A Book of Folklore/Chapter 5
In the year 1853, a farmer named J. S., in Meavy Parish, between Tavistock and Plymouth, a native of North Devon, lost a good many cattle and sheep, due probably to a change of pasture. He accordingly took a sheep to the top of Catesham Tor, killed and then burnt it to propitiate the evil influences which were destroying his flocks and herds. The offering had the desired effect—he lost no more cattle after that. He told the vicar of the parish, the Rev. W. A. G. Gray, at the time, or shortly after, and did not seem to consider that he had done a superstitious thing.
Compare this with a communication made to Jacob Grimm, and inserted by him in his Deutsche Mythologie, p. 576, ed. 1843. It is a passage from a correspondent in Northamptonshire. ‘Miss C—— and her cousin, walking, saw a fire in a field, and a crowd around it. They said “What is the matter?” “Killing a calf.” “What for?” “To stop the murrain.” They went away as quickly as possible. On speaking to the clergyman, he made inquiries. The people did not like to talk of the affair, but it appeared that when there is a disease among the cows, or when the calves are born sickly, they sacrifice—that is, kill and burn one for good luck.’
In an adjoining parish to this, three years ago the church-warden, a farmer, was troubled with murrain among his cattle, and he consulted a white witch, who bade him describe a circle on the ground with chalk in a field, obtain a white cock, and throw it up into the air, in the midst of the ring, when it would fall down dead, and the disorder would cease. He got a carpenter who works for me to throw up the cock. He did so, and the bird fell down dead, as had been foretold. From that moment the cattle recovered. I was told this by the man who threw the cock, and he assured me that the bird actually fell dead.
In the Island of Mull, on the West coast of Scotland, in the year 1767, there broke out a disease among the black cattle. Whereupon the people agreed to perform an incantation, though they were well aware it was not a very godly act. They carried a wheel and nine spindles of oakwood to the top of Carnmoor. Then they extinguished every fire in every house within sight of the hill. The wheel was then turned from east to west over the nine spindles long enough to produce fire by friction. If the fire were not produced before noon, the incantation lost its effect. They failed for several days running. This they attributed to the obstinacy of one householder, who would not allow his fires to be put out, as he did not approve of the proceedings. However, by bribing his servants, they contrived to have them extinguished, and on that morning kindled their fire. They then sacrificed a heifer, cutting it in pieces and burning the still warm diseased part. They then lighted their own hearths from the pyre, and ended by feasting on the remains. The words of incantation were repeated by an old man from Morven, who came over as master of the ceremonies, and who continued speaking all the time the fire was being raised. This man was living as a beggar at Ballocheog. When asked to repeat the spell, he declined, as he said that it was the act of this enchantment which had brought him to beggary, and that he dared not say the words again. The whole country believed him to be accursed.
Hunt, in his Romances and Drolls of the West of England, says, ‘There can be no doubt that a belief prevailed until a very recent period, amongst the small farmers in the districts remote from towns in Cornwall, that a living sacrifice appeased the wrath of God. This sacrifice must be by fire, and I have heard it argued that the Bible gave them warranty for this belief.’ He cites a well authenticated instance of such a sacrifice in 1800, and adds: ‘While correcting these sheets I am informed of two recent instances of this superstition. One of them was the sacrifice of a calf by a farmer near Portreath, for the purpose of removing a disease which had long followed his horse and his cows. The other was the burning of a living lamb, to save, as the farmer said, “his flocks from spells which had been cast on ’em.”’
Less than two centuries ago it was the usage of a group of parishes which surrounded Applecross, N. B., to sacrifice a bull on the 25th August, the feast of St. Thomas, the patron saint; and the Presbytery of Dingwall had frequent occasion to interfere and interdict it. The sacrifice took place usually in the island of St. Rufus, or Innis Maree, where the saint had a cell. From the records of the Presbytery we learn that there were monuments of idolatry in the island, and stones which were consulted as to future events; that the people adored wells and poured libations of milk on hills.
To this day at King’s Teignton, in South Devon, a lamb is drawn about the parish on Whitsun Monday decorated with boughs and flowers, and contributions are solicited. On Tuesday it is killed and roasted in the middle of the village. The meat is then sold in slices to any who will buy. The origin of the custom is due to a remote period when the village suffered from a dearth of water and the inhabitants were advised to sacrifice a lamb. They did so, and water sprang up in an abundant fountain at Rydon, that never fails even in the dryest summer. Since then the lamb is sacrificed annually. Although the custom has lost nearly all its Pagan characters, yet it remains a survival.
Something very much the same took place every year on May-day at Home, a village on the fringe of Dartmoor. But it has been discontinued of late years.
About 1869, in Moray, a herd of cattle was attacked with murrain, and one was sacrificed by burying alive.
Dr. Mitchell says that in the North-west Highlands and Isles of Scotland, to cure epilepsy, a black cock must be buried alive with a lock of the patient’s hair and some parings of his nails. ‘This is a cruel and barbarous thing, but it is much more than that: it is a sacrifice deliberately and consciously offered in order to propitiate a supernatural power and effect the expulsion of the demon which is believed to have possession of the unfortunate epileptic. The ceremonies which attend the sacrifice leave little doubt as to its origin, or as to its past and present significance. It is nearly always gone about in a secret and solemn manner—in such a way as will just tend to secure its important object. A special superhuman agency, who is not the God of the Christians, is acknowledged and appealed to, and an effort is made to avert his malevolence. The whole idea and procedure are as truly heathenish as anything to be found among the savage nations of the world. Nor is this unfelt by those who practise the rite. They show their consciousness of it in a reluctance to tell of what they have done, and in the secrecy which they observe. This secrecy, and this reluctance to speak freely testify also to the reality of their faith…. It would be a great mistake to suppose that the persons referred to are the grossly ignorant, and a still greater mistake to suppose that they are irreligious. On the contrary, they are often church-attending, sacrament-observing, and tolerably well-educated people—people, too, who necessarily participate, in all the advantages of the advanced civilisation of their country.’
We have seen that sacrifices are not completely done away with yet in Great Britain; and it is more than possible that a good number still take place without tidings of them reaching our ears.
We will now see what reminiscences yet remain of human sacrifices that took place in, not our lands only, but on the Continent in remote days.
What is common in all such cases, as man becomes more civilised and humane, is to find a substitute for the human victim. We see that in the story of Abraham and Isaac, when the patriarch was about to slay and burn his son, but found a substitute in the ram caught in a thicket by his horns.
Until his death, in 1884, William Pengelly, aged seventy-eight, was wont annually, at harvest thanksgivings, to bring a Cornman to the church, to be set up there as a decoration. It consisted of a small sheaf of wheat with the heads tied tightly together, and wreathed with flowers, and below, by means of a stick thrust through, two arms were found, and five stalks of barley were bound about each protruding portion of the stick, with the heads standing out to represent fingers. Before harvest thanksgivings were instituted, the Comman was taken to the barn and there suspended.
It was not invariable that the arms should be formed, and I have seen the Cornman without them, or with only indications of arms. As such, if I do not mistake, he is represented as many as eight times on the carved oak benches of Altarnon Church in Cornwall.
Mr. Hunt, in his Romances and Drolls of the West of England, thus describes what used to be called ‘Crying a neck’ at harvest.
‘After the wheat is all cut on most farms in Cornwall and Devon, the harvest people have a custom of “crying a neck.” I believe that this practice is seldom omitted on any large farm in these counties. It is done in this way. An old man, or someone else well acquainted with the ceremonies used on the occasion, when the labourers are reaping the last field of wheat, goes round to the shocks of sheaves and picks out a little bundle of all the best ears he can find; this bundle he ties up very neat and trim, and plaits and arranges the straws very tastefully. This is called “the neck” of wheat, or wheaten-ears. After the field is cut out and the pitchers once more circulated, the reapers, binders, and the women stand round in a circle. The person with “the neck” stands in the centre, grasping it with both his hands. He first stoops and holds it near the ground, and all the men forming the ring take off their hats, stooping and holding them with both hands towards the ground. They then all begin at once, in a very prolonged and harmonious tone, to cry “The Neck.” At the same time slowly raising themselves upright and elevating their arms and hats above their heads, the person with “the neck” also raising it on high. This is done three times. They then change their cry to “We yen! We yen!” which they sound in the same prolonged and slow manner as before, with singular harmony and effect, three times. The last cry is accompanied by the same moments of the body and arms as in crying “The Neck.” After this they all burst out into a kind of loud joyous laugh, flinging up their hats and caps into the air, capering about, and perhaps kissing the girls. One of them then gets “the neck” and runs as hard as he can down to the farmhouse, where the dairymaid, or one of the young female domestics, stands at the door prepared with a pail of water. If he who holds “the neck” can manage to get into the house in any way unseen, or openly by any other way than the door at which the girl stands with the pail of water, then he may lawfully kiss her; but, if otherwise, he is regularly soused with the contents of the bucket. “The neck” is generally hung up in the farmhouse, where it often remains for three or four years.’
Mr. Hunt wrote in 1865. Since then the custom has almost if not wholly ceased to be observed, owing to the general abandonment of the sickle and the introduction of reaping machines.
Mr Hunt is wrong in supposing that ‘We yen’ is a corruption of ‘We have done,’ it is ‘We hae ’im!’ i. e. we have taken the corn spirit. I, in my boyhood, often saw ‘the neck’ crying. Mrs. Bray, in a letter to Robert Southey, 1832, gives a description of ‘Cutting the neck,’ but she missed the final ceremony: the flight of the man who carries it and gets drenched with water. ‘We were passing near a field on the fringe of Dartmoor, where the reapers were assembled. In a moment the pony started nearly from one side of the way to the other, so sudden came a shout from the field which gave him this alarm. On my stopping to ask my servant what all this noise was about, he seemed surprised by the question, and said, “It was only the people making their games, as they always did, to the spirit of the harvest.”’ She then goes on to describe the ceremony much in the same way as Mr. Hunt, only that, according to her, the reapers hold their sickles aloft, not their hats, and as I remember it, her account is correct. She also gives the cry as ‘Wehaven! Wehaven!’
The meaning of this usage would quite escape us unless we had analogous customs elsewhere to elucidate it. The whole matter has been gone into with great minuteness by Mr. Fraser in The Golden Bough, and therefore I will not enter into it here fully, but give a summary of facts connected with it. But prior to doing so, I will quote two accounts of similar usages in Bavaria from Ganghofer’s Oberland, 1884. The girl who is last in the driving out of the sheep is mocked by the youths, who make a man of straw and nail it up against the stall door. The girl seeks to defend herself with a bucket of water, but the youths also bring pails of water, and in the end all get thoroughly drenched. This takes place at Tegernsee on Whitsun Monday.
Elsewhere in Bavaria is performed the Santrigel ceremony. A boy or young man, on Whitsunday, is wrapped up in green boughs from head to foot, is seated on the leanest cow of the village, with a band going before him, and he is conveyed to the edge of a lake or river and is there thrown in. As on more than one occasion a Santrigel narrowly escaped drowning, the authorities forbade this; and the flinging into the river or lake is commuted into sousing with a bucket of water.
Both these examples represent a sacrifice to the goddess of the Spring, in which either a lad or a girl was ceremonially drowned. And in the Cornish example of the Neck, the lad flying with the Cornman and met by a pail of water thrown over him, leads us to trace back to a time when he was actually drowned. These Bavarian examples concern spring customs, but harvest customs resemble them closely. In some parts of Europe the corn spirit is regarded as female, and is spoken of as the corn mother; and in such cases it is a woman who makes up the figure out of corn straw, or else is wrapped up in straw and led about processionally. The cutting of the last shock is supposed to be the killing of the corn spirit. Sometimes, and that not infrequently, a youth or a woman is wrapped up in the straw and treated very roughly—only now not slain. In a good many cases the corn man or woman was not drowned but burnt.
Owing to the distress caused in a small community by the sacrifice by water or fire of one of its members, it became customary to seize on a stranger passing by, or entering the cornfield. He was constrained to ransom himself by a payment. Thus, in Essex, if one not a reaper ventures into a cornfield, the workmen rush upon him, surround him, shouting, ‘A largess! A largess!’ and beat him very unhandsomely unless he pays to escape.
In Phrygia we are told that Lityertes, son of King Midas, used to reap the corn; but when a stranger chanced to enter the field he forced him to reap along with himself. Finally he would wrap the stranger in a sheaf, cut off his head with a sickle, and carry away his body wrapt in the straw. But at last he was himself slain by Hercules, who threw his body into the river. As Hercules was probably reported to have slain Lityertes in the same way in which Lityertes slew others, we may infer that Lityertes was wont to throw the bodies of his victims into the river.
Mr. Fraser says that there is ground for supposing that in such a story ‘we have the description of a Phrygian harvest custom in accordance with which certain persons, especially strangers, passing the harvest-field, were regularly regarded as embodiments of the corn spirit, and as such were seized by the reapers, wrapt in sheaves, and beheaded; their bodies, bound up in the cornstalks, being afterwards thrown into water as a rain-charm. The grounds for this supposition are—first, the resemblance of the Lityertes story to the harvest customs of European peasantry; and second, the fact that human beings have been commonly killed by savage races to promote the fertility of the fields.’
Mr. Fraser, following Mannhardt, produces an enormous number of instances, far too many to be given here.
Savage races at the present day sacrifice human beings for the prosperity of their harvest. At Lagos in Guinea it was the custom annually to impale a young girl alive soon after the spring equinox, in order to secure good crops. The Marinos, a Bechuana tribe, sacrifice a human being for the same purpose, and choose as stout a victim as they can find. He is killed among the wheat, and his blood is burned along with the frontal bone, the flesh, and brain, and the ashes are dispersed over the fields to fertilise the soil.
The Gonds of India were wont to kidnap Brahmin boys; at sowing and reaping, after a triumphal procession, one of them was sacrificed, his blood was sprinkled over the ploughed field or the ripe crops, and his flesh was devoured.
The Khonds are a native race in Bengal. What we know of them is from accounts by British officers engaged in putting them down some sixty years ago. They regularly sacrificed to ensure good crops. The victim or Meriah must be purchased, or be the son of a victim. Khonds often sold their children for the purpose, ‘considering the beatification of their souls certain, and their death, for the benefit of mankind, the most honourable possible.’ A victim was always treated with great respect as one consecrated to the earth goddess.
A Meriah youth, on attaining maturity, was given a wife, who was herself foredoomed to be sacrificed. Their offspring were also victims. The periodical sacrifices were generally so arranged that every head of a family was enabled, at least once a year, to procure a shred of flesh for his fields.
The mode of procedure was as follows:—Ten or twelve days before the sacrifice the victim had his hair cut. Crowds of men and women assembled to witness the sacrifice. None might be excluded, since it was for the benefit of all. The victim, dressed in a new garment, was led processionally from the village with music and dancing, to a sacred grove, where the Meriah, anointed and crowned with flowers, was tied to a post. That the victim might not resist, his arm-bones were broken, or else he was drugged with opium. Then he was strangled, squeezed to death, or cut up alive, the crowd rushing upon him to hack the flesh from his body with their knives and carry strips away to bury in their fields.
In one district the victim was put to death slowly by fire. A low stage was formed, sloping on each side like a roof; upon it the victim was placed, his limbs wound round with cords to confine his struggles. Fires were then lighted and hot brands applied to make him roll up and down the slopes of the stage as much as possible, for the more tears he shed the more abundant would be the supply of rain. When these sacrifices were put down by the British Government, goats, etc., were substituted for human victims.
Now those who perpetrated these horrors were not the Aryan Hindus, but the Dravidian races underlying them; and there is reason to suppose that similar sacrifices that took place in Europe pertained to the religious rites of the population that formed the bedrock over which were formed the various strata by invasion of Celt and Teuton. With the exception of the Khonds, no deity was recognised, and those who reported these sacrifices may not have understood that the cult was to spirits and not to gods and goddesses.
Mr. Fraser gives four reasons for thus considering them:—
‘1. No special class of persons is set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no priests. The rites may be performed by anyone as occasion demands.
‘2. No special places are set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no temples. The rites may be performed anywhere as occasion demands.
‘3. Spirits, not gods, are recognised.
‘4. The rites are magical rather than propitiatory. In other words, the desired objects are attained, not by propitiating divine beings by sacrifice, but by ceremonies which are believed to influence the course of nature directly through a physical sympathy or resemblance between the rite and the effect which it is the intention of the rite to produce.’
We will pass now to another point, the selection of the victim to be sacrificed; and here we have preserved traces of the process, and that in children’s counting-out games.
Tacitus tells us that the ancient Germans were wont to determine matters of importance by lot. They broke off twigs of a green tree, cut them into equal lengths and put on them signs distinguishing one from another. These were cast at random upon a white cloth, and the priest of the tribe or the house father drew a lot, and guidance as from heaven was supposed to be thus given. The use of lots continued in vogue among the Saxons till a late period, in spite of the efforts of the clergy, who sought to limit application to lot to the cases where human judgment could not be certain of being right. It was still current in Germany in the seventh century, and with less change of adjuncts than we usually find in the adoption of heathen forms even by Christian saints.
That the lot was used to determine a sacrifice we know from the story of Jonah. When the storm fell on the ship the sailors ‘said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So, they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.’
In very much—indeed in exactly the same way—it is determined who is to be thrown overboard in an old English ballad still sung by our peasantry:—
’Twas of a sea-captain came o’er the salt billow,
He courted a maiden, down by the green willow.
‘O take of your father his gold and his treasure!
O take of your mother her fee without measure.’
The damsel robs her parents, and flies with the sea captain in his vessel.
And when she had sailed to-day and to-morrow,
She was wringing her hands, she was crying in sorrow.
And when she had sailed, the days were not many,
The sails were outspread, but of miles made not any.
They cast the black bullets as they sailed on the water;
The black bullet fell on the undutiful daughter.
Now who in the ship must go over the side, O!
O none save the maiden, the fair captain’s bride, O!
So the undutiful daughter is thrown overboard.
Tylor, in his Primitive Culture, holds that things held of highest importance and greatest weight by men in a savage state become the playthings of children in a period of civilisation; thus the bow and arrow, once the only means men had of obtaining food in the chase, and a main means of defence and assault in war, have become toys in the hands of civilised children at the present day. Adopting this theory, we may see how that methods of determining life or death in ancient times may now have degenerated into children’s games.
The casting of lots was used by savage tribes as a means of selecting from a company of slaves or prisoners the unhappy individual who was to be offered in sacrifice; and one form of selection was by counting-out rhymes.
In an essay on Wandering Words Mr. T. W. Sandrey says:—‘The talismanic words uttered by children in their innocent games have come down to us very nearly as perfect as when spoken by the ancient Briton, but with an opposite and widely different meaning. The only degree of likeness that lies between them now is, that where the child of the present day escapes a certain kind of juvenile punishment, the retention of the word originally meant DEATH in its most cruel and barbarous way.’ The correspondence, as Mr. H. C. Rothes has pointed out, is much closer than the writer perceived, for he overlooked the fact that the process in both instances is one of elimination, the one remaining being the victim, the rest being successively set free.
I have tried in my novel Perpetua to give a description of what took place, according to tradition, at Nîmes once in every seven years. Nîmes possesses a marvellous spring, a river of green water that swells up out of the bowels of the earth and fills a large circular reservoir. A temple of Nemausus stood near the basin, and Nemausus was the tutelary god of the town.
‘On the 1st of March, in the year 213, the inhabitants of the town were congregated near the fountain, all in holiday costume. Among them ran and laughed numerous young girls, all with wreaths of white hyacinths or of narcissus on their heads. Yet, jocund as the scene was, to such as looked closer there was observable an undercurrent of alarm that found expression in the faces of the older men and women of the throng, at least in those of such persons as had their daughters flower-crowned.
‘For this day was especially dedicated to the founder and patron of the town, who supplied it with water from his unfailing urn, and once in every seven years a human victim was offered in sacrifice to the god Nemausus, to ensure the continuance of his favour by a constant efflux of water, pure, cool, and salubrious.
‘The victim was chosen from among the daughters of the old Gaulish families of the town, and was selected from among girls between the ages of seven and seventeen. None knew which would be chosen and which rejected. The selection was not made by either priest or priestess attached to the temple. Nor was it made by the magistrates. Chance or destiny alone determined who was to be chosen out of the forty-nine who appeared before the god.
‘When the priest and priestesses drew up in lines between the people and the fountain, the ædile of the city standing forth, read out from a roll the names of seven times seven maidens; and as each name was called, a white-robed flower-crowned child fluttered from among the crowd and was received by the priestly band.
‘When all forty-nine were gathered together, they were formed into a ring, holding hands, and round this ring passed the bearers of the silver image of the god. As they did so, suddenly a golden apple held by the god fell and touched a graceful girl who stood in the ring.
‘“Come forth, Lucilla,” said the chief priestess. “Speak thou the words. Begin.”
‘Then the damsel loosed her hands from those she held, stepped into the midst of the circle, and raised the golden pippin. At once the entire ring of children began to revolve like a dance of white butterflies in early spring; and as they swung from right to left, the girl began to recite at a rapid pace a jingle of words in a Gallic dialect that ran thus:—
One and two,
Drops of dew.
Three and four,
Shut the door.
As she spoke she indicated a child at each numeral—
Five and six,
Pick up sticks;
Seven and eight,
Thou must wait.
Nine and ten,
Golden pippin, lo! I cast
Thou, Alcmene, touched at last.
‘At the word “last,” she threw the apple, struck a girl, and at once left the ring, cast her coronet of narcissus into the fountain, and ran into the crowd. For her the risk was past, as she would be over age when the next septennial sacrifice came round.
‘Now it was the turn of Alcmene. She held the ball, paused a moment, looking about her, and then, as the troop of children revolved she rattled the rhyme and threw the pippin at a damsel named Tertiola. Whereupon she, in her turn, cast her garland of white violets and withdrew.
‘Again the wreath of children circled, and Tertiola repeated the jingle till she came to “Touched at last,” when a girl named Ælia was selected and came into the middle. This was a child of seven, who was shy and clung to her mother. “My Ælia! Rejoice that thou art not the victim. Be speedy with the verse, and I will join the crustula.”
‘So encouraged, the frightened child rattled out some lines, then halted, her memory had failed, and she had to be reminded of the rest. At last she also was free, ran to her mother’s bosom, and was comforted with cakes.
‘Now arrived the supreme moment—that of the final selection. The choosing girl, in whose hand was the apple, stood before those who alone remained. She began:—
Drops of dew
Although there was so vast a concourse present, not a sound could be heard save the voice of the girl repeating the jingle, and the rush of the holy water over the weir. Every breath was held.
Nine and ten,
Golden pippin, lo! I cast
Thou, Portumna, touched at last.
At once the girl who had cast the apple withdrew, so also did the girl who skipped to the basin and cast in her garland. One alone remained—Perpetua; and the high priestess, raising her hand, stepped forward, pointed to her, and said “Est.”’
I have ventured to reproduce this, which, although fiction, undoubtedly represents what actually took place.
‘Children playing out-of-door games, such as Hide-and-seek and “I Spy,” which one of their number has to take an undesirable part, adopt a method of determining who shall bear the burden which involves the principle of casting lots, but differs in manner of execution. The process in Scotland is called “clapping out” and “fitting out;” in England it is commonly known as “counting out.” It is usually conducted as follows:—A leader, generally self-appointed, having secured the attention of the boys and girls about to join in the proposed game arranges them in a row, or in a circle about him as fancy may dictate. He (or she) then repeats a peculiar doggerel, sometimes with a rapidity which can only be acquired by great familiarity and a dexterous tongue, and pointing with the hand or forefinger to each child in succession, not forgetting himself (or herself), allots to each one word of the mysterious formula:—
One-ery, two-ery, ickery, Ann,
Filling, falling, Nicholas, John;
Que-ever, quaver, English knaver,
Stinhilum, Stanhilum, Jerico, buck.
This example contains sixteen words. If there be a greater number of children a longer verse is used; but generally the number of words is greater than the number of children, so that the leader begins the round of the group a second time, giving to each child one word of the doggerel. Having completed the verse or sentence, the child on whom the last word falls is said to be “out,” and steps aside.
‘After the child thus counted out has withdrawn, the leader repeats the same doggerel with the same formalities, and, as before, the boy or the girl to whom the last word is allotted stands aside—is “out.” The unmeaning doggerel is repeated again and again to a diminishing number of children, and the process of elimination is continued until only two of them remain. The leader then counts out once more, and the child not set free by the magic word is declared to be “IT,” and must take the objectionable part in the game.
‘The word IT is always used in this technical sense, denoting the one bearing the disagreeable duty; no child questions its meaning, not have we learned of any substitute for this significant monosyllable. The declaration of a child, “You are It!” following the process of counting out, seems to carry with it the force of a military order, and is in many cases more promptly obeyed than a parent’s command.’
I pass now to an entirely different phase of folk-lore, but still connected with sacrifice.
It is said in Devonshire than the river Dart every year claimeth a heart. That is to say, that this river demands a human offering. At Huccaby Bridge is heard, in certain conditions of the wind the ‘Cry of the Dart,’ a strange wailing and then shrieking call. And it is supposed that this is the demand of the river for a victim. Some few years ago there was a marriage at Staverton church of a couple, one from Dartington. The party crossed the river at a ford in a cart. On their return there ensued a sudden freshet, and the conveyance was swept away and all drowned. ‘It is only the Dart demanding her hearts,’ was the comment on this occasion.
Sir Walter Scott, in The Pirate, notices the repugnance felt in rescuing drowning men from a wreck. The feeling is that the Sea, or the Goddess of the Sea, demands her victims. Among the seamen of Orkney and Shetland it was formerly deemed unlucky to rescue persons from drowning, since it was held as a matter of religious faith that the sea is entitled to certain victims, and if deprived would avenge itself on those who interfere.
On the Cornish coast the sea is heard calling for its victim. A fisherman or a pilot walking one night on the sands at Porth-Towan, when all was still save the monotonous fall of the light waves upon the sand, distinctly heard a voice from the sea, exclaiming,—
The hour is come, but not the man.
This was repeated three times, when a black figure, like that of a man, appeared on the top of the hill. It paused for a moment, then rushed impetuously down the steep incline, over the sands, and was lost in the sea.
Mr. Hunt says that this story is told in different forms all round the Cornish coast.
In Whydah, Africa, the king sends a young man annually to be thrown into the sea. In the Issefjord, a part of the Cattegat Strait, a sea-demon formerly dwelt who stopped every ship and demanded a man from it. But the priests exorcised it by exposing the head of St. Lucius, the pope.
When Xerxes, in the course of his conquests, came to the sea, he sacrificed a human life to the Hellespont; and at Artemisium the handsomest Greek captive was slain over the bows of the admiral’s ship.
Saxo Grammaticus tells how a Norseman’s ship was mysteriously stopped at sea until a man was thrown overboard. Kinloch says that in ancient Scotland, when a ship became unmanageable, lots were cast to discover who occasioned the disaster—precisely as in the case of Jonah and in that of the Undutiful Daughter, and the man on whom the lot fell was cast overboard.
In an old English broadside ballad,—
They had not sailed a league, but three,
Till raging grew the roaring sea;
There rose a tempest in the skies,
Which filled our hearts with great surprise.
The sea did wash, both fore and aft,
Till scarce one sail on board was left;
Our yards were split, and our rigging tore,
The like was never seen before.
The boatswain then he did declare
The captain was a murderer,
Which did enrage the whole ship’s crew;
Our captain overboard we threw.
It is but a step from drowning a man as an offering to the hungry sea to allowing a man to drown, refusing him help, as was the case in Orkney and Shetland and in Cornwall as well. On the west coast of Ireland, when the Spanish sailors were wrecked from the Armada, the Irish murdered and threw them back into the sea, not that they bore them animosity—these Spaniards were Roman Catholics as well as the Irishmen, but because it was unlucky to rescue anyone from the sea, which exacts its toll of human life. It is not only the sea that makes these demands, but, as we have seen, rivers as well. So do lakes. On Dartmoor is a sheet of water in a depression, called Classenwell pool, covering about an acre of ground. It has been dug out of the southern part of the hill and along the verge of the banks on the tors; the measurement is three hundred and forty-six yards. From this part, which is level with the adjacent common, the banks slope rapidly down to the margin of the pool. On the east side the bank is almost perpendicular, and is nearly one hundred feet high. According to popular superstition a voice can be heard at night shouting a name of some inhabitant of the parish of Walkhampton, in which it is situated, several times and on successive nights, when that individual is certain to obey the call by death.
Now let us consider another current of popular superstition. At the foundation of any building—a church, a town hall, a private mansion—almost invariably a coin is laid beneath the foundation stone. The coin takes the place of an animal. I will not enter fully into this, because I have dealt with it at large elsewhere. But I will mention the salient facts. There can be no doubt that in the early Middle Ages a horse, a lamb or a dog was laid under the foundations. In Devonshire almost every church had its ghostly beast which guarded the church and churchyard. In the parish of Lew Trenchard it was two white pigs yoked together with a silver chain. In an adjoining parish it was a black dog. In another it was a calf. In Denmark the church lamb was a constant apparition. But the burial of an animal under a foundation stone was a substitution for a human victim.
In 1885 Holsworthy Church in Devon was restored and in the course of restoration the south-west angle wall of the church was taken down. In it, embedded in the mortar and stone, was found a skeleton. The wall of this portion of the church was faulty, and had settled. According to the account given by the masons who found the ghastly remains, and of the architect who superintended the work, there was no trace of a tomb, but every appearance of the person having been buried alive, and hurriedly. A mass of mortar was over the mouth, and the stones were huddled about the corpse as though hastily heaped about it; then the wall was leisurely proceeded with.
In the Eifel district, rising out of a gorge, is a ridge on which stand the ruins of two castles, Ober and Nieder Manderscheid. According to popular tradition, a young damsel was built into the wall of Nieder Manderscheid. In 1844 the wall at this point was broken down, and a cavity revealed itself, in the depth of the wall, in which a human skeleton actually was discovered.
The Baron of Winneberg, in the Eifel, ordered a master mason to erect a strong tower whilst he was absent. On his return he found that the tower had not been built, and he threatened to dismiss the mason. The man, in order to fulfil his engagement, laid his own child in the wall and reared the tower over her.
When a few years ago the bridge gate of Bremen was demolished, the skeleton of a child was actually found embedded in the foundation. Many years ago, when the ramparts were being raised round Copenhagen, the wall always sank, so that it was not possible to get it to stand firm. They therefore took a little innocent girl, placed her in a chair by a table, and gave her playthings. While she was thus enjoying herself twelve masons built an arch over her, which, when completed, was closed up, and she was immured alive.
Sir Walter Scott, in his notes to the ballad of the Heinrich Heine says on the subject: ‘In the Middle Ages the opinion prevailed that when any building was to be erected, something living must be killed, in the blood of which the foundation had to be laid, by which process the building would be secured from falling; and in ballads and traditions the remembrance is still preserved how that children and animals were slaughtered for the purpose of strengthening large buildings with blood.’of Keeldar, alludes to the tradition that the foundation stones of Pictish raths were bathed in human gore.
We come now to the consideration as to whence came these traditions of human sacrifice—whether to the corn, or the sea; to the river, or to the earth.
There can exist no doubt that the Aryan race did practise human sacrifice. The Greeks, the Latins, the Germans, and Scandinavians, the Celts, and the Sclaves all practised these horrible rites. But with all of them, if I mistake not, the notion was the same as with the Semitic—that the offering was made to an offended God, and that it was expiatory.
But with the Dravidians in India, and with those of the primitive race in Europe and in Great Britain, no such a conception probably existed. In fact, those who burnt a lamb or a bull, or refused to enable a drowning man to escape, or who buried an animal under a foundation stone, had no notion whatever as to any Being to whom the offering was made. I have spoken with those who have been engaged in such rites, and have assured myself that they have believed only in the sacrifice being remedial, but have had no thought of it as an oblation to any deity or devil. When the English officers visited the Khonds, they were so full of the Aryan idea of sacrifice that they took for granted that the butchery of victims was an offering to the Earth goddess. But I am quite convinced that the Khonds had no conception of the sort, any more than my sidesman had when he sacrificed a white cock to avert a murrain.’
The men of the Ivernian race had not reached a higher plane of thought than the personification of Death and Life, and that but imperfectly. The Corn Spirit was but a vague idea. It could be killed when driven into the last shock of wheat. There was no conception of a Ceres, an ever-living goddess of the Harvest.
The field demanded blood, the sea a human victim, the earth a buried child—but the field was a dead, dumb object unpersonified; so was the sea—it was the sea, not Neptune; the earth was earth and no more. The sun, the moon, the stars made their revolutions, but received no worship; they were disregarded by the autocthones. And if we have amongst us so many reminiscences of the religion, such as it was—superstition rather—of the prehistoric Ivernian race, it is because we have in our midst the descendants of that race, with their intelligence but very slightly raised above that of their primeval ancestors.
- The Past in the Present. Edinb. 1889. p. 146.
- The Golden Bough. 1890, I., p. 348.
- Perpetua. Lond.: Isbister & Co. 1897.
- H. C. Bolton. The Counting-out Rhymes of Children. Lond., 1888, pp. 1–2.
- Strange Survivals, 3rd ed. Methuen & Co. 1905.
- In my Strange Superstitions, written in 1891, I was obsessed by the idea of sacrifice to the Earth Goddess. This I reject now.