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Anna Jane Vardill

Relics of Popular Superstitions

About twenty years ago, a small party, possessed by what is now called the spirit of exploring, arrived to spend a week at Park-gate—not the celebrated place of embarkation well known to Irish travellers, but an obscure spot chosen for the accommodation of sea-bathers in the West of Scotland. There this fine name is given to a cluster of white huts on the eastern edge of a broad bay walled almost round with a natural parapet of rocks, broken here and there into columns linked together by garlands of sea-weed, sometimes tufted round their tops like the most elegant Corinthian capitals. Above this parapet rose another wall of mountains covered with the dark heath peculiar to Galloway, except where a few bunches of gold-blossomed broom hung like tassels among their brown drapery. Through the only chasm among these mountains might be seen the brilliant expanse of the Irish Channel and the outline of the English coast, as if sketched with a silver pencil on the edge of the blue sky. In the centre of the bay itself, an isle covered with dwarf trees appeared as if a green pavilion had been raised by magic in a lake of diamonds. Such it seemed in the light of a midsummer sun, as the party of ramblers dismounted from their ponies, and demanded the best room contained in the largest white cottage, distinguished by a slated roof and two stone steps at the door. This party consisted of the Provost of K. a tall, active, military-looking man, with a hunter’s bag slung over his shoulder; the captain of a trading brig in his service, whose long voyages had stored him with the superstitions of all countries; and the kirk-minister, whose father, as is not unusual with the Scotch priesthood, had been in that pastoral walk of life which still retains a few legends of our own. To these were added the Provost’s confidential clerk, or amanuensis, a youth under twenty, who listened with a delighted and believing ear to his patron’s favourite romances, which were related with no small share of his ancestor Rob Roy M‘Greggor’s gallant spirit, mingled with some of the arch gravity peculiar to our English Gascony. The sallies of imagination which might have been expected from such a party, were controuled and harmonized by the presence of a lady from the vale of Dent, in the Gascony already mentioned. This lady, as the Provost’s sister-in-law, and a wealthy widow of forty-five, possessed authority enough to regulate the eccentric humours of her companions, and sufficient attraction to enliven them.. She had the bright black eyes and short pert nose ascribed to the celebrated queen of ancient Egyptians; and enough of olive-brown in her cheeks to suit, as she said herself, the queen of this gay troop of modern gipsies.

The travellers had hardly begun their depredations on a table covered with kippered salmon and eggs, which strongly announced the vicinity of the poultry-yard to the peat-stack, before they were interrupted by that extraordinary clamour of dogs supposed by an ingenious French tourist to be a Scotch device for the purpose of expediting travellers’ horses. The lady ran to the little casement, and the gentlemen, after a few compliments murmured among themselves to the curiosity of the sex, went out to ask questions for their own amusement. The chorus of dogs was presently improved by the sound of two ill-managed bagpipes, a bad violin, and a drum which had been discarded from the Provost’s volunteer corps. These headed a procession composed of his waller, mole catcher, grieve or bailiff, and sundry cotters in blue jackets and new shoes; for the apparel of Galloway-men differs from their more southern neighbours only in the unfrequency of the latter article, and the picturesque plaid and bonnet are seldom added. Two of the youngest, and probably the soberest of this groupe, supported a sunburned youth in apparel which did marvellous credit to the glossy blue cloth of the town-taylor. Conscious of this credit, and of his importance as a bridegroom, the wearer endeavoured to assume an assured air which added admirably to the comic effect of the procession. After calling at all the public-houses on their route, and dancing as well as they could at the last, the groupe reached Park-gate, where the bride resided, and where, according to national courtesy, the elected husband came to claim her. The Provost, with that joyous frankness which links the peasantry of Scotland to their masters more powerfully than solid benefactions, immediately assumed his part in the festival, and entered the cot-house with his sister, his secretary, and the kirk-minister. Well aware that the Laird might be expected, the party within were arranged with more decorum than the bridegroom’s escort without. The three-legged stool, broad old kist or meal chest, and troops of poultry, which usually occupy the little space of a Scotch cot-house, were on this day displaced to make room for two benches borrowed from Johnny M‘Cune’s “public:” the wisps of wheat-straw, and bundles of dry furze, which had been deposited as usual on the lath top of the cupboard bed whereon winter fuel is hoarded, were swept away into a darker place, and only a few bunches of fresh heath blossoms peeped out as a kind of cornice. The old hat inserted into the fourth square of the only window was also removed, and its place very well supplied by half-a-dozen curious faces striving to obtain a glance at the interior. On the two borrowed benches were arranged half-a-dozen damsels, whose earnings at a neighbouring cotton-mill enabled them to appear on this occasion in white muslin or fine flowered calico, with hose and slippers which had been carefully put on under the nearest hedge; in addition to the usual finery of Scotch maidens, a blue ribbon passed not ungracefully through their hair above the forehead. At the head of this bride bench, in the place of honour established by most ancient custom, sat the bride herself, distinguished by a cap, while two of her eldest acquaintance broke a large cake over the heads of those who entered; and the minister having forced his way through the croud, obtained a vacant space about two feet square in the centre of the cot-house. To his brief question whether any impediment could be alleged, and equally brief injunction respecting their duties, the parties replied by two silent nods, and uniting their hands without the gift of a ring, received the final benediction. Having thus performed the simple ceremonial dictated by his memory or extempore inspiration, the minister of the kirk of Scotland made a signal to the rosy piper, whose face shone through the broken casement, and led the first dance with the bride, followed by the lady of Dent, who sprang from the three-legged stool brought for her accommodation, and by leading the bridegroom down the dance, atoned to him for usurping his allotted post of honour between the bride-bench and the wall. She gave his spouse a piece of silver coin as a substitute for the lucky stone, or “elfin arrow,” now scarce in Scotland; but there was little doubt of the wedding’s prosperity, as a spae-wife both deaf and dumb had marked out their figures in chalk, and the winding-sheet for the husband had been duly spun. Untempted by the “tea-dinner,” or substantial late breakfast designed for the bridal feast, the travellers returned to their own tenement to discuss the many ceremonies by which popular superstition still decorates an event sanctified by the Kirk only with austere simplicity.

“These superstitions,” said the good old Minister, “are part of the poetical instinct of human nature. We, in this age of reason, have been perhaps too busily employed in tearing them from a class of beings to whom mere reason is not much use. Their harmless appeals to fairy ministers, and reliance on unseen agents, spring not merely from idle curiosity, but from that unsatisfied ambition in our minds which inclines us to seek a communion with higher beings, and is part of our finest principle. Since men will create an imaginary importance for themselves, I love to see them connect the interference of their unknown friends with the social affections and simple incidents of domestic life. Let them give these affections and these incidents all the sanctity they can by the help of supernatural agents. I wish the days could return when men were persuaded that a witness sat in every tree, and the spirit of human feeling in every bird.”

“It would not be very advantageous to quote Dr. Johnson in Scotland,” said the fair Widow, “else I could remind you that even he has said nothing would be so tiresome as to live by mere reason. When I was as young in matrimony as pretty Elspy in the cot-house below, the Provost’s brother tried to make me find a reason for every thing, but he soon found l had too many. Yet after all, how very little that we do, think, or wish to have, would bear reasoning!—What can we call the every-day ceremonies of our gilt-cards, our visits of etiquette, and formal parade, but superstitions of a kind not quite so cheap and diverting as those of Hallowe’en and St. John’s Eve.”

Proud of this encouragement from his aunt, the young clerk ventured to add, “The superstitions of vanity have no end to their varieties, but the superstition of affectionate heart, seems to have been alike in all ages, and the ceremonies it has created differ very little. The Indian Cupid’s bow of sugar-cane and his five arrows are the same as his Greek cousin’s. The chief of the South Sea isles carrying his sick child to the houses of his idols, and praying all night by their consecrated stones, shews the same progress in humanity and reason as the Hindoos strewing fresh flowers and pouring oil on the stone of their benevolent Maha Deva, and covering it with new-shorn wool. Do not both remind us of the sacrifices offered to the genius or guardian-angel of a Roman with wine and fragrant odours?—and even of the Hebrew altar of incense and libations?”

“You might trace such similitudes much farther,” rejoined the Clergyman:—“What can more resemble our relics of popular superstition than the barley-cake and gifts distributed at an ancient Roman’s wedding, and the lamentations or outcries made to awaken him if possible during the first seven days after his death Our cottagers still preserve the custom of receiving the last breath of a dying relative from his lips, and the nearest of his kindred commit his head to the earth, as we find among the politest nations of the continent was once their custom. The halfpenny put into the dead man’s mouth, the funeral feast given to the poor, and the wailing of hired mourners, have been recorded in all annals of our northern ancestors and neighbours—from Norway even to the Appennines. From the Esquimaux of Baffin’s Bay to the point of Cape Horn, from the Calmuc Tartars to the Tonga Islanders, we cannot find either colony or nation that has not devised some poetical circumstance or some mysterious mode of divination to dignify their choice in love or marriage. The business of fortune-telling is as old as the world, and the mischievous serpent himself seems to have begun his operations in Eden by telling our grandmother Eve her fortune.”

“When I sailed to Aleppo,” said the Captain, now perceiving an avenue for himself into the conversation, “I bought of an Armenian Jew, in exchange for some of my merchandise, a most strange book, which had been compiled from the works of the Rabbis about 200 years, and I brought it with me here, Doctor, as an addition to your library. But with respect to your opinion of superstition, I should rather call it the pleasure of human nature in what relates to the merry occasions of life, such as we have seen to-day. And one must own there is something plausible enough in the devices men have found to give consequence to trifles. When I was at Japan, the people shewed me several hot springs, which, as they assured me, were purgatories for certain classes of men. Deceitful brewers were supposed to lodge at the bottom of the muddiest; bad cooks under those that frothed highest; and quarrelsome wives in one that made an incessant noise. [1] They offered me a slice of a green serpent with a flat head and sharp teeth, which they professed would infallibly make me witty and brave: but I chose rather to digest the affront than the talisman. In one of their temples I found a piece of mirror, which they thought an emblem of the deity, and endeavoured to propitiate by striking a bell three times. I also saw gilt paper lighted every evening before the sea-god, and comedies acted in the street for his diversion; but the witches’ stool was the most fantastical torture ever devised; and I added it to the long list of provisions I have found for such creatures in every land my anchor has touched.”

“Who,” rejoined the Calvinist, “has not heard of the ill-luck betiding Friday, the doleful omen brought by a raven or a solitary dove alighting on a house to the left side of the spectator? This Rabbinical book, which you have brought me, gives farther testimony on this subject.—‘We shall find,’ says the author, ‘seven kinds of Diviners forbidden among the Hebrews, not because there were no other, but because they were the most usual. 1. An observer of times—2. An inchanter—3. A witch—4. A charmer—5. A consulter with familiar spirits—6. A wizard—7. A necromancer.’ To these we may add an eighth, Consulting with the staff: and a ninth out of Ezek. C. 21. A consulter with entrails.—The first is a star-gazer; and his name, saith Aben Ezra, is derived from Gnanan, a cloud. When he observes the stars or clouds, he stands with his face eastward, his back westward, his right hand towards the south, and his left hand towards the north: else I find no reason why the Hebrews should term the eastern the fore part of the world, and the western the back; the south part Iiamin or the right hand, and the north part Shemol or the left. He is Menachesch, or a soothsayer, say the Rabbines, who, because a morsel of bread falleth out of his mouth, or his staff out of his hand, or a crow hath cawed unto him, or a goat passed him, or a serpent was on his right hand or a fox on his left, will say, “Do not this or that to-day.” A witch or juggler is called Menachesch, a complexion-maker, a compounder of medicine, an artisan who makes men and women’s faces with paint. The fourth is Chober, a charmer. The Hebrew word signifieth league and association, either from the fellowship such persons have with Satan, or, as Bodinus thinketh, because such kind have frequent meetings wherein they dance and make merry together. Onkelos translates such a charmer Raten, a mutterer, and Maimon. cap. 11. describes him thus—“Hee is a charmer who speaketh words of a strange language and without sense; and thinketh that if one say so or so to a scorpion, it cannot hurt a man; and he that saith so or so to a man, he cannot be hurt. Likewise he that whispereth over a wound, or readeth a verse out of the Bible over a sleeping infant that he may not be frighted, is a charmer, because he makes the words of the scripture medicine for the body, whereas they are medicine for the soul. Of such sort was that whereof Bodinus speaketh—That a child by reciting a certain verse hindered a woman that she could not make her butter: but by reciting the same verse backward, he made her butter come presently. The fifth is Schoel Ob,[2] a consulter with Ob, or familiar spirits. Ob properly signifies a Bottle, and is applied in divers places to magicians, because they speak with a soft and hollow voice as out of a bottle. The sixth, Liddegnoni, is translated by the Greeks a cunning man; and the Rabbis say, that when such men prophecied they held between their teeth the bone of a beast which resembled a man. Prophane history mentioneth divinations of the like kind, inasmuch as the magicians ate portions of the animals used in augury, thinking that by a kind of metemsychosis, the souls of such animals would be conveyed into themselves, and enable then, to prophecy. To the name of the seventh, ‘Doresch el hammethim,’ the Greek answers word for word, a necromancer, or enquirer of the dead. Not that we may suppose witches can raise or disturb the souls or bodies of the dead, though they may bring Satan or their familiar demons in that semblance. Of the eighth, a consulter with his staff, Jerome saith the manner of divination was this—If the doubt were between two or three cities which should be assaulted first, they wrote the names of the cities upon certain staves or arrows, which being shook in a quiver together, the first that was pulled out determined the city. Or the consulter measured his staff by spans, or by the length of his finger, saying as he measured, ‘I will go—I will not go—I will act—I will not act;’ and according to the words that fell out with the last span, it was determined. The ninth was Roc Baccabed, a diviner by entrails—a practice generally received among the heathens, especially regarding the liver.”

The young clerk eagerly interposed to mention the sorceries of liver-eaters, so much feared by the Hindoos, and added—“I doubt not that a very pleasant parallel might be drawn if any one had time and science enough to exhibit on one large sheet of paper, a list of all the popular superstitions known to us in every country yet discovered. The American feast of the dead, the Obi of the West Indies, and the incantations of Lapland, all betray the same origin, as the gayer and more elegant sorceries of Persia and Peru. Perhaps in the time-taper, the bowl floating in a brass dish to measure hours, and the three trees planted as a marriage-bower by the Hindoos, we may see no slight resemblance to the sacred candle burned by our Yorkshire maidens on the eve of St. Agnes, the ring and plum-posset of St. Mark’s vigil, and the dear hawthorns of our ballad-singing shepherds.”

The Provost, stretching himself at his ease on the wooden settle or sofa of the hearth-place, replied, “Among all your nine diviners, I should have chosen Ob, for the inspiration of the bottle never fails. As for your reasons, you have used them as men usually do, only to justify what you like best; but as we have been all day too merry to be wise, let us excuse our own by telling all the old-fashioned follies we know. I reserve my tale to the last, as I intend it to be the most magnificent, and because, like the Chieftain M‘Ivor, I have not got it ready.”

“Prepare the best in your stock,” said the Lady of Dent, “provided it does not relate to your gold mine at Dunduffle, or the castle of Robert de Romevile, built before Miss Mac-Jupiter’s poetical name was translated into English. I mean to narrate all the fibs concerning both.” The audience gave a gallant assent, and the Lady’s history began, taking due precedence of her five companions. . . . . .


(To be continued)

  1. Vide Kempfer’s History of Japan. 
  2. Vide Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Augustine. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 74, December 1818, pp. 481-485