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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 30

The ancients set great store on the magical qualities of precious stones; indeed it has been maintained, with great show of reason, that such stones were used as amulets long before they were worn as mere ornaments. Thus the Greeks gave the name of tree-agate to a stone which exhibits tree-like markings, and they thought that if two of these gems were tied to the horns or necks of oxen at the plough, the crop would be sure to be plentiful. Again, they recognised a milkstone which produced an abundant supply of milk in women if only they drank it dissolved in honey-mead. Milk-stones are used for the same purpose by Greek women in Crete and Melos at the present day; in Albania nursing mothers wear the stones in order to ensure an abundant flow of milk. Again, the Greeks believed in a stone which cured snake-bites, and hence was named the snake-stone; to test its efficacy you had only to grind the stone to powder and sprinkle the powder on the wound. The wine-coloured amethyst received its name, which means “not drunken,” because it was supposed to keep the wearer of it sober; and two brothers who desired to live at unity were advised to carry magnets about with them, which, by drawing the twain together, would clearly prevent them from falling out.

The ancient books of the Hindoos lay down a rule that after sunset on his marriage night a man should sit silent with his wife till the stars begin to twinkle in the sky. When the pole-star appears, he should point it out to her, and, addressing the star, say, “Firm art thou; I see thee, the firm one. Firm be thou with me, O thriving one!” Then, turning to his wife, he should say, “To me Brihaspati has given thee; obtaining offspring through me, thy husband, live with me a hundred autumns.” The intention of the ceremony is plainly to guard against the fickleness of fortune and the instability of earthly bliss by the steadfast influence of the constant star. It is the wish expressed in Keats’s last sonnet:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night.

Dwellers by the sea cannot fail to be impressed by the sight of its ceaseless ebb and flow, and are apt, on the principles of that rude philosophy of sympathy and resemblance which here engages our attention, to trace a subtle relation, a secret harmony, between its tides and the life of man, of animals, and of plants. In the flowing tide they see not merely a symbol, but a cause of exuberance, of prosperity, and of life, while in the ebbing tide they discern a real agent as well as a melancholy emblem of failure, of weakness, and of death. The Breton peasant fancies that clover sown when the tide is coming in will grow well, but that if the plant be sown at low water or when the tide is going out, it will never reach maturity, and that the cows which feed on it will burst. His wife believes that the best butter is made when the tide has just turned and is beginning to flow, that milk which foams in the churn will go on foaming till the hour of high water is past, and that water drawn from the well or milk extracted from the cow while the tide is rising will boil up in the pot or saucepan and overflow into the fire. According to some of the ancients, the skins of seals, even after they had been parted from their bodies, remained in secret sympathy with the sea, and were observed to ruffle when the tide was on the ebb. Another ancient belief, attributed to Aristotle, was that no creature can die except at ebb tide. The belief, if we can trust Pliny, was confirmed by experience, so far as regards human beings, on the coast of France. Philostratus also assures us that at Cadiz dying people never yielded up the ghost while the water was high. A like fancy still lingers in some parts of Europe. On the Cantabrian coast they think that persons who die of chronic or acute disease expire at the moment when the tide begins to recede. In Portugal, all along the coast of Wales, and on some parts of the coast of Brittany, a belief is said to prevail that people are born when the tide comes in, and die when it goes out. Dickens attests the existence of the same superstition in England. “People can’t die, along the coast,” said Mr. Pegotty, “except when the tide’s pretty nigh out. They can’t be born, unless it’s pretty nigh in—not properly born till flood.” The belief that most deaths happen at ebb tide is said to be held along the east coast of England from Northumberland to Kent. Shakespeare must have been familiar with it, for he makes Falstaff die “even just between twelve and one, e’en at the turning o’ the tide.” We meet the belief again on the Pacific coast of North America among the Haidas. Whenever a good Haida is about to die he sees a canoe manned by some of his dead friends, who come with the tide to bid him welcome to the spirit land. “Come with us now,” they say, “for the tide is about to ebb and we must depart.” At Port Stephens, in New South Wales, the natives always buried their dead at flood tide, never at ebb, lest the retiring water should bear the soul of the departed to some distant country.


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