MODERN CHIPS OF THE OLD BLOCKS
"There's something in that ancient superstition
Which, erring as it is, our fancy loves."
Holy Wells in the Hebrides and in the
Highlands—Prohibitory Statutes— Wells for the Cure of Insanity—Pilgrim's
Rags—Traces of Sun and Fire Worship—Four great Festivals—Beltane—Midsummer
in Ireland, Isle of Man, Stonehenge—Hallow-e'en---All
Souls—Yule—Christmas-The Burning of the Clavie—Dread of giving or taking
Fire—Festivals in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Baltic, in Paris, in Edinburgh
and London— Traces of Moon Worship—An Owl's Question.
I SPOKE just now of the Holy Well of Mairuba or Mourie—Saint
or Demon—as one having peculiar interest.
It is, however, only one of many sacred springs, which
to this day are held in some sort of superstitious reverence, dimly
recalling the days when the people there assembled to worship the Celtic
Goddess of Waters.
Various places both on the mainland and in the
Hebrides, still bear her name of Neith or Nait; Annat burn and Annat glen in
Perthshire; the Tempul-na-Anait in Skye, and the Tabir-na-Annait, or Well of
Neith, in the little island of Calligray belonging to Harris, where the
worshippers purified themselves before proceeding to the Teampul-na-Annait,
close by—the ruins of the old Christian Chapel, retaining the name of the
Pennant, writing in the last century, says that in the
Isle of Skye he found traces of four temples of Anait; one of these was near
Dunvegan. In each case they were built at the spot where two rivers met, a
stone wall extending from stream to stream, so as to form with the two
waters a triangle, in the centre of which stood the ruins of the temple.
One far-famed fountain lies at the foot of the great
rock-mountain of Quiraing, where, sheltered by. the greenest of grassy
hills, are the clear crystalline springs of Loch Shiant, whose bright waters
gleam over a bed of pure sand, and are still considered a specific for all
manner of diseases. Pilgrimages are still sometimes made here, and the usual
turn sunwise must be made thrice before drinking, after which some small
offering is laid down for the guardian spirit of the well. Formerly, though
the rivulet and the loch were alike full of fish, no one would presume to
touch them; they were, in fact, esteemed as sacred as those holy fishes
which fatten in the tanks of Himalayan temples, and which rise mockingly to
stare at hungry travellers.
Close by the loch there still remains some low
brushwood, marking where formerly a copse of larger bushes flourished,
which, even a hundred years ago, were held in such reverence that no one
might venture to break a twig from their branches. This probably was the
latest trace of the tree-worship once commonly practised in these isles.
It is somewhat singular that this phase of idolatry
should have died out so wholly in all Christianized countries, while water,
fire, and stones retained so strong a hold on the reverence of the people.
Vainly did the Council at Aries, in A.D. 452, decree that "if in any diocese
any infidel either lighted torches or wor8/Lq)ped trees, fountains, or
stones, he should be found guilty of sacrilege." Vainly did divers other
Councils again and again repeat the same warning, especially forbidding the
lighting of torches and offering candles and other gifts to these three
sacred powers. Vainly, too, did King Edgar and Canute the Great forbid the
barbarous adoration of the sun and noon, fire and fountains, stones, and all
kinds of trees and wood; still the people clung with tenacity to all their
varied forms of paganism, except the worship of trees, which seems gradually
to have been forgotten, or only remembered in Germany, whence we have
borrowed the Yule custom of illuminating a fir-tree with offerings of
Gregory of Tours, writing in the sixth century, shows
that woods, waters, birds, and beasts, were still commonly worshipped. Pope
Gregory III., in 740, prohibited the Germans from offering sacrifices and
consulting augories beside the fountains in sacred groves. And so late as
A.D. 1102, St. Anseim issued commands in London, forbidding well-worship.
In Ireland the difficulty was solved by dedicating the
wells to saints, whose votaries still deposit a rag or a pin, to represent
the more precious offerings of olden days. But it is strange indeed to find
the very same custom still lingering in this land of sturdy common sense,
and to find that divers wells and lochs are still supposed to have
miraculous powers of healing.
For instance, there is a loch in Strath Naver in
Sutherland, to which people constantly resort for all manner of cures. They
must walk backwards into the water, take their dip, and leave a small coin
as an offering. Then without looking round they must walk straight back to
the land, and so, right away from the loch.
St. Ronan's Well, near the Butt of Lewis, is one to
which lunatics are occasionally brought from many parts of the northwestern
Highlands. Very near to it is a small ruin, evidently of very great
antiquity, which is Christianized as the Temple of St. Molochus, or Mulvay,
or Molonah, but which the people often call simply the Teainpull-mor, i. e.
" The Great Temple" (a title which, considering its size, could only have
referred to its sanctity). Patients are required to walk seven times round
the temple. Then they are sprinkled with water brought from St. Ronan's Well
in a stone cup, which is in the hereditary care of a family whose ancestor
was "clerk of the temple."
After the sprinkling the sufferer is bound, and laid
for the night on the site of the ancient altar. Should he sleep, it is a
sure earnest of his recovery; but should he be wakeful, then further effort
is considered useless.
In a churchyard on Loch Torridon there is a well whore,
for centuries, three 81oneR have been perpetually whirling round and round.
All manner of illnesses have been cured by carrying one of these stones in a
bucket of water to the patient, who touched the stone, after which it was
carried back to its usual place, and began whirling as usual. But one day, a
foolish woman carried home one of them in her bucket to heal a sick goat,
and when it was put back, it would no longer whirl, but sank to the bottom
of the well, where it has lain quietly ever since.
All these well-stories seem to prove the spirits
terribly prone to take offence. I told you how St. Mairuba's well lost all
healing virtue, since the day when a mad dog was dipped into it. Another
spring which was held in especial reverence was the Tonbir Knabir in Islay,
literally the locomotive well, 80 called because it was originally in Isle
Colonsay; but one day a rash woman was guilty of washing her hands in it,
whereupon it instantly dried up, and transported its waters to Islay, whence
it was henceforth honoured with Deieul processions, and small offerings were
made to its tutelary spirit.
At Broadford in Skye there is a well in the churchyard,
near to • which used to hang a bell, that rang supernaturally about once a
week. No human bell-ringer had any hand in producing the wild chimes that
rang out so loud and clear that they could be heard for miles, giving
warning to all the sick folk to come to the healing waters and be made
whole. But a new power at last interfered (minister or steward), and the
bell was removed, since which time the virtue of the well is gone, and the
people are left to the tender mercies of a human leech.
St. Catherine's well and chapel in the Isle of Eigg
were also treated with much reverence. So was that at Sleat in the Isle of
One loch in Ross-shire is still said to cure deafness,
and the neighbours told me of one man who bad undoubtedly recovered his
hearing by judicious adherence to the letter of the law; thrice he had
walked backwards into the water, and thrice returned to land without looking
round. Their admiration of the cure was some. what damped by the fact of the
man's death within a year. The well at Craig-Howe in Ross-shire also cures
deafness, and receives large stores of clouts, pins, and coins.
In the parish of Avock, in the Black Isles (facing
Inverness), is a well called Craiguck, or Craigie Well, probably from the
dark crag rising behind it. On the first Sunday in May (old style) all the
people from far and near gather here at daybreak—a regular hearty Highland
gathering—as merry as a fair, all exchanging kindly greetings and good
wishes for the health of the coming year, in good broad Scotch, in Gaelic,
or in such pure English as we rarely hear from the poor in any part of
Britain, save here, where it is an acquired tongue. The health, of course,
is to be secured by a draught of the lucky welL But they must get their
drink before the sun rises. Once he climbs the horizon the spell is broken,
so, as the last moments draw near, the eager pressing forward for a taste
amounts to a downright scramble.
A strange; whose curiosity induced him to go forth
betimes and witness this curious scene, tells how "some drank out of dishes,
some stooped on their knees to drink, the latter being occasionally plunged
over head and ears by their companions." As the first rays of the sun
appeared a man was seen coming down the brae in great haste. He was
recognized as "Jock Forsyth," a very honest and pious, but eccentric
individual. Scores of voices shouted, "You are too late, Jock. The sun is
rising. Surely you have slept in this morning."
The new-corner, a middle-aged man, perspiring
profusely, and out of breath, nevertheless pressed through the crowd and
never stopped till he reached the well. Then, muttering a few inaudible
words, he stooped on his knees and took a large draught. Then he rose and
said, "O Lord, Thou knowest that weel would it be for ma this day, an' I had
stoopit my knees and my heart before Thee in spirit and in truth, as often
as I have stoopit them afore this well. But we mann keep the customs of our
fathers." So he stepped aside among the rest and dedicated his offering to
the briar bush, which by this time could hardly be seen through the number
of shreds which covered it.
For part of the ceremony is that each corner must bang
a shred of cloth on a large briar bush, which grows close by the well, as an
offering to the healing and luck-conferring waters, forcibly reminding the
beholder of those holy wells and bushes in the Emerald Isle, were many
coloured rags flutter in the breeze; poor Paddy's votive offerings to the
blessed St. Somebody on behalf of sick parent or child.
Strange, is it not, that this custom should be so
widely spread We find it at Constantinople, where each pilgrim ties a shred
torn from his own raiment to the carved windows of saintly tombs; and it is
religiously observed by the Mohammedan pilgrims visiting the Mosque of Omar
at Jerusalem, beneath the great dome of which lies that huge rock whence
Mohammed ascended to heaven, supposed to be the identical rock whereon
Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac. This rock is surrounded by a great iron
railing, adorned with thousands of rags, tied up by the pilgrims as
reminders to the Prophet. Indeed, strips of old cloth seem to be a
recognized medium of communication with the spirit-world in all corners of
the globe, for in our Eastern wanderings we found many a gaily- decorated
shrub in the lonely Himalayan glens and passes, which, in the distance,
seemed to be loaded with blossoms, but which on closer approach proved to be
laden with bright morsels of rag, the simple offerings of the Hill-men to
the spirit of some tree or well.
In Ceylon also, where we spent a lovely moonlight night
on the summit of Adam's Peak, the "Holy Mount "of Buddhists, Sivaites, and
Mohammedans, we noted the multitude of rags tied to the iron chains which
prevent the roof of the temple, covering the holy footprint, from being
blown away. The poor pilgrims believe that a shied of their raiment, thus
offered, will surely prevent Buddha from forgetting them and their vows. On
these superstitious customs in far-away lands we look with calm
indifference, but to find the very same practice still lingering among our
sturdy Ross- shire Highlanders, is certainly somewhat startling!
Similar customs are still kept up at St. Mary's Well,
in the birch wood above the house of Culloden, two miles from Inverness,
where, on this same morning (first Sunday in May, old style), several
hundred people assemble from far and near, to wish for their heart's desire,
drink solemnly, and hang up a rag on the bushes before sunrise, as being a
most efficacious hour, though they continue coming as long as the dew lies
on the grass, which it often does all day. Formerly a chapel stood close by,
but its ruins have now disappeared.
There were certain wells from which water was carried
to the sick. It was necessary that it should be drawn before sunrise, that
the bearer should not speak on his way to or from the well, neither open his
lips till the sick man had drunk the life-giving potion. Nor might the
water-vessel be allowed to touch the ground. There were also peculiar
virtues belonging to water drawn from under a bridge "over which the living
walked and the dead were carried." Especial virtue was attached to
One condition of success in all these charms was that
there should be no looking backward, a point strongly insisted on by all
wizards, in all lands.
All lads and lasses who, on Hallow-e'en, peer into the
looking- glass for visions of the future, know well that they must not dare
to glance backward, lest they should see more than they ought.
One curious legend of my own dear old home, tells how
Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown, who was well known to have dealings with
the powers of darkness, chose one morning to drive his coach and four across
Loch Spynie, after a single night's frost. He bade his servant to sit
steady, and on no account look back. The man obeyed, till just as they
reached the further side, be could not resist "a glower ower his left
shoulder," and as he turned, he beheld a large black raven fly from the back
of the carriage, which at the same instant sank into the mud, so near the
edge, however, that the good steeds managed to extricate it without further
aid from the spirit world.
These sacred wells seem to have been reverenced all
over the country, and every now and then the records of the kirk 'sessions
tell of dome luckless wight having been subjected to discipline for
heathenish practices as an example to all other offenders, without, however,
producing the desired effect.
Among the various efforts made to check the
Well-Worship in the seventeenth century was an order from the Privy Council,
appointing Commissioners "to wait at Christ's well in Menteith on the first
of May, and to seize all who might assemble at the spring, and imprison them
in Doune Castle.
These "superstitious mud-earth-wells of Menteith" are
described by Anderson, Dr. of Physicke, Edinburgh, A.D. 1618, as "all
tapestried about with old rags, as certaine signes and sacraments wherewith
they arle the divell with ane aris-pennie of their health; so suttle is that
false knave, making them believe it is only the virtue of the water, and no
thing els. Such people cannot say with David 'The Lord is my Helper,' but
Great efforts were then made to extinguish heathenism
of all sorts, necromancies, and spells with trees and with stones.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, the old superstition
still lingers in certain districts. At Glass, in Banffshire, the Wallace
Well and the Corsmall Well still receive pins, buttons, rags, and coins from
sick folk, who hope thereby to be cured of their diseases. So does St.
Mungo's Well in Huntly, where the people assemble on the first of May, and
carry away bottles of its water as a charm against the fairies, who are
supposed to hold their revels at the Elfin Croft hard by. I thought of this
custom while watching the pilgrims near the source of the Ganges sealing up
bottles of the precious water, which they carry with them to their
far-distant homes, therewith to anoint their most cherished idols.
Another favourite well has always been that of St.
Cecilia, near Netherdale in Aberdeenshire: some strong enforcements of the
law of trespass have, however, recently checked the meetings here. The same
law did its beat to check the gatherings at the old well at Hopeman in
Morayshire, but the sturdy fishers there do not understand such interference
with their ancient customs, so they are now left undisturbed.
St. Fergon's Well, near Inverlochy, is another which is
said to possess divers virtues, and continues to be a favourite place of
resort—the general offering to its spirit being a crooked pin, or, on rare
occasions, "a bawbee."
The well at Metherciunie, near Duiftown, is a great
gathering- point on May morning, when the usual offerings of pius, &c. are
made. The well of Montblairie, also in Banffshire, is equally sacred; so is
St. Colman's Well, in the parish of Kiltearn, in Ross- shire, and that of
Culbokie, also in Ross-shire.
But perhaps the most popular of all is the Greuze Well,
near Dunkeld, which is still frequented by people from all parts of the
country, who bring their sick children, that, having tasted the mystic
waters, they may be healed. The offerings here are of a very superior sort,
as silver coin is occasionally thrown in instead of the more frequent pins
and pence; and rags and scraps of the sick folk's clothes are left hanging
on the heathery tufts, as a reminder to the spirit of the Greuze. Such
offerings are especially common on behalf of idiot children.
St. Mary's Well at Orton, on Spey-side, still continues
to attract crowds on certain days, chiefly of young folk, who here hold
their tryst—lads and lasses who count on a day's sweethearting and
merry-making; but for more serious purposes, such as quest of health, it
seems to have somewhat lost favour lately, though it is not long since we
noticed a girl hiding the cap of a sick baby under a stone, as though
shrinking from observation.
In Badenoch, however, there is no such shame. There are
wells for heart-ache and wells for tooth-ache, and one well that is
bottomless, for when careless hands drop their pails therein they can never
St. Fillan's Well, in Perthshire, has been held sacred
from time immemorial, though the name it bears dates only from the days of
that sainted abbot of Strath-Filan, to whose pious intervention Bruce was
said to owe the victory of Bannockburn. The King's chaplain had been
commanded (so says Boethius) to bring to the field of battle the sacred arm
of the saint; but the wily priest, fearing the loss of the relic, brought
only its silver shrine. Yet when the King invoked the holy saint, the shrine
opened of its own accord, revealing the precious limb laid safely therein;
and the soldiers beholding this token of the favour of heaven, fought as
those already assured of victory.
St. Fillan's Well was long believed to cure insanity,
and the luckless sufferers received very rough handling to effect this,
being thrown from a high rock down into the well, and then locked up for the
night in the ruined chapel. On "the witch-elm that shades St. Filan's
spring" were hung the gay rags and scraps of ribbon wherein the saint was
supposed to find delight. An average of two hundred patients were annually
brought to this well.
Precisely similar was the belief of the Welsh in the
waters of Llandegla for the cure of both epilepsy and insanity. Ther
luckless patient was led thrice sunwise round the Holy Well, where be was to
wash himself and cast in an offering. He was then to carry a cock thrice
sunwise round the well, and thrice round the church, and was then bound for
the night and left lying beneath the Communion Table, with his head resting
on the Bible—a curious blending of "the Table of the Lord" with the service
of devils. If the patient was a woman, a hen was substituted for the cock.
In either case the, victim was imprisoned with the patient, that into it the
demon of insanity might pass. In the morning the patient made an offering of
money, and departed, leaving the fowl as his substitute.
A very important feature in the ceremonial at St.
Filan's, Struthill, and other wells where lunatics were cured, is, that
after their bath in the holy fountain and their sunwise procession, they
were tied to a pillar, supposed to be far more ancient than the Christian
church wherein it stood. Just such a pillar, in the ruined city of
Anarajapoora, in Ceylon, is said to be possessed of precisely similar
virtues, and though the natives call it an old Buddhist monument, it is
probably a relic of a much earlier superstition.
Then, too, the legend which tells how Gautama Buddha
first realized his having attained perfection, by finding that a dish, which
he placed on the water, would float miraculously against the current of the
stream, is much the same notion as we find connected with various holy
wells; such as the Well of Shadar, in Isle Bernera, whereon a wooden bowl
was set floating as a means of discovering whether a sick person would or
would not rally. Should the dish turn deisul, all would be well, but if
widderskin, then doom was sealed.
St. Andrew's Well, in the Isle of Lewis, was also
consulted as an oracle when any one was dangerously ill. A wooden tub full
of this water was brought to the sick man's room, and a small dish was set
floating on the surface of the water; if it turned sunwise it was supposed
that the patient would recover, otherwise he must die.
Of equal, if not greater, interest than these survivals
of the old Well-Worship, are those which point to the Worship of Fire and of
the Heavenly Bodies—antiquarian chips for which we must seek warily, and
chiefly amongst the unlettered poor, who walk after the traditions of their
fathers, without any wish to seek out new inventions.
We have not to search far for the first indication,
inasmuch as the Highlanders still call the year Bheil-aine, i. e. "the
circle of Eel, or the Sun."
Of course, in seeking for traces of the old
Fire-Worship, we are most likely to find them on those days when the great
Fire Festivals were celebrated. Of these, the four principal were held on
the eve of May-day or Spring; on Midsummer's eve; on Hallow-e'en, the Autumn
festival; and at Yule, the mid-winter feast.
It is from the great Spring Festival that we still
retain our poetical name for the eve of May-day, Beltane or Boil-teine,
which means Baal's fire, a name familiar to every Highlander, and still
commonly used in Ireland.
So late as the beginning of the present century, it was
customary in some remote corners of the Highlands, especially in
Stirlingshire and Perthshire, for the young folk to meet on the moors on the
1st of May, and after cutting a "round table" in the green sod by digging
such a trench round it as to allow of their sitting in a great circle, to
kindle a fire in the middle, and cook a mess of eggs and milk, which all
shared. Then they baked oat-cakes, a bit for each person present, and one
bit was burnt black.
These cakes were shuffled in a man's bonnet, and each
person, blindfold, drew one. Whoever got the black bit had to leap three
times through the flames. The original meaning of which was that he became a
sacrifice to Baal, and, doubtless, in old days was actually offered up; the
object being to secure the favour of the Sun-god, and consequently a good
harvest. I have been told by several persons that they have found traces of
these Beltane circles in quite recent years, so probably the practice is not
I am told that in some parts of Perthshire it is still
the custom for the cow-herd of the village to go his rounds on May morning
collecting fresh eggs and meal, and then to lead the way to some hill-top,
where a hole is dug and a fire lighted therein; then lots are cast, and he
on whom the lot falls, must leap seven times over the fire, while the young
folk dance round in a circle. Then they cook their eggs and cakes, and all
"sit down to eat and drink and rise up to play."
The circular trench was of course only another form of
the same symbolism as the Druidic stone circles, within which the fires of
Baal were continually kept burning. A curious proof of this is the fact,
recorded by the late Lady Baird, of Ferntower, in Perthshire, that every
year at Beltane a number of men and women assembled at an ancient circle of
stones on her property near Crieff, and, having lighted a fire in the
centre, as their forefathers had been accustomed to do from time immemorial,
proceeded to draw lots for the burnt oat-cake, as described above, he who
drew it having straightway to leap through the flames. A strangely unmeaning
ceremony if, as some learned men would have us believe, these circles are
merely sepulchral, but very suggestive indeed if we are content to accept
the traditions of our fathers, of their having been the temples on whose
altars unhallowed fire was wont to burn.
In some districts the shepherds varied the Beltane
festival. They cut the circular trench and kindled a fire like their
neighbours, and after marching thrice deas-sol round the fire, they sat in a
great circle and shared the mess of eggs, milk, and oat-meal, pouring out
part thereof as a libation to the spirits. This done, they each took pieces
of oat-cake, specially prepared for the occasion, each cake having upon it
nine raised knobs of mystic meaning. This they cast into the fire,
dedicating it to the Eagle, the Hoodie Crow, the Glad, the Weasel, the Fox,
the Brook, and all other baneful creatures, who were thus bribed to spare
the flocks. This custom was commonly observed up to the middle of last
century, even in civilized Morayshire. When all the eggs were roasted and
all the cakes baked, the surplus was carried home, and every man gathered
certain herbs, which he tied to his staff, and fastened bunches of the same
above his cow-byre to preserve his cattle from all disease until the
Every cow-herd was bound to wear a sprig of rowan
(mountain ash), to keep off the warlocks from his charge, and no cow-byre
was accounted safe which was not provided with cross-twigs of rowan tied
with red thread.
At Beltane, rowan-twigs were carried thrice sunwise
round the bonfires, then carried home, and placed in every house to ward off
all evil in the coming year. On the same day the farmers of Strathspey and
Inverness were wont to make a twisted hoop of rowan, and cause each sheep
and lamb to pass through it, till the whole flock had thus been secured from
Every cow-herd having a due regard to the safety of his
cattle would certainly drive his beasts with a rowan stick. In Forfar- shire
we know of certain byres where, if even the rowan tree and red thread have
failed to keep away disease, the cow-herd invariably places a burning peat
on the threshold of the byre, and makes the sick beasts walk over it, as a
sure and infallible cure; while in Islay the custom 18 on May morning to
smear the ears of the cattle with tar to keep off the warlocks.
One very ancient custom for the good of the cattle was
to take a sod from the roof of the byre, and a burning peat, and plunge both
in a pail of strong ale,—a drink which was made from the young tops of
heather, with a certain proportion of malt; it seems to have been the
favourite brew of the ancient Picts, but the art of preparing it is now
I am told that to see a really characteristic
celebration of Beltane we should go to the Isle of Man, where the month of
May is still called Boabdyn, or Basi's fire, and where the custom of
bonfires on the eve of May-day is kept up to such an extent "as to give the
appearance of a general conflagration, whilst the inhabitants blow horns and
hold a kind of jubilee." Until very recently the Manx used to light two
fires near together, and cause their cattle to pass between them, as a
protection against murrain. The origin of these fires was of course in
honour of Baal.
The same custom prevailed in Ireland up to the tenth
century, where May-day is still called La Bealtine, or Latba, which in
Celtic means day; and is to be traced in many parts of Germany and Holland,
where the Beltane fire festivals are still fully observed.
The next great Fire Festival was on what we now call
the eve of St. John, or Midsummer's Eve, when the Sun had run half his
In Scotland, the Midsummer's Eve Festival was observed
till very recent times. It was customary to kindle great bonfires near the
corn-fields, and then make the deisul round the fields, with burning
torches, to secure a blessing on the crops. Shaw mentions having frequently
seen this done both in Moray and in the Lowlands in the middle of the last
century. In Cornwall also the feast was, till quite lately, celebrated in
various villages, and in all probability is still kept up. Great bonfires
blazed, and torchlight processions marched sunwise round the fires and round
In Ireland too this night was long considered an
occasion for rejoicing; and so late as 1795 a gentleman writes from Dublin
to one of the magazines, describing "the lighting of the fires at midnight
in honour of the sun; the clamours, and other ceremonies, such as strewing
the streets with divers herbs."
Charlotte Elizabeth, describing the huge bonfires in
Ireland, and the scenes she herself witnessed, tells how the people all
danced everlasting jigs to the music of the pipes. This lasted some hours.
Then, when the fire burnt low, every one present passed through the fire,
and children were thrown across the glowing embers. Lord John Scott,
speaking of the same festival, says he has seen parents force unwilling
children to pass through these purifying Baal fire's.
The custom of passing children and cattle through the
fire was one of the rites which was longest in force in these isles. Even in
the early part of this century, it was, as we have already noticed, the
constant practice ett these festivals, both in the Highlands and in Ireland,
for fathers to take their children in their arms and leap thrice through the
flames. The cattle were driven between two fires kindled near together. It
was also the custom to make criminals stand between two fires, to expiate
their sins, or else walk barefoot thrice over the burning ashes of a
earn-fire. Hence the Gaelic description of a man in dire extremity, that he
was "Edir da theme Bheil," that is, between two fires of Baal.
Perhaps the most interesting trace that still remains
to us of this Midsummer homage to the Sun is a custom which, for ages
unknown, has been observed at Stonehenge, and which acquires double
importance in these days, when this, and all kindred buildings, are set down
as being either merely sepulchral, or else memorials of old battles. Mr.
William Beck writes, that every year, on 21st June, a number of people
assemble on Salisbury Plain at 3 a.m., in the chill of early dawn, and make
for the circles of Stonehenge, from the centre of which, looking north-east,
a block of stone, set at some distance from the ruin, is so seen that its
top coincides with the line of the horizon, and if no mist prevail, the Sun,
as it rises on this, the longest day of the year, will be seen coming up
exactly over the centre of the stone, known from this circumstance as the
Mr. Beck has himself repeatedly witnessed this
interesting proof of the solar arrangement of the circles of Stonehenge; has
watched the Sun thus come up over the Pointer, and strike its first ray,
through the central entrance, to the on-called altar-stone of the ruin. He
points out how this same huge stone is set at such an angle that at noon it
marks the shadow like the gnomon of a sun-dial.
The great Autumn Fire Festival seems to have occurred
on the 1st November, when all fires were extinguished, save those of the
Druids, from whose altars only, the holy fire must be purchased by all
householders, for a certain price.
The festival is still known in Ireland as Samhein or La
Samon, i.e. the Feast of the Sun; and on the eve of the 1st of November all
manner of old games and customs are still observed just as fully as in
Scotland, where, however, though All Saints' Day is a thing forgotten, the
heathen festival has assumed the name of Hallow-e'en.
Of the countless varieties of Hallow-e'en games, it
would be superfluous to write, as they are so well known. Only it is curious
to notice that they all retain some trace of old practices of divination.
First, the mystic apple comes into' play - the apple
that so often appears in Celtic fairy lore. These swim in water, and each
person in turn must catch one in his mouth. The apple when caught must be
carefully peeled, and the long strip of peel passed thrice, sunwise, round
the head, and thrown over the shoulder, when it will fall in the form of the
true love's initial-letter.
Then, advancing to a mirror, without looking back, a
face will presently be therein reflected, looking over the shoulder, and it
needs good nerve to resist looking round, which is always strictly
prohibited in every form of superstition. This too is a relic of that form
of divination with mirrors which was condemned as sorcery by the popes of
old. Hence we find hand-mirrors among the emblems sculptured on the stones
of Pagan Scotland.
Numerous are the other Hallow-e'en games, but all have
something of the same character. The majority involve going out alone on
some errand—to pull a cabbage-stalk, or walk sunwise round the peat-stack.
it is supposed that some one will appear in the form of the future lover.
Not a word must be spoken, either going or coming.
Formerly, every farm over the length and breadth of the
land had its Hallow-e'en bonfire, which was often surrounded by a circular
trench, symbolical of the sun.
These fires are in many districts nearly burnt out, but
it is not many years since Sheriff Barclay says he could count thirty fires,
blazing on the hill-tops between Dunkeld and Abergeldy, and could discern
the weird figures of the people dancing round them, while the faint echoes
of their choruses gave a still more unearthly feeling to the midnight.
In the neighbourhood of Crieff, also in Perthshire, the
bale-fires, as the people call them, still blaze as brightly as ever, as we
have had full opportunity of observing in the course of long twilight
drives, when it seemed as if every cottage we passed had its little bonfire
for the children; while later in the evening, larger fires were lighted by
their elders, and kept up till midnight. We saw groups of dark figures
dancing round the fires; the principal refreshment consisting of milk,
thickened with oatmeal. Here, as in the northern counties, especially in
Banff and Aberdeenshire, all rejoicings are deferred till the 11th November;
that is Hallow-e'en old style.
Sometimes, when the bonfire begins to burn low, a
circle of stones is placed round it; one to represent each P8Ofl pre8ent.1
Should any stone be moved before morning, it is a token of evil to tbt
person. He is said to be feu, and 1118 death within the year is considered
The night of the 1st of November, Christianized as the
Eve of All Souls, was especially sacred to Samhein, who merely represented
the sun in another character. It was a night for special intercession by the
living for the souls of those who had died in the preceding year. For the
office of Samhein was to judge these souls, and either award them their
place of reward or of punishment. He was also called Bal Sab, or the Lord of
Death. At this harvest festival he only needed offerings of the fruits of
the earth; and his name, Samhein or Samtheine, denotes peace-fire. It is
probable that Saint Samthena, whose day is still marked in the Romish
calendar, was in some way connected with this festival.
On the 25th December, when the shortest day was past,
the great winter festival called Yule was celebrated, to mark the turn of
the year—the sun's new birth. It was a day of solemn worship and a night of
feasting. Fires blazed on every hill, which were rekindled on the twelfth
night subsequent to Yule. Sacred plants were cut—more especially the ivy and
On Yule morning, offerings of oatmeal and of various
grains were made to Hulda, the Divine Mother, to
induce her to send abundant crops; and the people feasted together. Hence
the bowls of furmety or sowans, alias sour gruel, which in our child. hood
we always shared in the early Christmas morning. Hence too the custom of all
the lads and lasses going from farm to farm, each carrying their own bowl
and spoon, to share the brew of each gude-wife.
Probably it was also in her honour that those curious
"Yule doughs" originated, still common in the north of England, where many a
time we have assisted at the manufacture and baking of wonderful dolls,
adorned with currants. Dolls masculine and dolls feminine, to be duly
distributed as sweethearts to every lad and lass in the house—and many such
have we received from village friends.
From the day answering to this 25th December, the
ancient Hindus also reckoned the beginning of their new year, distinguish
in, the day as "the morning of the gods." How the seasons of their year were
made to balance, is a standing mystery; for we know that, like the Druids of
the West, they reckoned by lunar years of 360 days.
On this night the Persians from time immemorial
celebrated the birth of their god, Mithra, the sun, whom they also
worshipped under the name Tseur, or Saviour, because of his saving them from
the empire of Ahriman, the power of darkness.
Amongst other games peculiar to this day, both among
Persians and Arabs, is one known as the game of the Beardless Rider, when
men, hideously disguised and painted, ride through the city on asses,
playing all manner of whimsical pranks, and going from door to door,
followed by an admiring multitude, to solicit small gifts. The custorn
answers precisely to that of "guizarding," still practised in various parts
of Scotland, and known in England as mumming and morris dancing.
Not alone in Persia was this day held in honour. In
ancient Babylon it was sacred to Rhea and Nm, the latter being the child of
the sun, born of a human mother.
It is said that in Etruria, Gaul, and even Britain, a
similar form of worship was observed on this birthnight, and that the
goddess of the year was represented as nursing the infant god of day.
When the earlier teachers of Christianity found
themselves unable to abolish times and ceremonies so widely observed, and
with so great a hold on the faith, of the people, it seems to have been
judged expedient to engraft the great Christian festival on that already
established, without too rigid an attempt to alter external customs.
There is no doubt that this day first began to be
observed as that of our LORD'S nativity, about the middle of the fourth
century, under the Roman Bishop Liberius, and was not adopted by the Eastern
Church till somewhat later. St. Chrysostom, in preaching at Antioch A.D.
386, speaks of it as .having been first observed in that city about ten
years previously. Had the feast been of certain date, it would be very
strange that the city in which the disciples first received the name of
Christians, should have been so tardy in making it a day of annual
rejoicing. St. Augustine also admits that the observance of this feast, now
so dear to every Christian heart, was neither sanctioned by any great
council nor derived from apostolic usage. In fact it was never mentioned by
any of the auto-Nicene Fathers, even while enumerating the other festivals
of the Church.
It does seem strange, indeed, that the early Christians
should have retained no definite tradition of the exact date of the
Nativity. Indeed there is the greatest possible doubt when any feast
commemorating it, was instituted. Some believe it to be traceable to the
first century, but the first certain information we have respecting it, was
its being sanctioned as a Church Festival by Pope Telesphorus about A.D.
137. We next hear of it in the persecutions under Diocletian, who burnt a
church full of Christians while they were celebrating this feast.
But though the observance of a birthday festival
gradually spread, every branch of the Christian Church selected whatever day
seemed best in its own eyes, and such was the diversity of opinion on this
subject, that we are told that no less than one hundred and thirty-six
different days in the year have been fixed on for Christmas-day by various
Chri8tian sects and learned men.
They have been summed up as follows: "The Egyptian
Christians said the right season was in January. Wagenseil thought February
or August, but inclined to the latter. Bochart was for March. Some,
mentioned by Clemens Alexandrinus, placed it in April, and others in May.
Epiphanius mentions two sects, one fixing it in June, the other in July.
Lightfoot says September 15th. Scaliger, Casaubon, and Calvisius are for
October. Several others put it in November. The Latin Church decided on
December 25th, which is the day now universally recognized by Christendom.
This was decreed by Pope Julius L A.D. 337, and he fixed it on the same day
that the ancient Romans celebrated the feast of their goddess Bruma, a
festival much observed by the heathen in the winter solstice."
It would, however, appear as if December could lay even
less claim to this honour than most of the other months suggested, inasmuch
as the rainy season in Judea being then at its height, the shepherds would
probably betake them to their homes rather than watch all night in the open
fields. Nevertheless, in the absence of a certain date, the selection of one
particular day was a mere matter of expediency.
Neander and others, writing on this subject, observe
that precisely at this season of the year, a series of heathen festivals
occurred, so closely interwoven with the whole civil and social life, that
it was impossible to wean the people from them. First came the Saturnalia,
the maddest, merriest day of the year. Then the custom of making presents
(the Stren), followed by the festival of infants, when the little ones
received gifts of images. Next the birthday of the New Sun. Therefore it was
advisable to draw the Christians away from sharing in the revelries of their
Pagan neighbours, by substituting some legitimate cause of rejoicing, and
what more natural than the birth of CHRIST, the Spiritual Sun appearing to
dispel the powers of darkness and to be Himself the Light of the world.
A feast so reasonable found ready acceptance, though it
was long ere the churches agreed on which day it should be celebrated; those
of the East still preferring to observe it on the 6th January, which had
there already, been adopted as the Feast of the Epiphany. It was not till
the sixth century that anything like unanimity prevailed on the subject,
between the Eastern and Western Churches, and that all acknowledged the
wisdom of substituting a series of Christian feast-days, for those heathen
merry-makings which the converts were called on to abjure.
Nevertheless the universal feasting was still liable to
abuse, and too often degenerated into mere revelry and drunkenness; puppet
shows and miracle plays were devised to replace the idol worship of the
temples, and pagan superstition and excess still continued to reign under a
new and more sacred name.
Yule having thus been deposed in favour of Christmas,
it followed as a matter of course, that the Midsummer Festival, just sus
months earlier, must represent the nativity of St. John the Baptist. Thus
two of the principal Pagan festivals were at once utilized, and the
bonfires, the exchange of gifts, the cutting of evergreens, and the
feasting, were endowed with new meaning, and so continue to this day; though
the wild rejoicings of Yule have resolved themselves into more sober
The mistletoe of the Druids, and the Yule-log which
once blazed in honour of Odin and Thor, still hold their honoured place, and
until very recent times, the charred remains of the log of one year were
preserved carefully until the following Yule, when they served to light the
new log; their presence in the house being a safeguard against fire. A
monstrous candle called the Yule candle was also lighted, and was expected
to burn for twelve nights.
There is a further division of the winter festivals, by
the partial adoption of New Style in reckoning. Thus just as one half of the
people keep Hallow-e'en on the last night of October, and the others observe
the 11th of November, so with the New Year. This is especially remarkable on
the Inverness and Ross-shire coasts, which face one another, on either side
of the Beauly Firth. Long before sunrise on the first of January, the
Inverness hills are crowned with bonfires, and when they burn low, the lads
and lassies dance round them, and trample out the dying embers. The opposite
coast shows no such fires till the morning of the New Year, Old Style, when
it likewise awakens before daybreak to greet the rising sun.
curious old custom is still observed in our good town of Burghead (on the
Moray Firth). It is called The Burning of the Clavie. Its meaning and its
origin are alike unknown—but from time immemorial the fisher folk and seamen
have, on this Yule night, reckoned according to Old Style, assembled at the
west side of the town, carrying an old tar-barrel and other combustible
materials. This barrel being sawn' in two, the lower half is nailed into a
long spoke of firewood, which acts as a handle. This nail must not be struck
by a hammer, but is driven in with a stone.
The half-barrel is next filled with dry wood, saturated
with tar, and built up like a pyramid, leaving only a hollow to receive a
burning peat, for no modern lucifer match may be applied, and a final
libation of tar completes the Clavie, which is shouldered by one of the
lads, quits regardless of the streams of boiling tar which of course trickle
all down his back; should he stumble or fall, the omen would be held unlucky
indeed, both to the town and to himself. When weary of his burden, a second
is ready to fill the honoured post, and then a third and a fourth, till the
C]avie has made the circuit of the town, when it is carried to a hillock,
called the Doorie, where a hollowed stone receives the fir spoke. Fresh fuel
is added, and in olden days, the blaze continued all night, and at last was
allowed to burn itself out untouched.
Now, after a short interval, the CIavie is thrown down
the western side of the hill, and a desperate scramble ensues for the
burning brands, the possession of which is accounted to bring good luck, and
the embers are carried home, and carefully preserved till the following
year, as a safeguard against all manner of evil. In bygone times it was
thought necessary that one man should carry it right round the town, so the
strongest was selected to bear this weighty honour.
Moreover, it was customary to carry the Clavie round
every ship in the harbour, a part of the ceremony which has latterly been
discontinued. Occasionally, however, the Clavie is still rowed round some
The modern part of the town is not included in the
circuit, only the old town is thus encompassed by a protecting wall of fire.
Round this town of Burghead are certain green hillocks known as the Bailies.
Doubtless they also bear witness to the bale-fires which once crowned them.
The only other place where I can hear of any custom
akin to this burning of the Clavie is at Logierait, in Perthshire, where
certainly till late years (probably even to this day) the young men
assembled on Hallow-e'en, and made great torches of faggots, by binding
broom, flax, and heather on a pole. This being kindled, is, or was, carried
on the shoulders of a strong lad, who runs round the village, followed by
all the crowd; and as fast as one faggot burns out, a second is kindled..
Sometimes several are lighted simultaneously.
Pennant describes the same ceremony as one of the
regular institutions of Hallow-e'en a hundred years ago, and says that when
the faggot had been thus carried round the village, its embers were used to
kindle a great bonfire. This custom, says Borlase, was forbidden by the
Gallic Councils, and all concerned were held to be as guilty as though they
had actually sacrificed to devils.
Of course, though the old customs are still retained,
their original meaning is utterly forgotten; and the man who throws a live
peat after a woman who is about to increase the population, or he who on
Hallow-e'en throws a lighted brand over his own shoulder without looking at
whom he aims, little dreams whence sprang these time-honoured games.
One remarkable practice which, till very recently,
existed in Lewis and other Isles, was that of carrying fire all round the
houses and goods of different members of the community, more especially
round women after the birth of children, and round infants till after their
baptism, to protect them from evil spirits.
In like manner no Shetlander will venture after
nightfall to pass the green hillocks haunted by elfin tribes, unless he
carries with him a live coal.
To look much nearer home, we know of one good old wife
living in Banffshire who carries a live peat sunwise round her cottage every
night, just as regularly as she says her prayers. Moreover she is most
particular about keeping a red thread twisted round her cow's tail, as
otherwise she is convinced that the milk would pass from her cow to her
neighbour's. Also if it is sick, she at once kindles the old Need-fire.
I know that in many of the remote glens of Perthshire
there are still living women who on Beltane morn always throw ashes and a
live peat over their own heads, repeating a certain formula of words to
bring them luck. But the strictest secrecy is observed, lest such practices
should reach the ear of the minister: so the stronger their belief, the less
willing are they to confess to any knowledge of such matters.
Such quaint old superstitions are common in every
corner of England and Scotland, though rarely noticed save when they lead to
some mischief which brings them within ken of the law.
Thus at Craigmillar, near Edinburgh, a woman, not long
ago, refused to give a neighbour "a bit peat" to light her fire, because she
was supposed to be uncanny. The old woman muttered, as she turned away, that
her churlish neighbour might yet repent of her unkindness. This speech the
other repeated to her husband on his return from work, whereupon he went
straight to the old woman's house, and gave her a sharp out on the forehead,
for which he was duly called to account, and pleaded his belief that scoring
the witch above the breath would destroy her glamour! This, it seems, is a
common article of faith.
Some very curious notions as to this non-giving of fire
exist in some Highland districts. In various districts of Perthshire, in
Ross- shire, and in Strathspey, I have found instances of it. At Beltane,
Midsummer, Hallow-e'en, and particularly at the New Year, and on some
intervening days, there is a dread of ill luck in allowing a neighbour to
take a kindling from the hearth, or even a light for a pipe. An old servant
from the island of Islay tells me that there no one would, on any account,
give or take a light at Hogmanay, that is, at the new year.
A schoolmaster, in Ross-shire, also gave me various
proofs of this superstition which had come under his immediate notice. For
instance, an old wife came to a neighbour's house to get "a kindling" for
her fire. There was no one in the house but a wide- awake lassie eight years
old. So well versed was the child in this fire lore, that she would neither
give a match nor a cinder. Having turned out the poor old body, the little
girl immediately went to fetch two friends, and they followed the old woman
to her home, where, sure enough, they found a blazing fire and a boiling
pot. "See you," said the lassie, "gin the cailliach had gotten the kindling,
my father would not get a herring this year!"
In like manner a poor tinker's wife came into a house
in Apple- cross, Ross-shire, one morning in July, 1868, and took up a live
peat from the hearth to kindle her own fire. She had got to some distance
before she was observed, whereupon the gude-wife rushed after her, and,
snatching away the poor gipsy's prize, turned to a stranger who ventured to
remonstrate, saying, "Do you think I am to allow my cow to be dried up If I
allowed her to carry away the fire, I would not have a drop of milk to-night
to wet the bairns' mouths." She then threw the peat into a pail of water, so
as to recover whatever milk might already have found its way from poor
crummie to the tinker's camp.
Generally, when a kindling has thus been taken by
stealth, it is considered safer to consult a wise woman (or, as they call
her, a disciple of Black Donald), that she may put a counter-check on the
evil designs of the unneighbourly neighbour.
We find allusions to this quaint superstition in divers
legends of old, as for instance in those that tell of the mighty brothers
Akin and Rhea, prehistoric giants, who dwelt on the mainland, and
occasionally crossed over to the Isle of Skye by leaping the Straits. The
brothers built two strong towers in the Glenelg country, where they lived in
fraternal harmony, till on one evil day the younger brother, returning to
his home, found only a black hearth to greet him. Weary and chill, he passed
on to his brother's castle, where the fire was smouldering as usual. Soon he
kindled a cheery blaze, and having warmed himself, prepared to return to his
own lair, taking with him, however, a burning peat for a kindling. At this
moment the loving elder brother returned from the chase, and great was his
wrath on perceiving the theft! The culprit made off with all speed, as well
he might, for to this day the valley is strewn with rocks hurled after him
by the infuriated giant; one mighty boulder in particular stands forth as a
warning to all men to respect the rights of Fire.
This curious fear of ill-luck connected with the giving
or stealing of fire is evidently a survival of Druidic customs—of those
solemn Fire-Festivals, on the eve of which the fires which usually
smouldered day and night on the hearth were purposely extinguished, that on
the Great Day of the Festival, when the priests had by friction kindled new
sacred fire, each household might provide itself with a kindling from the
altar, and so sanctify its own hearth afresh.
As the purchase of this fire was a source of profit to
the priests, it would naturally be considered criminal for one neighbour to
give it to another at the seasons when every man was bound to purchase it
for himself. Terrible penalties were in store for any rash person who dared
to kindle a flame from any other source. This sacred fire was fed with the
peeled wood of a certain tree, and must never be blown with the breath, lest
it should be polluted.
Precisely similar is the custom which prevails among
the Guebres and Parsees of the present day. All fires being allowed to die
out, each family must procure sacred fire from the temples, wherewith to
rekindle the domestic hearth In the Talmud it is stated that the Israelites
who were captives in Persia adopted this practice.
A very interesting survival of this old custom is still
practised on the Midsummer Festival (the Eve of St. John) in the Spanish
Pyrenees, at Luchon and other places, where the ancient bale-fires
—Christianized as The Fires of St. John.—are kindled by the priests, while
chanting sacred hymns; and when these sacred fires have burnt themselves
out, the charred wood is distributed among the people, so that every
household may have a portion, which is religiously preserved throughout the
Lamartine alludes to the ceremonies of this night as
now practised in the French Alps. He tells how the peasants have
processions, and carry lighted torches of pine-wood and straw. Should they
wish especial luck to any young couple, they march round them in a circle,
just as the islanders of the West used to do.
In the Vosges the May-day festival is adjourned till
the first Sunday in Lent, when immediately after vespers, the lads and
lassies form two separate chains, and having thrice circled sunwise round
the village green, they pair off all present, one couple at a time, circling
three times round each couple. Then, on a given signal, each girl receives a
torch brought from the church, and the whole company go up to set fire to a
pile of wood in the middle of the green. As it blazes up they resume their
whirling dance, and when the bonfire is nearly extinct, each couple joins in
the scramble for a brand, and those who succeed in getting one, carry it off
in triumph to the home of the young woman.
These Fire-Festivals seem to have been celebrated in
much the same manner all over Europe, for there seems to be literally no
corner where we do not find some of the old ceremonies still practised;
nowhere more notably than on the shores of the Baltic —in Prussia,
Lithuania, and the lands adjacent. Indeed the name of the Baltic, and of
many Scandinavian places, still point to the old worship.
But with equal right may we seek traces of the old
Paganism on, the shores of Armorica—inasmuch as both in Brittany, and more
especially in Finisterre, the people clung to their ancient worship with
such tenacity, that beyond the mere fact of baptism, they could hardly, two
hundred years ago, be called Christians at all; but continued to worship, as
their fathers had done before them, amid the huge ghostly temples which
still abound in all that district. So we hear of zealous priests going forth
in the seventeenth century as Missionaries to preach Christianity, to the
people of Finisterre, as almost a new faith. Even then Church Councils
vainly strove to stop the pilgrimages to these Druidic circles.
At the present day they blend, with picturesque effect,
in various scenes of peasant life. Thus, on Midsummer's-eve, all the lads
and lasses in Brittany assemble at divers groups of old weather-beaten
stones. The lads wear green oorn, the girls a bunch of flax, with blue
blossoms. They lay their corn and flax on the great grey stones, and dance
round them till sunset. Then, according as they find their flowers fresh or
withered, they read the fate of their love; and return home, each lad
leading his lass by one finger. As the darkness closes in, bonfires are
lighted on every hill-top, lighting up all the land with their red glow, and
the young people dance wildly round them, hurrying from one bonfire to the
next; for all manner of luck in love and life attends those who have danced
round nine fires before midnight.
In Sardinia, on this night, the people light great
bonfires in their villages and at every cross-road. Men make compacts one
with another by passing their hands three times through the flames while
grasping a stick. They also cause their children to leap through the flames.
Then they go in procession to a church, near which they sit in a circle, and
feast on eggs fixed with divers herbs.
Not only in country districts, and by simple peasants,
were these festivals observed till recent days, but in all the principal
continental towns, such as Paris and Metz, where it was customary to kindle
fires in the market-place. These were sometimes blessed by the parish
priest, who offered a prayer in the name of St John— thus adapting the old
heathen festival to Christian use. The young pople then leaped over the
flames, and threw flowers and garlands into them, singing, shouting, and
dancing merrily. Even the great folk sometimes joined in the old games.
But imagine that only fifty years ago the Spring
Festival received municipal honours in Edinburgh, where, on the first Sunday
after Beltane, the magistrates used to walk down the Canongate in
procession, decorated with flowers, and carrying large nosegays! Imagine the
feelings of these grave men, if it had occurred to them that they were
rejoicing over Bel's new birth!
Still more extraordinary does it seem to us, who know
Cornhill only as a centre of London's busiest business life, to hear of days
when the streets were crowded with merry-makers, and gaily- dressed maidens
and smart 'prentices danced and frolicked, while the gigantic Maypole,
adorned with flags and streamers, was dragged by forty oxen, all decked with
flowers, through Cornhill to the Church of St. Andrew, Undershaft: so named
because of the huge Maypole or shaft, far overtopping the church, which from
time immemorial had been there erected. Near this Maypole were erected
summer-halls, bowers, and arbours; and feasting and dancing wont on all day,
till evening drew on, when great bonfires were lighted.
Another celebrated London Maypole stood in the Strand,
at the entrance of a street formerly known as Little Drury Lane, but which
after the days of Cromwell was renamed Maypole Alley. It was a stately mast
of cedar-wood, 134 feet long, prepared in the London docks, and carried to
the Strand by a detachment of sailors, with bands playing and colours
flying, amid the rejoicings of the people.
When grave citizens ceased to care for such
frivolities, Sir Isaac Newton purchaset the spar, and conveyed it to
Waustead in Essex to support a great telescope; and thus the poor old
Maypole was forced to lend its aid to solemn science after all, a new phase
of homage done to the host of heaven!
Comparatively few traces now remain in these isles of
the worship of the moon goddess.
Some lingering notion of her influence doubtless
inspired the extreme reverence with which the Highlanders and Islanders have
always noted all changes of the moon. So late the year 1700, the latter
invariably selected the time of the moon's increase for cutting their peat
and rushes, building their earthen dykes and felling timber (hence we assume
they had some trees then!), asserting that all manner of evils would attend
their labour, should these things be done at the time of her decrease. As to
the timber, they certainly have left little for their descendants I A birth
or a marriage at the time of the full moon was accounted lucky; whereas to
marry, or to kill a beast for food, while the moon was waning, would have
been the height of folly. In fact, no important business was commenced at
Even in England there are still some remote corners,
such as Dartmoor, where it is considered very dangerous to cut children's
hair in March, at certain phases of the moon.
Certainly it is curious to trace back some of these
simple customs to their origin. How little we think, as we kiss our hands to
the young moon, that more than three thousand years ago, Job, the grand old
Arabian patriarch, spoke of this very action as of a sin to be punished: a
denial of the Creator!
There seems always to have been some difficulty in
determining under what sex to adore the host of Heaven. The feminine Sun,
and Moon masculine, of the Germans certainly sound incongruous in our ears.
In Northern India, also, as with the old Scandinavians, the moon is
worshipped as a male divinity, under the name of Chandra (silvery), at whose
great festivals all devout Hindus appear in white raiment, with silver
ornaments. They sit on white cloths, and make offerings of milk and white
The moon found more favour with the women than the men,
and while we hear of the old Highlanders taking off their bonnet to the
rising sun, the women reserved their homage for the new moon. Any lassie who
desired to invoke her protection, and crave her good influence in her
sweethearting, had to go out at night and watch for the first new moon of
the new year. Then kneeling on a to yerd-fast stane" (that is, one fixed
immovably in the earth like the Druid altars), she was to lean her back
against a tree, and thus wait for the moment when she might hail the pale
crescent as it rose above the horizon. Bitterly cold work this must have
been, on a chilly night in January, but with such an object ,in view, what
mattered the freezing blast.
How often we have laughed at the story of the lassie
who thus went out to invoke the lady-moon, and pray that she would speedily
send her a faithful swain. Now in the ivy behind her sat a great white owl,
whose eyes winked and blinked and twinkled as he said "Who-o-oooo?" "Oh!"
cried the lassie, "I dinna mind who. Just anybody!" Thereupon she returned
home in all faith, and having found a suitable love, sent all her friends
and companions forth on a similar errand.