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Custom and Myth

Page: 67

who could hardly hold them. The sticks whirled and dragged the men round and round like mad, through bush and thorny shrub, and over every obstacle; nothing stopped them; their bodies were torn and bleeding. At last they came back to the assembly, whirled round again, and rushed down the path to fall panting and exhausted in the hut of one of a chief’s wives. The sticks, rolling to her very feet, denounced her as a thief. She denied it; but the medicine-man answered, “The spirit has declared her guilty; the spirit never lies.”’ The woman, however, was acquitted, after a proxy trial by ordeal: a cock, used as her proxy, threw up the muavi, or ordeal-poison.

Here the points to be noted are, first, the violent movement of the sticks, which the men could hardly hold; next, the physical agitation of the men. The former point is illustrated by the confession of a civil engineer writing in the ‘Times.’ This gentleman had seen the rod successfully used for water; he was asked to try it himself, and he determined that it should not twist in his hands ‘if an ocean rolled under his feet.’ Twist it did, however, in spite of all his efforts to hold it, when he came above a concealed spring. Another example is quoted in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ vol. xxii. p. 374. A narrator, in whom the editor had ‘implicit confidence,’ mentions how, when a lady held the twig just over a hidden well, ‘the twig turned so quick as to snap, breaking near her fingers.’ There seems to be no indiscretion in saying, as the statement has often been printed before, that the lady spoken of in the ‘Quarterly Review’ was Lady Milbanke, mother of the wife of Byron. Dr. Hutton, the geologist, is quoted as a witness of her success in the search for water with the divining rod. He says that, in an experiment at Woolwich, ‘the twigs twisted themselves off below her fingers, which were considerably indented by so forcibly holding the rods between them.’ {186} Next, the violent excitement of the four young men of the Mauganja is paralleled by the physical experience of the lady quoted in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ ‘A degree of agitation was visible in her face when she first made the experiment; she says this agitation was great’ when she began to practise the art, or whatever we are to call it. Again, in ‘Lettres qui découvrent l’illusion’ (p. 93), we read that Jacques Aymar (who discovered the Lyons murderer in 1692) se sent tout ému—feels greatly agitated—when he comes on that of which he is in search. On page 97 of the same volume, the body of the man who holds the divining rod is described as ‘violently agitated.’ When Aymar entered the room where the murder, to be described later, was committed, ‘his pulse rose as if he were in a burning fever, and the wand turned rapidly in his hands’ (‘Lettres,’ p. 107). But the most singular parallel to the performance of the African wizard must be quoted from a curious pamphlet already referred to, a translation of the old French ‘Verge de Jacob,’ written, annotated, and published by a Mr. Thomas Welton. Mr. Welton seems to have been a believer in mesmerism, animal magnetism, and similar doctrines, but the coincidence of his story with that of the African sorcerer is none the less remarkable. It is a coincidence which must almost certainly be ‘undesigned.’ Mr. Welton’s wife was what modern occult philosophers call a ‘Sensitive.’ In 1851, he wished her to try an experiment with the rod in a garden, and sent a maid-servant to bring ‘a certain stick that stood behind the parlour door. In great terror she brought it to the garden, her hand firmly clutched on the stick, nor could she let it go . . . ’ The stick was given to Mrs. Welton, ‘and it drew her with very considerable force to nearly the centre of the garden, to a bed of poppies, where she stopped.’ Here water was found, and the gardener, who had given up his lease as there was no well in the garden, had the lease renewed.

We have thus evidence to show (and much more might be adduced) that the belief in the divining rod, or in analogous instruments, is not confined to the European races. The superstition, or whatever we are to call it, produces the same effects of physical agitation, and the use of the rod is accompanied with similar phenomena among Mongols, English people, Frenchmen, and the natives of Central Africa. The same coincidences are found in almost all superstitious practices, and in the effects of these practices on believers. The Chinese use a form of planchette, which is half a divining rod—a branch of the peach tree; and ‘spiritualism’ is more than three-quarters of the religion of most savage tribes, a Maori séance being more impressive than anything the civilised Sludge can offer his credulous patrons. From these facts different people draw different inferences. Believers say that the wide distribution of their favourite mysteries is a proof that ‘there is something in them.’ The incredulous look on our modern ‘twigs’ and turning-tables and ghost stories as mere ‘survivals’ from the stage of savage culture, or want of culture, when the fancy of half-starved man was active and his reason uncritical.

The great authority for the modern history of the divining rod is a work published by M. Chevreuil, in Paris, in 1854. M. Chevreuil, probably with truth, regarded the wand as much on a par with the turning-tables, which, in 1854, attracted a good deal of attention. He studied the topic historically, and his book, with a few accessible French tracts and letters of the seventeenth century, must here be our guide. A good deal of M. Chevreuil’s learning, it should be said, is reproduced in Mr. Baring Gould’s ‘Curious Myths of the Middle Ages,’ but the French author is much more exhaustive in his treatment of the topic. M. Chevreuil could find no earlier book on the twig than the ‘Testament du Frère Basil Valentin,’ a holy man who flourished (the twig) about 1413; but whose treatise is possibly apocryphal. According to Basil Valentin, the twig was regarded with awe by ignorant labouring men, which is still true. Paracelsus, though he has a reputation for magical daring, thought the use of the twig ‘uncertain and unlawful’; and Agricola, in his ‘De Re Metallica’ (1546) expresses a good deal of scepticism about the use of the rod in mining. A traveller of 1554 found that the wand was not used—and this seems to have surprised him—in the mines of Macedonia. Most of the writers of the sixteenth century accounted for the turning of the rod by ‘sympathy,’ which was then as favourite an explanation of everything as evolution is to-day. In 1630 the Baron de Beau Soleil of Bohemia (his name sounds rather Bohemian) came to France with his wife, and made much use of the rod in the search for water and minerals. The Baroness wrote a little volume on the subject, afterwards reprinted in a great storehouse of this lore, ‘La Physique Occulte,’ of Vallemont. Kircher, a Jesuit, made experiments which came to nothing; but Gaspard Schott, a learned writer, cautiously declined to say that the Devil was always ‘at the bottom of it’ when the rod turned successfully. The problem of the rod was placed before our own Royal Society by Boyle, in 1666, but the Society was not more successful here than in dealing with the philosophical difficulty proposed by Charles II. In 1679 De Saint Remain, deserting the old hypothesis of secret ‘sympathies,’ explained the motion of the rod (supposing it to move) by the action of


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