The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/St. Swithin and Rainmakers

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By Frederick Ernest Sawyer, F.M.S.

THE position of S. Swithin as a Rain-Saint, or Deity, has been thoroughly considered in its relation to a period of heavy rain, or continuous rain, which is supposed to be probable at certain periods of the year. It is open to question whether this view of the legend be correct, and the Rev. John Earle says, "The real origin appears to have been the habit of attaching to the saints of Christendom any remnants of traditional and mythological lore which, by the extinction of heathendom, had lost their centre and principle cohesion and were drifting about in search of new connections."[1] There are as Mr. Earle remarks "a host of raining saints,"[2] amongst whom we find, in Great Britain the days of SS. Simon and Jude (October 28); Bullion's Day (Scotland July 4); S. John the Baptist (June 24); S. Vitus, Translation of S. Martin, Cewydd-y-gylaw (Cewydd of the rain, July 1, a Welsh saint[3]); Flanders, S. Godeliève; Germany, the Seven Sleepers (July 27); Tuscany, S. Galla's Day (October 5); and Italy, S. Bibiana (December 2).

When it is remembered that the dates range over a period of five months in the comparatively limited district of North Western Europe the idea of a rainy period appears untenable, and it may be desirable to consider the legend from a fresh point of view, and to look at S. Swithin, as one of a group, or collection of Rain-Saints. This would be more in accordance with the opinion of Mr. Earle, and, as we shall presently show, is a preferable explanation.

In the earliest periods the phenomena of nature—always mysterious, terrible, and awe-inspiring—are at once deified, and we find Storm-Gods, Thunder-Gods, and Rain-Gods. In time anthropomorphic conceptions of deity arise, and then the phenomena of nature become attributes of deity. It is in this stage that they present to the folk-lore student features of peculiar interest, namely, in the primitive conceptions of the causes of meteorological (or natural) phenomena. At a still later period sanctity itself, or rather, saintship, is invested with the control over nature, and is thought to possess phenomena-producing powers, which are even extended to the remains of saints. The story of S. Swithin belongs to the latter group.

Before considering the legend it will be well to look at the early speculations which have been entertained as to Rainmakers and the causes of rain. Job says, "He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them."[4] "This evidently indicates the collection of rain, or the waters, in the clouds, in hottles or vessels; and this is apparently a common view of the matter, for in the Book of Enoch, Enoch states, "There I saw the receptacles of wood out of which the winds became separated, the receptacle of hail, the receptacle of snow, the receptacle of the clouds, and the cloud itself, which continued over the earth before the creation of the world;"[5] also, "The spirit of dew has its abode in the extremities of heaven, in connection with the receptacle of rain; and its progress is in winter and summer. The cloud produced by it, and the cloud of the mist, become united; one gives to the other; and when the spirit of rain is in motion from its receptacle angels come, and opening its receptacle bring it forth."[6]

In India we find that "Upon the sky above the hill-country of Orissa, Pidzu Pennu the Rain-God of the Khonds rests as he pours down the showers through his sieve;"[7] and "Over Peru there stands a princess with a vase of rain, and when her brother strikes the pitcher men hear the shock in thunder and see the flash in lightning."[8]

In Polynesia rain is supposed to be caused by the sun, and they say that if he is a long time without giving any some of the stars get angry and stone him until he causes rain to fall. If we descend lower we find that there have not been wanting men who profess—

"To guide the thunder and direct the storm;"

but it is of course difficult to say exactly where imagination begins and actual influence does end. Battles, great fires, telegraph wires, railways, &c., have been supposed to affect the rainfall. Some years since Mons. Helvetius Otto brought before the Academy of Sciences at Paris a "Pluvifuge," or machine for blowing away rain-clouds. It consisted of a huge bellows on a high platform.[9] There is a curious letter of Philip Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, Lord Chamberlain to Charles the First, on the subject of burning fern, which in the North of England is supposed to bring rain:—


His Majesty taking notice of an opinion entertained in Staffordshire that the burning of Ferne doth draw downe rain, and being desirous that the country and himself may enjoy fair weather as long as he remains in those parts, his Majesty hath commanded me to write to you, to cause all burning of Ferne to bee forborne untill his Majesty be passed this country. Wherein, not doubting but the consideration of their own interest, as well as of his Maties, will invite the country to a ready observance of this his Maties command,

"I rest your very loving friend,

"Pembroke and Montgomery.

"Belvoir, 1st August, 1636.

"To my very loving friend the High Sheriff of the county of Stafford."

In Burmah the inhabitants still have a custom of pulling a rope to produce rain. A rain party and a drought party tug against each other, the rain party being allowed the victory, which in the popular notion is generally followed by rain.

We may now consider the Rain-Deities proper, or those possessing rain-producing attributes. Mr. Tylor says, "the Rain-God is most often the Heaven-God, exercising a special function, though sometimes taking a more distinctly individual form, or blending in characteristics with a general Water-God."[10] In an early form we find, from Mr. Fergusson (Tree and Serpent Worship), that the chief characteristic of the serpents throughout the East in all ages seems to have been their power over the wind or rain, which they gave or withheld, according to their good or ill will towards man."[11]

The prophet Elijah was always associated with rain, and Dr. Schliemann mentions that "at Mount Eubœa, near Mycenæ, is a temple to Elias, and in times of drought the inhabitants of neighbouring villages go there in a pilgrimage to invoke Elias to send rain. Formerly the site of the shrine was a temple to Ηελιος, the Homeric Sun-God—a remarkable coincidence."[12] It is said the Jews are still expecting the return of Elijah, and in heavy storms whisper to one another "Elijah is coming!" Bede records that when S. Wilfrith converted the inhabitants of Sussex to Christianity "no rain had fallen in that province in three years before his arrival, whereupon a dreadful famine ensued. . . . . . . But on the very day on which the nation received the baptism of faith there fell a soft but plentiful rain; the earth revived again."[13] Upon which Fuller quaintly remarks, "On that very day wherein he baptised them (as if God from heaven had poured water into the font) he obtained store of rain, which procured great plenty. Observe (though I am not so ill-natured as to wrangle with all miracles) an apish imitation of Elijah (who carried the key of heaven at his girdle, to lock or unlock it by his prayer); only Elijah gave rain after three years and six months, Wilfrith after bare three years, it being good manners to come a little short of his betters."[14] The assumed connection between saints and rainfall is thus clearly illustrated.

We may now glance at the legend of S. Swithin, the details of which it is not necessary to repeat in detail. The essence of the story seems to be that interference with the bones of the saint caused an excessive rainfall, and it is somewhat remarkable to find the important part dead men's bones occupy in the procedure of professional Rainmakers. A letter from a native teacher at the Island of Maré (Western Polynesia) to the Rev. Mr. Buzacott (of the London Missionary Society) describes an interview with a Rainmaker of that island: "I again requested him to do his best to procure rain at once, that I might be his witness. He then answered, ' I do not my work openly, but secretly, because the instruments I use are in the bush.' I asked, 'What kind of instruments are they?' He answered, 'Dead men's bones; but not anybody's but those of my own relatives.'"[15]

In New Caledonia they have similar customs, and the Rev. George Turner (of the same Society) writes:—"There is a rain-making class of priests. They blacken themselves all over, exhume a dead body, take the bones to a cave, joint them, and suspend the skeleton over some taro leaves. Water is poured on the skeleton to run down on the leaves. They suppose that the soul of the departed takes up the water, makes rain of it, and showers it down again. They have to fast and remain in the cavern until it rains, and sometimes die in the experiment. They generally choose, however, the showery months of March and April for their rain-making. If there is too much rain, and they want fair weather, they go through a similar process, only they kindle a fire under the skeleton and burn it up."[16]

In South Africa the Rainmakers are a most important class. The Rev. Robert Moffatt, says, "The rainmaker is, in the estimation of the people, no mean personage, possessing an influence over the minds of the people superior even to that of their King, who is likewise compelled to yield to the dictates of this arch-official. . . . Each tribe has one, and sometimes more, who are also doctors and sextons, or the superintendents of the burying of the dead, it being generally believed that that ceremony has some influence over the watery treasures that float in the skies. . . . Though the bodies of the poor are habitually exposed, the orders of the rainmaker apply to all, because if any were buried it would not rain." Sometimes the rainmaker permits interments, and then after various curious observances "a large bowl of water, with an infusion of bulbs, is brought, when the men and women wash their hands and the upper part of their feet, shouting 'pula, pula, rain, rain.'" Mr. Moffatt next describes an embassy to a rainmaker: —"They assured him that, if he would only come to the land of the Batlapis, and open the teats of the heavens, which had become as hard as a stone, and cause the rains to fall and quench the flaming ground, he should be made the greatest man that ever lived. "[17]

In Mexico in seasons of drought, at the festival of the insatiable Tlaloc, the god of rain, children, for the most part infants, were offered up.[18]

Lastly, as in Mexico, we find living human sacrifices, in South Africa dead human bodies, and in Polynesia and New Caledonia human bones,—all used in conjunction with professional rainmakers, and to produce rain,—these facts seem to point to the conclusion that there is some widespread myth, or story, as to the connection of human remains with rainfall, and that in this the true explanation of the story of S. Swithin should be sought.

  1. Legends of S. Swithin, p. 53.
  2. Proceedings of the Bath Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, vol. ii. p. 161.
  3. Notes and Queries, 3rd S. vol. viii. p. 508.
  4. Chapter xxvi. 8.
  5. Archbishop Laurence's Translation (1821), p. 43.
  6. Ibid. p. 62.
  7. Macpherson, India, p. 357.
  8. Markham, Quichua Grammar and Dictionary, p. 9.
  9. Notes and Queries, 2nd S. vol. x. p. 207.
  10. Primitive Culture, vol. ii. p. 235.
  11. Anthropological Journal, July 1870, p. 104.
  12. Mycenæ, p. 147.
  13. Ecclesiastical History, book iv. chap. 13 (Bohn's translation).
  14. The Church History of Britain (book ii.), Brewer's edition, p. 228.
  15. The Juvenile Missionary Magazine 1861, p. 253.
  16. Nineteen Years in Polynesia, p. 428.
  17. Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa (1842), pp. 80, 81.
  18. History of the Conquest of Mexico (Prescott, 1843), p. 70.