Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
When man found his steps dogged by demons, he sought for means by which he could rid himself of those imps of evil which rendered his life an insupportable burden. His first impulse was to surround himself with safeguards, as a warrior in mail armour. But this necessitated an increase of restrictions each time evil spirits or daring men discovered means of breaking through his taboos. With the discovery of gunpowder mail armour became useless. Bullets could only be resisted by an increase in the weight and thickness of the protecting coat of mail, and warriors found it necessary to change their methods. So the savage whose taboos are rendered useless by a Lamech, finds it necessary to re-examine the whole surrounding. Must he add to the number of restrictions, to the weight of the already overburdened taboos, till they become like swaddling clothes in which he cannot move or breathe? Are his movements to be restricted as dangers multiply? Does the advent of each fresh enemy necessitate a re-adjustment of his whole philosophy?
The savage, feeling the awkwardness of his position by ever-increasing restrictions, arrived at the conception that, by a supreme effort made periodically,
or as occasion might arise, he could rid himself, for a time at least, of the evils which surrounded him. And when we come to this doctrine of devils and their expulsion, we arrive at a point which marks a distinct advance in thought. Under the earlier forms the king or earth spirit did good or evil according to humour or caprice; but with the conception of personal spirits, divided into a good class and a bad, we find men projecting into the supernatural what they experienced in the natural world. Their philosophy, crude as it was, was based on observation, and embodied the results of experience so far as savage man could formulate his experience into a system. When taboos failed to meet the case, men adopted the bolder policy of making war on devils. Nor is the savage singular in the methods adopted to expel evils. When fasts and prayers failed the inhabitants of European cities in the expulsion of the devils of epidemic diseases, they made war upon them in sewers and cellars, and to far better purpose than by the older and more pious method of priestly intercession. A comparison of the methods adopted for the expulsion of evils in Africa, and survivals amongst ourselves, gives one the impression that popular imagination is not yet far removed from the age of Balac, whose only hope lay in having a powerful magician, like the prophet Balaam, to curse his enemies before he joined his: forces in battle with theirs.
Taking South Africawith the practice of which I was long familiarfirst, it may be said in a general way that no "commoner" dare interfere with spirits
either good or bad, beyond offering such sacrifices as are sanctioned by custom. Demons may haunt a man, and render his life a burden, but he must Submit to their machinations until the case is taken in hand by the proper authorities. A baboon may be the messenger of evil spirits, and perch itself on a tree within easy gunshot, or regale itself in his maize field; but to pull a trigger at the brute would be worse than suicide. As long as the man remains a solitary sufferer he has little chance of redress. It is assumed, he has been guilty of some crime, and that the ancestors have in their wrath sent the demon to torment him. But should his neighbours suffer; should the baboon from choice or necessityfor men do pluck up courage to scare the brutesselect a fresh field in which to glean its supper, or another man's barn roof for its perch, the case alters its complexion. The magicians now take the matter up seriously. One man may be visited by the ancestors with severe reproof, as being haunted by a demon, but a whole community is another matter. Clearly in that case there is something amiss, and a remedy must be found. To shoot the baboon will not serve the purpose. African spirits are not amenable to powder and lead, as Scottish witches are to powder and silver bullets, and to kill the baboon would only be to enrage the demon and increase the danger. The first thing to do is to discover where the devil has his permanent abode. This is generally a deep pool of water with overhanging banks and dark recesses. There the villagers gather with priests and magicians. Under the direction of their
ghostly counsellors, and secured from harm by their presence, men, women, and children pelt the demon with stones. Drums are beaten and horns blown at intervals, and when all are worked up into a frenzy of excitement, as one after another catches a glimpse of the imp as he tries to avoid the missiles, he takes his flight at a single bound, and the village is free from his influence for a time. Baboons may now be killed and crops protected. While the stone throwing goes on, all present, and especially the women, hurl the most abusive epithets at the object of their fear and vengeance.
There is no periodic purging of devils, nor are more spirits than one expelled at a time. I have noticed frequently a connection between the quantity of grain that could be spared for making beer, and the frequency of gatherings for the purging of evils and other necessary purposes. No large gathering can be held in Africa without feasting and drinking, especially the latter. Like the Scotch factor, anxious to let a barren moor with hardly a feather on it, to an Englishman, as "one of the finest bits o ground i the north," and who after the second tumbler of "toddy," suggested a third before closing the bargain, on the ground that "it's dry wark talking," the African finds all public functions, even his devotions, "dry wark," and needs his pombe. If this is not to be had, the assured result is failure.
There are demons who are not amenable to stone-throwing and abuse. Such methods would only give them further opportunity for mischief by an increased knowledge of village affairs. They in that case could
adapt their methods to the new conditions, and the end of that place would be worse than the first, for they would enter it clean swept of all effectual means of defence. So the Dinka and Bongo expel their devils by guile. * There the exorcist begins by holding a conversation with the demon. He ascertains his name; how long he has been there; where he belongs to; his permanent residence; kinsfolk, acquaintances, and other particulars, all the while disguising his own identity as a devil-doctor. When he ascertains all he wishes to know, he hurries to the woods to collect such medicines as are effectual for the expulsion of demons of the class to which the one in question belongs. After this his course is clear: he sends the evil one beyond the bounds of his diocese by bell, book, and candle, or, to be literal, by horn, calabash, and torch.
The Wazeramas, more tender of heart towards their demons, expelled them by gentler means than a shower of stones or a drastic purge. Suppose a patient is devil-possessed, he is taken out of his hut and propped up against a tree in presence of the assembled villagers. An ancient crone ladles out beer to all who wish a draught. When she has completed her round of the crowd, drums are beaten, horns blown, and all manner of musical instruments played. The demon, captivated by the music, has his senses"cuteness"dulled for the time, and at the auspicious moment, when the noise has reached a maddening pitch, the magician entices him to enter a stool, wooden pillow, or any other object that can
be easily carried about. * This he conveys to a safe place, where he can deal with the demon at will and prevent his re-entering the patient. He, poor beggar, standing on one leg propped against the tree, is either killed outright by noise and excitement, or by a process of reaction obtains sleep, and frequently recovers within a few days or even hours.
When a Galla exorcist is called upon to exercise his powers over the unseen world, against any one of the eighty-eight demons that haunt the tribe, he kills a goat, the entrails of which he hangs about his neck. Thus arrayed, he carries in one hand a bell, which he rings "to waken the demon," and in the other a whip. After he has capered about for a time ringing his bell, he suddenly raises his whip, with which he gives the patient several sharp cuts. The demon, not liking such treatment, takes to his heels; a final flourish of the whip in the air as the demon flies past completes the process, and the magician goes his way carrying his fee along with him, which is the only guarantee against the demon's return. I recommend this method to European physicians whose accounts are of long standing!
Of all methods employed for the expulsion of evil spirits that found among the Wanika is the gentlest I have met with. There they are treated with the care and consideration with which ladies of quality were treated when they walked abroad a century, ago. This method may be illustrated by taking the case of a patient who is devil-possessed, as has been done with the preceding. A mortar filled with water
is placed at his bedside. Next a gaudily-coloured stick, richly ornamented with beads, bits of glass, -and ornaments, is stuck in the ground close at hand. A boy dips a bundle of twigs in the water, with which he sprinkles the head of the patient. The people beat drums, dance, sing, and play as if round a May-pole. The demon loves music, and he loves beads and gewgaws. As the merriment proceeds he thinks people are off their guard, and he looks at the stick. As he looks he becomes fascinated and leans towards it. Finally, he leaves the patient and enters the stick, when it is promptly pulled from the ground by the magician. * What he does with the demon so tenderly treated the historian does not record. He probably mars all his previous kindness by throwing the stick, devil and all, into lake or river.
But the demons of South and East Africa are as water to whisky when compared to those of the West Coast, where their expulsion wholesale, at stated intervals is a necessity of existence. So potent are they for evil that the people of Dahomey, who may in a few weeks thereafter expel them wholesale, sacrifice sheep and goats to them before sowing their crops. If they neglected this precaution, so powerful are evil spirits, no corn would ripen, even should every demon be expelled before it comes into ear. Along the coast, where large towns have to be purged, the ceremonies are both elaborate and protracted. Rude wicker figures of elephants, tigers, cows, and other animals are made,
and carefully covered over with cloth. Of these, one is set up before every house door. * Each family needs a figure, and the animals are selected from a supposed connection between them and the spirits of departed ancestors. Old Tiger-face's son would naturally select the animal whose name his father bore when taking part in the great ceremony of expelling devils from the town and from his own fireside. The figures are intended as receptacles or places of temporary retreat for the demons when the process of purgation begins.
At 3 a.m. a tempest of noise begins simultaneously in all parts of the town. Drums beat, bugles bray, horns roar, bells tingle, whistles screech. Everything which can be made to emit sound is brought into requisition and kept going till the owner is exhausted, or the instrument gives way, a frequent occurrence. This pandemonium of noise continues till high noon. At that hour floors are swept, dusty corners turned out, the ashes of the previous day's fires carefully collected, and everything where a demon could lurk removed and placed inside the wicker figure at the door. The images are then carried in tumultuous procession to the river and tossed into the water with beat of drum. The demons dare not return; they are now beyond the boundaries of the town, and but for untoward accidents men might live in peace for an indefinite time. But as ill-luck will have it, the next tribe may be expelling their own devils, and these, turned out of comfortable quarters, may enter the newly
purged territory and finding it unoccupied, take up their abode there till once more carried to the river and so cast out. Illustrations of this might be multiplied indefinitely, but what has been given may be taken as characteristic of a particular phase of thought.
Now this belongs to an early and very rude state of societyto the time before man had differentiated clearly between the natural and supernatural, and when he still believed himself to have power over the unseen world. The condition has continued among peoples far removed from the flowing current of civilisation, and who had not invented the art of writing. It has survived through the hunting, pastoral, and agricultural stages of progress among rude peoples, and seems to persist wherever man is unable to record his thoughts in symbols readily understood by his fellows. But although this peculiar belief in man's powers over the world of spirits persists in barbarous countries, to use a common expression, we should hardly be prepared for its persistency in Christian times in Europe, and among the most highly educated communities in civilised lands. Few peoples have enjoyed greater educational advantages, so far as the bulk of the peasantry is concerned, than the Scotch, and still we find among them, even at the present day, many persons who believe in man's power to call the devil at will. That such faith should be found universal among savages is consistent with all we know of the progress of human thought; that Christian communities should continue, generation after generation,
through millenniums of years, to believe in the power of their religious teachers on the one hand, and of their wizards and witches on the other, to control demons and influence nature, is one of those curious phenomena which show how narrow are the limits which divide savage man from civilised, and make us pause to ask, how much of truth, absolute truth, we, any of us, know concerning ourselves, and the mysterious, unsatisfied yearnings of our souls for a fuller, truer, and clearer knowledge of the unseen.
Not more than a century ago it was no uncommon thing to appeal to priest or presbyter to visit this village or that to "lay the devil," and the curious thing is, that men of education and experience of the world went through the mummeries supposed to have that effect. A priest of the Braes of Lochaber "laid" the devil about what is now Spean Bridge, and the Reformed faith proceeded no farther up the glen of the Spean. A successor of his, however, doubted whether he had but half laid him in Inveroy, the next district to Spean Bridge, the inhabitants of which, according to the worthy father, did justice neither to God nor man. This "laying" of the devil was rendered necessary through his being "raised" by persons who had that power being in league with him, and without whose aid he "could not leave his hole." How this was done I have failed to discover with certainty. The "laying" was by bell, book and candle, or within Reformation times "by prayer and the exercise of the power of prayer," a phrase as difficult of interpretation as any African oracle of them all. Prayer one
can understand, but what is the "power of prayer" as applied to the "laying" of the devil? As to the "raising" of his majesty, one old man told me the following incident, for the truth of which he vouched on personal knowledge, "for," said he, "it happened when I was a good bit o a callant." I give his own words as nearly as I can remember.
"It's a long time since, but I mind it as if it were yesterday. The boys were having a wild night. Two old men had just finished wi a pickle malt for the new year like, and there was plenty going. About the middle of the night, at the turn as you would say, one of the young men began to curse and swear awful. He called on the devil, and said he might come and take him. Some o them were a wee sober, and bade him keep quiet, but he gaed worse, and defied a the devils in hell, and said he would like to smell their brimstone. That moment there was an awful flash of lightning, and a woman, said no to be canny, or the likes o her, came down the chimney and stood afore him. She stood facing him, and said: 'Ye want to see the devil: he may be here sooner nor ye think.' Sorry a word more did she say when the house was filled wi burning brimstone, and something going up and down in a blue flame on the crook"[i.e., the chain for hanging pots over the fire]. "Then it made a noise such as the like was never heard, and gaed out o sight. The gun-barrels in the house were twisted and broken, and the next day the smell o brimstone was strong on their clothes. None of them could ever tell right how it happened, but there's nae doubt about it.
[paragraph continues] It's as true as gospel." And then the old man proceeded to detail other experiences of his youth, and to bemoan the scepticism of the age, which was sure to bring the curse of God down upon the world. This was not an ignorant man, but one fairly well informed; a man who knew his Bible, and could correct preachers on, points of Calvinistic theology. I knew him well, and he represented current opinion among middle-aged and old people in parts of the Highlands about twenty years ago. How the devil was "laid" in this case my informant did not remember, but he was fully informed how it was done in other cases, and believed as firmly as he did in his own existence that the art "was known to many of the godly in olden times."
There is a woman of my acquaintance in Reay who can "do things." Some years ago she asked a coach-driver for a "sail" in his vehicle. He refused. "Very well," said Annie; "I will be in Thurso before you." A mile farther on one of his horses fell stone dead, and he had the mortification of seeing the witch pass with an air of triumph. The owner has never refused her a "sail" since then.
A former minister of the parish of Reay in Caithness, a Mr. Pope, was a man of more than local reputation. He came to the parish when the people were largely pagan, and being a man of herculean strength, used gentle physical persuasion by means of an oaken cudgel, known as the "bailiff," to bring his parishioners to church. His feats of strength, and especially his having first thrashed, and then driven before him to church, a local character regarded
with dread as a giant in strength and a tiger in temper, gave him an extraordinary influence over his unruly flock. Supernatural powers were freely attributed to him, and this for reasons of his own he may have encouraged. Among other powers he possessed he was regarded as being able to "lay the devil" at will. It so happened that the people of Strathy, in the neighbouring parish, "raised" the fiend but could not get him "laid" again. In dire extremity they went to Mr. Pope, and on some pretext induced him to visit Strathy. When nearing the place "he got the smell of the fiend," and knew why they had sent for him. He was excessively angry, but having gone so far he proceeded to the place, and so effectually did he dispose of their troublesome visitor, that, as I was told last summer, "the devil has never since been raised in the district."
Did the scope of our inquiry permit, illustrations of the same practice of expelling the devil could be drawn from the usages of the Teutonic peoples of Europe. This is represented by such practices as are observed among the Finns of Eastern Russia. There on the last day of the year a band of young girls march through the streets and stop at each house corner, which they beat with wands they carry for the purpose. As they beat each house they say, in chorus, "We are driving Satan out of the village." After they have in this manner visited all the houses, they march in procession to the river, singing as they go, and when they arrive there throw their wands, devils and all, into the water to float away down stream. "At Brunnen, in Switzerland, the boys
go about in procession on Twelfth Night, carrying torches and lanterns, and making a great noise with horns, cowbells, and whips. This is said to frighten away two female spirits of the woodStrudeli and Strätteli." * These are but illustrations of the simpler forms of a custom observed by all the peoples of Europe; a custom which in many cases became grafted on to the services of the Christian Church, no man can tell how, but which clearly carry us back to an age when the peoples of Europe were, by painful experience, groping their way towards a knowledge of truth, as the Central African of to-day is undoubtedly doing. For what are all religions but a searching after truth; the expression of man's desire to attain to a true and final knowledge of causes, and his own relation to these?
104:* J. Thomson.
112:* Usener, quoted by J. G. Frazer.
112: In Ross-shire there is a common custom when drinking from a roadside spring to tie a hit of rag to a branch or tuft of grass. This I have heard explained as an offering to the spirit of the spring, while others say it is to ban evil from the water. In either case it is a survival of a long-forgotten pasta simple action, carrying us back to a time when spirits inhabited every grove and running stream.