Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Popular Superstitions

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PRIMITIVE man fills his world with innumerable spirits, both good and bad, and much of his time is spent in devising means whereby he may invoke the aid of one class to assist him in averting the malignant influence of the other. The dread and wonder excited by the phenomena of the elements, or the discovery of anything abnormal, either animate or inanimate, suggest to his mind the existence and manifestation of deities. As the burrowing of the mole is observed to cause ridges upon the turf, so a mythic gigantic mole traverses beneath the earth to form the mountain range. The storm is caused by a monster bird, the movements of whose wings produce the winds and whose voice is heard in the muttering thunder and lightning flash. So, in everything, he recognizes the presence of some one or more beings, the pretended explanations of whose functions and exploits form the basis of his mythology. The emotions with which these deities are regarded, the dread or reverence in which they are held, and the impressions resulting therefrom, give rise among different peoples to various religious beliefs or cults.

Among civilized nations we perceive evidence of an inherent tendency to regard with partiality anything strange or unusual, the soil of the mind being prolific in the cultivation of morbid fancies which, if given serious thought, become difficult to eradicate.

The survival in America of Old-World customs, beliefs, and superstitions is naturally to be expected because of the continuity of the peoples with whom they originated. This is illustrated by the occurrence of African demonology among the negroes of the South, of Gallic folklore among the Creoles of Louisiana, of some vestiges of quaint old English customs and superstitions in New England, and particularly in the survival of Teutonic folklore among the descendants of the early German colonists.

It is not surprising, then, at this late day, that the folklore and superstition of one part of the country may have been transported into another, and there taken root and become incorporated as original. No matter how little or how much change may have occurred in its transmission, or to what extent a new environment may have influenced it. the nationality of such belief or superstition may still be ascertained with tolerable certainty, as the collection and classification of such data have been reduced to a science.

As pertains to the status of the early cults of northern and western Europe, Germany holds a middle place. Our knowledge of the religion and heathen doctrines of the Greeks and Romans rests upon writings which existed previous to the rise of Christianity. The Teutonic races forsook their ancestral faith slowly, the transition lasting from the fourth to the eleventh century. Christianity was not popular; the faith was clothed in a new language, and it aimed at supplanting the time-honored indigenous gods, and their worship was an important part of the people's traditions, customs, and constitution.[1]

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the Teutonic race is a devout attachment to ancestral customs and beliefs, a trait which among the less intelligent and truly illiterate becomes proportionately intensified. It is more than probable that to this trait may be attributed the preservation of fragments of myths and folklore, as well as remarkable adherence to old-world formulæ relating to witchcraft and folk medicine, relics of customs and superstitions which are probably contemporary with the birth of the human race itself.

We are all familiar with the custom of having eggs served at Easter breakfast, and also that of children receiving presents of dyed eggs; sometimes toy rabbits or hares, made of soft, fluffy goods and stuffed with cotton or sawdust, were also given as presents. Children were told that the hare laid the eggs, and nests were prepared for the hare to lay them in. The custom obtains as well in South Germany. The figure of a hare is placed among the Easter eggs when given as a present.

The association of the hare with Easter observances was much more common in former times, and in England it was customary for the hare to be eaten at such times. Hare-hunting as an Easter custom began to fall into disuse about the middle of the last century.

The use of eggs as a sacred emblem of the renovation of mankind after the Flood was held by the Egyptians, and the Jews adopted it to suit the circumstances of their history as a type of their departure from the land of Pharaoh. The egg suggests a resurrection to life of a vital principle which may for an indefinite period have lain dormant. Hutchinson, in his History of Northumberland, says:

"It was used in the feast of the Passover as part of the furniture of the table with the Paschal Lamb. The Christians have certainly used it on this day as retaining the elements of future life for an emblem of the resurrection. It seems as if the egg was thus decorated for a religious trophy after the days of mortification and abstinence were over and festivity had taken place; and as an emblem of the resurrection of life, certified to us by the resurrection from the regions of death and the grave."[2] "The Church of Rome, also, in the time of Pope Paul V, considered eggs emblematical of the resurrection."[3]

Germans to this day term April Ostermonat, or Easter month, an old form of the word óstarmánoth occurring as early as the time of Charlemagne. The Old High German name was óstará, the plural form being retained, as two days were usually kept at Easter. The association of the hare with eggs is curious, and the explanation is found in the belief that originally the hare seems to have been a bird which the ancient Teutonic goddess Ostara turned into a quadruped. For this reason the hare, in grateful recognition of its former quality as a bird and swift messenger of the Spring Goddess, is able to lay eggs on her festival at Easter time.[4]

The practice of nailing a horseshoe against the lintel of a door is familiar to almost everybody; and it is thought particularly efficacious in warding off bad luck if the shoe be one that was found upon the highway.

Although this custom obtains more extensively among the negroes, it is not of African origin. I am inclined to believe that it originated at a time more remote than the superstitions relating to "thirteen at a table," or "the spilling of salt," both of which are generally conceded to have originated at or with the Lord's Supper and consequent events.

The Romans drove nails into the walls of cottages as an antidote against the plague; for this reason L. Manlius, a. u. c. 390, was named dictator to drive the nail.[5] In Jerusalem, a rough representation of a hand is marked by the natives on the wall of every house while in building.[6] The Moors generally, and especially the Arabs of Kairwan, employ the marks on their houses as prophylactics, and similar handprints are found in El Baird, Petra. General Houtum-Schindler, of Teheran, informs me that a similar custom exists in Persia, as well as in parts of northern India.

That these practices and the later use of the horseshoe originated with the rite of the Passover is probable. The blood upon the doorposts and upon the lintel (Exodus, xii, 7) formed, as it were, an arch, and when the horseshoe was subsequently observed as resembling, conventionally, a similar arch, it may naturally have been adopted, and in time become a symbol of luck, or "safety," to those residing under its protection.

Beliefs and superstitions relating to snakes are exceedingly common. These reptiles, by their graceful and sinuous movements and the terror of their bite, appear at once to command reverence and awe. The worship of the tree and the serpent was a cult of aborigines of India, the Turanians; and evidences of ophilolatry, or snake worship, appear in other parts of the world. Kneph, the grand serpent of Egypt, is the father of Hephæstus, the god of metals; and Hi, the serpent god of Chaldea, the master of all wisdom, is also guardian of treasures.[7] In the mythology of several peoples of the Old World the serpent is associated with the guardianship of golden treasures and mines. The god serpent of Greece, Cadmus, was regarded as the first miner, and he was, according to Pliny, the first workman in gold.[8]

Stories are extant of an exchange of form between human beings and snakes, an interesting example of which was at one time currently reported in South Whitehall, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Further reference to this will be made presently.

A very common belief is to the effect that if one kills the first snake met with in the spring, no others will be observed during the remainder of the year. In Swabia, tales are still told of home snakes which appear to bring good luck, but which must under no circumstances be killed. These snakes come to the children and sip milk with them out of their bowls. Tales of this class were common a score of years ago, and I remember hearing of a child eating bread and milk from a saucer, while a huge black snake drank freely from the same dish, but at short intervals the child would playfully tap its spoon upon the snake's head, saying, "Du musht men mŏk'ka fres'sa," to cause it to drink less milk and to eat more of the bread.

Occasionally we hear of black snakes found in pastures where they suckle cows, so that these animals daily resort to certain localities to secure relief from a painful abundance of milk.

Some of these house and farm snakes wear crowns, and are then termed king snakes. Such were reported from several localities in Lehigh County, one of which was said to abide in a large pile of rocks near Macungie. It was seldom, however, that this golden-crowned serpent was seen; still, the greater number of residents thereabout were firm believers in the truth of the report.

As an illustration of the belief in the transformation of human beings into serpents, I will relate a circumstance said to have occurred during the first half of the present century. Near Trexlertown, Lehigh County, dwelt a farmer named Weiler. His wife and three daughters had, by some means or other, incurred the enmity of a witch who lived but a short distance away, when the latter, it is supposed, took her revenge in the following manner: Whenever visitors came to the Weiler residence, the girls, without any premonition whatever, would suddenly be changed into snakes, and after crawling back and forth along the top ridge of the wainscoting for several minutes they were restored to their natural form. This curious transformation occurred quite frequently, and the circumstance soon attained widespread notoriety. About the end of the third month the spell was broken and everything went on as before.

Another popular fallacy is the existence of the hoop snake. This creature is usually reported as capable of grasping the tip of its tail with its mouth, and like a hoop running swiftly along in pursuit of an unwelcome intruder. This snake is believed, furthermore, to have upon its tail a short, poisonous horn, like a cock's spur, and that if it should strike any living creature death would result. The stories concerning this marvelous snake usually end with the statement that the person pursued barely escapes, and that the snake strikes a tree instead, causing it to wither and die.

The rattlesnake, because of its venomous bite, is universally dreaded, and numerous curious beliefs are current respecting this reptile, also the use to which various parts may be put, and the treatment of its bite.

The rattle, if tied to a string and suspended from the neck of an infant, will serve to prevent convulsions; if carried by an adult, it will guard against rheumatism. The oil is employed as a remedy for deafness; and the venom, diluted, mixed with bread, and made into pills, has been administered internally to cure rheumatism. Another curious superstition, held by young men, is that if one places a snake's tongue upon the palm of his hand beneath the glove—it will cause any girl, regardless of her previous indifference, to ardently return his passion if he be enabled but once to take her hand within his own. This resembles to a certain extent the former use, in Germany, of a dove's tongue, which was similarly employed; and furthermore, if one became aware that the choice of his heart failed to respond to his affection, he had only to place a dove's tongue within his mouth and snatch a kiss, when the girl's objection or indifference to him would instantly vanish.

There are numerous popular methods of treating snake bites, from the internal use of alcoholic liquors to the external application of warm, raw flesh obtained by cutting a live chicken in two.

I ascertained a short time since the secret of alleged success claimed by various mountain powwows both in Pennsylvania and in Maryland. The remedy is termed the Meisterwurzel, or "master root," commonly known as the sanicle, or Sanicula marylandica. The roots of the plant are crushed, one part being made into a poultice and applied to the wound, while the remainder is boiled in milk, which is freely administered internally.

The following procedure was formerly practiced in northern Lehigh County, and obtains even at this day in Cumberland County. The operator recites the following words:

Gott hott alles ärshaffa, und alles wâr gūt;
Als dū allen', shlang, bisht ferflucht,
Ferflucht solsht du saln und dain gift.

God created everything, and it was good,
Except thou alone, snake, art cursed;
Cursed shalt thou be and thy poison.

The speaker then with the extended index finger makes the sign of the cross three times over the wound, each time pronouncing the word tsing.

In connection with the extraction of serpent venom may be mentioned the use of the snake stone or mad stone, the latter without doubt having originally been employed in snake bites.

The earliest notice of stones used in extracting or expelling poisons occurs about the middle of the thirteenth century, though the knowledge of them and their use by the superstitions of Asia Minor appears to antedate that period. They are called bezoar stones, from the Persian pad-zahr, signifying to expel poison. This substance is a calculus or concretion found in the intestines of the wild goat of northern India known as the pazan. Various other ruminants also possess similar concretions, but the Oriental variety seems always to have been the more highly prized and entered largely into various therapeutic remedies two centuries ago.

In addition to the fact that the fable of poison-extracting stones may be traced back to the middle ages, and that they had been used long anterior to that time in Asia Minor, it is more than probable that a knowledge of their reputed properties and possibly specimens were brought back to Europe by crusaders on their return from the Holy Land.

Several objects found in 1863 at Florence, on the site of the old church of the Templars, dedicated to St. Paul, may be briefly noticed. One of these was a vase and another a medal. Among other figures upon the vase is one of St. Paul bitten by a serpent, and the Latin inscription signifying, "In the name of St. Paul, and by this stone, thou shalt drive out poison." On the other side is engraved in relief the cross of the temple between a sword and a serpent. On the medal is represented a dragon with an Italian legend signifying, "The grace of St. Paul is proof against any poison."

That St. Paul is the one appealed to in the above instances may be attributed to the fact that he was not affected by the bite of a serpent when almost instant death was the result expected by his associates (Acts, xxviii, 3-6).

It would appear that the Old-World custom of employing calculi or stones for the extraction of serpent venom gradually led to the practice in modern times of applying similar substances to wounds made by the bite of rabid dogs. These calculi are of a cretaceous or chalky nature, and anything of a cretaceous character may, if dry, possess absorbent properties; and it is probable that to this property may be attributed the first employment of the Oriental bezoar stones as capable of extracting or expelling poisons.

The prescription for the use of the so-called mad stone is generally as follows: Place it against the wound until it becomes saturated with the poison, when it will of its own accord fall off. Then boil it in milk to remove the poison, and repeat the application until the stone refuses to adhere.

A short time since I examined a celebrated North Carolina mad stone, one that had widespread reputation. This stone was of the size and form of an ordinary horse-chestnut, white in color, and consisted of feldspar, a hard mineral usually found in granite. It possessed no absorbent properties whatever, and its reputed ability to extract poison or any other liquid was utterly unworthy of a second thought.

We are all familiar with the frequently circulated reports of the cures performed by mad stones, reports pretending to emanate from reputable physicians and others, but when we attempt to trace the source from which they emanate they are found to be of questionable authority.

To illustrate the esteem in which these substances are held, I will only add that in 1879 a mad stone was sold to a druggist in Texas for two hundred and fifty dollars. The specimen was found in the stomach of a deer.[9]

It may be of interest to refer to a famous specimen, known as the "Lee" stone or penny,[10] which consisted of a small, heart-shaped pebble of carnelian or agate, set in a silver coin about one inch in diameter. The specimen was traditionally asserted to have been brought from the Holy Land, and it is said to have suggested to Sir Walter Scott the design of his Talisman. According to the legend, Robert Bruce wished that after his death his heart should be carried to the Holy Land by Sir James Douglas; and in 1329 the latter, accompanied by Simon Lochart, of the Lee, proceeded on the mission. In Spain the Scots were drawn into a combat with the Moors. Douglas was killed, and Lochart, who now commanded the party, turned homeward with Bruce's heart, which was eventually buried in the Abbey of Dunfermline. Lochart (changing his name into Lockhart, to commemorate the event) had taken prisoner a Moorish chieftain, and the wife of the prisoner when she bargained for the husband's ransom, while counting the gold from her purse, let drop this gem, and appeared so anxious to recover it that Lockhart insisted upon its being made a part of the ransom. The woman unwillingly consented, and informed the greedy Scot that its value consisted in its power of healing cattle, and that it was also a sovereign remedy against the bite of a mad dog. So great was the popular faith in this talisman in Scotland that the Lee penny was exempted from anathema in the clerical war against superstitions after the Reformation, and the clergy went so far as to extol its virtues, in which implicit faith was placed until a comparatively recent period. The mode of using this amulet was to hold it by the chain, and then plunge it three times in water, and once round—three dips and a swell, as the country people expressed it; the cattle drinking the water were cured. In the reign of Charles I, the people of Newcastle being afflicted with the plague, sent for and obtained the loan of the Lee penny, leaving the sum of six thousand pounds sterling in its place as a pledge. For this sum the Laird of Lee, the owner, would not part with it. It is reported also that about the beginning of the last century Lady Baird, of Saughton Hall, having been bitten by a mad dog, and exhibiting all the symptoms of hydrophobia, her husband obtained a loan of the amulet, and she having drunk and bathed in the water in which it was immersed, was cured of her malady.

Many other interesting examples of superstitious practices might be given, some of which have been handed down from remote antiquity, while others are of comparatively modern date and probably the result of circumstances and environment. The use of the staff and rod in divination was known to the ancient Jews, and Hosea reproached them for adhering to the superstition. Tacitus mentions this sort of divination as a custom of the ancient Germans.

We are all aware of the frequency with which the divining rod is used in the search for water, ores, and hidden treasure; and we learn occasionally of certain individuals claiming to possess the power of curing sickness and healing wounds by the mere laying-on of hands; of exorcising evil spirits, and combating the spells of rival witches; laying ghosts and giving charms and amulets, and pretending, in fact, to be able to accomplish almost anything that may be desired.

Who has not heard of carrying a potato, or a horse-chestnut. to ward off rheumatism; having secreted somewhere about the person the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit for luck; or placing within the purse the dried heart of a bat for success in gambling?

Many mothers believe that amber beads possess signal properties in curing their children of sore eyes, ears, or throat; while the flannel band to be worn about the neck to cure tonsilitis or an inflamed throat must be red, as that color corresponds to the color of the malady. In like manner the carrot is held in esteem in the cure of jaundice, yellow being the characteristic color of both. The carrot is suspended in the room occupied by the sufferer, and as the root shrivels and dries up the affection is removed. Warts, it is believed, may be removed by rubbing upon them a piece of meat which is then buried; as the meat decays the warts go away. They may also be transferred to another by rubbing upon them a piece of bone, and putting this upon the spot where found; whoever picks up the bone will have the warts transferred to his own hands.

We are all more or less uncomfortably impressed at hearing unaccountable noises; many persons dread going upon a journey or cutting out a garment on Friday. Thus we perceive that the mere reference to the trifles which are apt to control our actions rings to our minds such a startling array of superstitions, observed by us in others, or perhaps even entertained by ourselves, that it becomes impracticable to continue further entering so prolific a subject at this moment.

I may say, in conclusion, that it is only by exposing such fallacies that we can hope for their extinction; but this is no easy matter, remembering the axiom that "there is no truth, however pure and sacred, upon which falsehood can not fasten and ingraft itself therein.

The birth of a child among the Bondei people of Africa is attended, according to the account of the Rev. G. Dale, missionary, by many great perils, for if a single condition regarded as unfavorable occurs, the infant is strangled at once. Its life is in danger again at the time of teething, for it may be so incautious as to let its upper teeth protrude first, and if this is the case it is held unlucky, and will almost certainly be killed. Even if it is allowed to live it will be in perpetual danger, and any disaster that happens to its parents will be attributed to it. If, however, the under teeth protrude first, the child's moral character is established. The boy can not, however, enter the house in which the unmarried men sleep till he has been publicly welcomed. For this ceremony all the boys and girls assemble, and the father brings the child out to show them that the lower teeth have protruded first. Then every house contributes Indian corn, and the children pound and eat it, after which the boy is regarded as one of them.
  1. Grimm, Teutonic Mythology.
  2. Quoted by Brand. Observations on Popular Antiquities. London, 1877, pp. 90, 91.
  3. Ritual of Pope Paul V, for the Use of England, Ireland, and Scotland; quoted by  Brand, op. cit., p. 91, note.
  4. Folklore Journal. London, vol. i, 1883, p. 123.
  5. Lieutenant Condors. Palestine Exploration Fund, January, 1873, p. 16.
  6. Brand. Antiquities. London, vol. iii, 1882, p. 18.
  7. Jones. Credulities Past and Present. London, 1880, pp. 120, 121.
  8. Jones. Op. cit., 121.
  9. Journal of Chemistry, Boston, 1879.
  10. Jones. Op. cit., p. 330.