The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/A Building Superstition

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SIG. LANCIANI, writing from Rome to the Athenæum in the number of October 7, 1882, says inter alia: “From the Esquiline we have two more instances of the peculiar practice, so thoroughly appreciated by our ancestors, of building foundation walls with statues and works of art. It seems that as soon as the trench was opened men were sent round to pick up as many statues as they could procure among the ruins of private and public buildings. The statues having been brought to the edge of the trench, the wholesale slaughter was accomplished. Small figures were hurled down entire; big ones were smashed and hammered and split into fragments. Between 1872 and 1882 not less than two hundred statues and busts have been found, on the Esquiline alone, buried in this way. As a rule every portion of them is recovered,” &c., &c.

These curious facts make it certain that the statues and busts were thus placed in the foundations of new buildings in ancient Rome with a clear and well-understood intention.

It is equally certain that they were at the same time of no technical use for pure building purposes.

If this be so, there could only have been one other purpose or object, viz., superstition; and this I think can be made perfectly probable.

Two or three years ago the Folk-Lore Record (vol. iii. p. 282) showed that the population of India believe at the present day that to give stability to new constructions a human being should be sacrificed and buried in the foundations. Precisely the same belief is entertained by the modern Roumanians, and the ancient Irish must have been convinced of the efficacy of this strange architectonic principle, as under the walls of two round towers (the only ones examined) human skeletons have been discovered.

These data (which I dare say might easily be amplified[1]) show that this grim superstition was an Aryan one, and of great antiquity.

But this is not all. Ubicini, who tells us (Folk-Lore Becord, vol. iii. p. 283) of the existing superstition of his countrymen, tells us also how the acute Latin mind which has descended to them from their Roman ancestors has enabled them to retain the efficacy of the old custom without bringing themselves, by the commission of palpable murder, into conflict with the police and criminal law of their country, both which might hold in contempt even such a time-honoured piece of Folk-lore as this. The Roumanian builders, instead of immolating an unoffending human, lay down in his stead a rod or stick of the same length as the man whom their eyes have selected as the proper object, and this substituted sacrifice ensures to the building all the advantages of stability which an actual immolation would have given in an age less humane.

The Romans who constructed the buildings to which Sig. Lanciani refers were equally hampered by the law as the modern Roumans, and could not murder at their will. Like the Roumans, therefore, they found a substitute for the human sacrifice, and, being an art-loving people, living in the midst of a teeming population of statues and busts, they kidnapped from them as many representations of the human form to do duty for living men as they required. As they could not procure a living body they contented themselves with its simulachrum.

I submit this to be the explanation of the two facts—the Aryan superstition, and Sig. Lanciani’s interesting information.

In conclusion I will say that the Roman facts have been paralleled in London by the discovery, a few years ago, in the interior of a bastion of London Wall, of the figure of a cohortal signifer and other sculptures, now in the Museum at Guildhall, for which valuable discovery, made under circumstances more than adverse, the English public are indebted to the well-known antiquary, J. E. Price, Esq., F.S.A.

  1. See The Antiquary, January, 1881, vol. iii. pp. 8-13.—Ed.