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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 170

The reluctance to spill royal blood seems to be only a particular case of a general unwillingness to shed blood or at least to allow it to fall on the ground. Marco Polo tells us that in his day persons caught in the streets of Cambaluc (Peking) at unseasonable hours were arrested, and if found guilty of a misdemeanor were beaten with a stick. “Under this punishment people sometimes die, but they adopt it in order to eschew bloodshed, for their Bacsis say that it is an evil thing to shed man’s blood.” In West Sussex people believe that the ground on which human blood has been shed is accursed and will remain barren for ever. Among some primitive peoples, when the blood of a tribesman has to be spilt it is not suffered to fall upon the ground, but is received upon the bodies of his fellow-tribesmen. Thus in some Australian tribes boys who are being circumcised are laid on a platform, formed by the living bodies of the tribesmen; and when a boy’s tooth is knocked out as an initiatory ceremony, he is seated on the shoulders of a man, on whose breast the blood flows and may not be wiped away. “Also the Gauls used to drink their enemies’ blood and paint themselves therewith. So also they write that the old Irish were wont; and so have I seen some of the Irish do, but not their enemies’ but friends’ blood, as, namely, at the execution of a notable traitor at Limerick, called Murrogh O’Brien, I saw an old woman, which was his foster-mother, take up his head whilst he was quartered and suck up all the blood that ran thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it, and therewith also steeped her face and breast and tore her hair, crying out and shrieking most terribly.” Among the Latuka of Central Africa the earth on which a drop of blood has fallen at childbirth is carefully scraped up with an iron shovel, put into a pot along with the water used in washing the mother, and buried tolerably deep outside the house on the left-hand side. In West Africa, if a drop of your blood has fallen on the ground, you must carefully cover it up, rub and stamp it into the soil; if it has fallen on the side of a canoe or a tree, the place is cut out and the chip destroyed. One motive of these African customs may be a wish to prevent the blood from falling into the hands of magicians, who might make an evil use of it. That is admittedly the reason why people in West Africa stamp out any blood of theirs which has dropped on the ground or cut out any wood that has been soaked with it. From a like dread of sorcery natives of New Guinea are careful to burn any sticks, leaves, or rags which are stained with their blood; and if the blood has dripped on the ground they turn up the soil and if possible light a fire on the spot. The same fear explains the curious duties discharged by a class of men called ramanga or “blue blood” among the Betsileo of Madagascar. It is their business to eat all the nail-parings and to lick up all the spilt blood of the nobles. When the nobles pare their nails, the parings are collected to the last scrap and swallowed by these ramanga. If the parings are too large, they are minced small and so gulped down. Again, should a nobleman wound himself, say in cutting his nails or treading on something, the ramanga lick up the blood as fast as possible. Nobles of high rank hardly go anywhere without these humble attendants; but if it should happen that there are none of them present, the cut nails and the spilt blood are carefully collected to be afterwards swallowed by the ramanga. There is scarcely a nobleman of any pretensions who does not strictly observe this custom, the intention of which probably is to prevent these parts of his person from falling into the hands of sorcerers, who on the principles of contagious magic could work him harm thereby.

The general explanation of the reluctance to shed blood on the ground is probably to be found in the belief that the soul is in the blood, and that therefore any ground on which it may fall necessarily becomes taboo or sacred. In New Zealand anything upon which even a drop of a high chief’s blood chances to fall becomes taboo or sacred to him. For instance, a party of natives having come to visit a chief in a fine new canoe, the chief got into it, but in doing so a splinter entered his foot, and the blood trickled on the canoe, which at once became sacred to him. The owner jumped out, dragged the canoe ashore opposite the chief’s house, and left it there. Again, a chief in entering a missionary’s house knocked his head against a beam, and the blood flowed. The natives said that in former times the house would have belonged to the chief. As usually happens with taboos of universal application, the prohibition to spill the blood of a tribesman on the ground applies with peculiar stringency to chiefs and kings, and is observed in their case long after it has ceased to be observed in the case of others.

5. The Head tabooed

MANY peoples regard the head as peculiarly sacred; the special sanctity attributed to it is sometimes explained by a belief that it contains a spirit which is very sensitive to injury or disrespect. Thus the Yorubas hold that every man has three spiritual inmates, of whom the first, called Olori, dwells in the head and is the man’s protector, guardian, and guide. Offerings are made to this spirit, chiefly of fowls, and some of the blood mixed with palmoil is rubbed on the forehead. The Karens suppose that a being called the tso resides in the upper part of the head, and while it retains its seat no harm can befall the person from the efforts of the seven Kelahs, or personified passions. “But if the tso becomes heedless or weak certain evil to the person is the result. Hence the head is carefully attended to, and all possible pains are taken to provide such dress and attire as will be pleasing to the tso.” The Siamese think that a spirit called khuan or kwun dwells in the human head, of which it is the guardian spirit. The spirit must be carefully protected from injury of every kind; hence the act of shaving or cutting the hair is accompanied with many ceremonies. The kwun is very sensitive on points of honour, and would feel mortally insulted if the head in which he resides were touched by the hand of a stranger. The Cambodians esteem it a grave offence to touch a man’s head; some of them will not enter a place where anything whatever is suspended over their heads; and the meanest Cambodian would never consent to live under an inhabited room. Hence the houses are built of one story only; and even the Government respects the prejudice by never placing a prisoner in the stocks under the floor of a house, though the houses are raised high above the ground. The same superstition exists amongst the Malays; for an early traveller reports that in Java people “wear nothing on their heads, and say that nothing must be on their heads … and if any person were to put his hand upon their head they would kill him; and they do not build houses with storeys, in order that they may not walk over each other’s heads.”

The same superstition as to the head is found in full force throughout Polynesia. Thus of Gattanewa, a Marquesan chief, it is said that “to touch the top of his head, or anything which had been on his head, was sacrilege. To pass over his head was an indignity never to be forgotten.” The son of a Marquesan high priest has been seen to roll on the ground in an agony of rage and despair, begging for death, because some one had desecrated his head and deprived him of his divinity by sprinkling a few drops of water on his hair. But it was not the Marquesan chiefs only whose heads were sacred. The head of every Marquesan was taboo, and might neither be touched nor stepped over by another; even a father might not step over the head of his sleeping child; women were forbidden to carry or touch anything that had been in contact with, or had merely hung over, the head of their husband or father. No one was allowed to be over the head of the king of Tonga. In Tahiti any one who stood over the king or queen, or passed his hand over their heads, might be put to death. Until certain rites were performed over it, a Tahitian infant was especially taboo; whatever touched the child’s head, while it was in this state, became sacred and was deposited in a consecrated place railed in for the purpose at the child’s house. If a branch of a tree touched the child’s head, the tree was cut down; and if in its fall it injured another tree so as to penetrate the bark, that tree also was cut down as unclean and unfit for use. After the rites were performed these special taboos ceased; but the head of a Tahitian was always sacred, he never carried anything on it, and to touch it was an offence. So sacred was the head of a Maori chief that “if he only touched it with his fingers, he was obliged immediately to apply them to his nose, and snuff up the sanctity which they had acquired by the touch, and thus restore it to the part from whence it was taken.” On account of the sacredness of his head a Maori chief “could not blow the fire with his mouth, for the breath being sacred, communicated his sanctity to it, and a brand might be taken by a slave, or a man of another tribe, or the fire might be used for other purposes, such as cooking, and so cause his death.”


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