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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/426

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 

ANCIENT AND MODERN SUPERSTITIONS.

IN the interesting work by M. Maspero, entitled Ancient Egypt and Assyria, a translation of which has lately been published in this country (Appletons), a vivid description is given of the way in which, in the fourteenth century b. c., an Egyptian physician would have proceeded to cope with a serious case of disease. Psarou, an officer of high rank, has fallen sick. His wife Khait—here let us quote the author's words—"summons an exorcist to see her husband. Nibamon is unequaled in Thebes for his skill in curing the most violent headaches. He arrives toward evening, accompanied by two servants; one carries his black book, the other a casket filled with the necessary ingredients for manufacturing every variety of talisman on the spot—clay for modeling, plants, dried or freshly culled, consecrated linen, black or red ink, small figures in wax or baked earth. One glance at the patient tells him the cause of the illness: a dead man visits Psarou every night and is slowly devouring him. After a few moments' reflection he takes a little clay, mixes some blades of grass with it, and kneads the whole into a rather large ball, over which he recites in a low tone one of the most powerful incantations contained in his book." Returning next day to ascertain how the sick man is faring, the exorcist finds that the symptoms are worse than the day before. "These incidents distress Nibamon, but do not surprise him. The evil spirits are always unwilling to leave their prey, and always endeavor to dispute it inch by inch with the magician who opposes them. The ghost driven from the head now attacks the stomach, and he will only yield to a new spell." The second incantation succeeds no better than the first, and in a few days the man is dead.

Such were the superstitions of ancient times. Did the exorcists lose their credit because their spells produced no effect? By no means. "Whatever recoveries took place would be set down to their credit, while failure to cure would be ascribed to occult causes into which it was either vain or impious to inquire. Had any one in those days proposed a statistical test of the physical efficacy of incantations in the cure of sickness, by tabulating the cases in which such measures had been resorted to and those in which they had not been resorted to, and striking a percentage of recoveries under one and the other system, there would have been a fourteenth-century b. c. anticipation of the execration which a kindred proposition of Prof. Tyndall's met with a dozen or more years ago. Lucky indeed would the ancient skeptic have been, had he escaped with no more unpleasant consequences than averted gazes and a scolding all round. Yet what other method than the statistical could any one now suggest for proving or disproving the efficacy of the incantation business?

Could the ancient Egyptian exorcist be revived in our times it would not be difficult, in the very heart of civilization to introduce him to quarters where he would feel that his art might still be pursued with much pecuniary and social success. There are hundreds of thousands of our fellow-citizens who are willing to pay hard and honestly earned money for medals and charms of one kind and another which by virtue of some ecclesiastical benediction are supposed to have the most remarkable specific properties. One medal will give success in agricultural operations, another