A Book of Folklore/Chapter 4
We cannot expect to find reminiscences of the gods and goddesses of the primitive Silurian or Ivernian race that peopled Great Britain and Ireland, or even of the Celtic and Roman divinities, save in a most attenuated form. Even the saints of the Catholic Church who filled the religious horizon in England and Scotland for a thousand years have faded from it. But we will endeavour to discover some traces, and some do remain
The prehistoric rude-stone building race certainly did have a goddess of Death, and probably one of Generation. In the subterranean excavations made in Le Petit Mona, by the Baron de Baye, the necropolises were guarded by rude figures representing a female cut in the chalk, and also by a representation of a stone hammer. The female figure has also been found cut on limestone in the department of Gard, on dolmens. In Brittany, in the covered alleys, there are numerous figures of stone axes or hammers, and also a curious shield-like representation that may possibly take the place of the female figure found in the chalk tombs, but which it was difficult to execute in granite. On one of the slabs of a dolmen, near Loudun, that I examined, was cut a celt, and a cdt is also cut on the huge upper stone or table of the famous dolmen of Confolens. In Brittany, where the incoming Celts from Wales and Cornwall overflowed the land and submerged the earlier peoples, these former have been largely influenced by the people they treated as belonging to a lower stratum of civilisation.
Here the cult of Death has acquired extraordinary importance, and M. Anatole Ie Braz, a Breton folklorist, has written a treatise on it, and collected the stories he has heard relative to it. In Leon Death may be said to reign in undivided supremacy and tinctures all existence, every amusement, every occupation. La Mont is in Breton the Ankou, who travels about the country in a cart picking up souls.
At night a wain is heard coming along the road with a creaking axle. It halts at a door, and that is the summons. A spirit passes, and the Ankou moves on. Marillier, who wrote a preface to M. le Braz's work, says that Lower Brittany is before all else the Land of the Dead. "Souls do not remain enclosed in the tombs, they wander at night on the high-roads and in the lonely lanes. They haunt the fields and the moors, thick as blades of grass or as grains of sand on the shore. They revisit their former habitations in the silence of the night, and from the lis-clos they can be observed crouched around the hearth, where the brands are expiring." Certain mysterious rites are observed to which the curé is not invited, and where some old man is ministrant, on All Souls' even, on some granite-strewn height, about a fire. M. le Curé is discreet enough not to enquire too closely what goes on.
The wagon of the Ankou is like the death-coach that one hears of in Devon and in Wales. It is all black, with black horses drawing it, driven by a headless coachman. A black hound runs before it, and within sits a lady--in the neighbourhood of Okehampton and Tavistock she is supposed to be a certain Lady Howard, but she is assuredly an impersonification of Death, for the coach halts to pick up the spirits of the dying.
Now pray step in! my lady saith;
Now pray step in and ride.
I thank thee, I had rather walk
Than gather to thy side.
The wheels go round without a sound
Or tramp or turn of wheels.
As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,
Along the carriage steals.
I'd rather walk a hundred miles
And run by night and day,
Than have that carriage halt for me,
And hear my lady say--
Now pray step in, and make no din,
Step in with me to ride;
There's room, I trow, by me for you,
And all the world beside.
Of course the notion of the death-coach is comparatively modern. It is an expansion of the ancient idea of Death coming to fetch the departing soul. Presumably the earlier idea was of a bier. There is a remarkable account in Mrs Henry Wood's novel of The Shadow of Ashlydiat that gives us a notion of what the earlier superstition was. She is very emphatic over it that it is a real fact, and a fact of which she herself was witness.
Opposite to the ash trees on the estate of Ashlydiat there extended a waste plain, totally out of keeping with the high cultivation around. It looked like a piece of rude common. Bushes of furze, broom and other stunted shrubs grew upon it. At the extremity, opposite to the ash trees, there arose a high archway, a bridge built of grey stones. Beyond the archway was a low round building, looking like an isolated windmill without sails.
Strange to say, the appellation of this waste piece of land, with its wild bushes, was the "Dark Plain". Why? The plain was not dark; it was not shrouded; it stood out, broad and open, in the full glare of sunlight. That certain dark tales had been handed down with the appellation is true; and these may have given rise to the name. Immediately before the archway, for some considerable space, the ground was entirely bare. Not a blade of grass, not a shrub grew on it--or, as the story went, would grow. It was on this spot that the appearance, the Shadow, would sometimes be seen. Whence the Shadow came, whether it was ghostly or earthly, whether those learned in science could account for it by Nature's laws, I am unable to say. If you ask me to explain it, I cannot. If you ask me, why then do I write about it, I can only answer, because I have sat and seen it. I have seen it with my own unprejudiced eyes; I have sat and watched it, in its strange stillness; I have looked about and around it--low down, high up--for some substance ever so infinitesimal that might cast its shade and enable me to account for it; and I have looked in vain. Had the moon been behind the archway, instead of behind me, that might have furnished a loophole of explanation.
No; there was nothing whatever, so far as human eyes--and I can tell you that keen ones and sceptical ones have looked at it--to cast the shade, or to account for it. There, as you sat and watched, stretched out the plain, in the moonlight, with its low, trunklike bushes, its clear space of bare land, the archway rising beyond it. But on the spot of bare land, before the archway, would rise the Shadow, not looking as if it were a Shadow cast on the ground, but a palpable fact; as if a bier, with its two bending mourners, actually stood there in the substance. I say that I cannot explain it, or attempt to explain it; but I do say that there is it to be seen. Not often; sometimes not for years together. It is called the Shadow of Ashlydiat; and superstition told that its appearance foreshadowed the approach of calamity, whether of death or of other evil, to the Godolphins. The greater the evil that was coming upon them, the plainer and more distinct would be the appearance of the Shadow. Rumour went that once, on the approach of some terrible misfortune, it had been seen for months and months before, whenever the moon was sufficiently bright.
I have quoted this at length, as it comes from Worcestershire, on the borders of Wales; and as it presents an earlier phase of the superstition than that of the death-coach.
There are stories in Henderson's Northern Folklore of coaches with headless horsemen, but I lay no stress on them, as these are evidently late developments of an ancient belief that Death, the Ankou, went about picking up souls as they departed.
To turn now to the celt or hammer figured on the graves of prehistoric peoples.
Both Strabo and Herodotus speak of peoples in Asia who, when their parents grew aged and useless, killed them. This was absolutely averse from the customs of the Aryans, who made the family and the clan a sacred centre. But it was quite possible with the non-Aryan natives before Britain was invaded by the Celts.! Aubrey has preserved an account of how in churches hung behind. the door "the holy mawle", with which sons might knock on the~ head their parents when they became effete and of no more use; and; in a prose romance, Sir Percival congratulates himself that he is no in Wales, where sons pull their fathers out of bed and kill them. A Count Schalenberg rescued an old man who was being beaten to death by his sons, in Prussia, and a Countess Mansfield in the 14t century saved another in similar circumstances.
Now, this holy mawle, I take it, is no other than the celt or hammer that is figured on the dolmens and tombs of the prehistoric underlying population of Gaul and Britain. The Aryans would never have thought of putting their parents to death, though the parents might think it time to precipitate themselves down the aeternis stapi when provisions ran short. But that was a different matter. Suicide among the Norsemen was a self-sacrifice to Odin, and parent murder was never compulsory on the children.
Passing from the cult of the goddess of death, we come to that of the deity of life. I have at a rifle-shot from my own house a menhir, with a hollow cup in its top. The farmers were wont to drive their cows under it, and let the water from this cup dribble over their backs, under the impression that it would increase their yield of milk. My grandfather was so annoyed at this that he threw it down and buried it. I have dug it up and re-erected it, but the old superstition connected with it is dead.
In Brittany are monoliths about which women dance in a state of nudity, and rub themselves against them in hopes of thereby becoming mothers. Near Dinan is the stone of St Samson. Girls slide down it, as it is on an incline, and if they can reach the bottom without a hitch, they believe that they will be happy mothers when married.
Some of these stones are pitted with artificially cut hollows. The stones are washed, to produce rain, are anointed, and the cup-marks filled with butter and honey. Most in France are now surmounted with crucifixes, or have a niche cut in their faces into which an image of the Virgin is inserted. One in Brittany, at Tregastel, has carved on it and painted a crucifix and the instruments of the passion. Such are all the deities that we can safely say were culted by the prehistoric race that lies below the peoples that successively overlaid them, of which any trace remains in modern folklore.
We come next to Aryan folklore, and to that in which there is Some reminiscence of the gods our ancestors once worshipped. It is remarkable that two common names for the devil should enshrine those of ancient deities, one Celtic and the other Teutonic or Norse.
These are "The Deuce" and "Old Nick".
We learn from St Augustine that the Gauls believed in "certain demons they called Duses," and Isidore of Seville describes them as hairy. The word implies something higher than a mere satyr, for its equivalents are the Greek Theos and Zeus, the Latin Deus, the Sanskrit Djous, the Anglo-Saxon Tiu from whom we get the name of the third day of the week, Tuesday. The corresponding god among the Germans was Zio, and among the Norsemen Tyr.
"As for the gods of the heathen they are but devils," said the psalmist, and in this light did the Christian fathers and priests regard the gods. They were cast down from their thrones and treated as demons who had hitherto beguiled the heathen. Thus Tiu, or the Deuce, from being the god of the firmament and clear sky became a black devil, with the legs crooked as those of a goat.
There is a great cliff of granite rising precipitately above the River Plym that debouches at Plymouth, which goes by the name of the Dewerstone, or the rock of Tiu or of Tyr. On the top of this crag the Wild Huntsman is said to be frequently seen along with his fire-breathing Wish-hounds, and his horn is heard ringing afar over the moors, and as he chases the yelping of his hounds may be heard. He hunts human souls. Two old ladies who lived at Shaw, near by, assured me they had often heard his horn and the yelping of the pack. A farmer was riding at night over Dartmoor when there came up alongside of him a mysterious hunter with his hounds running before him. The farmer, who had been drinking at the Saracen's Head Inn at Two Bridges, shouted, "Had good luck--much sport? Give me a hare." "Take it," replied the hunter, and flung something to the~~ fanner, who caught it and held it before him to see what had been cast him. Half an hour later he arrived at his house, and shouted for'; a servant to bring out a lantern and hold his horse. When a man arrived, "Give me the lantern," said he, "and let me see what I have; got." He was obeyed, and the farmer raising the light saw on his, other arm his own child dead. At the same moment it vanished. As in great consternation he was dismounting, the servant said to him: "Sorry to have to tell you, farmer, but your poor little boy is dead.",
"Sorry to have to tell you, farmer, but your poor little boy is dead." Children who die un-baptised join the hunt. Once two children were on a moor together; one slept, the other was awake. Suddenly the Wild Hunt went by. A voice called, "Shall we take it?" The answer came, "No, it will come of itself shortly." Next day the sleeper was dead.
Gervase of Tilbury says that in the thirteenth century, by full moon towards evening, the Wild Hunt was frequently seen in England, traversing forest and down. In the twelfth century it was called in England the Harlething. It appeared in the reign of Henry II, and was witnessed by many. At the head of the troop rode the British king Herla. He had been at the marriage-feast of a dwarf in a mountain. As he left the bridal hall, the host presented him with horses, hounds, and horn; also with a bloodhound, which was set on the saddle--bow before the King, and the troop was bidden not to dismount till the dog leaped down. On returning to his palace, the King learned that he had been absent two hundred years, which had passed as one night whilst he was in the mountains with the dwarf. Some of the retainers jumped off their horses, and fell to dust, but the King and the rest ride on till the bloodhound bounds from the saddle, which will be the Last Day.
Herla is, of course, the same as the German Erl-King, and the name has gone into a strange commutation as Harlequin, the magician who performs wonders with his bat at Christmas.
Belief in the Wild Hunt is general throughout Northern Europe, alike among Celtic and Teutonic peoples, because what has originated the superstition is a simple natural fact that has been wrongly explained. On the approach of winter flights of bean-geese come south from Scotland and the Isles, Iceland, and Scandinavia. They choose dark nights for their migrations, and utter a loud and very peculiar cry. A gentleman was riding alone near the Land's End on a still dark night, when the yelping cry broke out above his head So suddenly, and to all appearance so near, that he instinctively pulled up his horse as if to allow the pack to pass, the animal trembling violently at the unexpected sounds.
In Durham the Wild Hunt goes by the name of the Gabriel Hounds, and in Yorkshire it is the "Gabble retchit". I cannot explain the derivation. We may, I think, see in the wild huntsmen either the Teutonic god Tiu or Tyr, or else the Celtic Duse. "Old Nick" is none other than Woden, the chief god of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers, who has bequeathed to us the name of Wednesday. He was also called Hnikare or Nikarr. In Norway he has been degraded into a water-sprite of Nix.
Thor the Thunderer has left us his name in Thursday. According to Scandinavian belief he is red-bearded, and his hammer that he flings is the thunderbolt. A gentleman wrote to me in 1890:--
It was in the autumn of 1857 or 1858 that I had taken some quinine to a lad who lived with his old grandmother. On my next visit the old dame scornfully refused another bottle, and said she "knowed on a soight better cure for the ague than yon mucky stuff". With that she took me round to the bottom of the bed and showed me three horseshoes nailed there with a hammer placed crosswise upon them. On my expressing incredulity, she waxed wroth, and said: "Naay, lad, it's a chawm. I tak's t' mell (hammer) i' moy left haun and I mashys they shoon throice, and Oi sez, sez Oi:--
Feyther, Son, an' Holy Ghoast,
Naale the divil to this poast!
Throice I stroikes with holy crook,
Won for God an' won for Wod, an' one for
Theen, laad, whin the old un comes to shak him he wean't nivver git past you; you'ull fin' him saafe as t church steeple."
Could there be confusion worse confounded than this? The Holy Trinity invoked, and in the same breath God, Woden, and Loki--the very spirit of evil; and the Holy Crook and Thor's hammer treated as one and the same thing.
Upton Grey Vicarage, Winchfield.
Clearly here God takes the place of Thor; and the Triad--Thor, Woden and Loki--are equal with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Another interesting feature in this charm is that the ague is impersonated as an evil sprite, against whom the incantation is launched.
There is a shallow river, the Wulf, that runs through the parish of Broadwood Widger, in Devon. It discharges into the Thrustle, thence into the Lyd, and so into the Tamar. The Wuif is liable to sudden rises, and then becomes impassable, and was so till the County Council built a bridge. Previously one going to Broadwood, or leaving it to go east, was constrained to traverse a ford. Now it was believed, before the bridge was built, that there was a spirit of gigantic size who waited at the ford to carry foot-passengers over, and there is a woman still alive who insists she was so conveyed across. That this belief owes something to a picture of a gigantic St Christopher that may have been in the church, but of which no traces now remain, is possible enough; that fresco, if it ever existed, did not, in my opinion, originate the conviction. The bearer across the stream is in all probability some ancient god, not happily in this case turned into a devil. Now I am convinced that this giant who wades through the river is none other than Thor, for in Norse story he is constantly represented as wading through the waters, above all the great river that flows round the terrestrial globe. In the Younger Edda is the story of the battle between Thor and the giant Hrungnir. The latter fought with a stone club, which he flung at the Red-beard, who at the same moment cast his hammer. The two missiles met in mid air and the club flew in pieces, one struck Thor on the head and sank in. After Hrungnir had been killed, Thor went to visit the prophetess Groa, the wife of Oervandil, to have the stone extracted. She began her incantations, and Thor beginning to feel relief, in gratitude told her how that he had carried her husband over the River Elivagar, the great ice-stream that separates the realm of the giants from that of gods and men. Oervandil was conveyed across in a basket on his back whilst Thor waded across. Unhappily One toe of Oervandil protruded and got frostbitten, whereupon Thor cut it off and threw it up into heaven where it became a star. In the story of Hymir also Thor is represented as a wading god. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that St Christopher in Scandinavian lands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, has stepped into the place and assumed the attributes of Thor.
Friday takes its name from Fri or Frija the goddess, the wife of Woden, the mother-goddess, as also goddess of tillage. She has been represented as holding a plough drawn by young children, as she gathers to her the spirits of those who die in infancy. To a certain extent she is the goddess of love, and so is equated with Venus, who has given her name to Vendredi.
Plough Monday is a festival of the past. It took place on the first Monday after the Epiphany, when a plough was decorated, and ploughmen were disguised and wore white smocks; there was a piper, and one dressed in fur with a fox's skin drawn over his head. The whole party was led by one Bessy, who went about collecting contributions. Bessy took the place of FrI, and the man in skins represented Woden, who was her husband. So much we may conjecture, but we have no certain evidence to establish this.
Fri or Frija appears however again and again as the White Lady. And here I will mention a circumstance that to my mind seems conclusive.
On 28th April 1795, a young man whose relative lived in this parish was returning home after having been some years in America. He hired a horse in Tavistock and rode to Lew Trenchard. It was a clear moonlight night, and as he rode through Lew valley, he looked into a newly ploughed field, in which a plough had been left. On this was seated a lady in white satin, with long hair floating over her shoulders. Her face was uplifted and her eyes directed towards the moon, so that he had a full view of it. He recognised her at once as Madame Gould, and taking off his hat called out, "I wish you a very good night, Madame." She bowed in return and waved her hand. The man noticed the sparkle of her diamond rings as she did so,. On reaching his home, after the first greetings and congratulations, he said to his relatives, "What do you think? I have seen the strange Madame Gould sitting on a plough, this time of night, looking at the moon."
All who heard it stared, and a blank expression passed over their countenances. "Madame," said they, "was buried seven days ago in Lew Church."
On that night, 28th April, the moon was seven days old and it set at 1.35a.m. next day, approximately. Now the remarkable point in this story, which I heard from the family, is that Madame was seated on a plough; and the plough was the symbol of Fri.
For my own part, I believe that the tradition of a White Lady was older than Madame. It attached itself first to a certain Susanna Gould, who was married in 1729 to Peter, son of John Truscott, rector of Lew Trenchard. Her father and the rector had never been on good terms, and her father resented the marriage. However, it took place, and she died on her way back from church, in her white wedding garments, and was buried four days later.
Such a striking event naturally provoked attention, and the earlier tradition of a White Lady at once adhered to her, and clung to her till some sixty-six years later, when it became detached, and attached itself to another notable lady of the same family.
I have troubled the reader with this story only because I think the incident of sitting on the plough is important as connecting the White Lady of Lew Trenchard with Fri, the Anglo-Saxon goddess.
To the north of us, but still in the parish, is a deep and sombre valley, through which gurgles a small stream. The road to Bratton Clovelly descends into it; by the roadside was a cave, that has now been blocked. It was a common tradition that the White Lady was wont to be seen by night beside the stream, combing her long hair with a silver comb, and scooping up water in the hollow of her hand, pouring it over her head, and it fell down in drops of pearl. The comb and the falling drops are all tokens that this White Lady was no other than Fri.
If I were to give all the stories of White Ladies that exist, I would fill a thick volume; but they all derive from the one source indicated. The White Lady, as in the case of the Hohenzollerns, is a death-token, because Frija is a death--goddess, to whom go the souls of the departed. A woman was once gathering sticks near one of the castles of the Hohenzollems, named Schalksburg, when she missed her little son. After long search she found him and rebukec him for straying. "Do not scold, mother," said he; "a beautiful lady in white took me on her arm, and she gave me this wild rose." He showed his mother a pink dog--rose. She took the child home, and put the flower in water. After three days the rose withered, and with its withering the little boy was dead.
Saturday is the only day of the week that may take its name from a classic deity. In Italian it is Sabbato, Samedi in French, Sabado in Spanish and Portuguese, Samstag in German, formed out of the Latin Sabbatum; and this is from the Hebrew describing the day as one of rest. But the last day of the week among some Teutonic races has not been named after the Sabbath, but after a heathen deity. In Westphalia it is Saterdsas, Sâtersday in Anglo-Saxon, Saturdag in the Netherlands. Probably Saturn was taken as the equivalent of the Norse God Sutur, the black or seventh, not because evil, but as closing the age of the world. He seems to have left no traces in folklore, unless that he be identified with the Devil. But "Old Scratch" is one of the names by which the Evil One was designated, and which exactly agreed with the popular imagination of the appearance of Satan when he chose to show himself. For Skrati was the hairy wood faun of our forefathers, and resembled the satyr of the Romans, horned, and with legs like a goat's, and the lower portion of the body covered with hair. The name is found not only in English, Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Norse, but also among the Sclavonic peoples, the Bohemians, the Poles, and the Slavonians. Grimm could find no root for the name in the German vocabulary; but in Slavonic, skryto signifies to hide or keep in concealment, and this would well explain the characteristic of the satyr hiding in the woods and but rarely seen.
In an early version of the Psalms, in the place of the words "from the pestilence that walketh in darkness," in the 91st Psalm, we have "from the Bug that walketh in darkness." "A Bug," says Bayle, in his English Dictionary of 1755, is "an imaginary monster to frighten children with."
Each trembling leaf and whistling wind they hear,
As ghastly bug their hair on end doth rear,
wrote Spenser in the Faerie Queene. And Shakespeare uses the word several times. In The Taming of the Shrew: "Tush! tush! fear (frighten) boys with bugs." In The Winter's Tale: "The bug, which you would frighten me with, I seek." "We have a horror for uncouth monsters," wrote L'Estrange; "but upon experience, all these bugs grow familiar and easy to us." We use the word still in the form of Bogie and Bugbear and Bogart.
By its root we know that the word belongs to the same series of ideas as the Irish Phooka, the English Puck, the German SpUk, and our modern work Spook But whence came this form of the word? Sir Walter Scott, in Harold the Dauntless, makes Jutta, the outlaw's wife, by the Tyne, invoke Zernebock, by which is meant Tchemebog--the Black God, a Sclavonic deity. In fact, God is Bog in the Sciave tongues. Brelebog is the White God, but Grimm greatly doubts whether among the ancient Sciaves there existed any discrimination between a White and a Black God.
As Zernebock does not satisfy Jutta by his answer, she strikes the altar and exclaims:--
Hence! to the land of fog and waste,
There fittest is thine influence placed,
Thou powerless, sluggish Deity!
And ne'er shall Briton bend the knee
Again before so poor a God.
As a matter of fact, neither Briton nor Northumbrian Scandinavian ever did bow the knee to the Sclave Bog. The introduction of the Bug, Bogie, Bogart into our Northern counties and into Scotland is due to the extensive colonisation of all Northern Britain by the Danes or Northmen. These had been brought into contact previously with Sciaves in Russia, where they founded a dynasty, and along the Prussian and Pomeranian shores of the Baltic; and they had learned there to scoff at the Sclavonic God and turn him into a bogie, much as later Christian Anglo-Saxons converted the gods of Valhalla into demons. The colonists brought with them to Northumbria the conception of fiendish spirits as the gods of the despised Sclaves. We have no reason to suppose that there ever was a migration of Sclaves into Northumbria, bringing their deities with them, and so giving rise to legends of Bogies. The Danish and Norwegian settlers brought the conception ready-made with them. The final degradation to which the supreme deity of the Sclaves has had to submit has been to confer a name on a particularly offensive insect that does promenade in the night and prove itself a torment.