Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/December 1883/Vinous Superstitions



ALTHOUGH the world no longer believes in the gods, demi-gods, and heroes with which the ancients and our pagan ancestors animated nearly every object, old-country people still retain a considerable relic of heathenism in the shape of myths of a host of spirits of nature which are all the time at work to produce prosperity and success or destruction.

In Alsace, the eye of the traveler is gladdened by the view of the picturesque vine-lands which stretch in almost unbroken succession along the slopes of the Vosges and Jura Mountains, heavy with handsome clusters of grapes. We can hardly wonder that the country people, feeling a similar delight, but one modified according to their different habit of thought, should attribute the prosperity of their vine-crops to higher powers; and it is easily explainable that in their childish fancies they, half in earnest, half in humor, allow these genii of old to continue to live and do their beneficent work. Especially characteristic of these children of Bacchus, to which a variety of most pleasant legends are attached, are prophecies respecting the success or failure of the next vintage, predictions that make themselves known by visible or audible signs.

Thus, in the spring, when the air is scented with the fragrance of the blossoms, and everything points to an abundant vintage, the people believe they can hear in the hill at Brunstatt the "Wigigerle" fiddling lustily to the accompaniment of ringing glasses and dancing. If, however, the vintner's prospects for the year are dull, the smell of the blossoms is only faint, and the attentive listener can only occasionally hear the sound of the strings, while the hill seems empty and desolate.

A pendant to the jolly "Wigigerle" (wine-fiddler) is the "White Lady of Paulinus Castle" who haunts the region of Weissenburg. She is believed to wander at night through the vines, and occasionally to make her appearance in the day-time. In case the year is to be unprosperous, she shows herself rarely, closely veiled, bearing a bunch of hidden keys, wearing a sad face, and weeping much; but, if the vintage is to be rich, she greets the vine-dressers cheerily, and rattles her keys gayly as she passes through the gardens.

The Alsatians also regard as an infallible wine-oracle the cellar of Arnsberg Castle, which belongs to the family of the Fesslers, a race of sturdy drinkers who became extinct in the seventeenth century, and is popularly called the Devil's Castle. The immense stocks of wine supposed to lie in the deep and spacious caverns have not been touched for centuries; for the most industrious search has failed to discover a door or any way by which an entrance to them can be forced. In good seasons, a sweet odor of wine arises from the ground at the time of the blooming of the vines, and diffuses itself around.

St. Hunna, formerly one of the richest ladies of Alsace, is honored as the patron of the poor, thirsty topers of the town of Hunnasweihen, in bad years. This pious woman, who was a friend and comforter of the poor in the seventh century, sometimes condescended so far as to wash the clothes of her maids, whence she got the name of the saintly laundress. A copious spring, flowing through four outlets, has been consecrated to her memory, and is known far and wide as the Hunna Spring. It occasionally happens in years when wine is scarce, so the story runs, that, when the people go to the spring of mornings and evenings to water their horses and cattle, wine flows out of all the outlets; and those who can boast that they have enjoyed this wine say that it is better than any other.

A St. Morand is honored as the patron of the vintners of a district near Worms, in consequence of a legend that the commune was once blessed, in answer to his prayers, with an unusually abundant harvest. Two portraits of him may be seen in the church at Steinbach, in one of which he is represented as holding a bunch of grapes and pressing out the juice with his hand.

The property is attributed to several springs in Alsace, of flowing only when the harvests are to be abundant.

According to the superstition in another region, if one will go to the Geisbrunn of Freiburg, in Breisgau, at midnight on New Year's, he will find a little man there, who in silence will give some very significant tokens. If the year is to be a good one, he will bear three ears of corn in one hand and three bunches of grapes in the other, and will make friendly gestures. If the year is going to be bad, he will have a sour face and empty hands.

The vineyard is surrounded, in Germany and other countries, by numerous poetic superstitions. The Swabians say that the grapes will receive a fine flavor if the vines are shaken on St. John's day. The Bavarians have a proverb that, if one would have good wine, he must write on his cask, "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm xxxiv, 8); and the South-Germans have a proverb, "If one would make good vinegar from wine, he must throw the names of three witches into it."

In Switzerland, the country people freshen up their stale wine by laying dead toads on the bung-holes of the casks. The ancient Germans were mindful of their gods at their feasts, when they strove to distinguish themselves as great drinkers; and the pious custom of drinking to the health of their divinities was binding among them. The North-Germans were accustomed at certain feasts to empty a cup to Bragi, and by that act to assume a promise to emulate the bold deeds of that god. Such promises were irrevocable. Bargains were therefore bound by a kind of drink-offering in order to obtain the favor of the gods. At the heir's-feast bumpers were drunk to the memory of the departing one; and on other occasions glasses were emptied in honor of those who were absent. These customs, from which our toasts appear to be derived, were not abolished in Christian times: only the saints succeeded to the rights of the gods. St. Martin, it is said, at his own desire, took the place of Donar; St. Gertrude received the honors that had been paid to Freya; and Njörd and Frey appear to have surrendered their functions to the first martyr of the Church, St. Stephen. At Freiburg the Johannites were accustomed to hang a stone, representing one of those thrown at Stephen, to a silver chain. Wine was poured upon the stone and then given to the faithful to drink. Memorial drinks to St. Michael and St. John the Evangelist were also very common. Departing guests and travelers were accustomed to drink "John's blessing" as well as in memory of St. Gertrude; and a number of mythical stories are associated with these draughts.

St. Gertrude is said to have drunk a St. John's draught with a knight who had entered into a pact with the devil, and thereby to have delivered him. Since St. Gertrude was the patron of sailors, and her chapel at Bonn, near the Rhine, was much visited by seafaring people, it is easy to explain why the draughts to her honor were drunk in a glass shaped like a ship. It is still customary in some Roman Catholic churches to bless a cup of wine on St. John the Evangelist's day (the 27th of December), and commend to the people the memory of the beloved disciple. These customs are not observed outside of Germany. In Catholic Germany it is usual to celebrate a first festival at the house with the wine (generally red wine) which has been blessed at the church, and to give to the whole family to drink out of the same cup; a few drops are even poured out for the baby in the cradle. Part of what is left is preserved, and part is poured into the cask, to impart its blessing to what is there and turn all evil spells from it. Speculative Swabian hosts often consecrate large quantities of wine for the entertainment of their guests and neighbors; and the popular fancy prevails that, if such of this wine as has been kept over the whole year is drunk on the annivesary of the day of its consecration, it will bring recovery to the sick, and protection and strength to those who are about to start on a journey. Engaged couples taste this wine at their betrothals, when it is offered to them by the priest after having blessed it. If one drinks it on the day it is consecrated, he is secured for the whole year against poisoning, witchery, and lightning. It is an old Bavarian custom for the father to drink a "John's blessing" before departing on a journey, and then, swinging the cup backward over his head, to cast a few drops on the ground. The "John's blessing" on St. John the Baptist's day, June 24th, which the South-German Protestants observe socially, without making a church festival of it, is doubtless related to the Catholic custom.

The John's blessings have been referred to the cup drunk by the disciples, or perhaps to the wedding at Cana of Galilee; but we think we have shown that they are derived from the old heathen thank-offerings, and the sacramental wine has probably been also brought within the scope of the usage by popular fancy. Many healing powers are attached to this wine in some places, and it is sometimes called in as the last and surest remedy in extreme cases. That industrious investigator of folk-lore, M. Töppen, says on this subject in his work on the superstitions of the Masures, that "consecrated communion-wine is used in all diseases as the most sovereign and last resort. The Masures often ask their pastors for it. If they will not give it to them, they go to the Catholic priests, who grant their requests without hesitation. They frequently have the wine blessed at the Catholic confessionals; and some of them think that communion-wine from Catholic churches is more efficacious than that from evangelical churches. Nevertheless, Catholics sometimes go to evangelical pastors to get their communion-wine." Herr C. G. Hintz, another writer on folklore, mentions it as a time-honored custom in old Prussia to put a bottle of wine on the altar, so that it may be blessed at the sacramental service.

The beliefs on this subject are in some cases contradictory: thus, while the Lauenburg peasant regards the communion-wine as a sovereign cure, and calls in the priest when he finds the doctor too dear, or that his remedies fail, the people of Oldenburg and East Prussia put off the taking of the sick-bed communion as long as possible, for fear that it will be followed by a speedy death.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Die Natur.