Sacred Texts  Americana  Index  Previous  Next 

Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie [1923], at




    "London bridge is falling down" would hardly suggest the lurid and bloody custom of burying a human being under bridges and churches in order to secure their foundations. Yet quite likely this innocent old nursery rhyme harks back to such a custom, and no doubt the belief in the efficacy of such sacrifices survives to this day, and not alone among primitive or barbarian societies. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge brought out a crop of stories of human beings who had disappeared without a trace, and raised many fears in the hearts of easy believers. Fifty years ago Lord Leigh was accused of having sacrificed a human being in order to ensure the security of Stoneleigh Bridge. In 1865, while the Turks were building a block house at Ragusa, they captured two Christian children for the purpose of burying them in the foundation. In 1867, when taking down Blackfriars Bridge in London, the bridge having been built a hundred years before, the architects found in the foundations an assortment of human and animal bones. The foundation of many churches in England when opened up will disclose skeletons built into them. The custom so highly esteemed in Medieval Europe of burying great men in the churches, the remnant of which is still seen in the burials in Westminster Abbey, will be illuminated by the information collected about foundation sacrifices.

    By means of the substitution familiar to students of folklore, we find the use of human beings as guardians of the new structure given up for the use of animals. In certain parts of France (Anjou and Maine) the custom survived until recently of burying a frog or another small living animal when erecting a new structure. In parts of England and Scotland it is the custom to bury a man's nails, a cow's hoofs, a cat's claws, or a piece of silver under the door post. In other parts a chicken is struck until its blood covers the stone behind the fire-place. In others again an animal heart is stuck full of pins and buried in the foundation. One is reminded of the burying of statues in the foundations of buildings in Medieval Rome. The Maoris in New Zealand carve on the ground-plates which support the house the figures of prostrate slaves, and so manage to pass off a colorless imitation before these latter-day evil spirits, so fallen from their high state. In fact, the custom of foundation sacrifices is found to exist or to have existed throughout Europe, India, Western Asia, North Africa,--and in due time evidences of its having existed everywhere will be discovered.

    In the course of time there appeared a further substitution in the use of blood instead of the whole animal, blood being considered as the place wherein the spirit of the departed is most at home. Hence the killing of a hen in Ireland or the custom of covering the hearthstone with blood referred to above. The besmearing of the doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb referred to in Exodus XII ("And they shall take of the blood and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses."), which should serve the purpose of "a token upon the houses" so that the plague might not smite the inhabitants therein, may have some connection with the custom under discussion.

    The growing skepticism and refinement of the present age make even the use of blood impossible, and we find the Rumanian peasant using water in a red jar, while for the christening of ships wine has been thought more appropriate,--probably red wine at first, and champagne for a battleship, befitting its high and noble purpose.


    The explanation of a good deal of this strange and weird custom is furnished us by the Arab who consecrates the ground on which he is to raise his tent by slaying a sheep on it with the words "Permission, O possessor of this place." It is consistent with the primitive and barbaric man's notion (the barbarian is our next door neighbour) that every place is the abode of a spirit, and to presume to occupy or in any way lay claim to such a place is to infringe on his prerogatives and do violence to his possessions. But to do violence to a spirit cannot pass with impunity. The spirit will sooner or later take his revenge, and the ways in which spirits can torment are many, dark, devious, and dangerous. The best thing to do is to take out a sort of insurance against spiritual molestation by means of some sort of sacrifice. This sacrifice must be in keeping with the importance of the building to be erected. An ordinary tent or house can be bought off with an animal, or a rich man's house with a slave; but a sacred structure such as a temple or a bridge needs a sacrifice of special worth and importance, one perhaps involving serious pain or discomfort to the one making it.

    This primitive or semi-primitive conception of a propitiated spirit willing to allow an invasion of his preserves has its counterpart in another conception. One need not necessarily appease the spirit; one can call upon the good offices of a counter-spirit. Instead of making it a  matter between the human being and the spirit, let the two spirits fight it out, provided that one can assure himself of a spirit strong enough. Now nothing can be stronger, according to primitive man, than the spirit of a human being who has been murdered on a certain spot. On that spot the spirit of the massacred human being reigns supreme, and he is indeed too much enrages and revengeful to be an easy one to deal with. And so chapels and temples and churches are placed on the spots where saints have been martyred. The transition from the belief that the spirit of the deceased would protect the spot of his decease to the utilization of his protecting mania for purposes foreign to him, is not at all difficult to make, given sufficient time and the underestimated power of logical reasoning of the primitive mind. In short, from the belief that a murdered man will out of vindictiveness protect the spot of his demise we come to the belief that in order to protect a certain spot against the invasion of a hostile spirit or alien man, it is only necessary to secure the body of some one who shall be buried under the foundations or within the walls of the building to be erected.

    A bridge and a church were naturally the first structures to need such a protection. Bridges have always been sacred. The Roman High Priest was called Pontifex Maximus, the Great Bridge Builder. In the Middle Ages bridges were built and cared for by the monks (Blackfriars Bridge). As to temples and churches, the implication is plain enough. It was not until later that the protection of the dead body was extended to fortresses or the building of special cities.


    Balkan ballads have preserved these beliefs to this day, by embodying them in artistically constructed productions. The Serbs have invested the building of the city of Skodra (Scutari) with the legend that the foundations could not be laid until the builders interred the wife of one of the three leaders of the undertaking. The Magyars give a similar legendary account of the building of the city of Deva, where the goodwill of the landowning spirit was obtained by means of the sacrifice of the wife of one of the builders. Among the Bulgars the ballad tells how the masterbuilder when he saw approaching a certain young woman, fell from the scaffolding and was killed. His dying injunction was that the foundations of the city of Solun (Saloniki) could never be raised until the young woman in question should be interred. (Overcoming of one spirit by another.) Among the Greeks the ballad centers around the building of the bridge over the river Arta, which required the sacrifice of the wife of the masterbuilder. Among the Albanians, it is the Fox's bridge over the river Dibra which carries a similar tale.

    The Rumanian ballad is the only one dealing with the building of a Christian Church. It is the most complete artistically, and at the same time it is most familiar to the present writer.

    The church around which the ballad centers is the Cathedral of Curtea de Arges, the mausoleum of the reigning Rumanian dynasty. The king who is spoken of in this ballad, lived in the sixteenth century. It is probable that this Rumanian ballad was taken over from other Balkan sources, probably Bulgarian (as indicated by the similarity of the name of the hero in the two ballads, Manole in Rumanian and Mano in Bulgarian) and applied to the building of this famous cathedral. I venture this as a probability not because the sixteenth century is too late a period for foundation sacrifices, but because of the greater likelihood of borrowing, in the light of the history of the Balkan Peninsula. The ballad runs as follows:

    The Black King is looking for a spot fit to have raised on it a great and noble church, a monument to himself and a place of worship. He meets a shepherd on the road and asks him if in his wanderings he has come across the ruins of an old structure. The shepherd offers to lead him to that spot, and there he decides to erect his sacred edifice. His staff of workmen is made up of nine famous builders headed by Manole (Emanoil), the great masterbuilder. The building begins, but what is raised during the day crumbles during the night, and this goes on for a week. Then Manole thinks and meditates and while doing so he falls asleep. In his sleep he has a dream which tells him that they are laboring in vain until they shall immure within the rising walls a beautiful young wife. Manole tells his dream to his fellow-workers and they all swear to immure the first wife from among those of the workmen who shall appear bringing her husband his daily food. All the other builders warn their wives of the approaching peril and they stay away. Honest and heroic Manole alone abides by the understanding and says nothing. With a trembling heart be raises his eyes in the morning and observes from afar the faithful and devoted wife bringing his food to him. With an agonized spirit he prays to the Lord to send a fearful rain so that all the rivers will rise and all the streams will swell and so prevent the faithful woman from coming to her death. But though the rain floods and the streams swell, she is not prevented in her coming. Then Manole prays that a wind may blow, strong and terrifying, that will tear out trees by their roots, and so frighten his wife that she will tarry long enough for someone else to come before her. Then the winds blow, but no more than the waters can they deter her. In despair he prays that the Lord send a deep and dense darkness to make her stumble and scatter the food so that she will have to go back home and prepare more. The darkness comes; she stumbles, scatters the food, but faithfully returns home and prepares more, and at last bravely arrives at the place of work. Broken hearted, but hiding his emotions, Manole takes her by the hand and leads her playfully to the wall, and playfully he and the other builders begin to put brick on brick around her. She smiles at first, but on seeing that the work proceeds rapidly and in earnest, she becomes frightened. She begs her husband to desist from his play as the wall is hurting her. With a sigh he begs her quietly to bear her burden and be sacrificed in order that the cathedral may at last be raised. She has no other thought now but that of the child left at home motherless. Who will nurse it? she begs. The fairies will see it and they will nurse it, replies Manole. Who will bathe it? The rain will fall and will bathe it. Who will sway its cradle until it falls asleep? The wind will blow gently and will sway it to sleep.

    I have given only that part of the ballad which bears directly on the subject of foundation sacrifices. In its present forms with its numerous variants it contains other matters dealing in some way with the same cathedral or with the mythical master-builder Manole. These have been incorporated into the ballad In a manner familiar to students of folklore. That the evident purpose of the ballad is to glorify wifely duty and praise honesty in abiding by a contract does not invalidate the fundamental character of it as a literary survival of the old custom of foundation sacrifices.


    The general subject of Foundation Sacrifices will be found treated of by A. C. Haddon in The Study of Man, London, 1898; E. B. Tylor in Primitive Culture, Vol. I, p 104, sqq.; E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, Vol. I, pp. 461-66 (bibliography) ; and the article entitled, "Foundation and Foundation Rites" in Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 6.

    The Balkan Ballads are collected and discussed by Lazar Saineanu in Studii Folklorice, Bucuresti, 1896, pp. 47-66.

    The Serbian ballad in a German translation by Jacob Grimm is in a collection entitled Serbische Volkslieder published by the Insel-Verlag, Leipzig; in a French translation it will be found in Chants de Guerre de la Serbie by Leo D'Orfer, Paris, 1916, pp. 177-184; and in an English translation in Servian Popular Poetry, translated by John Bowring, London, 1827, pp. 64-75.

    The Bulgarian version I take from Saineanu; although Prof. R. Tsanoff informs me that he has published an account of the Bulgarian ballad in English, I have not been able to find it.

    The Greek version will be found in English in Vol. I, pp. 70-73, of Greek Folk Poesy by Lucy M. J. Garnett, London, 1896.

    The Rumanian version has many variants. The most familiar one is that given by the poet Vasile Alexandri, although it is abridged and polished; see Poeziile Populare ale Romanilor, Ed. Minerva, pp. 122-126. The accepted scientific version is that given by G. Dem. Theodorescu in Poesii Populare Romane, Bucuresti,. 1885, although the spelling, fashionable among academic circles at that time and employed by Theodorescu, makes it a little difficult reading; a more recent collection published by the Rumanian Academy and edited by Gr. G. Tocilescu entitled Mat erialuri Foictori stice, Bucuresti, 1900, gives, three variants on pp. 18-28; while another variant will be found in Cantece de Tara by Tudor Pamfile, Bucuresti, 1913, pp. 19-24. Finally, a collection of folklore from among the Rumanians living in Serbia, Dela Romanii din Serbia, by G. Giuglea and G. Valsan, Bucuresti, 1913, gives two variants on pp. 177-183.

Next: The Decline and Decadence of Folk Metaphor, by W. H. Thomas