Books and men/On the Benefits of Superstition
ON THE BENEFITS OF SUPERSTITION.
"We in England," says Mr. Kinglake, "are scarcely sufficiently conscious of the great debt we owe to the wise and watchful press which presides over the formation of our opinions, and which brings about this splendid result, namely, that in matters of belief the humblest of us are lifted up to the level of the most sagacious; so that really a simple cornet in the Blues is no more likely to entertain a foolish belief in ghosts, or witchcraft, or any other supernatural topic, than the Lord High Chancellor or the leader of the House of Commons." This delicate sarcasm, delivered with all the author's habitual serenity of mind, is quoted by Mr. Ruskin in his Art of England; assentingly, indeed, but with a half-concealed dismay that any one could find it in his heart to be funny upon such a distressing subject. When he, Mr. Ruskin, hurls his satiric shafts against the spirit of modern skepticism, the points are touched with caustic, and betray a deep impatience darkening quickly into wrath. Is it not bad enough that we ride in steam-cars instead of post-chaises, live amid brick houses instead of green fields, and pass by some of the "most accomplished pictures in the world" to stare gaping at the last new machine, with its network of slow-revolving, wicked-looking wheels? If, in addition to these too prominent faults, we are going to frown down the old appealing superstitions, and threaten them, like naughty children, with the corrective discipline of scientific research, he very properly turns his back upon us forever, and distinctly says he has no further message for our ears.
Let us rather, then, approach the subject with the invaluable humility of Don Bernal Dias del Castillo, that gallant soldier who followed the fortunes of Cortés into Mexico, and afterwards penned the Historia Verdadera, an ingenuous narrative of their discoveries, their hardships, and their many battles. In one of these, it seems, the blessed Saint Iago appeared in the thickest of the fray, mounted on a snow-white charger, leading his beloved Spaniards to victory. Now the conquestador freely admits that he himself did not behold the saint; on the contrary, what he did see in that particular spot was a cavalier named Francisco de Morla, riding on a chestnut horse. But does he, on that account, puff himself up with pride, and declare that his more fortunate comrades were mistaken? By no means! He is as firmly convinced of the presence of the vision as if it had been apparent to his eyes, and with admirable modesty lays all the blame upon his own unworthiness. "Sinner that I am!" he exclaims devoutly, "why should I have been permitted to behold the blessed apostle?" In the same spirit, honest Peter Walker strained his sight in vain for a glimpse of the ghostly armies that crossed the Clyde in the summer of 1686, and, seeing nothing, was content to believe in them, all the same, on the testimony of his neighbors.
Sir Walter Scott, who appears to have wasted a good deal of time in trying to persuade himself that he put no faith in spirits, confesses quite humbly, in his old age, that "the tendency to belief in supernatural agencies seems connected with and deduced from the invaluable conviction of the certainty of a future state." And beyond a doubt this tendency was throughout his life the source of many pleasurable emotions. So much so, in fact, that, according to Mr. Pater's theory of happiness, the loss of these emotions, bred in him from childhood, would have been very inadequately repaid by a gain in scientific knowledge. If it be the true wisdom to direct our finest efforts towards multiplying our sensations, and so expanding the brief interval we call life, then the old unquestioning credulity was a more powerful motor in human happiness than any sentiment that fills its ground to-day. In the first place it was closely associated with certain types of beauty, and beauty is one of the tonics now most earnestly recommended to our sick souls. "Les fions d'aut fais" were charming to the very tips of their dewy, trembling wings; the elfin people, who danced in the forest glades under the white moonbeams, danced their way without any difficulty right into the hearts of men; the swan-maiden, who ventured shyly in the fisher's path, was easily transformed into a loving wife; even the mara, most suspicious and terrible of ghostly visitors, has often laid aside her darker instincts, and developed into a cheerful spouse, with only a tinge of mystery to make her more attractive in her husband's eyes. Melusina combing her golden hair by the bubbling fountain of Lusignan, Undine playing in the rain-drenched forest, the nixie dancing at the village feast with her handsome Flemish lad, and the mermaid reluctantly leaving her watery home to wed the youth who captured her magic seal-skin, all belong to the sisterhood of beauty, and their images did good service in raising the vulgar mind from its enforced contemplation of the sordid troubles, the droning vexations, of life.
Next, the happy believers in the supernatural owed to their simplicity delicious throbs of fear,—not craven cowardice, but that more refined and complex feeling, which is of all sensations the most enthralling, the most elusive, and the most impossible to define. Fear, like all other treacherous gifts, must be handled with discrimination: a thought too much, and we are brutalized and degraded; but within certain limits it enhances all the pleasures of life. When Captain Forsyth stood behind a tree on a sultry summer morning, and saw the tigress step softly through the long jungle grass, and the affrighted monkeys swing chattering overhead, there must have come upon him that sensation of awe which alone makes courage possible. He knew that his life hung trembling in the balance, and that all depended upon the first shot he fired. He respected, as a sane man would, the mighty strength of his antagonist, her graceful limbs instinct with power, her cruel eyes blinking in the yellow dawn. And born of the fear, which stirred but could not conquer him, came the keen transport of the hunter, who feels that one such supremely heroic moment is worth a year of ordinary life. Without that dread, not only would the joy be lessened, and the glad rebound from danger to a sense of safety lost forever, but the disciplined and manly courage of the English soldier would degenerate into a mere brutish audacity, hardly above the level of the beast he slays.
In children, this delicate emotion of fear, growing out of their dependent condition, gives dignity and meaning to their courage when they are brave, and a delicious zest to their youthful delinquencies. Gray, in his chilly and melancholy manhood, years after he has resigned himself to never again being "either dirty or amused" as long as he lives, goes back like a flash to the unlawful delight of a schoolboy's stolen freedom:—
"Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in every wind,
And snatch a fearful joy."
And who that has ever watched a party of children, listening with bright eyes and parted, lips to some weird, uncanny legend,—like that group of little girls for instance, in Mr. Charles Gregory's picture Tales and Wonders,—can doubt for a moment the "fearful joy" that terror lends them? Nowadays, it is true, their youthful ears are but too well guarded from such indiscretions until they are old enough to scoff at all fantastic folly, and the age at which they learn to scoff is one of the most astonishing things about our modern progress. They have ceased to read fairy stories, because they no longer believe in fairies; they find Hans Andersen silly, and the Arabian Nights stupid; and the very babies, "skeptics in long-coats," scorn you openly if you venture to hint at Santa Claus. "What did Kriss Kringle bring you this Christmas?" I rashly asked a tiny mite of a girl; and her answer was as emphatic as Betsey Prig's, when, with folded arms and a contemptuous mien, she let fall the ever memorable words, "I don't believe there's no sich a person."
Yet the supernatural, provided it be not too horrible, is legitimate food for a child's mind, nourishes its imagination, inspires a healthy awe, and is death to that precocious pedantry which is the least pleasing trait that children are wont to manifest. While few are willing to go as far as Mr. Ruskin, who, having himself been brought up on fairy legends, confesses that his "first impulse would be to insist upon every story we tell to a child being untrue, and every scene we paint for it impossible," yet a fair proportion of the untrue and the impossible should enter into its education, and it should be left to the enjoyment of them as long as may be. Those of us who have been happy enough to believe that salamanders basked in the fire and mermaids swam in the deeps, that were-wolves roamed in the forests and witches rode in the storm, are richer by all these unfading pictures and unforgotten memories than our more scrupulously reared neighbors. And what if we could give such things the semblance of reality once more,—could set foot in spirit within the enchanted forest of Broceliande, and enjoy the tempestuous gusts of fear that shook the heart-strings of the Breton peasant, as the great trees drew their mysterious shadows above his head? On either side lurk shadowy forms of elf and fairy, half hidden by the swelling trunks; the wind whispers in the heavy boughs, and he hears their low, malicious laughter; the dry leaves rustle beneath his feet,—he knows their stealthy steps are close behind; a broken twig falls on his shoulder, and he starts trembling, for unseen hands have touched him. Around his neck hang a silver medal of Our Lady and a bit of ash wood given him by a wise woman, whom many believe a witch; thus is he doubly guarded from the powers of evil. Beyond the forest lies the open path, where wife and children stand waiting by the cottage door. He is a brave man to wander in the gloaming, and if he reaches home there will be much to tell of all that he has seen, and heard, and felt. Should he be devoured by wolves, however,—and there is always this prosaic danger to be apprehended,—then his comrades will relate how he left them and went alone into the haunted woods, and his sorrowing widow will know that the fairies have carried him away, or turned him into stone. And the wise woman, reproached, perhaps, for the impotence of her charms, will say how with her own aged eyes she has three times seen Kourigan, Death's elder brother, flitting before the doomed man, and knew that his fate was sealed. So while fresh tales of mystery cluster round his name, and his children breathe them in trembling whispers by the fireside, their mother will wait hopefully for the spell to be broken, and the lost given back to her arms; until Pierrot, the charcoal-burner, persuades her that a stone remains a stone until the Judgment Day, and that in the mean time his own hut by the kiln is empty, and he needs a wife.
But superstition, it is claimed, begets cruelty, and cruelty is a vice now most rigorously frowned down by polite society. Daring spirits, like Mr. Besant, may still urge its claims upon our reluctant consideration; Mr. Andrew Lang may pronounce it an essential element of humor; or a purely speculative genius, like Mr. Pater, may venture to show how adroitly it can be used as a help to religious sentiment; but every age has pet vices of its own, and, being singularly intolerant of those it has discarded, is not inclined to listen to any arguments in their favor. Superstition burned old women for witches, dotards for warlocks, and idiots for were-wolves; but in its gentler aspect it often threw a veil of charity over both man and beast. The Greek rustic, who found a water-newt wriggling in his gourd, tossed the little creature back into the stream, remembering that it was the unfortunate Ascalaphus, whom the wrath of Demeter had consigned to this loathsome doom. The mediæval housewife, when startled by a gaunt wolf gazing through her kitchen window, bethought her that this might be her lost husband, roaming helpless and bewitched, and so gave the starving creature food.
"O was it war-wolf in the wood?
Or was it mermaid in the sea?
Or was it man, or vile woman,
My ain true love, that misshaped thee?"
The West Indian negress still bestows chicken-soup instead of scalding water on the invading army of black ants, believing that if kindly treated they will show their gratitude in the only way that ants can manifest it,—by taking their departure.
Granted that in these acts of gentleness there are traces of fear and self-consideration; but who shall say that all our good deeds are not built up on some such trestle-work of foibles? "La virtu n'iroit pas si loin, si la vanité ne lui tenoit pas compagnie." And what universal politeness has been fostered by the terror that superstition breeds, what delicate euphemisms containing the very soul of courtesy! Consider the Greeks, who christened the dread furies "Eumenides," or "gracious ones;" the Scotch who warily spoke of the devil as the "good man," lest his sharp ears should catch a more unflattering title; the Dyak who respectfully mentions the small-pox as "the chief;" the East Indian who calls the tiger "lord" or "grandfather;" and the Laplander, who gracefully alludes to the white bear as "the fur-clad one," and then realize what perfection of breeding was involved in what we are wont to call ignorant credulity.
Again, in the stress of modern life, how little room is left for that most comfortable vanity which whispers in our ears that failures are not faults! Now we are taught from infancy that we must rise or fall upon our own merits; that vigilance wins success, and incapacity means ruin. But before the world had grown so pitilessly logical there was no lack of excuses for the defeated, and of unflattering comments for the strong. Did some shrewd Cornish miner open a rich vein of ore, then it was apparent to his fellow-toilers that the knackers had been at work, leading him on by their mysterious tapping to this more fruitful field. But let him proceed warily, for the knacker, like its German brother, the kobold, is but a capricious sprite, and some day may beguile him into a mysterious passage or long-forgotten chamber in the mine, whence he shall never more return. His bones will whiten in their prison, while his spirit, wandering restlessly among the subterranean corridors, will be heard on Christmas Eve, hammering wearily away till the gray dawn brightens in the east. Or did some prosperous farmer save his crop while his neighbors' corn was blighted, and raise upon his small estate more than their broader acres could be forced to yield, there was no opportunity afforded him for pride or self-congratulation. Only the witch's art could bring about such strange results, and the same sorceries that had aided him had, doubtless, been the ruin of his friends. He was a lucky man if their indignation went no further than muttered phrases and averted heads. Does not Pliny tell us the story of Caius Furius Cresinus, whose heavy crops awoke such mingled anger and suspicion in his neighbors' hearts that he was accused in the courts of conjuring their grain and fruit into his own scanty ground? If a woman aspired to be neater than her gossips, or to spin more wool than they were able to display, it was only because the pixies labored for her at night; turning her wheel briskly in the moonlight, splitting the wood, and drawing the water, while she drowsed idly in her bed.
"And every night the pixies good
Drive round the wheel with sound subdued,
And leave—in this they never fail—
A silver penny in the pail."
Even to the clergy this engaging theory brought its consolations. When the Reverend Lucas Jacobson Debes, pastor of Thorshaven in 1670, found that his congregation was growing slim, he was not forced, in bitterness of spirit, to ask himself were his sermons dull, but promptly laid all the blame upon the biergen-trold, the spectres of the mountains, whom he angrily accused, in a lengthy homily, of disturbing his flock, and even pushing their discourtesy so far as to carry them off bodily before his discourse was completed.
Indeed, it is to the clergy that we are indebted for much interesting information concerning the habits of goblins, witches, and gnomes. The Reverend Robert Kirke, of Aberfoyle, Perthshire, divided his literary labors impartially between a translation of the Psalms into Gaelic verse and an elaborate treatise on the "Subterranean and for the most part Invisible People, heretofore going under the name of Elves, Faunes, and Fairies, or the like," which was printed, with the author's name attached, in 1691. Here, unsullied by any taint of skepticism, we have an array of curious facts that would suggest the closest intimacy between the rector and the "Invisible People," who at any rate concealed nothing from his eyes. He tells us gravely that they marry, have children, die, and are buried, very much like ordinary mortals; that they are inveterate thieves, stealing everything, from the milk in the dairy to the baby lying on its mother's breast; that they can fire their elfin arrow-heads so adroitly that the weapon penetrates to the heart without breaking the skin, and he himself has seen animals wounded in this manner; that iron in any shape or form is a terror to them, not for the same reason that Solomon misliked it, but on account of the proximity of the great iron mines to the place of eternal punishment; and—strangest of all—that they can read and write, and have extensive libraries, where light and toyish books alternate with ponderous volumes on abstruse mystical subjects. Only the Bible may not be found among them.
How Mr. Kirke acquired all these particulars—whether, like John Dietrich, he lived in the Elfin Mound and grew wise on elfin wisdom, or whether he adopted a less laborious and secluded method—does not transpire. But one thing is certain: he was destined to pay a heavy price for his unhallowed knowledge. The fairies, justly irritated at such an open revelation of their secrets, revenged themselves signally by carrying off the offender, and imprisoning him beneath the dun-shi, or goblin hill, where he has since had ample opportunity to pursue his investigations. It is true, his parishioners supposed he had died of apoplexy, and, under that impression, buried him in Aberfoyle churchyard; but his successor, the Rev. Dr. Grahame, informs us of the widespread belief concerning his true fate. An effort was even made to rescue him from his captivity, but it failed through the neglect of a kinsman, Grahame of Duchray; and Robert Kirke, like Thomas of Ercildoune and the three miners of the Kuttenberg, still "drees his weird" in the enchanted halls of elfland.
When the unfortunate witches of Warbois were condemned to death, on the testimony of the Throgmorton children, Sir Samuel Cromwell, as lord of the manor, received forty pounds out of their estate; which sum he turned into a rent-charge of forty shillings yearly, for the endowment of an annual lecture on witchcraft, to be preached by a doctor or bachelor of divinity, of Queen's College, Cambridge. Thus he provided for his tenants a good sound church doctrine on this interesting subject, and we may rest assured that the sermons were far from quieting their fears, or lulling them into a skeptical indifference. Indeed, more imposing names than Sir Samuel Cromwell's appear in the lists to do battle for cherished superstitions. Did not the devout and conscientious Baxter firmly believe in the powers of witches, especially after "hearing their sad confessions;" and was not the gentle and learned Addison more than half disposed to believe in them, too? Does not Bacon avow that a "well-regulated" astrology might become the medium of many beneficial truths; and did not the scholarly Dominican, Stephen of Lusignan, expand the legend of Melusina into so noble a history, that the great houses of Luxembourg, Rohan, and Sassenaye altered their pedigrees, so as to claim descent from that illustrious nymph? Even the Emperor Henry VII. was as proud of his fishy ancestress as was Godfrey de Bouillon of his mysterious grandsire, Helias, the Knight of the Swan, better known to us as the Lohengrin of Wagner's opera; while among more modest annals appear the families of Fantome and Dobie, each bearing a goblin on their crest, in witness of their claim to some shadowy supernatural kinship.
There is often a marked contrast between the same superstition as developed in different countries, and in the same elfin folk, who please or terrify us according to the gay or serious bent of their mortal interpreters. While the Keltic ourisk is bright and friendly, with a tinge of malice and a strong propensity to blunder, the English brownie is a more clever and audacious sprite, the Scottish bogle is a sombre and dangerous acquaintance, and the Dutch Hudikin an ungainly counterpart of Puck, with hardly a redeeming quality, save a lumbering fashion of telling the truth when it is least expected. It was Hudikin who foretold the murder of James I. of Scotland; though why he should have left the dikes of Holland for the bleak Highland hills it is hard to say, more especially as there were murders enough at home to keep him as busy as Cassandra. So, too, when the English witches rode up the chimney and through the storm-gusts to their unhallowed meetings, they apparently confined their attention to the business in hand, having perhaps enough to occupy them in managing their broomstick steeds. But when the Scottish hags cried, "Horse and hattock in the devil's name!" and rushed fiercely through the tempestuous night, the unlucky traveler crossed himself and trembled, lest in very wantonness they aim their magic arrows at his heart. Isobel Gowdie confessed at her trial to having fired in this manner at the Laird of the Park, as he rode through a ford; but the influence of the running water turned her dart aside, and she was soundly cuffed by Bessie Hay, another witch, for her awkwardness in choosing such an unpropitious moment. In one respect alone this evil sisterhood were all in harmony. By charms and spells they revenged themselves terribly on their enemies, and inflicted malicious injuries on their friends. It was as easy for them to sink a ship in mid-ocean as to dry the milk in a cow's udder, or to make a strong man pine away while his waxen image was consumed inch by inch on the witch's smouldering hearth.
This instinctive belief in evil spells is the essence, not of witchcraft only, but of every form of superstition, from the days of Thessalian magic to the brutish rites of the Louisiana Voodoo. It has brought to the scaffold women of gentle blood, like Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, and to the stake visionary enthusiasts like Jeanne d'Arc. It confronts us from every page of history, it stares at us from the columns of the daily press. It has provided an outlet for fear, hope, love, and hatred, and a weapon for every passion that stirs the soul of man. It is equally at home in all parts of the world, and has entered freely into the religion, the traditions, and the folk-lore of all nations. Actæon flying as a stag from the pursuit of his own hounds; Circe's swinish captives groveling at their troughs; Björn turned into a bear through the malice of his stepmother, and hunted to death by his father, King Hring; the Swans of Lir floating mournfully on the icy waters of the Moyle; the loup-garou lurking in the forests of Brittany, and the oborot coursing over the Russian steppes; Merlin sleeping in the gloomy depths of Broceliande, and Raknar buried fifty fathoms below the coast of Helluland, are alike the victims
"Of woven paces and of waving hands."
whether the spell be cast by an outraged divinity, or by the cruel hand of a malignant foe.
In 1857, Mr. Newton discovered at Cnidos fragments of a buried and ruined chapel, sacred to Demeter and Persephone. In it were three marble figures of great beauty, some small votive images of baked earth, several bronze lamps, and a number of thin leaden tolls, pierced with holes for the convenience of hanging them around the chapel walls. On these rolls were inscribed the diræ, or spells, devoting some enemy to the infernal gods, and the motive for the suppliant's ill-will was given with great naïveté and earnestness. One woman binds another who has lured away her lover; a second, the enemy who has accused her of poisoning her husband; a third, the thief who has stolen her bracelet; a fourth, the man who has robbed her of a favorite drinking-horn; a fifth, the acquaintance who has failed to return a borrowed garment; and so on through a long list of grievances. It is evident this form of prayer was quite a common occurrence, and, as combining a religious rite with a comfortable sense of retaliation, must have been exceptionally soothing to the worshiper's mind. Persephone was appeased and their own wrongs atoned for by this simple act of devotion; and would that it were given to us now to inscribe, and by inscribing doom, all those who have borrowed and failed to return our books; would that by scribbling some strong language on a piece of lead we could avenge the lamentable gaps on our shelves, and send the ghosts of the wrong-doers howling dismally into the eternal shades of Tartarus.
The saddest thing about these faded superstitions is that the very men who have studied them most accurately are often least susceptible to their charms. In their eagerness to trace back every myth to a common origin, and to prove, with or without reason, that they one and all arose from the observation of natural phenomena, too many writers either overlook entirely the beauty and meaning of the tale, or treat it with a contemptuous indifference very hard to understand. Mr. Baring-Gould, a most honorable exception to this evil rule, takes occasion now and then to deal some telling blows at the extravagant theorists who persist in maintaining that every tradition bears its significance on its surface, and who, following up their preconceived opinions, cruelly overtax the credulity of their readers. He himself has shown conclusively that many Aryan myths are but allegorical representations of natural forces; but in these cases the connection is always distinctly traced and easily understood. It is not hard for any of us to perceive the likeness between the worm Schamir, the hand of glory, and the lightning, when their peculiar properties are so much alike; or to behold in the Sleeping Beauty or Thorn-Rose the ice-bound earth slumbering through the long winter months, until the sun-god's kisses win her back to life and warmth. But when we are asked to believe that William Tell is the storm-cloud, with his arrow of lightning and his iris bow bent against the sun, which is resting like a coin or a golden apple on the edge of the horizon, we cannot but feel, with the author of Curious Myths, that a little too much is exacted from us. "I must protest," he says, "against the manner in which our German friends fasten rapaciously upon every atom of history, sacred and profane, and demonstrate all heroes to represent the sun; all villains to be the demons of night or winter; all sticks and spears and arrows to be the lightning; all cows and sheep and dragons and swans to be clouds."
But then it must be remembered that Mr. Baring-Gould is the most tolerant and catholic of writers, with hardly a hobby he can call his own. Sympathizing with the sad destruction of William Tell, he casts a lance in honor of Saint George against Reynolds and Gibbon, and manifests a lurking weakness for mermaids, divining-rods, and the Wandering Jew. He is to be congratulated on his early training, for he assures us he believed, on the testimony of his Devonshire nurse, that all Cornishmen had tails, until a Cornish bookseller stoutly denied the imputation, and enlightened his infant mind. He has the rare and happy faculty of writing upon all mythical subjects with grace, sympathy, and vraisemblance. Even when there can be no question of credulity either with himself or with his readers, he is yet content to write as though for the time he believes. Just as Mr. Birrell advises us to lay aside our moral sense when we begin the memoirs of an attractive scamp, and to recall it carefully when we have finished, so Mr. Baring-Gould generously lays aside his enlightened skepticism when he undertakes to tell us about sirens and were-wolves, and remembers that he is of the nineteenth century only when his task is done.
This is precisely what Mr. John Fiske is unable or unwilling to accomplish. He cannot for a moment forget how much better he knows; and instead of an indulgent smile at the delightful follies of our ancestors, we detect here and there through his very valuable pages something unpleasantly like a sneer. "Where the modern calmly taps his forehead," explains Mr. Fiske, "and says, 'Arrested development!' the terrified ancient made the sign of the cross, and cried, 'Were-wolf!'" Now a more disagreeable object than the "modern" tapping his forehead, like Dr. Blimber, and offering a sensible elucidation of every mystery, it would be hard to find. The ignorant peasant making his sign of the cross is not only more picturesque, but he is more companionable,—in books, at least,—and it is of far greater interest to try to realize how he felt when the specimen of "arrested development" stole past him in the shadow of the woods. There is, after all, a mysterious horror about the lame boy,—some impish changeling of evil parentage, foisted on hell, perhaps, as Nadir thrust his earth-born baby into heaven,—who every Midsummer Night and every Christmas Eve summoned the werewolves to their secret meeting, whence they rushed ravenously over the German forests. The girdle of human skin, three finger-breadths wide, which wrought the transformation; the telltale hairs in the hollow of the hand which betrayed the wolfish nature; the fatality which doomed one of every seven sisters to this dreadful enchantment, and the trifling accidents which brought about the same undesirable result are so many handles by which we grasp the strange emotions that swayed the mediæval man. Jacque Roulet and Jean Grenier, as mere maniacs and cannibals, fill every heart with disgust; but as were-wolves an awful mystery wraps them round, and the mind is distracted from pity for their victims to a fascinated consideration of their own tragic doom. A blood-thirsty idiot is an object that no one cares to think about; but a wolf-fiend, urged to deeds of violence by an impulse he cannot resist, is one of those ghastly creations that the folk-lore of every country has placed sharply and persistently before our startled eyes. Yet surely there is a touch of comedy in the story told by Van Hahn, of an unlucky freemason, who, having divulged the secrets of his order, was pursued across the Pyrenees by the master of his lodge in the form of a were-wolf, and escaped only bytaking refuge in an empty cottage, and hiding under the bed.
"To us who are nourished from childhood,' says Mr. Fiske again, "on the truths revealed by science, the sky is known to be merely an optical appearance, due to the partial absorption of the solar rays in passing through a thick stratum of atmospheric air; the clouds are known to be large masses of watery vapor, which descend in rain-drops when sufficiently condensed; and the lightning is known to be a flash of light accompanying an electric discharge." But the blue sky-sea of Aryan folk-lore, in which the cloud-flakes floated as stately swans, drew many an eye to the contemplation of its loveliness, and touched many a heart with the sacred charm of beauty. On that mysterious sea strange vessels sailed from unknown shores, and once a mighty anchor was dropped by the sky mariners, and fell right into a little English graveyard, to the great amazement of the humble congregation just coming out from church. The sensation of freedom and space afforded by this conception of the heavens is a delicious contrast to the conceit of the Persian poet,—
"That inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling cooped we live and die;"
or to the Semitic legend, which described the firmament as made of hammered plate, with little windows for rain,—a device so poor and barbaric, that we wonder how any man could look up into the melting blue and admit such a sordid fancy into his soul.
"Scientific knowledge, even in the most modest men," confesses Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, "has mingled with it something which partakes of insolence. Absolute, peremptory facts are bullies, and those who keep company with them are apt to get a bullying habit of mind." Such an admission from so genial and kindly a source should suffice to put us all on the defensive. It is not agreeable to be bullied even upon those matters which are commonly classed as facts; but when we come to the misty region of dreams and myths and superstitions, let us remember, with Lamb, that "we do not know the laws of that country," and with him generously forbear to "set down our ancestors in the gross for fools." We have lost forever the fantasies that enriched them. Not for us are the pink and white lions that gamboled in the land of Prester John, nor his onyx floors, imparting courage to all who trod on them. Not for us the Terrestrial Paradise, with its "Welle of Youthe, whereat thei that drynken semen alle weys yongly, and lyven withouten sykeness;" nor the Fortunate Isles beyond the Western Sea, where spring was ever green; where youths and maidens danced hand in hand on the dewy grass, where the cows ungrudgingly gave milk enough to fill whole ponds instead of milking-pails, and where wizards and usurers could never hope to enter. The doors of these enchanted spots are closed upon us, and their key, like Excalibur, lies hidden where no hand can grasp it.
"The whole wide world is painted gray on gray,
And Wonderland forever is gone past."
All we can do is to realize our loss with becoming modesty, and now and then cast back a wistful glance
The shelter of the quaint kiosk, there sigh
A troup of Fancy's little China Dolls,
Who dream and dream, with damask round their loins,
And in their hands a golden tulip flower."