The Ancient Mysteries (2)

The migration of races can be clearly traced by their superstitions. The oldest seem to have come from Persia and Egypt; while mutilated, though still authentic portions of the old-world ritual can still he found all along the Mediterranean, marking the westward progress of the primitive nations, till the last wave found a resting-place on our own far-distant shores, washed by the waters of the Atlantic.

Assyria was the teacher of Egypt; Egypt of Greece; and Greece of Europe; and little seems to have been lost during the progress of sixty centuries. The old myths still remain at the base of all thought and all creeds; broken fragments of the primal faith; shadowy traditions of some great human life that once was real and actual, or of some great event that changed the destiny of nations, and the echo of which still vibrates through the legends, the songs, the poetry, and the usages of every people on the face of the earth.

Persia, Egypt, India, the Teuton, and the Celt, have all the same primal ideas in their mythology, and the same instincts of superstition; and the signs to which past ages have given a mystic meaning still come to us laden with a fateful significance, even in this advanced era of culture and the triumph of reason.

We still cannot, help believing that prophecies come in the night, for the mystical and prophetic nature of dreams is confirmed by the personal experience of almost every human being; and few are found brave enough, even amongst the educated classes, lightly to break through a traditional usage on which all the ages have set the seal of good or ill luck.

Superstition, or the belief in unseen, mysterious, spiritual influences, is an instinct of human nature. A vague, shadowy, formless belief, certainly, yet ineradicable. We feel that our dual humanity, the material as well as the psychical, holds some strange and mystic relation with an unseen spiritual world, though we cannot define the limits, nor bring it under a law.

Before the written word existed, the people strove to express their creed and history in symbols. Divine nations, like the Greeks, made the symbols beautiful, and these the uncultured tribes may afterwards have distorted into grotesque and rude imitations; but the same idea can be traced through all forms by which humanity has tried to represent history, nature, and God.

And the old Pagan customs of the early world seem to have an enduring vitality, and to have become fixed, even in the usages of the enlightened nineteenth century. The Persian Magi and the Druid priest exacted a tribute of the firstlings of the flock as a burnt-offering to the Sun-god on the day of his festival; so in modern times, we sacrifice a lamb at Easter and an ox at Christmas, retaining the pagan rite while we honour the Christian legend. The Christmas-tree is still lighted to guide the Sun-god back to life; and the spotted cake, anciently made in his honour, of corn and fruit, still finds its place on our tables, as the plum pudding of civilization, even as its primitive prototype was laid on the sacred altars of the Persians as an offering of gratitude to the Lord of Light and Life.

The widespread range of the same traditional customs and superstitions amongst all peoples and through every age is a most interesting study, as showing the primitive unity of the human race and the subsequent divergence of the nations, even as recorded in the Biblical narrative; but it would be endless to follow the lines of affinity that run through all the creeds, legends, usages and superstitions of the world. Thus the Algonquil Indians, according to Mr. Leland, held the ash-tree and the elm as sacred and mystical, because these trees were made human. Of the ash was made man, of the elm, woman.

So in the Edda, we read of the mighty ash-tree whose summit reaches to heaven, and whose roots go down to hell. Two fountains sprang from beneath it—one the knowledge of all that is; the other of all that shall be. And out of the wood man was created.

The Irish also hold the ash-tree as all-powerful against witchcraft; therefore branches of it were wreathed round the horns of the cattle, and round the child's cradle to keep off evil influence; while in all their weird tales of the fairy dances with the dead, the mortals drawn into their company are infallibly safe if they get possession of a branch of the ash-tree, and hold it safely till out of reach of the evil spell.

The alder is another of the mystical trees of Ireland, held sacred, as in Persia, on account of its possessing strange mysterious properties and powers to avert evil; and the hawthorn likewise was sacred to the Irish fairies, therefore a libation of milk was poured over the roots on May Day, as the Hindus poured milk on the earth round the sacred tree as an offering to the manes of the dead.

In the Transylvanian legends and superstitions, of which Madame Gerard has recently given an interesting record, many will be found identical with the Irish; such as these—Friday is the most unlucky day of all the week; evil spirits are strongest between sunset and midnight; it is ill-luck to have your path crossed by a hare; on entering a strange house sit down a moment, or a death will happen; spitting is at all times most efficacious against the influence of the devil; an infant's nails should be bitten, not cut; never rock an empty cradle; the robin and the swallow bring luck; never kill a spider; the crow and a black hen are ominous of evil. The dead are only in a trance; they hear everything but can make no sign. The Irish also believe that the dead are allowed at certain times to visit their living kindred. A whirlwind denotes that a devil is dancing with a witch; so the Irish believe that the fairies are rushing by in the whirlwind intent on carrying off some mortal victim to the fairy mansions; and the only help is to fling clay at the passing wind, when the fairies will be obliged to drop the mortal child, or the beautiful young girl they have abducted.

But the Roumanians are a mixed race—Greek, Slav, Teuton, Gypsey—and many of their superstitions are dark and gloomy, especially those relating to vampires, wolves, and terrible demons, evil spirits, and fearful witches. The Irish legends rarely deal with anything terrible or revolting. They circle, in general, round the mythus of the fairy, a bright and beautiful creation, only living for pleasure, music, and the dance, and rarely malignant or ill-natured, except when their dancing grounds are interfered with, or when they are not treated with proper generous consideration in the matter of wine.

The strange dance practised at Midsummer in Ireland round the Baal fires can clearly be traced from the East to Erin; and in its origin was evidently a religious symbol and rite. The Greeks practised it from the most ancient times. It was called the Pyrrhic dance—from pur fire—and simulated the windings of a serpent.

The Syrtos, the great national dance of the Ægean Islands, so well described by Mr. Bent in his interesting book on the Cyclades, also resembles the winding of a serpent. The dancers hold hands and circle round in tortuous curves precisely as in Ireland, where the line of dancers with joined hands, always moving from east to west, extends sometimes for a mile in length. It was probably a mystic dance symbolic of the path of the sun, though the esoteric meaning has now been entirely lost; part of the primal range of ideas out of which man first formed a religion and ritual of worship.

Many other practices and superstitions of the Greek islanders strongly resemble the Irish. The Nereids of the Ægean play the part of the Irish fairies, and are as capricious though often more malignant. If a child grows wan and weak the Nereids have struck it; and it is laid naked for a night on the altar steps to test the truth of the suspicion. If the poor child dies under the trial, then it certainly was bewitched by the evil spirits, and the parents are well content to be rid of the unholy thing.

The funeral wail over the dead also closely resembles the Irish, when the hired mourning women sit round the corpse, tear their hair, beat their breast and rock to and fro, intoning in a monotone chant the praises of the deceased, the cries at times rising to a scream, in a frenzy of grief and despair.

The islanders likewise use many charms and incantations like the Irish, while the old women amongst them display wonderful knowledge of the mystic nature and power of herbs, and are most expert in the cure of disease. It is indeed remarkable that, amongst all primitive tribes and nations, women have always shown the highest skill in the treatment of disease, and have been rightly accounted the best doctors, and the most learned in mystic medicinal lore.

The Marquis of Lorne, in his graphic and instructive "Canadian Pictures," speaks of the wonderful skill of the Indian women, and the remarkable cures effected by the squaws through their knowledge of the varied properties of herbs. The Indians also have a sweating bath for the sick, such as was used by the ancient Irish. A bath is made by stones covered over with branches; hot water is then poured on the stones, and the patient crouches over the heated vapour evolved until a violent perspiration is produced, which carries off the disease, or the pains in the members, without fail. The sweating bath of the Irish was made quite on the same principles, and is the most effective cure known for pains in the bones and feverish disorders. It is still used in the Western Islands. "The Sweating House," as it is called, is made of rough stones with a narrow entrance, through which the patient creeps on all-fours; when inside, however, he can stand up. A peat fire is kindled, and divesting himself of all clothing, he undergoes the process of sweating in a profuse perspiration as he lies on the stone floor. The place is heated like a baker's oven, but there is sufficient ventilation kept up by means of chinks and apertures through the stone work of the walls.

The cures effected by this process are marvellous. As the people say of it themselves, "Any disease that has a hold on the bones can't stand before it no time at all, at all."