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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Animal and Plant Lore II

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 33‎ | September 1888



BEFORE narrating any further natural history superstitions, I wish cordially to thank, one and all, the many readers who have so kindly written, now to express an interested recognition of some belief of their own childhood, and again to send other superstitions from different localities. Such of these fancies as had not already been collected for the present article I gladly insert. The beliefs here mentioned consist more largely than did those described in a previous paper[1] of such as are shared alike by children and adults.

One correspondent expressed strong doubt as to whether children manifested much originality in their mythical conclusions, thinking that the latter were almost always exaggerated or grotesque distortions of ideas which they had gathered from their elders, often from their nurses. Recognizing the full power of these influences, I must still give the children credit for originating many of the strange notions under consideration. I can not better illustrate this ability of children to form original conclusions, however incorrect, than by quoting from another correspondent, a physician, who says:

"I think I could not have been more than four years old when I began to question myself as to where I came from, and why I was not a boy—for my father, like Mr. Dombey, wanted a son for the 'house'—and from my earliest remembrance I have had it impressed upon me that girls were worse than useless things, and that to be something that would grow up into a man was 'a consummation devoutly to be wished.' I wondered what was the difference (and it was a very great difference) between my father and my mother. * Surely, I thought, 'there is no greater differerence between my dog and cat, between the horse and cow,' and I reasoned, therefore, that the dog must be the male of the cat, the horse of the cow, the turkey of the hen, and so on. I shall never forget with what complacency I decided in my own mind this great question, nor how reluctant I was to discard it, even when a "big girl." This is a most unique bit of child's reasoning, but doubtless each of us can recall personal experiences, if less curious, no less to the purpose. Science is constantly extirpating errors and uprooting old conceits, but meanwhile new ones or modified forms of older ones arise; thus, it has come about that some of our New World zoölogical and botanical fables are of recent birth, although very many, especially those that constitute connected myths, are undoubtedly not indigenous, but, as the floras have it, "naturalized from Europe" or "Asia." It would be a labyrinthine task to attempt to trace out, even approximately, the birth and development of some of the latter that still hold extended sway, but many of them certainly are of very remote origin.

There seems to be the best of reason for believing that, to seek the origin of the popular delusion concerning the curative properties of certain animal excreta, we must study the mythology of our long-ago Aryan ancestors. It would not be in keeping with the object of the present paper to occupy the space necessary to give more than a mere suggestion of the character of the great pastoral poem that is embodied in the old Aryan myth which is described in such interesting detail by De Gubernatis in his "Zoölogical Mythology." Probably every mythical or legendary account of the phenomena of Nature is more or less a mirrored reflection of the environment of its authors: so (as we might have expected) we find that the character of the mythology developed on that ancient Asiatic table-land, to which philologists and ethnologists now look back as to the source of the many branches of the great Indo-European family, was a natural outgrowth of the simple life led by the primitive herdsmen and farmers among whom it arose. Dwelling amid abundant herds, which furnished at once their occupation and their principal sustenance, in an atmosphere redolent of the breath of cattle, this pastoral race most naturally transferred the names and attributes of these objects of their daily care to the heavenly bodies and to various meteorological occurrences. The sky, for them, was peopled with cows and bulls, and celestial phenomena were personified in language which was already in daily use, in its literal sense. Thus arose a whole system of zoological mythology, in which the animals represented and all pertaining to them bore symbolic meanings. A literal interpretation of certain of these mythical beliefs gave rise to "the superstitious Hindoo custom of purifying one's self by means of the excrement of a cow." Later, the same custom passed into ancient Iran, where the urine of various animals was made use of in religious rites. How much stress the sacred books of the Parsees laid upon this mode of lustration may be gathered from the brief account of the use of the "Nirang," as the liquid in question is called, given in Max Müller's "Chips from a German Workshop." It has often happened that substances as well as ceremonies, which originally had a religious signification, in later ages degenerated into fancied cures for disease; so, is it not more than probable that the employment of animal excreta as remedies among the less intelligent classes in different parts of Europe, in both earlier and later times, as well as in our own newest offshoot from the Indo European stem, is a survival of early Aryan religious observances? Many ignorant people in various parts of the United States today believe that a decoction made by steeping in water the manure of sheep is a sovereign remedy in measles, and very similar notions are found among the English and German peasantry. In one of Bale's "Interludes," published in 1562, in which various remedies for common ailments of the lower animals are recounted in quaint verse, the same substance is recommended as "wholesom for the pyppe." In that repertory of curious information, Brand's "Popular Antiquities," the following statement is quoted from a statistical account of County Stirling, in Scotland: "A certain quantity of cow-dung is forced into the mouth of a calf immediately after it is calved, or, at least, before it receives any meat; owing to this the vulgar believe that witches and fairies can have no power ever after to injure the calf." In Cumberland, England, a reputed cure for ear-ache is the application of a bit of wool from a black sheep moistened in cow's urine. Possibly it is a modified form of this latter notion that is found in the island of Mount Desert, where it is said that the wool must be wet in new milk; while in Vermont, to be efficacious, it is thought that the wool must be gathered from the left side of the neck of a perfectly black sheep. In other localities negro's wool is a reputed cure for the same pain. It seems almost incredible, whatever their origin, that remedies of so offensive a character as many of those above given can still retain a place even in the rudest traditional pharmacopoeia, but there seems to be in the uneducated human mind a sort of reverence for or faith in that which is in itself disagreeable or repulsive. This idea apparently rules instead of rational judgment in the selection of many popular household remedies in the shape of oils of most loathsome derivation, such as "skunk-oil," "angle-worm oil" (made by slowly rendering earth-worms in the sun), "snake-oil" of various kinds, etc. George Borrow, in that rare idyl of vagabondage, "Lavengro," tells of various encounters with an old herbalist who always carried on his back a stout leathern bag, into which he gathered not simples but vipers, whose oil he extracted for medicinal purposes. The faith of this wandering English mediciner and his numerous customers of half a century ago in the viper-oil is quite equaled to-day by that of American frontiersmen in the peculiar virtues of rattlesnake-oil. It is just possible that subtle remedial powers do exist in some of these oils, but it is not easy to ascertain why lard or olive-oil might not take the place of these disgusting unguents.

The belief in "snake-oil" as a remedy is probably only one phase of the feeling which so often and among such different races has given rise to serpent-worship. Since the publication of a previous paper, in which several popular superstitions about snakes were mentioned, a few additional ones have come to my knowledge. In various parts of New England it is commonly believed, even by people of a good deal of intelligence, that rheumatism and sprains may be relieved by wearing a dried snakeskin—according to some, that of a black snake—about the part affected. The dried skin of an eel is often used instead, very likely from the common misapprehension which classes this fish among snakes. Dried skins of snakes are often kept ready for use in New England barns, as it is currently believed that a portion chopped up and mixed with the food of a cow after parturition will obviate any difficulty there may be in securing the expulsion of the placenta. The cow-boys of the West often wear the rattles of the rattlesnake in their hat-linings as a cure for or preventive of headache—the greater the number of rattles the more certain the remedy. In some parts of England a snake's tooth is frequently carried as a charm against drowning. The belief that sound teeth may be secured by biting into a live black snake I find exists in many places in the United States, both North and South. An interesting Tennessee notion is that the first thunder in the spring "wakens the snakes," and from that time forth one must beware of meeting them. There also ferns are popularly called "snake-weeds," as it is supposed that snakes abound in their vicinity, and so both children and adults are afraid to walk where ferns grow, for fear of being bitten by the reptiles. In the same State it is not uncommon after killing a snake, in time of drought, to hang it on a tree for three days as a sure means of bringing rain. In other localities in the South it is said that the snake must be hung with "its back down," if rain be desired, for if the back be turned skyward it will certainly prevent rain. The belief, so very general in the United States, that any and every species of snake is poisonous, and the bite or "sting" therefore dangerous, is also prevalent in Nova Scotia, and it is there thought that the wound of a snake is certain to be deadly unless the victim can manage to reach water before the snake can, in which case the latter will die, and the person bitten will recover. A common warning throughout New England is, "You mustn't let a snake spit in your mouth, or it will certainly kill you!" The idea that a snake's saliva must be poisonous is quite in keeping with the host of other misconceptions concerning the powers and qualities of the animal, but the utter impossibility of such feats of expectoration would seem self-evident to the most untrained observer. One not familiar with the unreasonable horror which usually impels people to flee from even the most harmless snake might infer from the form of this injunction that the much-slandered reptiles are frequently kept as pets, and are therefore on such terms of familiarity with human beings as to make it easily possible for this fabled spitting into the mouth to occur. In Peabody, Mass., I have heard of a notion that I have not met with elsewhere—viz., that a snake will not go near where geraniums grow.

A physician formerly from De Kalb County, Ill., reports that illiterate people there believe that a whiff, however slight, of the breath of the "blow-snake" (Heterodon platyrrhinus) is "sure death." A stalwart young man, while out hunting, has been known to faint simply because he fancied that a "blow-snake," which his companion was teasing, had reached him with its fatal breath. The blow-snake of Illinois is variously known in other localities as hog-nose, flat-head, viper, and puff-adder. This quite harmless snake affords what I think we may unquestionably call a fine example of protective resemblance, for so cunningly does he mimic the appearance and behavior of some really venomous snakes that his threatening aspect in general strikes terror into the beholder. In Maine, if a cow that has been grazing gives less milk than usual, or than is expected, it is often believed that the common garter-snake has sucked the cow. This strange belief, doubtless, is of remote origin, as it is very common among the housewives of the Russian peasantry.

How great a place not serpents alone, but other reptiles, and batrachians as well, have occupied in the popular imagination as possessors of magical powers, is well shown by the composition of the witches' hell-broth in "Macbeth":

"Round about the caldron go,
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad that under cold stone
Days and nights hast thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping; got,
Boil thou first i' the charmèd pot!

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog.
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

In the Southern States the bite of a harmless little green lizard (Sceloporus?) is considered fatal. The negroes and poor whites call the little fellows "skyarpins" (scorpions?). Despite the reputed poisonous nature of these lizards, children are fond of teasing them, holding them at bay with a long stick, and provoking them to "show their money-bags," for, when angered, they have the power to distend and somewhat change the color of their throats. A queer superstition concerning another lizard (the Zoötoca vivipara) is found in the north of England. It is there said that if one pick up one of these creatures and touch its back with the tongue, that organ will thenceforth be endowed with a magical power to cure burns. The belief that a turtle can come out of its shell whenever it likes is not uncommon in the Southern States. In Bucks County, Pa., it is believed that if some one's initials be carved on the under shell of a turtle, it will never leave the locality—an excellent example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc style of reasoning.

The saying that if a turtle bites you it will not let go till it thunders, is sent me from both Tennessee and Maine. Being found in localities so far apart, I dare say it may be more widespread. In New Brunswick the story goes that the turtle will not let go until sundown. It is a fashion among children, and to some extent among grown-up people as well, along the New England coast, to carry in the pocket a small bone which is called a "lucky-bone." Sometimes this is a small bone cut from a turtle while the animal is yet alive. Again the small, serrated, enameled, and very white bone found in the head of a codfish serves the purpose of bringing good luck. Farther west, in the habitat of the gar, a small bone from the head of this fish is supposed to possess the charm; while in Petit Codiac, N. B., the globular head of the femur of a pig is often kept as a lucky-bone in a box or bureau-drawer. Somewhat akin to those just mentioned is a superstition found among the Russian peasantry, which runs as follows: If a bat which has become entangled in one's hair at midnight be killed, and a small bone in or about the shoulder (I can not ascertain just what one it is) be taken out and carried in the pocket, it will have the power to render the bearer invisible at will.

In one village at least in eastern Massachusetts the passer-by may often hear children call out to their playfellows, if a toad appear on the playground, "Don't step on that toad, or your grandmother'll die!" Less general than the belief that handling a toad will produce warts is the fancy that it will cause freckles. An English superstition is that to carry the head of a frog wrapped in silk will protect one from the gallows. In the neighborhood of Halifax, N. S., the yellow-spotted salamander (Amblystoma punctatum) is known as "man-creeper" or "man-killer," and it is thought that each contains poison enough to kill (if given internally) as many men as the animal has spots!

There are a great many stories afloat of snakes having lived for months or even years in the human stomach. I quote the following account from the "Bucks County Intelligencer," Pa.:

"A Connecticut lady tells us that, as a child, she knew of more than one person 'who had swallowed a snake's egg.' The snake grew, and when hungry, would 'cluck' in the throat of its unwilling host. The only way to get rid of the uncanny tenant was for the person to fast until hunger compelled the snake to venture out to a plate of untasted victuals upon the table. This is a genuine myth that no doubt still exists in the central part of Connecticut."

A Massachusetts country girl told me of another case which she said she had never thought of doubting; a lady was long annoyed by the presence of a snake in her stomach supposed to have been swallowed while still very small in drinking-water. She finally decoyed from its quarters the unwelcome occupant by boiling a large dish of milk, over which she bent until the snake came out to feed. Similar myths are common in New England, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, in which eels or "lizards" (newts) take the place of snakes. In the "South End" of Boston there lives a man who is nicknamed "Lizard" by the street-boys, because it is currently reported that he for many years unwillingly entertained one of these batrachian parasites. In every instance it is believed that the only relief possible is to coax forth the creature by some tempting dish of food or drink. I can not refrain from quoting verbatim another of these fables which I heard narrated not long since:

"I knew uv a man in Nova Scotia, who wuz drinkin' frum a pond one day, 'nd he swallowed a young lizard that lived 'nd grew in his stomach a long time. At last he suffered so much that his frien's bound um fast t' a tree so he couldn' help umself to water er any kind uv drink, 'nd kep' um fer three days on salt pork. Uv course 't the end uv that time he wuz very thirsty, 'nd ez soon ez his ropes were vmtied he hurried to a runnin' brook 'nd bent down over the water t' drink, 'nd the lizard came out t' drink, 'nd so he got rid of um."

In the Boston papers more than a year ago this oft-repeated story appeared in a still more incredible form. A bat was reported to have been expelled alive from the stomach of a woman, where it had lived for seven years on a diet consisting chiefly of milk and water. Probably most such fictions could be disposed of in as summary a way as that in which the well-known comparative anatomist. Prof. Jeffries Wyman, is said, in a printed anecdote, to have dealt with one of these alleged denizens of the human stomach:

"Prof. Wyman, on entering the office of his friend Dr. Augustus A. Gould, an eminent Boston physician, was asked his opinion about a curious case. His friend, a clergyman, had just brought in an animal which he said a worthy parishioner of his, a man of unimpeachable veracity, after some years of suffering in his stomach, had recently vomited, while sitting on a rock in an open field. The animal tried to escape, but was caught. Prof. Wyman at once recognized it as a young blacksnake, which could not have lived years in the man's stomach and then been vomited. The clergyman indignantly denied that his worthy parishioner could be mistaken or would deceive, and wanted to argue the case. The professor said he would not waste time in dispute, and with his penknife immediately opened the reptile's stomach and turned out some grasshoppers, beetles, and other remnants of the usual food of such animals. He said to the clergyman, 'It seems that your parishioner has a liking for a peculiar kind of diet.'"[2]


  1. See "The Popular Science Monthly" for July, 1886.
  2. The writer will gratefully acknowledge the receipt of additional myths of similar character to those here given, with a view to subsequent fuller treatment of the subject. It will be of service if considerable detail be given in regard to the geographical or social boundaries of the superstition, and if the latter be stated as explicitly as possible. (Address Mrs. Fanny D. Bergen, 17 Arlington St., North Cambridge, Mass.)