Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/Curiosities of Superstition II

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DURING the reign of Philip II of Spain, the Government spies in the province of Malaga made a curious discovery. In the highest valleys of the Alpujarras, and surrounded by a population of recently converted Moors, they found a tribe of mountaineers whose vernacular was as different from the Arabian as from the Spanish language, and whose neighbors believed them to be descendants of the ancient Iberians. The Ghabirs, as the Moors called them, were a most primitive and harmless race, their food consisted of the vegetable products of their peaceful valley, their only religious function in sacrificing milk and fruits to the spirit of the mountains. A few weeks after the discoverer had made his report to the Holy Office, a detachment of troopers and monks invaded the Alpujarras, the Ghabirs were dragged to Velez Malaga, and burned by order of the Grand Inquisitor. Their crime could not be condoned: they had disregarded the proclamation of 1562, and evaded tithes and baptism for seven years. In vain they pleaded their poverty, their ancient customs, and their ignorance of the Spanish language; "they were all invested with the sanbenito" says the chronicler, "and broiled to death with the proper ceremonies." The shrieks of the victims were heard at Loja, and for three days the harbor of Velez was filled with the stench of burned human flesh. It was a most edifying auto da fe—"an act of faith." The same faith had filled the Netherlands with blood and horror, had raged like the Black Death among the helpless aborigines of the New World, and had orthodoxed Spain by the systematic suppression of freedom, common sense, manhood, industry, and science.

And yet that monstrous superstition had undoubtedly supporters who honestly mistook it for the purest and most beneficent of all possible creeds. But we may be equally sure that mere ignorance would never have produced such delusions. The worst delusions are not the primitive ones, not the crude superstitions of a primitive people. The dogmas of an Ashantee rain-maker are harmless compared with those of a Spanish Inquisitor. We find priests and ignorance both in Ashantee and in Spain, but with this difference, that in Ashantee ignorance produces the priests, while in Spain the priests produce ignorance.

Henry Thomas Buckle holds that religions are influenced by the climate and topography of each country, and by the character of the inhabitants. "Barbarous creeds," says he, "are the result rather than the cause of a primitive stage of intellectual development. Superstition is merely the concomitant of the evils it seems to produce." The fallacy of the conclusion arises from the deficient specification of the premises; the logician overlooks the important difference between natural and factitious creeds; between local superstitions, produced by a process of natural development, like the customs and the language of a nation, and epidemic superstitions, engendered in the brain of a crazed visionary, and propagated by force and fanaticism. The former bear the marks of various national characteristics, the latter impress their own characteristics on each conquered nation. Natural superstitions reflected the poetical genius of the ancient Greeks and the warlike spirit of the Spanish Celts, but the national spirit of both Greece and Spain was crushed out by the dogmas of anti-naturalism. There are local superstitions that can not be exported; the myths of Brahmanism can not be separated from the physical geography of their East Indian habitat, while the sagas of the frost-giants and fur-clad hunter-gods could originate only in a frigid latitude. The Hindoo sticks to his rice, the Icelander to his whale-blubber. But poisons are more cosmopolitan: whisky and pessimism find votaries in every clime. The oldest creeds are the most harmless ones, for the superstitions of a primitive people are founded on natural impressions, which are not apt to mislead us to any dangerous degree. "What harm could there be in the fancy of the Arcadian shepherd who heard a spirit-voice in the answering echo of his mountains, and ascribed the sudden stampede of his flock to the trick of a frolicsome faun? Bread-and-honey offerings to the fairies did not bankrupt the Hibernian peasant. Nearly all children of nature recognized the benevolent purpose in the gifts of the great All-Mother; the gods of antiquity were mostly helpful and beautiful spirits, while the nature-hating creed of the middle ages peopled the world with legions of hideous demons. The first May-night, when Hertha awakens the slumbering wood-spirits, became the Walpurgis Nacht, with its hellish revival-meetings. The satyrs became mountain-devils; St. Irenseus intimates that Jupiter Olympius was the disguised arch-fiend in person, the chief of evil spirits—nay, Ritter Tannhäuser does not hesitate to denounce the Goddess of Beauty to her face: "Frau Venus, schöne Gattin mein, Ihr seid eine Teufelinne" ("My lady, ye are a female devil"). The pantheon of the Mediterranean nations became a pandemonium, and in all Christian countries of mediaeval Europe this devil-mania raged with a uniformity of violence and persistence that completely refutes Buckle's theory. From the fourth to the end of the fifteenth century fanaticism was clearly not the result but the cause of ignorance. The dogma of unnaturalism raged like a pandemic disease, and the changes it suffered in its progress from Asia to Spain are altogether trifling compared with those it produced. Its influence leveled all national distinctions; it emasculated the valiant Visigoth and completed the degradation of the degenerate Byzantine; it increased the superstitions of Abyssinia and perverted the learning of Western Europe.

The works of Bodin, Sprenger, and Robert Burton furnish astounding proofs of what an amount of learning is compatible with the most extravagant superstitions. They were all three earnest lovers of Truth for her own sake—had accumulated stores of erudition that would break the intellectual backbone of a modern scholar; they were logicians of inexorable exactitude, but the very profoundness of their conclusions only reveals the bottomless absurdity of their premises.

Dr. Sprenger does not condescend to examine the reality of diabolical apparitions and infernal liaisons—it would be mere waste of time, he says, to discuss such well-proved facts—but applies the power of his logic to such questions as the following: If the offspring of a male devil and a human female can, by a proper course of penance, efface the stigma of his birth, can he be intrusted with the responsibilities of a municipal or subaltern clerical office? And, in case he should succeed in concealing his parentage and obtain ecclesiastical preferment, should not a conscientious diffidence at least inspire him to plead a noli episcopari? And if, by any chance, his—progenitor should appear to him, is he bound to treat the old gentleman with anything like filial respect? would he be obliged to exorcise his own father? or how could he compromise the difficulty? And what if he should find that he has inherited the paternal talent for magic arts, and can not rid himself of the fatal bequest—does the welfare of his soul require that he should denounce himself to the proper authorities? Persistent good luck, success in vaticination, etc., might be regarded as mere presumptive evidence, but if a Christian finds that he can fly, it would be a very suspicious circumstance; would he be justified in exercising his gift for worthy purposes—take a flit to Loretto, for instance, or should he fly straight to the king's attorney, and thus prove both his guilt and his contrition? Or if. by prayer and fasting, he should hope to disqualify himself for such exploits, would it be right to give himself the benefit of the doubt? An orthodox Catholic had better strictly abstain from volitation, but if such scruples were to seize him in mid-air, would it be advisable for him to let himself drop? The gift of prescience would also embarrass a man in that predicament—would it be right to conceal his foreknowledge if, by a timely hint, he could avert a public calamity? Reticence would, on the whole, be the safest plan. But should a man abstain from marriage, lest his wife might be less discreet? Persons troubled with a burdensome secret are apt to talk in their sleep.

Jean Bodine quotes St. Augustine to the effect that a certain Præstantius confided to him an adventure of his father's, who, having been drugged by a witch, was transformed into a horse, and had to carry a load of corn ("De Civitate Dei" xviii, 18). Such transformations, says Bodine, are still of daily occurrence, and only a false modesty prevents the victims from achieving the glory of exposing the enchanter.

Witches, it is well known, can change only the body, but not the soul, of a fellow-creature; the corn-carrying contemporary of St. Augustine was doubtless conscious of his degradation, and no horse of proper principles should hesitate, under such circumstances, to gallop away and state his case to the next exorcist. In Northern Germany, metamorphoses of that kind are especially frequent, the object of the wizards being to secure a mount on their way to the Blocksberg, and, though individuals have no jurisdiction in such matters, Monsieur Bodine would advise the anthropohippos to watch his opportunity and disable his rider by a well-aimed kick. Two gamekeepers of the Duke of Brunswick, both men of unimpeachable veracity, once saw a whole cavalcade of Walpurgis-riders, but hesitated to shoot for fear of hitting a hack instead of a hag. In the same duchy a witch in tormentis once revealed a sentence that would horsify a man in a minute, but Monsieur Bodine is happy to state that he has forgotten the formula. To remember such things is highly dangerous. One judge of the Criminal Court of Lorraine had cross-examined so many witches that he at last began to suspect himself, and, having dropped a hint to that effect, was seized and burned with the proper rites.

With the exception of Ibn Chaldir, who passed nine tenths of his long life in a public library, Robert Burton, the vicar of Segrave, was probably the best-read man who ever lived. He had studied philology, philosophy, theology, law, and medicine; he was a first-class mathematician, a zealous astronomer, and "calculator of nativities"; he had read nearly every volume in the Bodleian collection and in the library of Christ-Church College. He was well versed in the philosophical speculations of the mediæval school-men. He had mastered the inductive system of his great contemporary. All this learning did not prevent him from perpetrating the following dicta:

"The air is not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils. . . . Fiery devils are such as commonly work by blazing stars, fire-drakes, or ignes fatui (which lead men often in flumina aut præcipitia), whom, if travelers wish to keep off, they must pronounce the name of God with a clear voice, or adore him with their faces in contact with the ground. . . . Aërial devils are such as keep quarters in the air, cause tempests, thunder and lightning, make it rain stones, wool, frogs, etc. . . . Subterranean devils are as common as the rest, and do as much harm. The last are conversant about the center of the earth, to torture the souls of damned men to the day of judgment; their egress and regress some suppose to be about Etna, Lipari, Terra del Fuego (!), etc., because many shrieks and fearful cries are continually heard thereabouts, and familiar apparitions of dead men, ghosts, and goblins. . . . The devil being a slender and incomprehensible spirit, can easily insinuate himself into human bodies. A nun did eat lettuce without grace, or signing it with the sign of the cross, and was instantly possessed. . . . A young maid called Katherine Gaiter, a cooper's daughter, had such strange passions and convulsions that three men could sometimes not hold her; she purged a live eel, which suddenly vanished; she vomited some twenty-four pounds of strange stuff of all colors, twice a day for fourteen days, and after that she voided great balls of hair, pieces of wood, pigeon's dung, parchment, goose-dung, coals, and large stones. They could do no good on her with physic, and left her to the clergy. . . . The arts of witches are almost as infinite as the devil's, who is still ready to grant their desires, to oblige them the more unto him. They can cause tempests and storms, which is familiarly practiced by witches in Norway and Iceland, as I have proved (!). They can make friends enemies, and enemies friends by philters, turpes amores conciliare, enforce love, tell any man where his friends are, about what employed, though in the most remote places, and, if they will, bring their sweethearts to them by night, upon a goat's back flying in the air."—("Anatomy of Melancholy," Part I, section 2, subject i-iii.)

Neither learning nor logic afforded a safeguard against the monomania of the middle ages, and Northern Europe owed its final deliverance to the love of freedom rather than the love of science. The delusion of the fourteen hundred years' interregnum of reason was to all purposes a contagious mental disease; and who shall say if the prophylactics of our present civilization afford a guarantee against the recurrence of such epidemics? In the mind of a mental pathologist the progress of spiritualism, with its revived thirst for miracles, might awaken unpleasant recollections of the second century—the eve of the era when St. Gregory Thaumaturgus carried the day against the protests of the Roman Huxleys and Carpenters. The trouble is, that the creed of science has thus far been always agnostic, and its negative propaganda could not maintain the field against the enthusiasm of a positive superstition. Faith strikes deeper roots than skepticism, and the dogmas that could crush out the logic of Aristotle found their match in some of the silliest myths of paganism. Several myths of this sort proved so wholly ineradicable that the new creed could assert its supremacy only by a kind of grafting process, a mythical metastasis that enabled the new dogma to draw its nourishment from the root of an old superstition. The period of many Catholic festivals coincides with the season of ancient Roman and Druidical mysteries. Sacred fanes became miraculous shrines; Ceres, Bacchus, Venus, Pan, and Priapus still collect their old perquisites in the name of new saints.

Even popular traditions have thus been metamorphosed. In the mystic recluse of the Barbarossa legend, Professor Grimm recognized the All-father Wodan, whose attributes had been transferred to the person of Charlemagne, and afterward to Frederick Barbarossa. When the oaks of the sacred groves were felled for church-timber, the old Saxon god retired to the mountains, the usual refuge of exiled deities, and finally went to sleep in a mountain-cave, the Untersberg, near Salzburg, and the Kyfhäuser in Northern Germany, where he awaits the return of better times, the resurrection of the buried nature-worship and the departure of the black crows, the clerical birds of ill-omen that fly croaking around his rocky retreat. The prototypes of these croakers did not relish the legend, and managed to substitute a secular hero, and in another case even a spook. The Wild Huntsman was originally a Welt-jäger, a world-hunter, the old sport-loving wood-god, with his hounds and falcons and train of merry companions. In Western Pomerania the leader of the nocturnal chase appears under the semi-incognito of a Junker Hakelberg, the "cowl-bearer" another cognomen of the mist-shrouded Odin.

Sir William Jones's researches into the sacred writings of Brahmanism revealed a still stranger metempsychosis of myths—the transfer of the primeval Krishna legend to the personal history of Buddha Sakya-Muni, and its subsequent exportation to a far Western colony of Buddhism. According to Maurice's translation of the Bhagavat Purana, Krishna (like Buddha) was a Parthenogenitus, a virgin-son. The birth of both Krishna and Buddha was foretold by a heavenly messenger. Both were of royal descent. The delivery of the virgin-mothers was attended by the same prodigies, the rising of a new star and the appearance of a company of heavenly choristers. Three Eastern monarchs visited the new-born infant. Cansa, the ruler of Krishna's birth-land, ordered a massacre of young children in order to prevent the fulfillment of an ominous prophecy. Both Krishna and Buddha passed several years in exile before they entered upon their mission of reform. Krishna, like Buddha, had twelve favorite converts, who accompanied him on his missionary travels. Cæetera, qui nescit?

Our very hobgoblins are of Eastern origin; nearly all international fairy-stories and popular traditions have their roots in the fruitful myth-garden of Hindostan. The stories of Cinderella, of Tamerlane, and Jack the Giant-killer, amused the children of Sind before Nimrod built his great adobe palace; William Tell learned his trade in the archer brigade of a Nepaulese tyrant; and the fair Melusina used to bathe in the Ganges before she built her swimming-hall in the castle of Poitiers.

Of the Melusina legend a modern French evolutionist (M. de Lescure) gives the following curious exegesis: "The discovery of the Marquis of Poitiers, which resulted in the dissolution of his connubial tie, may yet lead to other divorces if the allies of the orthodox cos cosmogony should take a peep through a certain key-hole. The allegory reveals the great arcanum of nature, the secret, namely, that the human shape divine has been evolved from the form of a fish."

[To be concluded.]