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wicca pagan witch witchcraft home

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THE following pages are based on Brand’s Popular Antiquities, the edition published in 1841,
supplemented by the results of later investigation. My aim has been to deal only with those
superstitions and customs which are operative at the present time; and, as far as is possible,
to trace these to their original sources. In some cases the task is fairly easy, in others very
difficult; whilst in a few instances the “prime origin,” to use the words of Brand, is absolutely
unattainable. Still, in these days of pageantry, when the British people show some signs of
periodically reviewing the picturesque life of bygone times, it will be a source of satisfaction if
in this book I succeed in tracing, though it be for a century or two, the thoughts and habits
which were born in a remote past.
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SECTION I. Superstitions and Customs Relating to Days and Seasons
1. Candlemas Day
2. St. Valentine’s Day
3. Simnel Sunday
4. Maunday Thursday
5. Shrove Tuesday
6. Good Friday
7. Good Friday Loaves
8. Picking up Sixpences at Smithfield
9. Easter Holidays
10. Biddenden Cakes
11. Easter Eggs
12. Knutsford: May Queen and Morris Dances
13. Furry Dance—Helston
14. Baal Fire—St. John’s Eve
15. Hock Tide
16. Garland Day at Abbotsbury
17. Ascension Day, “Beating the Bounds”
18. Ascension Day—other superstitions.
19. All Fool’s Day
20. Lichfield Greenhill Bower
21. Lammas Day
22. Harvest Home: the Kern Baby
23. Halloween
24. The Fifth of November
25. Wroth Money
26. Christmas
27. Christmas Boxes
28. Yule Logs
29. Lucky and Unlucky Days
SECTION II. Marriage Superstitions and Customs
1. The Engagement Ring
2. Kissing the Bride
3. Wedding Rings and Bride Cake
4. Bridesmaids and Best Man
5. May Marriages
6. Throwing the Shoe
7. The Dunmow Flitch of Bacon
8. Selling Wives
9. Christening Customs
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SECTION III. Divination and Omens
1. Dreams
2. Witchcraft
3. Divination by Books
4. The Divining (Dowsing) Rod
5. Palmistry
6. Astrology
7. Crystal-gazing
8. Colour Superstitions
9. Numbers
10. Amulets, Gems, Charms, and Talismans
11. Omens—Introductory
12. Looking-glass Omens
13. Stumbling and Falling
14. Spilling the Salt
15. Thirteen at Table
16. The Owl
17. Howling of Dogs
18. Ear Tingling
19. Sneezing
20. Spitting
21. Knife Superstitions
22. Sharks following Ships
23. Black Cats
24. The Cuckoo
25. Comets
SECTION IV. Miscellaneous Superstitions and Customs
1. Holy Wells
2. The Horn Dance: Abbot’s Bromley
3. “Telling the Bees”
4. The Death Bell
5. Vampires
6. Robin Redbreast
7. Drinking Customs
8. Yew Trees in Churchyards
9. Theatre Superstitions
10. Christening Ships
11. Horse Shoe Tributes at Oakham Castle
12. The Duty of Not Saving a Drowning Man
13. Playing Card Superstitions
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The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs
THE true origin of superstition is to be found in early man’s effort to explain Nature and his
own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he
could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future. From these
sources alone must have sprung that system of crude notions and practices still obtaining
among savage nations; and although in more advanced nations the crude system gave place
to attractive mythology, the moving power was still the same; man’s interpretation of the world
was equal to his ability to understand its mysteries no more, no less. For this reason the
superstitions which, to use a Darwinian word, persist, are of special interest, as showing a
psychological habit of some importance. Of this, more anon.
The first note in all superstitions is that of ignorance. Take three representative and widely different
cases. The first is a Chinaman living about one thousand years before Christ. He has
before him the “Book of Changes,” and is about to divine the future by geometrical figures;
the second is a Roman lady, bent on the same object, but using the shapes of molten wax
dropped into water; the third is a Stock Exchange speculator seated before a modern clairvoyant
in Bond Street, earnestly seeking light on the future of his big deal in Brighton A. The
operating cause here is a desire to know the future, and, so long as man is man, so long will
he either rely on the divinations of the past, or invent new ones more in keeping with mental
science. But ignorance exists in several varieties, and one of them has to do not with the
future, but with the well-established present; in other words, an accepted doctrine may be
based on a misinterpretation of the facts. As Trenchard remarks in his Natural History of
Superstition, “Man’s curiosity is in excess of his capacity to interpret Nature and life.” Thus
early man attributed a living spirit to everything—to his fellows, to the lower animals, to the
trees, the mountains, and the rivers. Probably these conclusions were as good as his intelligence
would allow, but they became the mental stock-in-trade of all races, and were handed
down from one generation to another, constituting a barrier to be broken down before newer
and truer ideas of life could prevail. And the same contention applies equally to the superstition
of the moment. The woman who will not pay a call unless she wears a particular amulet,
or the man who starts up from a table of thirteen, his face blanched and his blood cold, are
just as truly, though not in the same degree, the victims of ignorance as the animist who tried
to propitiate the anger of the spirit of the stream. Ignorance is the atmosphere in which alone
such superstitions can live.
Allied with ignorance is fear, which is the second element calling for notice. Fear, too, has its
varieties, some of them both natural and justifiable. If I visit an electrical power-house and
know nothing of its machinery and appointments, I am very chary what I touch and prefer to
keep my hands to myself lest I make a mistake. Rational fear, however, is the offspring of a
reasoned knowledge of danger. It is irrational fear which forms the bogey of superstition. The
misfortune of early man was to have experiences more numerous and subtle than he could
understand; to his power of analysis they were altogether unyielding; and yet his unrestrained
imagination demanded a working theory of some kind, and he got one, grounded in ignorance
and fear. An earthquake is a phenomenon calculated to strike terror into the heart of all but
the strongest man; no wonder then that the primitive mind invented all sorts of ideas about
spirits of the under world, and ascribed to gloomy caverns the possession of dragons and
other fearsome enemies of the race. The thunder, the lightning and the tempest; the blight
which spoiled the sources of food; the sudden attack of mysterious sickness, and a hundred
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other fatalities were to him more than merely natural forces busily employed in working out
their natural destiny; they were Powers to be propitiated. That is the third note of the superstitious
mind; its effort to propitiate intelligent and semi-intelligent forces by suitable beliefs,
rites, ceremonies, and penances. Where ignorance and fear beget a sense of danger, knowledge,
even defective knowledge, is always equal to the task of inventing a way of escape.
But if these be the prime origins of superstition, what are the secondary origins? If “the belief
in the existence and proximity of a world of spirits, and a fear of such spirits, is the only solution
of all the curious religions, customs, ceremonies, and superstitions of pagan life,” what
are the other causes which modified these primitive guesses at the riddle of existence? The
answer is twofold : (1) The old causes have never ceased to be operative, though the manner
of expression has changed; and (2) The new causes were the advent of world religions, of
social transformations, and of political separation.
As an illustration of the old causes in a new application, I will take ignorance once more. Lord
Mahon, in his History of England, tells us: “It chanced that six children in one family died in
quick succession of a sudden and mysterious illness—their feet having mortified and dropped
off. Professor Henslow, who resides at no great distance from Wattisham, has given much
attention to the records of this case, and has made it clear in his excellent essay on the
Diseases of Wheat, that in all probability their death was owing to the improvident use of
deleterious food—the ergot of rye. But he adds that in the neighbourhood the popular belief
was firm that these poor children had been the victims of sorcery and witchcraft.” This was little
over forty years ago in “Christian England.” Four hundred years ago, or twice or thrice that
number, it was just the same—the domination of ignorance.
But the causes called secondary offer a new field of enquiry. Take the advent of Christianity
with its point of view diametrically opposed to the religions of the period. What was the effect
on paganism? It was seen in the Christianising of many of the old superstitions and customs,
and in the creation of a group of new ones. To the student of origins there is no fact more significant
than this, and none to which he can look forward more hopefully for intelligent explanations
of prevalent beliefs and practices. He is on historic ground, and whereas is most of
those who have endeavoured to account for the various superstitions of savage races have
done so by crediting them with a much more elaborate system of ideas than they in reality
possess,” he can give chapter and verse for the modifications and developments in the first
century of the Christian era. Sir Isaac Newton was not a historian, but he was right when he
said (in his book on Prophesies) that “the Heathens were delighted with the Festivals of their
Gods, and unwilling to part with those ceremonies; therefore Gregory, Bishop of Neo-
Caesarea in Pontus, to facilitate their conversion, instituted annual Festivals to the Saints and
Martyrs; hence the keeping of Christmas with ivy, feasting, plays, and sports, came in the
room of Bacchanalia and Saturnalia; the celebrating May Day with flowers, in the room of the
Floralia; and the Festivals to the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and divers of the Apostles, in
the room of the solemnities at the entrance of the Sun into the Signs of the Zodiac in the old
Julian Calendar.”
But the events of Christianity, the birth, life, and death of Christ, were themselves the basis of
new superstitions. For example, the notion that to sit down at a table of a Christian is unlucky,
can have no other origin than that of the Last Supper, and all Good Friday superstitions are of
course Christian, that is, although discountenanced by the Church they are based upon
Christian history.
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With the Reformation came a radical force that tended to push all the old superstitions and
customs into oblivion. The analogy between the pagan and Christian forms was detected and
enlarged upon with the utmost severity of condemnation. Randolph’s Poems (1646) tells us
something of the spirit of these Puritan criticisms:—
“These teach that dancing is a Jezabel,
And Barley-Break the ready way to Hell;
The Morice Idols, Whitsun Ales can be
But profane reliques of a Jubilee:
There is a zeal t’expresse how much they do
The Organs hate, have silenc’d Bagpipes too;
And harmless May-Poles all are rail’d upon,
As if they were the Tow’rs of Babylon.”
Ultimately the custom was attacked before the superstition in the hope that the decay of the
one would result in the disappearance of the other. Such hopes were not altogether disappointed,
but as is evident from the crowd of superstitions that did not die, or have since been
revived, the modifying effect of Puritanism cannot be said to have done more than create a
prejudice against the rites and associations of the Catholic Church. But that Church has
always been the fountain of superstition, for when Newman declared his belief that all the
wood in Continental Churches, alleged to have been part of the Cross (although enough to
timber an ironclad), was really what it professed to be—probably miraculously multiplied by
Divine force like the loaves and fishes—we can see a little better the Puritan’s point of view.
The eye of the Papist was ever on the look out for signs and portents of grace in the realm of
Nature and material things. A good instance of this is found in the old notion of the shaking
aspen. Christ is alleged to have been crucified on aspen wood, and from that time the boughs
of aspen trees “have been filled with horror and trembled ceaselessly.” Unfortunately for the
probability of this story, the shivering of the aspen in the breeze may be traced to other than a
supernatural cause. The construction of its foliage is particularly adapted for motion: a broad
leaf is placed upon a long footstalk, so flexible as scarcely to be able to support the leaf in an
upright posture; the upper part of this stalk, on which the play or action seems mainly to
depend, is contrary to the nature of footstalks in general, being perfectly flattened, and as an
eminent botanist has acutely observed, is placed at a right angle with the leaf, being thus particularly
fitted to receive the impulse of every wind that blows. The stalk is furnished with three
strong nerves, placed parallel and acting in unison with each other; but towards the base the
stalk becomes round, and then the nerves assume a triangular form, and constitute three distinct
supports and counteractions to each other’s motions.”
This disposition to see a religious message in everything secular is responsible for a good
many local superstitions. “All things praise Thee,” was taken in its literal sense.
An example, which in these days would be considered ludicrous, of the manner in which our
ancestors made external nature bear witness to our Lord, occurs in what is called the Prior’s
Chamber, in the small Augustinian house of Shubbrede, in the parish of Linchmere in Sussex.
On the wall is a fresco of the Nativity; and certain animals are made to give their testimony to
that event in words which somewhat resemble, or may be supposed to resemble, their natural
sounds. A cock, in the act of crowing, stands at the top, and a label, issuing from his mouth,
bears the words, Christus natus est. A duck inquires, Quando, quando? A raven answers, In
hâc nocte. A cow asks, Ubi, ubi? And a lamb bleats out, Bethlehem.
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This devout attitude is by no means absent from the Protestant mind, ancient and modern.
Quite logically, too; for, if there is an active Providence, that Providence must manifest itself in
some outward and visible sign. Hence we find to-day what we find throughout history, that
there are superstitions fostered by the religious disposition, and others that may be called
social—for want of a better term. They are accepted apart from any ecclesiastical creed. The
faithful will agree that relics are good to be adored; the non-religionist has no opinion about
relics, but he will carefully avoid walking under a ladder.
Now we come to the most difficult question of all: why is it that some of the superstitions in
the past persist in the present? Why do we, in an age of increasing knowledge, still retain
some of our fears—the offspring of ignorance? We can understand the perpetuation of a custom,
even when its inner significance has gone, but a living superstition is a different thing.
One reason must be sought in the fact that superstition has always been contagious. This is
amusingly set forth by Bagehot in his Physics and Politics, although probably India contains
more mysteries than he allowed:—
“In Eothen there is a capital description of how every sort of European resident in the East—
even the shrewd merchant and the ‘post-captain with his bright, wakeful eye of command’—
comes soon to believe in witchcraft, and to assure you in confidence that ‘there is really
something in it;’ he has never seen anything convincing himself, but he has seen those who
have seen those who have seen those who have seen; in fact he has lived in an atmosphere
of infectious belief, and he has inhaled it.”
If this is true now, it must have been more profoundly true in past centuries. The presence
everywhere of the same superstition, though in different forms, is a testimony to the power of
contagious fears. Children brought up in the atmosphere of credulity do not often rise above
it. White in his Selborne observes:—”It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious
prejudices; they are sucked in as it were with our mother’s milk; and, growing up with us
at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so
interwoven with our very constitutions, that the strongest sense is required to disengage ourselves
from them. No wonder, therefore, that the lower people retain them their whole lives
through, since their minds are not invigorated by a liberal education, and therefore not
enabled to make any efforts adequate to the occasion.” He adds that such a preamble seems
to be necessary before he enters on the superstitions of his own district, lest he should be
suspected of exaggeration in a recital of practices too gross for an enlightened age.
But—and this is a further reason for the persistence which is the object of our enquiry there is
a superstitious mind, quite independent of education and training. One has already referred to
Newman, who possessed as subtle an intellect as any man in the nineteenth century; there is
Dr Johnson, who believed something bad would happen if he did not touch every post as he
passed along the road or street; he had for some reason built that idea into his mind, and
nothing could dislodge it. Take another instance, this time from a source where one would not
expect it. J. D. Rockefeller, reputed to be the world’s wealthiest man, is of Puritan or
Nonconformist associations, and yet, according to a London journal which specialises in personal
items, he pleads guilty to a pet superstition. For years he has carried an eagle stone in
his pocket. This is a kind of hollow stone, containing in its cavity some concretions which rattle
on shaking the stone. It is of a brownish tint, and is often carried by the eagle to its nest.
Superstition ascribes wonderful virtue to these stones when actually found in the bird’s nest.
They are a charm against disaster, shipwreck, and other calamities. A ribbon passed through
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the perforation of the stone is said to possess even more virtues than the stone itself, and
when Mr Rockefeller wishes to confer a particular favour upon someone, he gives him a small
piece of this ribbon.
But the great reason why superstitions persist is because they are, in part, doctrines about
matters concerning which we as yet know little. Mental and occult influences are the staple
commodities of most of those practices which modern science condemns as meaningless. Of
these influences we are in partial ignorance, and until that ignorance is dissolved we shall
always have the crystal gazer and the clairvoyant in our midst, despite the activity of the
police. True, some of the remarkable “coincidences” related in solemn tones, amid breathless
silence, are receiving their quietus at the hands of the expert in hypnotism and auto-suggestion;
from this standpoint we may eventually be able to justify some of the stories about
charms and amulets, as well as to develop a useful moral agency. But in regard to occult
powers, especially what is known as black magic, we are still in darkness, mainly because
those who are competent to investigate laugh the problems out of court as not worthy of
attention. This is a pity, because, if there are any superstitions at all which have an origin that
can be tested here and now, it is the group belonging to the occult section, dealing with the
things in heaven and earth “not dreamed of in our philosophy.” In view of such discoveries as
have been made by Lombroso and others, not so much in magic as in mental forces,it would
appear very desirable to initiate enquiries into the so-called evil side of man’s powers, the
persistent tradition of which has come down from remote antiquity, and surrounding which are
strange superstitions and nightmare stories. It is because men of all classes have some modified
belief in these vicious powers that a kind of half probability is accorded to beliefs of a
more innocent hue. To read the narratives of modern travellers in the East, men with no axe
to grind, and not suffering from “imagination,” is to have one’s curiosity awakened to the highest
degree; for they tell us of powers to which there is no corresponding agency in the West.
If early races in the same territory possessed the same powers, it is easy to understand the
tenacity with which they held on to the beliefs in the supernatural as they understood it.
Reviewing the whole subject, without prejudice, it seems to the present writer that the right
attitude of mind towards the superstitions that are still operative is not one of mere condemnation,
or lofty indifference; it should be one of sympathetic inquiry, for the psychological and
scientific data available are of the highest interest; and just as astronomy arose out of astrology
and chemistry out of alchemy, so from the occult world we may some day attain developments
in mental science, equally distinctive and equally useful in the service of the race.
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As the celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, this day hardly needs the tracing of
an origin, but the following from Brand is decidedly interesting:—
“How this candle-bearing on Candlemas Day came first up, the author of our English Festival
declareth in this manner: “Somtyme,” said he, “when the Romaines by great myght and royal
power conquered all the world, they were so proude, that they forgat God, and made them
divers gods after their own lust. And so among all they had a god that they called Mars, that
had been tofore a notable knight in battayle; and so they prayed to hym for help, and for that
they would speed the better of this knight, the people prayed and did great worship to his
mother, that was called Februa, after which woman much people have opinion that the moneth
February is called. Wherefore the second daie of thys moneth is Candlemass Day. The
Romaines this night went about the city of Rome with torches and candles brenning in worship
of this woman Februa, for hope to have the more helpe and succoure of her sonne Mars.
“Then there was a Pope that was called Sergius, and when he saw Christian people drawn to
this false maumetry and untrue belief, he thought to undo this foule use and custom, and turn
it into God’s worship and our Lady’s, and gave commandment that all Christian people should
come to church and offer up a candle brennyng, in the worship that they did to this woman
Februa, and do worship to our Lady and to her sonne our Lord Jesus Christ. So that now this
feast is solemnly hallowed thorowe all Christendome. And every Christian man and woman of
covenable age is bound to come to church and offer up their candles, as though they were
bodily with our Lady, hopying for this reverence and worship, that they do to our Lady, to have
a great rewarde in heaven.”
In some parts of the country, Scotland particularly, Candlemas has assumed a secular garb
by becoming the first of the quarterly terms; and in Cornwall old customs of a slightly different
character are kept up. I select from a London morning paper (1910) a few paragraphs relating
to an ancient custom.
This being Candlemas Day, the old Cornish manor house of Godolphin, now a farm-house,
was visited, telegraphs our Penzance correspondent, by the reeve of the manor of Lamburne,
who came to collect, with time-honoured ceremony, a rent-charge upon the estate.
In the presence of a crowd of curious neighbours and sight-seers, the reeve knocked thrice
upon the oaken door.
“I come,” he cried, “to demand my lord’s just dues—eight groats and a penny, a loaf, a
cheese, a collar of brawn, and a jack of the best beer in the house. God save the King and
the lord of the manor.”
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When the doors were opened, the reeve and some forty guests sat down to breakfast together.
(2) VALENTINE’S DAY (February 14th).
Although St. Valentine’s Day is only observed in a very few places in the United Kingdom,
and tends towards a speedy disappearance, it is a custom which, for this reason, is specially
worth notice, inasmuch as some of us who are by no means old can remember the days
when the sending of “Valentines” by a certain section of society was quite a festival in itself—
almost as vigorous as the fashion of ‘Xmas cards is at the moment. St. Valentine was a
Christian Bishop, who is alleged to have suffered martyrdom in 271 A.D., on February 14th.
Roman youths and maidens on this day were accustomed to select partners, and the Church,
fulfilling its work of replacing heathen divinities by ecclesiastical saints, allotted the day to St.
Valentine. Butler in his Lives of the Saints says:—”To abolish the heathen, lewd, superstitious
custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the
15th of February, several zealous Pastors substituted the names of Saints in billets given on
that day. St. Frances de Sales severely forbad the custom of Valentines, or giving boys in
writing the names of girls to be admired and attended on by them; and to abolish it, he
changed it into giving billets with the names of certain Saints, for them to honour and imitate
in a particular manner.”
Apparently the effort was not altogether successful, for the specimen Valentine verses that
have come down to us from old English times, as well as some of the pictures which used to
be flaunted in shop-windows in the last century, testify to the intimate connection between the
Pagan idea and its attempted Christian reconstruction. St. Valentine, as a good man, can
have no reason to thank the Church for its attentions to his name.
Gay has left us a poetical description of some rural ceremonies used on the morning of this
“Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind,
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find,
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas’d the stars away;
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should house-wives do).
Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of Fortune, shall our true love be.”
Evidently the women-folk used to take Valentine’s Day somewhat seriously. Witness the following
from an old book—the Connoisseur:—”Last Friday was Valentine Day, and the night
before I got five bayleaves, and pinned four-of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the
fifth to the middle; and then, if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married
before the year was out. But to make it more sure I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk
and filled it with salt; and when I went to bed ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking
after it. We also wrote our lovers’ names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and
put them into water: and the first that rose up was to be our Valentine. Would you think it, Mr
Blossom was my man. I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning till he came to our
house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.”
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The dying of St. Valentine’s Day is a testimony to the growth of a sense of restraint and fine
feeling. But even this year (1910) in London one can see the old vulgar Valentine shown in
shop windows.
The fourth Sunday in Lent is in most Lancashire towns called Simnel Sunday, and Simnel
cakes—ornamental and rich cakes like those made at ‘Xmas time—are eaten. A writer in The
Gentleman’s Magazine (1867) informs us that “from time beyond memory thousands of persons
come from all parts to that town (Bury) to eat Simnels. Formerly, nearly every shop was
open, with all the public-houses, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during
‘service’; but of late years, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes
to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been made to put a
stop to the practice altogether, but in vain.” This was forty years ago, and the trade in Bury
“Simnels,” owing to quick and cheap transit, has practically put an end to the local celebrations.
The origin of the word Simnel is in doubt. In Wright’s Vocabularies it appears thus: “Hic
arlaecopus=symnelle.” This form was in use during the fifteenth century. In the Dictionarius of
John de Garlande, completed in Paris in the thirteenth century, it appears thus:—
”Simeneus=placentae=simnels.” Such cakes were stamped with the figure of Christ or of the
Virgin. We can only conclude that as cakes—witness the shewbread of the Hebrews—have
always occupied an important place in early forms of worship, there was a successful effort in
the north to localise a Christianised form of celebration; for the mixture of joviality and religious
austerity which characterised Simnel Sunday in past centuries is in keeping with the
same display on other occasions in countries further south.
There seems to be much dispute between antiquarians as to the origin of both “Maunday”
and “Shere,” and of course the spelling has the usual vagaries. For instance The British
Apollo (1709) says:—”Maunday is a corruption of the Latin word Mandatum, a command. The
day is therefore so called, because as on that day our Saviour washed his disciples’ feet, to
teach them the great duty of being humble. And therefore he gives them in command to do as
he had done, to imitate their Master in all proper instances of condescension and humility.”
On the other hand “Maunday Thursday,” says a writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1779),
“is the poor people’s Thursday, from the Fr. maundier, to beg. The King’s liberality to the poor
on that Thursday in Lent [is at] a season when they are supposed to have lived very low.
Maundiant is at this day in French a beggar.” Which are we to believe? The preponderating
weight of evidence seems to be in favour of the former.
In reference to “Shere,” one authority says it is so called “for that in old Fathers’ days the people
would that day shere theyr hedes and clippe theyr berdes and pool theyr heedes, and so
make them honest agenst Easter Day.” But another writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine
(1779) finds a different origin for the word. “Maundy Thursday, called by Collier, Shier
Thursday, Cotgrave calls by a word of the same sound and import, Sheere Thursday.
Perhaps, for I can only go upon conjecture, as sheer means purus mundus, it may allude to
the washing of the disciples’ feet (John xiii. 5, et seq.), and be tantamount to clean. Please to
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observe too, that on that day they also washed the Altars: so that the term in question may
allude to that business.”
Here again one feels there is no other course open than to accept the word of the earlier
authority. As to the events of the day, I cannot do better than transcribe a section from The
Gentleman’s Magazine for 1731:—
“Thursday, April 15, beind Maunday Thursday, there was distributed at the Banquetting
House, Whitehall, to forty-eight poor men, and forty-eight poorwomen (the king’s age fortyeight)
boiled beef and shoulders of mutton, and small bowls of ale, which is called dinner;
after that, large wooden platters of fish and loaves, viz. undressed, one large old ling, and
one large dried cod; twelve red herrings, and twelve white herrings, and four half quarter
loaves. Each person had one platter of this provision after which was distributed to them
shoes, stockings, linen and woollen cloth, and leathern bags, with one penny, two penny,
three penny, and four penny pieces of silver, and shillings; to each about four pounds in
value. His Grace the Lord Archbishop of York, Lord High Almoner, performed the annual ceremony
of washing the feet of a certain number of poor in the Royal Chapel, Whitehall, which
was formerly done by the kings themselves, in imitation of our Saviour’s pattern of humility,
etc. James the Second was the last king who performed this in person.”
But some Catholic monarchs still persevere in this pious act, even to the washing of beggars’
feet. In England, the king’s Maundy is given at Westminster Abbey at a specially convened
service, and those who receive it are carefully chosen from London parishes.
Shrove Tuesday, or as we know it to-day, “Pancake Tuesday” seems in the olden times to
have been a season of merriment, horseplay, and cruelty, as if the participants were determined
to have their fling ere Lent set in with its sombre feelings and proscription of joy.
Prostitutes were hounded out of their dwellings with a view to segregation during the Lenten
term; “cock-throwing” was indulged in, a cock being tied to a stake and pelted by the onlookers;
and all kinds of rough games were played, the women and the men joining in the “fun.”
The frying and eating of pancakes is apparently the only item left to us of this rather choice
list of festivities. Taylor in his Jack-a-Lent (1630) gives the following curious account of the
“Shrove-Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is inquiet, but by
that time the clocke strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly
before nine, then there is a bell rung, cal’d the Pancake-bell, the sound whereof makes thousands
of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or humanitie; then there is a thing
called wheaten floure, which the cookes do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical,
magical inchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying pan of boiling suet,
where it makes a confused dismal hissing, (like the Lernean Snakes in the reeds of Acheron,
Stix, or Phlegeton) until at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a
Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very
The piety of such people would seem to have gone sadly astray, for Shrove is a word derived
from shrive which means, to confess; and there was apparently little of that element in the
Page 13
humour of the day, although possibly in the earlier days of the Church such festivities were
not so pronounced. Still, they could never have been entirely absent, for Brand informs us
that the luxury and intemperance which prevailed were vestiges of the Roman Carnival. The
modern pancake, translated from the history of the past, seems to suggest the old saying,
“Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The custom of tossing the pancake on Shrove Tuesday is still kept up at Westminster School.
It is interesting to compare the difference in details between the celebration in 1790 and
1910. Thus a writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine 1790 says:—”The under clerk in the
College enters the school, and, preceded by the beadle and other officers, throws a large
pancake over the bar which divides the upper from the under school.
A gentleman, who was formerly one of the masters of that school, confirmed the ancedote to
me, with this alteration, that the cook of the seminary brought it into the school, and threw it
over the curtain which separated the forms of the upper from those of the under scholars. I
have heard of a similar custom at Eton school.”
In Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures of National Life and History we read:—”The ceremony on
Shrove Tuesday, though it has been modified slightly from time to time, has remained substantially
unaltered for centuries. In the morning one of the vergers from the Abbey, bearing a
silver mace, conducts the cook, who carries the pancake in a frying pan, into the great hall
where all the boys are assembled. When the room was divided by a curtain, this was then
drawn aside, and the cook threw the pancake over the bar towards the door, whereupon all
the boys scrambled for it. Of late years only a few—one representing each form chosen by
the scholars themselves—have taken part in the scramble. Going forward, the cook hurls the
pancake aloft in the direction of the bar. If it goes clean over, the selected boys make a wild
rush for it in an endeavour to catch it whole, and usually failing, then struggle for it on the
floor. The one who secures it, or the biggest portion, is entitled to a guinea. The scrimmage is
known as the ‘greeze.’” To all appearance there is no great difference in the ceremony as
contrasted with that of 1790, but the advent of an Abbey functionary is somewhat peculiar.
The Eton custom is thus referred to by Sir Henry Ellis:—”The manuscript in the British
Museum, ‘Status Scholae Etonensis, A.D. 1560,’ mentions a custom of that school on Shrove
Tuesday, of the boys being allowed to play from eight o’clock for the whole day; and of the
cook’s coming in and fastening a pancake to a crow, which the young crows are calling upon,
near it, at the school door. ‘Die Martis Carnis-privii luditur ad horam octavam in totum diem:
venit Coquus, affigit laganum Cornici, juxta illud pullis Corvorum invocantibus eum, ad ostium
scholae.’ The crows generally have hatched their young at this season.”
A modern writer claims that pancakes as a food were first made in Catholic days to use up
the eggs and lard that were interdicted during Lent; and because pancakes were an excellent
stay to the appetite while the faithful had to wait long hours in church to be shrived by the
priest in the confessional. Food made from stale eggs and interdicted lard was no doubt of a
quality more useful for sport than digestion, but we shall have to look elsewhere for the origin
of the throwing. Is it not to be found in the other sports which marked the old-time Pancake
Tuesday?—the cock-throwing, the chasing, the general horse play? Here is a picture of the
festivities over 170 years ago:—
Page 14
“Battering with massive weapons a cock tied to a stake, is an annual diversion,” says an
essayist in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1737), “that for time immemorial has prevailed in this
island.” A cock has the misfortune to be called in Latin by the same word which signifies a
Frenchman. “In our wars with France, in former ages, our ingenious forefathers,” says he,
“invented this emblematical way of expressing their derision of, and resentment towards that
nation; and poor Monsieur at the stake was pelted by men and boys in a very rough and hostile
manner.” He instances the same thought at Blenheim House, where, over the portals, is
finely carved in stone the figure of a monstrous lion tearing to pieces a harmless cock, which
may be justly called a pun in architecture. “Considering the many ill consequences,” the
essayist goes on to observe, “that attend this sport, I wonder it has so long subsisted among
us. How many warm disputes and bloody quarrels has it occasioned among the surrounding
mob! Numbers of arms, legs, and skulls have been broken by the missive weapons designed
as destruction to the sufferer in the string. It is dangerous in some places to pass the streets
on Shrove Tuesday; ‘tis risking life and limbs to appear abroad that day. It was first introduced
by way of contempt to the French, and to exasperate the minds of the people against that
nation. ‘Tis a low, mean expression of our rage, even in time of war.”
One part of this extract is singularly corroborated by a passage in the Newcastle Courant for
March 15th, 1783. “Leeds, March 11th, 1783: Tuesday se’nnight, being Shrove-tide, as a person
was amusing himself, along with several others, with the barbarous custom of throwing a
cock, at Howdon Clough, near Birstall, the stick pitched upon the head of Jonathan Speight, a
youth about thirteen years of age, and killed him on the spot. The man was committed to York
Castle on Friday.”
The following from an old London newspaper shews that the sport of cock-throwing was then
declining. The London Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, March 7th, 1759, says: “Yesterday being
Shrove Tuesday, the orders of the justices in the City and Liberty of Westminster were so well
observed that few cocks were seen to be thrown at, so that it is hoped this barbarous custom
will be left off.”
Now “throwing” was thus the spirit of the day in the old period; if they had not had enough fun
from throwing at cocks, they pelted prostitutes and hounded them round the town. We can
only conclude that throwing the pancake was a sort of kitchen expression of the “sport” of the
(6) GOOD FRIDAY: Hot Cross Buns.
Every Good Friday morning the baker does a brisk business in hot cross buns, probably with
little interest in the origin of the custom, his eye being rather upon the number sold and the
accruing profits. There are three points to be considered: they are the three words themselves
—buns, cross, and hot. The last mentioned seems to be a mark of modern taste and
haste, for in past centuries they were “cross buns” pure and simple. To eat them piping hot
out of the oven is an innovation of comparatively recent date. The sign of the Cross is easily
accounted for, seeing it was part and parcel of the ritual of Roman Catholic worship.
In a curious and rare book, entitled The Canterburian’s Self-Conviction (1640), in the Scottish
dialect, no place or printer’s name to assist identification, is this passage: “They avow that
signing with the signe of the Cross at rysing or lying downe, at going out or coming in, at
lighting of candles, closing of windowes, or any such action, is not only a pious and profitable
Page 15
ceremonie, but a very apostolick tradition.”
Pennant, in his Welsh MS., says: “At the delivery of the bread and wine at the Sacrament,
several, before they receive the bread or cup, though held out to them, will flourish a little with
their thumb, something like making the figure of the Cross. They do it (the women mostly)
when they say their prayers on their first coming to church.”
Dalrymple, in his Travels in Spain, says that there “not a woman gets into a coach to go a
hundred yards, nor a postilion on his horse, without crossing themselves. Even the tops of
tavern bills and the directions of letters are marked with Crosses.”
Among the Irish, when a woman milks her cow, she dips her fingers into the milk, with which
she crosses the beast, and piously ejaculates a prayer, saying, “Mary and our Lord preserve
thee, until I come to thee again.”
But the origin of “buns” presents a little more difficulty. Hutchinson, in his History of
Northumberland, following Mr Bryant’s Antient Mythology, derives the Good Friday Bun from
the sacred Cakes which were offered at the Arkite Temples, styled Boun, and presented every
seventh day.
Mr Bryant has also the following passage on this subject:—”The offerings which people in
ancient times used to present to the Gods were generally purchased at the entrance of the
Temple; especially every species of consecrated bread, which was denominated accordingly.
One species of sacred bread which used to be offered to the Gods, was of great antiquity,
and called Boun. The Greeks, who changed the Nu final into a Sigma, expressed it in the
nominative Bous, but in the accusative more truly Boun. Hesychius speaks of the Boun, and
describes it a kind of cake with a representation of two horns. Julius Pollux mentions it after
the same manner, a sort of cake with horns. Diogenes Laertius, speaking of the same offering
being made by Empedocles, describes the chief ingredients of which it was composed. ‘He
offered one of the sacred Liba, called a Bouse, which was made of fine flour and honey.’ It is
said of Cecrops that he first offered up this sort of sweet bread. Hence we may judge of the
antiquity of the custom from the times to which Cecrops is referred. The prophet Jeremiah
takes notice of this kind of offering when he is spealing of the Jewish women at Pathros, in
Egypt, and of their base idolatry; in all which their husbands had encouraged them. The
women, in their expostulation upon his rebuke, tell him: ‘Did we make her cakes to worship
her?’ Jerem. xliv. 18, 19; vii. 18. “Small loaves of bread,” Mr Hutchinson observes, “peculiar in
their form, being long and sharp at both ends, are called Buns.” These he derives as above,
and concludes: “We only retain the name and form of the Boun, the sacred uses are no
It would appear, therefore, as if we have to thank some Pagan custom for this Good Friday
habit of eating hot cross buns, a custom which, like many others, was taken over by the
Church and Christianised. In these days the religious significance has been completely lost,
and the cross bun is no longer emblematical of a crucified God. It is an ecclesiastical remainder
which has become a social habit.
Page 16
In some parts of the country it used to be thought, probably is still thought, wise to retain a
loaf baked on Good Friday, under the impression that it acts as a charm and a medicinal
cure. A writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1867) says on the subject of Suffolk superstitions:
—”Calling at a cottage one day I saw a small loaf hanging up oddly in a corner of the
house. I asked why it was placed there, and was told it was a Good Friday loaf—a loaf baked
on Good Friday; that it would never grow mouldy (and on inspecting it I certainly found it very
dry) and that it was very serviceable against some diseases, the bloody flux being mentioned
as an example. Some weeks afterwards I called again, with a friend, at the same house, and
drew his attention to the loaf which was hanging in its accustomed corner. The owner of the
house endeavoured to take the loaf down gently, but failing in the attempt, he gave a violent
pull, and the precious loaf to his dismay was shivered to atoms; but in the catastrophe gave
us further proofs of its extraordinary dryness. The old man collected the fragments and hung
them up in a paper bag with all the more reverence on account of the good which the loaf, as
he alleged, had done his son. The young man, having been seized with a slight attack of
English cholera in the summer, secretly ‘abscinded’ and ate a piece of the loaf, and when his
family expressed astonishment at his rapid recovery, he explained the mystery by declaring
that he had eaten of the Good Friday loaf, and had been cured by it.”
This is a curious instance of a religious festival day being regarded as able to impart a peculiar
consecration to material substances. That the bread should not become mouldy is easily
explained by its position; that it should cure cholera is just as easily understood, for the cure
was faith-healing—nothing more, nothing less.
On Good Fridays at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Smithfield, there is a quaint ceremony conducted
on a flat tombstone in the churchyard. A churchwarden places twenty-one new sixpences
on the tombstone, and twenty-one widows come forward one by one, kneel, and pick
up the coins. Afterwards each widow is presented with 2/6. The origin of this ceremony is said
to be unknown, although it seems hardly likely that money should be paid out year by year
without even a tradition as to its commencement. The surmise that the person who lies buried
beneath the tombstone left money to be spent in this way—see Sir Benjamin Stone’s remarks
in his Pictures of National Life and History—only makes the absence of details all the more
By the law concerning holidays made in the time of King Alfred the Great, it was appointed
that the week after Easter should be kept holy. From this we might safely presume on the true
intention of the Church, namely a time of rejoicing in the spiritual sense. But in the long run
rejoicing tends to assume one form, i.e. social festivity. Belithus tells us it was customary in
some churches for the Bishops and Archbishops themselves to play with the inferior clergy at
hand ball, and this, as Durand asserts, even on Easter Day itself. The Roman Church certainly
erected a standard on Easter Day in token of Christ’s victory, but it would perhaps be
indulging fancy too far to suppose that Bishops and governors of churches who used to play
at hand ball at this season, did it in a mystical way and with reference to the triumphal joy of
this season. With nations in the state of civilisation in which Europe was found in the early
Page 17
centuries it is not to be wondered at that an ecclesiastical fact, intended to be celebrated festively,
should assume the outward expression of an agricultural feast with all the boisterous
freedom of a pagan festival. For instance there was the custom of lifting or heaving at Easter,
a custom which took a long time to kill, and one where it is possible to trace stages of development
from seeming improprieties to respectability. In the Northern counties, as will be seen,
there was a roughness which is absent in the same custom in London and the South. A writer
in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1784) says:—
“Lifting was originally designed to represent our Saviour’s resurrection. The men lift the
women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of
each leg, and one or more of each arm near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal
position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the
lower class of people. Our magistrates constantly prohibit it by the bellman, but it subsists at
the end of the town; and the women have of late years converted it into a money job. I
believe it is chiefly confined to these Northern counties.”
The following extract is from the Public Advertiser for Friday, April 13th, 1787:—
“The custom of rolling down Greenwich-hill at Easter is a relique of old City manners, but
peculiar to the metropolis. Old as the custom has been, the counties of Shropshire, Cheshire,
and Lancashire boast one of equal antiquity, which they call Heaving, and perform with the
following ceremonies, on the Monday and Tuesday in the Easter week. On the first day, a
party of men go with a chair into every house to which they get admission, force every female
to be seated in their vehicle, and lift them up three times, with loud huzzas. For this they
claim the reward of a chaste salute, which those who are too coy to submit to may get
exempted from by a fine of one shilling, and receive a written testimony, which secures them
from a repetition of the ceremony for that day. On the Tuesday the women claim the same
privilege, and pursue their business in the same manner, with this addition—that they guard
every avenue to the town, and stop every passenger, pedestrian, equestrian or vehicular.”
That it was not entirely confined, however, to the Northern counties, may be gathered from
the following letter, which Mr Brand received from a correspondent of great respectability in
“Dear Sir—Having been a witness lately to the exercise of what appeared to me a very curious
custom at Shrewsbury, I take the liberty of mentioning it to you, in the hope that amongst
your researches you may be able to give some account of the ground or origin of it. I was sitting
alone last Easter Tuesday at breakfast at the Talbot in Shrewsbury, when I was surprised
by the entrance of all the female servants of the house handing in an arm chair, lined with
white, and decorated with ribbons and favours of different colours. I asked them what they
wanted? Their answer was, they came to heave me. It was the custom of the place on that
morning; and they hoped I would take a seat in their chair. It was impossible not to comply
with a request very modestly made, and to a set of nymphs in their best apparel, and several
of them under twenty. I wished to see all the ceremony, and seated myself accordingly. The
group then lifted me from the ground, turned the chair about, and I had the felicity of a salute
from each. I told them I supposed there was a fee due upon the occasion, and was answered
in the affirmative; and, having satisfied the damsels in this respect, they withdrew to heave
others. At this time I had never heard of such a custom; but on inquiry, I found that on Easter
Monday, between nine and twelve, the men heave the women in the same manner as on the
Tuesday, between the same hours, the women heave the men. I will not offer any conjecture
Page 18
on the ground of the custom, because I have nothing like data to go upon; but if you should
happen to have heard anything satisfactory respecting it, I should be highly gratified by your
mentioning it. I have the honour to be, with much respect, Sir,
Your obedient and faithful servant,
Basinghall Street,
May 7, 1799.”
But lifting was only one of the sports of old Eastertide. There were games on land and water,
and much eating and drinking, indeed it was a season not kept holy but devoted entirely to
merriment. Such are the origins of our own Easter vacations, when for a short spell we visit
the seaside and prepare for the work of an arduous summer. To some people the absence of
picturesque usage and ceremony is an irreparable loss; to others the absence of vulgar customs
and general horse play is a testimony to the advance of civilisation. Certainly it is a pity
to lose the picturesque, but on the whole there is more gain than loss in the sober and sombre
Easter vacation of to-day as compared with the rollicking past.
Hasted, in his History of Kent, speaking of Biddenden, tells us that “twenty acres of land,
called the Bread and Cheese Land, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the
yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter
Sunday, in the afternoon, in six hundred cakes, each of which have the figures of two women
impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and two hundred and seventy
loaves, weighing three pounds and a half a-piece, to which latter is added one pound
and a half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time. There is a vulgar
tradition in these parts that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being
two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they
were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth
seems to be that it was the gift of two maidens of the name of Preston—and that the print of
the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent
two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction. An engraving of
one of these cakes will be found in Hone’s Every Day Book.”
These cakes or loaves are still given out on Easter Sunday, and in Sir Benjamin Stone’s
Pictures of National Life and History there is a photograph of the people receiving their cakes.
The Easter egg is quite as important an item to the modern manufacturer of toys and sweetmeats
as it was to the ancient religious devotee, who believed that eggs laid on Good Friday
could be kept all the year, simply because the day itself exercised some charm on the products
of the farmyard. But why an egg? and why Easter? Why is a Christmas egg of no
account at all? Gébélin, author of The Religious History of the Calendar, answers these questions
by saying that all the nations of antiquity—the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Greeks,
Gauls, and others—regarded the egg as an emblem of the Universe—a work of the supreme
Divinity. Easter was the time of the solar New Year—the day of the renewal of all things—the
incubation of Nature. The colouring and ornamentation of Easter eggs seems to have been
part of the original custom, and was taken over by the Church, who used red to denote the
Page 19
blood of Christ. The following statement from Emilianne’s Romish Monks and Priests is interesting:

“On Easter Eve and Easter Day, all the heads of families send great chargers, full of hard
eggs, to the Church to get them blessed, which the priests perform by saying several appointed
prayers, and making great signs of the Cross over them, and sprinkling them wilh holy
water. The priest, having finished the ceremony, demands how many dozen eggs there be in
every bason?” . . . “These blest eggs have the virtue of sanctifying the entrails of the body,
and are to be the first fat or fleshy nourishment they take after the abstinence of Lent. The
Italians do not only abstain from flesh during Lent, but also from eggs, cheese, butter, and all
white meats. As soon as the eggs are blessed, every one carries his portion home, and
causeth a large table to be set in the best room in the house, which they cover with their best
linen, all bestrewed with flowers, and place round about it a dozen dishes of meat, and the
great charger of eggs in the midst. ‘Tis a very pleasant sight to see these tables set forth in
the houses of great persons, when they expose on side-tables (round about the chamber) all
the plate they have in the house, and whatever else they have that is rich and curious, in
honour of their Easter eggs, which of themselves yield a very fair show, for the shells of them
are all painted with divers colours and gilt. Sometimes they are no less than twenty dozen in
the same charger, neatly laid together in the form of a pyramid. The table continues in the
same posture, covered, all the Easter week, and all those who come to visit them in that time
are invited to eat an Easter egg with them, which they must not refuse.”
As in the case of hot cross buns, the emblem and the religious idea have become obscured,
and this pagan-Christian relic survives only as a social custom.
Knutsford enjoys the distinction of celebrating the custom of crowning the May Queen with an
enthusiasm, an efficiency, and a pictorial splendour which is more impressive than anything
else in the same sphere. Early in the morning the streets are “sanded” with brown and white
sand in preparation for the procession. All the old characters are present, and many new
ones are imported from time to time, whilst children in scores eagerly participate. The procession
starts from the Town Hall, and is nearly a mile long; at the end is the uncrowned Queen.
She is chosen by ballot by the ladies and gentlemen who are responsible for getting up the
demonstration, and the crown becomes her own property. Circuiting the town, the procession
goes to the Heath, where the actual crowning takes place, followed by games, morris dances,
and the usual festivities, all of which are performed before the throne—quite an imposing
structure in itself.
It is hardly necessary to trace the origin of May festivals in Europe, for all nations have
observed them as a mark of joy at the return of the earth to life again. But to show how quickly
some of the features of a celebration can drop out of sight, I need only reproduce the following
from The Morning Post, May 2nd, 1791. The paragraph says that “yesterday, being the
1st of May, according to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the
fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render
them beautiful. I remember, too, that in walking that same morning between Hounslow and
Brentford, I was met by two distinct parties of girls, with garlands of flowers, who begged
money of me, saying, ‘Pray, sir, remember the Garland.’” The distinctive feature in the festivities
at Knutsford, after the coronation, is the Morris dance; and as this is becoming more pop-
Page 20
ular elsewhere, not so much in the festival as in the social sense, it may be wise to say a
word or two on the origin of so interesting a custom. Authorities trace the dance to the
Moors—the word Morisco being Spanish for a Moor.
The Moorish or Morisco dance was, however, very different from the English form. Douce, in
his Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners, cites a passage from a play called
Variety (1649), in which the Spanish Morisco is mentioned, adding that this not only shows
the legitimacy of the term Morris, but that the real and uncorrupted Moorish dance was to be
found in Spain under the name of Fandango. The Spanish Morrice was also danced at puppet
shows by a person habited like a Moor, with castagnets; and Junius has informed us that
the Morris dancers usually blackened their faces with soot, that they might the better pass for
Moors. Douce goes on to say that “it has been supposed that the Morris Dance was first
brought into England in the time of Edward the Third, when John of Gaunt returned from
Spain (see Peck’s Memoirs of Milton P. 135), but it is much more probable that we had it from
our Gallic neighbours, or even from the Flemings. Few, if any, vestiges of it can be traced
beyond the time of Henry the Seventh, about which time, and particularly in that of Henry the
Eighth, the Churchwardens’ accounts in several parishes afford materials that throw much
light on the subject, and show that the Morris Dance made a very considerable figure in the
parochial festivals.”
“We find also that other festivals and ceremonies had their Morris, as: Holy Thursday; the
Whitsun Ales; the Bride Ales or Weddings; and a sort of Play, or Pageant, called the Lord of
Misrule. Sheriffs, too, had their Morris Dance.”
“The May Games of Robin Hood,” it is observed, “appear to have been principally instituted
for the encouragement of archery, and were generally accompanied by Morris dancers, who,
nevertheless, formed but a subordinate part of the ceremony. It is by no means clear that, at
any time, Robin Hood and his companions were constituent characters in the Morris. In
Lancham’s Letter from Kenilworth, or Killingworth Castle, a Bride Ale is described, in which
mention is made of ‘a lively Moris dauns, according to lite auncient manner: six dauncerz,
Mawd Marion, and the fool.’”
Modern Morris dances are sometimes criticised as to an alleged defect in the number of constituent
characters, but it is clear no specific number is necessary, although Maid Marian and
the fool are probably as important as any.
On May 8th every year the inhabitants of Helston celebrate the return of Spring by what is
known as the “Furry Dance,” to the accompaniment of a quaint horn-pipe tune. A ballad is
also sung, and the opening verse is:—
Robin Hood and Little John.
They both are gone to the fair, O,
And me to the merry green wood,
To see what they do there, O.
And for to chase, O
To chase the buck and doe,
With Hal-and-Tow,
Jolly rumble, O.
Page 21
At dawn a band marches through the town, and soon the young people begin to dance in the
streets. The “Furry Dance” itself does not “happen” until about 1 p.m. The band begins to play
the horn-pipe tune, and the couples trip to the nearest house, waltz through it, and out into
the next house, through that, and so on to the next. The band itself actually goes through the
houses. There were other ceremonies on Furry Day in bygone years, but the dance alone
now survives.
Writing in 1790 a correspondent of The Gentleman’s Magazane says:—” At Helstone, a genteel
and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the eighth of May to
revelry (festive mirth, not loose jollity). It is called the Furry Day, supposed Flora’s Day; not, I
imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that
goddess, but rather from the garlands commonly worn on that day. In the morning, very early,
some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums, or other noisy instruments, disturbing
their sober neighbours; if they find any person at work, make him ride on a pole, carried
on men’s shoulders, to the river, over which he is to leap in a wide place, if he can; if he
cannot, he must leap in, for leap he must, or pay money. About 9 o’clock they appear before
the school, and demand a holiday for the Latin boys, which is invariably granted; after which
they collect money from house to house. About the middle of the day they collect together, to
dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle, playing a particular tune,
which they continue to do till it is dark. This they call a ‘Faddy.’ In the afternoon the gentility
go to some farm-house in the neighbourhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc., and return in a
Morris dance to the town, where they form a Faddy, and dance through the streets till it is
dark, claiming a right of going through any person’s house, in at one door and out at the
other. And here it formerly used to end, and the company of all kinds to disperse quietly to
their several habitations; but latterly corruptions have in this, as in other matters, crept in by
degrees. The ladies, all elegantly dressed in white muslins, are now conducted by their partners
to the ball-room, where they continue their dance till supper-time; after which they all
faddy it out of the house, breaking off by degrees to their respective houses. The mobility imitate
their superiors, and also adjourn to the several public-houses, where they continue their
dance till midnight. It is, upon the whole, a very festive, jovial, and withal so sober, and, I
believe, singular custom; and any attempt to search out the original of it, inserted in one of
your future Magazines, will very much please and gratify DURGAN.”
The “original” of it is still wanting—and likely to be. It is one of those obscurities which must
be sought, if sought at all, in the local genius of the people.
Readers of the Old Testament are well acquainted with the condemnation passed upon the
worship of Baal, but some of them may be surprised to know that there is a custom in
Northumberland of lighting Baal fires on St. John’s Eve, which is a relic of ancient Baal worship.
The identity between the celebration of the pagan rite of old and of the modern remainder
is too obvious to be doubted. The ancients passed their children through the fire, and the
villagers at Whalton used to jump over and through the flames. Moreover, as will be seen
from the historical references to be given shortly, there is further ground provided for establishing
a genuine fire worship. Of the Whalton custom a modern writer says:—” As midsummer
approaches, much wood is marked out for the bonfire, sometimes with the consent of
local farmers. When this has been cut, it is brought into the village with a certain amount of
Page 22
formality. On the evening of the 4th July a cart is borrowed and loaded with branches of faggots,
some of the men get into the shafts, more are hooked on by means of long ropes, and
then, with a good deal of shouting and horn blowing, the lumbersome vehicle is run down into
the village.” The same site for the fire is chosen year after year, and it has never been
changed. The village turns out en masse to see the bonfire built. The children join hands and
dance round the stack of wood and branches until they are tired; youths and maidens also
dance a little distance away.
At dark a cry is raised: “Light her!” Soon the whole village is illuminated by a huge blaze, and
the Baal fire is at its height. No ceremony follows, but tradition says people used to jump over
the fire and through it, a tradition which is well founded, for we have strong evidence of such
practices in Scotland and Ireland.
In Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland (1794), the minister of Callander, in
Perthshire, speaking of “Peculiar Customs,” says:—”The people of this district have two customs,
which are fast wearing out, not only here but all over the Highlands, and therefore
ought to be taken notice of while they remain. Upon the first day of May, which is called
Beltan or Bal-tein-day, all the boys in a township or hamlet meet in the moors. They cut a
table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground of such circumference
as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in
the consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers
against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions, as
similar as possible to one another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company.
They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal until it be perfectly black. They put all
the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Every one, blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the
bonnet is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit is the devoted person who is to
be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they moan to implore, in rendering the year productive of
the sustenance of man and beast. There is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having
been once offered in this country as well as in the East, although they now pass from the act
of sacrificing, and only compel the devoted person to leap three times through the flames;
with which the ceremonies of this festival are closed.”
In the same work, the minister of Logierait, in Perthshire, says:—”On the 1st of May, O. S., a
festival called Beltan is annually held here. It is chiefly celebrated by the cowherds, who
assemble by scores in the fields to dress a dinner for themselves of boiled milk and eggs.
These dishes they eat with a sort of cakes baked for the occasion, and having small lumps, in
the form of nipples, raised all over the surface. The cake might, perhaps, be an offering to
some deity in the days of Druidism.”
Pennant’s account in his Tour in Scotland (1771) of this rural sacrifice is more minute. He tells
us that, on the 1st of May, in the Highlands of Scotland, the herdsmen of every village hold
their Bel-tein.
“They cut a square trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a
fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and bring,
besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky; for each of the company
must contribute something. The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by
way of libation; on that, every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine
square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their
flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person then
Page 23
turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and, flinging it over his shoulders, says: ‘This I
give to thee, preserve thou my horses;’ ‘This to thee, preserve thou my sheep;’ and so on.
After that they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals. ‘This I give to thee, O fox!
spare thou my lambs;’ ‘this to thee, O hooded crow;’ ‘this to thee, eagle!’ When the ceremony
is over, they dine on the caudle; and after the feast is finished, what is left is hid by two persons
deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they reassemble and finish the
reliques of the first entertainment.” “That the Caledonians paid a superstitious respect to the
sun, as was the practice among other nations, is evident,” says Ellis, “not only by the sacrifice
at Baltein but upon many other occasions. When a Highlander goes to bathe, or to drink
waters out of a consecrated fountain, he must always approach by going round the place
from east to west on the south side in imitation of the apparent diurnal motion of the sun. This
is called in Gaelic going round the right or the lucky way. And if a person’s meat or drink were
to affect the wind-pipe, or come against his breath, they instantly cry out disheal, which is an
ejaculation praying that it may go the right way.”
The Baal worship is even more pronounced in Irish history. In The Survey of the South of
Ireland we read something similar to what has already been quoted in a note from The
Statistical Account of Scotland. “The sun” (says the writer) “was propitiated here by sacrifices
of fire: one was on the 1st of May, for a blessing on the seed sown. The 1st of May is called
in Irish language La Beal-tine, that is, the day of Beal’s fire. Vossius says it is well known that
Apollo was called Belinus, and for this he quotes Herodian, and an inscription at Aquileia,
Apollini Beline. The Gods of Tyre were Baal, Ashtaroth, and all the Host of Heaven, as we
learn from the frequent rebukes given to the backsliding Jews for following after Sidonian
idols; and the Phenician Baal, or Baalam, like the Irish Beal, or Bealin, denotes the sun, as
Ashtaroth does the moon.”
In another place the same author says:—”It is not strange that many Druid remains should
still exist; but it is a little extraordinary that some of their customs should still be practised.
They annually renew the sacrifices that used to be offered to Apollo, without knowing it. On
Midsummer’s Eve, every eminence, near which is a habitation, blazes with Bonfires—and
round these they carry numerous torches, shouting and dancing, which affords a beautiful
sight, and at the same time confirms the observation of Scaliger:—’En Irelande ils sont quasi
tous papistes, mais c’est Papauté meslee de Paganisme, comme partout.’ Though historians
had not given us the mythology of the pagan Irish, and though they had not told us expressly
that they worshipped Beal, or Bealin, and that this Beal was the Sun and their chief God, it
might nevertheless be investigated from this custom, which the lapse of so many centuries
has not been able to wear away. . . I have, however, heard it lamented that the alteration of
the style had spoiled these exhibitions; for the Roman Catholics light their Fires by the new
style, as the correction originated from a pope; and for that very same reason the Protestants
adhere to the old.”
I find the following, much to our purpose, in The Gentleman’s Magazine for February 1795:—
”The Irish have ever been worshippers of Fire and of Baal, and are so to this day. This is
owing to the Roman Catholics, who have artfully yielded to the superstitions of the natives, in
order to gain and keep up an establishment, grafting Christianity upon Pagan rites. The chief
festival in honour of the Sun and Fire is upon the 21st of June, when the sun arrives at the
summer solstice, or rather begins its retrogade motion. I was so fortunate in the summer of
1782 as to have my curiosity gratified by a sight of this ceremony to a very great extent of
country. At the house where I was entertained, it was told me that we should see at midnight
the most singular sight in Ireland, which was the lighting of Fires in honour of the Sun.
Page 24
Accordingly, exactly at midnight, the Fires began to appear; and taking the advantage of
going up to the leads of the house, which had a widely extended view, I saw on a radius of
thirty miles, all around, the Fires burning on every eminence which the country afforded. I had
a farther satisfaction in learning, from undoubted authority, that the people danced round the
Fires, and at the close went through these fires, and made their sons and daughters, together
with their cattle, pass through the Fire; and the whole was conducted with religious solemnity.”
This is at the end of some Reflections by the late Rev. Donald M’Queen, of Kilmuir, in the
Isle of Skye, on ancient customs preserved in that Island.
The Roman Catholic bishop, Dr Milner, was opposed to the notion of the Irish having ever
been worshippers of Fire and of Baal. In An Inquiry into certain Vulgar Opinions concerning
the Catholic Inhabitants and the Antiquities of Ireland (Lond. 1808), he tells us that the “modern
hunters after paganism in Ireland think they have discovered another instance of it
(though they derive this neither from the Celtic Druidesses nor the Roman Vestals, but from
the Carthaginians or Phoenicians) in the fires lighted up in different parts of the country on the
Eve of St. John the Baptist, or Midsummer Day. This they represent as the idolatrous worship
of Baal, the Philistine god of Fire, and as intended by his pretended Catholic votaries to
obtain from him fertility for the earth. The fact is, these fires, on the eve of the 24th of June,
were heretofore as common in England and all over the Continent as they are now in Ireland,
and have as little relation with the worship of Baal as the bonfires have which blaze on the
preceding 4th of June, being the King’s birth-day: they are both intended to be demonstrations
of joy. That, however, in honour of Christ’s precursor is particularly appropriate, as alluding
to his character of bearing witness to the light (John vi. 7) and his being himself a bright
and shining light (John v. 35).”
It is only natural that a Christian apologist should take up this attitude, but the verdict of history
is against him; for, in addition to the testimony from Scotland and Ireland, there is similar
testimony from England to the actual survivals, one of which has already been noticed.
Borlase in his Antiquities of Cornwall tells us:—”Of the fires we kindle in many parts of
England, at some stated times of the year, we know not certainly the rise, reason, or occasion,
but they may probably be reckoned among the relics of the Druid superstitious Fires. In
Cornwall, the festival Fires, called Bonfires, are kindled on the Eve of St. John the Baptist and
St. Peter’s Day; and Midsummer is thence, in the Cornish tongue, called ‘Goluan,’ which signifies
both light and rejoicing. At these Fires the Cornish attend with lighted torches, tarr’d and
pitch’d at the end, and make their perambulations round their Fires, and go from village to village
carrying their torches before them; and this is certainly the remains of the Druid superstition,
for ‘faces praeferre,’ to carry lighted torches, was reckoned a kind of Gentilism, and as
such particularly prohibited by the Gallick Councils: they were in the eye of the law ‘accensores
facularum,’ and thought to sacrifice to the devil, and to deserve capital punishment.”
Echoes of the ceremony are also found in unexpected quarters:—Every Englishman has
heard of the “Dance round our coal-fire,” which receives illustration from the probably ancient
practice of dancing round the fires in our Inns of Court (and perhaps other halls in great
men’s houses). This practice was still in 1733 observed at an entertainment at the Inner
Temple Hall, on Lord Chancellor Talbot’s taking leave of the house, when “the Master of the
Revels took the Chancellor by the hand, and he, Mr Page, who with the Judges, Sergeants,
and Benchers, danced round the Coal Fire, according to the old ceremony, three times; and
all the times the antient song, with music, was sung by a man in a Bar gown.”
Page 25
In an old collection of Epigrams and Satires this leaping over the Midsummer fire is mentioned
among other pastimes:—
At Shrove-groate, ventor-point or crosse and pile
At leaping over a Midsummer bone-fier.
Or at the drawing clear out of the myer.
Leaping over the fires is mentioned among the superstitious rites used at the Palilia in Ovid’s
Fasti. The Palilia were feasts instituted in honour of Pales, the goddess of Shepherds on the
Calends of May. But fire ceremonies are not the property of one nation: they belonged to all,
and to-day in Japan it is possible to see the celebration of fire-walking. From Japan one may
travel to other Continents and see similar phenomena. As civilisation advances these customs
tend to die down; but there can be no doubt the few remaining fire festivals in this country
are the relics of a very old and superstitious worship, which our semi-savage forefathers
indulged in at a time when the sun and moon were not items of science, but Gods of a truth.
Christianity was responsible for most of the abolition of these curious practices. For instance,
the Sixth Council of Constantinople, A.D. 680, by its 65th canon (cited by Prynne in his
Histriomastix), has the following interdiction:—”Those Bonefires that are kindled by certaine
people on New Moones before their shops and houses, over which also they are ridiculously
and foolishly to leape, by a certaine antient custome, we command them from henceforth to
cease. Whoever therefore shall doe any such thing; if he be a clergyman, let him be deposed;
if a layman, let him be excommunicated; for, in the Fourth Book of the Kings, it is thus written:
‘And Manasseh built an altar to all the hoast of heaven, in the two courts of the Lord’s house,
and made his children to pass through the Fire,’ etc.”
Prynne—the Puritan stalwart—remarks on this:—”Bonefires therefore had their originall from
this idolatrous custome, as this Generall Councell hath defined; therefore all Christians should
avoid them.” And the Synodus Francica under Pope Zachary, A.D. 742, cited ut supra, inhibits
“those sacrilegious Fires which they call Nedfri (or Bonefires), and all other observations of
the Pagans whatsoever.”
A custom that has survived so long in particular places—though few—in England, occasions
the enquiry: How have they prevented the death which overtook the celebration elsewhere?
At Whalton the people are more a people to themselves than others, because they are
removed from train, tram, and motor bus. By and bye these agents of civilisation will reach
them, and the end will be in sight. A new generation with new ideas will spring up, and there
will be less disposition to gather the faggots and burn them as the darkness comes down.
Finally, Baal fire, even as a fire, will cease to be, and one more custom will pass into history.
Hocktide is a very old term used to denote the Monday and Tuesday in the week following the
second Tuesday after Easter. The origin of the term and the occasion which gave the festival
birth are keenly controverted by antiquarians, and the season itself is now all but forgotten:
indeed, if it were not for the fact that Hocktide still survives at Hungerford and other places, it
would, like many other customs of the past, find no notice in these pages; our standpoint
being that survivals of superstitions and customs are alone of popular interest.
First as to the word itself. Bryant says Hock—the German Hoch, and means “a high day.” But
what made it a high day? Spelman believed the word came from hocken—to bind. He says:—
Page 26
”Hoc day, Hoke day, Hoc-Tuesday, a festival celebrated annually by the English in remembrance
of their having ignominiously driven out the Danes, in like manner as the Romans had
their Fugalia, from having expelled their kings. He inclines to Lambarde’s opinion, that it
means ‘deriding Tuesday,’ as Hocken in German means to attack, to seize, to bind, as the
women do the men on this day, whence it is called ‘Binding Tuesday.’ The origin he deduces
from the slaughter of the Danes by Ethelred, which is first mentioned in the Laws of Edward
the Confessor, c. 35. He says the day itself is uncertain, and varies, at the discretion of the
common people, in different places.”
But as the massacre of the Danes took place on Nov. 13—the feast of St. Brice, hocktide
could hardly be celebrated in the earlier part of the year. And yet there is a persistent tradition
that the Danish massacre was the true origin of hocktide. For instance, Wise in his Further
Observations upon the White Horse (Oxford, 1742) has collected some interesting evidence.
He tells us that the Danes’ inhuman behaviour drew upon them at length the general resentment
of the English in King Ethelred’s reign; so that in one day (St. Brice’s Day A.D. 1001)
they were entirely cut off in a general massacre. And, though this did not remain long unrevenged,
yet a festival was appointed in memory of it, called Hoc Tuesday, which was kept up
in Sir Henry Spelman’s time, and perhaps may be so in some parts of England. (D. Henr.
Spelman, Glossarium, in voce Hoc-day.) I find this, among other sports, exhibited at
Kenilworth Castle by the Earl of Leicester, for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth, A.D.
1575. “And that there might be nothing wanting that these parts could afford, hither came the
Coventre men, and acted the ancient play, long since used in that city, called HOCKS-TUESDAY,
setting forth the destruction of the Danes in King Ethelred’s time, with which the Queen
was so pleas’d, that she gave them a brace of bucks, and five marks in money, to bear the
charges of a feast.” (Sir Will. Dugdale’s Antiq. of Warwickshire, fol. Lond 1656, p. 166.)
This is evidence of considerable weight, and, although there are other theories of the origin of
hocktide, they can produce nothing so substantial. As to the manner of celebrating the event
it may be said, in the words of Ellis, that “the expreission Hock, or Hoke-tyde, comprises both
days. Tuesday was most certainly the principal day, the dies Martis ligatoria. Hoke Monday
was for the men, and Hock Tuesday for the women. On both days the men and women, alternately,
with great merriment intercepted the public roads with ropes, and pulled passengers to
them, from whom they exacted money, to be laid out in pious uses. So that Hoketyde season,
if you will allow the pleonasm, began on the Monday immediately following the second
Sunday after Easter, in the same manner as several feasts of the dedications of churches,
and other holidays, commenced on the day or the vigil before, and was a sort of preparation
for, or introduction to, the principal feast.”
Some of the entries in the Lambeth Book recording hocktyde collections, are very quaint.
“1556-1557. Item of Godman Rundell’s wife, Godman Jackson’s wife, and Godwife Tegg, for
Hoxce money by them received to the use of the Church, xijs.” (Archaeol. vol. vii. p. 252.)
“1518-1519. Item of William Elyot and John Chamberlayne, for Hoke money gydered in the
pareys, iijs. ixd.
“Item of the gaderyng of the Churchwardens wyffes on Hoke Mondaye, viijs. iijd.”
The modern celebration at Hungerford is begun by a watercress supper at the ‘John o’
Gaunt’—(he being the patron of the place,) where his wonderful horn, the town’s most treas-
Page 27
ured possession, is kept. The supper consists of black broth, Welsh rarebit, macaroni, and
salad, with bowls of punch. Next morning the town crier blows the horn, and the Hocktide
court assembles. The jury is sworn, the names of freemen called, and officials elected. The
tything or tutti men receive from the constable a pole on the top of which is a tutti or posy.
They then go round the town collecting pennies from the men and kisses from the women. Of
course there is a lot of “fun,” and women make themselves scarce. The crier, poor fellow, is
only allowed to collect pennies: kisses are forbidden fruit. When this part of the celebration is
over, the Constable (who is chief ruler of the town) gives a luncheon and then holds the
Sandon Fee Court for regulating cattle feeding on the Marsh. After another dinner, court leet
is held. “Then comes the Constable’s banquet, at which his worship sits beneath the famous
John o’ Gaunt’s horn, suspended from the two tutti poles, and the principal feature of which is
a toast, ‘To the memory of John o’ Gaunt.’ This is drunk in solemn silence as the clock strikes
the midnight hour.” And Hocktide is over.
Do we offer floral tributes to Neptune in England to-day? Yes, at Abbotsbury on the 13th May
every year the children go round the village with large garlands, asking for gifts from the
inhabitants. When the round has been completed, a start is made for the beach, the flowers
are placed in boats, and put out to sea—not for Neptune to do as he likes with—for they are
brought back again, taken to the church, where a service is gone through. Here then is an
excellent instance of a Christianised pagan superstition, for the floral tributes, if Neptune is to
be worshipped, should be committed to the waves. The idea was to propitiate the god and
bring luck in fishing. In all probability the custom will linger for some years to come, but it is
already robbed of its original significance, and shows some signs of decay in consequence.
Maybe some modern pagan, interested in old customs, will induce the inhabitants to return to
the old rite of trusting the floral gifts to Father Neptune.
The visitor to London, be he a Britisher or a foreigner, cannot but be struck by the manner in
which the City Corporation keeps up some of the old customs, particularly those which are
carried out under the eyes of the public. Among them is the practice of “beating the bounds.”
Even the callous man of the City will pause in, say Coleman Street, as he sees a uniformed
servant of the Corporation stop at a certain point, utter a few words from a document, and
then wait a moment as two or three boys with bunches of long, thin rods belabour the walls or
doorways to their own satisfaction and the amusement of the crowd? What does it all mean?
It was a general custom formerly (says Bourne), and is still observed in some country parishes,
to go round the bounds and limits of the parish on one of the three days before Holy
Thursday, or the Feast of our Lord’s Ascension, when the minister, accompanied by his
churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a
blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish.
He cites Spelman as deriving this custom from the times of the Heathens, and that it is an
imitation of the Feast called Terminalia, which was dedicated to the god Terminus, whom they
considered as the guardian of fields and landmarks, and the keeper up of friendship and
peace among men. The primitive custom used by Christians on this occasion was for the
Page 28
people to accompany the bishop or some of the clergy into the fields, where Litanies were
made, and the mercy of God implored, that He would avert the evils of plague and pestilence,
that He would send them good and seasonable weather, and give them in due season the
fruits of the earth.
In Herbert’s Country Parson (1652), we are told that “the Country Parson is a lover of old customs,
if they be good and harmlesse. Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it,
because there are contained therein four manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for
the fruits of the field. 2. Justice in the preservation of bounds. 3. Charitie in loving, walking,
and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if
there be any. 4. Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that
time is or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to be present at the Perambulation,
and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it he mislikes, and reproves as uncharitable
and unneighbourly; and, if they will not reforme, presents them.”
This gives a fair notion of the custom in the middle of the seventeenth century. Sir John
Hawkins (1776) says in his History of Music, “it is the custom of the inhabitants of parishes,
with their officers, to perambulate in order to perpetuate the memory of their boundaries, and
to impress the remembrance thereof in the minds of young persons, especially boys; to invite
boys, therefore, to attend to this business, some little gratuities were found necessary;
accordingly it was the custom, at the commencement of the procession, to distribute to each
a willow-wand, and at the end thereof a handful of points, which were looked on by them as
honorary rewards long after they ceased to be useful, and were called Tags.”
In the Churchwardens’ Accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, 1682, are the following
£ s. d.
1 0 0 For fruit on Perambulation Day
For points for two yeres - - 2 10 0
The following extracts are from the Churchwardens’ Books of Chelsea:—
£ s. d.
“1679. Spent at the Perambulation
Dinner - - - - - - - 3 10 0
Given to the boys that were whipt - 0 4 0
Paid for poynts for the boys - - 0 2 0
(Lysons’s Environs of London,
vol. ii. p. 126.)
The second of these entries alludes to another expedient for impressing the recollection of
particular boundaries on the minds of some of the young people.
“Bumping persons to make them remember the parish boundaries has been kept up even to
this time (1830). See a trial on the occasion, where an angler was bumped by the parishioners
of Walthamstow parish, reported in the Observer Newspaper of January 10th, 1830.
He was found angling in the Lea, and it was supposed that bumping a stranger might probably
produce an independent witness of parish boundary. He obtained £50 damages.”
Page 29
The encroaching of boundaries is now an item against which it is superfluous to obtain protection,
and all that remains of a once important custom is the quaint journey round the City
of London previously referred to, and the repetition of similar functions in Linlithgow and
Selkirk, also the Tower of London.
W. C. Hazlitt quotes from The Times of 1888 an interesting account of the Penrhyn quarrymen:
—”Yesterday, being Ascension Day, work was entirely suspended at Lord Penrhyn’s
extensive slate quarries near Bangor. The cessation of work is not due to any religious regard
for the day, but is attributable to a susperstition, which has long lingered in the district, that if
work is continued an accident is inevitable. Some years ago the management succeeded in
overcoming this feeling, and in inducing the men to work. But each year there was a serious
accident, and now all the men keep at a distance from the quarries on Ascension Day.” It is
difficult to account for this attitude on the part of the quarrymen, except that they are, by
heredity and instinct, a superstitious race, well able to establish a local cult of their own.
There is admittedly some logic in the argument that since Ascension Day has been a time of
holiday festivity, at first religious, and afterwards secular, therefore work on that day savours
of sacrilege. But in view of the immunity from accidents in other callings, it is not remarkable
that fatalities should occur in somewhat dangerous occupations like quarrying.
Penrhyn is not alone in having a local superstition, or, perhaps, I ought to say, a custom
based on an old superstition. Sir Henry Ellis says Shaftesbury had its own method of celebration
(probably now discontinued), wherein the inhabitants paid a yearly tribute of acknowledgment
to the Lord of Gillingham Manor for the water supplied from his estate. The tribute took
the form of a calf’s head and pair of gloves. “Riding the Marches” is said to be still prevalent
in Scotland, and is celebrated on the day after Whitsunday fair by the Magistrates and
Burgesses, called the Landsmark, or Langemark Day, from the Saxon Langemark. At
Tissington, County Derby, the inhabitants were wont to decorate their well on Ascension Day.
The unsuspecting City man who, on the point of commencing his day’s work at 10 a.m. on
any April 1st, receives a ‘phone message from a friend desiring an immediate interview on
important business, gets out at once for the place of meeting, only to find that the friend
knows nothing about it, and has actually had no occasion to use the ‘phone at all up to that
moment. Then the City man remembers the date, and realise-s that he has been fooled. It is
still early, just 10:30 a.m., and he begins to take his revenge on other friends, until things may
be said to “hum.” But whilst the fun is fast and furious, very few of these practical jokers can
say how the custom of fooling on this day arose; and if one turns to his handy Encyclopaedia
for information, he will read that “it is of unknown antiquity.”
As might be expected, some writers attempt to trace the origin to a Nature feast—that of the
Vernal Equinox—and through Nature to a starting point in Christian history. Maurice, in his
Indian Antiquities (vol VI., p. 71) speaks of the first of April as the ancient feast of the Vernal
Equinox, equally observed in India and Britain. He goes on to say that the date was held as a
high and general festival, “in which an unbounded hilarity reigned through every order of its
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inhabitants; for the sun at that period of the year, entering into the sign Aries, the New Year,
and with it the season of rural sports and vernal delight, was then supposed to have commenced.
The proof of the great antiquity of the observance of this annual festival, as well as
the probability of its original establishment in an Asiatic region, arises from the evidence of
facts afforded us by astronomy. Although the reformation of the year by the Julian and
Gregorian Calendars, and the adaptation of the period of its commencement to a different
and far nobler system of theology, have occasioned the festival sports, anciently celebrated in
this country on the first of April, to have long since ceased; and although the changes occasioned,
during a long lapse of years, by the shifting of the Equinoctional points, have in Asia
itself been productive of important astronomical alterations, as to exact aera of the commencement
of the year; yet, on both Continents, some very remarkable traits of the jocundity
which then reigned, remain even to these distant times. Of those preserved in Britain, none of
the least remarkable or ludicrous is that relic of its pristine pleasantry, the general practice of
making April-Fools, as it is called, on the first day of that month; but this, Colonel Pearce
(Asiastic Researches, vol. 11., p. 334) proves to have been an immemorial custom among the
Hindoos, at a celebrated festival holden about the same period in India, which is called the
Huli Festival. ‘During the Huli, when mirth and festivity reign among the Hindoos of every
class, one subject of diversion is to send people on errands and expeditions that are to end in
disappointment, and raise a laugh at the expense of the person sent. The Huli is always in
March, and the last day is the general holiday. I have never yet heard any account of the origin
of this English custom; but it is unquestionably very ancient, and is still kept up even in
great towns, though less in them than in the country. With us, it is chiefly confined to the
lower class of people; but in India high and low join in it; and the late Suraja Doulah, I am
told, was very fond of making Huli Fools, though he was a Mussulman of the highest rank.
They carry the joke here so far as to send letters making appointments, in the names of persons
who it is known must be absent from their houses at the time fixed upon; and the laugh
is always in proportion to the trouble given.’ The least inquiry into the ancient customs of
Persia, or the minutest acquaintance with the general astronomical mythology of Asia, would
have told Colonel Pearce that the boundless hilarity and jocund sports prevalent on the first
day of April in England, and during the Huli Festival of India, have their origin in the ancient
practice of celebrating with festival rites the period of the Vernal Equinox, or the day when the
new year of Persia anciently began.”
Thus it would appear that All Fools’ Day is not a British or even a continental monopoly, for
the French “Poisson d’Avril” owes its existence to the same cause as our own. But why “All”
Fools’ Day? “All” is said by some authorities to be a corruption of “auld,” i.e. old, mention
being found in the Romish calendar of a “Feast of Old Fools.” (Auldborough, in Yorkshire,
now Aldborough, is always pronounced Allborough.) But this feast was held on January 1st,
and although removals of feasts were not unknown in the crowded state of the Roman calendar,
the theory that the ancient Druids were the old fools, whom the new Christians taunted
and set apart for a day of “mafficking,” is hardly tenable. The Christian interpretation is given
by Bellingen in his Etymology of French Proverbs. The word “poisson” in the phrase “poisson
d’Avril” is his starting point.
“Poisson,” he contends, is corrupted through the ignorance of the people from “Passion”—
and length of time has almost totally defaced the original intention, which was as follows: that
as the Passion of our Saviour took place about this time of the year, and as the Jews sent
Christ backwards and forwards to mock and torment him, i.e. from Annas to Caiaphas, from
Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate, this ridiculous
or rather impious custom took its rise from thence, by which we send about from one place to
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another such persons as we think proper objects of our ridicule.
This is rather too ingenious to be convincing. The most natural suggestion was made by Dr.
Pegge, Rector of Whittington, in The Gentleman’s Magazine for April, 1766. After discussing
the theories previously outlined, he says:—”Now, thirdly, to account for it; the name undoubtedly
arose from the custom, and this, I think, arose from hence: our year formerly began, as
to some purposes and in some respects, on the 25th of March, which was supposed to be
the Incarnation of our Lord; and it is certain that the commencement of the new year, at whatever
time that was supposed to be, was always esteemed an high festival, and that both
amongst the antient Romans and with us. Now great festivals were usually attended with an
Octave (see Gentleman’s Magazine, 1762, p. 568), that is, they were wont to continue eight
days, whereof the first and last were the principal; and you will find the 1st of April is the
octave of the 25th of March, and the close or ending, consequently, of that feast, which was
both the Festival of the Annunciation and of the New Year. From hence, as I take it, it became
a day of extraordinary mirth and festivity, especially amongst the lower sorts, who are apt to
pervert and make a bad use of institutions which at first might be very laudable in themselves.”
In the early days of England, when the nation was being organised for defence, it was incumbent
upon every town and village to hold an annual meeting to consider the defence of the
country against “all foreigners and enemies.” This regulation is maintained in the Laws of
Edward the Confessor. Other and later acts specify what the town must provide by way of the
implements of war. Of course these duties now devolve upon a government department, but
at Lichfield, in June, the city still holds its annual meeting, and boys are paraded, wearing the
suits of armour provided for defence against the invasion of Germany! The function is carried
out with dignity, as becomes the remembrance of an old custom, but when it is over the day
is given up to jollity of the true English type.
Lammas Day seems to have been a great day of accounts in early British history; it is still a
quarter day in Scotland. The origin of the word is much disputed. A writer in 1754 says:—”Our
ancestors distributed the year into four quarters, Candlemas, Whitsuntide, Lammas, and
Martinmas; and this was every whit as common as the present division of Lady Day,
Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas, Lammas was the specific day whereon Peter’s
Pence, most rigorously collected, was paid. It was thus a day of accounts, and ‘latter
Lammas’ means last day of accounts.” The 1st of August was called Lammas because, some
authorities say, the priests were then wont to gather their tithe lambs; others derive it from the
Saxon word Leffmesse i.e. bread mass, it being kept as a thanksgiving for the first fruits of
the corn. It is also called gule or yule of August in old almanacs. Mr G. L. Gomme in The
Antiquary has thus summarised the available facts:—”Lammas Day is properly the 1st of
August. The Act of George II., which established the new style in England, excepted the days
for the commencement of Lammas nights from the operation of the Statute. Lammas Day
under this operation is now the 13th of August. It is one of the four cross quarter days as they
are now called. Whitsuntide was formerly the first of these quarters, Lammas the second,
Martinmas the next, and Candlemas the last. Such partition of the year was once as common
as the present divisions of Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and ‘Xmas. Some rents are
still payable on those ancient quarter days in England, and they were not long ago, even if
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they do not still continue, general in Scotland. It is a day on which many quaint customs were
enacted; but the one great custom, which marks it as a link with a very remote past, is the
removal of the fences from many lands throughout the country, and the throwing open to
common pasturage of lands which, till this day from the end of last Lammastide, had been
used as private property. In fact it is not too much to say that in this custom of Lammastide
we have the key to the whole system of ancient agriculture. Wherever we find Lammas customs
in England, we may take it for granted that it is the last remaining link of a whole group
of customs which together make up the history of the primitive village community. It is curious
to observe with what varying degrees of integrity customs have lived in various parts of the
country. In some places, for instance, we may find only the bare mention of Lammastide, and
the throwing down of fences and the consequent opening of land to common. In other places
there is much more at the back of this Lammas customs—there is sufficient to enable us to
open the great book of comparative politics and to take our studies to that ancient Aryan land,
India, or even still further back in the history of primitive society, the native savages of Africa.”
Macrobius tells us that among the ancients the farmers, when they got in their harvest, were
wont to feast with their servants who had laboured with them in tilling the ground. So in later
centuries when Europe had, for the most part, become christianised, the Harvest Home was
a real celebration, master and servant sat at the same table, and, when the feasting was
over, they spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing. Such a custom has obviously
a natural origin in the gladness of having sown and reaped, and stored the corn in the
granary; there is an end of anxiety about sun, and weather, and blight, and all the ills affecting
him who is at the mercy of the heavens.
Not much is left to us of the old Harvest Home. Grain growing is nowadays part and parcel of
commerce; and railways and steamships have turned the channel of its romance from one of
poetry into science. In England the farmer is as glad as the Roman, or the Hebrew of old, to
gather in his crops under a benevolent sky, but he feels that the Harvest Home belongs to
another age, and so the church has taken the festival out of his hands. The modern Harvest
Thanksgiving service is about all that is left to us of one of the most natural and simple of
customs—one belonging to no nation alone, but belonging to man as man.
In a few places, however, there are remnants of the old festival still left, and among others
Whalton still holds the chief place. Here they still make and display the Kern Baby. A photograph
of a recent baby is given in Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures. Kern, or Cheorn, is said to
come from the Icelandic Kirna—the feast of harvest home, so called because a churnful of
cream formed an important part of the entertainment. Thus Scott in Marmion says:—
His rustic Kirn’s loud revelry.
The Kern baby is an image dressed up with corn and carried before the reapers to the harvest
home. This derivation is rather fanciful, and the most obvious explanation is that Kern is
a corruption of corn. Hutchinson in his History of Northumberland is of this opinion.
“An old woman, who in a case of this nature is respectable authority, at a village in
Northumberland informed me that, not half a century ago, they used everywhere to dress up
something similar to the figure above described at the end of Harvest, which was called a
Harvest Doll, or Kern Baby. This northern word is plainly a corruption of Corn Baby, or Image,
Page 33
as is the Kern Supper, which we shall presently consider, of Corn Supper. In Carew’s Survey
of Cornwall, p. 20 b, ‘an ill kerned or saved Harvest’ occurs.”
Speaking of the custom itself, he adds:—”In some places, an Image apparelled in great finery,
crowned with flowers, a sheaf of corn placed under her arm, a scycle in her hand, carried out
of the village in the morning of the conclusive reaping day, with musick and much clamour of
the reapers, into the field, where it stands fixed on a pole all day, and when the reaping is
done, is brought home in like manner. This they call the Harvest Queen, and it represents the
Roman Ceres.”
In Kent the custom took another form, that of the Ivy Girl, “which is a figure composed of
some of the best corn the field produces, and made as well as they can into a human shape;
this is afterwards curiously dressed by the women, and adorned with paper trimmings, cut to
resemble a cap, ruffles, handkerchief, etc. of the finest lace. It is brought home with the last
load of corn from the field upon the waggon, and they suppose entitles them to a supper at
the expense of their employers.”
In Scotland, according to the Statistical Account (1797), the custom was to make a figure
called the Maiden. In Longforgan, Perthshire, it was “till very lately, the custom to give what
was called a Maiden Feast, upon the finishing of the Harvest; and to prepare for which, the
last handful of Corn reaped in the field was called the Maiden. This was generally contrived to
fall into the hands of one of the finest girls in the field, was dressed up with ribands, and
brought home in triumph with the music of fiddles or bagpipes. A good dinner was given to
the whole band, and the evening spent in joviality and dancing, while the fortunate lass who
took the Maiden was the Queen of the Feast; after which this handful of Corn was dressed
out generally in the form of a Cross, and hung up with the date of the year, in some conspicuous
part of the house. This custom is now entirely done away, and in its room each shearer is
given 6d, and a loaf of bread. However, some farmers, when all their Corns are brought in,
give their servants a dinner and a jovial evening, by way of Harvest Home.”
The tendencies of the Protestant Reformation were so distinctly averse to images of any
description that we must look to the quarrels of religious leaders for the cause of the decay in
Harvest Festivals. So far back as 1602 Newton, in his Tryall of a Man’s Owne Selfe, when
speaking of breaches of the Second Commandment, says:—”the adorning with garlands, or
presenting unto any image of any Saint, whom thou has made speciall choise of to be thy
patron and advocate, the firstlings of thy increase, as CORNE and GRAINE, and other oblations.”
Puritanism, and art, and poetry, do not dwell together.
Hallow Even is the vigil of All Saints’ Day, which is on the first of November. Christian history
presents a curious divergence of custom in regard to this Church festival; for whilst in
Catholic countries the
faithful turn their steps to the churchyard and place flowers on the graves of the departed, the
Protestant section, and that portion of the community known as worldly people, celebrate the
occasion by making merry and using various means to peer into the future. All Saints’ Day
being originally a day for remembering the souls of the departed, it is confessedly difficult to
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trace any connection between a pious instruction on the part of the Church, and the old (and
modern) practice of unmarried women, who use this day—or eve—to divine their matrimonial
bliss, or misery. But as with so many Church festivals the jollity and the seriousness often
went together, or the directly religious act preceded the merry-making; and in the course of
time the religious element grew weaker, whilst the secular element retained more or less its
vitality. Anyhow in the North of England the sanctity of Hallow Even became transmogrified
into “Nut Crack Night.” Girls anxious, or, shall I say, curious, to know the name of their husbands,
would place two nuts in the fire side by side, giving them names. If the fire caused the
nuts to burst and fly apart, the sign was distinctly bad; if they burned together, the omen was
decidedly good. Gay in his Spell thus refers to the custom :-
“Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name:
This with the loudest bounce me sore amaz’d,
That in a flame of brightest colour blaz’d;
As blaz’d the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ‘twas thy Nut that did so brightly glow!”
“In marriage ceremonies among the Romans the bridegroom threw nuts about the room for
the boys
to scramble. The epithalamiums of the classics confirm this, and Horace speaks of the use of
nuts in sports. They were not excluded from the catalogue of superstitions under Papal
Rome. Thus on the 10th of August in the Romish ancient Calendar I find it observed that
some religious use was made of them, and that they were in great estimation: Nuces in pretio
et religiosae.”
It is instructive to note how little influence the origin of this celebration has on the observance
of the custom. There is no question of Roman Catholicism versus Protestantism; no preaching
in churches against the papists; no defiance of Protestant practice. Gunpowder Plot is an
item familiar to every schoolboy who has read his history-book, but the religious significance
is a mere nothing compared with the fun of firing off fireworks. And I question whether even
that will last another century; for whereas once—not thirty years ago—every part of the countryside
would be alight with huge fires, one can now only note their slow decay; and the sale
of fireworks is not on the increase. Perhaps it is just as well. If the function is religious, it
should be religiously observed; if not, let it become what it has become—the one day in the
year when we agree to let off our squibs and crackers. “The search for Guy Fawkes” is still
kept up as a formal custom.
Brand does not appear to have noticed this interesting custom, and for the following paragraphs
I am indebted to Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures of National Life and History, with notes
by Michael McDonagh. Speaking of the ceremony at Knightlow Cross, he says:—”A tribute
which dates back for 1,000 years, and connects the present with that remote past, when the
central counties of England were for the most part a wild and uncultivated chase, is rendered
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on Knightlow Hill, near Dunchurch, Warwickshire, on the early morn of St. Martin’s Day.
Known as ‘wroth money,’ it is paid to the Duke of Buccleuch, as an acknowledgment of certain
concessions made by his ancestors on pain of a forfeit for every penny of 20S. or ‘a
white bull with red nose and red ears.’ Before dawn on St. Martin’s Day, representatives of
the townships which owe tribute, as well as crowds of spectators, wend their way to
Knightlow Hill from all points of the compass. There on the summit, and close to the Holyhead
Road, they gather round the base of an old cross. The Duke’s agent then reads out the name
of the parishes and hamlets which are called upon to make payments, whereupon the persons
responsible for such dues drop their coins into the hollow of a large stone. In all there
are 25 places which have to pay wroth money, the amount ranging from 1d. to 2s. 3-1/2d.
The whole amount due (only 9s. 4d.) is usually collected, though within recent years there
have been defaulters on several occasions. Once during the last century the prescribed
penalty for nonpayment was enforced. When the collection is completed and the Duke’s
agent has checked the names on the list, the company adjourn to the village inn, which by its
sign, the ‘Dun Cow,’ helps to perpetuate the legend of the slaying of the gigantic dun cow by
Guy, Earl of Warwick. Here breakfast is served at the Duke’s expense to those who have
made payment, and subsequently the whole company, long churchwarden pipes in hand,
drink his grace’s health in tumblers of rum and milk. . . . In an ancient charter preserved in
Broughton House, Northamptonshire—a charter which has only once been challenged, and
having then (in 1685) been confirmed, has since remained undisputed—wroth money is
merely declared to be a legal tribute for ancient privileges, the nature of those privileges not
being defined.”
Christianity became civilly established in the fourth century, and the festivals held in honour of
Bacchus and other heathen deities at the Christmas season of the year gradually fell into
decay. The primitive teachers of the Christian religion prohibited these scenes of festivity as
being unsuited to the character of their founder, but on the formation of a regular hierarchy,
supported by political power, the introduction of particular festivals, adapted to the respective
periods of the pagan ones, soon became general. Thus by adopting the obsolete feasts of the
Greeks and Romans, and adapting them to the most striking events in the lives of Christ and
his notable followers, the prejudices of the pagan worshippers were shaken, and numerous
converts obtained. Unfortunately these festival saint days at length became so numerous
under the Papal authority, that the days of the year were not sufficiently numerous for their
celebration. However, since the Reformation, the far greater portion have sunk into oblivion,
and are only known by referring to the old calendars of the Saints. Yet the principal ones
commemorated in honour of Christ are still retained, though not celebrated with the same festivity
and show as in former times. Among these Christmas Day may be considered the most
important. The first festival of this kind ever held in Britain, it is said, was celebrated by King
Arthur in the city of York, A.D. 521. Previously to this year the 25th of December was dedicated
to Satan, or to the heathen deities worshipped during the dynasties of the British, Saxon,
and Danish Kings. In the year 521 this chivalrous monarch won the battle of Badan Hills,
when 90,000 (?) of the enemy were slain, and the city of York was delivered up to him. He
took up his winter quarters there, and held the festival of Christmas. The churches which lay
levelled to the ground he caused to be rebuilt, and the vices attendant on heathenish feasts
were banished from York for ever. As if in memory of its origin this county, Yorkshire seems to
preserve the festivities of Christmas with more ancient hospitality than any other part of Great
Britain. But everywhere the spirit of Christmas festivity has been broken; the old customs die
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one by one, and Yuletide is now, much more a general holiday, with plum pudding, presents,
and paid bills as specialities, than anything religious and historic.
The custom of decorating churches, streets, and private houses with holly and evergreens at
Christmas still prevails among us; and in these decorations mistletoe occupies a place of
peculiar significance. Vergil compares the golden bough in Infernis to the misletoe, and there
is evidence that the use of this plant-parasite was not unknown to the ancients in their religious
ceremonies, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets Vergil was the acknowledged imitator.
It is certain that misletoe was held in high respect by the Northern nations of Europe,
the Celts and the Goths being distinctive in their veneration about the time of the year when
the Sun approaches the Winter Solstice. That the Druids in Britain regarded misletoe with a
religious eye is too well-known to need further remark; but they were accustomed to decorate
at ‘Xmas time with all kinds of green plants, and the Church took over this practice, in some
cases making an exception of the misletoe. Brand, however, is of opinion, although Gay mentions
the misletoe among those evergreens that were put up in Churches, it never entered
these sacred edifices but by mistake, or ignorance of the sextons; for it was the heathenish or
profane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites of Druidism, and it therefore
had its place assigned it in kitchens, where it was hung up in great state with its white
berries; and whatever female chanced to stand under it, the young man present either had a
right or claimed one of saluting her, and of plucking off a berry at each kiss. “I have made
many diligent inquiries after the truth of this. I learnt, at Bath, that it never came into church
there. An old sexton at Teddington in Middlesex informed me that some misletoe was once
put up in the church there, but was by the clergyman immediately ordered to be taken away.”
Over against this opinion must be put that of Stukeley in his Medallic History of Carausius,
where he mentions the introduction of misletoe into York Cathedral on Christmas Eve as a
remain of Druidism. Speaking of the Winter Solstice, our Christmas, he says: “This was the
most respectable festival of our Druids, called Yule-tide; when misletoe, which they called Allheal,
was carried in their hands and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous
advent of Messiah. This misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass,
called Celts, put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable
are these instruments found all over the British Isles.
“The custom is still preserved in the North, and was lately at York: on the Eve of Christmas-
Day they carry Misletoe to the high Altar of the Cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal
liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the
city, towards the four quarters of Heaven.”
The policy of the early Christian ecclesiastic seems to have been that of accepting prevalent
customs by giving them a Christian interpretation; but where a complete acceptance might
defeat his purpose, he drew a hard and fast line of separation. Thus Brand refers to the
Council of Bracara as forbidding Christians to deck their houses with bay leaves and green
boughs, but this prohibition extended only to their doing it at the same time as the Pagans.
The use of misletoe in churches, a Druid sacred plant, might easily injure the faith of the
members, so that its prohibition in some centres is easily understood. But an unusual plant,
once put to unusual and withal religious uses cannot easily lose its position in human ceremonial;
and when we find it in the home for osculatory purposes—the essence of the misletoe
idea to-day—we can without much imagination see how the change came about. Stow in his
Page 37
Survey of London supplies an interesting picture of ‘Xmas decorations in the past centuries.
He says that “against the Feast of Christmas every man’s house, as also their parish churches,
were decked with holme, ivy, bayes, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to
be green. The conduits and standards in the streets were likewise garnished; among the
which I read that in the year 1444 by tempest of thunder and lightning, towards the morning
of Candlemas Day, at the Leadenhall in Cornhill, a Standard of tree, being set up in the midst
of the pavement, fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmass to
the people, was torne up and cast down by the malignant Spirit (as was thought), and the
stones of the pavement all about were cast in the streets, and into divers houses, so that the
people were sore aghast at the great tempests.”
Bourne observes that this custom of adorning the windows at this season with bay and laurel
is but seldom used in the North; but in the South, particularly at our Universities, it is very
common to deck not only the common windows of the town, but also the chapels of the colleges,
with branches of laurel, which was used by the ancient Romans as the emblem of
Peace, Joy, and Victory. In the Christian sense it may be applied to the victory gained over
the Powers of Darkness by the coming of Christ.
The dustman, the turncock, the postman, and the tradesman’s boy expect their Christmas
boxes at Christmas time, but they could not explain the origin of the custom, and would not if
they could. It is a money collecting season for them, and the more they can rake in the better
they like it. A handful of silver is worth a good deal of book knowledge about Christmas boxes
in the past.
One writer says:—”The Romish Priests had masses said for almost everything: if a ship went
out to the Indies, the priest had a box in her, under the protection of some saint: and for
masses, as their cant was, to be said for them to that saint, etc. the poor people must put
something into the Priest’s Box, which was not opened till the ship’s return. The mass at that
time was called Christmas: the box called Christmas Box, or money gathered against that
time, that masses might be made by the priests to the saints to forgive the people the
debaucheries of that time: and from this, servants had the liberty to get box money, that they
too might be enabled to pay the priests for his masses knowing well the truth of the proverb.
‘No penny: no Pater-nosters’.” If this be the true origin, the modern custom appears to be a
strange perversion of the primary intention. But we find that barbers’ shops used to be supplied
with a box on the wall into which every customer put something; the presumption being
that these thrift boxes, as they were called, had no ecclesiastical purpose in view, their associations
being secular—even selfish, in a non-depreciatory sense. So also Gay in his Trivia
“Some boys are rich by birth beyond all wants,
Beloved by uncles, and kind, good, old aunts;
When Time comes round a Christmas Box they bear,
And one day makes them rich for all the year.”
Christmas boxing was apparently a youth’s prerogative in those days, just as it used to be in
the early nineteenth century.
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But it is possible to trace the custom beyond the border line of the earliest Roman
Christianity, to the Roman Paganalia instituted by Servius Tullius and celebrated in the beginning
of the year. An altar was erected in every village where persons gave money. The
apprentices’ boxes were formerly made of pottery, and Aubrey mentions a pot in which
Roman denarii were found resembling in appearance an apprentices’ earthen Christmas box.
Professor E. B. Tylor, in his Primitive Culture is of opinion that the customs of Yuletide reveal
a heathen if not invariably a solar origin. Christmas boxes—and of course Boxing Day is the
day when the boxes were opened and the money distributed—were a duplicate of Roman
gifts called strenoe. The practice of giving Christmas presents is of later date.
There seem to be a hundred origins of the word Yule according to the writers on popular
antiquities. The most ingenious is that of Bryant, who derives the Feast Juul or Yule from a
Hebrew word—Lile, Night. Lile, he adds, is formed from a verb signifying to howl, because at
that time, i.e. at night, the beasts of the forest go about howling for their prey. “In the Northern
counties, nothing is more common than to call that melancholy barking dogs oft make in the
night Yowling, and which they think generally happens when some one is dying in the neighbourhood.”
Christmas Day, in the primitive Church, was always observed as the Sabbath day, and like
that, preceded by an Eve, or Vigil. Hence our present Christmas Eve.
On the night of this eve our ancestors were wont to light up candles of an uncommon size,
called Christmas candles, and lay a log of wood upon the fire, called a Yule-clog, or
Christmas-block, to illuminate the house, and, as it were, to turn night into day. This custom is
in some measure still kept in the North of England.
The following occurs in Herrick’s Hesoerides:—
“Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merrie boys,
The Christmass Log to the firing:
While my good Dame she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your heart’s desiring.
“With the last year’s Brand
Light the new Block and,
For good successe in his spending,
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the Log is teending.
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“Drink now the strong beere,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that’s a-kneading.”
Christmas, says Blount, was called the Feast of Lights in the Western or Latin Church,
because they used many lights or candles at the feast; or rather because Christ, the light of
all lights, that true light, then came into the world. Hence the Christmas candle, and what
was, perhaps, only a succedaneum, the Yule-block, or clog, before candles were in general
use. Thus a large coal is often set apart at present, in the North, for the same purpose, i.e. to
make a great light on Yule or Christmas Eve. Lights, indeed, seem to have been used upon
all festive occasions, e.g. our illuminations and fireworks, on the news of victories.
In The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1790 a writer traces the Yule log to the Cyclops of
Euripides. (See Act i, sc i).
Should a City man of the present day meet another City man, and in the course of conversation
ask the question: “What is your lucky day?” there would be no surprise on the face of the
answerer. Perhaps he would shrug his shoulders, as if to say, “I have no theory on the matter,”
but the notion in itself would not be entertained as absurd. Most of us in our experience
have noticed, or we think we have noticed that certain days never bring any luck, rather otherwise;
and, following feeling instead of thought, we put off the inauguration of important
enterprises until a more convenient season. This attitude does not suggest mental feebleness
—it is an attitude taken up by some of the smartest men in commerce and finance. They
do not care a straw whether people laugh at them or not; their experience has indicated that
certain seasons, certain days, certain months, are never propitious; and without considering
other people’s opinions for one moment, they pursue their own course. One man I know
passed through several severe losses and difficulties, all of which occurred in the November
of the fatal years: nobody could convince him that every day in every November was not
dead against his interests, although he was in other respects of quite normal judgment. I am
of opinion there is no truth in the luck or unluck of days, but the truth of the superstition is not
the point. How did it originate: that is the question? And why does it persist? Before me I
have a sort of guide to luck (issued by a West End firm), dated 1904, where from the birthdate
is drawn up a list of days bound to be lucky and others bound to be unlucky; not only so
but it points out which hours are lucky, and which are not lucky. Scores of people bought
these guides, thereby showing the prevalence of the superstition within recent years.
Some writers have traced the evil influence to the day and others to the person and the day
together; that is, some days are bad for everybody, other days are bad for some people but
possibly good for others.
In Precepts, etc., left by William Lord Burghley to his Sonne, we read: “Though I think no day
amisse to undertake any good enterprise or businesse in hande, yet have I observed some,
and no meane clerks, very cautionarie to forbeare these three Mundayes in the yeare, which I
leave to thine owne consideration, either to use or to refuse; viz., 1. The first Munday in April,
Page 40
which Day Caine was born, and his brother Abel slaine. 2. The second Munday in August,
which day Sodome and Gomorrah were destroyed. 3. The last Munday in December, which
day Judas was born that betrayed our Saviour Christ.”
Quaint, if not humorous reasons are assigned for the existence of evil luck in the book
referred to, but in the following from Grafton’s Manual (1565) there is nothing but sheer dogmatism:

“The unlucky Days according to the opinion of the Astronomers are noted, which I have
extracted as follows:—’January 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 15, 17, 29, very unlucky. February 26, 27, 28,
unlucky; 8, 10, 17, very unlucky. March 16, 17, 20, very unlucky. April 7, 8, 10, 20. unlucky;
16, 21, very unlucky. May 3, 6, unlucky; 7, 15, 20, very unlucky. June 10, 22, unlucky; 4, 8,
very unlucky. July 15, 21, very unlucky. August 1, 29, 30, unlucky; 19, 20, very unlucky.
September 3, 4, 21, 23, unlucky; 6, 7, very unlucky. October 4, 16, 24, unlucky; 6 very
unlucky. November 5, 6, 29, 30, unlucky; 15, 20, very unlucky. December, 15, 22, unlucky; 6,
7, 9, very unlucky’.”
I imagine I hear the reader say “What of Friday?” Yes, no doubt, Friday has been regarded as
unlucky for ages, but surely the fact of the Crucifixion is enough to account for it? That sailors
who have no religion still hold to the habit of refusing to sail, is an item of no importance, for
all men are superstitious who have to deal with the great forces of Nature at first hand; forces
on whose will they are almost entirely dependent. In cases where those forces have been
brought more under control by steam power vessels, the superstition has decreased in proportion;
a “sailor” on a New York liner is not so troubled about starting from port on a Friday
as a sailor of the crew of a barque would be. The barque depends on wind and weather
entirely; the liner goes on, and although delayed by both, is not at their mercy.
John Gibbon prints the following epistle to himself. He was the eccentric author of Some
Memorable Remarques upon the 14th of October. It is a curious instance of Friday superstition:
—”A letter from Sir Winston Churchill, Knight, Father to the Right Hon. John, Lord
Churchill. I thank you for your kind present, the observation of the fatality of days. I have
made great experience of the truth of it, and have set down Friday as my own lucky day; the
day on which I was born, christened, married, and I believe will be the day of my death. The
day on which had sundry deliverances (too long to relate) from perils by sea and land, perils
by false brethren, perils of law suits, etc. I was knighted (by chance, unexpected by myself)
on the same day and have had several good accidents happened to me on that day; and am
so superstitious in the belief of its good omen that I chuse to begin any considerable action
(that concerns me) on that day.” Friday was a lucky day with Charles Dickens.
As to the extent of the Friday superstition, the following notice from the Scotsman (September
6 1900) will give some indication of its grip on the older people in rural districts:—
“A row of paupers’ houses, very neatly designed: had just been erected at Abaracle, Mr Rudd,
of Ardnamurchan, having advanced a considerable sum for building purposes to the Parish
Council on easy terms. Accommodation is provided for ten persons. A few days ago Mr H.
M’Pherson, Inspector of Poor, visited Aberbade in order to superintend the removal of the ten
selected female paupers to the new cottages. They all occupied houses which were in a
wretched state of disrepair, yet each of them resolutely and peremptorily refused to ‘flit.’ In
vain did the inspector dilate on the increased comfort and conveniences to be enjoyed in the
new dwellings. The aged dames were invincibly proof against all argument—nor did threats of
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compulsion and Sheriffs warrants have any terror for them. At length it was elicited that the
disinclination to remove was based simply on superstition. The day of the week happened to
be Friday; and it appears that to change quarters on that particular day constitutes a gross
and wanton violation of all the canons governing Highland ‘flitting.’ On discovering that the
perversity manifested by the old women was mainly attributable to conscientious scruples, the
inspector at once agreed to humour them, and the removals were postponed until the following
day, when they were accomplished without opposition or delay.” And as an instance of
rural superstition on the part of a young girl, I quote the following from Notes and Queries
“My wife recently advertised for a new maid in a local paper. A girl, a native of Devonshire,
applied for the situation and, appearing to be in every way suitable, she was engaged and
asked to come on a given date. That date happened to be on a Friday, and the girl positively
refused to enter on a new situation on a Friday. She said she would rather give up the place.
We had to submit, and she came to my house on a Saturday.—A. J. DAVY, Torquay.”
There are the days of which the careful heed,
Each human enterprise will, favouring, speed:
Others there are which intermediate fall,
Marked with no auspice and unomen’d all.
And these will some and those will others praise,
But few are versed in mysteries of days.
Now as a stepmother the day we find
Severe, and now as is a mother kind.
In the Every-Day Book for 1826, under the date of Easter Sunday, it is remarked that “the
coincidences by which legendary predictions (those of Nixon and Mother Shipton are referred
to) are sometimes fulfilled, are often curious. The present year may be said to witness the
accomplishment of one. It has been said—
‘When my Lord falls in my Lady’s lap,
England, beware of some mishap!’—
meaning thereby, that when the festival of Easter falls near to Lady-day (the 25th of March),
this country is threatened with some calamity. In the year 1818, Easter-day happened on the
22d of March, and in the November of that year Queen Charlotte died. In 1826, Easter-day
happening on the 26th of March, distress in the commercial world may be regarded as a fulfilment
of this prediction.” This prophecy by dates, though more general in character, is somewhat
akin to that known as “citation”—of which a curious instance is recorded in Spanish history.
Peter and John de Carvajal were, in 1312, condemned to death for murder, on circumstantial
evidence; and their sentence was, that they should be thrown from the summit of a
rock. Ferdinand IV., then King of Spain, resisted obstinately every attempt made to induce
him to grant the pardon of the condemned; who, while on the march to the place of execution,
solemnly called on God to witness to their innocence, and appealed to His high tribunal, in
presence of which they summoned the King to make his appearance in thirty days. His
Majesty laughed to scorn the summons; but nevertheless in a few days he fell sick, and
retired to a country residence to divert his mind and recover his health—and shake off the
remembrance of the summons, which seems to have taken an irremoveable hold upon him.
On the thirtieth day, however, he was much better; and, after showing much mirth and cheerfulness
in his conversation with the courtiers, and renewing his ridicule of the delusion that
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the citation of the Carvajals could have any effect, he retired to rest—and was found dead in
bed next morning. Many similar instances of citation to the other world are on record; notable
among them, George Wishart’s prophecy at the stake, that Cardinal Beaton, who had come
to gloat on his dying agony, would soon follow him by a violent death—though the prophecy
was probably suggested by the reformer’s knowledge of the secret plot against the Cardinal’s
life. Bacon’s judgment of such predictions and coincidences is no doubt, on the whole, a
sound one:—”My judgment is, that they ought all to be despised, and ought to serve but for
winter talk by the fireside. Though, when I say despised, I mean for belief. That that hath
given them grace, and some credit, consisteth in these things: 1st, That men mark when they
hit, and never when they miss; as they do also of dreams. 2d, That probable conjectures and
obscure traditions many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man,
which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect.
The 3rd and last (which is the great one), is that almost all of them, being infinite in number,
have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains merely contrived and feigned after the
event passed. It is, however, also worthy of notice that a genuine and solemn citation may
tend to work its own fulfilment in the minds of superstitious men, who by permitting the thing
to prey upon their own spirit, enfeeble the powers of life, and perhaps at the critical date
arouse thus some latent or dormant disease into deadly action.” This philosophy of days lucky
and unlucky seems to me to be a necessary and natural outcome of experience in those
instances where it is strongly developed. He who has a smooth career, minus great exaltations
and great depressions, will never notice a malefic influence on Thursdays which is
always absent on Saturdays, nor discover the promise that seems to lie in the virtue of a
Wednesday morning. But the man with ups and downs is almost certain to have his theories,
and to act upon them, unless he be essentially strong-minded enough to believe that thought
is master of every situation. From early ages men have been creatures of fear, and the
unlucky day is unfortunately one of the lingering testimonies to that fact.
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Courtship, prior to actual marriage, has been described as a biological preparation for nuptial
union, in addition to being a social custom. Some of us would prefer to call it a mental preparation;
for the fact that two people of opposite sex are drawn together is in itself some evidence
of biological fitness. But the social element concerns us here, and the engagement
ring seems to have had an interesting history. As an outward sign, rings have figured prominently
in marriage and pre-marriage rites from a very remote antiquity; but an engaged couple
in the old English period were accustomed to exchange rings; there was a gift from the
man to the woman and the woman to the man; the ring being an outward bond of fidelity
between the two. Prior to the exchange of rings, it was accounted sufficient if the contracting
parties broke a piece of gold or silver (each keeping a half), and drank a glass of wine. This is
seen in an old play called “The Vow Breaker” (1636), Act 1. Scene 1., where Young Bateman
and Anne are speaking:—
“Ba. Now, Nan, here’s none but thou and I; thy love
Emboldens me to speak, and cheerfully,
Here is a piece of gold; ‘tis but a little one,
Yet big enough to try and scale a knot,
A jugall knot on earth, to which high Heaven
Now cries Amen: say thou so too, and then
When eyther of us breakes this sacred bond,
Let us be made strange spectacles to the world,
To heaven and earth.
“An. Amen, say I;
And let Heaven loth me when I falsifie.”
Afterwards, on young Bateman’s return from the wars, during whose absence Anne has been
induced by her father to marry another person, Anne says, “I am married.”
“Ba. I know thou art, to me, my fairest Nan:
Our vows were made to Heaven, and on earth
They must be ratifide: in part they are,
By giving of a pledge, a piece of gold:
Which when we broke, joyntly then we swore,
Alive or dead, for to enjoy each other,
And so we will, spight of thy father’s frownes.”
And afterwards, Act iii. Sc. 1, Anne, seeing the ghost of young Bateman, who had hanged
himself for her sake, exclaims:
“It stares, beckons, points to the peece of gold
We brake between us: looke, looke there, here—there!”
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Sometimes a piece of money was broken, a practice referred to in Gays’s What d’ye call It?
“Yet, justices, permit us, ere we part,
To break this Ninepence as you’ve broke our heart.”
“Filbert (breaking the ninepence)—As this divides, thus are we torn in twain.”
“Kitty (joining the pieces)—And as this meets, thus may we meet again.”
The actual interchange of rings is seen in Shakespeare’s Twelth Night. The priest, who had
been privy to all that had passed, is charged by Olivia to reveal the circumstances, which he
does in the following lines:
“A contract of eternal Bond of Love,
Confirm’d by mutual joinder of your hands,
Attested by the holy close of lips,
Strengthen’d by interchangement of your Rings,
And all the ceremony of this Compact
Seal’d in my function, by my testimony.”
As to why or when the man refused to wear an engagement ring, there does not appear to be
any reliable information. Possibly the wearing of a marriage ring by the woman, and the masculine
aversion to visible signs of bondage, may have had something to do with it; at any rate
the cause must be sought in psychological sources rather than in anything purely social.
The York Missal and the Sarum Manual both enjoin the nuptial kiss, but it should be given in
church. It is expressly mentioned in the following line from the old play of The Insatiate
Countess by Marston:—
“The kisse thou gav’st me in the church here take.”
In some places it is still customary for the men of the marriage party to kiss the bride in
church; although an increasing respect for the altar prevents the event from taking place
immediately the benediction is pronounced, as was once the rule; if done at all, the kissing is
half furtively concluded in the vestry or in the home of the bride. Vaughan, in his Golden
Grove (1608), says that “among the Romans the future couple sent certain pledges one to
another which most commonly, they themselves afterwards being present, would confirm with
a religious kisse.” Kissing is a Caucasian habit; orientals being strangers to it. Lombroso discovers
its origin in maternal caresses from which it developed into feelings of trust and reverence.
If a child were to ask its mother who wore the first wedding ring, and the mother were to pass
the question on to the historian of social customs, the historian would have to confess not
only that he did not know, but that it would be impossible to assign even an approximate date
when such rings became a feature in social life. We know from Juvenal (Satire vi.) that the
Romans used such rings; we know that the Greeks used them as far back as we can trace;
they are found in Egyptian tombs; they appear to have been part of the customs of the earli-
Page 45
est civilisations we can trace. It was this “Heathen” origin of the wedding ring which well nigh
caused the abolition of it during the time of the Commonwealth.
The facetious author of Hudibras gives us the following chief reasons why the Puritans
wished it to be set aside:—
“Others were for abolishing
That tool of matrimony, a ring,
With which the unsanctify’d bridegroom
Is marry’d only to a Thumb,
(As wise as ringing of a pig
That us’d to break up ground and dig)
The Bride to nothing but her will,
That nulls the After-Marriage still.”
The ring is essentially emblematic, a point which is quaintly stated by Swinburne in his
Treatise of Spousals. “The first inventor of the ring, as is reported [he cites Alberic de Rosa in
suo Dictionar. v. Annulus], was one Prometheus. The workman which made it was Tubal-
Cain: and Tubal-Cain, by the counsel of our first parent, Adam, gave it unto his Son to this
end, that therewith he should espouse a Wife, like as Abraham delivered unto his servants
bracelets and earrings of gold. The form of the Ring being circular, that is round and without
end, importeth thus much, that their mutual love and hearty affection should roundly flow from
the one to the other as in a Circle, and that continually and for ever.”
History records variations in the use of certain fingers for wearing the ring. The Hereford,
York, and Salisbury missals direct the ring to be placed on the thumb first of all; then on the
second finger, the third, and afterwards the fourth, “where it is to remain.” A writer in the
British Apollo (1708) answers a question:—”Why is it that the person to be married is
enjoyned to put a Ring upon the fourth finger of his spouse’s left hand?” It is answered,
“There is nothing more in this, than that the custom was handed down to the present age
from the practice of our ancestors, who found the left hand more convenient for such ornaments
than the right, in that it’s ever less employed; for the same reason they chose the
fourth finger, which is not only less used than either of the rest, but is more capable of preserving
a Ring from bruises, having this one quality peculiar to itself, that it cannot be extended
but in company with some other finger, whereas the rest may be singly stretched to their
full length and straightness.
“Some of the ancients were of opinion, in this matter, that the ring was so worn because to
that finger, and to that only, comes an artery from the heart; but the politer knowledge of our
modern anatomists having clearly demonstrated the absurdity of that notion, we are rather
inclined to believe the continuance of the custom owing to the reason above mentioned.”
Bride-cakes originated with us by adoption from a Roman custom called confarreation, where
marriage was solemnly concluded in the presence of ten witnesses, a cake of wheat or barley
being eaten at the same time. Herrick in his Hesperides speaking to the bride says:—
“While some repeat
Your praise, and bless you, sprinkling you with wheat.”
It is difficult to trace the changes which mark the history of bride-cakes; at one period as the
Page 46
bride left the church wheat was thrown upon her head; in a later period the wheat has disappeared
altogether and we have bride-cakes, i.e. a supply of them at a single wedding—still
later we can trace the one cake as we know it to-day in all its elaborateness. The custom of
passing slices of cake through the wedding ring has gone out of fashion; although, we are
told, maidens still puts such slices under their pillows and dream of their lovers.
Bridesmaids seem to date from Anglo Saxon times, among whom, as Strutt informs us, “the
bride was led by a matron, who was called the bride’s-woman, followed by a company of
young maidens who were called the bride’s maids.”
In later times it was among the offices of the Bride Maids to lead the bridegroom to church, as
it was the duty of the bridegroom’s men to conduct the bride thither.
This has not been overlooked in the provincial Poem of “The Collier’s Wedding”:—
“Two lusty lads, well dressed and strong,
Step’d out to lead the Bride along,
And two young maids of equal size,
As soon the Bridegroom’s hand surprize.”
In these days the bridesmaid’s duties are confined solely to the bride, but the whole function,
past and present masculine as well as feminine, has its origin in the sympathetic instinct;
although, in the case of groomsmen, there are writers who can trace an origin in the notion of
defending the bridegroom against a rival who might carry off the bride. “In Sweden weddings
formerly took place under cover of night. Behind the high altar of the ancient church at
Husaby in Gothland, a collection of long lances with sockets for torches may yet be seen.
These were served out to the groomsmen on such occasions both for defence and illumination.”
A groomsman was thus a “bestman.” He was originally a bride-man—see Beaumont
and Fletcher’s play A Wife for a Moneth.
“My vertuous maid, this day ile be your bride-man.’
Sometimes he was a bride-knight, and it was his duty to lead the bride to church. The
changes which occurred in the course of centuries, whereby the duties of bridesmaids and
best man became what they are to-day, are due to the general advance in manners. Marriage
customs had many elements of extreme vulgarity in them, particularly on the masculine side;
and the developments of later years on the lines of simplicity and reticence are responsible
for the better position in which the modern bridesmaid and best man find themselves.
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It is accounted unlucky to be married in May. We seem to have got the superstition from the
Romans. Ovid says in his Fasti, lib v.:—
“Nec vidum taedis eadem, nec virginis apta
Tempora. Quae nupsit, non diuturna fuit.
Hac quoque de causa (si te proverbia tangunt),
Mense malas Maio nubere vulgas ait.”
But there is evidence of heresy during the long centuries of British history, and specified
dates in May are quoted as good for marriages.
In the Roman Calendar, so often quoted, several days are marked as unfit for marriages:
“Nuptiae non fiunt,” ie. “Feb. 11, June 2, Nov. 2, Dec. 1.” On the 16th of September, it is
noted, “Tobiae sacrum. Nuptiarum Ceremoniae a Nuptiis deductae, videlicet de Ense, de
Pisce, de Pompa, et de Pedibus lavandis.” On the 24th of January, the Vigil of St Paul’s Day,
there is this singular restriction, “Viri cum Uxoribus non cubant.”
In a most curious old Almanac for the year 1559, “by Lewes Vaughan, made for the merydian
of Gloucestre,” are noted as follow: “The tymes of Weddinges when it begynneth and endeth.”
“Jan. 14, Weding begin. Jan. 21, Weddinge goeth out. April 3, Wedding be. April 29, Wedding
goeth out. May 22, Wedding begin.” And in another Almanac for 1655, by Andrew Waterman,
mariner, we have pointed out to us, in the last page, the following days as “good to marry, or
contract a wife (for then women will be fond and loving), viz., January 2, 4, 11, 19, and 21.
Feb. 1, 3, 10, 19, 21. M arch 3, 5, 12, 20, 23. April 2, 4, 12, 20, and 22. May, 2, 4, 12, 20, 23.
June 1, 3, 11, 19, 21. July 1, 3, 12, 19, 21, 31. August 2, 11, 18, 20, 30. Sept. 1, 9, 16, 18. 28.
Oct. 1, 8, 15, 17, 27, 29. Nov. 5, 11, 13, 22, 25. Dec. 1, 8, 10, 19, 23, 29.”
It is to be feared, however, that British women will not listen to the counsels of Mr Waterman.
They have decided that May is a bad month to marry in, and they will not forego their opinions.
Of course, the superstition itself is sheer nonsense; there is not an atom of evidence to
prove that it is different from any other month as being malevolent towards matrimony. The
one reason why the superstition has held its course almost unbroken is that women would
abstain from marriage eleven months out of the twelve if tradition said the eleven were illstarred.
I have never met a man who did not smile at the notion. But once set a train of
superstitious thought agoing as to fate and fortune in marriage, and women will accept it
whole-heartedly. Perhaps the number of unhappy marriages is a silent factor in the game.
Throwing the old shoe was not always confined to weddings, though the custom nowadays
has come to be associated entirely with the going away of bridal couples. Authorities differ
concerning the origin of the practice, as well as of the exact meaning attached to it, but there
seems to be a general opinion that it has to do with some very ancient ceremony or rite in
connection with the transfer of property—woman being regarded as such among the nations
where the custom of such a ceremony is first found. There is also the possibility of its referring
to the time when the bridegroom carried off the bride by force, though this seems less
Page 48
It was in the sense of confirming a sale or exchange that the Jews understood the removal
and giving of a shoe or sandal. When the kinsman of Boaz consented to waive his claim upon
the parcel of land which Naomi would sell, in favour of Boaz, he “ drew off his shoe,” for “this
was a testimony in Israel.”
In a different sense the removal of a shoe marks the winding up of negotiations among the
laws and ordinances given in the book of Deuteronomy, where the widow who is refused marriage
by her husband’s surviving brother, is directed to “come unto him in the presence of the
elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot,” thus asserting her independence and heaping
upon him the blame for failure to comply with the law.
When the Emperor Wladimir proposed marriage to the daughter of Reginald, she refused him
with the words:
“I will not take off my shoe to the son of a slave.”
In Anglo-Saxon marriages the bride’s father delivered her shoe to the bridegroom, who
touched her on the head with it in token of his authority.
The idea of luck is the principal thought associated with it always in these later times—especially
luck in making journeys.
Ben Johnson wrote—
“Hurl after me a shoe,
I’ll be merry whatever I’ll do,”
and old Heywood says—
“And home again hitherward quick as a bee,
Now for good luck, cast an old shoe at me;”
while Tennyson (“Lyrical Monologue”) tells us—
“For this thou shalt from all things seek,
Marrow of mirth and laughter,
And wheresoe’er thou move, good luck,
Shall throw her old shoe after.”
Undoubtedly it is the remnant of something which came from the Egyptians or some other
ancient nation with which the Jews came in contact, though investigation shows that it was
never confined to any one race.
There are some interesting points in regard to the practice which have usually been overlooked
in treating the subject, for example, the priests and worshippers at the shrines of of
the Roman Cybele, the Grecian Ops, the Canaanitish Ashtaroth, and the Egyptian Isis, were
compelled to remove their sandals.
The shoes and sandals of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Jews were ornamented with
horns, crescents, and other representations of the moon, while at marriage ceremonies the
Page 49
custom of casting the shoe was, and is now, combined with the throwing of flowers and various
kinds of grain. These symbols and offerings seem to indicate the propitiation of a god,
probably the deity who presides over productiveness.
The recent revivals in the customs of Dunmow render the study of the subject peculiarly interesting;
for this is an instance where a very old institution sees more vigorous life in the later
centuries than it did in the earlier; nothing in the old days can have surpassed the celebrations
of the years since 1900. Brand opens his remarks thus:—”A custom formerly prevailed,
and has indeed been recently observed at Dunmow, in Essex. of giving a flitch of bacon to
any married couple who would swear that neither of them, in a year and a day, either sleeping
or waking, repented of their marriage. The singular oath administered to them ran thus:—
“You shall swear by custom of confession,
If ever you made nuptial trangresssion,
Be you either married man or wife,
If you have brawls or contentious strife
Or otherwise, at bed or at board,
Offended each other in deed or word:
Or, since the parish-clerk said Amen,
You wish’d yourselves unmarried agen,
Or in a twelvemonth and a day,
Repented not in thought any way,
But continued true in thought and desire
As when you join’d hands in the quire.
If to these conditions, without all feare,
Of your own accord you will freely swear,
A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave;
For this is our custom at Dunmow well knowne,
Though the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.”
The parties were to take this oath before the Prior and Convent and the whole town, humbly
kneeling in the churchyard upon two hard, pointed stones, which are still shown. They were
afterwards taken upon men’s shoulders, and carried first, about the priory churchyard, and
after through the town, with all the friars and brethren, and all the towns-folk, young and old,
following them with shouts and acclamations, with their bacon before them.”
This will give the reader a good idea of the ceremony, which by one writer is traced to an
ancient institution of the lord Fitzwalter, in the reign of King Henry III., who ordered that “whatever
married man did not repent of his marriage, or quarrel with his wife, in a year and a day
after it, should go to his priory and demand the bacon, on his swearing to the truth, kneeling
on two stones in the churchyard.”
After a very chequered history—the Lord of the Manor in 1772 would have nothing to do with
the custom, and in 1809, one historian says, it was abolished—the practice of offering the
flitch was revived in the later years of the nineteenth century, and has continued since then,
not always successfully, or regularly, but nevertheless with sufficient popularity to cause a
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crowd and a holiday. This is all the more remarkable; for the custom is essentially vulgar, and
is founded on a vulgar estimate of marriage. It passes comprehension how respectable people
can go through any public ceremonial to attest their happiness in marriage and to win a
flitch of bacon. But why bacon, the curious reader will ask? To that question there is no
answer available, except the utility of the flitch as a household commodity. The same custom
prevailed at Whichenover, and it has been traced in Brittany.
Within the last twenty years there have been at least a dozen cases reported in the press of
men in a low station in life who have sold their wives, under the impression they could legally
do so if all parties were willing. One husband parted with his spouse for eighteen pence and a
glass of beer. He was evidently in need of a new system of values, as well as some elementary
instruction on the marriage law. But Brand, writing in 1808, remarks:—”A remarkable
superstition still prevails among the lowest of our vulgar, that a man may lawfully sell his wife
to another, provided he deliver her over with a halter about her neck. It is painful to observe
that instances of this occur frequently in our newspapers.”
In modern transfers, the scene being the bar of a public-house, the halter is missing, and a
few coins take its place. But the origin of the custom can only have originated in methods of
marriage without the sanction of priest or civil ceremony; the result being that, as the man
does the marrying himself, he concludes he is the sole contracting party, able at will to dispose
of his wife as he thinks fit.
The custom of giving children apostle spoons is no longer in vogue, the present-day godfather
and godmother usually selecting some article of silver—a mug, accompanied perhaps by
a spoon, though not one of the apostle variety. In the old days sponsors would give the whole
twelve of apostles’ spoons; those in middling circumstances would give four;
the poorer people would give one, exhibiting the figure of any saint in honour of whom the
child received its name. The only origin we can imagine such a practice to have had, lies in
the sense of dedication, i.e. a giving of the child to a life designed on Christian lines; and in a
sense of benefit or protection, as symbolised by the presence of the twelve apostles. But the
origin of the well-known toy with bells and a piece of coral at the end (generally suspended
from the necks of infants to assist them in cutting their teeth), is with the greatest probability
supposed to lie in the belief that coral was considered an amulet or defence against “fascination.”
Pliny supports this view. And Plat, in his Jewel-House of Art and Nature, says: “Coral is
good to be hanged about children’s necks, as well to rub their gums as to preserve them from
the falling sickness; it hath also some special simpathy with nature, for the best coral being
worn about the neck, will turn pale and wan if the party that wears it be sick, and comes to its
former colour again as they recover health” Scott, in his Discovery of Witchcraft, remarks:—
”The coral preserveth such as bear it from fascination or bewitching, and in this respect they
are hanged about children’s necks. But from whence that superstition is derived, or who
invented the lye, I know not; but I see how ready the people are to give credit thereunto by
the multitude of corals that were employed.”
The truth about the coral belongs to the chemist and not the antiquarian.
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George du Maurier, in his Peter lbbetson, has given one of the best descriptions extant of the
life of dreams. He says the whole cosmos is in a man’s brains, so much at least as a man’s
brains will hold. And when sleep relaxes the will, and there are no earthly surroundings to distract
attention—no duty, pain, or pleasure to compel it—riderless fancy takes the bit in his
teeth, and the whole cosmos goes mad, and has its wild will of us. There are the “ineffable
false joys”—how well we know them; “the unspeakable false terror and distress”—we know
them, too; and they chase each other without rhyme or reason, and play hide and seek
across the twilit field, and through the dark recesses of our clouded and imperfect consciousness.
No wonder that early man, with sufficient intelligence to remember his dreams, and
ponder over them fearfully, was, in his ignorance, persuaded they conveyed serious messages
to him, messages in which the more clever men of the group saw an opening for personal
ascendancy by devising a system of interpretation, and thus assuming a position of
importance and leadership in the tribe. That dreams should occupy so prominent a position in
divination is not at all surprising. Dream life—indeed sleep life altogether—is still an unsolved
problem, and when the coincidences of events as between dreaming and waking are taken
into account, it is most natural that primitive man and civilised man should try to turn dreams
into a science, and formulate a skilful list of interpretations. Besides, in all Christian countries
there is a solid reason for accepting information conveyed in dreams, inasmuch as the sacred
narratives in the Bible allege Divine guidance by this means. We may, of course, have our
own interpretation of such phenomena, but the wide stretch of centuries covered by these
facts is not without significance, showing as it does the strong and tenacious grip which
dream interpretation had upon the race. From Jacob’s dream to that of Pilate’s wife is a far
cry, and yet both Jew and Pagan agreed in the real importance of the dream as a guide to life
and conduct.
But a distinction was made between the various kinds of dreams, or rather the better type of
mind attempted to make such a distinction, though seldom with success. In the Christian and
Pagan worlds no notice was taken of the wild, incoherent, purposeless dream, except by a
class of low magicians who sought money by exploiting the fears of the fearful. Nevertheless,
if one kind of dream came from God, or the gods, where did the others come from? Here was
an opportunity for the sharks of occultism, and for the charlatan generally. The dream-book
and the diviner came into being, and they have never yielded to pressure from civil or military
authorities. You cannot stamp out a superstition which has its basis in the operations of sleep,
over which men and women have practically no control. Only a right understanding of the
subject can rob the superstitious of their fears and the credulous of their credulity. To forbid
dreaming by Act of Parliament would be a nonsensical procedure; and yet it is just as absurd
to attempt to keep people from wondering what is the meaning of their dreams.
If we look carefully for the origin of dream superstition, we shall find one source in the Pagan
tradition of the importance of dreams in conjunction with the high place given to them in the
Bible; another source is the long and historical list of remarkable coincidences; and a third
source is the somewhat humiliating fact that we do not yet know the nature of dreams and
Take the last point first. Here is a brief account of some experiments regarding the brain and
the mysteries of sleep recently made by Professor Wenley of Michigan University, who
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declares authoritatively that the investigations have destroyed many accepted theories. The
accepted theory of sleep has been the lessening of the blood-pressure in the brain.
The experiments showed directly opposite conditions. By delicate and most careful measurements,
the following results were tabulated:—
‘The size or volume of the brain increases when the individual goes to sleep, and decreases
when he awakens. On this point it was noted that in some cases the brain became smaller at
first, and then increased as the sleep became deeper. Very striking was the evidence that the
size of the arterial pulse in the brain increases steadily with the increase in the volume—i.e.,
that the dilating of the arteries after each beat of the heart is more pronounced. This is particularly
true when the subject is propped up. As the sleep passes off, the brain volume
decreases, but then the blood-pressure increases. These results show that whatever sleep
may be caused by, it is not a lessening of the blood-supply to the brain, for there is no such
What kind of consciousness, therefore, is dream consciousness? The question remains unanswered.
What impresses most of us in regard to dreams is that, although the fearful experience of the
after effects of a lobster salad supper is classified as a dream, there are sober, more sensible,
realistic dreams which appear to convey information in reference to the future. Are these
messages from extraneous intelligences, or just the chance successes of dreaming
moments? It is not easy to say. Unless the reader has had such a dream, he is inclined to be
sceptical as to its existence. This scepticism is hardly justified when one considers the mass
of evidence submitted by people who have no object in stating untruths.
And even when 25 per cent. is deducted for exaggeration, or faulty memory, there is a
residue which chance can hardly account for, without straining the facts of psychology. I propose
to reproduce a few cases, making a commencement by recording the dream of a British
Consul, as contained in Hutchinson’s Dreams and Their Meanings:—
“Mr Haggard of the British Consulate, Trieste, Austria, gives the following account of a premonitory
dream and its fulfilment:—
‘21st September, 1893.
‘A few months ago I had an extraordinary vivid dream, and waking up repeated it to my wife
at once. All I dreamt actually occurred about six weeks afterwards. There seems to have
been no purpose in the dream, and one cannot help thinking what was the good of it. I
dreamt that I was asked to dinner by the German Consul General, and, accepting, was ushered
into a large room with trophies of East African arms on shields against the walls. (I have
myself been a good deal in East Africa.) After dinner I went to inspect the arms, and amongst
them saw a beautifully gold-mounted sword which I pointed out to the French Vice-Consul,
who at that moment joined me, as having probably been a present from the Sultan of
Zanzibar to my host, the German Consul General. At that moment the Russian Consul came
up, too. He pointed out how small was the hilt of the sword, and how impossible in consequence
it would be for a European to use the weapon; and whilst talking, he waved his arm in
an excited manner over his head, as if he were wielding the sword, and to illustrate what he
was saying. At that moment I woke up, and marvelled so at the vividness of my dream that I
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woke my wife up, too, and told it to her. About six weeks afterwards my wife and myself were
asked to dine with the German Consul General; and the dream had long been forgotten by us
both. We were shown into a large withdrawing-room, which I had never been in before, but
which somehow seemed familiar to me. Against the walls were some beautiful trophies of
East African arms, among which was a gold-hilted sword, a gift from the Sultan of Zanzibar.
To make a long story short, everything happened exactly as I had dreamt.’ In a long letter Mrs
Haggard confirms her husband’s narrative.”
Before attempting an interpretation of this occurrence, I should like to bring to the reader’s
notice Mr Greenwood’s theory of mental duality. He says:—
“It is easy to imagine the mind of man dual—its faculties supplied in a double set. Duality
seems to be a common law in nature. The brain, which is the mind machine, is itself a dual
organ; and nearly all the difficulty of understanding dreams would disappear if we could
believe that our mental faculties are duplex, and that, though the two sets work together,
inseparably and indistinguishably, while we live our natural lives in the waking world, they are
capable of working apart, the one under the observation of the other, more or less, when all
are out of harness by the suspension of the senses in sleep.” In remarking on this passage
Mr H. G. Hutchinson says:—”We give an instance of this kind of dream, which appears to us
to be only thoroughly accounted for by the theory of dual personality. The lady who was the
dreamer lives in Kensington, and had an office in which she carried on a business in
Knightsbridge, the office being about two miles from her house:—’On the night of—I dreamt
very distinctly that I saw a crowd, and I heard a voice saying, ‘She is quite dead, I’ve cut her
throat. I’ve cut her throat.’ I was very frightened, as it impressed me as being so real. I awoke
and noted the time, 4 A.M. The next morning at breakfast I told my family, including my
cousin, Miss M. D. When I arrived at my place of business, I saw a crowd outside the next
door house, and found on enquiry that a man had murdered his wife by cutting her throat
about 4 A.M. in this house. (Signed) A. W. W.’
‘My cousin told me her dream at breakfast on and I remember hearing in the evening that a
murder had taken place in the house next door to my cousin’s office in the early morning.
(Signed.) M. D.’
“Miss A. W. W. was worried about her business at the time; does it not seem a simple explanation
that her dual personality was haunting her office at the time, and saw the commotion
when the police discovered the crime, and thus conveyed the impression to her sleeping
I am afraid this dual theory is pressed too far and asked to account for too much. In our
dreams we are the same Egos as in our waking moments; and we see the same people we
know in daily life, and recognise them; proving that there is an exercise of the same memory
centres as in conscious life. The direction in which we are likely to find the truth is telepathy,
although how even that, as yet, undemonstrated science can see into the future (as in the
consul’s dream), passes our comprehension. Nevertheless, if sleep itself is still a problem
minus a solution, it need not disturb our equanimity to have a few unsolved items in the world
of dreams. The subject is only referred to here as an explanation of the tenacity of dream
superstitions; for if we knew why we dream of wheat one night, and falling down a precipice
the next, we might reasonably expect an enlightened world to treat their dreams humorously
—not seriously as too often is their wont.
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Dreams are still believed in by a vast number of people as conveying warnings, or news
about the events of the future. They do not accept the superstition openly, but secretly: they
divine their dreams in the privacy of their rooms with the dream book open before them. One
of these books I propose to examine at some length, because it is popular in style, detailed in
its rules of interpretation, and evidently a good seller. My copy is marked the third edition:
10,000 copies. I refer of course, to Raphael’s Dream Book. The author starts out with what he
evidently believes is safe ground, namely that dreams are prophetic because they have a
divine significance, as is proved from the narratives of the Bible. Now it must be admitted that
to believers in the Bible, i.e. the literal truth, of O.T. biographies especially, this is a fact with
considerable weight. If the Deity has guided his people by dreams in one age, why not in
another? The question is not altogether illogical, and it explains in great measure a man who
has had a remarkable and vivid dream about an event in his own career. But this point has
been dealt with already, and I hasten on to scrutinise Raphael’s method of divination. Here it
Suppose I am desirous of knowing the interpretation of my dream, I proceed to make at random
ten rows of ciphers or noughts. Thus—
Sign 1.
oooooooooooo, 12 ciphers, or even, oo
ooooooooo, 9 “ odd, o
ooooooooooooooo, 15 “ odd, o
oooooo, 6 “ even, oo
oooooooooo, 10 “ even, oo
Sign 2.
oooooooooooooo, 14 ciphers, or even, oo
ooooooooooo, 11 “ odd, o
ooooooooooooo, 13 “ odd, o
oooooooooooooo, 14 “ even, oo
oooooooooooo, 12 “ even, oo
Now I put Signs Nos. 1 and 2 together. Thus—
oo oo = 4 ciphers, or even, oo
o o = 2 “ “ oo
o o = 2 “ “ oo
oo oo = 4 “ “ oo
oo oo = 4 “ “ oo
Having added the ciphers together, they produce what is called the Index. With this Index I
refer to the Table of Indexes, and find this Sign
o o
o o
o o
o o
o o
refers to the Hieroglyphical Emblem of Aries. Then I turn to the Interpretations and find Aries,
which is on page 9, and amongst the Signs I look for those above, viz.,
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o o o o
o o
o o
o o o o
o o o o
and the Interpretation of the Dream is—An uncommon omen; cares and toils are denoted. A
harassing time after this dream. Be very careful.
Possibly Raphael thought this method of divining was rather irksome at times, so he provided
a long list of what might be called snap-shot interpretations, equipped with an alphabetical
arrangement to facilitate reference. A sample page will give the reader an idea of the
HARVEST.—To dream of harvest, and that you see the reapers at work, and hear the shouts
of “Harvest home!” is a most favourable dream. You could not have had a better. It denotes
prosperity to the farmer especially, many customers to the tradesmen, a safe and prosperous
voyage to the mariner, and lucrative bargains to the merchant.
HAT.—To dream you have a new hat, portends success. To dream you lose your hat, or that it
is taken off your head, you have an enemy not far off who will both openly and secretly seek
your injury.
HATE.—To dream you hate a person, denotes you will always have a good friend in the time
of need.
HAWK.—If you dream you see a hawk, it signifies you are going to begin some new enterprise;
if the hawk darts down and takes a chicken, or a bird, you will succeed; but if the little
bird attack the hawk, you will meet many difficulties and, perhaps, failure.
HAY.—To dream you cut hay, indicates you will have great influence in society. To dream of
raking it, denotes you will be respected by gentry and nobility.
HEART.—To dream your heart is diseased, denotes you have too much blood in your system;
should you dream you are affected with palpitation or violent beating of the heart, it denotes
great trouble.
HEAT.—To dream of being in a place extremely hot, or if the weather is so hot that the heat
affects you, denotes anger, and that some person is preparing to attack you, or give you a
good scolding.
HEAVEN.—To dream of heaven, denotes a change of worlds, and that the remnant of your
life will be spiritually happy, and your death peaceful.
HEDGES.—To dream of green hedges, is a sign of agreeable circumstances. If you cannot
pass on your way for thorny hedges, it denotes that in business you will suffer by competitions,
and in love by rivals.
HEDGEHOG.—TO dream you see one, denotes you will meet an old friend whom you have
not seen for years.
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HEIR.—To dream you are an heir to property, signifies you will be left almost penniless by
those of your relations who are wealthy. It is not a good dream.
HELL.—This dream forebodes bodily and mental agony, arising from enemies, loss in trade,
bereavements, etc.
HEN.—To hear hens cackle in your dream, signifies joy, love.
Of course it is easy to say “bosh,” and to declare this interpretation of dreams is a more
amusement. It is more than that. Deep down in their hearts many people fear “there is something
in it;” and although they never openly acknowledge the fact, they—women especially—
shew their curiosity and their superstition by harbouring the dream book and pondering its
interpretations. A lively sense of humour is the best antidote. The girl who dreams of a new
hat—and many do—and believes it really means success, is a hopeless creature. And the
authors and publishers of dream books should have the attention of the Censor.
Considering the 40 millions of people living in these islands, the really remarkable dreams are
few in number, that is, remarkable in the prophetic sense; for, granting that a good percentage
never become known to the public, the presumption is that only men and women with
strong telepathic natures “dream the dream that comes true.” Such people are exceedingly
scarce, and most of our dreams have origins like that described by Macnish in his Philosophy
of Sleep:—
“I believe that dreams are uniformly the resuscitation or re-embodiment of thoughts which
have formerly, in some shape or other, occupied the mind. They are old ideas revived, either
in an entire state, or heterogeneously mingled together. I doubt if it be possible for a person
to have, in a dream, any idea whose elements did not, in some form, strike him at a previous
period. If these break loose from their connecting chain, and become jumbled together incoherently,
as is often the case, they give rise to absurd combinations; but the elements still
subsist, and only manifest themselves in a new and unconnected shape. As this is an important
point, and one which has never been properly insisted upon, I shall illustrate it by an
‘I lately dreamed that I walked upon the banks of the Great Canal in the neighbourhood of
Glasgow. On the side opposite to which I was, and within a few feet of the water, stood the
splendid portico of the Royal Exchange. A gentleman, whom I knew, was standing upon one
of the steps, and we spoke to each other. I then lifted a large stone, and poised it in my hand,
when he said that he was certain I could not throw it to a certain spot which he pointed out. I
made the attempt, and fell short of the mark. At this moment a well-known friend came up,
whom I knew to excel at putting the stone; but, strange to say, he had lost both his legs, and
walked upon wooden substitutes. This struck me as exceedingly curious; for my impression
was that he had only lost one leg, and had but a single woodon one. At my desire he took up
the stone, and, without difficulty, threw it beyond the point indicated by the gentleman upon
the opposite side of the canal. The absurdity of this dream is extremely glaring; and yet, on
strictly analysing it, I find it to be wholly composed of ideas, which passed through my mind
on the previous day, assuming a new and ridiculous arrangement. I can compare it to nothing
but to cross readings in the newspapers, or to that well-known amusement which consists in
putting a number of sentences, each written on a separate piece of paper, into a hat, shaking
the whole, then taking them out one by one as they come, and seeing what kind of medley
the heterogeneous compound will make when thus fortuitously put together. For instance, I
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had, on the above day, taken a walk to the canal along with a friend. On returning from it, I
pointed out to him a spot where a new road was forming, and where, a few days before, one
of the workmen had been overwhelmed by a quantity of rubbish falling upon him, which fairly
chopped off one of his legs, and so much damaged the other that it was feared amputation
would be necessary. Near this very spot there is a park, in which, about a month previously, I
practised throwing the stone. On passing the Exchange on my way home, I expressed regret
at the lowness of its situation, and remarked what a fine effect the portico would have were it
placed upon more elevated ground. Such were the previous circumstances, and let us see
how they bear upon the dream. In the first place, the canal appeared before me. (2) Its situation
is an elevated one. (3) The portico of the Exchange, occurring to my mind as being
placed too low, became associated with the elevation of the canal, and I placed it close by on
a similar altitude. (4) The gentleman I had been walking with was the same whom, in the
dream, I saw standing upon the steps of the portico. (5) Having related to him the story of the
man who lost one limb, and had a chance of losing another, this idea brings before me a
friend with a brace of wooden legs, who, moreover, appears in connection with putting the
stone, as I know him to excel at that exercise. There is only one other element in the dream
which the preceding events will not account for, and that is, the surprise at the individual
referred to having more than one wooden leg. But why should he have even one, seeing that
in reality he is limbed like other people? This, also, I can account for. Some years ago, he
slightly injured his knee while leaping a ditch, and I remember jocularly advising him to get it
cut off. I am particular in illustrating this point with regard to dreams, for I hold that, if it were
possible to analyse them all, they would invariably be found to stand in the same relation to
the waking state as the above specimen. The more diversified and incongruous the character
of the dream, and the more remote from the period of its occurrence the circumstances which
suggest it, the more difficult does its analysis become; and, in point of fact, this process may
be impossible, so totally are the elements of the dream often dissevered from their original
source, and so ludicrously huddled together.”
The serious side of dream superstitions is the same as the serious side of palmistry: an interpretation
which points to disaster may induce the subject voluntarily to end his life. Most
dreams, like the one just outlined, are capable of reconstruction from purely natural elements
in our own experiences.
It is no part of our present purpose to adjudicate on the rights and wrongs of witchcraft—with
which we associate wizardry—rather is it our object to trace the fact of its existence, real or
alleged, back to the earliest records of history. We may, too, look at the few remaining
instances in modern times of what was once a great source of fear, evil, and cruelty.
Chaldean magic is, so far as expert investigation can tell, the real source of that witchcraft
which for centuries disturbed the peace of rural populations in Europe, and engaged the
angry attentions of priest and layman alike. It should not be presumed that the magic of any
nation, living or dead, is a thing to be laughed out of court; a sort of jugglery that could be
learned like the skill of the conqueror. It was something more than that. True we cannot say
exactly what it was, or is, for the practices of modern savage tribes have an unknown element
of psychic power in them, a fact which is attested by reliable travellers and authorities.
Thus in the Malay Peninsula to-day there are black magicians, and their doings are not at all
relished by the white man whose treatment of them may have been lacking in justice. So, in
the earliest ages, we find the same kind of arts practised, followed by the same results, that
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is, if we can rely on the testimony of those who have recorded them. In Egypt, in Persia, in
Greece, in India, and the East generally, there was a definite place assigned to magic; and
magic, generically, was the use of an unseen and powerful agency for the purpose of creating
confusion, bestowing evil, taking revenge, and doing all the works of the old time “Devil.” For
this reason witchcraft and black magic have a strong family relationship, and we can only
conclude that since the arts they used are in many cases identical, the later cult was a direct
descendant of the earlier. That a good deal was lost in transit is natural, and this would
account for the feebler displays of “power” by women of the middle English period as contrasted
with the “success” of the witch of Endor. Slowly the belief in witches died a natural
death, until now, in the twentieth century, it is hardly possible to find a single man or woman
who does not think the whole persecutions of the past were founded on ignorance, religious
intolerance, and political spite. The accepted explanation of such phenomena as are considered
genuine is that of hypnotism, especially in the case of sympathetic witchcraft, where a
witch makes an image of her enemy and pierces it with pins, or melts it before the fire. But
this explanation hardly covers the details of the best authenticated reports, and we have
either to disbelieve in these reports or fall back upon hypnotism and suggestion. Probably the
wisest attitude is that of the agnostic, who, not knowing the real facts, and being unable to get
at them, is in no hurry to propound a theory for uncertain phenomena. But witchcraft and wizardry
are not dead entirely. In a London journal, dated January 9, 1909, I find the following
narrative which, on enquiry, proved to be a serious contribution from an English traveller. The
evil eye is said to have a dread terror for the more ignorant Erse population, but the story
here told is, as will be seen, on true witchcraft lines. “Some months ago I was on a visit to
some friends in the south of Ireland, and one morning when seated at breakfast a servant
rushed into the room, screaming hysterically that the dairymaid has just found pishogue upon
the dairy floor. Pishogue is a white, yellowish fungus made at the dead of night, after a
solemn incantation of the devil, according to a secret rite which has been handed down from
generation to generation. My host, a ‘big’ landlord, sprang to his feet and, followed by his wife
and myself, ran hastily out of the house into the trim, cool dairy where, upon the posts of the
door, I saw the daubs of pishogue. My host knocked it off quickly with a stick, and then, turning
angrily to the weeping dairy maid told her it was nothing at all. But the next minute he
informed me under his breath that he might expect bad luck with his dairy, as it was indeed
the cursed pishogue. That very evening when his twenty splendid milch cows were driven into
their stalls to be milked, a cry of consternation went up from the lips of the milkers; they were
absolutely dry; and for months they remained so, while a tenant who lived close to the
demesne, an absolutely drunken, impecunious, rascal, was noticed to give up his weekly
attendance at Mass, in spite of which irreligious conduct his miserable dairy stock suddenly
took the appearance of healthy, well-fed cattle, and every one knew he was the man who had
put pishogue upon his master and robbed him of his good. It is a well-known fact that a dairy
woman will go to churn as usual, when, to her terror, she will find pishogue daubed upon it.
Let her churn for hours, she will make no butter, The usual remedy resorted to by terrified
people is to get Mass said in their homes, and the places, cattle, or crops blessed on which
the curse has fallen. But that often fails to bring back the good.”
Now I cannot say this story, although told circumstantially, is convincing. It is one of those
cases which need to be seen, in every stage of development, before one can believe. But it is
interesting as a twentieth century tale of wizards and witches, for the midnight rite is conducted
by a group of men and women crouching over a smouldering fire. Here is the tale of an
old-fashioned witch—of the white variety—reported in the Diss Express of December 16,
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“The Suffolk Coroner (Mr Charton) on Tuesday held an inquest at the Green Man Inn,
Mendlesham, touching the death of a child, named Maggie Alberta Wade, daughter of Henry
Wade, an agricultural labourer. The first witness called was the mother, Elizabeth Wade, who
stated that last Friday the deceased pulled a cup of boiling soup over herself and was badly
scalded. She did not send for a doctor, but at once sent for an old woman living in the neighbourhood,
whose name is Brundish, who, according to witness, is possessed of supernatural
powers in the cure of burns and scalds. The old woman came at once, and said some
strange words over the child, and passed her hands across the injured parts. Witness, under
these circumstances, did not consider the attendance of a medical man necessary, but
notwithstanding the woman’s incantation, the child died in 40 hours. Witness persisted in
expressing her belief in the old woman’s power, and said she really was a witch. The female
referred to declined to reveal the words spoken, as she said she would lose her power. Other
witnesses professed their faith in the professions of the old woman. Eventually, after the
Coroner had commented on the superstition exhibited, medical evidence was given to the
effect that the child’s life could not have been saved.”
No action seems to have been taken against the witch in this case, but in the case of malevolent
witches the cruelty of the punishment was so severe that we cannot wonder at the total
disappearance of black witchcraft in this country. In The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1751
there is the following entry:—At Tring, in Hertfordshire, one B——d——d, a publican, giving
out that he was bewitched by one Osborne and his wife, harmless people above 70, had it
cried at several market-towns that they were to be tried by ducking this day, which occasioned
a vast concourse. The parish officers having removed the old couple from the workhouse
into the church for security, the mob, missing them, broke the workhouse windows,
pulled down the pales, and demolished part of the house; and, seizing the Governor, threatened
to drown him and fire the town, having straw in their hands for the purpose. The poor
wretches were at length, for public safety, delivered up, stripped stark naked by the mob, their
thumbs tied to their toes, then dragged two miles, and thrown into a muddy stream; after
much ducking and ill-usage, the old woman was thrown quite naked on the bank, almost
choked with mud, and expired in a few minutes, being kicked and beat with sticks, even after
she was dead; and the man lies dangerously ill of his bruises. To add to the barbarity, they
put the dead witch (as they called her) in bed with her husband, and tied them together. The
Coroner’s inquest have since brought in their verdict, wilful murder, against Thomas Mason,
Wm. Myatt, Rich. Grice, Rich. Wadley, James Proudham, John Sprouting, John May, Adam
Curling, Francis Meadows, and twenty others, names unknown. The poor man is likewise
dead of the cruel treatment he received.”
Whenever the modern palmist or fortune-teller comes into contact with the police, the greatest
punishment consists of a heavy fine—but in the olden times the magician, wizard, or witch
was open to the fury of the mob, as is seen in the case of Tring. Lord Bacon’s quaint
philosophising as to the origin of witchcraft wonders is worth reproducing:—”Men may not too
rashly believe the confession of Witches, nor yet the evidence against them: for the Witches
themselves are imaginative, and believe oftentimes they do that which they do not; and people
are credulous in that point, and ready to impute accidents and natural operations to
Witchcraft. It is worthy the observing, that, both in ancient and late times (as in the Thessalian
witches, and the meetings of Witches that have been recorded by so many late confessions),
the great wonders which they tell, of carrying in the air, transforming themselves into other
bodies, etc., are still reported to be wrought, not by incantations or ceremonies, but by ointments
and anointing themselves all over. This may justly move a man to think that these
fables are the effects of imagination; for it is certain that ointments do all (if they be laid on
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anything thick), by stopping of the pores, shut in the vapours, and send them to the head
Reviewing the whole matter, one may conclude that whatever indisputable wonders exist in
the history of witchcraft were due to black magic, which is the use of an unknown mental
force for the accomplishment of an evil end; or, if we are unable to accept that hypothesis, we
are thrown back on a species of hypnotism. In either case we cannot flatter ourselves on the
extent of our knowledge, or the authenticity of our “facts.”
In Pagan days the curious would endeavour to peer into the future by opening the pages of
Homer or Virgil, and noting the lines covered by the thumb the instant the book was opened.
They were read with a view to casting some light on the problem which occasioned the consultation.
King Charles I. adopted this method of learning his fate. According to one account—
that of Aubrey—”the King, in December, 1648, being in great trouble, and prisoner at
Carisbrooke, or to be brought to London to his tryal, Charles, Prince of Wales, being then at
Paris, and in profound sorrow for his father, Mr Abraham Cowley went to wayte on him. His
Highness asked him whether he would play at cards to divert his sad thoughts. Mr Cowley
replied he did not care to play at cards, but if His Highness pleased they would use Sortes
Virgilianae—(Mr Cowley always had a Virgil in his pocket)—the Prince liked the proposal, and
pricked a pin in the fourth book of the AEneid,” &c. “The Prince understood not Latin well, and
desired Mr Cowley to translate the verses, which he did admirably well.” The lines were:
“But vex’d with rebels and a stubborn race,
His country banish’d, and his son’s embrace,
Some foreign Prince for fruitless succours try,
And see his friends ingloriously die:
Nor, when he shall to faithless terms submit,
His throne enjoy, nor comfortable light,
But, immature, a shameful death receiye,
And in the ground th’unbury’d body leave.”
They were not at all inapt, and it is easy to see how a few coincidences of this kind set up a
“law” and establish a cult. Even Christians are not free from this method of seeking Divine
guidance. A man in great distress will decide to open the Bible, and be guided by the first
words his eyes light upon, thereby imitating a devout practice dating back to the first formation
of the Scriptures. If the words should be, “Be still, and know that I am God,” he will
resolve to do nothing but wait; and yet sometimes the words have been, “Saddle me the ass,”
or “There is death in the pot.” The result is just like the probabilities of any other event containing
the same possibilities, and at bottom differs in nowise from the latest Monte Carlo system.
The origin of the practice is to be found in the respect and veneration for certain books arising
out of their wisdom and reputation.
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It is curious to read old authors, quite superstitious in some directions, who suggest the use
of a forked hazel twig to find springs of water is “a vulgar notion”; for in modern times there
has been not only a revival of the divining rod for this purpose, but dowsers, or water finders,
are in regular employment. So recently as 1882 there was a correspondence in The Times on
this subject. Mr E. Vaughan Jenkins of Westbury and mendip, Wells, Somerset, wrote as follows:
—”You may possibly like to hear of my experiences as to the divining rod. In July, 1876,
that very hot summer, the old well under my house became fouled, and the water unfit to
drink, so I decided on sinking another well, about one hundred yards from my house, if I were
advised that water could be found there. The field is perfectly dry, and there is no appearance
of water anywhere near where I wished to sink. I sent for a labouring man in the village who
could ‘work the twig,’ as the divining rod is called here, and he came and cut a blackthorn
twig out of my hedge, and proceeded around the field, and at one spot the twig became so
violently affected that it flew out of his hands; he could not hold it. I may here observe that the
village churchyard adjoins my field, and it was of consequence to me to know whether the
spring went through or near the churchyard. So I asked the man to tell me which way the
spring ran (of course under the ground), and he proceeded to follow up the spring, and found
that it did not go near the churchyard, Having some doubts as to this man, about a month
after I heard of another man, living seven miles off, who, I had been told, could ‘work the
twig.’ I sent for him, and he was quite unaware the first man had tried for water; and, to my
astonishment, when he came near the spot indicated by the first man, he could not hold the
twig, it was so much affected. I then asked him to tell me the course of the underground
spring, and he went as near as possible to the first man—from about S.W. to N.E. I thereupon
decided to sink a well, the last man assuring me that water was not very far down. At thirtynine
feet the well-sinker came upon a spring of most beautiful water, and there is in the well
about thirty feet of water in the summer, and in the winter it is nearly full.” Such narratives as
this can be duplicated from literature of more recent date, and Mr Beaven, in his Tales of the
Divining, Rod, has given the whole subject of rod divination a thorough-going and up-to-date
But why a rod? Why not divine without one? The answer of history is that from Babylonian
times, probably long before that, the rod was known to have some strange and unaccountable
power when held in the hands of mesmeric operators; it was used, not very successfully,
to discover ore bodies; it figures in all kinds of divination practices, as we can see from the
pages of the Old Testament. Here, then, is a so-called superstition which bids fair to become
in one specified direction an acknowledged fact. As yet it is purely unscientific; nobody seems
to know why the twig held in the hand becomes agitated when near a spring, but of the fact
itself doubt diminishes every year that passes.
Palmistry is said to have been introduced into this country by gipsies in the 16th century.
Mason in his Anatomie of Sorcery (16l2) speaks of “vaine and frivolous devices of which sort
we have an infinite number also used among us, as namely in Palmistry, where men’s fortunes
are told by looking on the palms of the hande.” From this it would appear that the “science”
did not make its advent with much éclat, and Newton, writing nearly a hundred years
later, shows that its associations were not of the best. In his Tryall of a Man’s Owne Selfe he
enquires, “whether the Governors of the Commonwealth have suffered Palmesters, fortune-
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tellers, stage-players, sawce-boxes, enterluders, puppit-players, loyterers, vagabonds,
landleapers, and such like cozening make-shifts, to practise their cogging tricks and rogish
trades within the circuite of his authoritie, and to deceive the simple people with their vile forgerie
and palterie.” By “governors of the commonwealth” here, it should seem, he means justices
of the peace. A very apposite group of questions for a modern J.P. Dr. Ferrand, writing
about 1640, in Love’s Melancholy, tells us that “this act of Chiromancy hath been so strangely
infected with superstition, deceit, cheating, and (if durst say so) with magic also, that the
canonists, and of late years Pope Sixtus Quintus, have been constrained utterly to condemn
it. So that now no man professeth publickely this cheating art, but theeves, rogues, and beggarly
rascals; which are now every where knowne by the name of Bohemians, Egyptians, and
Caramaras; and first came into these parts of Europe about the year 1417, as G. Dupreau,
Albertus Krantz, and Polydore Vergil report.”
We are now in possession of hints respecting the history of palmistry, which take us back to
1417. In what direction shall we look for further light, and how far back can we go? We shall,
as in the case of astrology, have to look Eastwards and Southwards: to Egypt, to
Mesopotamia, to India, and China. And in those countries we shall find that reading palms is
as old as the hills; nobody can tell us when it began, for its rules, its findings, its mysteries,
have been handed down from one generation to another. It is an attempt to divine the happenings
of the future, and since that future is to man a matter of the keenest possible interest,
there is every reason to believe palmistry is contemporaneous with the first dawning of reasoning
curiosity. And it persists to-day in spite of prosecutions and imprisonments. Men and
women still treat it seriously, or semi-seriously; they will readily spend 5s to have their “lines”
read; and they will buy the literature of the subject and ponder over it. This literature is rather
flimsy in character, but there have been nearly a dozen somewhat large and ambitious volumes
since the year 1897. One of these—Benham’s Laws of Scientific Hand Reading
attempts to take up an independent standpoint with some measure of success. But just as the
astrologer can give no adequate reason why the planets should influence us, and why a transit
of Venus or any particular aspect of the heavens spells good or ill, so the palmist can offer
no appropriate explanation why a life that is only half spent can imprint the number of its
years in a semi-circle round the ball of the thumb. As a social recreation, palmistry is both
successful and funny—as a science, it is delusive—sometimes dangerous.
Astrology is probably the oldest pseudo-science in the world; it is one of the first guesses at
the riddle of existence that took on mathematical and scientific shape. To be just, I shall have
to admit that throughout the ages it has been developed somewhat on the lines of observation
and experiment—lines to which no man of science can take exception. The time of the
birth of children has been taken and the state of the heavens noted; any serious illness was
observed, and the position of the planets at the time was written down; marriage, financial
disaster, loss of parents, and all the ups and downs of mortal existence were carefully compared
with the signs above. These observations were then compared with those of preceding
astrologers, the result being we have a huge literature about the occult heavens, and no age
has been minus its astrologer. It is but fair to admit, further, that astrology in the hands of its
best exponents is not lacking in dignity. If our lives are to be governed by anything in Nature,
we prefer to have them governed by the starry host; in fact, a few of us would prefer the planets
to some of the majorities which obtain in the House of Commons. But, judged scientifically,
astrology must be regarded as a superstition, because its character readings are too
vague, and its “directions” too obscure; it was a much vaunted “science” long before the dis-
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covery of Uranus and Neptune—days when the Moon even was called a planet. In the thousands
of years of its existence, it has not appealed successfully to the trained mind skilled in
Nature knowledge, and although a few great names are included in its list, from Isaac Newton
to the late Dr. Richard Garnet of the British Museum, together with Dean Farrar, the bulk of
learned mankind has never looked upon the casting of horoscopes as more than a social
“Then why,” asks some devotee, “does it persist? Why does it not die, like many other socalled
superstitions? Is not this persistency a testimony to its truth?” No, it is a testimony to a
fact in human nature; that is, we want to know what the future has in store for us. Astrology
professes to tell us, hence when the credulous (and a few who are not credulous) see an
offer in the paper to the effect that for one shilling “you can know your future,” there is no
need to be surprised at the persistency of a superstition. In order to meet the demand for
information respecting events to come, the smaller fry of the astrological world are prepared
to pronounce on the details of business; they will even cater for the Stock Exchange speculator,
and draw up the horoscope of a Limited Company, whose shares are quoted in the official
list. This careful working out of details is no new thing: the astrologer simply adapts himself to
changing conditions. Werenfels in his Dissertation upon Superstition thus describes a superstitious
man:—”He will be more afraid of the Constellation-fires than the flame of his next
neighbour’s house. He will not open a vein till he has asked leave of the planets. He will
avoid the sea whenever Mars is in the middle of Heaven, lest that warrior god should stir up
pirates against him. In Taurus he will plant his trees, that this sign, which the astrologers are
pleased to call fix’d, may fasten them deeper in the earth. He will make use of no herbs but
such as are gathered in the planetary hour. Against any sort of misfortune he will arm himself
with a ring, to which he has fixed the benevolent aspect of the stars, and the lucky hour that
was just at the instant of flying away, but which, by a wonderful nimbleness, he has seized
and detained.”
There are modern analogies to this picture, not only in the East, but in the West. London
women especially are easily vulnerable—I mean, of course, the few who have little else to do
and think about. They will not take a journey without consulting their “directions” for the year;
they have the right times and seasons for paying calls, and would not “hunt,” no, not for the
world, if the planets were in bad aspect.
Human curiosity, the keen desire to peer into the future, must have manifested itself in the
earliest dawning of the human mind; and the hearts of men being the same fundamentally in
all ages, the same wish for a glimpse ahead manifests itself to-day. Writers have sought
industriously for the origin of astrology, but have never been successful, except in the general
sense of tracing the cult of the stars to the borders of the prehistoric. In some form or other it
is as old as the race.
A London publisher of books on mental science and occultism advertises a crystal gazing outfit
in the following terms:—
CRYSTAL GAZING OUTFIT, A COMPLETE.—This outfit consists of a perfectly cut and polished
2 in. transparent solid crystalline sphere; a beautifully turned and polished ebony
pedestal, and a circular full of instructions and suggestions. 3s 6d net, boxed and post free 3s
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9d, foreign postage is extra.
By Crystal Gazing is meant the practice of gazing steadily into the limpid depths of a solid,
crystalline sphere, for the purpose of seeing visions therein. Many people can thus see “pictures”
of great personal interest and importance. The visions seem to be in the crystal itself,
but the scientific explanation is that the peculiar effect upon the optic nerve provokes to activity
some latent clairvoyant function of the brain, which may have been extensively used by
primeval man.
It is well known among psychic investigators that Crystal Gazers often see visions of a clairvoyant
or telepathic nature. For instance, the experimenter might see, in his Crystal, a moving
picture representing a distant friend in a most exciting situation. Subsequent inquiry, by correspondence,
has been known to show that the vision correctly portrayed the actual event at
the identical time it took place. This is a mere suggestion of the many interesting phenomena
developed by Crystal Gazing. It is a harmless, amusing pastime.
As a matter of fact, the Crystal is a beautiful ornament, and is worth its price as a paper
weight. This is the cheapest and best Crystal Gazing offer ever made.
This is business and exposition combined. No doubt the publisher knows very well that he is
on right and safe lines, for has not Mr Andrew Lang himself written most interestingly about
“scrying,” as crystal gazing is called, and did he not record the following incident?—
“I had given a glass ball to a young lady, Miss Baillie, who had scarcely any success with it.
She lent it to Miss Leslie, who saw a large, square, old-fashioned, red sofa, covered with
muslin (which she afterward found in the next country-house she visited). Miss Baillie’s brother,
a young athlete, laughed at these experiments, took the ball into his study, and came back
looking ‘gey gash.’ He admitted that he had seen a vision—somebody he knew, under a
lamp. He said he would discover during the week whether he saw right or not. This was at
5.30 on a Sunday afternoon. On Tuesday Mr Baillie was at a dance in a town 40 miles from
his house, and met a Miss Preston. ‘On Sunday,’ he said, ‘about half-past five, you were sitting
under a standard lamp, in a dress I never saw you wear, a blue blouse with lace over the
shoulders, pouring out tea for a man in blue serge, whose back was towards me, so that I
only saw the tip of his moustache.’ ‘Why, the blinds must have been up,’ said Miss Preston. ‘I
was at Dulby,’ said Mr Baillie, and he undeniably was.”
Yes, when Mr Andrew Lang certifies the reality of crystal gazing, it is justified in the eyes of
many people, and instead of being a modern credulity, it becomes a modern—well, not exactly
a modern science—it is not far enough advanced for that—but it assumes a rational atmosphere
which nothing else could give it. Hence the popularity of the crystal and the cult of the
“gaze.” But is there anything in it after all? Certainly there is; it is, in fact, a sub-department of
hypnotism, the facts of which few readers will care to question. But as yet not many would-be
“scryers” are as successful as their efforts are presevering.
French criticism has been somewhat severe.
“Dr Pierre Janet, one of Charcot’s coadjutors at the Saltpetriére, said in a lecture at the
University of Lyons, in France, that very few persons really ‘see things’ in crystals, the estimate
of 20 per cent. put forward by the Society for Psychical Research being, in his opinion,
exaggerated. He has found, too, that this faculty is seldom met with among persons in sound
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bodily and mental health, it being, in fact, a neurosis, or disease of the nerves, to which only
abnormally nervous or hysterical persons are subject. The state induced by prolonged gazing
at a faintly luminous object is, on the same authority, a kind of incomplete hypnotism in which
hallucinations occur which are in every way deceptions of the senses. But these hallucinations
have for their subjects only those things which are within the conscious or unconscious
memory of the gazer, and one is just as little likely to gain from them any hint of facts lying
within the gazer’s knowledge, as to learn the future from the stammerings of anybody drunk.
Thus in one case collected by the Psychical Research Society, where the speculatrix—to use
the old-fashioned word for such seers—saw in the crystal a newspaper announcing the death
of a friend, which afterward turned out to have actually happened, Dr Janet is able to show
that there was in the room a real newspaper with the announcement in question, the inference
being that the speculatrix had read and mentally noted it without consciously grasping
its significance. This experience might be paralleled by one from Binet, where a student on
his way to an examination in Botany, saw to his astonishment the words Verbascum thapsus
written on the swing door of a well known restaurant. A second examination transformed the
two words into the simple ‘bouillon,’ and it was only then that he remembered that Verbascum
thapsus was the Linnaean name of the herb called by French peasants bouillon blanc.”
This kind of criticism cannot be ignored, but it savours of the dogmatic attitude taken up by Dr
Crichton Browne (in his Dreamy Mental States) towards anything and everything which cannot
be justified by the present knowledge embodied in medical science. There is surely a better
way of dealing with phenomena that are capable of scientific verification. If it be possible
to see persons and things at a distance by looking into a glass of water, round piece of glass,
or other object with a shining surface, then the laws of the scientific method, i.e. observation
and experiment, can be employed with sufficient exactitude to determine the truth or error of
the claims put forward. Research Societies have already made the attempt, but the results
have not been all that one could wish. Spasmodic efforts have not the same value as systematic
and repeated investigation at the hands of a number of trained men.
Crystal gazing presents one of a batch of interesting phenomena, which began to assert
themselves in the early history of man; were for ages classed as credible facts, then branded
as unholy superstitions; lastly, they display a tendency to return to the first position, with the
added confirmation which comes from science. Thus the origin of the practice is easily found.
Early in the history of man some member of the race, more gifted than his fellows in the
sense of being more susceptible to finer influences, saw, or imagined he saw, visions in the
shining pool. He communicated these to his comrades, and some of them confirmed the fact
by seeing the visions also. Then the cult, began and developed into divination as we see it in
Pagan rites, and even in the Old Testament. The crystal itself is not a necessity. As Mr Lang
says, people stared into a “crystal ball; a cup; a mirror; a blot of ink (Egypt and India); a drop
of blood (the Maoris of New Zealand); a bowl of water (American Indians); a pond (Roman
and African); water in a glass bowl (Fez); or almost any polished surface.” Unlike many superstitions
of the past this, along with others of occult character, holds the fort against all comers;
sometimes the enemy makes a breach in the walls and otherwise demolishes the citadel, but
the repairs are as rapidly executed, and “scrying”—partly a serious study and partly a social
pastime—lives on confident in its future success. It will be interesting to see what will happen
during the next twenty-five years, but unless the subject is severely analysed and experimented
upon it will, at the end of that time, be where it is to-day; a number of people in all grades
of society will be ardent devotees, and a still greater number will call them “a credulous
crowd,” worse than the superstitious nations of the past.
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Few, if any, of the subjects dealt with in this book offer more items of interest for the student
than this which has relation to the importance of colour. There has always been a superstitious
use of colour in connection with astrology, the planets not only having a number, but a
favourite hue, which those people whose date of birth falls within the sphere of the planet
should be careful to cultivate. Hence the readiness of the West End occultist to furnish your
number and colour as determined by your name. No doubt, from this point of view, the rationale
of personal colour, sanctioned by fate or fortune, is just as sound or unsound as anything
else in astrological lore. But the point of interest lies here: modern medical research has
proved the importance of colour in a curative sense. Your native colour may be pink, and
mine may be green, according to the lore of antiquity; it does not matter much one way or the
other. But it matters a great deal whether we lie in a room of sickness with a red wall paper or
a blue one, if there really be a traceable influence of colour on mental conditions.
Now is there such an influence? I think a fairly good case can be made out that there is. Take
some of the lowest forms of life—infusoria, for example. Downes and Burns in Light and
Colour have noticed that infusorial life develops faster under the influence of red and yellow
light. Seeds germinate most rapidly under violet and blue rays, and the hatching of silk worms
is greatly facilitated by placing the eggs under violet glass. It has been observed also that
flies and other insects do not flourish, or are killed outright, by the light which comes through
blue glass or blue gauze. When we come to the insect world, the very existence of flowers,
with their almost endless gradations of colour and tint, must be taken as a reasonably clear
demonstration that colour has some influence upon the feelings of flower-haunting butterflies,
bees, and beetles, though even these feelings may be merely those of preference or indifference.
Colour was of the highest significance to primitive man; it is to man as we know him today.
Dr. Ponza, director of the lunatic asylum at Alessandria, Piedmont, cured many of his
insane patients by confining them in rooms, the glass and walls of which were of some uniform
colour, such as red, or blue, or violet. One taciturn melancholic became gay and talkative
after a sojourn of three hours in a red chamber. Others, after having stayed in these
coloured rooms for a time, shewed other equally great changes for the better in their mental
condition. Chromotherapy is still a science hardly in its infancy, but, when it has received
more attention than it has had up to the present, we may expect some interesting developments.
Now this is as far as we can go in matters relating to colour, at least with confidence. It is
impossible to draw up a list of colours representing intellectual and moral qualities on a foundation
of exact science. A list of dogmatic statements is the easiest thing in the world to produce,
and a popular author has done it in his Colour as a Curative Agent. Thus on p. 35 I
read the following:—
“Red—Love, affection, or lust.
Scarlet—Emotion, anger.
Deep Crimson—Animality.
Bright Red—Courage or confidence.
Dull Orange—Less understanding.
Brownish Orange—Worldly wisdom.
Light Yellow—Common sense.”
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and so forth.
In vain do we look for the basis of this ethics of colour; it cannot be found. We do not deny
that in the Bible sin is scarlet, and that Mephistopheles usually appears in scarlet; one could
from the pages of literature almost justify the list we have quoted from a popular writer. But
we want more than that. Even though Fox and Gould affirm yellow and gold correspond to the
intellectual, green to the utilitarian, red to the sensual, and blue to the spiritual, moral, or religious
nature of man, we require the whole phenomena to be treated according to the scientific
method before we can accept the ipse dixit of any writer. There may be a colour belonging
to us as individuals; the month in which we were born and the planet that was in the ascendant
at the time may have conferred it on us; each planet may denote a colour; but of these
dogmas and many others nobody seems to know anything that can be dignified with the
name of knowledge. The fact is they are rank superstitions.
The fortune or fatality contained in numbers, as numbers, seems to date back to the time of
Pythagoras, if not earlier. Jones in his Credulities Past and Present has gathered together a
vast amount of historical information which it is no part of my business to reproduce; it is sufficient
to note that in every age and clime numbers have formed a part of magical and nonmagical
ceremonial. Even to-day the clairvoyant who practises in London will ask her visitor
on what day of the month he was born, and in what year; then, making a rapid mental calculation,
will inform him whether the coming year will be good for him, financially, or whether he
is likely to experience sickness and domestic disquiet. Whatever rules she may follow in making
such calculations have been handed down to her from the past, so that modern fortune
telling in this particular is no different from the astrology and sooth-saying of the time of
Moses. Another curious development is seen in a book, published a few years ago, called
The Mysteries of Sound and Number, by Habeeb Ahmad. It claims that every letter means a
number; so that, if you will take the trouble to arithmetise your own name, you know what
your number is and can act accordingly. How accordingly? Because the planets have numbers
—the sun is No. 1—and as they exert a favourable influence every few minutes in turn
throughout the day, you have only to act when your number and the right planet correspond,
to succeed in anything you undertake. Mr Ahmad applies his logic to horse racing, and has
drawn up a list of examples from past races to show how true his theory is. Of course horses
have names and he claims they are not given them by chance, but according to an occult
law, just as is the case with human beings. A new system of horse racing, where the bookmaker
will be “done” every time, should strike dismay into the hearts of that confident fraternity,
but up to the present there has been no sign of collapse. Still, Mr. Ahmad is no doubt a
learned Mohammedan who has popularised some of the occultism of the school of thought to
which he belongs, and, its truth apart, it forms an interesting narrative of the superstition
attached essentially to numbers.
But how did the notion arise? Probably from the observation of coincidences, on which were
based the so-called laws of numbers. I will here give some instances from quite recent history,
for which I am indebted to Credulities Past and Present. The French nation of all classes
are very much given to the art of tracing prophetical references in the numbers composing
dates. French journals have noticed the numerical prophecy of the termination of the Empire
in 1869. This small problem in arithmetical divination was worked out thus:—Napoleon III.
was born in 1808, and assumed the Empire in 1852. Add 1 + 8 + 0 + 8 to 1852 and 1869
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results. Similarly, the Empress Eugenie was born in 1826, and married to the Emperor in
1853. The ciphers added together in each date give 1869, when added to 1852. The corresponding
dates and events in the life of Louis Philippe, when dealt with in the same way, give
the corresponding prophetical result.
The date of the great Revolution is 1789. Add
to 1789 the sum of its ciphers and 1814 resultsthe date of the Fall of the Empire, which arose
out of the Revolution. The date of the last Revolution is 1848, and if this date be similarly
dealt with it gives as the prophetical result 1869. A writer in Notes and Queries (3rd Ser. vol.
x.) remarks that these extraordinary numbers appear to have started with the accession to
the throne of Louis XVI. in 1744: by adding these figures into each other you get the date of
his death, or 1774 + 1 + 7 + 7 + 4 = 1793, in which year, January 21st, the amiable monarch
was beheaded. Again, the Fall of Robespierre, 1794: add 1 + 7 + 9 + 4 = 1815, gives that of
Napoleon 1. re-abdicating, June 22nd, 1815; add to this 1 + 8 + 1 + 5 = 1830, which in its
turn gives us the three glorious days of July and Fall of Charles X. Then we have accession
of the Citizen King in 1830, thus:—
The date of his birth, October 6
Birth of his Queen, Marie Amélie, April 26
Marriage of Louis Philippe, November 25
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Then came Universal Suffrage, December 10 and 11, and choice of a President of a
Republic, one and indivisible, or
1869 Dec.
But the figures work out more remarkably thus:—Louis Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor,
January 30, 1853.
His birth, April 20
Birth of Empress, May 5
Now, if a modern arithmetician can trace destiny in the figures of personal history with such
an array of seeming, does it not follow that the older and more philosophical mathematician,
noting the same coincidences in the events of his own day, was led to theorise on the fundamental
nature of numbers; his conclusions being that numbers are not mere no-things, but
occult factors in life; in a word, the bearers of fate or fortune? He gave numbers to the planets,
to letters, to words, to ideas; and having plenty of time on his hands he elaborated the
scheme until it became the occult thing as we know it to-day. Our modern belief in lucky numbers
can have no other origin than that of coincidences we have noticed, or which we have
accepted on the ipse dixit of some fortune-teller, following the rules of the Chaldeans or some
other ancient people. As to the array of figures respecting Napoleon, it is sufficient to say that
similar figures can be produced respecting lives on the ordinary plane of existence, just as
readily as where there is no such show of mathematical logic. In fact, in nine cases out of ten
the figures, like the answer of the schoolboy’s problem, “won’t work out.” Almost as good a
case in the literary world could be hatched up from a cipher in Hall Caine’s works to prove
they were written by Marie Corelli. For thousands of years the world has been taught that letters
have numbers which exert a positive influence in life’s affairs, deciding matters of high
importance as well as the trivialities about which we do not care. But no evidence is offered
by the authors of modern books as to the occult powers of numbers in themselves. O Hashnu
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Hara in Number, Name and Colour admits that the values of numbers of the Greek, Hebrew,
and Arabic alphabets are different, so that it is pitch and toss as to which we are to take. Mr
W. Wynne Westcott has written a more philosophical book on the subject, but even he has no
satisfactory evidence to produce except this: that Pythagoras or somebody else “said” so.
The revival of this superstition apparently means no more than its popularity as a social diversion.
An amulet (from the Arab word hamala=to carry) is anything hung round the neck, placed like
a bracelet on the wrist, or otherwise attached to the person, as an imagined preservative
against sickness or other evils; a charm is exactly the same thing, the only difference being
that the word itself contains the notion of some human action imparting to the article a certain
power for good—hence the expression, “a charmed life;” a gem is simply the general name of
a precious stone, used in this association because of alleged occult powers; a talisman is a
special kind of charm on which is cut or engraved a magical figure, worn to avoid disaster to
the wearer. A mascot is identical with a talisman, except that the design need not be there. It
will thus be seen that there is no essential difference between these articles: they are all worn
to ward off diseases and bad luck.
Since the practice of wearing such protective devices is a very ancient one, and one that still
obtains, with perhaps a tendency to increase, I propose to enquire into the habits of the past
and of the present, and into the underlying reasons which are given by wearers for the use of
charms and amulets. For it is not without significance that a West End lady should appear to
have the same belief in their efficacy as a Priestess of Amen Ra, on whose remains are
found evidences of careful protections against evil. A superstition that has vitality after the
lapse of many thousands of years is worth more than ordinary attention.
Mr G. H. Bratley, the author of The Power of Gems and Charms, devotes no less than 94
pages to “Historical Charms,” having collected together a great variety of cases to show the
place which such objects have had in history. One must admit that certain articles have
attained historic importance, mainly the articles which are said to exercise a malevolent influence,
like the famous Spanish opal or the mummy case in the British Museum. What is lacking
in the book under notice is attestation. For instance, no authority is given for the following
story:—”The Czar of Russia is said to have great confidence in relics. He wears a ring in
which is embedded a piece of the true Cross, and it is said to have the virtue of shielding its
wearer from any physical danger. It was originally one of the treasures of the Vatican, and
was presented to an ancestor of the Czar for diplomatic reasons. The value which its owner
sets upon the ring is shewn by the fact that he will never, if possible, move any distance without
it. Some years ago he was travelling from St Petersburg to Moscow, when he suddenly
discovered he had forgotten the ring. The train was stopped immediately, and a special messenger
sent back in an express for it; nor would the Czar allow the train to move until eight
hours afterwards, when the messenger returned with the ring. It is said that when his ill-fated
grandfather was so cruelly assassinated, he had left the ring behind him.” Very interesting as
a story, but how do we know it is true? How do we know a good many other amulet stories
are true? We don’t know; we only know there is a considerable amount of literature to prove
that charms and amulets have been worn from time immemorial. That they are still worn, a little
shyly, a little half ashamedly, at least by Anglo-Saxons, is quite true. The man and woman
from the West End will wear their charms secretly as they listen to the turns on the music-hall
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stage; but the Asiatic wrestler, who has discarded most of his clothing, still wears his talisman
round his neck-boldly, even proudly. He has a full-hearted belief in its efficacy in spite of an
occasional defeat; the Anglo-Saxon is not so sure, but with commercial instinct rather than
religious feeling, he wants to get the benefit if there is one. The psychological attitude is well
stated by a writer in The Referee, quoted by Mr Bratley. “The belief in mascottes or talismans
is very popular. Charms, in the form of horse-shoes, pigs, four-leaved clover, and countless
other fancies, are very general, and at present very fashionable. I have worn a lucky bean for
seven years, and never lost it. I should very much dislike to part with it, and have a sort of
half belief in its bringing me luck, or at least keeping off ill-luck.” Exactly. A half-belief: no more
than that. The little pig dangling from a lady’s bracelet is there because of a hope that it will
bring good things. Ask her for the underlying science and she will only smile. “You do not
understand.” We are not dealing with matters of common-sense, but with intuition. We are following
instinct rather than logic. Yes, we are, when we wear trinkets and do not know why,
except that others have worn them thousands of years ago and allege their potent influence
for good. Is not the secret of their power in the fact that they are a visible emblem of
defence? Take a Turkish wrestler who wears his amulet round his neck. To be without it would
mean distress of mind—a real state of fear; to have it is to bring out the best of his powers.
And yet his opponent, utterly destitute of a charm or of a belief in them, will probably beat him
in the struggle. Belief in the charm will not therefore be destroyed; the cause of the failure will
be looked for elsewhere.
The popularity of talismans, charms, amulets, and the whole tribe of “lucky “ gems, is best
explained by the fact that mankind is fond of decorative effect. We may laugh at the naked
savage, who will strut up and down the deck of a trading steamer at Lorenzo Marques, on
which he is a visitor for a quarter of an hour, dressed in a pair of spats and an old silk hat—
not a stitch of anything else—but there is the same passion in more civilised countries. We
express that passion with more artistic restraint and better taste, but with women especially
the so-called belief in the occult influence of charms is secondary to the love of gold and silver
trinkets by way of adornment. It would not be true to say that the essential superstition is
absent; there can be no doubt it would live even though the trinket were ugly and objectionable.
What we mean is that the decorative feature of charms comes first, because it addresses
itself to the eye; the appeal to fear and imagination comes later. Besides which, the curious
details of how precious stones may be worn to evolve lucky events are worthy of an
expert advertising agent who wanted to bring the best results for his clients—the goldsmiths
and the jewellers. That some stones may be worn by everybody with advantage is a judicious
statement, especially as those stones are diamonds, turquoises, and emeralds; but there is a
difference of opinion as to what stones “govern” the month of the year. The usual scheme is
as follows:—
Jan. = Garnet.
Feb. = Amethyst.
Mar. = Bloodstone.
April = Diamond.
May = Emerald.
June = Agate.
July = Ruby.
Aug. = Sardonyx.
Sep. = Sapphire.
Oct. = Opal.
Nov. = Topaz.
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Dec. = Turquoise.
But Mr H. Stanley Redgrove, B.Sc., in an article in The Occult Review on “The Belief in
Talismans,” has a different arrangement, which, apparently, possesses antique authority at
least equal to those one finds in such books as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or
an Occult Encyclopaedia. Probably an acute astrologer would object to all the lists because
they did not deal with “cusps.” However, on the following page will be found an outline of Mr
Redgrove’s plan:—
Aries, the Ram = April = Amethyst
Taurus, the Bull = May = Agate
Gemini, the Twins = June = Beryl
Cancer, the Crab = July = Emerald
Leo, the Lion = August = Ruby
Virgo, the Virgin = September = Jasper
Libra, the Balance = October = Diamond
Scorpio, the Scorpion = November = Topaz
Sagittarius, the Archer = December = Carbuncle
Capricorn, the Goat = January = Onyx Chalcedony
Aquarius, the Waterbearer = February = Sapphire
Pisces, the Fishes = March = Chrysolite
Mr Bratley appears to have made a compromise, for his list joins up half months in the following
Duration of Size and Sun’s period therein.
January 21 to February 18 - - Garnet
February 19 to March 20 - - - Amethyst
March 21 to April 20 - - - - Bloodstone
April 21 to May 21 - - - - - Sapphire
May 22 to June 21 - - - - - Emerald
June 22 to July 23 - - - - - Agate
July 24 to August 23 - - - - Ruby
August 24 to September 23 - Sardonyx
September 24 to October 23 - Chrysolite
October 24 to November 22 - Opal
November 23 to December 22 - Topaz
December 23 to January 20 - Turquoise
Now, what is a woman to do who wishes to buy a ring with the right birth-stone in it? She was
born on July 2nd, 1890. Has she to follow the first list? or the second? or the third? Who
made these lists, and on what science are they founded? All Mr Bratley can say is they are
formulated “according to the laws of judicial astrology.” Is that all? If it is, then we may be sure
a well educated girl, who has gone through some science and logic, will buy the ring for its
beauty and intrinsic value first; the superstitious element only provides her with material for
Society small talk. Authors may fling quotations at us from Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and
Madame Blavatsky, but we need better evidence than those people can furnish before we can
accept the occult power of gems. Mr Stanley Redgrove is of opinion that the power is not in
the charm, but in the belief of the wearer of the charm. It is the power of the idea, although
there is some evidence which suggests the possibility of imparting certain mental qualities to
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an object. This idea is all-sufficient, and an instance is quoted from an eminent anthropologist
—Dr. Haddon, see his Magic and Fetishism—about a Congo negro, “who, being on a journey,
lodged at a friend’s house; the latter got a wild hen for his breakfast, and the young man
asked if it were a wild hen? His host answered ‘No.’ Then he fell on heartily, and afterwards
proceeded on his journey. After four years these two met together again, and his old friend
asked him ‘if he would eat a wild hen,’ to which he answered that it was taboo to him. Hereat
the host began immediately to laugh, inquiring of him, ‘What made him refuse it now, when
he had eaten one at his table four years ago?’ At the hearing of this the negro immediately
fell a-trembling, and suffered himself to be so far possessed with the effects of imagination
that he died in less than twenty-four hours after.”
Mr Redgrove thus concludes:—”We think, however, that the hidden truth underlying the mass
of superstitious nonsense connected with the subject may be formulated thus:—the power of
the talisman is the power of the mind (or ‘imagination’) brought into activity by a suitable symbol.
(11) OMENS—Introductory.
An omen is an event which is supposed to indicate destiny, the chief feature being the gratuitous
nature of the happening; it is a message about the future which we do not seek for.
There is no origin for omens; they are as old as man himself. From time immemorial the
changing aspects of Nature have told him about the changes which may happen in his own
life; the flight of birds, the mysteries of dreams, a rabbit crossing the path, and an infinity of
other matters have been taken as “signs” of something that forbodes good or ill—generally illga
testimony to the almost universal fear with which man has regarded the forces surrounding
his life. Dryden and Lee in the OEdipus set forth the superstitions of their time:—
“For when we think fate hovers o’er our heads,
Our apprehensions shoot beyond all bounds,
Owls, ravens, crickets seem the watch of death;
Nature’s worst vermin scare her godlike sons,
Echoes, the very leavings of a voice,
Grow babbling ghosts and call us to our graves:
Each mole-hill thought swells to a huge Olympus,
While we, fantastic dreamers, heave, and puff,
And sweat with an imagination’s weight;
As if, like Atlas, with these mortal shoulders
We could sustain the burden of the world.”
It is useless to say that omens are going out of fashion; they are still operative. When the
Liberals are turned out of office and at the election make a clean sweep of the first day’s
pollings, they do not hesitate to regard it as a good omen; and the Conservatives are by no
means backward in using the same phraseology if events for them should be equally propitious.
But it is in the mental and social life of the people that augury in the strict sense has its
fullest scope, and in the sections that follow some proof of this statement will be forthcoming.
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To let a mirror fall and be broken is even now regarded as unfortunate, though not so illstarred
an accident as among the people of earlier days, who believed that the party to whom
the mirror belonged would lose his best friend.
In the Mémoires de Constant, premier Valet de Chambre de I’Empereur sur la Vie privée de
Napoleon, (Paris, 1830), Buonaparte’s superstition respecting the looking-glass is particularly
mentioned:—”During one of his campaigns in Italy he broke the glass over Josephine’s portrait.
He never rested till the return of the courier he forthwith despatched to assure himself of
her safety, so strong was the impression of her death upon his mind.”
The origin of this superstition is very simple. Looking-glasses are and always have been
implements of divination; to break one is therefore accounted most disastrous, because it is
the destruction of a means of knowing the will of the gods. In his Greek Antiquities, Potter
says:—”When divination by water was performed with a looking-glass, it was called
Catoptromancy: sometimes they dipped a looking-glass into the water, when they desired to
know what would become of a sick person: for as he looked well or ill in the glass, accordingly
they presumed of his future condition. Sometimes, also, glasses were used, and the
images of what should happen, without water.” We need not go to Greek antiquity for divination
by looking-glasses: a taxi-cab to several streets in the West End of London would bring
us to the rooms of seers and seeresses, who will tell fortunes by Indian mirrors and the common
or garden crystal gazing.
When Julius Caesar landed at Adrumetum in Africa, he tripped and fell on his face. This
would have been considered a fatal omen by his army, but with admirable presence of mind
he exclaimed, “Thus I take possession of thee, O Africa.” When William the Conqueror leaped
upon the shore at Bulverhythe, he fell on his face, and a great cry went forth that it was an ill
omen; but the Duke exclaimed, “I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands.”
Stumbling and falling, as omens, have what may be called a natural basis in thought, for, as
in the cases just mentioned, there is a keen attention directed to the initial stages of any
enterprise; even to-day the sudden shining of the sun on a hitherto cloudy day has been
known to be taken as a good augury by people who are celebrating the foundation stone-laying
of a new church; and although the visitation of a thunderstorm would not make them think
the Deity was angry, they are quite ready to accept what seems like a happy circumstance.
Falling, in other connections, has the significance that it has in the case of personal falls. This
is seen in what may be called picture omens.
Archbishop Laud, not long before the disastrous circumstances happened which hastened his
tragical end, on entering his study one day, found his picture at full length on the floor, the
string which held it fastened to the wall having snapped. The sight of this struck the prelate
with such an awing sense of the probability of his fate, that from that moment he never
enjoyed a moment’s peace. It, moreover, brought back to his mind a disaster that had
occurred to one of his boats on the very day of his translation to the See of Canterbury, which
sank with his coaches and horses into the Thames. The Duke of Buckingham was struck by
an occurrence of a similar kind: he found his picture in the council chamber fallen out of its
frame. This accident, in that age of omens, was looked upon with a considerable degree of
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The logic of these situations seems to be that a fall of any kind is, if not a catastrophe in
itself, the outward sign of one that is to come. When Laud found every picture hanging and
intact except his own, it was natural that he should inquire why this should be so; and in days
when the superstitious mind was cultivated, one can realise how serious reflections would
arise and fears assert themselves. In some parts of England the sudden and unexplained
falling of window blinds is regarded in the same prophetic light. As a superstition, it is to be
accounted for on the same psychological basis, namely, that a fall, sudden and unexpected,
strikes the mind by that very reason as the act of some unseen agency. In these enlightened
days the falling window blind causes, for the most part, no more thought than a passing complaint
on the workmanship of the house furnisher; but with ignorant and superstitious people,
on the eternal look-out for signs, it will act as it did in the past: something is going to happen.
When Mungo Park took his leave of Sir Walter Scott, prior to his second and fatal expedition
to Africa, his horse stumbled on crossing a ditch which separated the moor from the road. “I
am afraid,” said Scott, “this is a bad omen.” Park answered, smiling, “Omens follow them who
look to them,” and striking spur into his horse, galloped off. Scott never saw him again.
This is the kind of story which keeps the superstition pot a-boiling. The fearful reader says,
“Ah! he defied the omen, and Scott never saw him again.” But how many people have died
tragically who never stumbled, either on foot or when on horseback?
If, whilst at dinner, you should be so unfortunate as to spill the salt, and it falls towards your
right-hand or left-hand neighbour, it is accounted an unlucky omen. Why, nobody can say—
with any show of good reasoning. Salt has always figured prominently in religious rites and
ceremonies. Both Greeks and Romans mixed salt with their sacrificial cakes, being, as an
element, a necessary concomitant of the sacrifice, not a mere adjunct. Thus in the Ferialia, or
offerings to the Diis Manibus, when no animal was slain:
“The Manes’ rights expenses small supply,
The richest sacrifice is piety.
With vernal garlands a small Tile exalt,
A little flour and little grain of Salt.”
That the flour and salt were both designed as propitiatory offerings to redeem them from the
vengeance of the Stygian or infernal gods, may be proved from a like custom in the Lemuria,
another festival to the same Diis Manibus, where beans are flung instead of the flour and salt;
and when flung, the person says:
“And with these beans I me and mine redeem.”
That a Pagan should come to regard salt as an emblem of redemptive power is, therefore,
not surprising; and from this it is but a step to the belief that a spilling of it at table should be
an omen of serious import. In olden times salt was regarded as incorruptible, and it became
the symbol of friendship; consequently an overturning of the salt-cellar betokened the breaking
of friendship. But there was a “counter” stroke available. If the man towards whom the salt
falls will, without hesitation or remark, take up a single pinch of salt between the finger and
the thumb of his right hand and cast it over his left shoulder, the threatened misfortune will be
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averted. Tradition has it that the left shoulder is selected to appease the devil.’
Such superstitions are among those complex growths of ideas, the disentanglement of which
is quite an impossibility. There are nations to whom salt was an almost sacred symbol; there
are others—Egypt, for instance—to whom it was a common metaphor for calamity and desolation.
But as a superstition it has some peculiar, insistent force, for the spilling of salt is a
common accident, and it is by no means uncommon to see the rite of throwing over the left
shoulder carried out immediately; not, it is true, with any real fear of evil, but in order, as one
lady put it, “to be on the safe side.” Some writers believe that da Vinci’s picture of the Last
Supper, in which Judas Iscariot is represented as overturning the salt, is the real origin of the
salt superstition.
If you care to take the trouble, you can work up a really awe-inspiring amount of evidence to
show that it is unlucky to sit thirteen at table; and when the daring of Matthew Arnold in defying
the superstition is told in all its solemnity—he died within a year after the event—even
solid people shudder and begin to think “there is something in it.” Quite sensible women
shrink in horror from a thirteen table, and imagine the addition of a fourteenth person will
break the evil spell, rendering it inoperative. Of course the origin of the superstition is the Last
Supper, where thirteen were present; and the tragedies subsequent to that meal are supposed
to be repeated every time its number is enacted. What a frightful slaughter would have
marked the course of civilisation had this been true! But Quetelet, in his Theory of
Probabilities has, one would have thought, smashed the idea beyond hope of revival. He
says:—”There is a prejudice existing generally on the pretended danger of being the thirteenth
at table. If the probability be required that out of thirteen persons of different ages, one
of them, at least, shall die within a year, it will be found that the chances are about one to one
that one death at least will occur. This calculation by means of a false interpretation has given
rise to the prejudice, no less ridiculous, that the danger will be avoided by inviting a greater
number of guests which can only have the effect of augmenting the probability of the event so
much apprehended.” This is sound logic; so very different from the blind reasoning of fanciful
people who think that in some occult manner a tragedy of the past will be repeated, if the
same number of people congregate together for the evening meal. The superstition of thirteen
at table is one of the most pitiful exhibitions of mental weakness that has ever marked human
thought. “Thirteen Clubs,” composed of men and women determined to defy the superstition,
may justify themselves as social diversions, but as serious attempts at what is called disproof,
they are as futile as might be expected. Below I give an extract from a London newspaper:—
“NEW YORK, Jan. 16.
“Superstition was flouted and invited to do its worst by all manner of taunts levelled against
the fearsome number thirteen at a banquet given in New York last night by the members of
the Thirteen Club.
“The club contains many more than thirteen members, but the diners sat at tables thirteen to
each. Before each plate a red candle burned in a death’s head holder, and the member
whose candle went out first was supposed to receive it as a sign. As soon as the company
was seated a new mirror was broken.
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“The ices were served in the form of a skull reposing in a coffin. The toastmaster used a forearm
bone to rap for order. At intervals the diners counted up to thirteen as a chant, the number
thirteen being hailed with cheers.
“At the close of the banquet the waiters filed into the room to the music of a funeral march,
each waiter bearing aloft a chocolate cake with thirteen candles burning on it and a white
skull and crossbones in the centre.
“Insulted fate had revenge on the diners at one of the tables. At the head of each table an
open umbrella was placed to flaunt the rain superstition. A waiter bearing a well-filled soup
tureen caught the tail of his coat in one of the umbrellas, and there was a shower of hot soup
over some of the jesters.”
Yes, superstition was flouted, and so was intelligence.
(16) THE OWL.
Bourne remarks that “if an owl, which is reckoned a most abominable and unlucky bird, send
forth its hoarse and dismal voice, it is an omen of the approach of some terrible thing; that
some dire calamity and some great misfortune is near at hand.” This omen occurs in
“The jelous Swan, ayenst hys deth that singeth,
The Oule eke, that of deth the bode bringeth.”
Assembly of Foules.
It is thus mentioned by Spenser:
“This rueful Strich still wayting on the beere,
The whistler shril, that whoso heares doth die.”
It would be too much to say that these sentiments are still alive to-day, but it is not too much
to say that women and children listen to the weird cries with something approaching apprehension.
Why? Simply because the note is dismal, and because it is heard in the night when
other sounds are still. And if such is the effect now, we need not be surprised to learn it was
the effect in more superstitious ages; ages when men, too, were under the spell. An owl once
strayed into the Capitol at Rome, with the result that the city underwent a lustration. Butler
speaks of this incident in his Hudibras:—
“The Roman Senate, when within
The city walls an Owl was seen,
Did cause their clergy with lustrations
(Our Synod calls humiliations)
The round-fac’d prodigy t’avert
From doing town and country hurt.”
The Romans appear to have had most determined views on owls and their significance.
“Julius Obsequens (in his Book of Prodigies, c. 85) shews that a little before the death of
Commodus Antoninus, the Emperor, an Owl was observed to sit upon the top of his chamber,
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both at Rome and at Lanuvium. Xiphilinus, speaking of the prodigies that went before the
death of Augustus, says that the Owl sang upon the top of the Curia. He shews, also, that the
Actian War was presignified by the flying of Owls into the Temple of Concord. In the year
1542, at Herbipolis, or Wirtzburg, in Franconia, this unlucky bird, by his screeching songs,
affrighted the citizens a long time together, and immediately followed a great plague, war, and
other calamities. About twenty years ago, I did observe that in the house where I lodged, an
Owl, groaning in the window, presaged the death of two eminent persons, who died there
shortly after.”
The death of such convictions could not fail to be slow, but widening knowledge has at last
almost dispersed them, and nothing is left but the weird screech itself.
The author of Arcana Microcosmi (1652) affirms with a curiously quaint confidence that “dogs
by their howling portend death and calamities is plaine by historie and experience.”
Shakespeare in his Henry vi. dares to use the custom as an accompaniment of birth.
“The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign!
The night-crow cry’d aboding luckless time,
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempests shook down trees.”
The British Apollo (1708) answering the question “Whether the dogs howling may be a fatal
prognostic, or no,” says: “We cannot determine, but ‘tis probable that out of a sense of sorrow
for the sickness or absence of his master, or the like, that creature may be so disturbed.”
Another writer concludes:—”I have some little faith in the howling of a dog, when it does not
proceed from hunger, blows, or confinement. As odd and unaccountable as it may seem,
those animals scent death, even before it seizes a person.
This is superstition in excelsis. Animals—horses for instance—have been seen to tremble
when they came near a dead human body, even though the body was invisible to them; but
scenting death is quite a different thing. And yet there is reason to believe that this alleged
power is the basis of the popular belief in the howling of dogs. Even in the Odyssey the dogs
of Eumacus are described as terrified at the sight of Minerva, though she was then invisible
to Telemachus. If so far back in the ages the canine tribe were endowed, in human thought at
least, with such vision, it can be understood how their supposed distressful howling should
presage death, especially in houses where somebody is lying ill. But the real truth probably
lies in this: that there are influences in the atmosphere which act upon dogs in a way which
causes them to howl, but which we do not understand. Willsford, in his Nature’s Secrets, says
that when “dogs tremble and wallow upon the earth . . are signs of rain and wind for certain.”
This may be as much a superstition as the other, but there is no doubt that cattle have a
physical sensitiveness to coming storms which men are destitute of, and drovers in the Far
West watch their stock during dangerous weather seasons for this very reason. That somebody
should die after the continued howling of a dog is not a remarkable phenomenon; the
remarkable phenomenon is the number of people who live after listening to many howlings.
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In Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice says:—”What fire is in mine ears!” which
Warburton explains as alluding to a proverbial saying of the common people, that their ears
burn when others are talking of them. On which Reed observes that the opinion from whence
this proverbial saying is derived is of great antiquity, being thus mentioned by Pliny:—
”Moreover is not this an opinion generally received, that when our ears do glow and tingle
some there be that in our absence doe talk of us?” Sir Thomas Browne says:—”When our
cheek burns, or ear tingles, we usually say somebody is talking of us, a conceit of great antiquity,
and ranked among superstitious opinions by Pliny. He supposes it to have proceeded
from the notion of a signifying genius, or universal mercury that conducted sounds to their
distant subjects and taught to hear by touch.” “My ears tingle; somebody is talking against
me,” is a remark one can hear even to-day—and although, as in many other cases, it is made
to be laughed at, there is a kind of private fancy that the superstition “may have something in
it.” That something is an illusion of analogy; for if you give a man a sharp rebuke for carelessness,
you make his ears tingle, as a rule; and when his ears tingle and you are not present in
the body, he presumes you are present in mind. Thus Herrick in his Hesperides
“One Eare tingles, some there be
That are snarling now at me;
Be they those that Homer bit,
I will give them thanks for it.”
The advance of modern physiology has all but killed the sneezing superstition, at least in
civilised countries. Among peoples who have not emerged from savagery, or whose intellectual
equipment, in spite of contact with superior races, is still meagre in the extreme, sneezing
is an omen whose significance they dare not disallow. It might not be too much to say that
there are white races who look upon the sneeze of a sick child as an omen. Even the
Christian world at one time was a devout supporter of the sneezing superstition. Probably
there are people living to-day who can remember the “God bless you,” which was usually
addressed to a person after a sneeze. The origin of the saying is found by some authorities in
the fact that “violent sneezing was once an epidemic and mortal distemper from whence the
custom took its rise. In one of Martial’s epigrams we find the Romans had the same custom,
and not improbably derived from the same reason.” But the real origin lies in the doctrine of
the soul as understood by primitive man. Some approach to this fact is attained in the translation
by Sir Henry Ellis of a section from Garnier’s History of France:—
“The year 750 is commonly reckoned the era of the custom of saying ‘God bless you’ to one
who happens to sneeze. It is said that, in the time of the pontificate of St Gregory the Great,
the air was filled with such a deleterious influence that they who sneezed immediately
expired. On this the devout pontiff appointed a form of prayer, and a wish to be said to persons
sneezing for averting them from the fatal effects of this malignancy. A fable contrived
against all the rules of probability, it being certain that this custom has from time immemorial
subsisted in all parts of the known world. According to mythology, the first sign of life
Prometheus’s artificial man gave was by sternutation. This supposed creator is said to have
stolen a portion of the solar rays; and filling with them a phial, which he had made on pur-
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pose, sealed it up hermetically. He instantly flies back to his favourite automaton, and opening
the phial, held it close to the statue; the rays, still retaining all their activity, insinuate themselves
through the pores, and set the fictitious man a-sneezing. Prometheus, transported with
the success of his machine, offers up a fervent prayer with wishes for the preservation of so
singular a being. His automaton observed him, remembering his ejaculations, was very careful
on the like occasions to offer these wishes in behalf of his descendants, who perpetuated
it from father to son in all their colonies.
“The Rabbies, speaking of this custom, do likewise give it a very ancient date. They say that,
not long after the Creation, God made a general decree that every man living should sneeze
but once, and that at the very instant of his sneezing his soul should depart without any previous
indisposition. Jacob by no means liked so precipitate a way of leaving the world, as being
desirous of settling his family affairs and those of his conscience: he prostrated himself before
the Lord, wrestled a second time with him, and earnestly entreated the favour of being
excepted from the decree. His prayer was heard, and he sneezed without dying. All the
Princes of the universe, being acquainted with the fact, unanimously ordered that, for the
future, sneezing should be accompanied with thanksgivings for the preservation, and wishes
for the prolongation, of life. We perceive, even in these fictions, the vestiges of tradition and
history, which place the epocha of this civility long before that of Christianity. It was accounted
very ancient even in the time of Aristotle, who, in his ‘Problems,’ has endeavoured to account
for it, but knew nothing of its origin. According to him, the first men, prepossessed with the
highest ideas concerning the head, as the principal seat of the soul, that intelligent substance
governing and animating the whole human system, carried their respect even to sternutation,
as the most manifest and most sensible operation of the head. Hence those several forms of
compliments used on similar occasions amongst Greeks and Romans: Long may you live!
May you enjoy health! Jupiter preserve you!”
But the true story of the sneezing superstition is told by Professor E. B. Tylor, who says:—
“In Asia and Europe the sneezing superstition extends through a wide range of race, age, and
country. Among the passages relating to it in the classic ages of Greece and Rome, the following
are some of the most characteristic: the lucky sneeze of Telemachus in the Odyssey;
the soldier’s sneeze and the shout of adoration to the god which rose along the ranks, and
which Xenophon appealed to us a favourable omen; Aristotle’s remark that people consider a
sneeze as divine, but not a cough; the Greek epigram on the man with the long nose who did
not say Zeu Soson when he sneezed, for the noise was too far off for him to hear; Petronius
Arbiter’s mention of the custom of saying ‘Salve’ to one who sneezed; and Pliny’s question
‘Cur sternutamentis salutamus?’ a-propos of which he remarks that even Tiberius Caesar,
that saddest of men, exacted this observance. Similar rites of sneezing have long been
observed in Eastern Asia. When a Hindu sneezes, bystanders say ‘Live!’ and the sneezer
replies, ‘With you!’ It is an ill omen to which among other things the Thugs paid great regard
on starting an expedition, and which even compelled them to let the travellers with them
escape.” But this does not show us the real origin of the sneezing superstition; although it
adequately shews the extent of its operations. Tylor traces the first beginnings of the habit in
the savage idea of souls. “As a man’s soul is considered to go in and out of his body, so it is
with other spirits, particularly such as enter into patients and possess them or afflict them with
disease. Among the less cultured races the connection of this idea with sneezing is best
shewn among the Zulus, a people firmly persuaded that kindly or angry spirits of the dead
hover about them in dreams, enter into them and cause disease in them. When a Zulu
sneezes he will say, ‘I am now blessed. The ldhlozi (ancestral spirit) is with me; it has come
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to me. Let me hasten and praise it, for it is it which causes me to sneeze.’ So he praises the
manes of his family, asking for cattle, and wives and blessings.”
Thus from the far past, as seen in the customs of uncivilised races in the present, must we
draw the solution of a curious superstition, one which, better perhaps than any other that
could be mentioned, is a good illustration of the power of ignorance to create and foster a
delusion. Even the great Aristotle indulged in the problem as to “why sneezing from noon to
midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky.” If “the master of those who know” could
be puzzled by a physiological simplicity, shall we be amazed at the extent of the sneezing
superstition throughout the long centuries of pagan and Christian history?
The present writer can remember labourers in the North of England who were in the habit of
spitting on a coin “for luck,” especially if it were a coin they found on the highway. To trace
this habit to its source is practically impossible. Spittle among the ancients was esteemed a
Charm against all kinds of fascination: so Theocritus,
“Thrice on my breast I spit to guard me safe
From fascinating Charms.”
And thus Persius upon the custom of Nurses spitting upon Children:
“See how old beldams expiations make:
To atone the Gods the Bantling up they take;
His lips are wet with lustral spittle, thus
They think to make the Gods propitious.”
“Spitting, according to Pliny, was superstitiously observed in averting witchcraft and in giving
a shrewder blow to an enemy. Hence seems to be derived the custom our Bruisers have of
spitting in their hands before they begin their barbarous diversion, unless it was originally
done for luck’s sake. Several other vestiges of this superstition, relative to fasting Spittle,
mentioned also by Pliny, may yet be placed among our vulgar customs.
The boys in the North of England have a custom amongst themselves of spitting their faith
(or, as they call it in the northern dialect, “their Saul,” i.e. Soul), when required to make asseverations
in matters which they think of consequence.
In combinations of the colliers etc., about Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for the purpose of raising
their wages, they are said to spit upon a stone together, by way of cementing their confederacy.
Hence the popular saying, when persons are of the same party, or agree in sentiments,
that ‘they spit upon the same stone.’”
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Probably this use of spittle is one of the few remainders left to us from a whole body of scatological
rites, now happily dispensed with. A writer in Notes and Queries in 1868 says:—”I was,
a few years ago, a clergyman of a parish within ten miles of Birmingham, much frequented on
holidays by a low class of mechanics; and I invariably noticed that, whenever I passed, some
one or more of them spit aside; giving one the idea that they belonged to some sect, or society,
which enjoined the rule to spit whenever a clergyman passed, or perhaps any known
This must have been coincidence, for there is no trace of such a custom as spitting on passing
a parson. The superstition was rather in the cleric than in the mechanics.
When little Teddy is being trained in table manners, he is told it is improper to place his knife
and fork crosswise after the meal is finished; he must place them side by side. Few people
seem to think there is anything behind this item of etiquette; they imagine it is socially right
because the crosswise position is acsthetically wrong; it looks ugly.
Again, if a friend makes you a present of a knife, he invariably asks you for a halfpenny,
because it is accounted unlucky to give a knife to a friend; it is apt to symbolise the cutting
asunder of the bond of union. Gay says:—
“But woe is me! such presents luckless prove,
For knives, they tell me, always sever love.”
The ritual of a past age was not wholly religious; it was to some extent secular, and the symbols
of things purely human. Hence to cross your knife and fork at table is, according to
Melton’s Astrologaster, to invite crosses and misfortune, from which we may presume that the
mere mechanical position of the cutlery was either suggestive of Calvary, or symbolised troubles
and crosses to come. How fervently did our forefathers seek for types of the divine in the
human, and of the moral in the material!
It is an old but still operative superstition among seafaring men, or, shall I say, certain portions
of them, that when a shark (or sharks) persistently follows a vessel, it is a sign that someone
on board is going to die. The alleged reason is that the shark can “scent” death. The biography
of the Rev. Bryan Roe, a West African missionary, contains the following narrative, which,
when rid of the humorous exaggerations of the sailor, may be said to contain his point of
view:—”Two or three sharks, it may be, are following in the vessel’s wake, attracted, it would
seem, by the fact that there is a sick man lying on board; for the old, weather-beaten, quartermaster
confidentially informs the clerical passenger (Mr Roe) that he will soon have a burial
job on hand. The quarter-master is always an authority on the subject of sharks. ‘Them there
sharks,’ he explains, ‘have more sense in them than most Christchuns. They knows wot’s
wot, I can tell yer; doctors ain’t in it with sharks. I’ve heard sharks larf when the doctor has
told a sick man he was convalescent—larf, sir, outright, ‘cos they knew what a blessed mistake
he was making. They are following up the scent of a man on board now that’s going to
die, and they’ll not leave us until such times be as they get him.’”
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Procter’s Return of the Admiral is a good setting of the shark superstition:—
“How gallantly, how merrily
We ride along the sea.
The morning is all sunshine,
The wind is blowing free,
The billows are all sparkling
And bounding in the light.”
“In our wake like any servant
Follows ever the bold shark.”
Then the admiral of the fleet who
“Grew paler,
And paler, as we flew,
Spied the creature
That kept following in our lee.”
He seemed to be aware of the direful augury, for
“He shook—’twas but an instant
For speedily the pride
Ran crimson to his heart,
Till all chances he defied.”
But the admiral’s defiance was in vain, for
“That night a hurried whisper
Fell on us where we lay,
And we knew our fine old admiral
Was changing into clay.
And we heard the wash of waters,
Though nothing could we see,
And a whistle and a plunge
Among the billows in our lea;
Till dawn we watched the body
In its dead and ghastly sleep
And next evening, at sunset,
It was lung into the deep.
And never from that moment,
Save one shudder through the sea,
Saw we or heard the shark
That had followed in our lee.”
Mr Frank Gibson, to whose very interesting Superstitions about Animals I am indebted for the
details of this subject, says that the superstition, so far as he knows, has no foundation in
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fact. Sharks follow in the wake of vessels for the same reason that all fish do, solely for the
scraps of meat and other leavings that are thrown overboard. “On a voyage to South Africa, I
noticed,” remarks Mr Gibson, “when nearing the Equator, that a very large, sinister looking
shark kept up with the vessel for many miles, but the passage concluded under the most
favourable and happy circumstances; no one died, and very few were even sea-sick.
Curiously enough, however, when I returned to England on a large liner, fitted up as a hospital
ship with accommodation for more than a thousand invalids, we never sighted a shark
from Capetown to Southampton, though there were many cases of sickness on board, and
one of the passengers was buried at sea.”
Truly this ought to have been a favoured vessel, but it seems to have escaped sharkly attentions.
An isolated instance, however, will not extinguish the belief of a superstitious sailor, and
we have still to answer the question as to how the idea arose. Probably it belongs to that
group of beliefs which rest on the alleged powers of all kinds of animals, crediting them with a
prescience in some respects superhuman. Thus the vulture is said, with some show of evidence,
to know when death is likely to overtake the desert traveller; the cattle on the prairie
“scent” the storm long before the cowboy knows it is coming; the howling dog presages
death, and the attendant shark is credited with knowing more than the M.D. In the days of
sailing vessels and slow voyages, the mariner was more superstitious than he is to-day,
because he was more at the mercy of wind and weather—and he had funerals at sea often
enough to support, if not originate, the superstition of the shark. The modern liner, with more
people aboard and more chances of death, harbours no belief in the supernatural knowledge
of fish, great or small; so many vessels are passing too and fro that the shark has his pick of
them, and need not follow one for days together. But in past centuries he had no such luck;
when he found a sailing ship he stuck to it in the hope of finding a meal, not of human flesh,
but of anything he could get hold of. And so many sharks followed so many vessels in the
course of years, that there was ample room for the evolution of a superstition to the effect
that a persistent shark could scent death on board.
Black cats for luck: that is an old and an equally modern superstition. But it must be really
black, with no admixture of other colours; not even a single hair. A lady who recently lost her
cat said, “I should not have minded, but it was perfectly black.” The following instance of a
belief in black-cat luck is taken from the Badminton Magazine (March, 1903):—”The Prince
(Ranjitsinghi) has a great superstition in black cats, and the appearance of one at a shooting
gathering serves to convince him in advance of a fine morning, plus a fine bag, and singularly
enough it always turns out so. Twice in succession, he claims, has the timely appearance of a
black cat been instrumental in winning a county match for Sussex, in addition to other occasions.”
A superstitious belief in cats, black and otherwise, is of great antiquity. Among the
Egyptians the animals were regarded with the utmost reverence, and their mummified
remains, a cargo of which was imported to England not many years ago, are frequently found
in the same tombs as their worshippers. In witchcraft and soothsaying, cats have always
played no unimportant part, and wherever we see a picture or description of a witch’s hovel,
there, too, we shall certainly find portrayed her companion in darkness—a black cat.
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“In a dirtie haire-lace
She leads on a brace
Of black-bore-cats to attend her;
Who scratch at the moone,
And threaten at noone
Of night from Heaven to render her.”
-HERRICK (“The Hag”)
One of the special ingredients in the filthy concoctions with which these hags were supposed
to work their villainy was the brains of a black cat. Ben Jonson in his Masque of Queens
mentions this ingredient in the song sung by the witches:—
“I from the jaws of a gardener’s bitch,
Did snatch these bones and then leaped the ditch;
Yet I went back to the house again,
Killed the black cat, and here’s the brain.”
The black cat has been accounted lucky from time immemorial, but that is about all that can
be traced. There is no reason why this position should have been assigned to him; and of
course the superstition itself is an absurdity among the most illiterate of its kind.
The cuckoo has been long considered as a bird of omen. Gay, in his Shepherd’s Week, in the
fourth Pastoral, notes the vulgar superstitions on first hearing the bird sing in the season:—
“When first the year, I heard the cuckoo sing,
And call with welcome note the budding Spring,
I straightway set a running with such haste,
Deb’rah that won the smock scarce ran so fast.
Till spent for lack of breath, quite weary grown,
Upon a rising bank I sat adown,
And doff’d my shoe, and by my troth I swear,
Therein I spied this yellow frizzled hair,
As like to Lubberkin’s in curl and hue,
As if upon his comely pate it grew.”
The present writer can remember that, during his youth in the North of England, boys on first
hearing the cuckoo would take out of their pockets the money lying therein (if any) and spit on
it for luck. The habit was not elegant, but Sir Henry Ellis refers to the practice as marking the
northern counties in particular: “It is vulgarly accounted an unlucky omen if you have no
money in your pocket when you hear the cuckoo for the first time in a season.”
What is the origin of this superstition? It can only be this: that all birds signifying the advent of
spring are regarded as welcome messengers of the return of life to the earth. They bring
good news; their coming is omen-ous of better things—like the coming of the swallow, who
shares the good luck omen of the cuckoo.
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(25) COMETS.
If the usual appearance of Nature was sufficiently marvellous to beget all kinds of superstitions
in the mind of the untutored savage, it is only natural that the sudden advent of a blazing
comet in the sky should affright him, and give rise to all kinds of crude notions about coming
disasters. To some extent this is true of the civilised world, especially that part of it which
is morbidly religious and dominated by prophecies respecting the Second Coming of Christ.
Take the year 1712. Whiston—the mathematical divine, the translator of Josephus—had predicted
that the comet of 1712 would appear on Wednesday, the 14th October, at five minutes
after five o’clock A.M.; and that the world would be destroyed by fire on the Friday following.
His reputation for science was as high as his character for orthodoxy was questionable, and
the comet appeared punctually—leading to an inferential fear that the rest of the prediction
would be as punctually fulfilled. A number of persons got into boats and barges in the
Thames, thinking the water the safest place. South Sea and India stock fell. The captain of a
Dutch ship threw all his powder into the river, that the ship might not be endangered. At noon,
after the comet appeared, it is said that more than one hundred clergymen were ferried over
to Lambeth Palace, to request that proper prayers might be prepared, there being none in the
church service appropriate to such an emergency. People believed that the Day of Judgment
was at hand, and acted, some on this belief, but more as if some temporary evil was to be
expected. Many wrongs were righted, many breaches of morality repaired. There was a great
run on the bank; and Sir Gilbert Heathcote, at that time head director, issued orders to all the
fire-offices in London, requesting them to keep a good look-out, and have a particular eye on
the Bank of England. On the whole, the poor Londoners of that generation appear to have
behaved rather foolishly in the moment of imagined doom.
But in this year of grace 1910, when the daily press is full of references to the Miners’ Comet
and to Halley’s Comet, there are semi-superstitious journalists and rabid politicians who are
trying to see “signs” in the heavens. It is not a question of providing “copy” during the stress
of a General Election, or of supplying notes about what happened when Halley’s Comet
appeared on previous occasions; the references were so put that the reader could not help
getting the impression of a keen desire on the part of the writer to turn the comet into an
omen of ill. We laugh at Whiston, but candidly we are not much better when we attempt to
make political capital out of a star with a tail. Why not believe in astrology at once?
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The Britisher acquainted with his Bible has an easy explanation of the superstitious regard for
wells and fountains: “in hot and dry countries water is so valuable and necessary that the
sources of the supply come to be looked upon as almost divine; verily the gifts of the gods.
Whatever remnants of this superstition still remain are due to this natural cause.” But such an
explanation is quite inadequate, inasmuch as it merely accounts for the Eastern sense of
water’s value as an economic necessity. Over and above that, however, there is evidence to
show that all nations have held wells and fountains in a kind of religious awe; in fact, the religious
element has been uppermost, and although there is always an organic connection
between the material benefit and the spiritual ideal, that connection is very slight in humid
countries like Ireland, where at one time the worship of wells was as extravagant as anywhere
in the Far East. On an island near the centre of Lough Fine there used to be a place
for pilgrims anxious to get rid of their sins, the journey over the water being an important part
of the business. It was believed to be easier to get rid of sin on an island than on the mainland.
In Scotland (Tullie Beltane) there is a Druid temple of eight upright stones. Some distance
away is another temple, and near it a well still held in great veneration, says a writer in
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1811). “On Beltane morning superstitious people go to this well
and drink of it; then they make a procession round it nine times; after this they in like manner
go round the temple. So deep-rooted is this heathenish superstition in the minds of many who
reckon themselves good Protestants, that they will not neglect these rites even when Beltane
falls on a Sabbath.” Side by side with this account may be placed another (taken from The
Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. xii., 1794). The place referred to is Kirkmichael, in Banff.
“Near the kirk of this parish there is a fountain, once highly celebrated, and anciently dedicated
to St Michael. Many a patient have its waters restored to health, and many more have
attested the efficacy of their virtues. But, as the presiding power is sometimes capricious, and
apt to desert his charge, it now lies neglected, choked with weeds, unhonoured and unfrequented.
In better days, it was not so; for the winged guardian, under the semblance of a fly,
was never absent from his duty. If the sober matron wished to know the issue of her husband’s
ailment, or the love-sick nymph that of her languishing swain, they visited the well of
St Michael. Every movement of the sympathetic fly was regarded in silent awe; and as he
appeared cheerful or dejected, the anxious votaries drew their presages their breasts vibrated
with correspondent emotions. Like the Delai Lama of Thibet, or the King of Great Britain,
whom a fiction of the English law supposes never to die, the guardian fly of the well of St
Michael was believed to be exempted from the laws of mortality. To the eye of ignorance he
might sometimes appear dead, but, agreeably to the Druidic system, it was only a transmigration
into a similar form, which made little alteration on the real identity.” “Not later than a fortnight
ago” (it is added) “the writer of this account was much entertained to hear an old man
lamenting with regret the degeneracy of the times, particularly the contempt in which objects
of former veneration were held by the unthinking crowd. If the infirmities of years and the distance
of his residence did not prevent him, he would still pay his devotional visits to the well
of St Michael. He would clear the bed of its ooze, open a passage for the streamlet, plant the
borders with fragrant flowers, and once more, as in the days of youth, enjoy the pleasure of
seeing the guardian fly skim in sportive circles over the bubbling wave, and with its little proboscis
imbibe the panacean dews.”
In Wales, the same regard for Holy Wells is perhaps more distinctive than in other parts of the
country, probably because the medical or curative properties have been more closely allied
Page 88
with the religious element. Holywell (or St. Winefred’s) was a famous well for stricken pilgrims
so far back as the fourteenth century, and the modern holiday-maker doing a North Wales
tour, can still see the pilgrims of the day journeying to St. Winefred’s, in the hope of leaving
their troubles behind them. Pennant, in his Tour in Wales, speaking of the village of
Llandegla, where is a church dedicated to St. Tecla, virgin and martyr, who, after her conversion
by St. Paul, suffered under Nero at Iconium, says:—”About two hundred yards from the
church, in a quillet called Gwern Degla, rises a small spring. The water is under the tutelage
of the saint, and to this day held to be extremely beneficial in the falling sickness. The patient
washes his limbs in the well; makes an offering into it of fourpence; walks round it three
times; and thrice repeats the Lord’s Prayer. These ceremonies are never begun till after sunset,
in order to inspire the votaries with greater awe. If the afflicted be of the male sex, like
Socrates, he makes an offering of a cock to his AEsculapius, or rather to Tecla, Hygeia; if of
the fair sex, a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well, after that into the
churchyard, when the same orisons and the same circum-ambulations are performed round
the church. The votary then enters the church, gets under the communion-table, lies down
with the Bible under his or her head, is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till
break of day, departing after offering sixpence, and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird
dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected, and the disease transferred to the devoted
It would be possible to duplicate instances of this kind all over the country, but the most interesting
cases are those relating to the superstition of decorating wells and fountains. Here is
an illuminating letter from a correspondent of The Gentleman’s Magazine (1794):—
“Your correspondent F. J. having given you a short account of the custom still prevalent at
Tissington, in Derbyshire, of decorating wells on Holy Thursday, please to inform him that it
was anciently no uncommon practice; and two places in the county of Stafford instantly
occurred to my recollection (Brewood and Bilbrook), where the same custom was observed of
late years, if not at the present time. And I believe the same kind of ornaments were used to
decorate all Gospel-places, whether wells, trees, or hills. In Popish times this respect was
paid to such wells as were eminent for curing distempers upon the Saint’s Day whose name
the well bore, the people diverting themselves with cakes and ale, music and dancing; which
was innocent enongh in comparison with what had been formerly practised at different
places, when even the better sort of people placed a sanctity in them, brought alms and offerings,
and made vows at them; as the ancient Germans and Britons did, and the Saxons and
English were too much inclined to; for which St. Edmund’s Well, near Oxford, and St.
Lawrence’s at Peterborough were once famous. This superstitious devotion, which was called
well worship, was not approved of by the heads of the Church, and was strictly prohibited by
our Anglican Councils: (1) under King Edgar; (2) under King Canute; (3) in a Council at
London under St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1102; as it was also particularly at those
two wells near Oxford and at Peterborough by Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Lincoln.”
I propose now to give an account of how the Tissington Well was decorated, and then to
enquire into the origin of the ceremony itself. “The flowers were inserted in moist clay and put
upon boards, cut in various forms, surrounded with boughs of laurel and white thorn, so as to
give an appearance of water issuing from small grottoes. The flowers were adjusted and
arranged in various patterns to give the effect of mosaic work, having inscribed upon them
texts of Scripture appropriate to the season, and sentences expressive of the kindness of the
Deity.” The sams writer (1823) adds: “I will now proceed to give an account of the circumstances
attendant on this annual festival on May 8, 1823, while I was on a visit at Ashburn
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with my friend, the Rev. Thomas Gibbs, second master of the Grammar School there, and
curate of Tissington. There are five wells, and the Psalms appointed for the morning service,
with the Epistle and Gospel for the day, being omitted at church, were read by Mr Gibbs, one
at each well, when a Psalm was also sung by the parish choir. I officiated in the church, and
preached a sermon on the occasion . . . from the church, the congregation walked to the first,
or the Hall Well. As there is a recess at the back of the well, and an elevated wall, a great
profusion of laurel branches were placed upon it, interspered with daffodils, Chinese roses,
and marsh marigolds. Over the spring was a square board surrounded with a crown, composed
of white and red daisies. The board, being covered with moss, had written upon it in
red daisies:
‘While He blessed them, He was carried up into Heaven.’
The second well was Hand’s Well. This was also surrounded with laurel branches, and had a
canopy placed over it, covered with polyanthuses. The words on the canopy were:
‘The Lord’s unsparing hand
Supplies us with this spring.’
The letters were formed with the bud of the larch, and between the lines were two rows of
purple primroses and marsh marigolds. In the centre above the spring, on a moss ground, in
letters of white daisies:
‘Sons of Earth
The triumph join.’
The second Psalm for the day was read here. The third was Frith’s Well. This was greatly
admired, as it was situated in Mr Frith’s garden and the shrubs around it were numerous.
Here were formed two arches, one within the other. The first had a ground of wild hyacinths
and purple primroses, edged with white, on which was inscribed, in red daisies:
The receding arch was covered with various flowers, and in the centre on a ground of marsh
marigolds, edged with wild hyacinths in red daisies:
‘Peace be unto you.’
Here was read the third Psalm of the day. The fourth, or Holland’s Well, was thickly surrounded
with branches of white thorn, placed in the earth. This well springs from a small coppice of
firs and thorn. The form of the erection over it was a circular arch, and in the centre on a
ground of marsh marigolds, edged with purple primroses, in red daisies these words:
‘In God is all.’
At this well was read the Epistle. The fifth, or Goodwin’s Well, was surrounded with branches
of evergreens, having on a Gothic arch in red daisies:
‘He did no sin.’
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At this well was read the Gospel. The day concluded by the visitors partaking of the hospitality
of the inhabitants, and being gratified with a well-arranged band playing appropriate pieces
of music at each other’s houses.”
This rather lengthy description is worth reproducing, because it shows how an old superstition
can be purified of its worst elements, and transformed into a truly Christian celebration. It is
noteworthy also as a long-continued and successful protest against the condemnation of such
festivals by Bishops and Councils. In itself the festival was as logical, and infinitely more
beautiful than, a modern harvest thanksgiving service.
Decorating with rags is a variation difficult to account for. Grose makes an attempt to explain
the custom, quoting from an old M.S.:—”Between the towns of Alten and newton, near the
foot of the Rosberrye Toppinge, there is a well dedicated to St. Oswald. The neighbours have
an opinion that a shirt, or shift, taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show
whether the person will recover or die; for, if it floated, it denoted the recovery of the party; if it
sunk, there remained no hope of their life; and to reward the saint for his intelligence, they
tear off a rag of the shirt, and leave it hanging on the briers thereabouts; where,” says the
writer, “I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rheme in a paper-myll.”
There is an echo of this theory in The Statistical Account of Scotland:—”A spring in the Moss
of Melshach, of the chalybeate kind, is still in reputation among the common people. Its sanative
qualities extend even to brutes. As this Spring probably obtained vogue at first in days of
ignorance and superstition, it would appear that it became customary to leave at the well part
of the clothes of the sick and diseased, and harness of the cattle, as an offering of gratitude
to the divinity who bestowed healing virtues on its waters. And now, even though the superstitious
principle no longer exists, the accustomed offerings are still presented.”
Again, the same authority says of the parish of Mary-Kirk, Kincardine:—”There is at Balmano
a fine spring well, called St. John’s Well, which in ancient times was held in great estimation.
Numbers who thought its waters of a sanative quality, brought their rickety children to be
washed in its stream. Its water was likewise thought a sovereign remedy for sore eyes, which,
by frequent washing, was supposed to cure them. To show their gratitude to the saint, and
that he might be propitious to continue the virtues of the waters, they put into the well presents,
not indeed of any great value, or such as would have been of the least service to him if
he had stood in need of money, but such as they conceived the good and merciful apostle,
who did not delight in costly oblations, could not fail to accept. The presents generally given
were pins, needles, and rags taken from their clothes. This may point out the superstition of
those times.”
Macaulay in his History of St. Kilda, speaking of a consecrated well in that island called
Tobirnimbuadh, or the spring of diverse virtues, says that “near the fountain stood an altar, on
which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before they could touch sacred water
with any prospect of success, it was their constant practice to address the Genius of the
place with supplication and prayers. No one approached him with empty hands. But the devotees
were abundantly frugal. The offerings presented by them were the poorest acknowledgments
that could be made to a superior being, from whom they had either hopes or fears.
Shells and pebbles, rags of linen or stuffs worn out, pins, needles, or rusty nails, were generally
all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though rarely enough, copper coins of the
smallest value. Among the heathens of Italy and other countries, every choice fountain was
consecrated, and sacrifices were offered to them, as well as to the deities that presided over
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them. See Ovid’s Fasti, lib. iii. 300.
‘Fonti rex Numa mactat ovem.’
“Horace, in one of his odes, made a solemn promise that he would make a present of a very
fine kid, some sweet wine and flowers to a noble fountain in his own Sabine Villa.” There
appears to be good reason for supporting this theory that the rags and pieces of cloth represent
the healing power of the well, a theory which finds confirmation from travellers in other
parts of the world. Hannay in his Travels in Persia says: “After ten days’ journey we arrived at
a desolate caravanserai, where we found nothing but water. I observed a tree with a number
of rags tied to the branches: these were so many charms, which passengers coming from
Ghilan, a province remarkable for agues, had left there, in a fond expectation of leaving their
disease also on the same spot.”
Park in his Travels in the interior of Africa says:—”The company advanced as far as a large
tree, called by the natives Neema Taba. It had a very singular appearance, being covered
with innumerable rags or scraps of cloth, which persons travelling across the wilderness had
at different times tied to its branches; a custom so generally followed that no one passes it
without hanging up something.” Mr Park followed the example, and suspended a handsome
piece of cloth on one of the boughs.
But apart from medical powers, wells were regarded as possessing occult powers: this is
seen in the existence of the wishing well. Pennant, in describing St. Winefred’s, says that
“near the steps, two feet beneath the water is a large stone, called the wishing stone. It
receives many a kiss from the faithful, who are supposed never to fail in experiencing the
completion of their desires, provided the wish is delivered with full devotion and confidence.”
And Moore in his Monastic Remains, says of Walsingham Chapel, Norfolk:—”The wishing
wells still remain—two circular stone pits filled with water, enclosed with a square wall, where
the pilgrims used to kneel and throw in a piece of gold whilst they prayed for the accomplishment
of their wishes.”
Reviewing the whole subject, one can see how natural is both the superstition and its gradual
disappearance. Not that it has yet disappeared, for large pilgrimages leave this country every
year for Lourdes; and as already stated, St. Winefred’s has its yearly visitants. These people
would not call themselves superstitious: they believe God and the Virgin are associated with
these waters in a special sense, over and above any medical properties such waters may
possess, like those of Harrogate, Matlock, and Homburg. The evidence for a divine association
is the vision of the Virgin seen by some of the faithful, and when this vision is supported
by numerous cures, nothing is wanting to complete conviction. Somebody asks, “Are the
cures genuine?” The answer is, “Many of them are.” The true explanation is the effect of mind
on body by means of faith. Scores of testimonies outside the Church altogether are to be
found in the pages of medical literature, indeed medical men are themselves becoming more
and more disinclined to administer drugs, using mental, natural, and dietetic measures
instead. But the feelings of the faithful in believing that the Deity has a partiality for wells and
fountains is the survival of an ancient superstition, perhaps one might say the most ancient
superstition in the world. Everything had its spirit, in the belief of primeval man; the tree, the
brook, the mountain, the cave—each was presided over by a spirit who needed to be propitiated
by sacrifice, prayer, or charm, ere the poor human could receive the benefits he sought
for. It is a far cry from Animism to Lourdes, but there is a definite connection between the two.
Both believed in the spirit of the well.
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Mr MacDonagh, in his notes to Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures of National Life and History,
says that when Henry III. granted the “Charta de Foresta” there was great rejoicing in some
parts of England, and that the modern horn dance is the repetition of an old custom instituted
to celebrate that event.” Previous monarchs had afforested such vast areas that the greater
part of the country had become forest, and this circumstance, coupled with the very severe
penalties imposed for offences connected with the chase, had bred much discontent among
the people. The charter restored to them large tracts of land as well as mitigated the barbarous
punishments, mutilation and death being forbidden; consequently it was hailed with
joy and celebrated with a dramatic form of dance which was performed in the characters of
stags and huntsmen.”
The characters of the dance are curiousIy dressed in spotted breeches, and carry reindeer
horns mounted on a pole. A musician plays an accordion (which seems an infinite pity) but all
the other implements are kept by the vicar in the church tower. The early history of the horns
is unknown. There is a “fool,” and Robin Hood and a sportsman make up the list. The dance
itself is of the nature of a hunt down the main street. The “deer” rush away and the hunters
“shoot” them. The idea is apparently to assert the rights of the chase.
The use of horns in this case is quite logical and natural, but there is some obscurity in their
use at the Charlton Horn Fair described by Grose. “It consists of a riotous mob, who, after a
printed summons dispersed through the adjacent towns, meet at Cuckold’s Point, near
Deptford, and march from thence in procession through that town and Greenwich to Charlton,
with horns of different kinds on their heads; and at the fair there are sold ram’s horns, and
every sort of toy made of horn; even the gingerbread figures have horns.” It appears from
Fuller’s Whole Life (1703) that it was the fashion in his time to go to Horn Fair dressed in
women’s clothes. “I remember being there upon Horn Fair Day, I was dressed in my landlady’s
best gown and other women’s attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming
back by water, all the cloaths were spoiled by dirty water, &c., that was flung on us in an inundation,
for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the
damage sustained, &c.”
The horns on a stick figure in another custom mentioned by Grose in his Classical Dictionary
of the Mother Tongue:—
“HIGHGATE. Sworn at Highgate.—A ridiculous custom formerly prevailed at the public houses
in Highgate, to administer a ludicrous oath to all travellers of the middling rank who
stopped there. The party was sworn on a pair of horns, fastened on a stick; the substance of
the oath was, never to kiss the maid when he could kiss the mistress, never to drink small
beer when he could get strong; with many other injunctions of the like kind, to all which was
added the saving clause, ‘Unless you like it best.’ The person administering the oath was
always to be called Father by the juror, and he in return was to style him Son, under the
penalty of a bottle.”
The ancient use of horns has not yet been solved to the satisfaction of antiquarians, but at
any rate the Abbot’s Bromley ceremony is able to account for itself in a manner that older and
extinct customs cannot equal.
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“A Bedfordshire woman was telling me the other day,” says a writer in a Northern daily paper,
“how her son had been stung all over by bees. ‘And no wonder,’ she said, ‘he never told them
he was going to put them in a new ‘ome, and everybody knows that before you goes to put
bees in a new ‘ome, you must knock three times on the top of the ‘ive and tell ‘em, same as
you must tell ‘em when anyone dies in the ‘ouse. Ef you don’t, they’ll be spiteful, for bees is
understanding creatures, an’ knows what you say to them.”
Yes, in secluded villages, among old people, the bee superstition still exists, but the modern
apiarist will have none of it. To him it is a bit of poetry from out of the past. And it has some
poetry in it; in fact it is one of the most picturesque of all rural superstitions, and some of
them are neither picturesque nor decent. Whittier’s “Telling the Bees” is so good a description
of the idea that it is worth quoting in part:—
“Just the same as a month before,—
The house and the trees,
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,—
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.
Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.
Trembling, I listened: The summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we all must go!
Then I said to myself, ‘My Mary weeps
For the dead to-day;
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away.’
But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.
And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:
‘Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!’”
Brand does not mention “telling the bees,” nor does Sir Henry Ellis, but the latter has some
notes which apparently go further back than the origin of the “telling.” In Molle’s Living
Libraries (1621) we read:—”Who would beleeve without superstition (if experience did not
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make it credible), that most commonly all the bees die in their hives, if the master or mistresse
of the house chance to die, except the hives be presently removed into some other
place? And yet I know this hath hapned to folke no way stained with superstition.”
Here the bees are not to be told of a death in the house: they die themselves if the hives are
not removed. In a later century they do not die, but the hives must be turned round.
I found the following in the “Argus,” a London newspaper, Sept. 13, 1790; “A superstitious
custom prevails at every funeral in Devonshire, of turning round the bee-hives that belonged
to the deceased, if he had any, and that at the moment the corpse is carrying out of the
house. At a funeral some time since, at Collumpton, of a rich old farmer, a laughable circumstance
of this sort occurred: for, just as the corpse was placed in the hearse, and the horsemen,
to a large number, were drawn up in order for the procession of the funeral, a person
called out, ‘Turn the bees,’ when a servant who had no knowledge of such a custom, instead
of turning the hives about, lifted them up, and then laid them down on their sides. The bees,
thus hastily invaded, instantly attacked and fastened on the horses and their riders. It was in
vain they galloped off, the bees as precipitately followed, and left their stings as marks of their
indignation. A general confusion took place, attended with loss of hats, wigs, etc., and the
corpse during the conflict was left unattended; nor was it till after a considerable time that the
funeral attendants could be rallied, in order to proceed to the interment of their deceased
If one must find a suitable source for all these varying ideas about bees and bee hives, it can
only be in the mysteries surrounding the activities and habits of bees, now much better understood
than they used to be; and in the manner in which signs of a religious nature were
sought and found in daily phenomena. To the intelligence of the peasant a bee could not but
provide marvels sufficient to win his respect, if not something more; for the bee worked industriously
and cleverly on behalf of the peasant, and asked no wages. In other words, the peasant
was a debtor to the bee, and his attitude was one of gratitude. Out of this feeling, no
doubt, arose a sense of identity in interests—a fellow-feeling which prompted him to “tell the
bees” of a death, and to turn the hive at a burial.
The religious element is seen in a letter, dated 1811, contributed to The Gentleman’s
Magazine. The writer says: “There is in this part of Yorkshire a custom which has been by the
country-people more or less revived, ever since the alteration in the style and calendar:
namely, the watching in the midnight of the new and old ‘Xmas Eve by bee-hives, to determine
upon the right ‘Xmas from the humming noise which they suppose the bees will make
when the birth of our Saviour took place. Disliking innovations, the utility of which they understand
not, the oracle, they affirm, always prefers the most antient custom.” This is a good
instance of using bees as a means of divination, and when once a people start divining, a
crowd of omens is sure to follow in their train.
The theory that when the bees in a farmer’s hives die, he will soon be compelled to move
from the farm, is easily accounted for by Mr Gibson. “A hive of bees rarely dies unless the
season is so bad that it is disastrous to farming; consequently, where a farmer holds his farm
on a yearly tenancy, it may follow that he will find it necessary to go elsewhere to build up his
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Once called the passing-bell, or the soul-bell, the death-bell is still a modern fact in some
parts of the country, being rung, according, to rules, on the death of a parishioner; there are
knells for men, for women, and for children. Of course, bells are as old as creation—in China
they date back to times beyond the Bible record. The point we have to settle is: why did the
clergy ring the bell when a member of the congregation died? The first answer is: he rung it,
or caused it to be rung, before the member died; that is, whilst praying for the dead and ringing
for the dead were practically, identical, there was a preliminary ringing before death took
The following clause, in the “Advertisements for due Order, etc.,” in the 7th year of Queen
Elizabeth, is much to our purpose:—
“Item, that when anye Christian bodie is in passing, that the bell be tolled, and that the curate
be speciallie called for to comforte the sicke person; and after the time of his passinge, to
ringe no more but one short peale; and one before the buriall, and another short peale after
the buriall.”
But the ringing is not explained in this ancient order; it does no more than give the ecclesiastical
rule. Grose goes deeper into the subject. “The passing-bell,” he says, “was anciently rung
for two purposes: one, to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing;
the other, to drive away the evil spirits who stood at the bed’s foot and about the house, ready
to seize their prey, or at least to molest and terrify the soul in its passage: but by the ringing
of that bell (for Durandus informs us evil spirits are much afraid of bells) they were kept aloof;
and the soul, like a hunted hare, gained the start, or had what is by sportsmen called law.”
“Hence, perhaps, exclusive of the additional labour, was occasioned the high price demanded
for tolling the greatest bell of the church; for, that being louder, the evil spirits must go farther
off to be clear of its sound, by which the poor soul got so much more the start of them:
besides, being heard farther off, it would likewise procure the dying man a greater number of
prayers. This dislike of spirits to bells is mentioned in the Golden Legend by Wynkyn de
I fear we shall have to admit the accuracy of this statement about driving away the devils.
Naturally we have long since discarded the superstition; and to-day the tolling is soft and subdued;
but, as the question of origins is the one uppermost in this book, we have no option but
to confess that the underlying idea was two-fold: to call the living Christian to prayer, and to
scare the fiends who were waiting to pounce on a departing soul.
To find the first references to vampires, we have to go back to the records of Chaldea and
Assyria, but these records do no more than inform us of a current belief in the existence and
raids of these monsters; there is nothing to explain their origin and nothing to justify them.
They are accepted as facts. In some quarters of the globe, especially on the European
Continent, Servia, Austria, and parts of the Balkans, the dread of the vampire is still a living
force; not with people of intelligence and education, but with the uninstructed peasantry. And
yet it would not be fair to the countries named to generalise so freely, and a strict regard for
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truth compels us to say that the vampire superstition lives in those isolated districts where the
tradition of its ravages is strongest.
Mr Bram Stoker’s Dracula aroused a good deal of interest in this country as to the reality of
phenomena recorded in history; and when it was followed by “Modern Vampirism: its dangers
and how to avoid them,” by A. O. Eaves, a book on which I shall have something to say later,
it is clear that there yet lingers among us a kind of half notion that Vampirism may contain a
germ of truth.
That Vampirism is not an exploded superstition is evident from an even earlier book, which
bears the name of Herbert Mayo, M.D., formerly Senior Surgeon of Middlesex Hospital, and
Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at King’s College. The book is intitled, On the Truths
contained in Popular Superstitions, and is dated 1851. After describing the alleged methods
of vampires and the means of avoiding their attacks (according to the best authorities), Dr.
Mayo goes on to say, “This is no romancer’s dream. It is a succinct account of a superstition
which to this day survives in the East of Europe, where little more than a century ago it was
frightfully prevalent. At that period Vampirism spread like a pestilence through Servia and
Wallachia, causing numerous deaths, and disturbing all the land with fear of the mysterious
visitation against which none felt himself secure. Here is something like a good, solid, practical,
popular delusion. Do I believe it? To be sure I do. The facts are matters of history; the
people died like rotted sheep; and the cause and method of their dying was, in their belief,
what has just been stated.” Dr. Mayo then begins to establish the reasons why he believed
the phenomena of Vampirism were real in the places mentioned, quoting at length the evidence
of a document signed by three regimental surgeons, and formally countersigned by a
lieutenant-colonel and sub-lieutenant. The date is June 7, 1732, and the place is Mednegna,
near Belgrade. A specimen case will give the reader an idea of its contents. “A woman of the
name of Miliza had died at the end of a three months’ illness. The body had been buried ninety
odd days. In the chest was liquid blood. The body was declared by a heyduk, who recognised
it, to be in better condition and fatter than it had been in the woman’s life-time.” This is
in keeping with the theory that a vampire is “a dead body which continues to live in the grave;
which it leaves, however, by night, for the purpose of sucking the blood of the living, whereby
it is nourished and preserved in good condition.” Dealing with the physiology of the matter
first of all, Dr Mayo contends that an epidemic of Vampirism may be started by a few premature
burials; and that they are the bodies of persons who have been buried alive. This statement
is quite sufficiently startling to compel a pause. A lot of people are buried before they
are dead, if we are to believe in the testimony of careful inquirers, and yet we do not seem to
have outbreaks of Vampirism as they had in the eighteenth century. Besides, what has
become of the possibility of smothering a man to death by screwing him down in a coffin, and
interring him in seven feet of earth? What is there after that to keep the average stockbroker
from resuming life and activity? These are questions which cannot be set aside.
Dr Mayo can find no satisfactory explanation of the activity of the vampire when on the rampage.
It is the ghost of the vampire which visits the victim and sucks his blood: a very substantial
ghost, indeed. But he thinks the death-trance of the victim may become epidemic,
acting by means of suggestion. Very true; the whole thing is suggestion from beginning to
end. We have only to make people believe in the possibility of being operated upon after the
manner of the vampire, and imagination will do the rest.
It is distinctly annoying to take up a modern book on the subject and find that the author’s first
words are: “Want of space will prevent elaborate and detailed proofs being given of the state-
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ments made in the following paper. Most of the statements made have been verified by more
than one of the investigators into the subjects dealt with, observers who have developed within
themselves extensions of faculties possessed by all, but latent as yet in most of us.” When
Mr A. O. Eaves starts out in this manner, we know what value to place upon his stories, his
arguments, and his conclusions. Of course, to him the origin of vampire superstitions is in the
fact that vampires have always existed. A bad man dies and can’t get away from his earth life.
He strives to come back again into earthly conditions, and Vampirism is one of the ways open
to him. Says Mr Eaves:—”In the case of those removed by accident, or suicide, in which no
preparation of any kind has been made, and where all the life-forces are in full play, if the life
has been a degraded one, then they will be alive to the horrors of this plane. They will be cut
adrift, as it were, with all their passional nature strong upon them, and must remain on that
plane until the time their death in an ordinary manner would have taken place. Thus a man
killed at 25, who would otherwise have reached the age of 75, would spend half a century
upon this plane. In case of the suicides, seeing they have not accomplished their end, viz., to
put an end to existence, the return for earth-life grows upon them with terrible zest.”
“It is here that one of the dangers of Vampirism occurs. If the experience they seek cannot be
obtained without a physical body, only two courses are open for them. One is to do so vicariously.
To do this, they must feed on the emanations arising from blood and alcohol; public
houses and slaughterhouses are thronged with these unhappy creatures, which hang about
and feed thus. From this standpoint the habit of offering blood-sacrifices to propitiate entities,
as found recorded in some of the world-scriptures, becomes luminous, and the history of
magic teems with such examples. Not content, however, with thus prolonging their existence
on the lower level of the astral plane, the entities lure on those human beings whose tastes
are depraved, causing them to go to all kinds of excesses, enticing them on in sensuality and
vice of every kind. Each time a man yields to temptation, the supremacy over him which
these creatures hold becomes the stronger; they gain possession of his will, till at length they
control him altogether. How many men, who have hitherto lived a blameless life, have on the
spur of the moment committed some heinous crime, and the public have marvelled how they
came to do it. The explanation offered after the commission of the crime has often been to
the effect that they could not tell what possessed them to do it, but they felt a sudden impulse
sweep over them and they obeyed it. Here, without doubt, is the genesis of the conception of
a tempter, and one feels more inclined to pity than to blame in many cases.”
If the censorship of books is needed, it is needed in such cases as Modern Vampirism. A
young girl of highly nervous temperament might easily be obsessed by reading it, purely
through the action of imagination. Mr Eaves is quite sincere, and means well, but the mischief
of his book in some hands is palpable. No doubt, to think and live purely is, as he says, a
“defence”; it is a defence against many evils on the ordinary plane of life; but when he advocates
a plentiful use of garlic and the placing of small saucers of nitric acid to scare away
vampires, we wonder whether we are still in the middle ages.
To recapitulate: The origin of vampire superstitions must be sought in the ignorance of early
races who buried their dead in the earth, for it is singular that the races which cremate their
dead have been practically free from vampire legends. Earth burial has never been free from
the possibility of premature interment, and although there is no reason to believe that a man
buried alive will not die in his coffin of suffocation, an ignorant peasantry seemed to imagine
that he could live, issue forth at night, and keep himself alive by sucking the blood of the living.
It is notable that as disbelief in this notion assumed large proportions, owing to the
advance of education and refinement, the phenomena disappeared. Visitations as recorded in
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history have borne the marks of an epidemic, and even Dr Mayo was not averse to the proposition
that a man who had a wasting disease, or was threatened with one, could imagine himself
vampirised and thus spread the contagion to others. Vampirism is only another proof of
the power of the mind over the body. It is the fixed idea that does the work. Mr Stanley
Redgrove quotes an illustration from J. G. Fraser’s Psyche’s Task:—
“In illustration of the real power of the imagination, we may instance the Maori superstition of
the Taboo. According to the Maoris, any one who touches a tabooed object will assuredly die,
the tabooed object being a sort of ‘anti-talisman.’ Professor Frazer says:—’Cases have been
known of Maoris dying of sheer fright on learning that they had unwittingly eaten the remains
of a chiet’s dinner, or handled something that belonged to him,’ since such objects were ipso
facto tabooed. He gives the following case on good authority: ‘A woman, having partaken of
some fine peaches from a basket, was told that they had come from a tabooed place.
Immediately the basket dropped from her hands and she cried out in agony that the atua or
godhead of the chief, whose divinity had been thus profaned, would kill her. That happened in
the afternoon, and next day by twelve o’clock she was dead.’ For us the power of the taboo
does not exist; for the Maori, who implicitly believes in it, it is a very potent reality, but this
power of the taboo resides, not in the external objects, but in his own mind.” Very true. And
the power of the vampire is the power of the idea.
Birds have always figured conspicuousjy in pagan superstitions, and it is possible that the
superstitions which still linger among us, in some places at least, with regard to certain
English birds, may be an echo of the older variety. Robins are held in high esteem by most
people, except gardeners and farmers, an esteem which is partly accounted for by their
coloured breasts and partly by the song-powers of the male bird. Probably, too, this esteem
arises out of the old time superstition referred to in ancient ballads, beginning with “The
Babes in the Wood.” Percy says:—
“No burial this pretty pair
Of any man receives,
Till Robin Redbreast painfully,
Did cover them with leaves.”
From this fancy seems to have grown the notion that it is unlucky to kill or keep a robin, and
this is alluded to in the following lines of an eighteenth century poet, which occur in an ode to
the Robin:
“For ever from his threshold fly,
Who, void of honour, once shall try,
With base inhospitable breast,
To bar the freedom of his guest;
O rather seek the peasant’s shed,
For he will give thee wasted bread,
And fear some new calamity,
Should any there spread snares for thee.”
J. H. Pott’s Poems, 1780.
Page 99
Whatever fancy and superstition may do by way of investing the robin with a glory that does
not belong to him, the plain truth is that there is no more impertinent or mischievous thief in
the whole tribe of feathers.
When John Smith raises his glass in the saloon bar of “The World’s End,” and proposes the
health of his friend, John Jones, he little thinks he is perpetuating a custom which goes back
in unbroken succession to the days of the Greeks and Romans. A Roman gallant would drink
as many glasses as there were letters in the name of his mistress. Thus Martial:—
“Six cups to Naevia’s health go quickly round,
And he with seven the fair Justina crowned.”
The Tatler (vol. i. 24) ventures to account for the origin of the word toast in the following manner,
stating that it had its rise from an accident at Bath in the reign of Charles the Second:—
”It happened that, on a public day, a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath,
and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood,
and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who
offered to jump in, and swore, though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast. He was
opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done
to the lady we mention in our liquor, who has ever since been called a toast.” This is not convincing,
although it cannot be disproved. But in a book called Checmonopagerion, by R.
Thorius (1651), the following passages occur:—
“Cast wood upon the fire, thy loyns gird round
With warmer clothes, and let the tosts abound
In close array, embattled on the hearth,”
So again:—
“And tell their hard adventures by the fire,
While their friends hear, and hear, and more desire,
And all the time the crackling chesnuts roast,
And each man hath his cup, and each his toast.”
From these passages it is apparent that the saying, “Who gives a toast?” is synonymous with
“Whose turn is it to take up his cup and propose a health?” It was the practice to put toast
into ale with nutmeg and sugar. Evidently the “toast” as we know it to-day began in this practice,
and a good “toaster” was described with accuracy so far back as 1684 in The New Help
to Discourse.
Page 100
“A Toast is like a Sot; or, what is most
Comparative, a Sot is like a Toast;
For when their substances in liquor sink,
Both properly are said to be in drink.”
There are many theories to account for the ancient practice of planting churchyards and
cemeteries with yew trees. Some authorities ascribe it to the adoption of ancient funeral rites;
others to the prosaic notion of keeping the wind off the church; others, again, to the warlike
need of bows and arrows—yew being especially serviceable. A large body of writers believe
the use of the yew was symbolic—it typified by its unchanging verdure the doctrine of the resurrection.
A few cynically assert that yews, being gloomy and poisonous, are rightly used for
churchyard decoration; and there are not wanting writers who see in the practice a tribute to
the superstitious regard men have always paid to trees. We may examine one or two of these
suggestions, although no definite conclusion may be possible. We know that the ancient
Britons planted yews near their temples long before Christianity was introduced into England,
and this would suggest a custom on the island not necessarily Roman or Christian. A writer in
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1781) says:—
“We read in the Antiquities of Greece and Rome that the branches of the cypress and yew
were the usual signals to denote a house in mourning. Now, sir, as Death was a deity among
the antients (the daughter of Sleep and Night), and was by them represented in the same
manner, with the addition only of a long robe embroidered with stars, I think we may fairly
conclude that the custom of planting the yew in churchyards took its rise from Pagan superstition,
and that it is as old as the conquest of Britain by Julius Caesar.”
Gough, in the Introduction to his second volume of Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain,
speaking of the signs of death in houses among the ancients, notices branches of pine and
cypress, on the authority of Euripides, Hecuba, 191, 192 Suet. Aug. 101; AEn. xi. 31. He says
in a note, “Will it be thought a far-fetcht conjecture that yew-trees in churchyards supply the
place of cypress round tombs, where Ovid, Trist. III. xiii. 21, says they were placed?”
Far-fetched or not, the evidence is too slight to enable us to say confidently that the use of
the yew comes to us from Pagan times.
Barrington, in his Observations on the Statutes, says “that trees in a churchyard were often
planted to skreen the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the
thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. I have been
informed, accordingly, that the yew-trees in the churchyard of Gyffin, near Conway, having
been lately felled, the roof of the church hath suffered excessively.”
Page 101
This sounds like a purely private opinion, and may be dismissed without further argument.
There is a good deal to be said for the growing of yews to make bows. Sir Henry Ellis
remarks that Shakespeare in Richard II. speaks of the double fatal yew because the leaves of
the yew are poison, and the wood is employed for instruments of death. On this Stevens
observes, that “from some of the ancient statutes it appears that every Englishman, while
archery was practised, was obliged to keep in his house either a bow of yew or some other
wood. It should seem, therefore, that yews were not only planted in churchyards to defend
the churches from the wind, but on account of their use in making bows; while by the benefit
of being secured in inclosed places, their poisonous quality was kept from doing mischief to
The difficulty of this otherwise reasonable conjecture is seen in the question: Are not all plantation
grounds fenced from cattle? And why are there no more than two yew trees in each
churchyard if bow wood was so necessary?
Sir Thomas Browne, in his Hydriotaphia Urne-buriall, tell us, that among the ancients, “the
funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, cypresse, firre, larix, YEWE, and trees perpetually verdant.”
And he asks, or rather observes, “Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards holds
its original from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure,
may also admit conjecture.”
Yes, it admits of conjecture, and in all likelihood man’s choice of the yew for funeral associations
was determined by its appearance, its longevity, its utility in supplying material for
weapons, and its need of segregation on account of its poisonous qualities; in fact, nearly all
the suggested facts seem to have played some part in establishing the yew tree where we
mostly find it.
It is curious that Brand should not have noticed the superstitions of actors and actresses, for
they are as essentially a modern growth as those he has dealt with so fully were of ancient
origin; moreover, to compare the two together is to see striking points of difference and analogy.
The difference is that the superstitions of the theatre are all of them based on a firm belief
in the principle of Luck; they are secular from beginning to end, and without a spark of religious
association. The analogy lies in the fact that, like many of the old suptrstitions, they are
groundless for the most part, being no more than ipse dixits of leading artists, supposed to be
borne out by the experience of the rank and file.
To whistle in a theatre is a sign of the worst luck in the world, and there is no offence for
which the manager will scold an employee more quickly. Vaudeville performers believe it is
bad luck to change the costumes in which they first achieved success. Old actors believe the
witches’ song in Macbeth to possess the uncanny power of casting evil spells, and the majority
of them strongly dislike to play in the piece. Hum the tune in the hearing of an old actor
and the chances are you will lose his friendship. Actors will not repeat the last lines of a play
at rehearsals, nor will they go on the stage where there is a picture of an ostrich if they can
avoid it. Let them try the handle of a wrong door when seeking the manager of a theatre, or
the office of an agent, and they regard it as an omen of failure. The looping of a drop curtain,
the upsetting of a make-up box, are the certain forerunners of evil, just as certain shades of
yellow in a tie, or vest, or hat, are thought to exert an injurious influence. Even the orchestra
Page 102
leader would not allow a musician to play a yellow clarionet—everything would go wrong if he
did. Faults of memory are also attributed by actors to the costume he may be wearing.
Certain wigs bring luck, and some actors will wear one even though the part does not need
“If an actor’s shoes squeak while he is making his first entrance, it is a sure sign that he will
be well received by the audience.
“To kick off his shoes and have them alight on their soles and remain standing upright, means
good luck to him, but if they fall over, bad luck is to be expected. They will also bring him all
kinds of misfortune if placed on a chair in the dressing-room.
“If, when an acrobat throws his cuffs on the stage, preparatory to doing his turn, they remain
fastened together, all will go well; but if, on the other hand, they separate, he must look out
for squalls.
“Cats have always been considered the very best fortune-producing acquisitions a theatre
can possess, and are welcomed and protected by actor and stagehand alike. But if a cat runs
across the stage during the action of the play, misfortune is sure to follow. Bad luck will also
come to those who kick a cat.
“The actor goes the layman one better in mirror superstitions. He believes it will bring him bad
luck to have another person look into the mirror over his shoulder while he is making up
before it.
“As much care must be taken by the actor on making his entrances as in the repeating of the
lines. Not for their importance as an effect on the audience, but to avoid the ‘hoodoo’
attached to certain entries. For example: To stumble over anything on making an entrance,
the actor firmly believes, will cause him to miss a cue or forget his lines.
“If his costume catches on a piece of scenery as he goes on, he must immediately retrace his
steps and make a new entrance, or else suffer misfortunes of all sorts during the rest of the
“Even the drop-curtain contributes its share of stage superstitions, as nearly every actor and
manager believes it is bad luck to look out at the audience from the wrong side of it when it is
down. Some say it is the prompt side that casts the evil spell, while others contend it is the
opposite side. The management not being sure from which side the bad luck is likely to
accrue, places a peep-hole directly in the centre.
“The players are not the only ones in the theatre having superstitions. The ‘front of the house’
have their pet ones as well.
“In the box-office, if the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman,
it means to the ticket-seller that the play will have a long run. A young person means the
reverse. A torn bank-note means a change of position for the man in the box-office, while a
gold certificate, strange to say, is a sign of bad luck.
Page 103
“The usher seating the first patron of the evening fondly imagines that he will be lucky until
the end of the performance, but if the first coupon he handles calls for one of the many thirteen
seats, he is quite sure that it will bring him bad luck for the rest of the night.”
To the usher, a tip from a woman for a programme also spells misfortune, and few of the oldtimers
will accept it. A woman fainting in the theatre is sure to bring bad luck to the usher in
whose section she is seated. Not to hear the first lines of the play is to invite misfortune, so
he believes.
“An usher feels sure that if he makes a mistake in seating the first person in his section, it is
sure to be quickly followed by two more. The first tip of the season is always briskly rubbed
on the trousers-leg, and kept in the pocket for the rest of the season as a ‘coaxer.’ To receive
a smile over the footlights from one of the company also brings luck.”
It would be a futile task to try to discover the origin of all these separate superstitions.
Fortunately it is not necessary, for there is an easier and more natural solution. The omens
and mascots of stage life have their source in the artistic temperament. We do not find these
superstitions in the life of the music hall artist, at least not in the same degree; and whilst the
actor-manager of a theatre might have some scruples for the superstitions of the profession,
the manager of a music hall would have none at all, because he faces business on a purely
business basis. Now, that is the difference between the actor-man and the commercial-man;
the former has to deal with a crowd of uncortainties—the fickleness of the public, the machinery
of the stage, the health of the troupe, lapses of memory, and a score of other items equally
trying. Add to this the constant endeavour to act a picture in his own mind, or to interpret a
part in a classic drama, and you have a psychology full of weird possibilities in its conclusions.
Viewed from this standpoint, the actor’s superstitions are to some extent natural; were
he not of the artistic temperament he would be lacking in the sympathy his art requires. But
still, he would not be the worse for shedding a few of these intellectual oddities; for, after all,
most of them are based in fear and a lack of self-confidence.
When the wife of some Admiralty official touches a button to release a new cruiser from the
stays, and breaks a bottle of wine over her bows, the spectators accept these actions as the
right thing, because they have been performed for centuries. But the spectators do not usually
enquire into the origin of the custom, to discover which we have to go back to the ancient
libations practised on the launching of a new vessel. A priest with a lighted torch, and possessed
also of an egg and some brimstone, was in attendance; and amid shouts of acclamation
it was devoted to the god whose image it carried. Greek and Roman vessels generally
carried in the prow a carved image of some deity, to whose name the launching service was
dedicated. The image remained as a feature of ship-building until quite recent years, and we
retain a semblance of the old ceremony.
Evelyn, on August 14, 1654, tells us that he “took a journey in the Northern parts,” and in
passing through Oakham he saw some of the celebrated shoes on the Castle gates. Mr
Michael M’Donagh says: “Perhaps the most singular mediaeval tribute now exacted is the
horseshoe required from every peer who passes through Oakham. Originally the shoe had to
Page 104
come from the actual horse ridden by a baron; but for a long time it has been usual to commute
the toll by paying for a fancy shoe, and as a result the tributes in Oakham Hall vary
greatly in shape and size, and are even made of different metals. They are mostly dated, the
most important exception being a large shoe given by Queen Elizabeth, who probably sent it
about 1556, after her visit to Lord Burghley. Among them are several from the Royal Family-
Queen Victoria (when Princess Victoria) in 1835; Queen Alexandra (when Princess of Wales)
in 1881; and his Majesty the King (when Prince of Wales) in 1895. In all, there are nearly 200
shoes which are of all sizes, from seven feet in length down to one only big enough for the
small-hoofed race horse.” This tribute has been demanded for seven centuries, and tradition
ascribes its origin to the truculent Walchelin de Ferreris, to whom Henry II. gave the Barony of
If ever there existed an inhuman superstition, surely this is the one; for to see a fellow mortal
fighting for life, and to refuse to render him assistance, is the height of cruelty. But, the reader
will ask, does such a superstition really exist? Tylor speaks of “a recent account (1864)”
where fishermen in Bohemia did not venture to snatch a drowning man from the waters, the
notion being that some ill luck would follow. Sir Walter Scott in the Pirate speaks of Bryce, the
pedlar, refusing to save the shipwrecked sailor from drowning, and even remonstrating with
him on the rashness of such a deed. “Are you mad?” said the pedlar, “you that have lived sae
lang in Zetland to risk the saving of a drowning man? Wot ye not, if you bring him to life again
he will be sure to do you some capital injury?” The same superstition can be found among
the St. Kilda islanders, the boatmen of the Danube, French and English sailors, and even out
of Europe, and among less civilised races. If these statements be correct, and Professor
Tylor’s name is behind them, what is at the back of this determination to let a drowning man
drown? The idea seems to be this: that when a man is drowning it is the intention of the gods
that he should be drowned; and that the rescuer, if successful in rescuing him, must be the
substitute and be drowned himself later on. You cannot cheat Fate out of a life; that appears
to be the argument. Even an accidental falling into the water is explained by the savage as
the action of the spirit throwing the man into the stream with the object of taking his life. The
indisposition of many people to try to rescue such may in part be explained by Tylor’s theory
of Survival, a theory suggesting that the thoughts and actions of the past are repeated by us
unconsciously. It cannot be that the paragraph in the Press about the callous conduct of
observers is always due to cowardice—the fear to plunge in and effect a rescue. Nor can it
be the conscious inability to do anything, or the paralysis of mind due to the sight of a fellowman
on the point of sinking for the last time. It must be some small remainder of a once
prevalent and all prevailing notion that to attempt to save a drowning man was unlucky.
It is somewhat singular that Brand should have confined his notes to the growth of the various
card games in England, omitting entirely all reference to the superstitions which cloud the
atmosphere of the gambler, and even the card player who does not play for money, or, if he
does, for very small stakes. In games of chance and skill combined, we find just that sort of
uncertain feeling which provokes all kinds of theories as to what is right and wrong; the right
and wrong in this association meaning no more than success or failure. A search for such
superstitious theories is speedily rewarded; the joint authors of The Encyclaepadia of
Superstitions have collected quite a little crowd of them; some old, some new; some whimsi-
Page 105
cal and without reason; others indicative of observation, and having a basis in commonsense.
I propose first to enumerate a few of them, and afterwards to make an attempt at the
discovery of their origin.
1. To play cards on the table without a table-cloth is unlucky.
2. He who lends money at play will lose; he who borrows money at play will win.
3. In playing cards, walk straight from the table and make a round turn, if playing for money.
4. There is a superstition at Monto Carlo that immediately after a suicide all those playing
against the bank will win. There is therefore a perfect rush for the tables when the lugubrious
news is known.
5. If you wish a person to win at cards, stick a pin in his coat.
6. To drop a card on the floor when playing is a bad omen.
7. To sing while playing cards is a sign that your side will lose.
8. Don’t play at a table with a cross-eyed man whether he is your partner or opponent; you
will lose.
9. If you get into a passion when playing cards you will have more bad luck; for the demon of
bad luck always follows a passionate player,
It is truly difficult to imagine how the first item could have originated; there is absolutely no
sense in a connection between skill in a game and the covering of the table on which it is
played; if the objection had arisen out of the difference between a mahogany table and a
steel table, one might have fancied electric forces, or mesmeric forces, had something to do
with the origin of this vain notion. It has been suggested that the table-cloth gives an opportunity
of “manipulating” cards which a bare table does not. Perhaps. And yet all superstitions
cannot have arisen in the minds of cheats and dubious people.
No. 2 is contrary to experience, at anyrate the second half is. The plunger who will lose all his
own money and borrows to continue playing, generally loses.
No. 3 has a touch of humour in it—grim humour, no doubt. It seems to come from the heart of
a wily but skilful player, who knows the fascination of the game to the novice with keenly
awakened desires; and when age and experience speak they counsel a walk away from the
table, “a round turn “ and—well, that is just it; it is a chance afforded the player to think. “Shall
I play or shall I not—for it is for money?” This is about as sensible a bit of superstition as
could be invented.
NO. 4 is a specimen of the modern mind at work. And how like the old mind! It is as if the
players said, “The God of Chance has had a big success; he has won thousands and thousands;
and he has driven his victim to suicide and death. He can’t be the same god for a day
Page 106
or two; we must give him time to get over the dreadful event. So we will play whilst he is sorrowing.”
This logic would hardly do credit to a Comanche Indian, but there it is all the same. A
Monto Carlo player commits suicide, and there follows a rush for the tables. Why? Because
the players believe in luck, and for some reason they fancy a sufferer’s death must inevitably
turn the tide in favour of themselves.
The crooked pin referred to in No. 5 is an idea borrowed from other sources. Brand has a
note to the effect that:—”About a mile to the west of Jarrow (near Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which as late as the year 1740 it was a prevailing
custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and
the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought
together on a Sunday to be dipped in this well, at which also, on Midsummer Eve, there was
a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, etc.”
No. 6 is a bad omen, because it suggests careless handling of the cards on account of lack
of interest, and not watching the progress of the game; and No. 7 is even stronger in this
respect. No. 9 belongs to the same category, only in this case the player is giving an excited
attention to the game, and loses his head. No. 8 is apparently a joke pure and simple.
Every card player has his own or her own private superstitions: a certain hand always
presages good luck or ill-luck; the winning of the first game means winning the third; to play
before 6 p.m. on Fridays is never fortunate, and so on. But the whole batch of card superstitions
has its source in an attempt to formulate laws for the one thing that seems to have no
Page 107


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