Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Curiosities of Superstition III

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


SOME international superstitions have a symbolic significance. The vampire-fable, for instance, typifies the insufficiency of human life, the sleep-disturbing consciousness of its unattained purposes. Like the visits of the White Lady, the rambles of the posthumous night-walker have generally a definite object, the gratification of revenge or desire, or of some special crotchet, like that of the Turkish horse-ghoul (mentioned by the traveler Kohl), who amused himself by galloping the race-horses of his former master. Mental aberrations can become epidemic, and the vampire-delusion seems to be as contagious as the witchcraft-insanity. In Transylvania the "climate of opinion" appears to affect even foreigners. In 1859 an Austrian notary of Klausenburg recorded the testimony of forty-eight deponents of various nationalities, who attested the post-mortem appearance of one Fedor Radotzek, a brevet captain of the Grenz-Corps, or Military-Frontier Guards. About two years after the funeral of the brevet captain, the neighbors attended a birthday-party at the house of his widow, and toward evening some of them were standing in the open porch, talking to one of his sons, when they saw the old man himself come round the corner and enter the garden-gate. A few minutes after the garden was crowded with a mass-meeting of citizens, in a pardonable state of excitement, for the twilight was still clear enough to remove all doubts about the identity of the visitor. He had taken a seat on the garden-bench, making himself at home, as if nothing had happened; but, on being taken to task for the eccentricity of his conduct, he had the good sense to re-die on the spot, and met his fate like a well-behaved corpse, when a couple of priests took him in charge and hustled him off the premises.

Vampirism prevails all over Russia, Persia, Greece, Bohemia, and Poland, but especially in the Danubian Principalities, where the wealthy families of the last century often buried their dead in sheet-iron-lined coffins of the heaviest oak-plank, while the poor would sometimes fetter or even hamstring their deceased relatives, to prevent them from abusing their feet for posthumous excursions. It is one of the few dogmas which the Moslem share with their Christian neighbors. There is a variety of maladies, chlorosis and hectic fever, for instance, which the Turkish beldames unhesitatingly ascribe to the activity of a ghoul; and after the massacre of Chios the Capitan Pasha ordered the bodies to be burned, "lest they should leave their graves." For a similar reason, perhaps, the judges of the Holy Inquisition roasted their victims; they believed, with Aristotle, that "fire disembodies the principle of life, and restores the peace of the original elements." The Parsees worship in fire the purifying principle of Nature. Their millennium, like that of the Nihilists, will he preceded by a general explosion, a thorough actual cautery of earthly sores, and uncremated corpses will have to await the day of that final world-purgatory.

The vampire-superstition has been traced back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era, when the Nature-worship of ancient Europe had to yield to the dreary asceticism of the new creed, and the ancient divinities and their retainers had to wander homeless—in the North as followers of the Wild Huntsman, and in the South as night-hags and ghouls, like the Lamia of that weird and wonderful ballad, Goethe's "Bride of Corinth," which his rival, Heine, calls the "lyrical masterpiece of European poetry." A citizen of Corinth, a recent convert, betroths his daughter first to a young Athenian, and next to the "bridegroom of the Church," i. e., shuts her up in a nunnery, where they kill her with prayers and penances. Bridegroom number one arrives unexpectedly one evening; explanations are postponed to the next day, and in the mean time the guest is consigned to a room formerly occupied by his lost bride. During the night her mother hears stealthy footsteps and a whispered conversation, and, impelled by an irresistible curiosity, she opens the door of the guest-chamber. A vampire, caught in flagrante, confronts her, and she recognizes her own daughter, who, instead of collapsing at the sign of the cross, turns upon her with fierce reproaches, admits the fatal consequences of her visit, mentions other victims, but finally suggests the remedy—a Grecian funeral-pile. Her body, she says, has to be removed from the stifling cloister-vault, and cremated in due form, together with the corpse of her lover:

"When the stake-fires blend,
When the sparks ascend,
Shall our spirits join the ancient gods."

In the mountains of Upper Austria the natives dread the boding voice of the Klage, a spectral Cassandra who frequents the desolate highlands of the Wiener Wald and the eastern Alps. He who meets her meets his death; her voice presages imminent misfortune, or afflicts the hearer with chronic hypochondria, for the echo of her wail will haunt the ear forever. A precisely analogous spook, the llorona (from llorar, to weep or mourn), infests the Sierras of old Spain, while La Pleureuse bemoans the sorrows of life on the French side of the Pyrenees. This concomitance of highlands and pessimism seems rather paradoxical; but mountaineers are mostly autochthones (like the Basques, Gaelic Scotch, Circassians, Ghebirs, and Druses), and may have preserved the memory of a Juventus Mundi, which lingered in their rocks, together with paganism and Ruskinian ideals.

The belief in the malign influence of the mal-occhio, or evil-eye, is not confined to the Latin races, but prevails in Persia and China, as well as among the South-China Malays and their East Indian neighbors. In Southern Italy the superstition is almost universal. According to the popular theory, the possessor of an evil-eye can stare his victims into all sorts of afflictions, palsy, rickets, goitre, etc. Nay, his power for evil has hardly any limits whatever, for by the same optical process he can produce death and epidemics—cholera infantum, for instance. And, moreover, such persons are generally conscious of their dreadful talent, and can forbear its exercise, for they manage to connive at their favorites. Evil-eye wizards can be known by their peculiar way of squinting, or by their bushy eyebrows, that conceal the piercing steadiness of their gaze, and orthodox crones lament the decadence of the good old times when such offenders could be brought to justice. According to the myth of the Puranas, the god Siva can blight a whole town with his withering look; and the Indian gods, who often visit earth in the guise of mortals, are sometimes recognized by the rigidness of their gaze: they never wink; to their sleepless eyes space and time are units. Hecate and Medusa had such optics, and the basis of the superstition may possibly be the primitive man's dread of mental superiority, the power of mind over matter, ascribed to the eye, as the mirror of the soul. Captain Burton noticed that the negroes of Soodan are almost unable to meet a white man's gaze, though they quail still more before the fire-eyes of their Semitic neighbors. The Veddahs of Ceylon, too, seem, to dread a Siva in every foreigner.

But the most wide-spread of all superstitions is the belief in portents. In some of its modifications the tendency to ascribe an ominous significance to certain events, and good or bad luck to be auspices of certain times or contingencies, is all but universal. It survives the influence of every other form of superstition. The elder Pliny, who calmly rejects the entire mythological system of his countrymen, admits his belief in the prognostications of the haruspices. The skeptic, Wallenstein, kept two or three professional astrologers. Napoleon the Great was a firm believer in lucky and unlucky days. The Pyrrhonist, Walid, surrounded himself with Egyptian pages on account of the favorable auspices of their nationality. The Marquis d'Argens, the presiding atheist of the Sans-Souci symposia, after shocking even the scoffing king and the king of scoffers by the profanity of his remarks, was apt to turn pale at the discovery of a double peach-stone or the accidental spilling of the salt. French mariners have ceased to vow wax-candles to Our Lady of Brest, but they still dislike to leave a harbor on Friday, or during the progress of a hail-shower. The agnostic Chinamen (for the gospel of Confucius is nothing but a secular code of morals) postpone a journey if they meet a decrepit old woman. Certain dreams impress them so strongly with the dread of impending disaster that even opium-smokers will forego their drug for a day or two, in order to keep all their available wits about them. A Silesian miner will make his will if his lamp happens to go out before its oil is spent. According to the analysis of Immanuel Kant, the basis of the whole delusion is what he calls the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy—"after it, therefore because of it," or the tendency to mistake an accidental coincidence for the result of a causal connection. From this point of view there is no specific difference between a misapplication of the inductive method and the grossest portent-superstition. The precipitate follower of Bacon has noticed the coincidence of cold weather and catarrhs, and jumps to the conclusion that a low temperature deranges the functions of the respiratory organs; he has known cases of recovery following the use of Dr. Quack's cough-medicine, and ascribes the cure to the nostrum. The weather changes about four times a month, a month has four lunar phases, therefore the weather depends on the changes of the moon. At the roulette-table certain numbers may now and then turn up oftener than others: the gambler concludes that they must be lucky numbers, or bets on red cards because he twice lost his monthly salary on a black one. To the objection that the weather-superstition deals, after all, with fixed natural laws, and the roulette-superstition with capricious accidents, the gambler might reply that so-called accidents are only necessities in disguise.

When that disguise is practically impenetrable, the theoretical attempts to that effect speak, perhaps, in favor of an order-loving and systematic tendency of the human mind. Man is a methodical animal, and will regulate his conduct by the most fantastic rules rather than act entirely at hap-hazard. "In the game of life," says Edmond About, "men are often apt to follow a system where they might just as well play at random."

In some cases that tendency may be ascribed to a latent fetichism. In the age of faith every man had his favorite days, months, numbers } stars, colors, etc.; for all such things had their presiding deities, and their partisans, as it were, threw themselves upon the protection of a tutelary spirit. The hero of the "Cyropædia" never gives battle without sacrificing to the genius of the day and the nymphs of the surrounding rivers and mountains. Scipio Africanus used to invoke the deities of a hostile city before he brought his battering-rams into play, just as the Zooloo Caffres propitiate the demons of a new hunting ground. It seemed the safer way—"If it does no good it can do no harm"—as the mediæval apologists justified the invocation of the patron saints, and in the same way a gambler may defend his "system" against the objections of his intellectual conscience.

The rules of such systems often suggest the influence of curious associations of ideas. In ancient Greece the luckiness of the first lunar phase was deemed so axiomatic that the Spartans missed the battle of Marathon rather than take the field before the new moon. The two weeks preceding the plenilunium suggest the prime of life, when things in general progress favorably, while the subsequent half months correspond to the age of declining strength and general retrogression. The haruspices augured on the principle that a bird's flight from left to right was a favorable omen—things were going the right way, while by the laws of consistency the opposite direction suggested adverse tendencies. Birds, as creatures of the air, seemed the fittest messengers of the gods, who had a way of imparting their revelations by symbols, and might be supposed to choose the beginning of an unlucky enterprise as the best time for warning their favorites: When Conradin of Hohenstauffen set out for that fatal campaign that ended on the scaffold of Naples, his horse refused to cross the Arno Bridge, and an old citizen adjured him to turn back, but he dismounted and led his horse across." It means that we are going to prevail afoot," he laughed, alluding to the preponderance of his infantry force. A year before the invasion of the Saracens, King Roderic saw their horses and riders in a dream; and Appolonius of Tyana foresaw even the great aphanasia, the fifteen hundred years' eclipse of common sense and reason. "Woe be to our children!" he exclaimed, on awakening from a trance; "I see a shadow approaching; a great darkness is going to cover this world."

After the analogy of great natural catastrophes, events of national importance were supposed to cast premonitory shadows, and in nearly every country on earth the myth-making faculty of the people has accordingly supplied a set of portents for every momentous incident of their history. Tacitus records a due number of obituary prodigies for every one of his Cæsars. The battle of Adrianople, where the clubs of the Visigoths broke the power of the Roman Empire, was foretold by an augur who had seen a portentous cloud approaching from the east in the teeth of a strong west wind. The conquest of Mexico was the fulfillment of an omen that had plainly warned the natives of their impending fate. In the night when Abderrahman el Hakim died, shooting-stars showered down as if they were going to set the earth afire. The tyrant Polycrates of Samos was born during an earthquake that shook the foundations of the island. Before the birth of Buddha Sakyamuni the Ganges flowed back to its source, flowers sprouted in desert places, a sound of music rung through the air, corpses left their tombs, and a new star appeared. A new star appeared also after the murder of Julius Cæsar, and certainly after the death of Antinous, for the Emperor Hadrian ordered it to be worshiped as the transfigured spirit of his favorite.

The rationale of the superior luckiness of odd numbers is less obvious, but they were certainly the favorite numbers of the Gnostics and of all mythological systems. The three Graces, three Fates, three Furies, three Judges of the dead, and three-headed hell-hounds appear as mystical as the Indian Trimurti and its derivatives. The seven sacraments, seven gates of the New Zion, and seven golden candlesticks, correspond to the seven days of the week. Lars Porsenna swears by the nine gods, and Ovid by the nine Muses. All, perhaps, for the negative reason (though oddity may have its positive attractions) that a deliberative junta of even numbers can not get the benefit of a casting vote. Gamblers rarely bet on even numbers; it is one of their corporation maxims, besides which every individual player has a by-law code of his own. The Spaniard Garcia, who broke every gambling-hell on the Rhine, operated upon the theory that luck, like history, repeats itself in a certain succession, and kept a list of successive hits, in order to back the same series after the turning up of the first number. Count Esterhazy, whose portentous luck made him the bugbear of the Swiss watering-places, believed in the inspiration of a first attempt, and relied on the instinct of a pointer—any novice who in consideration of a percentage would consent to locate his stakes. That the tiger-wardens themselves are not above such superstitions seems proved by the fact that the managers of the little Bath Pfeffers once offered him ten thousand francs to dig his gold from a wealthier mine.

"Fortis Fortuna adjuvat" ("Fortune favors the strong") was a Latin proverb, and Napoleon, like Suvaroff and Bismarck, asserted that she is always on the side of the big battalions, though, like their fellow-men, they probably inclined to the private opinion that "luckiness" is a special faculty, and that, irrespective of their energy, prudence, and perseverance, some people manage to score success after success. In the California bonanza period every camp had its "lucky man," not always the best mineralogist, but a fellow who somehow had a knack of stumbling upon "pay-dirt," and thus became the chosen pioneer of his comrades. It sometimes really seems as if the race were neither to the swift nor the cunning. We have merchants, speculators, and politicians, whom Fortune declines to forsake, in spite of all their blunders—Sontags-kinder, "Sunday-children," as the Germans call them—fellows who have six points ahead in every game and beat the best players. Where others have wasted their time in mining and counter-mining, they take every fort at the first assault, and for no apparent reason, unless good luck begets self-confidence, for pluck is perhaps, after all, the secret of every real success.

The Chinese divide all auspices into yan and yuen, male and female, positive-lucky and negative-unlucky streams of tendency. The sun is a yan, the moon a yuen, luminary; daylight blesses and vivifies; moonlight blights. For cognate reasons, perhaps, Friday (the day of Friya, dies Veneris) is an unlucky day: among the Romans, as well as among the ancient Saxons, it was' sacred to a female deity. M. Quetelet estimates that the Friday superstition costs the French railway companies an average aggregate of five million francs a year, by which sum the expenses of Friday passenger-trains exceed the receipts!

If we consider the expensiveness of the Delphian oracle and the Loretto miracle-factory, the suras wasted on all kinds of amulets, from a brickbat fetich to a marble cathedral, we must admit that superstitions are costly luxuries. Dome-building, the most expensive phase of the mania, culminated during the night of the middle ages, and that night is certainly passing away, but many of its specters still frequent their ancient haunts; for supernaturalism is a Proteus, and apt to assume shapes that can not be exorcised with daylight. Like the poison-habit, the thirst for miracles satisfies its craving with a variety of stimulants. Ex-Romanists revel in mysticism, as their ancestors fuddled with the Rosicrucian Gnostics, and afterward with magic and astrology. Protestants often yield to the craving for stronger stimulants and glut it with rectified spiritism, undiluted with traditions and homilies. Mr. Kiddle's apocalypse is the confession of a moral opium-eater. In France professional free-thinkers patronize not less professional clairvoyants; the pythoness Lenormand amassed a fortune of two million francs, and was consulted by atheists and philosophers, and twice even by the Emperor Napoleon, whose speculative dogmas were limited to a few negative tenets. German non-conformists are apt to contract a passion for ghost-stories. Their publishers have regular sample-rooms of supernaturalism; Arnim's novels, a rock-and-rye mixture of romantic poetry and spook stories, have become household works; Jung Stirling's Geister-kunde (Spectrology), a sort of proof-spirits with a flavor of pietism, has still an enormous circulation. Men who never enter a church, and treat all sects with the tolerance of absolute indifference, procure their tipple from a circulating library, like peace-loving topers who shun tavern-brawls, but now and then purchase a quart of rum and take it home in a pocket-flask. On the whole, it is a step in the right direction. Their liquor is often as strong as anything sold across the bar, but the effects of their inspiration are limited to the precincts of a private sanctum, and they are less apt to force their poison upon their neighbors.