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Custom and Myth

Page: 66

mystica vannus Iacchi (Virgil, ‘Georgics,’ i. 166). The conclusion drawn by the ethnologist is that this object, called turndun by the Australians, is a very early savage invention, probably discovered and applied to religious purposes in various separate centres, and retained from the age of savagery in the mystic rites of Greeks and perhaps of Romans. Well, do we find anything analogous in the case of the divining rod?

Future researches may increase our knowledge, but at present little or nothing is known of the divining rod in classical ages, and not very much (though that little is significant) among uncivilised races. It is true that in all countries rods or wands, the Latin virga, have a magical power. Virgil obtained his mediæval repute as a wizard because his name was erroneously connected with virgula, the magic wand. But we do not actually know that the ancient wand of the enchantress Circe, in Homer, or the wand of Hermes, was used, like the divining rod, to indicate the whereabouts of hidden wealth or water. In the Homeric hymn to Hermes (line 529), Apollo thus describes the caduceus, or wand of Hermes: ‘Thereafter will I give thee a lovely wand of wealth and riches, a golden wand with three leaves, which shall keep thee ever unharmed.’ In later art this wand, or caduceus, is usually entwined with serpents; but on one vase, at least, the wand of Hermes is simply the forked twig of our rustic miners and water-finders. The same form is found on an engraved Etruscan mirror. {183}

Now, was a wand of this form used in classical times to discover hidden objects of value? That wands were used by Scythians and Germans in various methods of casting lots is certain; but that is not the same thing as the working of the twig. Cicero speaks of a fabled wand by which wealth can be procured; but he says nothing of the method of its use, and possibly was only thinking of the rod of Hermes, as described in the Homeric hymn already quoted. There was a Roman play, by Varro, called ‘Virgula Divina’; but it is lost, and throws no light on the subject. A passage usually quoted from Seneca has no more to do with the divining rod than with the telephone. Pliny is a writer extremely fond of marvels; yet when he describes the various modes of finding wells of water, he says nothing about the divining wand. The isolated texts from Scripture which are usually referred to clearly indicate wands of a different sort, if we except Hosea iv. 12, the passage used as motto by the author of ‘Lettres qui découvrent l’illusion des Philosophes sur la Baguette’ (1696). This text is translated in our Bible, ‘My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them! Now, we have here no reference to the search for wells and minerals, but to a form of divination for which the modern twig has ceased to be applied. In rural England people use the wand to find water, but not to give advice, or to detect thieves or murderers; but, as we shall see, the rod has been very much used for these purposes within the last three centuries.

This brings us to the moral powers of the twig; and here we find some assistance in our inquiry from the practices of uncivilised races. In 1719 John Bell was travelling across Asia; he fell in with a Russian merchant, who told him of a custom common among the Mongols. The Russian had lost certain pieces of cloth, which were stolen out of his tent. The Kutuchtu Lama ordered the proper steps to be taken to find out the thief. ‘One of the Lamas took a bench with four feet, and after turning it in several directions, at last it pointed directly to the tent where the stolen goods were concealed. The Lama now mounted across the bench, and soon carried it, or, as was commonly believed, it carried him, to the very tent, where he ordered the damask to be produced. The demand was directly complied with; for it is vain in such cases to offer any excuse.’ {184a} Here we have not a wand, indeed, but a wooden object which turned in the direction, not of water or minerals, but of human guilt. A better instance is given by the Rev. H. Rowley, in his account of the Mauganja. {184b} A thief had stolen some corn. The medicine-man, or sorcerer, produced two sticks, which he gave to four young men, two holding each stick. The medicine-man danced and sang a magical incantation, while a zebra-tail and a rattle were shaken over the holders of the sticks. ‘After a while, the men with the sticks had spasmodic twitchings of the arms and legs; these increased nearly to convulsions. . . . According to the native idea, it was the sticks which were possessed primarily, and through them the men,


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