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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 165

Again, the Caffres are said to dread greatly the boa-constrictor or an enormous serpent resembling it; “and being influenced by certain superstitious notions they even fear to kill it. The man who happened to put it to death, whether in self-defence or otherwise, was formerly required to lie in a running stream of water during the day for several weeks together; and no beast whatever was allowed to be slaughtered at the hamlet to which he belonged, until this duty had been fully performed. The body of the snake was then taken and carefully buried in a trench, dug close to the cattle-fold, where its remains, like those of a chief, were henceforward kept perfectly undisturbed. The period of penance, as in the case of mourning for the dead, is now happily reduced to a few days.” In Madras it is considered a great sin to kill a cobra. When this has happened, the people generally burn the body of the serpent, just as they burn the bodies of human beings. The murderer deems himself polluted for three days. On the second day milk is poured on the remains of the cobra. On the third day the guilty wretch is free from pollution.

In these last cases the animal whose slaughter has to be atoned for is sacred, that is, it is one whose life is commonly spared from motives of superstition. Yet the treatment of the sacrilegious slayer seems to resemble so closely the treatment of hunters and fishermen who have killed animals for food in the ordinary course of business, that the ideas on which both sets of customs are based may be assumed to be substantially the same. Those ideas, if I am right, are the respect which the savage feels for the souls of beasts, especially valuable or formidable beasts, and the dread which he entertains of their vengeful ghosts. Some confirmation of this view may be drawn from the ceremonies observed by fishermen of Annam when the carcase of a whale is washed ashore. These fisherfolk, we are told, worship the whale on account of the benefits they derive from it. There is hardly a village on the sea-shore which has not its small pagoda, containing the bones, more or less authentic, of a whale. When a dead whale is washed ashore, the people accord it a solemn burial. The man who first caught sight of it acts as chief mourner, performing the rites which as chief mourner and heir he would perform for a human kinsman. He puts on all the garb of woe, the straw hat, the white robe with long sleeves turned inside out, and the other paraphernalia of full mourning. As next of kin to the deceased he presides over the funeral rites. Perfumes are burned, sticks of incense kindled, leaves of gold and silver scattered, crackers let off. When the flesh has been cut off and the oil extracted, the remains of the carcase are buried in the sand. After wards a shed is set up and offerings are made in it. Usually some time after the burial the spirit of the dead whale takes possession of some person in the village and declares by his mouth whether he is a male or a female.


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