Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/December 1886/Zoological Superstitions



POPULAR sciences resemble the forest-plants that can flourish without the aid of systematic culture, but that advantage is offset by their liability to excrescences in the form of popular superstitions. During the middle ages thaumaturgy, or the study of the supernatural, enjoyed for centuries an all but universal popularity, and the luxuriance of its products almost suffocated all better germs of the human mind. For, by a curious law of primogeniture, the vitality of such spontaneous sprouts far exceeds that of the most carefully grafted scions. In natural history, for instance, many brilliant theories have appeared and disappeared like meteors, while popular delusions flicker with the persistency of a blazing tar-barrel.

The authority of Scripture (1 Kings, x, 22) warrants the belief that monkeys formed an article of commerce as much as twenty-eight centuries ago, so that no lack of time can have prevented us from studying the habits of our four-handed relatives; yet it would hardly be an overestimate to say that nine hundred and ninety-nine of a thousand men persist in the belief that monkeys have a passion for imitating the actions of their two-handed kinsmen; that, for instance, an ape, seeing his master shave himself, would take the first opportunity to get hold of a razor and scrape or cut his own throat. Now, how could that idea ever survive this age of zoölogical gardens? Marcus Aurelius held that the sum of all ethics was the rule to "love truth and justice, and live without anger, in the midst of lying and unjust men." Yet the occupation of a monkey-trainer would put that tolerance to a severe test. With an intelligence surpassing that of the most intelligent dog, a monkey combines an ultra-mulish degree of obstinacy, and, rather than imitate the demonstrative manipulations of the kindest instructor, he will sham fear, sham lameness, sham heart-disease, and generally wind up by falling down in a sham fit of epileptic convulsions. I have owned monkeys of at least twenty different species, and have never been able to discover the slightest trace of that supposed penchant for mimicry. A boy may take off his coat and turn a thousand somersets, Jacko will watch the phenomenon only with a view to getting his fingers into the pockets of the unguarded coat. Lift up your hand a hundred times, Jacko will witness the proceeding with calm indifference, unless a more emphatic repetition of the manœuvre should make him duck his head to dodge an anticipated blow. He has no desire to follow any human precedents whatever, and the apparent exceptions from that rule are, on his part, wholly unintentional and merely a natural result of anatomical analogies. An angry hamadryas baboon, for instance, will strike the ground with his fist, not because any Christian visitors have ever set him that bad example, but because his forefathers have thus for ages vented their wrath on the rocks of the Nubian highlands. A capuchin monkey will pick huckleberries with his fingers, not in deference to civilized customs, but because his fingers are deft and long, and his jaws very short. Nay, that same capuchin monkey, admitted to a seat at the breakfast-table of a punctilious family, would be apt to show his contempt of court by sticking his head in the pudding-dish. The compulsive methods of professional trainers may modify that perversity, but during recess the redeemed four-hander is sure to drop his mask, and, unlike a trained dog, will never volunteer the performance of a popular trick.

About the beginning of this century an ingenious Frenchman traveled about with a so-called chess-automaton, a wooden figure with movable arms, manipulated by a hidden accomplice, and warranted to play chess according to the rules of Devega's manual. As a mystifying joke, the contrivance was quite a success, and, if any intelligent person could really believe in the autonomy of the apparatus, the silliness of the idea could hardly have surpassed the absurdity of the parrot-stories which our popular family journals continue to retail in this age of reason. Not more than a year ago, some modern Buffon, after a learned disquisition on the comparative intelligence of beasts and birds, treated his readers to the following "characteristic" anecdote: A Philadelphia family bought a parrot which could sing four or five national hymns, but to the dismay of his Quaker proprietor proved to have a still greater genius for blasphemous slang. Family worship and the conversation of learned and pious visitors were apt to be interrupted by a sudden cataract of Billingsgate, till the head of the family ordered the bird, at the first sign of profanity, to be ducked in a pailful of cold water. The specific answered its purpose, and one rainy day the parrot was sitting in the open kitchen-window, watching the events of the back yard, where he espied a number of drenched chickens, picking their way across the slippery pavement, "Poor things! "said Polly, and then in an undertone, as the chickens approached the house—"Look here, you've been swearing, haven't you? "This probable story made the rounds of the American press, and is a fair sample of hundreds of similar myths. The truth is, that the wisest parrot ever shipped from Pará to New York does not connect the slightest meaning with the best-remembered word of his vocabulary. Properly speaking, elocutionary birds do not talkat all. They only repeat. They rehearse phrases as they would rehearse a tune, and one might as well credit a telephone with the ability of originating a logical combination of words. If profanity is a sin, swearing parrots will be forgiven, because they know not what they do; but their jokes are equally unintended. A phrase, repeated a thousand times a day, can not, of course, be used always malapropos, but the rarity of the exceptions confirms the rule as decidedly as the lucid interval of a Salvation Army dragoon. In one of Anderson's fairy-tales, the night wind tries to reveal a secret to a man who happens to understand only the dialect of his native village, and thus hears nothing but the whistling of the reeds and the rustling of the leaves; and in the wisest human speech poor Poll hears only the hooting of vowels and the clacking of consonants.

The serpent-charm superstition, too, still holds its own, though a recent communication to the "Scientific American" seems to imply that at least one common-sense explanation of the phenomenon begins to elucidate the fog of mysticism. The writer, evidently a practical naturalist, suggests that the apparent infatuation of "charmed" birds may be nothing but the heroism of maternal affection, overcoming the instinct of self-preservation. That inference may not rarely hold good in the spring-time of our northern woodlands, but squirrels and lizards, as well as birds, are charmed, and in October as often as in May; and the champions of the wizard-theory might at any time test the matter by a simple experiment. "Venomous serpents are the most sluggish of all reptiles (compare "Popular Science Monthly," September, 1879), and, with a bag-net fastened to a ring and tied to the end of a long stick, a rattlesnake can be captured more easily than a butterfly. Quarter your captive in a convenient out-house and let him starve for a couple of days. Then procure a lot of rats, or good-sized mice, such as every mill-boy is ready to deliver for a dime a dozen. Do not introduce them all at once, but successively, and fastened to a string at the end of a stick. The apathy of the snake can be broken by making the mouse scamper in tempting proximity to his fangs. Give the poison time to operate, and watch the conduct of the victims; but observe the precaution of removing them just as the serpent approaches to enjoy the fruits of her victory. The next time she will commence hostilities with a promptness evincing her wrath at the failure of her former attempts. Some five or six successive encounters (though each following discharge of poison may in some degree weaken the effect of the next bite) will thus prove that the supposed magic influence of the serpent's eye is nothing but the after-effect of a not strictly instantaneous poison. The flexible poison-fangs of the serpent do not enable her to hold her prey at the first snap, but she can afford to bide her time, well knowing that the beginning of the end is only a question of a few minutes. During the last of those minutes the victims may behave in a most singular, though under the circumstances no-ways abnormal, manner; and I will agree to sign Jean Bodin's dissertation on the disadvantages of natural explanations, if any thaumaturgist, with a lingering vestige of common sense, should fail to admit the conclusiveness of the experiment.

The serpent-charm delusion is probably nothing but an outcome of the evil-eye superstition, which in mediæval Italy ranked almost as an article of faith. In the same country poison-mongery had then attained the perfection of an exact science. In Naples there were experts who could specify the day when a tincture of Aqua tofana, repeated in a certain number of doses, would overcome the vitality of the toughest constitution. Caesar Borgia could fetch bis man by a mere scratch of a finger-ring. Many of those artists may have studied the subsequent appearance of their victims with a searching look, more apt to attract attention than the furtive administration of the deadly drug. If the victim died, his fate was ascribed to the influence of the mal occhio, a mystic gift which made its possessor an object of dread and envy, but of which the law could not properly take cognizance. The snap-bite, administered perhaps in the tangle of a bramble-bush, has escaped attention; the temporary escape of the victim obliges the serpent to sally from its hiding-place and watch the effect of the dose. At that stage of proceedings the conduct, both of the bird and the snake, is apt to attract the notice of a passer-by, who associates the then visible phenomena—the fixed gaze of the serpent, and the abnormal motions of the bird—thus mistaking a coincident circumstance for the cause of an effect.

Exactly the same mistake has cost the lives of thousands of harmless birds of the family Picidœ. Woodpeckers live upon the larvæ of various species of noxious insects, and haunt dead trees where such insects most abound: hence the extremely prevalent delusion connecting the activity of woodpeckers with the decay of trees. In the language of the backwoodsmen the tree-cleaner has become a tree-destroyer, a "sap-sucker," a name actually applied to the Picus pubescens, or speckled woodpecker, of the North American forests.

In a similar way the beneficent functions of the bat are still repaid with the ingratitude of the chief beneficiary. Bats catch mosquitoes, bats catch night-butterflies, the parents of millions of noxious caterpillars, but, in default of a convenient cave, are apt to make their headquarters in smoke-stacks, and thus incur the suspicion of bacon-curing housewives:

"Bat, bat, fly in my hat,
And I'll give you some bacon-fat,"

is the popular stanza, preluding a shower of whistling brickbats, if the poor cheiropter ventures to leave his den before dark. And yet the bona fide petting of bats would, in many countries, be the best remedy of the mosquito-plague. There are few parts of Eastern Arkansas where the utmost diligence in ditching and draining would abate the torment of the perennial gnat-swarms, and in many swamp-districts of Southern Mexico one might as well try to bar out rats with a rail-fence as gnats with a mosquito-bar, since the forty or fifty different varieties comprise several sizes that could slip through the meshes of a cambric handkerchief, while the largest kind would as easily bite through a flannel night-shirt. Yet in the midst of such a swamp-delta I once passed a comfortable night in the loft of an old cotton-mill. We had neither gauze-bars nor smoke-pots, but two large louvres at opposite ends of the loft stood wide open, and all night the whispering of the land-breeze mingled with the fluttering and the clicking chirp of busy bats, but rarely as much as the incipient buzz of a tipulary insect.

The tenacity of the most preposterous tenets, as compared with that of less irrational delusions, is curiously illustrated by two zoölogical superstitions which North America seems to have imported from the northern nations of the Old World. A hundred years ago nine out of ten American colonists believed firmly in the existence of two remarkable vertebrates: the "joint-snake," a reptile gifted with the faculty of joining and disjoining its organism like a combination pen-holder; and the "glutton," a "monstre able to devore the carcaes of black cattle," as Sir Douglas of Glastonbury informs us.

The latter superstition has been traced to a singular international origin. The Norwegian Fjell-frit, or mountain-whelp, was mistaken for a Viel-frass by the same nation that turned a reindeer into a Rennthier ("race-beast"), and this incorrect "much-eater" was correctly translated into a French glouton and an English glutton, which the Latinizers, with their penchant for "characteristics," specified as a gulo luscus, just as the wolf-fish, or sea-cat of the Scotch fishermen, was made an anarrhichas, from a supposed dexterity in climbing rocks by means of its jagged fins. Encouraged by a solecism thus well indorsed, the first glutton-hunters of our continent reveled in miracle-legends.

"The Western trappers," says Colonel Ruxton ("Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains," page 278), "give most wonderful accounts of an animal which, though exceedingly rare, is occasionally met with in the mountains, but, from its supposed ferocity and the fact of its being a cross between the devil and a bear, is given a wide berth whenever it makes its dreaded appearance. Most startling stories were told of its audacity: how it has been known to leap upon a hunter and devour him in a twinkling; often charging furiously into a camp and playing all sorts of pranks on the goods and chattels of the mountaineers. The general belief was, that the animal owes its paternity to the old gentleman himself; the most reasonable declaring it to be a cross between the bear and wolf. Plunting one day with an old Canadian trapper, he told me that, in a part of the mountains which we were about to visit, his comrades once had a battle with a 'carcagieu,' which lasted upward of two hours, during which they fired a pouchful of balls into the animal's body, which spat them out as fast as they were shot in! Two days after, as we were toiling up a steep ridge after a band of mountain-sheep, my companion, who was in advance, suddenly threw himself flat behind a rock and exclaimed in a smothered tone, signaling me with his hand to keep down and conceal myself, 'Sacré enfant de Gàrce, mais here's von dam carcagieu!' I immediately cocked my rifle, and, advancing to the rock and peeping over it, saw an animal, about the size of a large badger, engaged in scraping up the earth about a dozen paces from where we were concealed. From its appearance I at once recognized the mysterious quadruped to be a 'glutton.' After I had sufficiently examined the animal, I raised my rifle to shoot, when a louder than common 'Enfant de Gàrce!' alarmed the animal, and it immediately ran off, when I stood up and fired both barrels after it, but without effect, the attempt exciting a derisive laugh from the Canadian, who exclaimed: 'Pe gar, may be you got fifty balls; vel, shoot 'em all at de dam carcagieu, and he not care a dam!' "

But, after all, the foundation dogma, the existence of a wolf-like animal of prodigious voracity, was less insane than incorrect, and as such was renounced without regret. The joint-snake idiocy, on the other hand, though knocked to pieces a hundred times, persists in reviving with symbolic promptitude. In the Rocky Mountains, on the lower Mississippi, and all through the southern Alleghanies, farmers and hunters still believe in the self-reconstructive power of a reptile that survives dismemberment with the facility of a New York tramway ring, and, after picking up a jaw-bone here and a couple of vertebrae there, pursues its way rejoicing, and ready to segregate again at a minute's notice. Time-honored dogmas are ridicule-proof; and how shall we, in this special case, avail ourselves of Schopenhauer's maxim that the best way of refuting a superstition is to explain it? Should the strange delusion be founded on the habit of certain ophidians that make the pit of their oesophagus a place of refuge for their new-born offspring? Dozens of young snakelets have been seen crawling into the open jaws of the Cerastes berus and the Clotho arietas, and, according to Burmeister, also of certain pythons. But more probably the superstition is nothing but a product of that myth making faculty that evolves a queer egg into a basilisk, and supplements a strange death by a still stranger resurrection. A correspondent of "Home and Farm" describes a number of brittle snakes and invertebrate snake-like worms "as easily broken as tallow-candles, and about as hard to mend." Lizards, too, break at the mere touch of a switch and scamper off, leaving a tail-end wriggling in the grass. In some phenomenon of that sort the wonder-mania of our miracle-fuddled ancestors may have seen a glorious chance for insulting common sense by the elaboration of the joint-snake myth.