Persia/Chapter 31

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The Persians are perhaps the most superstitious nation in Asia. Among them, the remnants of ancient superstitions are not confined to the vulgar, as they are with us: even the present king will not leave his capital, undertake any expedition, or receive an ambassador, till he has had intimation from his astrologer of the fortunate hour for the act. Before all minor transactions, the people in general take what they call a fal; namely, in the old fashion of dipping into Virgil, opening the Koran, Hafiz, or any venerated author, and governing their actions by the first passage on which their eyes chance to fall. They put great faith in the virtue of charms, which they buy of the learned in the stars, and bind not merely about their own persons, but those of their horses: some are composed of prayers sewed up in morsels of linen, in various shapes, such as lozenges, circles, and triangles. The more costly amulets are certain sentences from the Koran, exquisitely engraved on cornelian, and which are usually worn by persons of rank, round the neck or arms. The lower orders have talismans to avert the influence of evil eyes, curses, and the like; in short, they neither look, move, nor speak, without attention to some occult fatality or other.

Sir Robert Porter informs us, that in the course of his journey, several peasants, hearing of his destination and wishing to travel that way, begged to be admitted to the protection of his company, on account of the unsafe state of the roads. The request was granted, and the men mounted their horses; but just at the moment of setting out, one of these strangers happened to sneeze. This dreadful omen suddenly stopped the whole party; it was a sign foreboding evil, and no arguments could prevail on them to move on that day.

Another species of superstition very common among the Persians, is the faith they have in a charm called the dum, or breath, which, they say, secures them against the bite of snakes and the sting of scorpions; and the courage with which those who are supposed to possess it encounter those reptiles, is remarkable. Among the servants who accompanied the British embassy with Mr. Morier, one or two had this charm: whenever a snake or a scorpion was found, they were immediately called to seize it. The ferash-bashi, or chief of the tent-pitchers, was remarkable for his prowess in such encounters. I saw him one day, says the above-mentioned traveller, seize a snake with his naked hand, but the animal turned upon him, bit him, and hung upon him till blood came. The snake was not venomous, and therefore perhaps he seized it with confidence.

Not long before Mr. Morier was at Shiraz, there lived in that city a man greatly celebrated for his sanctity, who had the reputation of possessing the dum to such a degree, that he communicated it to his disciples, who again dispensed it to the multitude. A young mirza, brother to the then acting visir of Shiraz, gave to the British ambassador, as a great present, a knife, which he said had been charmed by this holy man, and if rubbed over the bite of a snake, would instantly cure it. One of his disciples was at Shiraz while we were there, says Mr. Morier, and he willingly complied with our request, that he would communicate his charm to us. The operation was simple enough. From his pocket he took a piece of sugar, over which he mumbled some words, breathed upon it, and then required that we should eat it, in full belief that neither serpent nor scorpion could ever more harm us. He then piled some snakes out of a bag, which some of us, whose confidence was strong, ventured to handle and flourish in the air.

Mr. Scott Waring relates the following fact, which fell under his own observation:—I had a servant called Ali Beg, who posessed this gift of the dum, and the stories they told me of him I invariably treated with the greatest ridicule. Mr. Bruce told me that he saw him catch two snakes, one of which bit him violently as to leave two of his teeth in the wound. This was easily reconciled; the snake was not poisonous. Some time after I was at Shiraz, a very large scorpion was found under my bed. Ali Beg was called, and he certainly took up the scorpion without the least hesitation. I saw the animal strike his sting repeatedly into the man's flesh, and he persisted that he felt no pain. I asked the other servants to do the same, but they refused: and the next morning, when I examined the man's hand, there was not the smallest sign of its having been stung. How he escaped feeling any inconvenience, it is impossible for me to guess, as I am confident he had not time to make any preparation, nor did he use any antidote against the effects of the sting: at the same time, it would be truly ridiculous to assign the same cause for this escape as is most conscientiously believed by the Persians.

Mr. Morier mentions, that in travelling over the desert between Koom and Teheran, the Persians in the suite of the ambassador expressed considerable apprehensions of the goule, an imaginary species of land mermaid, which they affirm entices the traveller by its cries and then tears him in pieces with its claws. They say that the goule possesses the faculty of changing itself into different shapes and colours, that it sometimes comes in the form of a camel, at others as a cow or a horse; and when on a sudden, continues the writer just quoted, we had discovered something on the horizon of the desert which we could not define, all the Persians at once exclaimed that it was a goule. Our spying-glasses, however, proved it to be the stump of a high reed, which some of the Persians still thought might be an artifice of the dreaded animal. With the gravest faces they assured our countrymen, that many had seen goules in crossing this desert, and acquainted us with the spells by which they had kept them at a distance, the most efficacious of which they said was loosening the string of their shalwars, or riding-trowsers.