Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/Curiosities of Superstition I



SOME of the higher animals have a peculiar faculty for accustoming themselves to various kinds of poison; and man, especially, often owes his ruin to that unfortunate talent, for the instinct of taste can be so perverted that the vilest and originally most repulsive substances become the most seductive.

There is a curious analogy between this corruptible sense and the intellectual (rather than moral) constitution of the human mind. It may be doubted if any man ever loved injustice for its own sake, or voluntarily connived at its habitual exercise. History proves that successful tyrants could maintain themselves only by favoring a strong party at the expense of the weak. Pisistratus, Hiero, the elder Dionysius, Vespasian, Mohammed Baber, and Haroun, miscalled Al-Raschid, were the idols of the army and of the poor. Even Mehemet Ali had his redeeming qualities. Men can stand only a limited amount of iniquity. But their intellectual tolerance has no such limits. Persistent misrulers come to an evil end, but the founder of a sect, a school, or a new creed, may

"... reign without dispute
In all the realms of nonsense, absolute"—

and it even seems as if in the struggle for supremacy the most insane dogmas had the advantage over moderately absurd ones, just as opium is apt to supersede brandy and tobacco. In China, where the neutrality of the government gave all creeds a fair chance, the fate-worship of Confucius was eclipsed by the Buddhistic worship of sorrow. In Greece, the orthodox polytheists held their own against all heresies. The pure theism of Abd-el-Wahab was throttled by the champions of the Sunnitic traditions. In Rome, where the struggle for existence was fought out by fourteen or fifteen different creeds, theists, pantheists, Nature-worshipers, agnostics, and all kinds of speculative philosophers had to yield to the Asiatic miracle-mongers with their Nature-hating fanaticism and Buddhistic crotchets; and Buddha himself was baffled by that ne plus ultra of systematic insanity, the creed of the orthodox Brahmans. Buddhism, the worship of death and sorrow, has, indeed, almost vanished from the land of its birth. Its infatuations prevailed against the primitive religions of the Mongols, Siamese, Cingalese, Tartars, and Thibetans, but in Hindostan the cow and monkey worshipers carried the day; the champions of Sakya-Muni had found their match, and, after an hierarchical rough-and-tumble fight of fourteen hundred years, their doom was sealed by a crushing defeat. In vain the Dalai Lamas convoked council after council; in vain the bonzes howled on the highways and prayed day and night on the public streets—the monkey Hanuman triumphed, and at this moment a hundred and twenty million Hindoos are ready to risk their lives in defense of a creed which, in the words of Baron Orlich, "combines the extremes of priestly arrogance with endless ceremonies and the most extravagant dogmatic absurdities." The clerical tyranny of Brahmanism may have been surpassed in papal Rome, and the complexity of its rites in Thibet; but its dogmatic absurdity is sui generis, and can really defy competition. "Credo, quia absurdum videtur," said the chief theologist of the Patristic era, but the quintessence of the Athanasian confession would seem insipid to devotees who have been fuddled with the opium of Brahma; and Father Hue expressed merely the recognition of a practical impossibility when he advised his countrymen not to send any more missionaries to Hindostan. The clergy, missions, and convents of the Spanish church cost the country a yearly aggregate of forty-two million dollars—after all, less than twenty per cent of the total national revenue—and the emissaries of that church may well shrink from the competition with a priesthood that persuades its constituents to sacrifice two fifths of their field-crops to a greedy swarm of four-footed divinities. The hunchback ox (Bos Bramanus) enjoys the freedom of every East Indian town. Even Calcutta has its "cow-dung suburbs" (the British soldiers use a stronger term). He defiles the sidewalks, monopolizes the tree-shade, and mingles with the crowd of the market-place. If he collects his perquisites by force, the natives remark that giving is more blessed than receiving; if he knocks them down, they feel with Cardinal Newman that the devotion of the truly faithful shows itself in the endurance of oppressive measures. In every larger city there are walled tanks where sacred crocodiles await the contributions of the pious. In Benares they subsist upon the rent of a real-estate legacy and occasional donations of the wealthy produce-merchants. But even the poorest of the poor contribute to the support of the sacred baboons. The bhunder-baboon and the Hanuman (Cercopithecus entellus) have every reason to regard themselves as the primates of the animal kingdom, and man as a humble relative, gifted with certain horticultural talents for the purpose of ministering to the wants of his four-handed superiors. Northern India is dotted with mahakhunds, or monkey-farms, where thousands of long-tailed saints are provided with shelter, respectful attendants, and three substantial meals a day, on the sole condition that they shall renounce their sylvan haunts and bless the neighborhood with the influence of their holy presence. Sick monkeys are sent to the next bhunder-hospital, generally a well-endowed and well-managed institution with a special dhevadar or responsible major-domo. The little town of Cawnpore has eight such infirmaries, Benares twenty or twenty-five, some of them with a subdivision for incurables and chronic dyspeptics!

To support these institutions is deemed a privilege as well as a duty. Troops of children, with garlands around their ankles and wrists, march in procession to offer the first-fruits of the season to the major-domos of the next mahakhund. An embarras de richesse often obliges that functionary to sell a portion of the donations and invest the surplus in the guarantee funds of the institution. In very poor districts, like Baroda and the northern part of the Madras Presidency, a protracted famine sometimes exhausts these funds, and reduces the menu of the sinecurists to two meals a day and half-measures of the weekly treacle allowance, the full rice ration being generally guaranteed by deposit-drafts on a public store-house. At such times, when human beneficiaries would feel grateful for the least assistance, the four-handed protégés become peevish. They often abscond and try their luck on the public highways, where orthodox pilgrims would, indeed, part with their last crust rather than disregard the wants of a sacred baboon. If hunger emboldens a low-caste monkey to approach the precincts of a mahakhund, the irate boarders sally forth and pursue him with a rancor as if they suspected him of being accessory to the irregularities of the purveyance system.

When the (Mohammedan) Sepoys destroyed the large monkey asylum of Behar, the citizens of Nusserabad, though themselves on the verge of famine, promptly organized a relief committee. A provision-wagon, drawn by lean horses and leaner fakirs, drove through the city collecting comestibles, while the conductor of the team, in a sort of sing-song chant, recounted the sufferings of the holy longtails: "They mourn among the roofless ruins. They sit hungry-eyed, waiting in vain for the arrival of a moderate refection. No bread, no sago-cakes, no rice for the righteous ones, while many a sinner" (with a gleam of suspicion) "regales himself, perhaps, with yed-na-saccar" (a sort of blanc-mange). "Their young ones look leaner than scrub-palm lizards. While they fast the just trembles; the eye that looks unmoved may soon be moved by retaliative calamities. Promptly, ye faithful, contribute, contribute!" (C. Ritter's "Travels in Hindostan and Siam," vol. ii, p. 210).

Victor Jacquemont estimates that the Bengal Presidency alone contains sixteen hundred monkey-asylums, supported chiefly by the very poorest class of the population. In the rural districts of Nepaul the hanumans have their sacred groves, and keep together in troops of fifty or sixty adults, and, in spite of hard times, these associations multiply like the monastic orders of mediæval Europe; but they must all be provided for, though the natives should have to eke out their crops with the wild-rice of the Jumna swamp-jungles.

The strangest part of the superstition is that this charity results by no means from a feeling of benevolence toward animals in general, but from the exclusive veneration of a special subdivision of the monkey tribe. An orthodox Hindoo must not willingly take the life of the humblest fellow-creature, but he would not move a finger to save a starving dog, and has no hesitation in stimulating a beast of burden with a dagger-like goad and other contrivances that would invoke the avenging powers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Nor would he shrink from extreme measures in defending his fields from the ravages of low-caste monkeys. Dr. Allen Mackenzie once saw a swarm of excited natives running toward an orchard where the shaking of the branches betrayed the presence of arboreal marauders. Some of them carried slings, others clubs and cane-spears. But soon they came back crestfallen. "What's the matter?" inquired the doctor; "did they get away from you?"

"Kapa-Muni," was the laconic reply, "sacred monkeys." Holy baboons that must not be interrupted in their little pastimes. They had expected to find a troop of common makaques, wanderoos, or other profane four-handers, and returned on tiptoe, like Marry at's sergeant who went to arrest an obstreperous drunkard, and recognized his commanding officer. Unarmed Europeans can not afford to brave these prejudices. Captain Elphinstone's gardener nearly lost his life for shooting a thievish hanuman; a mob of raging bigots chased him from street to street till he gave them the slip in a Mohammedan suburb, where a sympathizing Unitarian helped him to escape through the back-alleys. The interference of his countrymen would hardly have saved him, for the crowd increased from minute to minute, and even women joined in the chase, and threatened to cure his impiety with a turnip-masher.

This impiety, say the Brahmans, is merely the effect of ignorance. Foreigners are apt to mistake a hanuman for a common yahoo, a filthy, impudent bush-whacker, while the facts are as follows: The hanuman is a lineal descendant of the great hero-ape who helped the Light-gods in suppressing the power of Ravan, the prince of darkness. The war raged for years with varying success, and the sun-spirits were once almost nonplused, when their long-tailed ally bethought himself of a stratagem that completely discomfited their adversaries: He set the whole Island of Ceylon afire and escaped just in time to attend a grand council of the sun-gods, who then rewarded his services by an hereditary sinecure. In the midst of a solemn war-dance he discovered that his own tail was ablaze, and had to save himself by a hurried trip to the eastern Himalayas, where he extinguished the flames in a lake which to this day bears the name of Bhunder-pouch, or Monkey-tail-pond a fact which alone suffices to refute the sophisms of narrow-minded skeptics ("Asiatic Researches," vol. xiv, p. 44).

Crocodiles have a prescriptive right to our surplus of non-nitrogenous food, butter, goat-cheese, and the offal of the heretical meat shops. They are not divine, in a stricter sense, but "water-pure," free from the taint of hereditary sin, and their merits are often rewarded by a quasi-immortality, synchronistic with the duration of this planet. Their peccadilloes must be condoned; the slayer of a gavial, or sacred saurian, is an enemy of the public, for his deed is apt to result in a general calamity. In Agra a Buddhistic Chinaman once obtained the post of crocodile-warden, but was soon after arraigned for criminal neglect. A party of foreigners had visited the tank, and a couple of gavials followed them toward the gate, in quest of cold lunch, according to the theory of the prosecution, while the strangers suspected them of homicidal intents, and, finding the gate closed, retreated behind a tree and fired their pistols as fast as they could load. The negligent warden at last interfered, but too late; both crocodiles had been fatally wounded, and one of the victims happened to be a gavial, a most reverend, and, barring such accidents, immortal amphibian that had inhabited the tank since the time of Menu. The counsel for the defense not only denied the charge of neglect, but proved that the prehistoric reptile had been imported not more than five years before. The court dismissed the case, and the Chinaman volunteered to pay half the costs, but the Brahmans never forgave him. He lost his place and, like the Rev. Augustus Blauvelt, was accused of having betrayed his master.

The Koran contains some rather incomprehensible ordinances, unless Professor Sale should be right that Mohammed prescribed them as preparatory exercises of faith. The founders of several monastic orders seem also to have thought it necessary to strengthen the orthodoxy of their disciples by periodical renunciations of common sense, but the Brahmans have carried this principle to an even greater length. According to the Yagur-Veda, a spiritual-minded man should renounce the world after following its ways long enough to see the son of his son. To be quite safe, he had better go as soon as his hair begins to get gray. A conscientious Sannyassi, or "renouncer," should make his home in the forest, live upon fruits and edible leaves, and let his hair grow. His tunic should consist of bark, his lower garments of untanned antelope-skin. He must elevate his soul by the contemplation of Brahm and humble his body by taking occasional rambles on all-fours. This would be bad enough, but, in order to fulfill all righteousness, a Sannyassi must wear wet clothes in the cold, and pass the midsummer noons between two blazing fires, in order to correct the humors of his spirit. With a view of washing away his worldliness he must not only bathe twice a day, but expose his body to every shower of the rainy season (Weber, "Indische Literatur-Geschichte," p. 395).

Yet this regimen was merely a palliative, prescribed to all refugees from the temptations of this world, and positive sinners had to expiate their guilt by quite different penances. In this higher art of selftorture Buddhism unquestionably bears off the palm of insanity. Under the influence of its dogmas Sannyassism became an elaborate system for weaning the human mind—not from the errors of life, but from life itself, a systematic mortification of all natural instincts and desires, a negative method of suicide. The "renouncer" had first to ascertain his dearest wishes and deliberately thwart them; abandon his friends, relinquish his worldly ambitions, and forego all gratifications of the senses. He next had to avoid whatever could compensate such sacrifices: emulation, fame, and even the pleasures of self-approbation. The candidate of Nirvana had to subsist on insipid food—millet-seed, for instance, or even cresses ("Asiatic Researches," vol. xvii, p. 238). He had to clothe himself in rags, and renounce all worldly possessions, all earthly sympathies; Buddha Ghoska, the South Indian apostle of the great Nepaulese, goes so far as to warn his disciples against sleeping more than once under the same tree, lest their souls should be contaminated with an undue affection for any worldly object (Schopenhauer's "Parerga," vol. i, p. 317). The civil war of contending dogmas filled India with rival hordes of self-torturing fanatics. Brahmans and Buddhists vied in the invention of new torments. Voluntary affliction became the chief criterion of mei'it. The Buddhistic monasteries practiced the most approved methods for making life hateful and death desirable; among their ghastly penitents all the monsters of La Trappe could have found their prototypes. Troops of Brahmanic flagellants wandered from town to town; the Sannyassis had regular rendezvous, where their novices could profit by the experience of the accomplished lunatics:

"So gathered they, a grievous company:
Some day and night had stood with lifted arms,
Till, drained of blood and withered hy disease,
Their slowly-wasting joints and stiffened limbs
Jutted from sapless shoulders, like dead forks
From forest trunks. Others had clinched their hands
So long and with so fierce a fortitude,
The claw-like nails grew through the festered palm.
Certain who cried five hundred times a day
The names of Shiva, wound with darting snakes
About their sun-tanned necks and hollow flanks. . .
Here crouched one in the dust, who, noon by noon,
Meted a thousand grains of millet out, '
Ate it with famished patience, seed by seed,
And so starved on; there one who bruised his pulse

With bitter leaves lest palate should be pleased;
And next, a miserable saint, self-maimed,
Eyeless and tongueless, sexless, crippled, deaf."

(Edwin Arnold's "Light of Asia," p. 18.)

Or Wieland's satirical résumé:

"Der Glaube hiess es heilig, wenn
Der Fliegen, der Heuschrecken frass,
Und Jener gar mit seinera heil'gen Hintern
In einem Ameisen-haufen sass,
Um da andachtig zu ilberwintern."

Nor are those fancy sketches; such things are practiced in Hindostan to this day. Weber estimates the present number of professional Sannyassis at six hundred thousand; De Lanier at six hundred and fifty thousand; and Max Müller even at one million (vide "American Cyclopædia," article "Fakir"). The pi-ocession of the Juggernaut still frenzies the out-of-the-way villages of the Punjaub; the Brahma-whirlpool at the junction of the Jumna and the Ganges still claims its yearly hecatombs of human victims. In the southwestern presidencies the English Government has at last succeeded in abating the suicidal epidemics; the suttee-rite, for instance, has been effectually suppressed by fining all accomplices and abettors. But the beast-idolatry still flourishes, and bids fair to outlive the British Tract Society, as it has survived the Portuguese auto-da-fés. Crocodile-hunters still take their lives in their hands; the hanuman humbug continues to paralyze horticulture, and the most popular argument of the Nana Sahib demagogues was, not the nepotism of the foreign rulers, not the arrogance and partiality of the British bureaucrats, but the "cartridge-grievance": orthodox soldiers, in loading a musket, had been obliged to open with their teeth a pasteboard cartridge that had been greased with a mixture of steatite and beef-tallow!

The origin of zoölatry, or beast-worship, in some of its phases, is not easy to explain. The supreme usefulness of black cattle made them the representatives of the prithivi mâtar, the benevolent, all sustaining earth-mother. Crocodiles are invaluable scavengers, and in the granaries of Egypt cats were indispensable enough to deserve an apotheosis. But how did serpents and monkeys come by that honor? In Africa snake-worship marks the lowest stage of "animism," but nearly every nation seems to have passed through that stage. In a very curious account of the customs and superstitions of the Haytian negroes, Mr. Moreau ("History of St. Domingo," by Mr. L. E. Moreau) describes the Voodoo idol as "a serpent supposed to be endowed with the gift of prescience, which it communicates to its favorite attendants, the high-priest, and priestess of the Voodoo temple." This superstition Mr. Moreau believes to have been derived from Whydah, in Southern Congo, where the French had a trading-post. But did not the Delphic Pythoness likewise derive her name from a serpent, the great Python of Parnassus, begotten in the ocean-mud of the Deucalian Delude? The Hebrew word Ob is the equivalent of the Grecian ophis and the Chaldean oheb, a dragon, a serpent; and in the Vulgate the witch of Endor, the "woman who had an Ob," is described as a mulier pythonica; and the "consulters with familiar spirits" (Deuteronomy, xviii, 11) as "men who worshiped Ob," the temple of Bel (a contraction of Ob-El, the snake-god) was covered with representations of flying serpents, the wings having been added to indicate the swiftness of the miraculous Python—perhaps the prototype of the Chinese dragon, of our "old serpent," and possibly of the mediaeval dragon-myths. On one of the temples of Thebes Belzoni discovered "a row of figures representing three human beings resting upon their knees and with their heads struck off. Before them a serpent-god (un dio pythonico) erects his crest on a level with their throats, ready to drink the stream of life as it flows from their veins." Columella, the Roman Huxley, mentions a district of the province of Numidia where the natives tried to break the spell of a summer drought by practicing strange rites with a captive serpent. In the mythology of the Edda the Midgard-snake encircles the globe of the whole earth, and the rupture of its folds will usher in the final return of Chaos. According to Plutarch, the Edonian witches of Thrace practiced their charms by the aid of a tutelary deity in the form of a snake, which they carried from hill to hill in search of a propitious conjuncture of times and places; and among the Veddahs of Ceylon Sir Emerson Tennent ("Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, and Political") found traces of a very similar superstition; The staff of Æsculapius and the caduceus of Mercury were entwined with serpents; and, when the pious Æneas sacrifices at the tomb of his father, the "genius of the sepulchre" emerges in the form of a miraculous snake. The two mysterious strangers who announce the mission of Buddha vanish in the castle-hall, and when the messengers of the king follow them to the gate two furtive serpents glide forth: "The gods come ofttimes thus."

Yet Professor Ritter holds that ophiolatry is the oldest form of demonism of devil-worship, the subtile and deadly serpent being the fittest symbol of the tempter. Barthélemy-Sainte-Hilaire inclines to the opinion that the Egyptian god-serpent was the emblem of immortality, the idea being derived from the shedding of his skin; the caves of Elephantine bristle with serpent-heads; and the strangest, but possibly the only correct theory, is Sir W. Jones's conjecture that these shapes are nothing but a modification of that rude symbol of the vis generativa—the old Indian phallus.

Monkey-worship is peculiar to Hindostan, and can hardly be explained by the usefulness or the superhuman attributes of poor Hanuman. Yet its antiquity is attested by the sculptures of Ellora and the oldest traditions of the Eastern Aryans. Should it be a sort of inverted anthropomorphism—a typical form of ancestor-worship? Dr. Mivart is perhaps right that there were Darwinians before Charles Darwin, who was merely the first systematic exponent of a very ancient doctrine, for the dogma of metempsychosis itself is possibly nothing but a dimly expressed anticipation of the evolution theory.

"Poor creatures, so humble and so sublime," says Lucretius ("De Natura Rerum" published 45 b. c.), "you must now recognize that you are but the first of earthly animals. Your extraction is very base, you have sprung from very low, but by a slow series of efforts you have raised yourself above your inferior, brethren. I know your origin, but I can not see the goal to which you are tending; yet persevere and work on."

And Buddha:

"High above Indra's you may raise your lot,

And sink it lower than the worm or gnat;
The end of many myriad lives is this,

The end of myriads that."

And is it so illogical to believe in the possibility of a metamorphic retrogression, as well as progression? Have not the most godlike nations of antiquity "sunk their lot" very nearly to—and in some respects decidedly below—the level of our simian relatives?

Zoömorphism, as Carl Vogt calls the doctrine of metempsychosis, was taught on the banks of the Ganges before Abraham's father sold his stock-farm at Ur, in Chaldea, and there is no stranger fact in the natural history of religion than the ubiquity of this most ancient and most persistent form of supernaturalism. Its dogmas have tinctured the creed of every nation, and often revive in the most unexpected way. It is the basis of the eighteen Puranas of the Egyptian myths, and the traditions of the elder Edda. The strangely suggestive tales of the metamorphoses were probably borrowed from the religion of prehistoric Italy. The nations of Northern Europe had similar superstitions which still survive the exodus of the Druids. The Christian propagandists could persuade the Saxons and Celts to transfer their devotion from Walhalla to Calvary, but they could not shake their faith in were-wolves, kelpies, and amphibious Melusinas.

"That the creed of Mohammed," says Lecky, "should have preserved its pure monotheism and its freedom from all idolatrous tendencies. . . is a fact which we can only very imperfectly explain." But even the Koran did not eradicate the zoömorphic superstitions of the Southern Semites. Professor Brehm relates that his Bedouin guide implored him in the name of the All-merciful not to fire upon a troop of spotted jackals (Canis pictus), as these animals embodied the souls of potent wizards who would cruelly revenge the death of a companion. After the death of Caliph Walid—"El Caffer," the infidel, as the dervishes called him—the citizens of Damascus were frightened by the rumor that the great unbeliever bad reappeared in the form of a gaunt hyena that prowled around the city at night; and Abulfeda informs us that before the battle of Aleppo the Karmathians saw a large eagle circling above their vanguard, but were careful not to disturb it, "for they at once recognized the spirit of Abu Taher"—one of their former leaders who had won a great victory on that same battle-field.

Sitting Bull once declared that Father De Smet was the only white man whose word could be implicitly relied upon; but, according to the observations of Mr. W. Everett, this confidence seems to refer to political rather than mythological questions. Mr. William Everett, a government scout at Fort Custer, lived several years among the Sioux, and convinced himself that they believe in the metempsychosis of distinguished chiefs, and on one occasion he saw Sitting Bull himself "making motions with his hands, and talking to a large wolf, which apparently understood what he said, for, whenever he made the sign for 'Do you understand?' the wolf would throw up his head and howl." They deem it unlucky to kill a white wolf (like the Laplanders, who entertain similar scruples in regard to the white polar fox), and only famine will induce them to shoot at a white-tailed deer. During the hard winter of 1865 six young braves took the risk, and, "were found strangled with marks of fingers on their throats and horrified looks, as if they had seen something awful" (vide "Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxi, p. 422).

The Tyrolese mountaineers have an equally weird superstition which their priests have not seen fit to discourage, namely, that an unbaptized child is changed into a Flüh-vogel (a bird with a peculiar wailing cry), and has for ever to flit about the desolate shores of the highland lakes; and the Albanian peasants believe that Constantin Kastro, the companion in arms of the famous Scanderbeg, still haunts his native mountains in the form of a black falcon.

[To be continued.]