Through Tangible Things
Magic Through Tangible Things
THE dread of being harmed through
so intangible a thing as his name, which haunts the savage, is the extreme
and more subtle form of the same dread which, for a like reason, makes
him adopt precautions against cuttings of his hair, parings of his nails,
his saliva, excreta, and the water in which his clothes--when he wears
any--are washed, falling under the control of the sorcerer. Miss Mary
Kingsley says that 'the fear of nail and hair clippings getting into the
hands of evilly disposed persons is ever present to the West African:
The Igalwa and other tribes will allow no one but a trusted friend to
do their hair, and bits of nails or hair are carefully burnt or thrown
away into a river. Blond, even that from a small cut on the finger, or
from a fit of nose-bleeding, is most carefully covered up and stamped
out if it has fallen on the earth. Blood is the life, and life in Africa
means a spirit, hence the liberated blood is the liberated spirit, and
liberated spirits are always whipping into people who don't want them.
[a] Crammed with Pagan superstitions,
the Italian who is reluctant to trust a lock of his hair to another stands
on the same plane as the barbarian. Sometimes, as was the custom among
the Incas, and as is still the custom among Turks and Esthonians, the
refuse of hair and nails is preserved so that the owner may have them
at the resurrection of the body. [b]
In connection with this, one of my sons tells me that his Jamaican negro
housekeeper speaks of the old-time blacks keeping their hair-cuttings
to be put in a pillow in their coffins, and preserving the parings of
their nails, because they would need them in the next world. It is a common
superstition among ourselves that when children's teeth come out they
should not be thrown away, lest the child has to seek for the lost tooth
after death. On the other hand, it is an equally common practice to throw
the teeth in the fire 'out of harm's way.'
But the larger number of practices give expression
to the belief in what is known as 'sympathetic magic'; as we say, 'like
cures like,' Or more appositely, in barbaric theory, 'kills like.' Things
outwardly resembling one another are believed to possess the same qualities,
effects being thereby brought about in the man himself by the production
of like effects in things belonging to him, or in images or effigies of
him. The Zulu sorcerers, when they have secured a portion of their victim's
dress, will bury it in some secret place, so that, as it rots away, his
life may decay. In the New Hebrides it was the common practice to hide
nail-parings and cuttings of hair, and to give the remains of food carefully
to the pigs. 'When the mae snake carried away a fragment of food into
the place sacred to a spirit, the man who had eaten of the food would
sicken as the fragment decayed.[c]
Brand tells that in a witchcraft trial in the seventeenth century, the
accused confessed 'having buried a glove of the said Lord Henry in the
ground, so that as the glove did rot and waste, the liver of the said
lord might rot and waste'; and the New Britain sorcerer of to-day will
burn a castaway banana skin, so that the man who carelessly left it unburied
may die a tormenting death. A fever-stricken Australian native girl told
the doctor who attended her that 'some moons back, when the Goulburn blacks
were encamped near Melbourne, a young man named Gibberook came behind
her and cut off a lock of her hair, and that she was sure he had buried
it, and that it was rotting somewhere. Her marm-bu-la (kidney fat) was
wasting away, and when the stolen hair had completely rotted she would
die. She added that her name had been lately cut on a tree by some wild
black, and that was another sign of death. Her name was Murran, which
means 'a leaf,' and the doctor afterwards found that the figure of leaves
had been carved on a gum-tree as described by the girl. The sorceress
said that the spirit of a black fellow had cut the figure on the tree.
The putting of sharp stones in the foot-tracks
of an enemy is believed to maim him, as a nail is driven into a horse's
footprint to lame him, [e] while
the chewing of a piece of wood is thought to soften the heart of a man
with whom a bargain is being driven. Folk-medicine, the wide world through,
is full of prescriptions based on sympathetic or antipathetic magic. Its
doctrine of 'seals' or 'signatures' is expressed in the use of yellow
flowers for jaundice, and of eye-bright for ophthalmia, while among the
wonder-working roots there is the familiar mandrake of human shape, credited,
in virtue of that resemblance, with magic power. In Umbria, where the
peasants seek to nourish the consumptive on rosebuds and dew, the mothers
take their children, wasted by sickness, to some boundary stone, perchance
once sacred to Hermes, and pray to God to stay the illness or end the
sufferer's life. The Cheroki make a decoction of the cone-flower for weak
eyes because of the fancied resemblance of that plant to the strong-sighted
eye of the deer; and they also drink an infusion of the tenacious burrs
of the common beggars' lice, an American species of the genus Desmodium,
to strengthen the memory. To ensure a fine voice, they boil crickets,
and drink the liquor. In Suffolk and other parts of these islands, a common
remedy for warts is to secretly pierce a snail or dodman with a gooseberry-bush
thorn, rub the snail on the wart, and then bury it, so that, as it decays
the wart may wither away.
Chinese doctors administer the head, middle
or roots of plants, as the case may be, to cure the complaints of their
patients in the head body, or legs. And with the practice of the Zulu
medicine-man, who takes the bones of the oldest bull or dog of the tribe,
giving scrapings of these to the sick, so that their lives may b prolonged
to old age, [f] we may compare
that of doctors in the seventeenth century, who with lest logic, but perchance
unconscious humour, gave their patients pulverised mummy to prolong their
years. [g] 'Mummie,' says Sir Thomas
Browne, 'is become merchandise. Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold
for balsams.' [h]
In Plutarch's Roman Questions, which
Dr. Jevons, in his valuable preface to the reprint of Philemon Holland's
translation, [i] remarks 'may fairly
be said to be the earliest formal treatise written on the subject of folk-lore,'
reference is made to the Roman customs of not completely clearing the
table of food, and 'never putting foorth the light of a lampe, but suffering
it to goe out of the owne accord.' These obviously come under the head
of sympathetic magic, 'being safeguards against starvation and darkness.'
In Melanesia, if a man wounds another with an arrow, he will drink hot
juices and chew irritating leaves to bring about agony to the wounded,
and he will keep his bow taut, pulling it at intervals to cause nerve-tension
and tetanus in his victim. Here, though wide seas between them roll, we
may compare the same philosophy of things at work. The 'sympathetic powder'
used by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century was believed to cure
a wound if applied to the sword that inflicted it; and, to-day, the Suffolk
farmer keeps the sickle with which he has cut himself free from rust,
so that the wound may not fester. Here, too, lies the answer to the question
that puzzled Plutarch. 'What is the reason that of all those things which
be dedicate and consecrated to the gods, the custome is a Rome, that onely
the spoiles of enemies conquered in the warres are neglected and suffered
to run to decay in processe of time: neither is ther any reverence done
unto them, nor repaired be they at any time when they wax olde?' Of course
the custom is the outcome of the belief that the enemy's power waned as
his armour rusted away.
Equally puzzling to Plutarch was the custom
among Roman women 'of the most noble an auncient houses' to 'carry little
moones upon their shoes.' These were of the nature of amulets, designed
to deceive the lunacy-bringing moon spirit, so that it might enter the
crescent charm instead of the wearer. 'The Chaldeans diverted the spirit
of disease from the sick man by providing an image in the likeness of
the spirit to attract the plague.' [j]
'Make of it an image in his likeness (i.e. of Namtar, the plague); apply
it to the living flesh of his body (i.e. of the sick man), may the malevolent
Namtar who possesses him pass into the image.' [k]
But the reverse effect was more frequently the aim. A Chaldean tablet
records the complaint of some victim, that 'he who enchants images has
charmed away my life by image'; and Ibn Khaldun, an Arabian writer of
the fourteenth century, describes how the Nabathean sorcerers of the Lower
Euphrates made an image of the person whom they plotted to destroy. They
transcribed his name on his effigy, uttered magic curses over it, and
then, after divers other ceremonies, left the evil spirits to complete
the fell work. [l] In ancient Egyptian
belief the ka of a living person could be transferred to a wax image by
the repetition of formulae and there is no break in the long centuries
between Accadian magic, which so profoundly influenced the West, and the
practice of injuring a man through his image, which flourishes to-day.
The Ojibways believe that 'by drawing the figure of any person in sand
or clay, or by considering any object as the figure of a person, and then
pricking it with a sharp stick or other weapon, or doing anything that
would be done to the living body to cause pain or death, the person thus
represented will suffer likewise.' [m] King
James I., in his Daemonology Book's ch. v., speaks of 'the devil teaching
how to make pictures of wax or clay, that by roasting thereof the persons
that they bear the name of may be continually melted or dried away by
sickness; and, as showing the continuity of the idea, there are exhibited
in the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, besides similar objects from the
Straits Settlements, a 'Corp Creidh' or 'clay body' from the Highlands,
and a pig's heart from Devonshire, with pins stuck in them.
The assumed correspondence between physical
phenomena and human actions is further shown in Dr Johnson's observation,
when describing his visit to the Hebrides, that the peasants expect better
crops by sowing their seed at the new moon; and he recalls from memory
a precept annually given in the almanack, 'to kill hogs when the moon
is waxing, that the bacon may prove the better in boiling.' With the ancient
Roman custom of throwing images of the corn-spirit (doubtless substitutes
of actual human offerings) into the river, so that the crops might be
drenched with rain, we may compare the practice of the modern Servians
and Thessalians, who strip a little girl naked, but wrap her completely
in leaves and flowers, and then dance and sing round her, while bowls
of water are poured over her to make the rain come. The life of man pulsates
with the great heart of nature in many a touching superstition, as in
the belief in the dependence of the earth's fertility on the vigour of
the tree-spirit incarnated in the priest-king [n]
in the group which connects the waning of the days with the decline of
human years; and, pathetically enough, in the widespread notion, of which
Dickens makes use in David Copperfield, that life goes out with the ebb-tide.
'I was on the point of asking him if he knew
me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly,
with a pleasant smile, "Barkis is willin'."
'And, it being low water, he went out with
The general idea has only to be decked ii
another garb to fit the frame of mind which still reserves some pet sphere
of nature for the operation of the special and the arbitrary. 'The narrower
the range of man's knowledge of physical causes, the wider is the field
which he hat to fill up with hypothetical causes of a metaphysical or
We must not pass from these examples of belief
in sympathetic connection, drawn from home at well as foreign sources,
without reference to its significance in connection with food outside
the prohibitions which are usually explained by the totem, that is, abstinence
from the plant or animal which is regarded as the tribal ancestor.
Captain Wells, who was killed near Chicago
in 1812, and who was celebrated for his valour among the Indians, was
cut up into many parts, which were distributed among the allied tribes,
so that all might have the opportunity of getting a taste of the courageous
soldier. For it is a common belief among barbaric folk that by eating
the flesh of a brave man a portion of his courage is absorbed. The Botecudos
sucked the blood of living victims that they might imbibe spiritual force,
and among the Brazilian natives the first food given to a child, when
weaning it, was the flesh of an enemy. [o] Cannibalism,
the origin of which is probably due to a scarcity of animal food, therefore
acquires this superadded motive, in which also lies the explanation of
the eating of, or abstaining from, the flesh of certain animals. The lion's
flesh gives courage, the deer's flesh causes timidity; and in more subtle
form of the same idea, barbaric hunters will abstain from oil lest the
game slip through their fingers. Contrariwise, the Hessian lad thinks
that he may escape the conscription by carrying a baby girl's cap in his
pocket: a symbolic way of repudiating manhood. [p]
Most suggestive of all is the extension of
the idea to the eating of the slain god, whereby his spirit is imbibed,
and communion with the unseen secured. To quote Mr. Frazer, the savage
believes that 'by eating the body of the god he shares in the god's attributes
and powers; and when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body;
when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so, by
eating the bread and drinking the wine, the worshipper partakes of the
real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rite
of a vine-god, like Dionysus, is not an act of revelry; it is a solemn
sacrament.' [q] Experience shows
that people possessing intelligence above the ordinary often fail to see
the bearing of one set of facts upon another set, especially if the application
can be' made to their traditional beliefs, whether these are only mechanically
held, or ardently defended. It is, therefore, not wholly needless to point
out that Mr. Frazer's explanation is to be extended to the rites attaching
to Christianity, transubstantiation being, laterally [r]
or lineally, the descendant of the barbaric idea
of eating the god, whereby the communicant becomes a 'partaker of the
divine nature.' In connection with this we may cite Professor Robertson
Smith's remark, that a notable application of the idea of eating the flesh
or drinking the blood of another being, so that a man absorbs its nature
or life into his own, is the rite of blood-brotherhood, the simplest form
of which is in two men opening their veins and sucking one another's blood.
'Thenceforth their lives are not two, but one. ' [s]
Among the Unyamuezi the ceremony is performed by cutting incisions in
each other's legs and letting the blood trickle together. [t]
Fuller reference. to this widely diffused rite will,
however, have more fitting place later on, when treating of the custom
of the exchange of names which, as will be seen, often goes with it. Belief
in virtue inhering in the dead man's body involves belief in virtue in
his belongings, in which is the key to the belief in the efficacy of relics
as vehicles of supernatural power. Here the continuity is clearly traceable.
There is no fundamental difference between the savage who carries about
with him the skull-bones of his ancestor as a charm or seat of oracle,
and the Buddhist who places the relics of holy men beneath the tope, or
the Catholic who deposits the fragments of saints or martyrs within the
altar which their presence sanctifies; while the mother, treasuring her
dead child's lock of hair, witnesses to the vitality of feelings drawn
from perennial springs in human nature. Well-nigh every relic which the
Church safeguards beneath her shrines, or exhibits, at stated seasons,
for the adoration of the crowd, is spurious, [u]
yet no amount of ridicule thrown on these has impaired the credulity whose
strength lies in the dominance of the wish to believe over the desire
to know. [v]
Stoorie' the widow and the witch 'watted thooms' over their bargain.
Man's saliva plays a smaller, but by no means inactive, part in his superstitions.
A goodly-sized book might be written on the history and ethnic distribution
of the customs connected with it. Employed as vehicle of blessing or cursing,
of injury or cure, by peoples intellectually as far apart as the Jews,
the South Sea Islanders, the medieval Christians, and the Central Africans
of to-day, the potencies of this normally harmless secretion have been
most widely credited. [w] Among
ourselves it is a vehicle of one of the coarsest forms of assault, or
the degenerate representative of the old luck-charm in the spitting on
money by the cabman or the costermonger. Among certain barbaric races,
however, the act expresses the kindliest feeling and the highest compliment.
Consul Petherick says that a Sudanese chief, after grasping his hand,
spat on it, and then did the like to his face, a form of salute which
the consul returned with interest, to the delight of the recipient. Among
the Masai the same custom is universal; and while it is bad form to kiss
a lady, it is comme il faut to spit on her.[x] Authority
who reports this adds an account of certain generative virtues with which
saliva, especially if administered by a white man, is accredited. [y]
But it is as a prophylactic, notably in the form
of fasting spittle, and as a protection against sorcery and all forms
of black magic, that we meet with frequent references to it in ancient
writers, and in modern books of travel. 'Spittle,' says Brand, 'was esteemed
a charm against all kinds of fascination, [z]
notably against the evil eye, the remedy for which, still in vogue among
the Italians, is to spit three times upon the breast, as did the urban
maiden in Theocritus when she refused her rustic wooer. It came out in
the course of a murder trial at Philippopolis, that the Bulgarians believe
that spitting gives immunity from the consequences of perjury. [aa]
An example of its use in benediction occurs, as when the Abomel of Alzpirn
spat on his clergy and laity; but more familiar are the cases of its application
in baptism and name-giving. Seward says that 'the custom of nurses lustrating
the children by spittle was one of the ceremonies used on the Dies Nominalis,
the day the child was named; so that there can be no doubt of the Papists
deriving this custom from the heathen nurses and grandmothers. They have
indeed christened it, as it were, by flinging in some Scriptural expressions;
but then they have carried it to a more filthy extravagance by daubing
it on the nostrils of adults as well as of children.' [ab]
Ockley tells that when Hasan was born, his grandfather,
Mohammed, spat in his mouth as he named him; and Mungo Park thus describes
the name-giving ceremony among the Mandingo people. 'A child is named
when it is seven or eight days old. The ceremony commences by shaving
the head. The priest offers a prayer, in which he solicits the blessing
of God upon the child and all the company, and then whispering a few sentences
in the child's ear, spits three times in his face, after which, pronouncing
his name aloud, be returns the child to its mother.'
All which, of course, has vital connection
with the belief in inherent virtue in saliva, and therefore with the widespread
group of customs which have for their object the prevention of its falling
within the power of the sorcerer. Suabian folk-medicine prescribes that
the saliva should at once be trodden into the ground lest some evil-disposed.
person use it for sorcery. As the result of extensive acquaintance with
the North American Indians, Captain Bourke says that all of them are careful
to spit into their cloaks or blankets and Kane adds his testimony that
the natives of Columbia River are never seen to spit without carefully
stamping out the saliva. This they do lest an enemy should find it, and
work injury through it. The chief officer of the 'king' of Congo receives
the royal saliva in a rag, which he doubles up and kisses; while in Hawaii
the guardianship of the monarch's expectorations was intrusted only to
a chief of high rank, who held the dignified office of spittoon-bearer
to the king, and who, like his fellow-holders of the same trust under
other Polynesian rulers, buried the saliva beyond the reach of malicious
medicine-men. Finally, as bearing on the absence of any delimiting lines
between a man's belongings, there may be cited Brand's reference to Debrio.
He 'portrays the manners and ideas of the continent, and mentions that
upon those hairs which come out of the head in combing they spit thrice
before they throw them away.' [ac]
The reluctance of savages to have their portraits taken is explicable when brought into relation with the group of confused ideas under review. Naturally, the man thinks that virtue has gone out of him, that some part of his vulnerable self is put at the mercy of his fellows, when he sees his 'counterfeit presentment' on a sheet of paper, or peering from out magic glass. The reluctance of unlettered people among ourselves to have their likenesses taken is not uncommon. From Scotland to Somerset [ad] there comes evidence about the ill-health or ill-luck which followed the camera, of folks who 'took bad and died' after being 'a-tookt.' These facts will remove any surprise at Catlin's well known story of the accusation brought against him by the Yukons that he had made buffaloes scarce by putting so many pictures of them in his book. [ae]
[a] Travels in West Africa, p.
[b] The Golden Bough, vol. i p.
[c] Codrington, Melanesians, p.
[d] Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria,
vol. i. p. 468.
[e] Grimm, Teutonic Mythology,
[f] Bishop Callaway, Zulu Nursery Tales,
[g] Lang's Myth, Ritual, and Religion,
vol. i. p. 96. The inclusion of mummy in the old pharmacopoeias was perhaps
due to certain virtues in the aromatics used in embalming.
[h] Urn-Burial, iii. p. 46 (collected
[i] Bibliothéque de Carabas,
vol. vii. (Nutt, 1892).
[j] Jevons, Plutarch's Romane Questions,
[k] Lenormant, Chaldean Magic,
[l] lb. p. 63.
[m] Dorman, Primitive Superstitions.
[n] See infra, p. 150.
[o] Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion,
vol i. p. 88.
[p] Dorman, Primitive Superstitions,
[q] Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol.
i. p. 107.
[r] Golden Bough, vol. i. p. 89.
[s] See, on this matter, Professor Percy
Gardner's tract on the Origin of the Lord's Supper, pp. 18-20 (Macmillan
[t] Religion of the Semites, p.
[u] Speke, Journal of Discovery of
the Source of the Nile, p. 96
[v] On the manufacture of and traffic
in relics, see Froude, Erasmus, p. 128; Gregorovius, Hist. of
Rome in the Middle Ages, vol. ii. pp. 73-77; iii. pp. 72-75.
[w] In John Heywood's Enterlude of
the Four P's (a Palmer, a Pardoner, a 'Poticary, and a Pedlar), the
author, a sixteenth-century writer of Morality Plays, did not allow his
staunch Catholicism to hinder his flinging some coarse satire at the relic-mongers.
He represents the Pardoner as exhibiting, among other curios, the jaw-bone
of All Saints, a buttock-bone of the Holy Ghost, and the great toe of
[x] Art, on 'Saliva Superstitions,' by
Fanny D. Bergen, American Folk-Lore Soc. Journal, vol. iii. p.
[y] Joseph Thomson, Through Masai Land,
[z] Popular Antiquities, iii. p.
228 (Hazlitt's edition).
[aa] Westminster Gazette, 28th
[ab] Conformity between Popery and
Pagnism, p. 14; Brand, iii.
[ac] Pop. Antiq. iii. p. 231.
[ad] Napier, Folklore of West Scotland,
p. 142; Elworthy, Evil Eye, p. 86.
[ae] Dorman, p. 140.
Clodd, Edward. Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale. London: Duckworth and Co. 1898.