Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/June 1887/Among the Transylvanian Saxons II
BIRTH AND DEATH.
BY-AND-BY, when a few months have passed over the head of the new-married couple, and the young matron becomes aware that the prophecies pointed at by the doll's cradle and the broken distaff are likely to come true, she is carefully instructed as to the conduct she must observe in order to insure the well-being of herself and her child.
In the first place, she must on no account conceal her state, or deny it when interrogated on the subject for if she do so, her child will never learn to speak; nor may she wear beads on her neck, for that would cause the infant to be strangled at its birth. Carrying peas or beans in her apron will produce malignant eruptions; and sweeping a chimney will make the child narrow-breasted.
On no account should she be allowed to pull off her husband's boots, nor to hand him a glowing coal to light his pipe; for both these actions bring misfortune. In driving to market she may not sit with her back to the horses, nor may she ever drink at the well out of a wooden bucket.
Also, her intercourse with the pig-sty must be very carefully regulated; for if she listen too attentively to the grunting of pigs, her child will have a deep, grunting voice; and if she kick the swine or push them away with her foot, the infant will have bristly hair on its back. Hair on the face will be the result of beating a dog or cat, and twins will be the consequence of eating double cherries or sitting at the corner of the table.
During this time she may not stand godmother to any other child, or else she will lose her own baby, which will equally be sure to die if she walk round a newly made grave.
If any one throw a flower suddenly at the woman who expects to become a mother, and hits her with it on the face, her child will have a mole at the same place touched by the flower.
Should the young matron imprudently have neglected one of these rules, and have cause to fear that an evil spell has been cast on her child, she has, however, several very efficacious recipes for undoing the harm. Thus, if she sit on the door-step with the feet resting on a broom for five minutes at a time on seven consecutive Fridays, thinking the while of her unborn babe, it will be released from the impending doom; or else let her sit there on Sundays, when the bells are ringing, with her hair hanging unplaited down her back; or else climb up the belfry-tower and look down at sunset on to the landscape below.
When the moment of the birth is approaching, the windows must be carefully hung over with sheets and cloths to prevent witches from entering; but all locks and bolts should, on the contrary, be opened, else the event will be retarded.
If the new-born infant be weakly, it is usual to put yolks of eggs, a glass of old wine, bran, or sawdust into its first bath.
Very important for the future luck and prosperity of the infant is the day of the week and month on which it happens to have been born. Sunday is of course the luckiest day, and twelve o'clock at noon, when the bells are ringing, the most favorable hour for entering upon life. If a Sunday's child have its fingers rubbed with oil on every seventh birthday (7th, 14th, 21st, etc.), it will henceforward be able to perceive underground treasures through its transparent finger-tips.
Wednesday children are Schlabberkinder—that is, chatterboxes; Friday bairns are unfortunate; but in some districts Saturday is yet more unfortunate, while in other places they are merely supposed to grow up dirty.
Whoever is born on a stormy night will die of a violent death. The full moon or growing moon is favorable, but the decreasing moon will produce weakly and unhealthy babes.
All children born between Easter and Pentecost are more or less lucky, unless they happen to have come on one of the distinctly unlucky days, of which I here quote the most important. These unlucky days are:
January 1st, 2d, 6th, 11th, 17th, and 18th.
I leave it to more penetrating spirits to decide whether these seemingly capricious figures be regulated on some hidden system, the mystic workings of which have baffled my understanding; so that I am utterly at a loss to explain why January and April have the greatest number of unlucky days assigned to them, while June and October have the smallest proportion; and why the 1st and 17th are hardly ever harmless, while all days between the 18th and 30th are invariably good.
Both mother and child must be carefully watched over during the first few days after the birth, and all evil influences averted. The visit of another woman who has herself a babe at the breast, may deprive the young mother of her milk; and any one who enters the house without sitting down will assuredly carry off the infant's sleep.
If the child be subject to frequent and apparently groundless fits of crying, that is a sure sign that it has been bewitched, either by some one whose eyebrows are grown together, and may consequently be supposed to have the evil-eye, or by one of the invisible evil spirits whose power is great before the child has been taken to church; but even a person with quite commonplace eyebrows may convey evil by unduly praising the child's good looks, unless the mother remembers to spit on the ground as soon as the words are spoken.
I will here quote a few specimens of the various recipes in vogue for undoing such evil spells:
Nine straws, which must be counted backward from nine till one, should be placed in a jug of water, drawn from the river with the current, not against; into this are thrown parings of wood from off the cradle, the door-step, and the four corners of the room in which the child was born, also nine pinches of ashes, likewise counted backward. When all these various ingredients have been boiled up together, the water is poured boiling hot into a large basin, and the pot left in it upside-down. If the boiling water draws itself into the jug (as of course it will), that is proof positive that the child was bewitched; and the mother should moisten its forehead with the water before it is cold, and give it (still counting backward) nine drops to drink.
The child that has been bewitched may likewise be held above a red-hot plowshare, on which a glass of wine has been poured; or else a glass of water, in which a red-hot horseshoe has been placed, given to drink.
In almost every village there used, not long ago, to be old women who made a regular trade out of preparing the water which was to undo evil spells.
The Saxon mother is careful not to leave her child alone until it has been baptized, for fear of the malignant spirits, who may steal it away, leaving an uncouth elf in its place. Whenever a child grows up clumsy and heavy, with large head, wide mouth, stump nose, and crooked legs, the gossips are ready to swear that it has been changed in the cradle, more especially if it prove awkward and slow in learning to speak. To guard against such an accident, it is recommended to mothers obliged to leave their infants alone, to place beneath the pillow either a prayer-book, a broom, a loaf of bread, or a knife stuck point upward.
Very cruel remedies have sometimes been resorted to in order to force the evil spirits to restore the child they have stolen, and take back their own changeling. For instance, the unfortunate little creature, suspected of being an elf, was placed astride upon a hedge and beaten with a thorny branch until it was quite bloody; it was then supposed that the evil spirits brought back the stolen child.
The infant should not be suffered to look at itself in the glass till after the baptism, nor should it be held near an open window. A very efficacious preservative against all sorts of evil spells is to hang round the child's neck a little triangular bag stuffed with grains of incense, wormwood, and various aromatic herbs, and with an adder's head embroidered outside; a gold coin sowed into the cap will likewise keep the spirits away.
Two godfathers and two godmothers are generally appointed at Saxon peasant christenings, and it is customary that one couple should be old and the other young; but in no case should a husband and wife figure as god-parents at the same baptism, but each one of the quartet must belong to a different family. This is the general custom; but in some districts the rule demands two godfathers and one godmother for a boy two godmothers and one godfather for a girl.
If the parents have lost other children before, then the infant should not be carried out by the door in going to church, but handed out by the window, and brought back in the same way. It should be carried by the broadest street, never by narrow lanes, else it will learn thieving.
The god-parents must not look round on their way to church; and the first person met by the christening procession will decide the sex of the next child to be born—a boy, if it be a man.
If two children are baptized out of the same water, one of them will soon die; and if several boys are christened successively in the same church, there will be war in the land as soon as they are grown up. Many girls denote fruitful vintages for the country when they have attained a marriageable age.
If the child sleeps during the baptismal ceremony, then it will be pious and good-tempered; but if it cries, it will be bad-tempered or unlucky; therefore, the first question asked by the parents on the return from church is generally, "Was it a quiet baptism?" and if such has not been the case, the sponsors are apt to conceal the truth.
In some places the christening procession returning to the house of the parents finds the door closed. After knocking for some time in vain, a voice from within summons the godfather to name seven bald men out of the parish. When this has been answered, a further question is asked as to the gospel read in church; and only on receiving the answer, "Let the little children come to me," is the door flung open, saying: "Come in; you have hearkened attentively to the words of the Lord." The god-parents next inquiring, "Where shall we put the child?" receive the following answer:
"On the bunker let it be,
After holding it successively on each of these places, it is finally put back into the cradle, while the guests prepare to enjoy the Tauf Schmaus, or christening banquet.
Each person is expected to bring a small contribution in the shape of eggs, bacon, fruit, or cakes; and the god-parents do not fail to come each laden with a bottle of good wine, besides some other small gift for the child.
The banquet is a noisy and merry one, and many are the games and jokes practiced on these occasions. One of these, called the Badspringen (jumping the bath), consists in putting a lighted candle on a washing-trough, which is placed upside-down on the ground. All the young women present are invited to jump over without upsetting or putting out the light. Those who are successful in this evolution will be mothers of healthy boys. If they are bashful, and refuse to jump, or should they be awkward enough to upset the candle, they will be childless, or have only girls.
The Spiesstanz, or spit-dance, is also usual on these occasions. Two roasting-spits are laid on the ground crosswise, as in the sword-dance and the movements executed much in the same manner.
Sometimes it is the grandfather of the new-born infant who opens the performance, proud of displaying his agility as he sings:
"Purple plum so sweet,
But if the grandfather be old and feeble, and if the godfathers can not be induced to exert themselves, then it is usually the midwife who, for a small consideration, undertakes the dancing.
It is hardly ever customary for the young mother to be seated at the table along with the guests; and even if she be well and hearty enough to have baked the cakes and milked the cows on that same day, etiquette demands that she should play the interesting invalid and lie in bed till the feasting be over.
For full four weeks after the birth of her child must she stay at home, and durst not step over the threshold of her court-yard, even though she has resumed all her daily occupations within the first week of her recovery. "I may not go outside till my time is out; the Herr Vater would be sorely angered if he saw me," is the answer I have often heard from a woman who declined to come out on to the road. Neither may she spin during these four weeks, lest her child should suffer from dizziness.
When the time of this enforced retirement has elapsed, the young mother repairs to church along with her infant to be blessed by the pastor; but before so doing she is careful to seek the nearest well and throw down a piece of bread into its depths, probably as an offering to the Brunnenfrau supposed to reside in each water, and who is said to lure little children down to her.
With these first four weeks the greatest perils of infancy are considered to be at an end; but no careful mother will fail to observe the many little customs and regulations which alone will insure the further health and well-being of her child.
Thus she will always remember that the baby may only be washed between sunrise and sunset, and that the bathing-water may not be poured out into the yard at a place where any one can step over it, which would entail sickness or death, or at the very least deprive the child of its sleep.
Two children which can not yet speak must not be allowed to kiss each other, or neither of them will ever learn to talk.
A book laid under the child's pillow will make it an apt scholar; and the water in which a young puppy has been washed, if used for the infant's bath, will cure it of all skin-diseases.
Whoever steps over a child as it lies on the ground will cause it to die within a month. Other prognostics of death are to rock an empty cradle, to make the child dance in its bath, or to measure it with a yard-measure before it can walk.
Death, to the Saxon peasants, appears in the light of a treacherous enemy, who must be met with open resistance, and may be conquered by courageous opposition or conciliated with a bribe. "He has put off death again with a slice of bread," is said of a man who has unexpectedly survived some great danger.
When the first signs of an approaching illness declare themselves in a man, all his friends are strenuous in advising him to hold out against it, not to let himself go, but to grapple with this foe which has seized him unawares. Even though all the symptoms of typhus fever be already upon him, though his head be burning like fire, and his limbs heavy as lead, he is yet exhorted to bear up against it, and on no account to let himself lie down, for that would be a concession to the enemy.
In this way many a man goes about with death upon his face, determined not to give in, till he drops at last senseless in the field or yard where he has been working till the last moment.
Even then his family are not disposed to let him rest. With well-meaning but mistaken kindness, they endeavor to rouse him by shouting in his ear. He must be made to wake up and walk about, or it will be all over with him; and not for the world would they send for a doctor, who can only be regarded as an omen of approaching death.
Some old woman versed in magic formulas, and learned in the decoction of herbs and potions, is hastily summoned to the bedside; and the unfortunate man would probably be left to perish without intelligent advice, unless the pastor, hearing of his illness, takes it upon himself to send for the nearest physician.
By the time the doctor has arrived, the illness has made rapid strides, and most likely the assistance comes too late. The first care of the doctor on entering the room will be to remove the warm fur cap and the heavy blankets, which are well-nigh stifling the patient, and order him to be undressed and comfortably laid in his bed. He prescribes cooling compresses, and a medicine to be taken at regular intervals, but shakes his head and gives little hope of recovery.
Already this death is regarded as a settled thing in the village, for many of the gossips now remember to have heard the owl shriek in the passing nights, or there has been an unusual howling of dogs just about midnight. Others call to mind how over-merry the old man had been four weeks ago, when his youngest grandchild was christened, and that is ever a sign of approaching death. "And only a week ago," says another village authority, "when we buried old mother Barbara, there was an amazing power of dust round the grave, and the Herr Vater sneezed twice during his sermon; and that, as every one knows, infallibly means another funeral before long. Mark my words, ere eight days have passed he will be lying under the nettles."
The village carpenter, who has long been out of work, now hangs about the street in hopes of a job. "How is the old man?" he anxiously inquires of a neighbor.
"The pastor has just gone in to knock off the old sinner's irons," is the irreverent answer.
"Then I may hope to be called in soon for making his coat (coffin). High time I was able to turn an honest penny again. I have a heap of damaged boards which were refused by the railway engineers still lying on my hands."
Sometimes, however, it is the thrifty peasant himself who, knowing the ways of village carpenters, and foreseeing this inevitable contingency, has taken care to provide himself with a well-made, solid coffin years before there was any probability of its coming into use. He has himself chosen out the boards, tested their soundness, and driven a hard bargain for his purchase, laying himself down in the coffin to assure himself of the length being sufficient. For many years this useless piece of furniture has been standing in the loft, covered with dust and cobwebs and serving perhaps as a receptacle for old iron or discarded shoes; and now it is the dying man himself who, during a passing interval of consciousness, directs that his coffin should be brought down and cleaned out, his glassy eye recovering a passing brightness as he congratulates himself on his wise forethought.
Death is indeed approaching with rapid strides. Only two spoonfuls of the medicine prescribed has the patient swallowed. "Take it away," he says, when he realizes his situation—"take it away, and keep it carefully for the next person who falls ill. It is a pity to waste it on me, for I feel that my time has come, and nothing can do me any more good. Send for the preacher, that I may make my peace with God."
The last dispositions as to house and property have been made in the presence of the pastor or preacher. The house and yard are to belong to the youngest son, as is the general custom among the Saxons. The elder son and the daughter are to be otherwise provided for. The small back-room belongs to the widow, as jointure for the rest of her life; likewise a certain proportion of grain and fruit is assured to her. The exact spot of the grave is indicated, and two ducats are to be given to the Herr Vater if he will undertake to preach a handsome funeral oration.
When it becomes evident that the last death-struggle is approaching, the mattress is withdrawn from under the dying man, for, as every one knows, he will expire more gently if lying on straw.
Scarcely has the breath left his body than all the last clothes he has worn are taken off and given to a gypsy. The corpse is washed and shaved, and dressed in bridal attire—the self-same clothes which forty years previously he had donned on his wedding morning, and which ever since have been lying carefully folded by, and strewed with sprigs of lavender, in the large Truhe (bunker), waiting for the day when their turn must come round again.
A snowy sheet spread over a layer of wood-shavings is the resting-place of the body when it is laid in the coffin; for the head, a little pillow stuffed with dried flowers and aromatic herbs, which in most houses are kept ready prepared for this contingency.
An hour before the funeral, the bell begins to toll the Seelenpuls (soul's pulse), as it is called; but the sexton is careful to pause in the ringing when the clock is about to strike, for "if the hour should strike into the bell," another death will be the consequence.
Standing before the open grave, the mourners give vent to their grief, which, even when true and heart-felt, is often expressed with such quaint realism as to provoke a smile.
"My dearest husband," wails the disconsolate widow, "why hast thou gone away? I had need of thee to look after the farm, and there was plenty room for thee at our fireside. My God, is it right of thee thus to take my support away? On whom shall I now lean?"
The children near the dead mother: "Mother, mother, who will care for us now? Shall we live within strange doors?"
A mother bewailing her only son: "O God, thou hast had no pity. Even the emperor did not take my son to be a soldier. Thou art less merciful than the emperor!"
Another mother weeping over two dead children exclaims: "What a misfortune is mine, God! If I had lost two young foals, at least their hides would have been left to me."
And the children, standing by the open grave of their father, cry out: "O father, we shall never forget thee! Take our thanks for all the benefits received during thy lifetime, as well as for the earthly goods thou hast left behind."—Blackwood's Magazine.