As illustrative of the superstitious use of charms and exorcisms against animals and reptiles in different epochs and countries, we have examples from many and varied sources.
The Egyptians used, as charms against venomous serpents, various magic formulae inscribed upon strips of papyrus, which were rolled up and worn as talismans. A specimen of such an one is to be seen among the Egyptian manuscripts in the Louvre collection.
The following is a translation of a portion of one of these incantations, which invokes the aid of a god to protect the bearer against wild animals and reptiles:--
Come to me, O Lord of Gods, drive far from me the lions coming from the earth, the crocodiles issuing from the river, the mouth of all biting reptiles coming out of their holes.
Pliny recommended a particular herb as an amulet against serpents and vipers. This herb, to which he gives no less than five Latin names, appears to be identical with the Anchusa officinalis of modern pharmacopceias, the bugloss or ox-tongue of southern Europe, a plant now seldom used in therapeutics.
The Grecians also were doubtless addicted to the superstitious use of charms against animals, although there is good authority for the statement that the citizens of ancient Athens did not hesitate on occasion to accelerate the flight of "ominous creatures, as cats and the like," by throwing stones or other handy missiles at them in the night, a method wholly mundane and natural. And in this connection we may quote the opinion of the Ilev. Father Pierre Le Brun, in his "Histoire critique des pratiques superstitieuses" (Amsterdam, 1733). The learned writer remarks that, if it were desired to drive a strange dog out of one's room, it would be quite unsuitable to begin with prayer and the use of holy water. One should rather first open the door and take hold of a stick, or throw some food outside; and if these and other practical measures fail, then recourse may be had to supernatural expedients, provided these have ecclesiastical sanction.
In a treatise against superstition by a French savant, Martin of Arles, published in 1650, it was stated that the friars of the monastery of Ardennes were wont to boast that no rats could thrive in their neighborhood, and that this fact was due to the merits of St. Ulric, Bishop of Augsburg some of whose relies were deposited in their church. In this monastery also it had been formerly customary to scatter crumbs of bread which had been blessed, in places infested by vermin, and the monks believed that this procedure either caused the death of the animals or frightened them away.
Thuringian houses are sometimes cleared of rats in the following manner: Before sunrise on Good Friday morning, the master of the house, barefooted and in his shirt-sleeves, goes through every room blowing on a tiny whistle made out of the thigh bone of a rat's hind leg. Another curious method of expelling vermin from a dwelling is in vogue in some portions of the Austrian Empire. Before the dawn of a principal feast day, one must take an old shoe which has not been recently cleaned, and lay it on the ground at a place where two roads cross. No word must meanwhile be spoken aloud, but a Paternoster is to be silently repeated. The direction in which the shoe points indicates the course to be taken by the rats in their flight. In the village of Bechlin, a few miles north of Prague, troublesome mice are thus dealt with: Very early on an Easter Sunday morning, before the bells have rung for the first Mass, the peasant matron collects and fastens together all the house-keys. Then she waits until the first stroke of the bell for High Mass at noon, whereupon she proceeds to the cellar, meanwhile jingIing the keys vigorously so Iong as the church-bells ring; when they cease she retraces her steps, still rattling the keys; and these measures are believed to permanently frighten away the mice.
Towards the middle of the seventeenth century a great army of locusts invaded the fields in the neighborhood of the town of Mixco, in Guatemala. So numerous were they as for a time to obscure the light of the sun, and to break the branches of the trees whereon they clung; and they speedily devoured the corn and other crops. Moreover, they covered the highways and startled the traveling mules by their fluttering movements. By order of the magistrates, the people of the country assembled in the fields with trumpets and other instruments in order to scare away the unwelcome visitors. Idols were brought out, especially pictures of the Virgin and of St. Nicholas Tolentine. From the country regions near and far came the Spanish farmers to the town of Mixco, with propitiatory offerings for the saint, and all brought with them loaves of bread to be blessed. These loaves they carried back to their farms, and either threw into their cornfields or buried beneath their hedges, hoping by this method to protect their crops from the locusts.
The mountain ash, or rowan-tree (the Scotch rountree), is thought to have derived its name from the Latin word runa, an incantation, because of its employment in magical arts. Woe to the witch who is touched by a branch of this tree in the hand of a christened man!
Much has been written concerning the folk-lore of the mountain ash, and it is indeed a powerful rival of the horse-shoe in its talismanic virtues, though not as a luck-bringer.
But for the protection of cattle from the incursions of witches, not even the horse-shoe may assume to usurp the rowan's prestige. Branches of this favorite tree, when hung over the stalls of cows or wreathed about their horns, are potent to avert the evil glances or contact, whether of witches or malicious fairies. And their efficacy is enhanced if the farmer is careful to repeat at regular intervals the following fervent petition:--
From Witches and Wizards, and long-tailed Buzzards, and creeping things that run in hedge-bottoms, good Lord, deliver us!
Jamieson, in his "Scottish Dictionary," remarks that this practice of twining the rowan about the horns of cow's bears a certain resemblance to an ancient custom of the Romans in their Palilia, or feast celebrated at the end of April, whose object was the preservation of the flocks. He says:--
The Shepherd, in order to purify his sheep, was in the dusk of the evening to bedew the ground around them with a wet branch, then to adorn the fold with leaves and green branches and to cover the door with garlands.
In China it is customary for the Taouist priests to perform certain magical rites on the completion of a new pigsty, and before the admission of the animals to their new quarters. An altar is erected in honor of the Chu-Lan-Too-Tee, or genii of pigsties, and the walls of the compartments of the sty are adorned with strips of red paper, upon which are Chinese characters, signifying, "Let the enemies of horses, cows, sheep, fowls, dogs, and pigs be appeased."