There were various other methods for divining or consulting fate or deity. M'Tagart refers to a practice of divining by the staff. When a pilgrim at any time got bewildered, he would poise his staff perpendicularly, and there leave it to fall of itself; and in whatever direction it fell, that was the road he would take, believing himself supernaturally directed. Townsmen when they wished to go on a pleasure excursion to the country, and careless or unsettled which way to go, would apply to this form of lot. In the old song of "Jock Burnie" there occurs the following verse:—
"En' on en' he poised his rung, then Watch'd the airt its head did fa', Whilk was east, he lapt and sung then, For there his dear bade, Meg Macraw."
This practice was common with boys in the country fifty years ago, both for determining where to go for pleasure, or if in a game one of their number had hidden, and could not be found, as a last resort the stick was poised, and in whatever direction the stick fell, search was renewed in that direction.
Such things as these seem trifling, and it would seem folly to treat them seriously; but they were not always trifling matters. Some of our Biblical scholars say that it was to this kind of divining that the prophet Hosea referred when he said, "Their staff declareth unto them," and at the present day there are nations who practice such methods for determining important affairs of life.
The New Zealand sorcerers use sticks for divining, which they throw into the air, and come to their decisions by observing in which direction these sticks fall. Even in such matters as sickness or bodily injury, the direction in which the falling sticks lie, or it may be a certain stick in the group, directs the way to a physician. In ancient times the Magian form of divining was by staves or sticks. The diviner carried with him a bundle of willow wands, and when about to divine he untied the bundle and laid the wands upon the ground; then he gathered them and threw them from him, repeating certain words as if consulting some divinity. The wands were of different lengths, and their numbers varied from three to nine, but only the odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 belonged to heaven, the even numbers 2, 4, 6, 8 belonged to earth. The Chinese divine after this fashion at the present day. From such ideas has doubtless arisen the saying that there is luck in odd numbers, a belief which, after a fashion, still prevails.
The virtue and mysterious power of the divining rod is still believed by many, and has frequently been resorted to during this century for the purpose of discovering water springs and metallic veins. The diviner takes a willow wand with a forked end: the forked points are held in his two hands, the other end pointing horizontally in front of him, and as he walks slowly over a field he watches the movements of the rod. When it bends towards the earth, as if apparently strongly attracted thereto, he feels certain he is passing over a spring or metallic vein. But the phenomenon, it is believed, will not take place with every one who may try it, there being only certain parties, mediums as we would name them in these days, who have the gift of operating successfully; and such parties obtained great fame in countries and districts where water was scarce, as they were able to point out the exact spots where wells should be dug, and also in such counties as Cornwall, where they could point out the spots where a mine could profitably be sunk. Again and again within these few years have warm controversies been carried on in public papers on the question of the reality of the virtue and power of the dousing rod for discovering minerals or mineral veins. Some have argued that a hazel rod is as perfect as a willow rod, and have adduced instances of its successful application.
There was another form of divining essentially an appeal to the lot, in which a stick was used, and which was frequently employed to determine matters of considerable importance. Boys resorted to it in their games in order to determine between two parties, to settle for example which side should take a certain part in a game, or which of two lads, leaders in a game, should have the first choice of associates. A long stick was thrown into the air and caught by one of the parties, then each alternately grasped it hand over hand, and he who got the last hold was the successful party. He might not have sufficient length of stick to fill his whole hand, but if by closing his hand upon the end projecting from his opponent's hand, he could support the weight of the stick, this was enough.
The various methods of divining which are generally regarded as modern inventions, such as the many forms of divining by cards, the reading of the future from the position of the leaves of tea in a tea-cup, etc., we will pass by without comment, only remarking that the prevalence among us still of such superstitious notions shows that men, notwithstanding our boasted civilisation, are still open to believe in mysteries which, to common sense, are incredible, without exhibiting the slightest trace of scepticism, and without taking any trouble to investigate the truth of the pretensions, contenting themselves with a saying I have often heard—"Wonderful things were done of old which we cannot understand, and God's hand is not yet shortened. He can do now what He did then." And so they save themselves trouble of reasoning, a process which, to the majority, is disagreeable.
SUPERSTITIONS RELATING TO ANIMALS.
Many other superstitious notions still exist among us with respect to certain animals, which have, no doubt, had their origin in remote times—some of them, doubtless, being survivals of ancient forms of animal worship. The ancient Egyptians worshipped animals, or held certain animals as symbols of divine powers. The Jews made a division of animals into clean and unclean, and the ancient Persians held certain animals in detestation as having a connection with the evil spirit; while others were esteemed by them as connected with the good spirit or principle. Other ancient nations held certain animals as more sacred than others, and these ideas still exist among us, modified and transformed to a greater or less extent. The robin is a familiar example of a bird which is held in veneration by the popular mind. The legend of the robins in the Babes in the Wood may have increased this veneration. There was a popular saying that the robin had a drop of God's blood in its veins, and that therefore to kill or hurt it was a sin, and that some evil would befall anyone who did so, and, conversely, any kindness done to poor robin would be repaid in some fashion. Boys did not dare to harry a robin's nest.
The yellow yite, or yellow hammer, was held in just the opposite estimation, and although one of the prettiest of birds, their nests were remorselessly harried, and their young often cruelly killed. When young, I was present at an act of this sort, and, as an illustration of courage and affection in the parent bird, I may relate the circumstance. The nest, with four fledglings, was about a quarter of a mile outside the village. It was carried through the village to a quarry, as far on the opposite side. The parent bird followed the boys, uttering a plaintive cry all the way. On reaching the quarry, the nest was laid on the ground, and a certain distance measured off, where the boys were to stand and throw stones at it. While this was being done, the parent bird flew to the nest, and made strenuous efforts to draw it away; and when the stones were thrown, it flew to a little distance, continuing its cry; and only flew away when it was made the mark for the stones. These boys would never have thought of doing the same thing to a nest of robins. It was said to have a drop of the devil's blood in its veins, and that its jerky and unsteady flight was a consequence of this. The hatred to the yellow hammer, however, was only local. The swallow was also considered to have a drop of the deil's blood in its veins; but, unlike the yellow hammer, instead of being persecuted, it was feared, and therefore let alone. If a swallow built its nest in a window-corner, it was regarded as a lucky omen, and the annoyance and filth arising therefrom was patiently borne with under the belief that such a presence brought luck and prosperity to the house. To tear down a swallow's nest was looked upon as a daring of the fates, and when this was done by the proprietor or tenant, there were many who would prophesy that death or some other great calamity would overtake, within a twelvemonth, the family of the perpetrator. To possess a hen which took to crowing like a cock boded ill to the possessor or his family if it were not disposed of either by killing or selling. They were generally sold to be killed. Only a few years ago I had such a prodigy among a flock of hens which I kept about my works, and one day it was overheard crowing, when one of the workmen came to me, and, with a solemn face, told the circumstance, and advised me strongly to have it destroyed or put away, as some evil would surely follow, relating instances he had known in Ireland. This superstition has found expression in the Scotch proverb: "Whistling maids and crowing hens are no canny about a house."
Seeing magpies before breakfast was a good or bad omen according to the number seen up to four. This was expressed in the following rhyme, which varies slightly in different localities. The following version was current in my native village:—
"One bodes grief, two's a death, Three's a wedding, four's a birth."
Chambers in his Scottish Rhymes has it thus:—
"One's joy, two's grief. Three's a wedding, four's a birth."
I knew a man who, if on going to his work he had seen two piets together, would have refrained from working before he had taken breakfast, believing that if he did so it would result in evil either to himself or his family.
If a cock crew in the morning with its head in at the door of the house, it was a token that a stranger would pay the family a visit that day; and so firm was the faith in this that it was often followed by works, the house being redd up for the occasion. I remember lately visiting an old friend in the country, and on making my appearance I was hailed with the salutation, "Come awa, I knew we would have a visit from strangers to-day, for the cock crowed thrice over with his head in at the door." If a horse stood and looked through a gateway or along a road where a bride or bridegroom dwelt, it was a very bad omen for the future happiness of the intending couple. The one dwelling in that direction would not live long.
If a bird got any human hair, and used it in building its nest, the person on whose head the hair grew would be troubled with headaches, and would very soon get bald.
It is still a common belief that crows begin to build their nests on the first Sabbath of March.
A bird coming into a house and flying over any one's head was an unlucky omen for the person over whose head it flew.
It was said that eggs laid upon Good Friday never got stale, and that butter made on that day possessed medicinal properties.
If a horse neighed at the door of a house, it boded sickness to some of the inmates.
A cricket singing on the hearth was a good omen, a token of coming riches to the family.
If a bee came up in a straight line to a person's face, it was regarded as a forerunner of important news.
If a servant wilfully killed a spider, she would certainly, it was said, break a piece of crockery or glass during that day.
Spiders were, as they are still, generally detested in a house, and were often very roughly dislodged; but yet their lives were protected by a very old superstition. There is an old English proverb—
"If you wish to live and thrive, Let the spider run alive."
When my mother saw a spider's web in the house she swept it away very roughly, but the spider was not wilfully killed. If it was not seen it was considered all right, but if it fell on the floor or was seen running along the wall, it was brushed out of the room; none of us were allowed to put our foot on it, or wilfully kill it. This care for the life of the spider is probably due to the influence of an old legend that a spider wove its web over the place where the baby Christ was hid, thus preserving his life by screening him from sight of those who sought to kill him. Stories of a similar character are related in connection with King Robert Bruce, and several other notable persons during times of persecution, who, while hiding in caves, spiders came and wove their webs over the entrances, which, when their enemies saw, convinced them that the parties they were in search of had not taken refuge there, or the webs would have been destroyed.
The common white butterfly was a favourite with children, and to catch one and preserve it alive was considered lucky. Care was taken to preserve them by feeding them with sugar. But the dark brown and spotted butterflies were always detested, and were named witch butterflies. Ill luck, it was believed, would attend any one who kept one alive, but to kill one was an unlucky transaction, which would be attended by evil to the killer before evening.
Beetles were held in aversion by most people, and if one was found upon the person, if they were at all nervous, it was sufficient to cause a fit, at least would set them screaming with a shudder of detestation. But there was a variety of small beetles with a beautiful bronze coloured back, called gooldies by children, which were held in great favour. They were sometimes kept by children as little pets, and allowed to run upon their hands and clothes, and this was not because of their beauty, but because to possess a gooldie was considered very lucky. To kill a beetle brought rain the following day.
The lady bird, with its scarlet coat spotted with black, was another great favourite with most people. Very few would kill a lady bird, as such an act would surely be followed by calamity of some sort. Children were eager to catch one and watch it gracefully spreading out its wings from under its coat of mail, and then taking flight, while the group of youthful onlookers would repeat the rhyme,
"Lady bird, lady bird, fly away home, Your house is on fire, and your children at home."
"Lady lady landers, fly away to Flanders."
But these practices were not altogether confined to children. Grown up girls, when they caught a lady bird, held it in their hands, and repeated the following couplet—
"Fly away east or fly away west, And show me where lives the one I like best."
Its flight was watched with great anxiety, and when it took the direction which the young girl wished, it was not only a sort of pleasure, but a proof of the augury.
If a person on going to his work, or while going an errand, were to see a hare cross the road in front of him, it was a token that ill luck would shortly befall him. Many under such circumstances would return home and not pursue their quest until the next meal had been eaten, for beyond that the evil influence did not extend. This superstition is very old, but it is not in every country or age connected with the hare. We have already seen in a quotation from Ovid that this superstition existed in his day, (page 2.) Probably the hare has been adopted in this country from the belief that witches assumed the form of that animal when on their nightly rambles, for how was the wayfarer to know that the hare which he saw was not a transformed witch, intent on working him mischief?
The cat was always a favourite in a family, and nothing was more unlucky than for one to die inside the house. I have known cases where, when such a misfortune occurred, the family were thrown into great consternation, surmising what possible form of evil this omen portended to them. Generally when a cat was known to be ailing, the animal was removed from the house and placed in the coal cellar, or other outhouse, with plenty of food, and kept there until it either recovered or died. With the ancient Egyptians the cat was one of their favourite animals. The death of a cat belonging to a family was considered a great misfortune. Upon the occurrence of such an event the household went into mourning, shaving off their eyebrows, and otherwise indicating their sorrow. In Scotland it was believed that witches often assumed the cat form while exercising their evil influence over a family.
It was pretty generally believed a few years ago that in large fires kept continually burning there was generated an animal called a salamander. It required seven years to grow and attain maturity, and if the fires were kept burning longer than that there was great danger that the animal might make its escape from its fiery matrix, and, if this should happen, it would range round the world, destroying all it came in contact with, itself almost indestructible. Hence large fires, such as those of blast furnaces in ironworks, were extinguished before the expiry of the seven years, and the embryo monster taken out. Such an idea may have had its origin in a misinterpretation of some of St. John's apocalyptic visions, or may have been a survival of the legend of the fiery dragon whose very breath was fire, a legend common during the middle ages and also in ancient Rome. Bacon, in his Natural History, says—"There is an ancient tradition of the salamander that it liveth in the fire, and hath force also to extinguish the fire"; and, according to Pliny, Book X. chap. 67,—"The salamander, made in fashion of a lizard, with spots like to stars, never comes abroad, and sheweth itself only during great showers. In fair weather, he is not seen; he is of so cold a complexion that if he do but touch the fire he would quench it."—Holland. This is quite opposite to the modern notion of it that it was generated in the fire, but such legends take transformations suitable to the age and locality.
The goat has been associated both in ancient and modern times with the devil, or evil spirit, who is depicted with horns, hoofs, and a tail. In modern times, he was supposed to haunt streams and woods in this disguise, and to be present at many social gatherings. He was popularly credited with assisting, in this disguise, in the instruction of a novice into the mysteries of Freemasonry, and was supposed to allow the novice to ride on his back, and go withershins three times round the room. I have known men who were anxious to be admitted into the order deterred by the thought of thus meeting with the devil at their initiation.
While staying at Luss lately, I was informed that a mill near to Loch Lomond had formerly been haunted by the goat demon, and that the miller had suffered much from its mischievous disposition. It frequently let on the water when there was no grain to grind. But one night the miller watched his mill, and had a meeting with the goblin, who demanded the miller's name, and was informed that it was myself. After a trial of strength, the miller got the best of it, and the spirit departed. After hearing this, I remembered that the same story, under a slightly different form, had been told me when a boy in my native village. This was the story as then told:—A certain miller in the west missed a quantity of his meal every day, although his mill was carefully and securely locked. One night he sat up and watched, hiding himself behind the hopper. After a time, he was surprised to see the hopper beginning to go, and, looking up, he saw a little manakin holding a little cappie in his hand and filling it at the hopper. The miller was so frightened that this time he let him go; but, in a few minutes, the manakin returned again with his cappie. Then the miller stepped out from his hiding-place, and said, "Aye, my manakin, and wha may you be, and what's your name?" To which the manakin, without being apparently disturbed, replied, "My name is Self, and what's your name?" "My name is Self, too," replied the miller. The manakin's cappie being by this time again full, he began to walk off, but the miller gave him a whack with his stick, and then ran again to his hiding-place. The manakin gave a terrible yell, which brought from a hidden corner an old woman, crying, "Wha did it? Wha did it?" The manakin answered, "It was Self did it." Whereat, slapping the manakin on the cheek, the old woman said, "If Self did it, Self must mend it again." After this, they both left the mill, which immediately stopped working. The miller was never afterwards troubled in this way, and, at the same time, a goat which for generations had been observed at gloaming and on moonlight nights in the dell, and on the banks of the stream which drove the mill, disappeared, and was never seen again.
To meet a sow the first thing in the morning boded bad luck for the day.
If a male cat came into the house and shewed itself friendly to any one, it was a lucky omen for that person.
To meet a piebald horse was lucky. If two such horses were met apart, the one after the other, and if then the person who met them were to spit three times, and express any reasonable wish, it would be granted within three days.
If a stray dog followed any person on the street, without having been enticed, it was lucky, and success was certain to attend the errand on which the person was engaged.
SUPERSTITIONS CONCERNING PLANTS.
Superstitions connected with plants were more numerous than those connected with animals. We have already noticed widespread prevalence of tree worship in early times. The Bible is full of evidence bearing upon this point, from the earliest period of Jewish history until the time of the captivity. Even concerning those Kings of Judah and Israel who are recorded to have walked in the ways of their father David, it is frequently remarked of them that they did not remove or hew down the groves, but permitted them to remain a snare to the people. In several instances the word translated grove cannot properly be applicable to a grove of trees, but must signify something much smaller, for it is in these instances described as being located in the temple. It can therefore refer only to a tree or stump of a tree, or it may be only the symbol of a tree. The story of the tree of good and evil, and the tree of life, has been the origin of many superstitious notions regarding trees. The notion that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an apple tree, caused the apple to have a great many mystic meanings, and gave it a prominent place in many legends, and also brought it into prominence as a divining medium. In many parts of Scotland the apple was believed to have great influence in love affairs. If an apple seed were shot between the fingers it was understood that it would, by the direction of its flight, indicate the direction from which that person's future partner in life would come. If a couple took an apple on St. John's eve and cut it in two, and if the seeds on each half were found to be equal in number, this was a token that these two would be soon united in marriage; or if the halves contained an unequal number of seeds, the one who possessed the half with the greater number would be married first. If a seed were cut in two, it denoted trouble to the party holding the larger portion of the seed. If two seeds were cut, it denoted early death or widowhood to one of the parties. If the apple were sour or sweet, the flavour indicated the temper of the parties. There was a practice common among young people of peeling an apple in an unbroken peel, and throwing the peeled skin over the right shoulder in order to ascertain from the manner in which it fell, first, whether the person who threw it would be married soon, and second, the trade or profession of the person to whom they would be married. If the skin after being thrown remained unbroken, they would be married soon, and the person to whom they would be married was ascertained from the form which the fallen skin presented; this form might assume the shape of a letter, in that case it was the initial letter of the unknown parties name, or it might assume the form of some trade tool, &c. Imagination had free scope here. The apple tree itself was considered a lucky tree to have near a house, but its principal virtue lay in the fruit.
Holly. This name is probably a corruption of the word holy, as this plant has been used from time immemorial as a protection against evil influence. It was hung round, or planted near houses, as a protection against lightning. Its common use at Christmas is apparently the survival of an ancient Roman custom, occurring during the festival to Saturn, to which god the holly was dedicated. While the Romans were holding this feast, which occurred about the time of the winter solstice, they decked the outsides of their houses with holly; at the same time the Christians were quietly celebrating the birth of Christ, and to avoid detection they outwardly followed the custom of their heathen neighbours, and decked their houses with holly also. In this way the holly came to be connected with our Christmas customs. (See chapter on Festivals.) This plant was also regarded as a symbol of the resurrection. The use of mistletoe along with holly is probably due to the notion that in winter the fairies took shelter under its leaves, and that they protected all who sheltered the plant. The origin of kissing under the mistletoe is considered to have come from our Saxon ancestors, who regarded this plant as dedicated to Friga, the goddess of love.
The Aspen was said to have been the tree on which Judas hanged himself after the betrayal of his Master, and ever since its leaves have trembled with shame.
The Ash had wonderful influence. The old Christmas log was of ash wood, and the use of it at this time was helpful to the future prosperity of the family. Venomous animals, it was said, would not take shelter under its branches. A carriage with its axles made of ash wood was believed to go faster than a carriage with its axles made of any other wood; and tools with handles made of this wood were supposed to enable a man to do more work than he could do with tools whose handles were not of ash. Hence the reason that ash wood is generally used for tool handles. It was upon ash branches that witches were enabled to ride through the air; and those who ate on St. John's eve the red buds of the tree, were rendered invulnerable to witch influence.
The Hazel was dedicated to the god Thor, and, in the Roman Catholic Church, was esteemed a plant of great virtue for the cure of fevers. When used as a divining rod, the rod, if it were cut on St. John's Day or Good Friday, would be certain to be a successful instrument of divination. A hazel rod was a badge of authority, and it was probably this notion which caused it to be made use of by school masters. Among the Romans, a hazel rod was also a symbol of authority.
The Willow, as might be expected, had many superstitious notions connected with it, since, according to the authorized version of the English Bible, the Israelites are said to have hung their harps on willow trees. The weeping willow is said to have, ever since the time of the Jews' captivity in Babylon, drooped its branches, in sympathy with this circumstance. The common willow was held to be under the protection of the devil, and it was said that, if any were to cast a knot upon a young willow, and sit under it, and thereupon renounce his or her baptism, the devil would confer upon them supernatural power.
The Elder, or Bourtree had wonderful influence as a protection against evil. Wherever it grew, witches were powerless. In this country, gardens were protected by having elder trees planted at the entrance, and sometimes hedges of this plant were trained round the garden. There are very few old gardens in country places in which are not still seen remains of the protecting elder tree. In my boyhood, I remember that my brothers, sisters, and myself were warned against breaking a twig or branch from the elder hedge which surrounded my grandfather's garden. We were told at the time, as a reason for this prohibition, that it was poisonous; but we discovered afterwards that there was another reason, viz., that it was unlucky to break off even a small twig from a bourtree bush. In some parts of the Continent this superstitious feeling is so strong that, before pruning it, the gardener says—"Elder, elder, may I cut thy branches?" If no response be heard, it is considered that assent has been given, and then, after spitting three times, the pruner begins his cutting. According to Montanus, elder wood formed a portion of the fuel used in the burning of human bodies as a protection against evil influences; and, within my own recollection, the driver of a hearse had his whip handle made of elder wood for a similar reason. In some parts of Scotland, people would not put a piece of elder wood into the fire, and I have seen, not many years ago, pieces of this wood lying about unused, when the neighbourhood was in great straits for firewood; but none would use it, and when asked why? the answer was—"We don't know, but folks say it is not lucky to burn the bourtree." It was believed that children laid in a cradle made in whole or in part of elderwood, would not sleep well, and were in danger of falling out of the cradle. Elder berries, gathered on St. John's Eve, would prevent the possessor suffering from witchcraft, and often bestowed upon their owners magical powers. If the elder were planted in the form of a cross upon a new-made grave, and if it bloomed, it was a sure sign that the soul of the dead person was happy.
The Onion was regarded as a symbol of the universe among the ancient Egyptians, and many curious beliefs were associated with it. It was believed by them that it attracted and absorbed infectious matters, and was usually hung up in rooms to prevent maladies. This belief in the absorptive virtue of the onion is prevalent even at the present day. When a youth, I remember the following story being told, and implicitly believed by all. There was once a certain king or nobleman who was in want of a physician, and two celebrated doctors applied. As both could not obtain the situation, they agreed among themselves that the one was to try to poison the other, and he who succeeded in overcoming the poison would thus be left free to fill the situation. They drew lots as to who should first take the poison. The first dose given was a stewed toad, but the party who took it immediately applied a poultice of peeled onions over his stomach, and thus abstracted all the poison of the toad. Two days after, the other doctor was given the onions to eat. He ate them, and died. It was generally believed that a poultice of peeled onions laid on the stomach, or underneath the armpits, would cure any one who had taken poison. My mother would never use onions which had lain for any length of time with their skins off.
So lately as 1849, Mr. J.B. Wolff, in the Scientific American, states that he had charge of one hundred men on shipboard, cholera raging among them; they had onions on board, which a number of the men freely ate, and these were soon attacked by the cholera and nearly all died. As soon as this discovery was made, the eating of the onions was forbidden. Mr. Wolff came to the conclusion that onions should never be eaten during an epidemic; he remarks, "After many years experience, I have found that onions placed in a room where there is small-pox, will blister and decompose with great rapidity,—not only so, but will prevent the spread of disease;" and he thinks that, as a disinfectant, they have no equal, only keep them out of the stomach.
It was believed that, when peeling onions, if an onion were stuck on the point of the knife which was being used, it would prevent the eyes being affected.
The common Fern, it was believed, was in flower at midnight on St. John's Eve, and whoever got possession of the flower would be protected from all evil influences, and would obtain a revelation of hidden treasure.
St.-John's-Wort. In heathen mythology the summer solstice was a day dedicated to the sun, and was believed to be a day on which witches held their festivities. St.-John's-Wort was their symbolical plant, and people were wont to judge from it whether their future would be lucky or unlucky; as it grew they read in its progressive character their future lot. The Christians dedicated this festive period to St. John the Baptist, and the sacred plant was named St.-John's-Wort or root, and became a talisman against evil. In one of the old romantic ballads a young lady falls in love with a demon, who tells her
"Gin you wish to be Leman mine, Lay aside the St.-John's-wort and the vervain."
When hung up on St. John's day together with a cross over the doors of houses it kept out the devil and other evil spirits. To gather the root on St. John's day morning at sunrise, and retain it in the house, gave luck to the family in their undertakings, especially in those begun on that day. Plants with lady attached to their names were in ancient times dedicated to some goddess; and in Christian times the term was transferred to the Virgin Mary. Such plants have good qualities, conferring protection and favour on their possessors.
From the earliest times the Rose has been an emblem of silence. Eros, in the Greek mythology, presents a rose to the god of silence, and to this day sub rosa, or "under the rose," means the keeping of a secret. Roses were used in very early times as a potent ingredient in love philters. In Greece it was customary to leave bequests for the maintenance of rose gardens, a custom which has come down to recent times. Rose gardens were common during the middle ages. According to Indian mythology, one of the wives of Vishna was found in a rose. In Rome it was the custom to bless the rose on a certain Sunday, called Rose Sunday. The custom of blessing the golden rose came into vogue about the eleventh century. The golden rose thus consecrated was given to princes as a mark of the Roman Pontifs' favour. In the east it is still believed that the first rose was generated by a tear of the prophet Mahomet, and it is further believed that on a certain day in the year the rose has a heart of gold. In the West of Scotland if a white rose bloomed in autumn it was a token of early death to some one, but if a red rose did the same, it was a token of an early marriage. The red rose, it was said, would not bloom over a grave. If a young girl had several lovers, and wished to know which of them would be her husband, she would take a rose leaf for each of her sweethearts, and naming each leaf after the name of one of her lovers, she would watch them till one after another they sank, and the last to sink would be her future husband. Rose leaves thrown upon a fire gave good luck. If a rose bush were pruned on St. John's eve, it would bloom again in the autumn. Superstitions respecting the rose are more numerous in England than in Scotland.
The Lily had a sacredness associated with it, probably on account of Christ's reference to it. It was employed as a charm against evil influence, and as an antidote to love philters; but I am not aware of any of these uses being put in practice during this century.
The four-leaved Clover had extraordinary influence in preserving its possessor from magical and witch influence, and enabled their possessors also to see through any deceit or device which might be tried against them. I have seen a group of young women within these few years searching eagerly for this charmed plant.
The Oak, from time immemorial, has held a high place as a sacred tree. The Druids worshipped the oak, and performed many of their rites under the shadow of its branches. When Augustine preached Christianity to the ancient Britons, he stood under an oak tree. The ancient Hebrews evidently held the oak as a sacred tree. There is a tradition that Abraham received his heavenly visitors under an oak. Rebekah's nurse was buried under an oak, called afterwards the oak of weeping. Jacob buried the idols of Shechem under an oak. It was under the oak of Ophra, Gideon saw the angel sitting, who gave him instructions as to what he was to do to free Israel. When Joshua and Israel made a covenant to serve God, a great stone was set up in evidence under an oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. The prophet sent to prophesy against Jeroboam was found at Bethel sitting under an oak. Saul and his sons were buried under an oak, and, according to Isaiah, idols were made of oak wood. Abimelech was made king by the oak that was in Shechem. From these proofs we need not be surprised that the oak continued to be held in veneration, and was believed to possess virtues overcoming evil. During last century its influence in curing diseases was believed in. The toothache could be cured by boring with a nail the tooth or gum till blood came, and then driving the nail into an oak tree. A child with rupture could be cured by splitting an oak branch, and passing the child through the opening backwards three times; if the splits grew together afterwards, the child would be cured. The same was believed in as to the ash tree. In the Presbytery Records of Lanark, 1664:—"Compeirs Margaret Reid in the same parish, (Carnwath), suspect of witchcraft, and confessed she put a woman newlie delivered, thrice through a green halshe, for helping a grinding of the bellie; and that she carried a sick child thrice about ane aikine post for curing of it." Such means of curing diseases were practised within this century, and many things connected with the oak were held potent as curatives.
Glamour was a kind of witch power which certain people were supposed to be gifted with; by the exercise of such influence they took command over their subjects' sense of sight, and caused them to see whatever they desired that they should see. Sir Walter Scott describes the recognised capability of glamour power in the following lines:—
"It had much of glamour might, Could make a lady seem a knight. The cobwebs on a dungeon wall, Seem tapestry in lordly hall. A nutshell seem a gilded barge, A sheeling seem a palace large, And youth seem age, and age seem youth, All was delusion, nought was truth."
Gipsies were believed to possess this power, and for their own ends to exercise it over people. In the ballad of "Johnny Faa," Johnny is represented as exercising this power over the Countess of Cassillis—
"And she came tripping down the stairs, With a' her maids before her, And soon as he saw her weel faured face, He coost the glamour o'er her."
To possess a four-leaved clover completely protected any one from this power. I remember a story which I heard when a boy, and the narrator of it I recollect spoke as if he were quite familiar with the fact. A certain man came to the village to exhibit the strength of a wonderful cock, which could draw, when attached to its leg by a rope, a large log of wood. Many people went and paid to see this wonderful performance, which was exhibited in the back yard of a public house. One of the spectators present on one occasion had in his possession a four-leaved clover, and while others saw, as they supposed, a log of wood drawn through the yard, this person saw only a straw attached to the cock's leg by a small thread. I may mention here that the four-leaved clover was reputed to be a preventative against madness, and against being drafted for military service.
One very ancient and persistent superstition had regard to the direction of movement either of persons or things. This direction should always be with the course of the sun. To move against the sun was improper and productive of evil consequences, and the name given to this direction of movement was withershins. Witches in their dances and other pranks, always, it was said, went withershins. Mr. Simpson in his work, Meeting the Sun, says, "The Llama monk whirls his praying cylinder in the way of the sun, and fears lest a stranger should get at it and turn it contrary, which would take from it all the virtue it had acquired. They also build piles of stone, and always pass them on one side, and return on the other, so as to make a circuit with the sun. Mahommedans make the circuit of the Caaba in the same way. The ancient dagobas of India and Ceylon were also traversed round in the same way, and the old Irish and Scotch custom is to make all movements Deisual, or sunwise, round houses and graves, and to turn their bodies in this way at the beginning and end of a journey for luck, as well as at weddings and other ceremonies."
To go withershins and to read prayers or the creed backwards were great evils, and pointed to connection with the devil. The author of Olrig Grange, in an early poem, sketches this superstition very graphically:—
"Hech! sirs, but we had grand fun Wi' the meikle black deil in the chair, And the muckle Bible upside doon A' ganging withershins roun and roun, And backwards saying the prayer About the warlock's grave, Withershins ganging roun; And kimmer and carline had for licht The fat o' a bairn they buried that nicht, Unchristen'd, beneath the moon."
If a tree or plant grew with a twist contrary to the direction of the sun's movement, that portion was considered to possess certain powers, which are referred to in the following verse of an old song:—
"I'll gar my ain Tammy gae doun to the Howe And cut me a rock of the widdershins grow, Of good rantree for to carry my tow, And a spindle of the same for the twining o't."
Pennant refers to some other practices in Scotland in his day, that were no doubt survivals of ancient heathen worship. Such as on certain occasions kindling a fire, and the people joining hands and dancing three times round it south-ways, or according to the course of the sun. At baptisms and marriages they walked three times round the church sun-ways. The Highlanders, in going to bathe or drink in a consecrated fountain, approach it by going round the place from east to west on the south side. When the dead are laid in their grave, the grave is approached by going round in the same manner. The bride is conducted to the spouse in presence of the minister round the company in the same direction; indeed, all public matters were done according to certain fixed ideas in relation to the sun, all pointing to a lingering ray of sun worship.
If a fire were slow or dour to kindle, the poker was taken and placed in front of the grate, one end resting on the fender, the other on the front bar of the grate, and this, it was believed, would cause the fire to kindle quickly. This practice is still followed by many, but being compelled now to give an apparently scientific reason for their conduct, they say that it is so placed to produce a draught. But this it does not do. The practice originated in the belief that the slow or dour fire was spell-bound by witchcraft, and the poker was so placed that it would form the shape of a cross with the front bar of the grate, and thus the witch power be destroyed. In early times when the poker was placed in this position, the person who placed it repeated an Ave Marie or Paternoster, but this feature of the ceremony died out, and with it the reason for the practice was forgotten. I have seen it done in private houses, and very frequently in the public rooms of country inns. Indeed, in such public rooms it was the common practice when the servant put on a fire, that after sweeping up the dust she placed the poker in this position, and left the room. Probably she had no idea why she did it, but merely followed the custom.
In a general chapter, such as this, I can find room for some things which could not properly find a place in other chapters. The subject of omens has by no means been exhausted. The late George Smith, in his work upon the Chaldean Account of Genesis, says that in ancient Babylonia, 1600 B.C., everything in nature was supposed to portend some coming event. Without much exaggeration, the same might be said of the people of this country during the earlier part of this century.
On seeing the first plough in the season, it was lucky if it were seen coming towards the observer, and he or she, in whatever undertaking then engaged, might be certain of success in it; but, if seen going from the observer, the omen was reversed.
If a farmer's cows became restive without any apparent cause, it foreboded trouble to either master or mistress.
On going on any business, if the first person met with was plain-soled, the journey might be given up, for, if proceeded with, the business to be transacted would prove a failure; but, by turning and entering the house again, with the right foot first, and then partaking of food before resuming the journey, it might be undertaken without misgiving.
It was unlucky to walk under a ladder set up against a wall, but if passing under it could not be avoided, then, if before doing so, you wished for anything, your wish would be fulfilled.
It was unlucky to eat twin nuts found in one shell.
If the eye or nose itched, it was a sign that the person so affected would be vexed in some way that day. If the foot itched, it was a sign that the owner of the foot was about to undertake a strange journey. If the elbow itched, it betokened the coming of a strange bedfellow. If the right hand itched, it signified that money would shortly be received by it; and, if the left hand itched, that money would shortly have to be paid away.
If the ear tingled, it was a sign that some one was speaking of the person so affected. If it were the right ear which did so, then the speech was favourable; if the left ear, the reverse. In this latter case, if the persons whose ears tingled were to bite their little fingers, this would cause the persons speaking evil of them to bite their tongues.
To break a looking-glass, hanging against a wall, was a sign that death would shortly occur in the family.
If a daughter's petticoat was longer than her frock, it shewed that her father loved her better than her mother did.
If you desired luck with any article of dress, it should be worn first at church.
If a person unwittingly put on an article of dress outside in, it was an omen that he or she would succeed in what they undertook that day; but it was requisite that this portion of dress should remain with the wrong side out until night, for, if reversed earlier, the luck was reversed also.
To weigh children was considered an objectionable practice, as it was believed to injure their health, and cause them to grow up weakly.
If a child cut the upper teeth before the lower, it was very unlucky for the child.
If a cradle were rocked when the child was not in it, it was said to give the child a headache; but if it so happened that the child was too old to be rocked in a cradle, but its baby clothes were still in the house, then this incident portended that its mother would have another baby.
To make a present of a knife or a pair of scissors, and refuse to accept anything in return, was said to cut or sever friendship between giver and receiver.
If, at a social gathering, a bachelor or maid were placed inadvertently betwixt a man and his wife, the person so seated would be married within a year.
If a person in rising from table overturned his chair, this shewed that he had been speaking untruths.
To feel a cold tremor along the spine was a sign that some one was treading on the spot of earth in which the person so affected would be buried.
If a person spoke aloud to himself, it was a sign that he would meet with a violent death.
If a girl married a man the initial letter of whose name was the same as her own, it was held that the union would not be a happy one. This notion was formulated into this proverb—
"To change the name and not the letter. Is a change for the worse, and not for the better."
If thirteen people sat down to dinner, the first who rose from table would, it was said, either die or meet with some terrible calamity within a year's time.
When burning caking coal it often happens that a small piece of fused matter is projected from the fire. When this took place the piece was searched for and examined, and from its shape certain events were prognosticated concerning the person in whose direction it had fallen. If shaped like a coffin it presaged death, if like a cradle it foretold a birth. I have seen such an incident produce a considerable sensation among a group sitting round a fire.
To find the shoe of a horse and hang it behind the house door was considered to bring good luck to the household, and protection from witchcraft or evil eye. I have seen this charm in large beer shops in London, and I was present in the parlour of one of these beer shops when an animated discussion arose as to whether it was most effective to have the shoe nailed behind the door, or upon the first step of the door. Each position had its advocates, and instances of extraordinary luck were recounted as having attended each position.
If a youth sat musing and intently looking into the fire, it was a sign that some one was throwing an evil spell over him, or fascinating him for evil. When this was observed, if any one without speaking were to take the tongs and turn the centre coal or piece of wood in the grate right over, and while doing so say, "Gude preserve us frae a' skaith," it would break the spell, and cause the intended evil to revert on the evil-disposed person who was working the spell. I have not only seen the operation performed many times, but have had it performed in my own favour by my worthy grandmother, whose belief in such things could never be shaken.
If the nails of a child were cut before it was a year old, the chances were that it would grow up a thief.
To spill salt while handing it to any one was unlucky, a sign of an impending quarrel between the parties; but if the person who spilled the salt carefully lifted it up with the blade of a knife, and cast it over his or her shoulder, all evil consequences were prevented. In Leonardo de Vinci's celebrated painting of the Last Supper, the painter has indicated the enmity of Judas by representing him in the act of upsetting the salt dish, with the right hand resting on the table, grasping the bag.
If a double ear of corn were put over the looking glass, it prevented the house from being struck by lightning. I have seen corn stalks hung over a looking glass, and was told that it brought luck.
It was customary for farmers to leave a portion of their fields uncropped, which was a dedication to the evil spirit, and called good man's croft. The Church exerted itself for a long time to abolish this practice, but farmers, who are generally very superstitious, were afraid to discontinue the practice for fear of ill luck. I remember a farmer as late as 1825 always leaving a small piece of a field uncropped, but then did not know why. At length he gave the right of working these bits to a poor labourer, who did well with it, and in a few years the farmer cultivated the whole himself.
Water that had been used in baptism was believed to have virtue to cure many distempers. It was a preventive against witchcraft, and eyes bathed with it would never see a ghost.
To see a dot of soot hanging on the bars of the grate indicated a visit from a stranger. By clapping the hands close to it, if the current produced by this, blew it off at the first clap, the stranger would visit that day. Every clap indicated the day before the visit would be made. This is still a common practice, of which the following lines taken from Glasgow Weekly Herald, 1877, is a graphic illustration:—
"Rab— Eh! Willie, come your wa's, and peace be wi' ye; Wi' a' my heart, I'm truly glad to see ye. Wee Geordie, wha sat gazing in the fire, In that prophetic mood I oft admire, Declar'd he saw a stranger on the grate— And Geordie's auguries are true as fate. He gied his hands a dap wi' a' his micht, And said that stranger's coming here the nicht, Wi' the first clap it's off. Ye see how true Appears the future on wee Geordie's view. What's in the wind, or what may be the news, That brings ye here, in heedless waste o' shoes?"
An eclipse of the sun was looked on as an omen of coming calamity. This is a very ancient superstition, and remained with us to a very late date, if it is even yet extinct. In 1597, during an eclipse of the sun, it is stated by Calderwood that men and women thought the day of judgment was come. Many women swooned, the streets of Edinburgh was full of crying, and in fear some ran to the kirk to pray. I remember an eclipse about 1818, when about three parts of the sun was covered. The alarm in the village was very great, indoor work was suspended for the time, and in several families prayers were offered for protection, believing that it portended some awful calamity; but when it passed off there was a general feeling of relief.
Fishers on the West Coast believe that were they to set their nets so that in any way it would encroach upon the Sabbath, the herrings would leave the district. Two years ago I was told that herrings were very plentiful at one time at Lamlash, but some thoughtless person set his net on a Sabbath evening. He caught none, and the herrings left and never returned.
I know several persons who refuse to have their likeness taken lest it prove unlucky; and give as instances the cases of several of their friends who never had a day's health after being photographed.
In addition to the many forms of superstition which we have been recalling, there were, and still are a great many superstitions connected with the phenomenon of dreaming, but as the notions in this series were very varied, differing very much in different localities, and everywhere subject less or more to the fancy of the interpreter, and as I believe that the notions and practices now in vogue in this connection are of comparatively recent origin, I will not enter upon the subject.
YULE, BELTANE, & HALLOWE'EN FESTIVALS:
Survivals of Ancient Sun and Fire Worship.
History and prehistoric investigations have shown quite clearly that prehistoric man worshipped the Sun, the giver and vivifier of all life, as the supreme God. To the sun they offered sacrifices, and at stated periods celebrated festivals in his honour; and at these festivals bread and wine and meat were partaken of, with observances very similar in many respects to the practices of the Jews during their religious feasts. But although the sun was the supreme deity, other objects were also worshipped as subordinate deities. These objects, however, were generally in some manner representative of sun attributes; for example, the Moon was worshipped as the spouse of the Sun, Venus as his page. The pleiades and other constellations, and single stars were also deified; the rainbow and the lightning were sun servants, the elements, the sun's offspring. Many animals and trees were reverenced as representatives of sun attributes. Above all, fire was worshipped as the truest symbol of the sun upon earth, and all offerings and sacrifices in honour of the sun were presented through fire; thus sun and fire worship became identified.
In Britain sun-worship appears to have been purer in prehistoric than it afterwards was in historic times, purer also than the sun-cult of historic Egypt, Greece, or Rome; that is, there appears to have been in British sun-worship less of polytheism than prevailed in Egypt, Greece, or Rome. But during the historic period, the numerous invasions and the colonizations of different portions of this country by the Romans and other nations, who brought with them their special religious beliefs and formulae of worship, caused the increase of polytheism by the commingling of the foreign and native elements of belief, and later on, these were mixed with Christianity, and in these mixings all the elements became modified, so that now it is very difficult to separate with certainty the aboriginal, invasional, and Christian elements.
From many indications it seems more than probable that the sun-cult in prehistoric Britain was very similar, even in many minor points, to the solar worship of the ancient Peruvians. At the same time, there is not the slightest probability that these two widely separated sun-cults ever had a common point of historical connection, nor, in order to explain their similarities, is such an historical explanation necessary. Quite sufficient is the explanation that both possessed in common a human nature, emotional and intellectual, moving on the same plane of childlike intelligence, and that both from this common standpoint had regard to the same striking and regularly recurring scenes of natural phenomena. Prescott thus describes the worship of these ancient Peruvians:—"The Sun was their primary God; to it was built a vast temple in the capital, more radiant with gold than that of Solomon's; and every city had a temple dedicated to the sun, and blasphemy against the sun was punished with death. The principal festivals of the year were at the equinoxes and solstices. That at midsummer was the grandest. It was preceded by a three days' fast; then every one who had time and money visited the city. Great fires were kindled from the sun's rays or by friction, from which sacred fires people kindled their hearth;" all household fires having previously been extinguished. Poor countries and districts, where the arts were in a backward condition, instead of having temples like the Peruvians, dedicated mountains and stone circles to the great luminary. It is the all but universal opinion that in this country, centuries before the Christian era, the religion of the people was Druidism; but this is merely the name of a system, and is equivalent to our saying that the present religion of our country is Presbyterianism, a statement which conveys no idea of the nature of our religious worship. The Druids were a priestly order who governed the country, and directed the worship of the people, the principal objects of worship being, as we have already said, the sun and fire. "The Druids," says the late Rev. James Rust, "formed an ecclesiastico-political association, and professed to explain the deep mysteries respecting God and man, and were the sacerdotal rulers, and called in consequence Druids or mystery-keepers. They were not allowed to commit anything to writing respecting their mysteries, and no one was allowed to enter their order till after a prolonged probation, terminating in swearing most solemnly to keep their mysteries secret for ever; and by this means they obtained great power and influence over all classes of the people."
Concerning the name Druid, the writer in the Encyclopedia Metropolitana says, "The name Druid is derived from deru, an oak." The Druids were an order of priests; they were divided into three classes, resembling the Persian magi. The first class were the Druids proper; they were the highest nobility, to whom was entrusted all religious rites and education. The second class were the bards; they were principally employed in public instruction, which was given in verse. The third class was called Euvates; whose office it was to deliver the responses of the oracles, and to attend the people who consulted them. The knowledge of astronomy and computation of time possessed by the Druids was of a high order, and, no doubt, was the form of worship imported from Chaldea.
It is known that the Phoenicians had colonized Britain at least 1000 years B.C., and doubtless they would bring with them their form of worship, their gods being the sun, the moon, and fire. We may here find a very early source for the institution of sun-worship in these islands, if we can believe that such a very partial colonization as was effected by the Phoenicians could work a religious similarity throughout the entire island. I think it probable that sun-worship existed before the Phoenicians came to the island, but they may have elevated its practice. Following the writer in the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, we are told that in addition to their worship of the sun, the Druids "held sacred the spirits of their ancestors, paid great honour to mountains, lakes, and groves. Groves of oak were their temples, and their places of worship were open to heaven, such as stone circles. They had also a ceremony of baptism, dipping in the sacred lake, as an initiatory rite, and had also a sacrament of bread and wine. They paid great reverence to the egg of the serpent, the seed of the oak, and above all, the mistletoe that grew upon the oak; and they offered in sacrifice to the sun and fire, men and animals."
Many of the localities where their worship was observed in this country can still be identified through the names which these places still bear. One or two are here given, because they refer to sun-worship:—
Grenach (in Perthshire), means Field of the Sun.
Greenan (a stream in Perthshire), means River of the Sun.
Balgreen (a town in Perthshire and other counties), means Town of the Sun.
Grian chnox (Greenock), means Knoll of the Sun.
Granton, means Sun's Fire.
Premising, therefore, that sun-worship and Druidical customs form the original base of all our old national festivals, we will now direct attention to the great festival of
The term Yule was the name given to the festival of the winter solstice by our northern invaders, and means the Festival of the Sun. One of the names by which the Scandinavians designated the sun was Julvatter, meaning Yule-father or Sun-father. In Saxon the festival was called Gehul, meaning Sun-feast. In Danish it is Juul; in Swedish Oel. Chambers supposes that the name is from a root word meaning wheel. We have no trace of the name by which the Druids knew this feast. The Rev. Mr. Smiddy in his book on Druidism in Ireland, says, "Their great feast was that called in the Irish tongue Nuadhulig, meaning new all heal, or new mistletoe. When the day came the priests assembled outside the town, and the people gathered shouting all heal. Then began a solemn procession into the forests in search of the mistletoe growing on the favourite oak. When found, the priests ascended the tree, and cut down the divine plant with a golden knife, which was secured below upon a linen cloth of spotless white; two white bulls were then conducted to the spot for the occasion, and there sacrificed to the sun god. The plant was then brought home with shouts of joy, mingled with prayers and hymns, and then followed a general religious feast, and afterwards scenes of boisterous merriment, to which all were admitted."
From other accounts of this sun feast at the winter solstice in this country, we are given to understand that besides white bulls there were also human victims offered in sacrifice. The mistletoe gathered was divided among the people, who hung the sprays over their doorways as a protection from evil influences, and as a propitiation to the sylvan deities, and to form sheltering places for those fairy beings during the frosts. The day after the sacrifices was kept as a day of rejoicing, neighbours visited each other with gifts, and with expressions of good will.
From all I have been able to gather respecting this great sun feast at the winter solstice as it was celebrated in this country in prehistoric times, I am of opinion that the sacrifices were offered to the sun on the shortest day, to propitiate his return, and that that day was a day of great solemnity, but that the day following when the mistletoe was distributed and hung up, was a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving on this account, that the sacrifices had proved acceptable and efficacious, the sun having returned again to begin his course for another year, and this day was the first day of the year.
I am aware that the Romans appointed the first of January as the first day of the year as early as B.C. 600, and dedicated it to the goddess Stranoe. This, however, could not affect the inhabitants of Britain, at least not until the Roman invasion, and this influence did not reach our northern counties. There can be little doubt, I think, that the great festival of the Romans, the Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the father of the gods, and which lasting seven days, including the winter solstice, was introduced into this country, and in course of time became identified with the Druidical festival of the natives. Other elements conspired to modify the ancient druidical festival. After the Romans withdrew their armies from the island at the commencement of the fifth century, other invaders took their place. Saxons, Jutes, Angles, and Normans occupied large tracts of the country; but as these were mostly all sun-worshippers, their festivals and ceremonies would, for the most part, coincide with the native usages, and whatever peculiarities they might bring with them in the matter of formulas, would take root in the localities where they were settled, and eventually the indigenous and introduced formulas would coalesce. Another element which materially influenced and, vice versa, was materially influenced by Pagan formulae, was Christianity. Introduced into Rome at a very early period, it was for a long time opposed as subversive of the established religion of the empire. Now, during the festival of the Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their houses, both inside and out, with evergreens, the Christian converts refraining from this were easily discovered and set upon by the people, were brought before the judges and condemned, in many cases, to death, for their infidelity to the national gods. But as a result of this severity the Christians learned to be politic, and during the Saturnalia, hung evergreens round their houses, while they kept festival within doors in commemoration of the birth of Christ. This Christian festival, with its heathen attachments, soon spread throughout the Roman empire, and thus became introduced into Britain also. It appears however, that the day on which this feast was kept differed in different localities, until towards the middle of the fourth century Julius I., Bishop of Rome, appointed the 25th December as the festival day for the whole Church, an edict which was universally obeyed. As was to be expected, many of the ceremonies and superstitious beliefs emanating from the Saturnalia were merged in the customs of the Christian feast, and do still survive in modified forms till the present day. In many of our Christmas customs we can thus perceive the influence of the self-preservation policy of the early Roman Christians, and in the survival of many other pagan customs in this and other of our festivals, we can trace the influence of another policy, the worldly-wise policy of the Roman Church.
At the close of the sixth century, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine, or Austin, to this country as a missionary, and by his preaching, many thousands of the people were converted to Christianity. This Pope's instructions to Augustine concerning his treatment of heathen festivals, were that "the heathen temples were not to be destroyed, but turned into Christian churches; that the oxen killed in sacrifice should still be killed with rejoicing, but their bodies given to the poor, and that the refreshment booths round the heathen temples should be allowed to remain as places of jollity and amusement for the people on Christian festivals, for it is impossible to cut abruptly from hard and rough minds all their old habits and customs. He who wishes to reach the highest place must rise by steps, and not by jumps."
From the enunciation of this policy, we can readily understand how the festive observances connected with heathen worship remained in the Christian observance. I have stated what is supposed to have been the Druidical manner of keeping this festival of the winter solstice, but I have not seen any account of how the festival was observed in this country when Augustine arrived as missionary. I have no information concerning the manner in which the oxen were sacrificed, nor the character of the refreshment booths round the temples. We know that there were booths in connection with heathen temples where women were kept, but whether this practice was indigenous in Britain, or was imported into this country by the Romans, or whether Pope Gregory may have written without any special knowledge of the customs here, but merely from his knowledge of heathen customs in general, we do not know. Nothing is said in these instructions about changing the day of keeping the festival from the solstice to the 25th of December. It is probable that no change of date was made at this time, at all events we may, from the following circumstance, infer that the change, if made, did not reach the northern portion of the island. Haco, King of Norway, in the the tenth century fixed the 25th December as the day for keeping the feast of Yule. King Haco's fixing on this particular date would be a resultant from the Romish edict, for the Norwegians were at this time Christians, although their Christianity was a conglomerate of heathen superstition and church dogma.
According to Jamieson, the eve of Yule was termed by the Northmen Hoggunott, meaning Slaughter night, probably because then the cattle for the coming feast were killed. During the feast, one of the leading toasts was called minnie, meaning the cup of remembrance, and Dr. Jamieson thinks that the popular cry which has come down to our times as Hogmany, trol-lol-lay, was originally Hogminne, thor loe loe, meaning the feast of Thor. After the Reformation, the Scotch transferred Hogmanay to the last day of December, as a preparation day for the New Year. The practice of children going from door to door in little bands, singing the following rhyme, was in vogue at the beginning of this century in country places in the West of Scotland:—
"Rise up, gudewife, and shake your feathers, Dinna think that we are beggars, We're girls and boys come out to-day, For to get our Hogmanay, Hogmanay, trol-lol-lay.
"Give us of your white bread, and not of your gray, Or else we'll knock at your door a' day."
This rhyme has a stronger reference to Yule or Christmas than to the New Year, and is doubtless a relic of pre-Reformation times.
At the Reformation, the Scottish Church, probably following the dictum of Calvin, who condemned Yule as a pagan festival, forbade the people to observe it because of its heathen origin; but probably the more potent reason was that it was a Romish feast, for no objection was made against keeping the New Year or hansell Monday, on which occasion practices similar to those of Yule were observed, and I believe it was the non-condemnation of these later festivals which enabled the Scottish Church to abolish Yule. In fact, it would appear that the Yule practices were simply transferred from a few days earlier to a few days later, and thereby retained their original connection with the close of the year. Prior to the Church interference there is no evidence that the first of January was observed by the people as a general feast, but even with this safety valve of a popular and yearly festival, the Church encountered great difficulty in abolishing Yule. A few instances of the opposition of the people will suffice.
The Glasgow Kirk Session, on the 26th December, 1583, had five persons before them who were ordered to make public repentance, because they kept the superstitious day called Yule. The baxters were required to give the names of those for whom they had baked Yule bread, so that they might be dealt with by the Church. Ten years after this, in 1593, an Act was again passed by the Glasgow Session against the keeping of Yule, and therein it was ordained that the keepers of this feast were to be debarred from the privileges of the Church, and also punished by the magistrates.
Notwithstanding these measures, the people still inclined to observe Yule, for fifty-six years after, in 1649, the General Assembly appointed a commission to make report of the public practices, among others, "The druidical customs observed at the fires of Beltane, Midsummer, Hallowe'en, and Yule." In the same year appears the following minute in the session-book of the Parish of Slains.—(See Rust's Druidism Exhumed.)
26th Nov., 1649.—"The said day, the minister and elders being convened in session, and after invocation of the name of God, intimate that Yule be not kept, but that they yoke their oxen and horse, and employ their servants in their service that day as well as on other work days."
Dr. Jamieson quotes the opinion of an English clergyman in reference to such proceedings of the Scotch Church:—"The ministers of Scotland, in contempt of the holy-day observed by England, cause their wives and servants to spin in open sight of the people upon Yule day, and their affectionate auditors constrain their servants to yoke their plough on Yule day, in contempt of Christ's nativity. Which our Lord has not left unpunished, for their oxen ran wud, and brak their necks and lamed some ploughmen, which is notoriously known in some parts of Scotland." By going back to the time of the Reformation, and finding what then were the practices of the people in the celebration of the Yule festival, and then by comparing these with the practices in vogue at the commencement of this century during the New Year festivities, we shall be led to conclude that the principal change effected by the Church was only respecting the time of the feasts, and we can thus perceive that the veto was not directed against the practices per se, but only against the conjunction of these practices, Pagan in their origin, with a feast commemorative of the birth of Christ. As they could not hold Christmas without retaining the Yule practices along with it, they resolved to abolish both.
Let us then pursue this retrospect and comparison. About the time of the Reformation the day preceding Yule was a day of general preparation. Houses were cleaned out and borrowed articles were returned to their owners. Work of all kind was stopped, and a general appearance of completion of work was established; yarn was reeled off, no lint was allowed to remain on the rock of the wheel, and all work implements were laid aside. In the evening cakes were baked, one for each person, and duly marked, and great care was taken that none should break in the firing, as such an accident was a bad omen for the person whose cake met with the mishap. These cakes were eaten at the Yule breakfast. A large piece of wood was placed upon the fire in such time that it would be kindled before twelve p.m., and extreme care was taken that the fire should not go out, for not only was it unlucky, but no one would oblige a neighbour, with a kindling on Yule.
On Yule eve those possessing cattle went to the byre and stable and repeated an Ave Marie, and a Paternoster, to protect their cattle from an evil eye.
On Yule morning, attention was paid to the first person who entered the house, as it was important to know whether such a person were lucky or otherwise. It was an unfriendly act to enter a house on Yule day without bringing a present of some kind. Nothing was permitted to be taken out of the house on that day; this prohibition of course, did not extend to such things as were taken for presents. Servants or members of the family who had gone out in the morning, when they returned to the house brought in with them something, although it might only be some trivial article, say for instance, garden stuff. This was done that they might bring, or, at least, not cause bad luck to the household. Masters or parents gave gifts to their servants and children, and owners of cattle gave their beasts, with their own hand their first food on Yule morning. After mass in church, a table was spread in the house with meat and drink, and all who entered were invited to partake. On this day neighbours and relations visited each other, bearing with them meat and drink warmed with condiments, and as they drank they expressed mutual wishes for each other's welfare. If not a Christian day, it was at least a day of good will to men. In the evening, the great family feast was held. In the more northern parts, where the Scandinavian national element was principally settled, a boar's head was the correct dish at this feast, and, by the better class, was always provided; but the common people were content with venison, beef, and poultry, beginning their feast with a dish of plum porridge. A large candle, prepared for the occasion, was lighted at the commencement, and it was intended to keep in light till twelve p.m., and if it went out before it was regarded as a bad omen for the next year; and what of it was left unconsumed at twelve o'clock was carefully laid past, to be used at the dead wake of the heads of the family.
Now, let us compare with this the practices current at Hogmanay (31st December), and New Year's Day, about the commencement of this century. In doing so, I will pass over without notice many superstitious observances which, though curious and interesting, belong rather to the general fund of superstitious belief than to the special festival at New Year, and confine myself to those which were peculiar to the time. In my grandfather's house, between sixty and seventy years ago, on the 31st December (Hogmanay), all household work was stopped, rock emptied, yarn reeled and hanked, and wheel and reel put into an outhouse. The house itself was white-washed and cleaned. A block of wood or large piece of coal was put on the fire about ten p.m., so that it would be burning briskly before the household retired to bed. The last thing done by those who possessed a cow or horse was to visit the byre or stable, and I have been told that it was the practice with some, twenty years before my recollection, to say the Lord's Prayer during this visit. After rising on New Year's Day, the first care of those who possessed cattle was to visit the byre or stable, and with their own hands give the animals a feed. Burns followed this habit, and refers to it in one of his poems:—
"A gude New Year I wish thee, Maggy, Hae, there's a rip to thy auld baggie."
The following was the practice in my father's house in Partick, between fifty and sixty years ago, on New Year's day:—On Hogmanay evening, children were all washed before going to bed. An oat bannock was baked for each child: it was nipped round the edge, had a hole in the centre, and was flavoured with carvey (carroway) seed. Great care was taken that none of these bannocks should break in the firing, as such an occurrence was regarded as a very unlucky omen for the child whose bannock was thus damaged. It denoted illness or death during the year. Parents sat up till about half-past eleven, when the fire was covered, and every particle of ash swept up and carried out of the house. All retired to bed before twelve o'clock, as it was unlucky not to be in bed as the New Year came in. A watchful eye was kept on the fire lest it should go out, for such an event was regarded as very unlucky, and they would neither give nor receive a light from any one on New Year's day. Neither fire, ashes, nor anything belonging to the house was taken out of it on that day. In the morning we children got our bannocks to breakfast. They were small, and it was unlucky to leave any portion of them, although this was frequently done. The first-foot was an important episode. To visit empty-handed on this day was tantamount to wishing a curse on the family. A plane-soled person was an unlucky first-foot; a pious sanctimonious person was not good, and a hearty ranting merry fellow was considered the best sort of first-foot. It was necessary for luck that what was poured out of the first-foot's gift, be it whiskey or other drink, should be drunk to the dregs by each recipient, and it was requisite that he should do the same by their's. It was against rule for any portion to be left, but if there did happen to be an unconsumed remnant, it was cast out. With any subsequent visitor these particulars were not observed. I remember that one year our first-foot was a man who had fallen and broken his bottle, and cut and bleeding was assisted into our house. My mother made up her mind that this was a most unfortunate first-foot, and that something serious would occur in the family during that year. I believe had the whole family been cut off, she would not have been surprised. However, it was a prosperous year, and a bleeding first-foot was not afterwards considered bad. If anything extraordinary did occur throughout the year, it was remembered and referred to afterwards. One New Year's day something was stolen out of our house; that year father and mother were confined to bed for weeks; the cause and effect were quite clear. During the day neighbours visited each other with bottle and bun, every one overflowing with good wishes. In the evening the family, old and young, were gathered together, those who during the year were out at service, the married with their families, and at this meal the best the family could afford was produced. It was a happy time, long looked forward to, and long remembered by all.
Beltane or Beilteine means Baals fire, Baal (Lord) was the name under which the Phoenicians recognized their primary male god, the Sun: fire was his earthly symbol and the medium through which sacrifices to him were offered. Hence sun and fire-worship were identical. I am of opinion that originally the Beltane festival was held at the Spring equinox but that its original connection with the equinox, in process of time was forgotten, and it became a festival inaugurative of summer. There is some difference of opinion as to the particular day on which the Beltane festival was held in this country. Dr. Jamieson, Dr. R. Chambers, and others who have studied this subject say that the 1st May (old style) was Beltane day. Professor Veitch; in his History and Poetry of the Scottish Border, (p. 118,) says, speaking of the Druids:—"They worshipped the sun god, the representative of the bright side of nature—Baal, the fire-giver—and to him on the hill tops they lit the fire on the end of May, the Beltane." And again, in his remarks on Peblis to the Play, (p. 315,) he says:—"The play was not the name for a stage play, but indicated the sports and festivals which took place at Peebles annually at Beltane, the second of May, not the first of May, as is usually supposed. These had in all probability come in place of the ancient British practice of lighting fires on the hill tops in honour of Baal, the sun god, hence the name Baaltein, Beltane, i.e. Baal's fire. The Christian Church had so far modified the ceremonial as to substitute for the original idolatrous practice that of a day of rustic amusements. A fair or market at the same period which lasted for eight days had also been instituted by Royal charter. But even the practice of lighting fires on the hill tops was late in dying out, with the usual tenacity of custom it survived for long all memory of its original meaning."