The Myths and Fables of To-Day

The Myths and Fables of To-Day

Samuel Adams Drake
Samuel Adams Drake

Author: Drake, Samuel Adams, 1833-1905
The Myths and Fables of To-Day


I. A Reckoning with Time 1
II. The Folk-lore of Childhood 25
III. Weather Lore 34
IV. Signs of All Sorts 47
V. Charms to Good Luck 55
VI. Charms against Disease 85
VII. Of Fate in Jewels 109
VIII. Of Love and Marriage 122
IX. Of Evil Omens 144
X. Of Haunted Houses, Persons, and Places 182
XI. Of Presentiments 208
XII. The Divining-rod 229
XIII. Wonders of the Physical Universe 234
XIV. Ships that Pass in the Night 244
XV. Fortune-telling, Astrology, and Palmistry 259


“Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.”

To say that superstition is one of the facts of history is only to state a truism. If that were all, we might treat the subject from a purely philosophical or historical point of view, as one of the inexplicable phenomena of an age much lower in intelligence than our own, and there leave it.

But if, also, we must admit superstition to be a present, a living, fact, influencing, if not controlling, the everyday acts of men, we have to deal with a problem as yet unsolved, if not insolvable.

I know it is commonly said that such things belong to a past age—that they were the legitimate product of ignorance, and have died out with the education of the masses. In other words, we know more than our ancestors did about the phenomena of nature, and therefore by no means accept, as they did—good, superstitious souls!—the appearance of a comet blazing in the heavens, or the heaving of an earthquake under our feet, as events having moral significance. With the aid of electricity or steam we perform miracles every day of our lives, such as, no doubt, would have created equal wonder and fear for the general stability of the world not many generations ago.

Very true. So far as merely physical phenomena are concerned, most of us may have schooled ourselves to disunite them wholly from coming events; but as regards those things which spring from the inward consciousness of the man himself, his intuitions, his perceptions, his aspirations, his imaginative nature, which, if strong enough, is capable of creating and peopling a realm wholly outside of the little world he lives in—“ay, there’s the rub.” Who will undertake to span the gulf stretching out a shoreless void between the revelations of science and the incomprehensible mysteries of life itself? It is upon that debatable ground that superstition finds its strongest foothold, and, like the ivy clinging round old walls, defies every attempt to uproot it. As Hamlet so cogently puts it,—

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Superstition, we know, is much older than recorded history, and we now stand on the threshold of the twentieth century; yet just in proportion as humanity has passed over this enormous space of time, hand in hand with progress, superstition has followed it like its shadow. That shadow has not yet passed away.

There is no sort of use in denying the proneness of weak human nature to admit superstition. It is an open door, through which the marvellous finds easy access. Imbibed in the cradle, it is not even buried in the grave. “Age cannot stale, nor custom wither” those ancient fables of ghosts, giants, goblins, and brownies told by fond mothers to children to-day, just as they were told by mothers centuries ago. Even the innocent looking Easter egg, which continues to enjoy such unbounded popularity with old and young, comes of an old Aryan myth; while the hanging up of one’s stocking, at Christmas, is neither more nor less than an act of superstition, originating in another myth; or, in plain English, no Santa Claus, no stocking.

How much of childhood’s charm in the greatest of all annual festivals, the world over, would remain if Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and St. Nicholas were stripped of their traditional, but wholly fictitious, character? One of our popular magazines for children—long life to it!—flourishes under the title of St. Nicholas to-day; and during the very latest observance of the time-honored festival, a leading journal in New England’s chief city devoted considerable space in its editorial columns to an elaborate defence of that dear old myth Santa Claus, with whom, indeed, we should be very loth to part, if only for the sake of old associations.

It is also noticed that quite recently stories of the wonderful brownies have enjoyed their greatest popularity. For a time these spindle-shanked, goggle-eyed puppets could be seen in every household, in picture-books, on book covers, in the newspapers—in short, everywhere. Should the children be told that there never were any such creatures as fairies or brownies, there would be an end to all the charm they possess; for, unquestionably, their only hold upon the popular mind rests upon the association with olden superstition. Otherwise they would be only so many commonplace rag dolls.

Kipling’s popular “Jungle Stories,” probably more widely read than any stories of the century, give still further effect to the same idea.

Now, is not the plea that these are mere harmless nothings by far the most short-sighted one that could be advanced? The critical thought to be impressed here is that about the first teaching little children receive is a lesson in superstition, and that, too, at a time when their young minds are most susceptible to lasting impressions. We have yet to hear of the mother, nursery-maid, or governess, who begins the story of Cinderella or Bluebeard with the warning that it is not “a real true story,” as children say.

Are children of a larger growth any less receptive to the marvellous? “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” The seed first planted in virgin soil later bears an abundant harvest. Stage plays, operas, poetry, romances, painting, and sculpture dealing with the supernatural command quite as great a popularity, to-day, as ever. Fortune telling, palmistry, astrology, clairvoyance, hypnotism, and the rest, continue to thrive either as a means of getting a living, or of innocent diversion, leaving their mark upon the inner consciousness just the same in one case as in the other.

So much being undeniable, it stands with every honest inquirer after truth to look these facts in the face without blinking. Ignorance we dare not plead. The dictates of a sound common sense will not permit us to dismiss what we do not understand with a laugh, a shrug, or a sneer. “To scold is not to answer.”

Superstition is not easily defined. To say that it is a disposition to believe more than is warranted by reason, leaves us just as helpless as ever; for where reason is impotent we have nothing tangible left to fall back upon. There is absolutely no support on which to rest that lever. Religion and philosophy, which at first fostered superstition, long ago turned against it all the forces they possessed. Not even science may hope to overthrow what can only be reached through the inner consciousness of man, because science can have little to do with the spiritual side of man. That intangible something still eludes its grasp. If all these combined forces of civilization have so far signally failed to eradicate superstition, so much the worse for civilization.

We might also refer to the efforts of some very erudite scholars to interpret modern superstition by the aid of comparative mythology. Vastly interesting, if not wholly convincing, theories have been constructed on this line. Instructive, too, is the fact that some of our most familiar nursery stories may be traced to the ancient folk-lore of still older peoples. Even a remote antiquity is claimed for the familiar nursery tale of “Jack and Jill”; while something very similar to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” is found, in its purity, in the grewsome werewolf folk-lore of Germany; and “Jonah’s Gourd,” of the East, we are told, probably is the original of “Jack and the Beanstalk” of the West.

But the very fact of the survival of all these hoary superstitions, some of them going back so far that all further trace is lost, certainly furnishes food for thought, since they seemingly enjoy as great a popularity as ever.

Superstition being thus shown to be as old as human history, the question naturally arises, not how it may have originated in the Dark Ages, but how it has kept its hold so tenaciously throughout all the succeeding centuries down to our own time.

Most peoples, barbarians even, believed in some sort of a future state, in the principle of good and evil, and of rewards and punishments. There needs no argument then to account for the insatiable longing to pry into futurity, and to discover its hidden mysteries. The same idea unsettled the minds of former generations, nor can it be truthfully said to have disappeared before the vaunted wisdom of this utilitarian age. Like all forbidden fruit, this may be said to be the subject of greatest anxiety to weak human kind.

What then is this talisman with the aid of which we strive to penetrate the secrets of the world beyond us?

Man being what he is, only “a little lower than the angels,” endowed with the supernatural power of calling up at will mental images of both the living and the dead, of building air-castles, and peopling them according to his fantasy, as well in Cathay as in Spain, of standing by the side of an absent friend on the summit of Mont Blanc, one moment among the snows, the next flitting through the garden spots of sunny Italy—if he is thus capable of transporting himself into an enchanted land by the mere exercise of the power of his imagination—what could better serve him as a medium of communication with the unknown, and what shall deter him from seeking to fathom its deepest mysteries? Napoleon said truly that the imagination governs the universe. Every one has painted his own picture of heaven and hell as well as Dante or Milton, or the divine mysteries as truly as Leonardo or Murillo. Surely, the imagination could go no further.

Assuming this to be true, there is little need to ask why, in this enlightened age, the attempt should be made to revive vagaries already decrepit, that would much better be allowed to go out with the departed century, unhonored and unsung. Such a question could proceed only from a want of knowledge of the true facts in the case.

But whether superstition is justified by the dictates of a sound common sense, is not so material here, as whether it actually does exist; and if so, to what extent. That is what we shall try to make clear in the succeeding pages. The inquiry grows interesting in many ways, but most of all, we think, as showing the slow stages by which the human mind has enfranchised itself from a species of slavery, without its counterpart in any direction to which we may turn for help or guidance. Even science, that great leveller of popular error, limps here. Certainly, what has existed as long as human history must be accepted as a more or less active force in human affairs. We are not, therefore, dealing with futilities.

Of the present status of superstition, the most that can be truthfully said is that some of its worst forms are nearly or quite extinct, some are apparently on the wane, while those representing, perhaps, the widest extremes (the most puerile and the most vital), such, for example, as relate to vapid tea-table gossip on the one hand, and to fatal presentiments on the other, continue quite as active as ever. Uncivilized beings are now supposed to be the only ones who still hold to the belief in witchcraft, although within a very few months it has been currently reported as a fact that the judge of a certain Colorado court admitted the plea of witchcraft to be set up, because, as this learned judge shrewdly argued, more than half the people there believed in it. The defendant, who stood charged with committing a murderous assault upon a woman, swore that she had bewitched him, and was acquitted by the jury, mainly upon his own testimony.

Unquestionably modern hypnotism comes very close to solving the problem of olden witchcraft, which so baffled the wisdom, as it tormented the souls and bodies, of our ancestors, with this difference: that, while witchcraft was believed to be a power to work evil, coming direct from his Satanic Majesty himself, hypnotism is a power or gift residing in the individual, like that of mesmerism.

But if it be true that there are very few believers in witchcraft among enlightened beings to-day, it cannot be denied that thousands of highly civilized men and women as firmly believe in some indefinable relation between man and the spirit world as in their own existence; while tens of thousands believe in such a relation between mind and mind. Indeed, the former class counts some very notable persons among its converts. For example, Camille Flammarion, the distinguished scientist, positively declares that he has had direct communication with hundreds of departed spirits.1 And the Reverend M. J. Savage, pastor of the Church of the Messiah, in New York, is reported to have announced himself a convert to spiritualism to his congregation not long ago.

The true explanation for all these different beliefs must be sought for, we think, deep down in the nature of man, which is much the same to-day in its relation to the supernatural world as it was in the days of our fathers of bigoted memory. In reality, the supernatural element exists to a greater or less degree in all of us, and no merely human agency can pretend to fix its limits.

Unquestionably, then, those beliefs which have exerted so potent an influence in the past over the minds or affairs of men, which continue to exert such influence to-day, and, for ought we know to the contrary, may extend that influence indefinitely, are not to be whistled down the wind, or kept hidden away under lock and key, especially when we reflect that the most terrible examples of the frailty of all human judgments concerning these beliefs have utterly failed to remove the groundwork upon which they rest.

There still remains the sentimental side of superstition to consider. What, for example, would become of much of our best literature, if all those apt and beautiful figures culled from the rich stores of ancient mythology—the very flowers of history, so to speak—were to be weeded out of it with unsparing hand? What would Greek and Roman history be with their gods and goddesses left out? With what loving and appreciative art our greatest poets have gathered up the scattered legends of the fading past. Some one has cunningly said that superstition is the poetry of life, and that of all men poets should be superstitious.

As a matter of history, it is well known that our Puritan ancestors came over here filled full of the prevalent superstitions of the old country; yet even they had waged uncompromising warfare against all such ceremonious observances as could be traced back to heathen mythology. Thus, although they cut down May-poles, they had too much reverence for the Bible to refuse to believe in witches. Writers like Mr. Hawthorne have supposed that the wild and extravagant mysteries of their savage neighbors, may, to some extent, have become incorporated with their own beliefs. However that may be, it is certain that the Puritan fathers believed in no end of pregnant omens, also in ghosts, apparitions, and witches, as well as in a personal devil, with whom, indeed, later on, they had no end of trouble. In short, if anything happened out of the common, the devil was in it. So say many to-day.

A certain amount of odium has attached itself to the Puritan fathers of New England, on this account, among unreflecting or ill-natured critics at least, just as if, upon leaving Old England, those people would be expected to leave their superstitions behind them, like so much useless luggage. As a matter of fact, rank superstition was the common inheritance of all peoples of that day and generation, whether Jew or Gentile, Frenchman or Dutchman, Virginian or New Englander. Of its wide prevalence in Old England we find ample proof ready to our hand. For example:

“At Boston, in Lincolnshire, Mr. Cotton being their former minister, when he was gone the bishop desired to have organs set up in the church, but the parish was unwilling to yield; but, however, the bishop prevailed to be at the cost to set them up. But they being newly up (not playing very often with them) a violent storm came in at one window and blew the organs to another window, and brake both organs and window down, and to this day the window is out of reputation, being boarded and not glazed.”2

Still further to show the feeling prevailing in England toward superstition at the time of the settlement of this country, in the historical essay entitled “With the King at Oxford,” we find this anecdote: The King (Charles I.), coming into the Bodleian Library on a certain day, was shown a very curious copy of Virgil. Lord Falkland persuaded his Majesty to make trial of his fortune by thrusting a knife between the leaves, then opening the book at the place in which the knife was inserted. The king there read as follows:—

“Yet let him vexed bee with arms and warres of people wilde,
And hunted out from place to place, an outlaw still exylde:
Let him go beg for helpe, and from his childe dissevered bee,
And death and slaughter vile of all his kindred let him see.”

The narrative goes on to say that the king’s majesty was “much discomposed” by this uncanny incident, and that Lord Falkland, in order to turn the king’s thoughts away from brooding over it, proposed making the trial himself.

We continue to draw irrefragable testimony to the truth of our position from the highest personages in the realm. Again, according to Wallington, Archbishop Laud, arch persecutor of the Puritans, has this passage in his diary: “That on such or such a day of the month he was made archbishop of

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