Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/June 1895/Survivals of Sun-Worship

1228666Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 June 1895 — Survivals of Sun-Worship1895Fanny Dickerson Bergen



WHEN happy boys and girls sing, "Here we go round the mulberry bush," or "Oats, peas, and barley grow," and gracefully step time to the words as they circle round and round, they dream not that in these and other ring games they often keep alive survivals of ancient sacred ceremonies. When some careful housewife tells her daughter or servant to be sure to stir cake or beat eggs in the same direction in which she begins, neither the matron nor her assistant has the faintest notion that this rather general rule in domestic affairs may be the survival of some very old religious rite. In this brief paper no attempt will be made to trace definite relationships between trivial customs of to-day and their ancient prototypes, or to draw any serious conclusions from the few miscellaneous illustrations that I have here and there picked up of the dextral and the sinistral circuits. I simply add them for what they may be worth to the mass of material on the subject that is gradually being accumulated by ethnologists. All sorts of unexpected survivals of old religious observances constantly appear in common everyday life. They are but degraded, tattered remnants of what ages ago were dignified, sacred rites. Considering how English-speaking folk have inherited influences from a great variety of sun-worshiping peoples, it would not be strange if there were found among them many outcrops of a worship that has been, and still is, in some form or other extremely widespread among primitive peoples. The early trading and colonizing Phœnicians, the Druids, the North German and Scandinavian invaders, all have left traces of their religious customs confusedly intermingled with Christianity. In dealing with the origination of actions or customs in which is involved what Dr. Fewkes calls the ceremonial circuit,[1] it is difficult to determine the value of the factor, whether it be large or small, that is due to the greater convenience of moving in a righthanded direction. Occasionally the dextral circuit is followed in cases in which it is evidently less convenient than the sinistral would be, as in dealing cards in all ordinary games. Also who can tell just how large or small an element may depend upon the tradition that the left hand in itself is uncanny without reference to the sun's apparent motion? There certainly is a general feeling of wide distribution that to be left-handed is unfortunate. Dr. Fewkes's careful and valuable researches among the Moki Indians of Arizona, however, show without doubt that they in their religious rites make the circuits sinistrally—i. e., contrary to the apparent course of the sun, or, as physicists say, contra-clockwise. The Mokis also are careful to stir medicines according to the sinistral circuit. But countless instances go to show that among Asiatic and European peoples the general belief or feeling is that the dextral circuit—i. e., clockwise, or with the apparent motion of the sun—is the correct and auspicious direction.

The following illustrations of this I quote from William Simpson's Meeting the Sun:[2] "They [people of past times] held that going sunwise was good and lucky, while going the opposite way was unpropitious. The Lama monk twirls his mani or praying cylinder in one direction on this account, and he fears lest a stranger should get his wheel and turn it the other way, thus destroying whatever virtue it had acquired. They also build piles of stones, and uniformly pass them on one side in going and on the other side in returning, thus making a circuit in imitation of the sun. The ancient dagopas of India and Ceylon were also thus circumambulated. The Mohammedan performs the 'tawaf' or circuit of the Caaba after the same fashion; and it is an old Irish and Scotch custom to go 'Deisul' or sunwise, round houses and graves, and to turn their bodies in this way at the beginning and end of journeys for luck, as well as at weddings and various ceremonies."

To turn the opposite way was called by them "withershins," and supposed to be an act intimately connected with the purposes of the evil one. Witches danced this way, and in imitation of the same read prayers backward. The author of Olrig Grange, in an early poem, describes this most graphically:

"Hech! sirs, but we bad grand fun
Wi' the muckle black deil in the chair,
And the muckle Bible upside doon
A' ganging withershins roun' and roun',
And backwards saying the prayer.
About the warlock's grave,
Withershins gangin' roun',
And kimmer and carlins had for licht
The fat of a bairn they buried that nicht,
Unchristened beneath the moon."[3]

The Imperial Dictionary gives the derivation of the word withershins as from the Anglo-Saxon wither, against, and sunne, the sun—that is, contrary to the motion of the sun—though I believe there has been some disagreement regarding the origin of the word. It is sometimes spelled widershins, which would imply a direct relation to the German wider and schein. Withershins movements were generally used in working spells or counter-charms. It was an old popular belief in the Highlands of Perthshire that if on Hallow-eve one were to go alone around one of the fairy hillocks nine times withershins (sinistrorsum), a door would open by which he could enter the subterranean abode of the good people.[4]

In Joseph Jacobs's version of the fairy tale of Childe Rowland it was because in seeking the ball lost by her brothers in their play their sister Burd Ellen ran around a church withershins that the fairies carried her away. Also, when the third brother seeks her in Elfland, it is by following the direction given him by the hen-wife viz., to go three times withershins around the fairy hill that he obtains entrance to the Dark Tower, from which he safely carries the long-lost sister and the two elder brothers.[5]

As contra-sunwise motions were thought to be of ill omen or to be able to work in supernatural ways, so it came to be believed that to reverse other acts as, for instance, reading the Bible or repeating the Lord's prayer backward might produce powerful counter-charms. The negroes in the Southern States often resort to both of these latter practices to lay disturbing ghosts. In the ring games of our school children they always move sunwise, though whether because of convenience or from some forgotten reason who can say?

The weight of authority concerning the English May-day festivities and ceremonies goes to prove that their origin was in the old Roman Floralia, but there is some evidence to show that such celebrations are at least in part of Gothic origin. I suppose that there is little or no doubt that the northern European nations did welcome the return of the spring sun with dancing, and Brand quotes Borlase as stating that the May rejoicings in Cornwall are a gratulation to the spring. The old Beltane games and dances so named from a corrupted spelling of the compound derived from the Phoenician word Baal, the sun, and the Gaelic word tein, meaning fire that were practiced in Perthshire and other parts of Scotland until the beginning of this century, contained many survivals of sun-worship.[6]

Lady "Wilde says that the Beltane dance in a circle about a bush hung with ribbons and garlands, or about a lighted bush or a bonfire, celebrating the returning power of the sun, is still kept up in parts of Ireland on May-day, and that those taking part in the dance always move sunwise.[7] It seems highly probable that the Celtic May-day ceremonials and customs were of quite different origin from those of England, and in many small superstitions concerning May-day we find among the Irish peasantry frequent hints at sun-worship or of the worship of fire, the symbol of the sun. It is still believed to be unsafe or even profane to carry fire from one house to another on May-day; and on that day, when evil-minded persons or witches have special power, the butter in the churn may be protected from bewitchment by placing a live coal under the churn.

Undoubtedly the most remarkable survivals of sun-worshiping festivals in modern Europe are the Christmas rejoicings, which are but a Christianized relic of the old Yule celebration, marking the occurrence of the midwinter solstice, and the merrymaking on St. John's eve, which is merely an adaptation of the midsummer fire-festival of pagan times. In our own country the latter occasion passes unnoticed, but Christmas is sufficiently observed.

It is a general popular belief throughout the United States that in making cake the eggs, or indeed the whole mixture, must be stirred or beaten from beginning to end in the same direction in which the stirring began, or the cake will not be light, and that a custard will curdle if the stirring motion is reversed.

This superstition is still current even in households where a patent egg-beater is used, which is so constructed that its loops of wire revolve in opposite ways at the same time; and, although the result is most satisfactory, the belief in the old rule of stirring "only one way," or in a dextral direction, is unshaken. Often it is said that the stirring must be sunwise, the popular expression for this dextral motion being "with the sun." The same notion is found in Newfoundland; and a woman from Aberdeen, Scotland, tells me that it' is a general belief among her countrywomen that, to succeed in any household work where either stirring or rubbing is involved, the movement should always be "with the sun." Some matrons in northern Ohio say that to insure good bread the dough should be stirred "with the sun," and that yeast should be made as near sunrise as possible to secure lightness. It is also a common saying that if, after turning the crank of a churn for a time sunwise (the most natural way for a right-handed person), it be turned backward, all the work done will be undone. The same superstition is found in Newfoundland. In southern Sweden cooks will tell you that, in beating butter to a froth or in making gravy, the stirring must continue as begun, to secure good results; and in eastern Massachusetts I find that the superstition extends even to the processes of making ice-cream and molasses candy. The notion that lye soap will not "come"—i. e., saponify—unless it is stirred "with the sun" is more or less current in localities where this old-fashioned industry is yet carried on; and in parts of the South you will he told that if the soap be stirred backward it will turn to lye. I have been told that wheelwrights, in greasing the wheels of a wagon or carriage, are in the habit of beginning with a certain wheel and going round the whole vehicle in a set way.

In New Harbor, Newfoundland, it is customary, in getting off small boats, especially when gunning or sealing, to take pains to start from east to west, and, when the wind will permit, the same custom is observed in getting large schooners under way. So, too, in the Western Isles, off the coast of Scotland, boats at starting are, or at any rate used to be, rowed in a sunwise course to insure a lucky voyage.

Many persons in our own country are yet careful to have a new house placed exactly with the points of the compass, no matter whether or not by so doing the building is made parallel with the street which it faces. Occasionally one sees a front yard of an awkward three-cornered shape for this reason, though with practical Americans the idea of the necessity of having the house placed with the meridian is now losing ground. However, in older countries the subject of orientation has been much heeded in planning buildings, especially temples and churches. The east has been the auspicious direction, or that to which worshipers faced in many Asiatic countries, in pagan Rome, and in the early though not the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. In the old imperial palace in Kyoto the eastern gate is used for ceremonial purposes; the southern one is a general entrance; on the western sides there are several miscellaneous gates; but the northern gate is never opened save when a funeral passes forth, and under the old régime the same custom prevailed to a certain extent among the nobility. In general, the north is considered by the Japanese an unlucky direction, probably because it is thus that the dead are carried out for interment. In a Masonic lodge the master is stationed at the east end of the room, and if his place be not the geographical east it is so called.

It is a very common saying among card-players that if one's luck is poor he may change it by rising, walking around his chair three times, lifting the chair, and then resuming 'his game. An old love divination that comes from southeastern Ohio was as follows: Go after dark to an unoccupied house and throw a ball of yarn into it through a window; hold the loose end of the yarn in the hand, then pass three times around the empty house, winding the yarn, meantime repeating: "I wind and who holds? I wind and who holds?" Upon coming to the window the third time the questioner of fate will see the apparition of his or her future spouse. Another love divination from Alabama, or "project," as such charms are called in various parts of New England, is on May morning to look into a spring that runs to the east, when the face of one's destined husband or wife will appear. If, however, the one trying the charm is to die unmarried, a coffin instead of a face will be seen.

The idea of sunwise movement often appears in folk medicine. Before the days of massage, in rubbing for rheumatic or other pains in Concord, Mass., it was thought best to rub from left to right—i. e., dextrally. A central Maine cure for ringworm is to rub in a sunwise direction about the diseased spot with a finger moistened with saliva. A Pennsylvania-German prescription says that a corn, wen, or other excrescence may be removed by rubbing "with the moon" if by night, and "with the sun" if by day. It is thought that the sun or moon, as the case may be, will draw away all pain and enlargement. Alabama negroes believe that a "conjurer" can rub away a "rising" (boil) by coming to your bedside about daybreak, before you have spoken to any one, and rubbing the inflamed surface for nine successive mornings. A reputed cure for biliousness among the negroes of the Eastern Shore of Maryland is to bore three holes in a tree, around which the patient is to walk three times as he repeats: "Go away, bilious. Go away, bilious."[8]

It will be noticed that in several of these cures, as well as in some of the charms already cited, no rule is given as to the direction to be followed in movement; but it is quite possible that the original description was more explicit, and it is almost certain that in every instance a sunwise course would now be followed.

A remedy for a "curb" in a horse, in northern Ohio, is to rub the curb with a bone at the going down of the sun. This smacks of the doctrine of signatures, as well as of sun lore. In the same region, some years ago there lived a Pennsylvania-German small farmer. He was somewhat known in the neighborhood as a charm doctor, and children who had been burned sometimes went to him tp have him "blow the fire out," and strangely enough, as I know by personal experience, the pain would disappear as he with his breath blew upon the smarting spot, meantime softly mumbling to himself. This man's cure for what is popularly known as the sweeny in horses was to rub "with the sun" every third morning until there was relief.

An Alabama superstition is that if the head of one dying be turned to the east his death will be easier. The subject of orientation as applied to the position of the dead, both before and after burial, is too complicated and extended to be more than barely referred to here, in connection with a few interesting customs still prevalent or lately extant in this country or in Europe. Examination shows that headstones in the old burial grounds of Plymouth, Concord, Old Deerfield, and Rutland, Mass., face the west, so that if the dead could rise to a standing posture they would face the east, long associated "with light and warmth, life and happiness and glory." It is customary among the Irish peasantry in County Cork to lay the dead "to be waked" in a similar position, as well as to dig the grave east and west. These customs are directly derived from the usage that prevailed through medieval times of digging the grave east and west and placing the head toward the latter point, a practice which doubtless was an outgrowth of the legend that Christ after death was thus laid. Rev. J. Owen Dorsey has found that the Indians of the Kansas and Omaha tribes place the dead with the head toward the east,[9] consequently no living Omaha will lie in this position. According to Schoolcraft, the Winnebagoes buried their dead in a sitting posture with the face west, or at full length with the feet west, "in order that they may look toward the happy land in the west."[10] An interesting observation made by Mr. Dorsey is that in singing one of their sacred songs the Kansas Indians were accustomed to raise their left hands, beginning at their left with the east wind, then turning to the south wind, then to the west wind, and last to the north wind, thus completing the dextral circuit. So far as I can gather from the writings of Schoolcraft and others, and from some questioning of experts in Indian customs, there would seem to have been no one rule common to all the North American tribes with regard to the position of the grave with reference to the points of the compass. Some preference for the east-andwest position seems to have existed among certain tribes, but their mode of interment was often modified to suit the contour of the land about their villages.

In a religious observance called "paying rounds" much practiced by the Irish peasantry, one finds an interesting instance of the dextral circuit. "Rounds" are paid for the cure of any disease or ailment, either by the person afflicted or vicariously for him by his mother, if living, or, if not, by some near friend. Servant girls in the United States, when ill, sometimes write home to Ireland and have rounds paid for them. The required rites may be performed at the grave of some holy priest, perhaps one who in his day wrought miracles, or at the grave of a priest who, before dying, gave directions that it would be right and fitting there to pay rounds to cure pain or sickness; or sometimes the place selected is a tomb where a saint has appeared, and not infrequently it is one of the "blessed wells—"e. g., the "well of the Blessed Virgin" in the parish of South Kilmaurray in County Cork, where are still shown in a rock near by the print of Mary's fingers and the dint left by the pressure of her knee as she once in her lifetime knelt there in consecrating this well. The mode of procedure in paying rounds at a grave is first to kneel at the foot and repeat a rosary, then to rise and kneel at the right shoulder of the one buried there and repeat another rosary, then to the head and repeat another rosary, then to the left side and repeat a fourth rosary. The person performing the rounds must next go to some neighboring well, whose water is never to be used for any other purpose, and fetch a cup of it to the grave. Into this cup of water he drops a pinch of earth taken from the grave, saying, "In the name of the Father"; then another, saying, "In the name of the Son"; then a third, saying, "In the name of the Holy Ghost." The one who is paying the rounds next goes behind the headstone of the grave, taking the cup of earth and water, and, if the disease to be cured is an external one—e. g., erysipelas—pours a little of the contents of the cup upon the affected part of the body and so bathes it, and also pours a little of it on the ground. If the disease is an internal one, a little of the liquid from the cup is swallowed. What remains of the earth and water is now to be poured back on the portion of the grave from which the earth was taken. Five paters and five aves are then to be said, after which the ceremony is concluded for the time by placing some "token," which may be a cup, a button, or a small coin, on the grave. Where rounds have been paid for many years, the grave is thickly covered with these tokens. After the first rounds have been completed, the whole ceremony must be repeated twice more, the only suitable day for the observance being Friday or Sunday. In some instances three times three rounds are vowed and paid. If the prescribed rites are gone through with at a holy well, the one seeking relief kneels at four different places around the well, always making the circuit, as at a grave, in a sunwise direction. Instead of leaving a token, the devotee, at each of the four stations, with a pebble scratches a cross on one of the top stones of the well wall.

It is said that it is customary among the Scottish Highlanders, when visiting a consecrated fountain or well, either to bathe or to quench thirst, to make the circuit sunwise.

  1. Journal of American Folklore, vol. v, No. 16, p. 33.
  2. Pp. 340, 341.
  3. Confessions of Annaple Gowdie, from The Bishop's Walk.
  4. Dr. Grahame's Scenery of the Perthshire Highlands, quoted by Scott in notes to Lady of the Lake, canto iv.
  5. English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland p. 117 et seq.
  6. See Napier's Folklore in the West of Scotland, pp. 161-1 70.
  7. Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, p. 106.
  8. In the province of Moray, in Scotland, hectic and consumptive diseases were thought to be cured by putting parings of the nails of the fingers and toes of the patient in a rag cut from his clothes, and then waving this parcel thrice round his head, crying, "Deas soil."—Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, quoted in Brand's Popular Antiquities, iii, 286.
  9. Mourning and War Customs of the Kansas Indians. American Naturalist, July, 1885.
  10. Schoolcraft, Indian Tribes, part iv, p. 54.