Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 1.djvu/105

This page has been validated.

IN the earlier ages of mankind, when the knowledge of Nature was small, and confined to priests and sages, their explanations were received with a simple childlike faith by the people, who cared not, or, if they cared, dared not to question or inquire further. These explanations were, for the most part, mere fanciful and arbitrary guesses, founded, not upon ascertained facts, but on the simplest conceptions arising from the consciousness of some supreme power or powers, which governed the universe, and accommodated to the religious theories of the time. All the mysteries of Nature were solved by the supposition of innumerable supernatural agents, according to whose caprice mankind were injured or benefited, punished or rewarded. Medicine was consequently intimately associated with religion; among the more barbarous nations, the priest and the medicine-man were identical; and, among the more civilized, the recognized practice of it was confined to the sacerdotal orders until the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Neither the priests nor the people of the superstitious age could understand invariable laws.

If a solar eclipse took place, a dragon was supposed to have swallowed up the sun; if an earthquake occurred, or a volcano burst forth, some subterraneous demon was presumed to be at work. When a pestilence raged, the invisible arrows of an offended deity struck down the victims. A man who lost speech or hearing had a dumb devil or a deaf one. We see the same condition of mind exemplified now in the fetichism of barbarous nations, and the belief in charms and sorcery which still obtains among the vulgar, even in this country. But at no period was it more conspicuous than in the middle ages, when the belief in magic and witchcraft gave rise to the terrible atrocities which were perpetrated in the punishment of those who were supposed to plot evil against their fellows by direct compact with and assistance from the devil. If a man suffered from pain in the region of the heart, or in the head, a witch inflicted these tortures by secretly sticking pins into the corresponding portion of a wax image representing the sufferer, and thousands of unfortunates were burnt for causing disease and death by their unholy incantations. The dancing mania, which arose in Flanders and Germany during the fourteenth century, was regarded as a display of satanic power, and the popular reason assigned was that the boots with pointed toes, which had been lately introduced, were peculiarly offensive to the Almighty!

With the belief in witchcraft and sorcery, prevailed also the belief in astrology, and that so universally, even among the more highly-educated, that, although occasionally some daring minds raised their