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Custom and Myth

Page: 69

planchette, it often answered wrong. The great sourcier, or water-finder, of the eighteenth century was one Bleton. He declared that the rod was a mere index, and that physical sensations of the searcher communicated themselves to the wand. This is the reverse of the African theory, that the stick is inspired, while the men who hold it are only influenced by the stick. On the whole, Bleton’s idea seems the less absurd, but Bleton himself often failed when watched with scientific care by the incredulous. Paramelle, who wrote on methods of discovering wells, in 1856, came to the conclusion that the wand turns in the hands of certain individuals of peculiar temperament, and that it is very much a matter of chance whether there are, or are not, wells in the places where it turns.

On the whole, the evidence for the turning of the wand is a shade better than that for the magical turning of tables. If there are no phenomena of this sort at all, it is remarkable that the belief in them is so widely diffused. But if the phenomena are purely subjective, owing to the conscious or unconscious action of nervous patients, then they are precisely of the sort which the cunning medicine-man observes, and makes his profit out of, even in the earliest stages of society. Once introduced, these practices never die out among the conservative and unprogressive class of peasants; and, every now and then, they attract the curiosity of philosophers, or win the belief of the credulous among the educated classes. Then comes, as we have lately seen, a revival of ancient superstition. For it were as easy to pluck the comet out of the sky by the tail, as to eradicate superstition from the mind of man.

Perhaps one good word may be said for the divining rod. Considering the chances it has enjoyed, the rod has done less mischief than might have been expected. It might very well have become, in Europe, as in Asia and Africa, a kind of ordeal, or method of searching for and trying malefactors. Men like Jacques Aymar might have played, on a larger scale, the part of Hopkins, the witch-finder. Aymar was, indeed, employed by some young men to point out, by help of the wand, the houses of ladies who had been more frail than faithful. But at the end of the seventeenth century in France, this research was not regarded with favour, and put the final touch on the discomfiture of Aymar. So far as we know, the hunchback of Lyons was the only victim of the ‘twig’ who ever suffered in civilised society. It is true that, in rural England, the movements of a Bible, suspended like a pendulum, have been thought to point out the guilty. But even that evidence is not held good enough to go to a jury.

HOTTENTOT MYTHOLOGY.

‘What makes mythology mythological, in the true sense of the word, is what is utterly unintelligible, absurd, strange, or miraculous.’ So says Mr. Max Müller in the January number of the Nineteenth Century for 1882. Men’s attention would never have been surprised into the perpetual study and questioning of mythology if it had been intelligible and dignified, and if its report had been in accordance with the reason of civilised and cultivated races. What mythologists wish to discover is the origin of the countless disgusting, amazing, and incongruous legends which occur in the myths of all known peoples. According to Mr. Müller—

There are only two systems possible in which the irrational element in mythology can be accounted for. One school takes the irrational as a matter of fact; and if we read that Daphne fled before Phœbus, and was changed into a laurel tree, that school would say that there probably was a young lady called Aurora, like, for instance, Aurora Königsmark; that a young man called Robin, or possibly a man with red hair, pursued her, and that she hid behind a laurel tree that happened to be there. This was the theory of Euhemeros, re-established by the famous Abbé Bernier [Mr. Müller doubtless means Banier], and not quite extinct even now. According to another school, the irrational element in mythology is inevitable, and due to the influence of language on thought, so that many of the legends of gods and heroes may be rendered intelligible if only we can discover the original meaning of their proper names. The followers of this school try to show that Daphne, the laurel tree, was an old name for the dawn, and that Phoibos was one of the many names of the sun, who pursued the dawn till she vanished before his rays. Of these two schools, the former has always appealed to the mythologies of savage nations, as showing that gods and heroes were originally human beings, worshipped after their death as ancestors and as gods, while the latter has confined itself chiefly to an etymological analysis of mythological names in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and other languages, such as had been sufficiently studied to admit of a scientific, grammatical, and etymological treatment.


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