this village was taken ill and had convulsive fits, which were thought to be due to the influence of the evil eye. An old woman in the neighbourhood, whose temper was not of the sweetest, was suspected. She was first of all invited to come and see the child in the hope that sympathy might change the influence she was supposed to be exerting; but as the old woman appeared quite callous to the sufferings of the child, the mother, as the old woman was leaving the house, scratched her with her nails across the brow, and drew blood. This circumstance raised quite a sensation in the village. Whether the child recovered after this operation I do not remember. Many other instances of the existence of this superstitious practice in Scotland within the present century might be presented, but I content myself with quoting one which was related in a letter to the Glasgow Weekly Herald, under the signature F.A.:—"I knew of one case of the kind in Wigtownshire, in the south of Scotland, about the year 1825, as near as I can mind. I knew all parties very well. A farmer had some cattle which died, and there was an old woman living about a mile from the farm who was counted no very canny. She was heard to say that there would be mair o' them wad gang the same way. So one day, soon after, as the old woman was passing the farmhouse, one of the sons took hold of her and got her head under his arm, and cut her across the forehead. By the way, the proper thing to be cut with is a nail out of a horse-shoe. He was prosecuted and got imprisonment for it."
This style of antidote against the influence of an evil eye was common in England within the century, as the following, which is also taken from a letter which appeared in the same journal, seems to show:—"Drawing blood from above the mouth of the person suspected is the favourite antidote in the neighbourhood of Burnley; and in the district of Craven, a few miles within the borders of Yorkshire, a person who was ill-disposed towards his neighbours is believed to have slain a pear-tree which grew opposite his house by directing towards it 'the first morning glances' of his evil eye. Spitting three times in the person's face; turning a live coal on the fire; and exclaiming, 'The Lord be with us,' are other means of averting its influence."
We must not, however, pursue this digression further, but return to our proper subject. It was not necessary that the person possessed of the evil eye, and desirous of inflicting evil upon a child, should see the child. All that was necessary was that the person with the evil eye should get possession of something which had belonged to the child, such as a fragment of clothing, a toy, hair, or nail parings. I may note here that it was not considered lucky to pare the nails of a child under one year old, and when the operation was performed the mother was careful to collect every scrap of the cutting, and burn them. It was considered a great offence for any person, other than the mother or near relation, in whom every confidence could be placed, to cut a baby's nails; if some forward officious person should do this, and baby afterwards be taken ill, this would give rise to grave suspicions of evil influence being at work. The same remarks apply to the cutting of a baby's hair. I have seen the door locked during hair-cutting, and the floor swept afterwards, and the sweepings burned, lest perchance any hairs might remain, and be picked up by an enemy. Dr. Livingstone, in his book on the Zambesi, mentions the existence of a similar practice among some African tribes. "They carefully collect and afterwards burn or bury the hair, lest any of it fall into the hands of a witch." Mr. Munter mentions that the same practice is common amongst the Patagonians, and the practice extends to adults. He says that after bathing, which they do every morning, "the men's hair is dressed by their wives, daughters, or sweethearts, who take the greatest care to burn the hairs that may be brushed out, as they fully believe that spells may be wrought by evil-intentioned persons who can obtain a piece of their hair. From the same idea, after cutting their nails the parings are carefully committed to the flames."
Besides this danger—this blighting influence of the evil eye which environed the years of childhood—there was also this other danger, already mentioned, that of being spirited away by fairies. The danger from this source was greater when the baby was pretty, and what fond mother did not consider her baby pretty? Early in the century, a labourer's wife living a few miles west of Glasgow, became the mother of a very pretty baby. All who saw it were charmed with its beauty, and it was as good as it was bonnie. The neighbours often urged on the mother the necessity of carefulness, and advised her to adopt such methods as were, to their minds, well-attested safe-guards for the preservation of children from fairy influence and an evil eye. She was instructed never to leave the child without placing near it an open Bible. One unhappy day the mother went out for a short time, leaving the baby in its cradle, but she forgot or neglected to place the open Bible near the child as directed. When she returned baby was crying, and could by no means be quieted, and the mother observed several blue marks upon its person, as if it had been pinched. From that day it became a perfect plague; no amount of food or drink would satisfy it, and yet withal it became lean. The girn, my informant said, was never out its face, and it yammered on night and day. One day an old highland woman having seen the child, and inspected it carefully, affirmed that it was a fairy child. She went the length of offering to put the matter to the test, and this is how she tested it. She put the poker in the fire, and hung a pot over the fire wherein were put certain ingredients, an incantation being said as each new ingredient was stirred into the pot. The child was quiet during these operations, and watched like a grown person all that was being done, even rising upon its elbow to look. When the operations were completed, the old woman took the poker out of the fire, and carrying it red hot over to the cradle, was about to burn the sign of the cross on the baby's brow, when the child sprung suddenly up, knocked the old woman down and disappeared up the lum (chimney,) filling the house with smoke, and leaving behind it a strong smell of brimstone. When the smoke cleared away, the true baby was found in the cradle sleeping as if it never had been taken away. Another case was related to me as having occurred in the same neighbourhood, but in this instance the theft was not discovered until after the death of the child. The surreptitious or false baby, having apparently died, was buried; but suspicion having been raised, the grave was opened and the coffin examined, when there was found in it, not a corpse, but a wooden figure. The late Mr. Rust, in his Druidism Exhumed, states that this superstition is common in the North of Scotland, and adds that it is also believed that if the theft be discovered before the apparent death of the changling, there are means whereby the fairies may be propitiated and induced to restore the real baby. One of these methods is the following:—The parents or friends of the stolen baby must take the fairy child to some known haunt of the fairies, generally some spot where peculiar soughing sounds are heard, where there are remains of some ancient cairn or stone circle, or some green mound or shady dell, and lay the child down there, repeating certain incantations. They must also place beside it a quantity of bread, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and flesh of fowl, then retire to a distance and wait for an hour or two, or until after midnight. If on going back to where the child was laid they find that the offerings have disappeared, it is held as evidence that the fairies have been satisfied, and that the human child is returned. The baby is then carried home, and great rejoicing made. Mr. Rust states that he knew a woman who, when a baby, had been stolen away, but was returned by this means.
The next very important event in man's life is marriage, and naturally, therefore, to this event there attached a multitude of superstitious notions and practices, many of which, indeed, do still exist. The time when marriage took place was of considerable importance. One very prevalent superstition, common alike to all classes in the community, and whose force is not yet spent, was the belief that it was unlucky to marry in the month of May. The aversion to marrying in May finds expression in the very ancient and well-known proverb, "Marry in May, rue for aye," and thousands still avoid marrying in this month who can render no more solid reason for their aversion than the authority of this old proverb. But in former times there were reasons given, varying, however, in different localities. Some of the reasons given were the following:—That parties so marrying would be childless, or, if they had children, that the first-born would be an idiot, or have some physical deformity; or that the married couple would not lead a happy life, and would soon tire of each other's society. The origin of this superstition is to be found in ancient heathen religious beliefs and practices. We have already noticed the ancient belief that the spirits of dead ancestors haunted the living, and I have given a formula whereby a single person could exorcise the ghosts of his departed relatives, and I have also mentioned that national festivals to propitiate the spirits of the dead were appointed by some nations. Now, we find that among the Romans this national festival was held during the month of May, and during its continuance all other forms of worship were suspended, and the temples shut; and further, for any couple to contract marriage during this season was held to be a daring of the Fates which few were found hardy enough to venture. Ovid says—
"Pause while we keep these rites, ye widowed dames, The marriage time a purer season claims; Pause, ye fond mothers, braid not yet her hair, Nor the ripe virgin for her lord prepare. O, light not, Hymen, now your joyous fires, Another torch nor yours the tomb requires! Close all the temples on these mourning days, And dim each altar's spicy, steaming blaze; For now around us roams a spectred brood, Craving and keen, and snuffing mortal food: They feast and revel, nor depart again, Till to the month but ten days more remain."
Superstitions of this sort linger much longer in the country than in towns, and the larger the town the more speedily do they die out; but, judging from the statistics of late years, this superstition has still a firm hold of the inhabitants of Glasgow, the second city of the Empire. During the year 1874 the marriages in May were only 204, against 703 in June; but as the removal term occurs at the end of May, that must materially affect the relations, in this respect, between May and June, and accounts, in part, for the great excess of marriages in June. But if the average of the eleven months, excluding May, be taken, then during that year there was a monthly average of 441, against 204 in May—being rather more than double. For the ten years preceding 1874, the average of the eleven months was 388, against 203 in May. As if to compensate for the restraint put upon the people in May, Juno, the wife of Jupiter, after whom June was named, and whose influence was paramount during that month, took special guardianship over births and marriages; hence June was a lucky month to be born in or get married in, and thus June is known as the marrying month. Here, again, our registers show that the number of marriages are in June nearly double the average of the other months, excluding May and June. The average during the ten years is, for the ten months, 375 per month, whilst the average for June is 598. It may be noticed in passing that, in Glasgow, January and July stand as high as June, owing, doubtless, to the holidays which occur during these two months making marriage at those times more convenient for the working classes.
There were many marriage observances of a religious or superstitious character practised in ancient Rome which were quite common among us within this century, especially in the country districts, but which now are either extinct or fast dying out. When a Roman girl was betrothed, she received from her intended a ring which she wore as evidence of her betrothal. When betrothed she laid aside her girlish or maiden dress,—some parts of which were offered as a sacrifice to the household gods,—and she was then clothed in the dress of a wife, and secluded from her former companions, and put under training for her new duties. When the time drew near for the consummation of the ceremony, it became an important consideration to fix upon a lucky day and hour for the knot to be tied. With this object astrologers, sooth-sayers, and others of that class were consulted, who, by certain divinations ascertained the most auspicious time for the union to take place in. When the day arrived every occurrence was watched for omens. A crow or turtle dove appearing near was a good omen: for these birds symbolized conjugal fidelity. The ceremony was begun by sacrificing a sheep to Juno, the fleece being spread upon two chairs on which the bride and bridegroom sat: then a prayer was said over them. The young wife, carrying a distaff and spindle filled with wool, was conducted to her house, a cake, baked by the vestal virgins, being carried before her. The threshold of the house was disenchanted by charms, and by annointing it with certain unctuous perfumes; but as it was considered unlucky for the new-made wife to tread upon the threshold on first entering her house, she was lifted over it and seated upon a piece of wool, a symbol of domestic industry. The keys of the house were then put into her hand, and the cake was divided among the guests. The first work of the young wife was to spin new garments for her husband. It will be seen that many of these practices were mixed up with superstitious notions, many of which were prevalent in this country sixty years ago, and some of which still remain in country districts. Sixty years ago when a young woman became a bride, she in a great measure secluded herself from society, and mixed but little even with her companions, and on no account would she show herself at church until after her marriage, as that was considered very unlucky. The evening before the marriage her presents and outfit were conveyed to her future home under the superintendence of the best maid (bridesmaid), who carried with her a certain domestic utensil filled with salt, which was the first article of the bride's furnishing taken into the house. A portion of the salt was sprinkled over the floor as a protection against an evil eye. The house being set in order, the best maid returned to the bride's house where a company of the bride's companions were met, and then occurred the ceremony of washing the bride's feet. This was generally the occasion of much mirth. And this was in all probability a survival of an old Scandinavian custom under which the Norse bride was conducted by her maiden friends to undergo a bath, called the bride's bath, a sort of religious purification. On the marriage day, every trifling circumstance which would have passed without notice at other times was noted and scanned for omens of good or evil. If the morning was clear and shining, this betokened a happy cheerful life; if dull and raining, the contrary result might be anticipated. I have known the following incidents cause grave concern about the future prospects of the young couple:—A clot of soot coming down the chimney and spoiling the breakfast; the bride accidentally breaking a dish; a bird sitting on the window sill chirping for some time; the bird in the cage dying that morning; a dog howling, and the postman forgetting to deliver a letter to the bride until he was a good way off, and had to return. Some of these were defined for good, but most of them were evil omens. The ceremony was generally performed at the minister's residence, which was often a considerable distance off. The marriage party generally walked all the way, but if the distance was unusually great, the company rode the journey, and this was called "a riding wedding." There were two companies—the bride's party and the bridegroom's party. The bride's party met in the bride's parents' house, the best man being with them, and the groom's party met in his parents' house, the best maid being with them—the males conducting the females to their respective parties. At the time appointed the bride's party left first, followed immediately by the groom's party—each company headed by the respective fathers. They so arranged their walk that both parties would reach the minister's house together. As soon as the ceremony was concluded, there was a rush on the part of the young men to get the first kiss of the newly-made wife. This was frequently taken by the clergyman himself, a survival of an old custom said to have been practised in the middle ages. This custom is referred to in the following old song. The bridegroom, addressing the minister, says:—
"It's no very decent for you to be kissing, It does not look weel wi' the black coat ava, 'Twould hae set you far better tae hae gi'en us your blessing, Than thus by such tricks to be breaking the law. Dear Watty, quo Robin, it's just an auld custom, And the thing that is common should ne'er be ill taen, For where ye are wrong, if ye hadna a wished him You should have been first. It's yoursel it's to blame."
The party now returned in the following order: first, the two fathers in company together, then the newly-married couple, behind them the best man and the best maid, and the others following in couples as they might arrange. There were frequently as many as twenty couples. On coming within a mile or so of the young couple's house, where the mother of the young good man was waiting, a few of the young men would start on a race home. This race was often keenly contested, and was termed running the brooze or braize. The one who reached the house first and announced the happy completion of the wedding, was presented with a bottle of whiskey and a glass, with which he returned to meet the marriage procession, and the progress of the procession was generally so arranged that he would meet them before they arrived at the village or town where the young couple were to be resident. He was therefore considered their first foot, and distributed the contents of his bottle among the party, each drinking to the health of the young married pair, and then bottle and glass were thrown away and broken. The whole party then proceeded on their way to the young folks' house. To be the successful runner in this race was an object of considerable ambition, and the whole town and neighbourhood took great interest in it. At riding weddings it was the great ambition of farmers' sons to succeed in winning the braize, and they would even borrow racing horses for the occasion.
The origin of this custom of running the braize—it was so pronounced in the west county—has long been a puzzle to antiquarians. Probably it is the survival of a custom practised by our Scandinavian forefathers. A Scandinavian hero or warrior considered it beneath his dignity to court a lady's favour by submitting the matter of marriage to her decision. When he saw or heard of a beauty whom he decided to make his wife, he either went direct and took her away by force from her home, or he gained the right to make her his bride by success in battle with his opponents. Often, however, one who was no hero might gain the consent of the parents to his marriage with their daughter, she having little or no voice in the matter; and when she and her friends were on their way to the church, some heroic but unapproved admirer, determined to win her by force of arms, having collected his followers and friends who were ever ready for a fight, would fall upon the marriage cortege, and carry off the bride. Under those circumstances there was often great anxiety on the part of both the groom's and bride's relations, who remained at home when they had reason to apprehend that such attack might be made, and so, whenever the marriage ceremony was over, some of the company hasted home with the glad news; but commonly youths stationed themselves at the church-door, ready to run the moment the ceremony was over, and whether on foot or horseback, the race became an exciting one. He who first brought the good news received as a reward a bowl of brose, and such brose as was made in those days for this occasion was an acceptable prize. Although the necessity for running ceased, the sport occasioned by these contentions was too good and exciting to be readily given up, but it came to be confined to those who were at the wedding, and many young men looked forward eagerly to taking part in the sport. The prize which originally was brose, came to be changed to something more congenial to the tastes and usages of the times, viz., a bottle of whiskey. In this way, I think, we may account for the custom of "running the braize." It has been mentioned already that the best man went with the bride to the minister. His duty it was to take charge of the bride and hand her over to the bridegroom, a duty now performed by the bride's father, and in this now obsolete custom, I think we may find a still further proof that the management and customs of the marriage procession were founded upon the old practice of wife-capture. The best man is evidently just the bridegroom's friend, who, in the absence of the bridegroom, undertakes to protect the bride against a raid until she reaches the church, when he hands her over to his friend the bridegroom.
To meet a funeral either in going to or coming from marriage was very unlucky. If the funeral was that of a female, the young wife would not live long; if a male, the bridegroom would die soon.
After partaking of the braize's hospitality,—for the bottle of whiskey was his by right,—the wedding party proceeded to the house of the young couple, and in some parts of Scotland, at the beginning of the century, the young wife was lifted over the threshold, or first step of the door, lest any witchcraft or ill e'e should be cast upon and influence her. Just at the entering of the house, the young man's mother broke a cake of bread, prepared for the occasion, over the young wife's head. She was then led to the hearth, and the poker and tongs—in some places the broom also—were put into her hands, as symbols of her office and duty. After this, her mother-in-law handed her the keys of the house and furniture, thus transferring the mother's rights over her son to his wife. Again the glass went round, and each guest drank and wished happiness to the young pair. The cake which was broken over the young wife's head was now gathered and distributed among the unmarried female guests, and by them retained to be placed under their pillows, so that they might dream of their future husbands. This is a custom still practised, but what is now the bridescake is not a cake broken over the bride's head, but a larger and more elaborately-prepared article, which is cut up and distributed immediately after the marriage ceremony. Young girls still put a piece of it under their pillows in order to obtain prophetic dreams. In some cases, this is done by a friend writing the names of three young men on a piece of paper, and the cake, wrapped in it, is put under the pillow for three nights in succession before it is opened. Should the owners of the cake have dreamed of one of the three young men therein written, it is regarded as a sure proof that he is to be her future husband. After drinking to the health and happiness of the young couple, the wedding party then went to the house of the bridegroom's father where they partook of supper, generally a very substantial meal; and this being finished, the young people of the party became restless for a change of amusement, and generally all then repaired to some hall or barn, and there spent the night in dancing. It was the custom for the young couple, with their respective parents and the best man and the best maid, to lead off by dancing the first reel. Should the young couple happen to have either brothers or sisters older than themselves, but unmarried, these unfortunate brethren danced the first reel without their shoes. Probably this has its origin in the old Jewish custom of giving up the shoe or sandal when the right or priority passed from one to another. For an instance of this see Ruth iv. 7. Having danced till far on in the morning of next day, the young couple were then conducted home. The young wife, assisted by her female friends, undressed and got to bed, then the young man was sent into bed by his friends, and then all the marriage party entered the bedroom, when the young wife took one of her stockings, which had been put in bed with her, and threw it among the company. The person who got this was to be the first married. The best man then handed round the glass, and when all had again drank to the young couple, the company retired. This custom was termed the bedding, and was regarded as a ceremony necessary to the completion of the marriage; and there can be little doubt that it is a survival of a very ancient ceremony of the same family as the old Grecian custom of removing the bride's coronet and putting her to bed. This particular form of ceremony was also found in Scotland, and continued to comparatively modern times. Young Scotch maidens formerly wore a snood, a sort of coronet, open at the top, called the virgin snood, and before being put to bed on the marriage night this snood was removed by the young women of the party. This custom is referred to in an ancient ballad.