Folk-Lore/Volume 1/Some Popular Superstitions of the Ancients

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Vol. I.]
[No. II.
JUNE, 1890.


A SUPERFICIAL acquaintance with classical literature is apt, I believe, to leave on the mind an exaggerated impression of the general level of intelligence in antiquity. The authors commonly read are so eminently reasonable, and so little tinctured with vulgar superstition, that we are prone to suppose that the mass of men in the classical ages were equally free from those gross and palpable delusions which we designate as superstitions. The supposition is natural, but erroneous. It is natural, because our knowledge of the ancients is derived chiefly from literature, and literature reflects the thoughts and beliefs of the educated few, not of the uneducated many. Since the invention of letters the breach between these two classes has gone on widening, till the mental condition of the one class comes to differ nearly as much from that of the other as if they were beings of different species. But down to the present century both sides remained in almost total ignorance of the gulf which divided them. Educated people, as a rule, had no inkling that the mental state of the great majority of their fellow-countrymen differed in scarcely any material respect from that of savages. They did not dream that their humble neighbours had preserved amongst themselves by oral tradition alone a set of customs and ideas so ancient that the oldest literature of Greece and Rome is modern by comparison. To have at last opened the eyes of educated people to the priceless value of popular tradition as evidence of a remote antiquity is the glory of the illustrious Grimm. When, chiefly through the influence of that great scholar, the oral tradition of the people came to be examined, the feature in it which most struck observers was the one I have just indicated, the stamp, namely, which it bears of a dateless antiquity. The reasons for assigning to it an age incomparably greater than that of the literary tradition are mainly two. In the first place, the popular tradition—and under tradition I mean to include popular customs as well as popular beliefs—the popular tradition could not have originated in historical times, because there is nothing in history to account for it. The two great historical influences that have moulded our modern civilisation—the Roman empire and Christianity—have left hardly a trace in the genuine beliefs and customs of the folk. Christianity has slightly changed the nomenclature, and that is all. But, on the other hand—and this is the second reason—if there is nothing in Roman civilisation or the Christian religion to account for the origin of the popular tradition, there is in the customs and ideas of existing savages almost everything that is needed fully to explain and account for it. The resemblance, in fact, between the ideas and customs of our European peasantry and the ideas and customs of savages is so great as almost to amount to identity, and a comparison of the one set of customs with the other goes far towards explaining both. To put it metaphorically, the two sets of customs, the European and the savage, are independent copies of the same original picture; but both copies are somewhat faded through time, and each has preserved some features which the other has lost. Thus they mutually supplement each other, and, taken together, enable us to restore the original with some completeness.

The application of all this for the subject in hand is obvious. If what I have said is true of the uneducated people, and especially of the peasantry at the present time in Europe, must it not have been equally true of uneducated people, and especially of the peasantry in antiquity? If our peasants are, intellectually regarded, simply savages, could the peasantry of ancient Greece and Rome have been any better? And if we moderns have lived so long in ignorance of the mass of savagery lying at our doors, may not the literary classes of antiquity have been equally blind to the mental savagery of the peasants whom they saw at work in the fields or jostled in the streets? There are strong grounds for answering both of these questions in the affirmative. In regard to the former question, the existence of a layer of savagery beneath the surface of ancient society is abundantly attested by the notices of popular beliefs and customs which are scattered up and down classical literature, especially, as might have been anticipated, in the inferior authors, men less elevated above vulgar prejudices than most of the great classical writers. In regard to the second question, the general ignorance of classical writers as to the popular superstitions of their day is not only to be presumed from the fact that they rarely mention them, it is positively demonstrated by their manifest inability to understand even those instances of popular superstition which they are occasionally led to mention. Indeed, from the way in which they refer to these superstitions, it is often plain that they not only did not understand them, but that they did not even recognise them as superstitions at all, that is, as beliefs actually current among the vulgar. Conclusive proof of this is furnished by the treatment which the so-called “symbols of Pythagoras” received at the hands of the polite writers of antiquity. A member of a modern folk-lore society has only to glance at these “symbols” to see that they are common specimens of folk-lore, many of which are perfectly familiar to our European peasantry at the present day. Yet they completely posed the philosophers of antiquity, whose interpretations of them were certainly not nearer the mark than Mr. Pickwick’s reading of the famous inscription. It is almost amusing to see the violence they did to these primitive superstitions in order to wring some drop of moral wisdom out of them, to wrench them into some semblance of philosophical profundity. In a paper on the popular superstitions of the ancients I can hardly do better than begin by giving a few specimens of these precious maxims, which have found so much favour in the eyes of ancient philosophers and old women.

Some of the ancients themselves remarked the striking resemblance which the precepts of Pythagoras bore to the rules of life observed by Indian fakirs, Jewish Essenes, Egyptians, Etruscans, and Druids.[2] Thus, for example, Plutarch mentions the view that Pythagoras must have been an Etruscan born and bred, since the Etruscans were the only people known to observe literally the rules inculcated by the philosopher, such as not to step over a broom, not to leave the impress of a pot on the ashes, and other precepts of the same sort.[3] This view of the Etruscan origin of Pythagoras was countenanced by the respectable authorities of Aristotle and Theopompus.[4] Again, Plutarch expressly says that the maxims of Pythagoras were of the same sort as the rules contained in the sacred writings of the Egyptians, and he quotes as instances the Pythagorean precepts, “Do not eat in a chariot,” “Do not sit upon a bushel,” “Do not poke the fire with a sword.”[5]

Some of the theories of physical causation traditionally ascribed to Pythagoras are entirely of a piece with the practical rules which passed under his name. Thus, according to him, the air was full of spirits, which he called demons and heroes; the airy sounds from which men drew omens were the voices of the spirits;[6] and he said that when people heard the wind whistle, they should worship the sound of it.[7] Compare with this the view of the Esquimaux who live at Point Barrow, almost the northern extremity of the continent of America. “To them,” says an American officer who wintered among them a few years ago, “to them earth and air are full of spirits. The one drags men into the earth by the feet, from which they never emerge; the other strikes men dead, leaving no mark; and the air is full of voices; often while travelling they would stop and ask me to listen, and say that Tuña of the wind was passing by.”[8] Again, according to Pythagoras, the tinkling of a brass pot is the voice of a demon imprisoned in the brass.[9] A traveller in the Sahara was once informed by one of his savage escort that he had just killed a devil. It appeared that the devil was the traveller’s watch, which the savage had found, and hearing it tick, had concluded that there was a devil inside. Accordingly he smashed it by hurling it against a tree. This was in the desert, where it would have been unsafe to quarrel with his escort. So the traveller concealed his anguish under a smiling face till he reached the next town, where he took steps which rather damped the joy of that savage.[10] Yet the savage did no more than Pythagoras, if he had been true to his principles, might have done in the same circumstances.

Again, Pythagoras believed that an earthquake was caused by the dead men fighting with each other underground, and so shaking the earth.[11] I have collected many savage explanations of earthquakes, but none, perhaps, quite so savage as this of Pythagoras. The nearest approaches to it are the following. The Tlinkeet Indians on the north-west coast of America suppose that the earth rests upon a pillar which is guarded by a woman; so, when the gods fight with the woman for the possession of the pillar, in order that they may destroy the earth and its inhabitants, the pillar shakes, and this produces an earthquake.[12] The Andaman islanders, who long ranked, though unjustly, amongst the lowest of savages, think that earthquakes are caused by the spirits of the dead, who, impatient at the delay of the resurrection, shake the palm-tree on which they believe the earth to rest.[13] When the people of Timor, an East Indian island, feel the shock of an earthquake, they knock on the ground and call out, “We are still here,” to let the souls of the dead who are struggling to get up, know that there is no room for them on the surface of the earth.[14] Even this, however, is a shade less savage than the view of Pythagoras that the dead could not even keep the peace amongst themselves. In Lucian’s “Dialogues of the Dead” the soldier ghost who draws near the ferry, his bright armour flashing through the gloom, is bidden by Hermes to leave his arms behind him on the hither side of the river, “because there is peace in the grave”.[15] Clearly Hermes was not a Pythagorean.

But passing from Pythagoras’ views of physical causation, let us look more closely at some of the practical precepts or symbols which he laid down for the guidance of life.

One of his precepts, as we have seen, was this: “Do not poke the fire with a sword.”[16] The precept commends itself to us, but hardly on the grounds on which it did so to Pythagoras. To understand his reasons we must go to the Tartars, who abstain from thrusting a knife into the fire on the ground that it would cut off the fire’s head.[17] The Kamchatkans also think it a sin to stick a knife into a burning log, and so do some of the North American Indians.[18]

Again, Pythagoras told his disciples never to point the finger at the stars.[19] This is a very common superstition in Germany, where one reason given is that by pointing a finger at the moon or stars one would put out the eyes of the angels.[20] Another reason given is that one’s finger would drop off.[21] If one has pointed at the stars, the only way to save one’s finger from dropping off is to bite it.[22] The reason for so doing is explained by the statement of an Ojebway Indian. “I well remember,” says he, “when I was a little boy, being told by our aged people that I must never point my finger at the moon, for if I did she would consider it a great insult, and instantly bite it off.”[23] The reason, therefore, why a German bites his finger after pointing at a star is to make the star believe that he is himself biting off the offending finger, and that thus the star is saved the trouble of doing so. Thus the Ojebway Indian is here the best commentator on Pythagoras.

Again, Pythagoras said: “Do not look at your face in a river.”[24] So, too, said the old Hindu lawgiver. “Let him not,” says Manu, “let him not look at his own image in water; that is a settled rule.”[25] Neither the Greek philosopher nor the Hindu lawgiver assigns any reason for the rule. To ascertain it we must inquire of the Zulus and the black race of the Pacific, both of whom observe the same rule, and can give a reason for doing so. Here is the reason given by the Zulus in their own words: “It is said there is a beast in the water which can seize the shadow of a man; when he looks into the water it takes his shadow; the man no longer wishes to turn back, but has a great wish to enter the pool; it seems to him that there is not death in the water; it is as if he was going to real happiness where there is no harm; and he dies through going into the pool, being eaten by the beast. . . . . And men are forbidden to lean over and look into a dark pool, it being feared lest their shadow should be taken away.”[26] So much for the Zulus. Now for the Melanesians of the Pacific. “There is a stream in Saddle Island, or, rather, a pool in a stream, into which if anyone looks he dies; the malignant spirit takes hold upon his life by means of his reflection on the water.”[27] Here, doubtless, we have the origin of the classical story of Narcissus, who languished away in consequence of seeing his own fair image in the water.[28]

During a thunderstorm it was a Greek custom to put out the fire, and hiss and cheep with the lips. The reason for the custom was explained by the Pythagoreans to be, that by acting thus you frightened the spirits in Tartarus,[29] who were doubtless supposed to make the thunder and lightning. Similarly, some of the Australian blacks, who attribute thunder to the agency of demons, and are much afraid of it, believe that they can dispel it “by chanting some particular words and breathing hard”;[30] and it is a German superstition that the danger from a thunderstorm can be averted by putting out the fire.[31] During a thunderstorm, the Sakai of the Malay Peninsula run out of their houses and brandish their weapons to drive away the demons;[32] and the Esthonians in Russia fasten scythes, edge upward, over the door, that the demons, fleeing from the thundering god, may cut their feet if they try to seek shelter in the house. Sometimes the Esthonians, for a similar purpose, take all the edged tools in the house and throw them out into the yard. It is said that, when the storm is over, spots of blood are often found on the scythes and knives, showing that the demons have been wounded by them.[33] So, when the Indians of Canada were asked by the Jesuit missionaries why they planted their swords in the ground point upwards, they replied that the spirit of the thunder was sensible, and that if he saw the naked blades he would turn away and take good care not to approach their huts.[34] This is a fair sample of the close similarity of European superstitions to the superstitions of savages. In the present case the difference happens to be slightly in favour of the Indians, since they did not, like our European savages, delude themselves into seeing the blood of demons on the swords. The reason for the Greek and German custom of putting out the fire during a thunderstorm is, probably, a wish to avoid attracting the attention of the thunder demons. From a like motive some of the Australian blacks hide themselves during a thunderstorm, and keep absolutely silent, lest the thunder should find them out.[35] Once during a storm a white man called out in a loud voice to the black fellow with whom he was working, to put the saw under a log and seek shelter. He found that the saw had already been put away, and the black fellow was very indignant at his master for speaking so loud. “What for,” said he, in great wrath, “what for speak so loud ? Now um thunder hear, and know where um saw is.” And he went out and changed its hiding-place.[36]

One or two more classical superstitions about thunder and lightning may here find a place, though they are not specially Pythagorean. The skins of seals and hyænas were believed by the Greeks to be effective protections against lightning. Hence Greek sailors used to nail a sealskin to the mast-head; and the Emperor Augustus, who was nervously afraid of thunder, never went anywhere without a sealskin.[37] The skin of a hippopotamus buried in the middle of a field was supposed to prevent a thunder-bolt from falling on it.[38]

Another maxim of Pythagoras was this: “On setting out from your house upon a journey, do not turn back; for if you do, the Furies will catch you.”[39] This is a rule observed by superstitious people everywhere, in the heart of Africa and of India, as well as all over Europe. I will mention only the last instance which came under my notice. A Highland servant in our family told my mother lately that in Sutherlandshire, if anyone is going on some important errand and has left anything behind him, he would stand and call for it for a week rather than go back to fetch it.[40]

Once more, Pythagoras observed: “If you meet an ugly old woman at the door, do not go out.”[41] Amongst the Wends, if a man going out to hunt meets an old woman, it is unlucky, and he should turn back.[42] Amongst the Esthonians, if a fisherman or anyone else going out on important business happens to meet an old woman, he will turn back.[43] A Tyrolese hunter believes that if he meets an old woman in the morning, he will have no luck.[44] In Pomerania, if a. person going out of the house meets a woman, he will often turn back.[45] They say in Thüringen that if you are about any weighty affair, and are interrupted by an old woman, you should not go on with it, for it could not prosper.[46] In Norway, if a man goes out to make a bargain, and an old woman is the first person he meets, he will have no luck.[47]

Another saying of Pythagoras was this: “If you stumble at the threshold in going out, you should turn back.”[48] In the Highlands of Scotland and among the Saxons of Transylvania it is deemed unlucky to stumble on the threshold in going out on a journey.[49] Amongst the Malays, if a person stumbles on leaving the steps of a house on particular business, it is unlucky, and the business is abandoned for the time.[50] In Sumatra, if a Batta stumbles in leaving the house, it bodes ill-luck, and he thinks it better to abandon the journey and stay at home.[51]

Again, Pythagoras said: “If a weasel cross your path, turn back.”[52] This was a common rule in Greece. In the “Characters” of Theophrastus the Superstitious Man would not go on if a weasel crossed his path; he waited till some one else had traversed the road, or until he had thrown three stones across it. The Zulus think that if a weasel crosses their path they will get no food at the place whither they are going.[53] In Ireland, to meet a weasel under certain circumstances is unlucky.[54] A weasel crossing the path was regarded as an omen by the Aztecs.[55]

Further, Pythagoras warned his followers against stepping over a broom.[56] In some parts of Bavaria, housemaids, in sweeping out the house, are careful not to step over the broom for fear of the witches.[57] Again, it is a Bavarian rule not to step over a broom while a confinement is taking place in a house; otherwise the birth will be tedious, and the child will always remain small with a large head. But if anyone has stepped over a broom inadvertently, he can undo the spell by stepping backwards over it again.[58] So in Bombay they say you should never step across a broom, or you will cause a woman to suffer severely in childbed.[59]

Again, it was a precept of Pythagoras not to run a nail or a knife into a man’s footprints.[60] This, from the primitive point of view, was really a moral, not merely a prudential precept. For it is a world-wide superstition that by injuring footprints you injure the feet that made them. Thus, in Mecklenburg it is thought that if you thrust a nail into a man’s footprints the man will go lame.[61] Australian blacks held exactly the same view. “Seeing a Tatūngolūng very lame,” says Mr. Howitt, “I asked him what was the matter? He said, ‘Some fellow has put bottle in my foot.’ I asked him to let me see it. I found he was probably suffering from acute rheumatism. He explained that some enemy must have found his track, and have buried in it a piece of broken bottle. The magic influence, he believed, caused it to enter his foot. When following down Cooper’s Creek in search of Burke’s party, we were followed one day by a large number of blackfellows, who were much interested in looking at and measuring the footprints of the horses and camels. My blackboy, from the Darling River, rode up to me, with the utmost alarm exhibited in his face, and exclaimed, ‘Look at these wild blackfellows!’ I said, ‘Well, they are all right.’ He replied, ‘I am sure those fellows are putting poison in my footsteps!’ ”[62] Amongst the Karens of Burma, evil-disposed persons “keep poisoned fangs in their possession for the purpose of killing people. These they thrust into the footmarks of the person they wish to kill, who soon finds himself with a sore foot, and the marks on it as bitten by a dog. The sore becomes rapidly worse and worse till death ensues.”[63] The Damaras of South Africa take earth from the footprints of a lion and throw it on the track of an enemy, with the wish, “May the lion kill you.”[64] This superstition is turned to account by hunters in many parts of the world for the purpose of running down the game. Thus, a German huntsman will stick a nail taken from a coffin into the fresh spoor of the animal he is hunting, believing that this will prevent the quarry from leaving the hunting-ground.[65] Australian blacks put hot embers in the tracks of the animals they are pursuing;[66] Hottentot hunters throw into the air a handful of sand taken from the footprints of the game, believing that this will bring the animal down;[67] and Ojebway Indians place “medicine” on the first deer’s or bear’s track that they meet with, supposing that even if the animal be two or three days’ journey off, they will now soon sight it, the charm possessing the power of shortening the journey from two or three days to a few hours.[68] The Zulus resort to a similar device to recover strayed cattle. Earth taken from the footprints of the missing beasts is placed in the chief’s vessel, a magic circle is made, and the chief’s vessel is placed within it. Then the chief says, “I have now conquered them. These cattle are now here; I am now sitting upon them. I do not know in what way they will escape.”[69]

We can now understand why Pythagoras said that when you rise from bed you should efface the impression left by your body on the bedclothes.[70] For obviously the same magical process might be applied by an enemy to the impress of the body which we have just seen to be applied to the impress of the foot. The aborigines of Australia cause magical substances to enter the body of an enemy by burying them either in his footprints or in the mark made on the ground by his reclining body,[71] or they beat the place where the man sat—the place must be still warm—with a pointed stick, which is then believed to enter the victim’s body and kill him.[72] To secure the good behaviour of an ally with whom they have just had a conference, the Basutos will cut and preserve the grass upon which the ally sat during the interview.[73] The grass is apparently regarded as a sort of hostage for his good behaviour, since through it they believe they could punish him if he proved false. Moors who write on the sand are superstitiously careful to smooth away all the impressions they have made, never leaving a stroke or a dot of the finger on the sand after they have finished writing.[74] Pythagoras also enjoined his disciples when they lifted a pot from the ashes always to efface the mark left by the pot on the ashes.[75]He probably feared that the persons who ate out of the pot might be magically injured by any enemy who should tamper with the impression left on the ashes by the pot. The obligation of this Pythagorean precept is acknowledged at the other end of the world by the natives of Cambodia. They say that when you lift a pot from the fire you should be careful not to set it down on the ashes, if you can help it; but if it is necessary to do so, you should at least be careful, in lifting it from the ashes, to obliterate the impression which it has made. The reason they give is, that to act otherwise would lead to poverty and want.[76] But this is clearly an afterthought, devised to explain a rule of which the original meaning was forgotten.

Such, then, are specimens, and only specimens, of the savage superstitions which, under the name of the symbols of Pythagoras, passed muster in antiquity as the emanations of a profound philosophy and an elevated morality.[77] The fact that they did so pass muster with the wisest of the ancients conclusively establishes the point I am concerned to prove, namely, that beneath the polished surface of classical civilisation there lay a deep and solid stratum of savagery, not differing in kind from the savagery of Australian blackfellows, Zulus, and Ojebways. It lay beneath the surface, but not far beneath it. There, as everywhere, you had only to scratch civilisation to find savagery. And the helpless bewilderment of classical writers in face of the few specimens of native savagery which cropped up on the surface, shows how little conception they had of the depths of superstition which lay beneath their feet.

I have dwelt at some length on the symbols of Pythagoras, and their resemblance to, or rather identity with, the superstitions of savages at home and abroad, because they furnish a strong proof of the truth of the propositions from which I set out. But it would be unfair to Pythagoras to leave the whole burden of proof upon his shoulders. So, if I have not already taxed the reader’s patience too far, I will now give a few specimens of classical superstitions drawn from other sources.

Wherever people are directly and visibly dependent for their daily bread, not on their fellow men, but on the forces of nature, there superstition strikes root and flourishes. It is a weed that finds a more congenial soil in the woods and fields than among city streets. The ancient Greek farmer was certainly not less superstitious than our own Hodge. Amongst the foes whom the husbandman has always to fear are the storms and hail which beat down his corn, the weeds which choke it, and the vermin which devour it. For each and all of these the ancient farmer had remedies of his own. Take hail, for example. At the town of Cleonæ, in Argolis, there were watchmen maintained at the public expense to look out for hail-storms. When they saw a hail-cloud approaching they made a signal, whereupon the farmers turned out and sacrificed lambs or fowls. They believed that when the clouds had tasted the blood they would turn aside and go somewhere else. Hoc rides? accipe quod rideas magis. If any man was too poor to afford a lamb or a fowl, he pricked his finger with a sharp instrument, and offered his own blood to the clouds; and the hail, we are told, turned aside from his fields quite as readily as from those where it had been propitiated with the blood of victims. If the vines and crops suffered from a hail-storm, the watchmen were brought before the magistrates and punished for neglect of duty.[78] Apparently, it formed part of their duty not only to signal the approach of a storm, but actively to assist in averting it, for Plutarch speaks of the mole’s blood and bloody rags by which they sought to turn the storm away.[79] This custom of civilised Greece has its analogue among the wild tribes that lurk in the dense jungles of the Malay Peninsula. Thunder is greatly dreaded by these savages. Accordingly, “when it thunders the women cut their legs with knives till the blood flows, and then, catching the drops in a piece of bamboo, they cast them aloft towards the sky, to propitiate the angry deities.”[80] The Aztecs, also, had sorcerers, whose special business it was to turn aside the hail-storms from the maize crops and direct them to waste lands.[81] A Roman way of averting hail was to hold up a looking-glass to the dark cloud; seeing itself in the glass, the cloud, it was believed, would pass by. A tortoise laid on its back on the field, or the skin of a crocodile, hyæna, or seal carried about the farm, and hung up at the door, was also esteemed effective for the same purpose.[82]

The little town of Methana, in Argolis, stood on a peninsula jutting out into the Saronic Gulf. It felt the full force of the south-west wind, which, sweeping over the bay, wrought havoc among the surrounding vineyards. To prevent its ravages the following plan was adopted. When dark clouds were seen rising in the south-west, and the approach of the storm was marked by a black line crawling across the smooth surface of the bay, two men took a cock with white wings (every feather of the wings had to be white) and rent it in two. Then they each took one-half of the bird and ran with it round the vineyards in opposite directions till they met at the point from which they started. There they buried the cock. This ceremony was believed to keep off the south-west wind.[83] The meaning of the ceremony is perhaps explained by the following East Indian custom. When the sky is overcast the skipper of a Malay prao takes the white or yellow feathers of a cock, fastens them to a leaf of a particular sort, and sets then in the forecastle, with a prayer to the spirits that they will cause the black clouds to pass by. Then the cock is killed. The skipper whitens his dusky hand with chalk, points thrice with his whitened finger to the black clouds, and throws the bird into the sea.[84] Clearly the idea of the Greek husbandman and the Malay skipper is, that the white-winged bird will flutter against and beat away the black-winged spirit of the storm.

To rid a field of mice the Greek farmer was recommended to proceed as follows:—“Take a sheet of paper, and write on it these words: ‘Ye mice here present, I adjure you that ye injure me not, neither suffer another mouse to injure me. I give you yonder field’ (specifying the field); ‘but if ever I catch you here again, by the help of the Mother of the gods I will rend you in seven pieces.’ Write this, and stick the paper on an unhewn stone in the field where the mice are, taking care to keep the written side uppermost.”[85] It is fair to add that the writer in the Geoponica who records this receipt adds, in a saving clause, that “he does not himself believe it all, God forbid!” To keep wolves from his beasts, a Roman farmer used to catch a wolf, break its legs, sprinkle its blood all round the farm, and bury the carcase in the middle of it; or he took the ploughshare with which the first furrow had been traced that year and put it in the fire on the family hearth. So long as the ploughshare remained red-hot, so long no ravening wolf would harry his fold.[86]

Greek farmers were much pestered by a rank weed called the lion-weed, which infested their fields. The Geoponica, as usual, comes to the rescue. Here are some of its receipts: “Take five potsherds; draw on each of them in chalk or other white substance a picture of Hercules strangling the lion. Deposit four of these potsherds at the corners of the field, and the fifth in the middle. The lion-weed will never show face in that field.” Here is another receipt taken from the same golden treasury: “A lion is very much afraid of a cock, and sneaks away with his tail between his legs when he sees one. So, if a man will boldly take a cock in his arms and march with it round the field, the lion-weed will immediately disappear.”[87]

It was a common superstition in ancient Italy that if a woman were found spinning on a highroad, the crops would be spoiled for that year. So general and firmly rooted was this belief, that in most parts of Italy it was forbidden by law for a woman to spin on a highway, or even to carry her spindle uncovered along it.[88] As a last instance of these agricultural superstitions, I will mention that when a Greek sower sowed cummin he had to curse and swear all the while he did so, otherwise the crop would not turn out well.[89] Similarly, Esthonian fishermen think that they never have such good luck as when somebody is angry with them and curses them. So, before a fisherman goes out to fish, he commonly plays a rough practical joke on some of his house-mates, such as hiding the key of the cupboard, upsetting a kettle of soup, and so on. The more they curse and swear at him, the more fish he will catch; every curse brings at least three fish into the net.[90]

Under the head of what may be called domestic folk-lore, I must content myself with a Greek cure for the sting of a scorpion and a couple of Roman superstitions relative to child-birth. If a man has been stung by a scorpion, the Geoponica recommends that he should sit on an ass with his face to the tail, or whisper in the ass’s ear, “A scorpion has stung me.” In either case, we are assured, the pain will pass from the man into the ass.[91] The wood-spirit Silvanus was believed to be very inimical to women in child-bed. So, to keep him out of a house where a woman was expecting her confinement, three men used to go through the house by night armed respectively with an axe, a pestle, and a broom. At every door they stopped, and the first man struck the threshold with his axe, the second with his pestle, and the third swept it with his broom. This kept Silvanus from entering the house.[92] When his wife was in hard labour, a Roman husband used to take a stone or any missile that had killed three animals—a boar, a bear, and a man. This he threw over the roof of the house, and immediately the child was born. A javelin which had been plucked from the body of a man, and had not since touched the ground, was the best instrument for the purpose.[93]

Now for war. There is a common belief in modern times that great battles bring on clouds and rain through the atmospheric disturbances set up by the rolling reverberation of the artillery. During the American Civil War it was a matter of common observation that rain followed the great battles. I have been told, by one who took part in the battle of Solferino, that the day was dull and rainy; indeed, the Austrian commander attributed the loss of the battle to a terrific thunderstorm which burst over the field and obscured the movements of powerful masses of the enemy. The belief that heavy firing brings down rain is indeed so rooted, that a civil engineer wrote a book not many years ago to prove it, and a gentleman of scientific tastes read a paper to the same effect before the British Association in 1874.[94] Perhaps they would have spared themselves the trouble if they had been aware, first, that as late as the beginning of this century the belief was just the reverse, and batteries were regularly kept by many French Communes for the sole purpose of dispersing the clouds;[95] and second, that the theory which connects great battles with heavy rain is very much older than the invention of gunpowder. After describing the defeat of the Teutons by the Romans under Marius, Plutarch mentions a popular saying, that great battles are accompanied by heavy rain, and he suggests as possible explanations of the supposed fact, either that the atmospheric moisture is condensed by the exhalations from the slain, or that some pitying god cleanses the bloody earth with the gentle rain of heaven.

When a Roman army sat down before a city to besiege it, the priests used to invite the guardian gods of the city to leave it and come over to the Roman side, assuring them that they would be treated by the Romans as well as, or better than, they had ever been treated by their former worshippers. This invitation was couched in a set form of prayer or incantation, which was not expunged from the Pontifical liturgy even in Pliny’s time. The name of the guardian god of Rome was always kept a profound secret, lest the enemies of Rome should entice him by similar means to desert the city.[96] So, when the natives of Tahiti were besieging a fortress, they used to take the finest mats, cloth, and so on, as near to the ramparts as they could with safety, and there, holding them up, offered them to the gods of the besieged, while the priests cried out, “Tane in the fortress, Oro in the fortress, etc., come to the sea; here are your offerings.” The priests of the besieged, on the other hand, endeavoured to detain the gods by exhibiting whatever property they possessed, if they feared that the god was likely to leave them.[97]

Like modern peasants, the ancients believed that the ghosts of slaughtered warriors appear by night on the battle-field, and fight their battles over again. At Marathon the neighing of horses and the noise of battle could be heard every night.[98] The sound of the sea breaking on the shore in the stillness of night may have originated or confirmed the belief. In Bœotia there was a place called “The Horses of Pyræchmes”, and the local legend ran that Pyræchmes was a King of Eubœa who had fought against Bœotia long ago, and, being defeated, had been bound to horses and torn in two. A river ran by the spot, and in the rush of the river people fancied that they heard the snorting of the phantom steeds.[99] Again, the whole plain of Troy was haunted ground. The shepherds and herdsmen who pastured their flocks and herds on it used to see tall and stately phantoms, from the manner of whose appearance they presaged what was about to happen. If the phantoms were white with dust, it meant a parching summer. If beads of sweat stood on their brows, it foretold heavy rains and spates on the rivers. If they came dabbled in blood, it boded pestilence. But if there was neither dust nor sweat nor blood on them, the shepherds augured a fine season, and offered sacrifice from their flocks. The spectre of Achilles was always known from the rest by his height, his beauty, and his gleaming arms, and he rode on a whirlwind.[100] In the late Roman empire legend told how, after a great battle fought against Attila and the Huns under the walls of Rome, the ghosts of the slain appeared and fought for three days and nights. The phantom warriors could be seen charging each other, and the clang of their weapons was distinctly heard.[101] Stories of the same sort, which it would be needless to cite at length, are told about battle-fields to this day. Terrified peasants have seen the spectral armies locked in desperate conflict, have felt the ground shake beneath their tread, and have heard the music of the fifes and drums.[102]

A word about were-wolves, and I have done. Few superstitions are more familiar in modern times than this one. Certain men, it is believed, possess the power of turning themselves into wolves and back again at pleasure. Or they are forced to become wolves for a time, but may, under certain conditions, recover their human shape. All this was believed as firmly by superstitious people in antiquity as it has been believed by the same class of persons in modern times. There is a certain mountain in Arcadia which towers over its sister peaks, and commands from its top a prospect over a great part of the Morea. The mountain was known to the ancients as the Wolf Mountain (Mt. Lycæus), and on its summit stood the earthen altar of the Wolf God (Zeus Lycæus). East of the altar stood two columns, surmounted by gilt eagles. Once a year a mysterious sacrifice was offered at the altar, in the course of which a man was believed to be changed into a wolf. Accounts differ as to the way in which the were-wolf was chosen. According to one account, a human victim was sacrificed, one of his bowels was mixed with the bowels of animal victims, the whole was consumed by the worshippers, and the man who unwittingly ate the human bowel was changed into a wolf.[103] According to another account, lots were cast among the members of a particular family, and he upon whom the lot fell was the were-wolf. Being led to the brink of a tarn, he stripped himself, hung his clothes on an oak-tree, plunged into the tarn, and, swimming across it, went away into desert places. There he was changed into a wolf and herded with wolves for nine years. If he tasted human blood before the nine years were out he had to remain a wolf for ever. But if during the nine years he abstained from preying on men, then, when the tenth year came round, he recovered his human shape.[104] Similarly, there is a negro family at the mouth of the Congo who are supposed to possess the power of turning themselves into leopards in the gloomy depths of the forest. As leopards, they knock people down, but do no further harm, for they think that if, as leopards, they once lapped blood, they would be leopards for ever.[105]

In the “Banquet of Trimalchio” there is a typical were-wolf story,[106] with which I will conclude this paper. Some points in it are explained by the belief of the Breton peasants, that if a were-wolf be wounded to the effusion of blood, he is thereby obliged to resume his human form, and that the man will then be found to have on his body the very same wound which was inflicted on the wolf.[107] The story is put in the mouth of one Niceros. Late at night he left the town to visit a friend of his, a widow, who lived at a farm five miles down the road. He was accompanied by a soldier, who lodged in the same house, a man of Herculean build. When they set out it was near dawn, but the moon shone as bright as day. Passing through the outskirts of the town they came amongst the tombs, which lined the highroad for some distance. There the soldier made an excuse for retiring among the monuments, and Niceros sat down to wait for him, humming a tune and counting the tombstones. In a little he looked round at his companion, and what he saw froze him with horror. The soldier had stripped off his clothes to the last rag and laid them at the side of the highway. Then he performed a certain ceremony over them, and immediately was changed into a wolf, and ran howling into the forest. When Niceros had recovered himself a little he went to pick up the clothes, but found that they were turned to stone. Almost dead with fear, he drew his sword, and, striking at every shadow cast by the tombstones on the moonlit road tottered to his friend’s house. He entered it like a ghost, to the surprise of the widow, who wondered to see him abroad so late. “If you had only been here a little ago,” said she, “you might have been of some use. For a wolf came tearing into the yard, scaring the cattle and bleeding them like a butcher. But he did not get off so easily, for the servant speared him in the neck.” After hearing these words, Niceros felt that he could not close an eye, so he hurried away home again. It was now broad daylight, but when he came to the place where the clothes had been turned to stone, he found only a pool of blood. He reached home, and there lay the soldier in bed like an ox in the shambles, and the doctor was bandaging his neck.

  1. This paper was read before the Cambridge Branch of the Hellenic Society.
  2. Indian Fakirs, Strabo, xv, 1, 65 ; Egyptians, Eusebius, Prap. Evang. x, c. 4, §§ 9, 10, c. 8, § 8; Essenes, Josephus, Antiquit., xv, 10, 4; Druids, Hippolytus, Ref. omn. haeres., i, cc. 2, 25. On the Essenes, see also Josephus, Bell. Jud., ii, 8, §§2-13, xviii, i, 5; Pliny, N. H., v, 73.
  3. Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., viii, 7.
  4. Clemens Alexand., Strom., i, 14, p. 352 Pott; Aristotle, Fragm., 185, Berlin ed.; cf. Suidas, s. v. “Pythagoras”, Πυθαγόρας Σάμοις, Φὐσει δὲ Τυρρηνός.
  5. Plutarch, Isis et Os., 10.
  6. Diogenes Laertius, viii, 1, 32.
  7. Jamblichus, Adhort. ad philos., 21.
  8. Report of the International Expedition to Point Barrow, Alaska (Washington, 1885), p. 42.
  9. Porphyry, Vit. Pythag., 41.
  10. Mohammed Ibn-Omar El Tounsy, Voyage au Ouaday (Paris, 1851), p. 538 seq.
  11. Ælian, Var. Hist., iv, 17.
  12. Holmberg, “Ethnographische Skizzen über die Völker des Russischen Amerika,” Actas societatis scientiarum Fennicæ, iv (Helsingfors, 1856), p. 346 seq.
  13. E. H. Man, Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, p. 86.
  14. A. Bastian, Indonesien, ii, p. 3. Cp. id., in Verhandl. d. Berlin. GeselL f. Anthropol., 1881, p. 157; J. G. F. Riedel, De sluik- en kroesharige rassen tusschen Selebes en Papua, 330, 428 seq.
  15. Lucian, Dial Mort., x, 7.
  16. Hippolytus, Refut. omn. haeres., vi, 27; Jamblichus, Adhort. ad philos., 21; Diogenes Laertius, viii, 1, 17; Porphyry, Vit. Pythag., 42; Plutarch, Isis et Osiris, 10; id., De educ. puer., 17; Suidas, s. v. “Pythagoras”; Athenæus, p. 452 DE.
  17. De Piano Carpini, Historia Mongalorum, ed. D’Avezac (Paris, 1838), c. iii, § ii.
  18. Steller, Beschreibung von dem Lande Kamtschatka, 274; Schoolcraft, Indian Tribes, iii, 230. All three passages have been already cited in illustration of Pythagoras’ maxim by Dr. E. B. Tylor, Researches into the Early History of Mankind³, 277.
  19. Fragmenta philosoph. Græc., ed. Mullach, i, p. 510.
  20. Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, iii, p. 445; E. Meier, Deutsche Sagen, Sitten und Gebräuche aus Schwaben, p. 499; Haltrich, Zur Volkskunde der Siebenbürger Sachsen (Wien, 1885), p. 300.
  21. Grohmann, Aberglauben und Gebräuche aus Böhmen und Mähren, p. 32, No. 175; Kuhn und Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche, p. 458, No. 426.
  22. J. W. Wolf, Beiträge zur deutschen Mythologie, i, p. 235, No. 417.
  23. Peter Jones, History of the Ojebway Indians, p. 84 seq.
  24. Fragm. philos. Græc., ed. Mullach, i, p. 510.
  25. Laws of Manu, iv, 38, trans, by G. Bühler.
  26. Callaway, Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus, i, 342.
  27. R. H. Codrington, “Religious Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia,” Journal Anthrop. Instit., x, 313. This explanation of the Narcissus legend was communicated by me in a note to the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xvi, 334.
  28. Ovid, Metam., iii, 341 seq.
  29. Aristotle, Analyt. Poster., ii, p. 94b, 33 seq., Berlin ed.; Scholiast on Aristophanes, Wasps, 626; Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 25.
  30. Collins, Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, p. 485; Angas, Savage Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, ii, 232.
  31. Wuttke, Der deutsche Volksaberglaube², § 449.
  32. Journal of the Indian Archipelago, iii, 430.
  33. Boecler-Kreutzwald, Der Ehsten abergläubische Gebräuche, p. 110.
  34. Relations des Jésuites, 1637, p. 53 (Canadian reprint).
  35. Oldfield, “The Aborigines of Australia,” Transactions of the Ethnological Society, iii, 229 seq.
  36. Journ. and Proceed. R. Soc. N. S. Wales, xvi (1882), p. 171.
  37. Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., iv, 2, 1, cf. id., v, 9; Suetonius, Augustus, 90.
  38. Geoponica, i, 16.
  39. Hippolytus, Refut. omn. haeres., vi, 26 ; Jamblichus, Adhort. ad philos., 21; Diogenes Laertius, viii, 1, 17; Porphyry, Vit. Pythag., 42; Plutarch, De educ. puer., 17.
  40. Folk-Lore Journal, vii, 53. For India, see Indian Antiquary, i, 170; Indian Notes and Queries, iv, 270; for Africa, see Felkin in Proceed. R. Soc. Edinburgh, xiii, pp. 230, 734 seq., 759; for Europe, see Burne and Jackson, Shropshire Folk-lore, 274; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie⁴, iii, p. 435; Köhler, Volksbrauch im Voigtlande, 426; Haltrich, Zur Volkskunde der Siebenbürger Sachsen, 316; Krauss, Sitte und Brauch der Südslaven, 426.
  41. Fragm. Philos. Græc., ed. Mullach, i, 510.
  42. Schulenberg, Wendische Volkssagen und Gebräuche, 241 ; cp. Bezzenberger, Litauische Forschungen, 85.
  43. Boeder-Kreutzwald, Der Ehsten abergläubische Gebräuche, 71.
  44. Zingerle, Sitten, Bräuche und Meinungen des Tirder Volkes², p. 43, No. 371.
  45. Otto Knoop, Volkssagen, etc., aus dem östlichen Hinterpommern, 163.
  46. Witzschel, Sagen, Sitten und Gebräuche aus Thüringen, 284.
  47. Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, viii, 30.
  48. Fragm. Phil Gr., l. c.
  49. Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, from the MSS. of John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, edited by Alex. Allardyce (Edinburgh, 1888), ii, 456; Haltrich, Zur Volkskunde der Siebenbürger Sachsen, 316.
  50. Straits Branch R. Asiatic Soc., Notes and Queries, i, p. 18.
  51. J. B. Neumann, “Het Pane en Bila-Stroomgebied op het eiland Sumatra,” Tijdschrift van het Nederlandsch Aardrijks. Genootschap, 2de Ser., dl. iii, Afdeeling: Meer uitgebreide artikelen, No. 3, p. 515 seq.
  52. Fragm. Phil. Gr., l. c.
  53. Callaway, Nursery Tales, etc., of the Zulus, p. 5.
  54. M‘Mahon, Karens of the Golden Chersonese, 273.
  55. Bancroft, Native Races of the Pacific States, iii, 128.
  56. Hippolytus, Refut. omn. haeres., vi, 27.
  57. Lammert, Volksmedizin und medizinischer Aberglaube in Bayern, 38.
  58. Wuttke, Der deutsche Volksaberglaube², § 574.
  59. Indian Notes and Queries, iv, 104.
  60. Fragm. Phil. Gr., l. c.
  61. Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Mecklenburg, ii, Nos. 1597, 1598; cp. id., No, 1611a seq.
  62. Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, 250. Cp. Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, i, 476 seq.
  63. Mason, “The Karens,” Journal R. Asiatic Soc., 1868, pt. ii, p. 149.
  64. Josaphat Hahn, “Die Ovaherero,” Zeitschrift d. Gesell. f. Erdkunde zu Berlin, iv, 503.
  65. Wuttke, Der deutsche Volksaberglaube², § 186.
  66. Dawson, Australian Aborigines, 54.
  67. Theophilus Hahn, Tsuni-Goam, p. 84 seq.
  68. Peter Jones, History of the Ojebway Indians, 154.
  69. Callaway, Religious System of the Amazulu, 346 seq.
  70. Jamblichus, Adhort. ad philos., 21; Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., viii, 7; Clemens Alexand., Strom., v, 5, p. 661, Pott. Cp. Diogenes Laert., viii, i, 17; Suidas, s. v. “Pythagoras”.
  71. A. W. Howitt, “On Australian Medicine Men,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xvi, 26 seq.
  72. Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, i, 475.
  73. Casalis, The Basutos. 273.
  74. Richardson, Travels in the Great Desert of Sahara, ii, 65.
  75. Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., viii, 7; Jamblichus, Adhort. ad philos., 21; Clemens Alexand., Strom., vi, 5, p. 661, Pott; Diogenes Laertius, viii, i, 17; Suidas, s. v. “Pythagoras”.
  76. E. Aymonier, “Notes sur les coutumes et croyances superstitieuses des Cambodgiens,” Cochinchine Française, Excursions et Reconnaissances, No. 16, p. 163.
  77. Collections, more or less complete, of the “symbols” of Pythagoras will be found in the lives of Pythagoras by Diogenes Laertius (viii, 1), Jamblichus, and Porphyry, the Adhortatio ad philosophiam of Jamblichus; Suidas, s. v. “Pythagoras”; Plutarch, Isis et Osiris, 10; id., De educat. puerorum, 17; id., Quæst. Conviv. ,viii, 7; Clemens Alexand., Strom., v, 5; Athenæus, p. 452 DE; Hippolytus, Refut. omn. haeres., vi, 26 seq. They are given in a collected form by Mullach in his Fragmenta philosophorum Græcorum, i, p. 504 seq., though his references to the authorities are not always complete. On p. 510 Mullach gives, from MSS., a valuable collection of “symbols”, many of which are not found in the printed texts of classical writers.
  78. Seneca, Quæst. Natur., iv, 6 seq.; Clemens Alexand., Strom., vi, § 31, p. 754 seq., Pott.
  79. Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., vii, 2.
  80. Journal of the Straits Branch of the R. Asiatic Society, No. 4, p. 48.
  81. Sahagun, Histoire générale des choses de la Nouvelle Espagne (Paris, 1880), p. 486. Cp. id., p. 314, with Ellis, History of Madagascar, i, 412, (ashes thrown to the clouds to melt the clouds into rain).
  82. Palladius, De re rust., i, 35; Geoponica, i, 14. For other remedies, see Geoponica, l. c.; Philostratus, Heroica, p. 281, Didot.
  83. Pausanias, ii, 34, 1.
  84. Riedel, De sluik- enkroesharige rassen ticsschen Selebes en Papua, 412 seq.
  85. Geoponica, xiii, 5.
  86. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 266 seq.
  87. Geoponica, ii, 42.
  88. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 28.
  89. Theophrastus, Histor. Plant., viii, 3; Plutarch, Quæst. Conviv., vii, 2, 2.
  90. Boeder-Kreutzwald, Der Ehsten abergläubische Gebräuche, 90 seq.
  91. Geoponica, xiii, 9, xv, 1; Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 155.
  92. Augustine, De civit. dei, vi, 9.
  93. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 33 seq.
  94. “On Disturbance of the Weather by Artificial Influences, especially Battles, Military Movements, Great Explosions, and Conflagrations,” by R. B. Belcher. See Report of the meeting of the British Association for 1874, Transactions of the Sections, p. 36.
  95. Journal and Proceedings of the R. Society of N. S. Wales, xvi (1882), p. 12. The address of the President (p. 11 seq.) contains a judicious discussion of the whole question. The earlier view must have been shared by Southey, for, in describing a naval action in the Mediterranean, he says “the firing made a perfect calm” (Life of Nelson, ch. iii).
  96. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xxviii, 18; Macrobius, Saturn., iii, 9, 2 seq.; Servius on Virgil, Æn., ii, 351; Livy, v, 21. On the secret name of Rome itself, see Macrobius, l. c.; Pliny, Nat. Hist., iii, 65; Joannes Lydus, De Mensibus, iv, 50.
  97. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, i, 316, cp. 280 (ed. 1832).
  98. Pausanias, i, 32, 4.
  99. Plutarch, Parallela, 7.
  100. Philostratus, Heroica, iii, § 18, 26.
  101. Damascius, Vita Isidori, 63.
  102. K. Lynker, Deutsche Sagen und Sitten in hessischen Gauen, pp. 11-13; P. Sébillot, Traditions et Superstitions de la Haute-Bretagne, i, 222; E. Veckenstedt, Die Mythen, Sagen, und Legenden der Zamaiten (Litauer), ii, p. 140; Indian Antiqitary, ix (1880), p. 80. Cf. F. Liebrecht, Gervasius von Tilbury, 195 seq.
  103. Plato, Repub., 565 DE.
  104. Pliny, Nat. Hist., viii, 81; Pausanias, vi, 8, viii, 2. On the altar at the top of Mt. Lycæus, see Pausanias, viii, 38, 7.
  105. A. Bastian, Die deutsche Expedition an der Loango-Küste, ii, 248.
  106. Petronius, 61 seq.
  107. Sébillot, Traditions et Superstitions de la Haute-Bretagne, i, 291 seq.