Open main menu

In the early days of exploration of prehistoric relics little care was bestowed on discriminating the several layers of deposit through which the spade cut, and what was found was thrown up into a common heap, and little account was taken as to the depths at which the several deposits lay.

I had the chance in 1892 of visiting La Laugerie Basse on the Vézère in company with Dr Massénat and M. Philibert Lalande, who conducted the exploration after MM. Christy and Lartet had abandoned the field. They had to carry on the work with very limited means, but they arrived, nevertheless, at conclusions which had escaped the earlier explorers.

Dr Massénat had driven a shaft down beside the bed of the peasant who lived under the rock, and who, when I saw him, was bedridden. His children, pretty brown-eyed boys and girls, bare-footed and bare-legged, were there, and I gave them some sous. As the dwelling was under the rock and the floor was earth, the refuse of the meals of the family went to raise the deposit along with particles of chalk falling from above. One of my sous, bearing the effigy of Napoleon III, fell, and in the scuffle that ensued disappeared under the soil. By the sick man's bed, as already stated, was a shaft driven down to the virgin soil, and this passed through a layer very modern, in which to this day my sou lies, then through fragments of Medieval crockery, next Merovingian relics, then Roman scraps of iron and coins, below that remains of the Bronze Age, below that again those of the Polished Stone Period. Then ensued a gap--a tract of sterile soil; and then all at once began a rich bed of deposits--this time distinct from the rest in that they pertained to a people who were contemporary with the mammoth, the cave--bear, and the reindeer in France. Finally in this lay the skeleton of a man whose thigh had been crushed by a fallen mass of stone from the rock that arched over it, and who had been clothed in skins ornamented with shells from the Atlantic coast.

From this it may be seen how important it is to differentiate the strata at which lie the remains of ancient man.

The same may be said with regard to folklore. A great amount had been collected into heaps, but no attempt had been made on a large scale to sift and sort out what had been found, and determine to what layer in our population they belong. The grouping is of the crudest. Birth, marriage, death lore go into their several piles, so do ghost and witch stories, and tales of dwarfs. What we really want to know is, Whence came the several items found?

Here, in Great Britain, we form an amalgam of several distinct races, and each race has contributed something towards the common stock of folklore. In my own neighbourhood we have two distinct types of humanity: one with high cheekbones, dusky skin, dark hair, full of energy, unscrupulous as to the meum and tuum, moneymaking, by every conceivable means. The other is fair-haired, clear-skinned, slow, steady, honourable, with none of the alertness of the other. I can point out a family: the eldest girl, illegitimate, is wild, indisciplined, dark-haired and sallow-skinned. The mother, of the same type, married a fair-haired man, and the children are of mixed breed.

Through intermarriage there is an importation of the superstitious beliefs of the lower type into the higher. This has been going on for a long time. A dominating race absorbs some of the convictions of the race it has subdued; and we generally find that the former regard the latter with some awe, as possessed of magical and mysterious powers beyond its own range of acquisitions.

We cannot say that a certain bit of folklore is Celtic and not pre--Celtic because picked up where there is fusion of blood, any more than we can say that a piece of granite strewed upon alluvial soil or lying on limestone belongs to that on which it rests.

Mr Tyler and Mr Fraser, the great students in Comparative Folklore, have devoted their attention to the development and expansion of certain primitive beliefs and practices, but Mr Gomme, in his epoch-making book, Ethnology in Folklore (London 1892), was the first to my knowledge who pointed out the necessity of classification according to the beds whence the items of folklore came.

In this volume, which does not pretend to be more than a popular introduction to the study of the science, I have confined myself as much as possible to the beliefs of the peoples who occupied the British Isles, and have not gone like other writers to the usages of savages for explanation of customs and traditions, except very occasionally.

In some instances we can trace scraps of folklore back to whence they came. In the legends of several of the Irish saints we have them represented as floating over the sea on leaves. The idea is so odd and so preposterous--as there are in Ireland no leaves of any size that could be serviceable--that we are constrained to look back and see whether this be not an adaptation of a much earlier myth. Now, in an old Flemish poem on Brandaein, or St Brendan the Voyager, he meets on the ocean with a Thumbling seated on a leaf, floating, in one hand a pan, in the other a style. This latter he dipped into the sea, and from it let drops trickle into the pan. When the vessel was full he emptied it and renewed the process, and this he is condemned to continue doing till he has drained the ocean dry. Whence came this fantastic conception? It was brought from the original seats of the Aryan people in the East, for there Brahma is represented as floating over the deep on a lotus. And after the death of Brahma, when water overflowed the whole earth, then Vischnu sat, as a small child, on a fig-leaf, and floated on the wild sea, sucking the toe of his right foot.

In a wild and upland district in East Cornwall is the ancient mansion of the Trevelyans. It comprises a quadrangle with granite mullioned windows, and is entered through a handsome gate--house. At the time of the Commonwealth, here lived a Squire Peter Trevelyan; he was born in 1613 and died in 1705--there is nothing like being precise. He was a staunch Royalist, and a band of Roundhead soldiers was sent to arrest him. They came to the gate-house and rapped. Squire Trevelyan put his head out of the window above--they show you the very window to this day--and bade the crop-eared rascals be off, or he would send his lance-men after them and forcibly dislodge them. As they did not stir, he took a couple of beehives he had in the chamber over the gate and flung them among the troopers. The bees swarmed out, fell on and speedily dispersed them.

Andernach, on the Rhine, was engaged in incessant feud with the town of Linz; and one night it was attacked by the citizens of the rival town. The watchmen were asleep, so also the townsfolk; but two bakers' apprentices were engaged at the oven, when, hearing a sound outside the walls, they mounted to the parapets and saw the enemy engaged in planting ladders. Instantly they caught up some beehives that were on the walls and flung them among the assailants. The bees rushed out, and proved such terrible lanzknects that the Linzers were routed and sent flying helter-skelter home. Can the story be doubted? The citizens of Andernach point to the figures of the two youths carved in stone at one of the portals, and tell you that this was done in acknowledgment of their achievement.

At Ballyrawney in Ireland a story is told to this effect. About eight centuries ago a powerful chief, on the point of waging war against the head of another clan, seeing the inferiority of his troops, begged St Gobnat to assist him, and this was in a field near where the battle was about to be fought. In this field was a beehive, and the saint granted the request by turning the bees into spearmen, who issued from the hive with all the ardour of warriors, fell on the enemy, and put him to rout. After the battle the conquering chief revisited the spot whence he had received such miraculous aid, when he found that the straw hive had been metamorphosed into an article shaped like a helmet and composed of brass. This relic remains to this day in testimony to the truth of the story, and is in the possession of the O'Hierlyhie family, and is held by the Irish peasantry in such profound veneration that they will travel several miles to procure a drop of water from it, which, if given to a dying relative or friend, they imagine will secure their sure admission into heaven. Crofton Croker, who tells this story, adds that not long ago some water from this brazen beehive was administered to a dying priest by his coadjutor, in compliance with the popular superstition. These stories were not wafted from one place to another, but derived from a common origin when the bees were regarded as friends and protectors of a house or a town. They went by the name of "the birds of God" or "Mary's birds" in Germany, and were supposed to be in communication with the Spirit. When a master died in a house, his heir went before the hive and announced the death to the bees and entreated them to remain and protect him. In like manner, when a young couple became engaged they informed the bees and requested their favour. To some extent they would seem to have been regarded as the household spirits guarding a family, and they were always treated with reverence. A hive might never be sold, only given.

Now that we have sugar supplied so freely, we can hardly realise to what an extent honey was formerly required, not only for sweetening cakes, but also for the brewing of metheglin, or mead. It was the drink of the gods; and if a child was to be cast out to die, if a compassionate neighbour touched its lips with honey the heathen father dare not allow it to perish. This occurs in the life of St Liudger, whose mother Liafburg was saved by this means when the father had ordered her to be drowned.

There be certain superstitions not easy to be explained. Actors and actresses have a strong prejudice against performing in green dresses. I have heard a cultured man in Yorkshire explain, quite seriously, that the disturbed condition in England of late, the strikes, the labour unrest, and suffragist outrages, were due to the introduction of the green halfpenny stamp; and green throughout England and Scotland is regarded as an unlucky colour. Mr Henderson, in his Northern Folklore, says: "Green, ever an ominous colour in the Lowlands of Scotland, must on no account be worn at a wedding. The fairies, whose chosen colour it is, would resent the insult and destroy the wearer. Whether on this account or on any other I know not, but the notion of ill-luck in connection with it is widespread. I have heard of mothers in the South of England who absolutely forbade their daughters to wear anything of this colour, and who avoided it even in the furniture of their homes." The real reason is that green being the colour of the elves and pixies, if worn gives these imps a power over those who have assumed their colour; and renders the bride in "gown of green" liable to be carried off to one of their underground abodes.

There is a very curious story told by William of Newburgh, who was born in the reign of King Stephen and wrote his Chronicle down to 1198; it is also found in Raduif of Coggeshall, who wrote his English History in 1223.

In Suffolk, at Woolpit (wolf-pits originally), near Stowmarket, a boy and his sister were found by the inhabitants of that place near the mouth of a pit. They were formed like other children, but the whole of their skin was of a green colour. No one could understand their speech. When they were brought as curiosities to the house of Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes, they wept bitterly. Bread and other victuals were set before them, but they would not touch them. At length, when some beans just cut, with their stalks, were brought into the house, they made signs with great avidity that they should be given to them. When they were brought, they opened the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them, they wept anew. When those who were present saw this, they opened the pods and showed them the naked beans. They fed on these with great delight, and for a long time tasted no other food. The boy, however, was always languid and depressed, and he died within a short while. The girl enjoyed constant good health; and becoming accustomed to various kinds of food, lost completely that green colour and gradually recovered the sanguine habit of her whole body. She was afterwards baptized and lived for many years in the service of the knight, but was rather loose and wanton in her conduct. William of Newburgh says that he long hesitated to believe the story, but was at length overcome by the weight of evidence. At length the girl married a man at Lenna (Lynn?) and lived many years. She told that she and her brother came from an underground land where there was no sun, but enjoyed a degree of light like twilight in summer. Whatever credence may be put in her story, it seems that there is some truth in the tale, and that these two children belonged to the Elfin or Dwarf stock that still lingered in the land. The green hue is probably an addition, so as to make them of Fairy stock. One can see now that there was a reason for the prejudice against green as being th colour of the strange people so far below the Aryan occupants of the land in intellect and culture.

That some of the myths of dwarfs "are connected with tradition of real indigenous or hostile tribes is settled beyond question by th evidence brought forward by Grimm, Nilsson and Hanusch. With a; the difficulty of analysing the mixed nature of the dwarfs in European folklore, and judging how far they are elves, or gnomes or suchlike nature spirits, and how far human beings in a mystic aspect, it is impossible not to recognise this latter element in th kindly or mischievous aborigines of the land, with their specie language, and religion, and costume."[1]

As a farmer marks his sheep, and his horse turned out on the moors by a hole punched in the ear, or a snip, so persons ar marked out as pertaining to the gods. Circumcision tharks a pertaining to Jehovah or to Allah. The tonsure marks the priest c monk as belonging to God; and the green colour worn is a sign that the person or thing so indicated is given over to the Elves.

In trying to allot the various superstitions dealt with in these pages, it must be borne in mind that we have to do with a pre-Aryan people, as well as Aryan people who had long passed out on the earliest and the rudest forms of myth-making and ceremonial and animistic beliefs. They brought their convictions with them to our island, but in a modified form; and the modifications were due either to advance in culture or to contact with other peoples whose opinions were different from their own. Moreover, each stock, pre-Aryan and Aryan, brought with it some elements that pertained to a condition of mind and belief that had been common to both, but out of which both had grown.

The field of folklore is so extensive and so interesting, that it cannot be ploughed up by one hand and its riches revealed. All that I have attempted to do is to take a few salient points in it and show to what conclusions they lead, and as far as might be I have drawn on my own experience in collecting the folklore of the West of England.

  1. Tyler (E.B.) Primitive Culture, 1871, 1. 348