Custom and Myth

Page: 65

Here the strange poem ends at its strangest moment, with the cry, which must have been uttered so often, but is heard here alone, of a people reluctantly deserting the gods that it has fashioned in its own likeness, for a faith that has not sprung from its needs or fears. Yet it cherishes the hope that this tyranny shall pass over: ‘they are gods, and behold they shall die, and the waves be upon them at last.’

As the ‘Kalevala,’ and as all relics of folklore, all Märchen and ballads prove, the lower mythology—the elemental beliefs of the people—do survive beneath a thin covering of Christian conformity. There are, in fact, in religion, as in society, two worlds, of which the one does not know how the other lives. The class whose literature we inherit, under whose institutions we live, at whose shrines we worship, has changed as outworn raiment its manners, its gods, its laws; has looked before and after, has hoped and forgotten, has advanced from the wilder and grosser to the purest faith. Beneath the progressive class, and beneath the waves of this troublesome world, there exists an order whose primitive form of human life has been far less changeful, a class which has put on a mere semblance of new faiths, while half-consciously retaining the remains of immemorial cults.

Obviously, as M. Fauriel has pointed out in the case of the modern Greeks, the life of such folk contains no element of progress, admits no break in continuity. Conquering armies pass and leave them still reaping the harvest of field and river; religions appear, and they are baptized by thousands, but the lower beliefs and dreads that the progressive class has outgrown remain unchanged.

Thus, to take the instance of modern Greece, the high gods of the divine race of Achilles and Agamemnon are forgotten, but the descendants of the Penestæ, the villeins of Thessaly, still dread the beings of the popular creed, the Nereids, the Cyclopes, and the Lamia. {178}

The last lesson we would attempt to gather from the ‘Kalevala’ is this: that a comparison of the thoroughly popular beliefs of all countries, the beliefs cherished by the non-literary classes whose ballads and fairy tales have only recently been collected, would probably reveal a general identity, concealed by diversity of name, among the ‘lesser people of the skies,’ the elves, fairies, Cyclopes, giants, nereids, brownies, lamiæ. It could then be shown that some of these spirits survive among the lower beings of the mythology of what the Germans call a cultur-volk like the Greeks or Romans. It could also be proved that much of the narrative element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular or childish form in primitive fairy tales. The question would then come to be, Have the higher mythologies been developed, by artistic poets, out of the materials of a race which remained comparatively untouched by culture; or are the lower spirits, and the more simple and puerile forms of myth, degradations of the inventions of a cultivated class?


There is something remarkable, and not flattering to human sagacity, in the periodical resurrection of superstitions. Houses, for example, go on being ‘haunted’ in country districts, and no educated man notices the circumstance. Then comes a case like that of the Drummer of Tedworth, or the Cock Lane Ghost, and society is deeply moved, philosophers plunge into controversy, and he who grubs among the dusty tracts of the past finds a world of fugitive literature on forgotten bogies. Chairs move untouched by human hands, and tables walk about in lonely castles of Savoy, and no one marks them, till a day comes when the furniture of some American cottage is similarly afflicted, and then a shoddy new religion is based on the phenomenon. The latest revival among old beliefs is faith in the divining rod. ‘Our liberal shepherds give it a shorter name,’ and so do our conservative peasants, calling the ‘rod of Jacob’ the ‘twig.’ To ‘work the twig’ is rural English for the craft of Dousterswivel in the ‘Antiquary,’ and perhaps from this comes our slang expression to ‘twig,’ or divine, the hidden meaning of another. Recent correspondence in the newspapers has proved that, whatever may be the truth about the ‘twig,’ belief in its powers is still very prevalent. Respectable people are not ashamed to bear signed witness of its miraculous powers of detecting springs of water and secret mines. It is habitually used by the miners in the Mendips, as Mr. Woodward found ten years ago; and forked hazel divining rods from the Mendips are a recognised part of ethnological collections. There are two ways of investigating the facts or fancies about the rod. One is to examine it in its actual operation—a task of considerable labour, which will doubtless be undertaken by the Society for Psychical Research; the other, and easier, way is to study the appearances of the divining wand in history, and that is what we propose to do in this article.

When a superstition or belief is widely spread in Europe, as the faith in the divining rod certainly is (in Germany rods are hidden under babies’ clothes when they are baptized), we naturally expect to find traces of it in ancient times and among savages all over the modern world. We have already examined, in ‘The Bull-Roarer,’ a very similar example. We saw that there is a magical instrument—a small fish-shaped piece of thin flat wood tied to a thong—which, when whirled in the air, produces a strange noise, a compound of roar and buzz. This instrument is sacred among the natives of Australia, where it is used to call together the men, and to frighten away the women from the religious mysteries of the males. The same instrument is employed for similar purposes in New Mexico, and in South Africa and New Zealand—parts of the world very widely distant from each other, and inhabited by very diverse races. It has also been lately discovered that the Greeks used this toy, which they called ρομβος, in the Mysteries of Dionysus, and possibly it may be identical with the