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On Ancient And Modern Customs

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

So many traces of the ceremonies and usages of ancient nations still exist in the popular superstitions and manners of modern times, that an endeavour to point out their resemblance, and to describe some of the principal corresponding customs, may not be considered either useless or uninstructive. Among the Romans, especially, we find in various points so striking a similarity, as to leave no room for doubt that many of their usages have been transmitted to, and adopted by, later ages, with little or no alteration.

The ancients were accustomed to surround places struck by lightning with a wall : things were buried with mysterious ceremony. Per-sons killed in this manner were wrapped in a white sheet, and interred on the spot where they fell. Bodies scathed, and persons struck dead, were thought to be incorruptible, and a stroke not fatal conferred perpetual honour on the man so distinguished by heaven. Bullenger relates that the Curtian lake, and the Runcival fig-tree in the forum, having been touched by lightning, were held sacred, and, in commemoration of the event, a puteal, or altar, resembling the mouth of a well, with a little chapel, was erected over the cavity supposed to have been made by the thunderbolt.

Places or objects struck by lightning, remarks the historian Gibbon, were regarded by the ancients with pious horror, as singularly devoted to the wrath of heaven. The fate of the Roman Emperor Carus, whose death was supposed to have been thus occasioned on his expedition to Persia, and an ancient oracle which declared the river Tigris to be the boundary of the Roman arms, so dismayed the legions, that they refused to continue the campaign, and required to be con-ducted immediately from a spot which had become distinguished by so fatal an event.*

When a place was blasted by lightning, it was called bidental, and an atonement or expiatory sacrifice was offered of sheep two years old, called bidentes, from having at that age two teeth longer than the rest; and the spot was ever afterwards held sacred and inviolable. It was considered the height of profaneness and impiety to disturb the ground, or to venture within the consecrated precincts. Horace, in his " Art of Poetry," makes the following allusion .to this custom :

" Utrum

Minxerit in patrios cineres, an triste bidental
Maverit incestus."—470-472.

The term bidental was also applied to a person struck by lightning : "Triste jaces lucis, evitandumque bidental."—Persius [ii. 27].

The eagle, the sea-calf, and the laurel, are mentioned by Pliny, in his " Natural History," as the most approved preservatives against the effects of lightning. " Aquila, vitulus Marinus, et laurus fulmine non feriuntur" (lib. ii., cap. 55). Jupiter chose the first, Augustus Cæsar the second, and Tiberius never failed to wear a wreath of the third when the sky threatened a thunder-storm. (Notes to "Childe Harold," Canto iv.). Lord Byron thus alludes to the ancient popular superstitions on the subject :

" The lightning rent from Ariosto's bust
The iron crown of laurel's mimic'd leaves :
Nor was the ominous element unjust,
For the true laurel-wreath which glory weaves
Is of the tree no bolt of thunder cleaves,
And the false semblance but disgrac'd his brow ;
Yet still, if fondly Superstition grieves,
Know that the lightning sanctifies below
Whate'er it strikes ; yon head is doubly sacred now."

Childe Harold; Canto iv., xli.

A relic of the custom above referred to, of using imaginary preservatives against lightning, still exists in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other Catholic countries. The branches of palm which are used in the religious processions on Palm Sunday, after having been blessed by the priests, are sent by the clergy to their friends, who fasten them to the bars of their balconies, to be, as they imagine, a protection from the effects of thunder and lightning.

The ancients entertained the idea that omens furnished by lightning portended some approaching calamity. The shepherd Meliboeus, in the first Eclogue of Virgil, thus introduces the prevailing notion :

" Saepe malum hoc nobis, si mens non læva fuisset,
De coelo taclas memini prodicere quercus:
Saepe sinistra cavâ prædixit ab ilice cornix."—Ecl. L, 16.

The brazen image of the celebrated Roman wolf, which suckled Romulus and Remus, having been struck by lightning, was held sacred by the Romans, and preserved with the greatest care and sanctity. Considerable doubts, however, exist amongst antiquaries as to the identity of the image, some contending that it was the one kept in the temple of Romulus, under the Palatine, alluded to by Livy in his history, and by Dionysius in his "Roman Antiquities ;" and others affirming it to be the image mentioned by Cicero and the historian Dion as having suffered a similar accident. The various conflicting authorities on this question are collected and commented on with great learning and ingenuity in the notes to " Childe Harold," Canto iv., stan. lxxxviii.

The ancients observed the custom of casting stones on the graves of persons who had suffered or inflicted upon themselves a violent death, and of performing the rites of sepulture on their unburied remains. Horace, in one of his Odes, represents the philosopher Archytas (the pupil of Plato), who perished in a shipwreck, imploring the charity of the passing sailor to consign his body to the grave :

" At tu, nauta, vagæ ne parce malignus arenæ
Ossibus et capiti inhumato
Particulam dare."—Odes, b. i., 28.

The antiquity of this custom appears, from Proverbs xxvi. 3, to be very great. Shakespeare, describing the death and interment of Ophelia, thus alludes to it, as generally practised at the burial of suicides :

"For charitable prayers
Shards, flints and pebbles, should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial."—Hamlet, Act v.

It is also the practice in Catholic countries, in modern times, for passengers to throw a stone in passing at the foot of the double cross which denotes an untimely grave. In Spain this is constantly seen at the monumental crosses erected in the highways to those who have perished by the hands of robbers. To this prevailing custom may also probably be traced the origin of cairns in Scotland and Wales.

The ancient custom, to which I alluded in my last, of heaping stones on the graves of persons who had suffered an untimely death, still exists in Sweden, as appears by the following passage extracted from the work of an entertaining modern traveller :

" On passing through the forest of Kaaglar, on our way from the lake of Venern to Stockholm, we saw near the roadside several large heaps of stones, which, dropped by the pious hands of the passengers, point out the spot where the remains of some unfortunate traveller repose beneath the shade of the waving pines. This practice is very general in Sweden " (Captain de Capel Brooke's "Travels in Sweden and Norway in 182o," p. 22).

The custom of erecting crosses in conspicuous situations, as objects of devotion or as monuments of guilt, seems to be almost universal in continental and other foreign countries. Captain [Sir F. B.] Head, in his amusing "Rough Notes" [London 1826], taken amongst the Andes, relates that in his passage over the Great Cordillera, he saw on one of the highest summits a large wooden cross, which had been erected by two arrieros to commemorate the murder of their friend (p. 168). Lieutenant [Charles] Brand, in his recent work containing an account of his journey over the Andes on foot in the snow [London 1828], notices frequently the same circumstance. On the ascent to the Hospice of the Grand St. Bernard, several crosses stand near the roadside, as similar memorials. This custom is also observable on the banks of the Rhine, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Lord Byron thus alludes to its existence in the latter country, in his magnificent description of Cintra :

"And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carv'd crosses near the path,
Yet deem not these devotion's offering,
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath ;
For wheresoe'er the shrieking victim hath
Pour'd forth his blood beneath the assassin's knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath,
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife,
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life."

Childe Harold, Canto i., xxi.

In all ages and in all countries of the world, mankind has appeared to feel and to express by external signs a deep and well-founded abhorrence of the crime of murder, whether committed by the deliberate hand of the suicide or the assassin. This feeling, implanted by Providence in the human breast, has no doubt given rise to and perpetuated the custom alluded to.

It was a well-known practice amongst the Roman soldiers, when they applauded a speech of their General, to strike their shields with their swords, as a testimony of their approbation. Of this we may read many instances in the works of Livy, and several of the ancient classic poets. Tacitus also relates that the Germans, who always carried their arms with them, were accustomed, in their public assemblies and debates, to testify their approval or dislike of the harangues made to them, by striking their weapons together, if pleased, and, if the contrary, by loud murmurs and other tokens of displeasure. He adds, that the former was considered the most honourable proof of satisfaction, "Ut turbæ placuit, considunt armati, nihil autem neque publicae neque privatæ rei, nisi armati, agunt. Mox rex vel princeps, prout ætas cuique, prout nobilitas, prout decus bellorum, prout facundia est, audiuntur, auctoritate suadendi magis quam jubendi potestate. Si displicuit sententia, fremitu aspernantur, sin placuit, frameas concutiunt. Honoratissimum assensûs genus est arm is laudare" (Germania, xi.). A similar custom is mentioned by the same author in his histories on occasion of the speech of Civilis (Lib. iv. i5).

The historian Gibbon, in his admirable "Summary of the Character and Manners of the Ancient Germans," abridged from the "Germania" of Tacitus, has thus referred to the foregoing passage: "lf the orator did not give satisfaction to his auditors, it was their custom to signify, by a hollow murmur, their dislike of his counsels. But whenever a more popular speaker proposed to vindicate the meanest citizen from either foreign or domestic injury, whenever he called upon his countrymen to assert the national honour, or to pursue some enterprise full of danger and glory, a loud clashing of shields and spears expressed the eager applause of the assembly. For the Germans always met in arms, and it was to be dreaded, lest an irregular and uncontrolled multitude should use their arms to enforce as well as to declare their furious resolves."

Milton also alludes to this custom in his Paradise Lost," when describing Satan's address to his legions, and their declaration of war against heaven :

" Highly they raged
Against the Highest ; and fierce with grasped arms
Clash'd on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance tow'rds the vault of heav'n."—Book i., 666.669.

Similar allusions are to be found in Shakespeare ("Coriolanus," Act i., sc. ix., and " Julius Caesar," Act v.), and in other dramatic poets. Thus also Spenser, in his "Faery Queen":

"And clash their shields and shake their swords on high."

Book i., Canto iv., st. 40.

The ancients were accustomed to suspend in their temples shields, with appropriate inscriptions, and many other votive offerings in honour of their divinities. In the " Æneid," Virgil represents his hero AEneas, in the narration of his adventures after the sacking of Troy, as thus alluding to the practice :

"AEre cavo clipeum, magni gestamen Abantis,
Postibus adversis figo, et rem carmine signo,
Aneas hæc de Danais victoribus arma."

Book iii., 286-288.

Daedaltus also, when he had finished his aërial voyage, and arrived in safety at Chalcis, is related by the same poet to have consecrated his wings to Apollo, and to have erected temples to that divinity, in commemoration of the event.

" Redditus his primum terris tibi Phoebe sacravit
Remigium alarum, posuitque immania templa."

AEneid, vi. 18.

This custom of making votive offerings, as I have had occasion to remark in a former number, is still preserved in Catholic countries, as their various churches and places of worship amply testify. Amongst innumerable buildings of this description may be mentioned the Pantheon, which, though originally dedicated by the Romans to all the divinities of the heathen mythology, is now de-voted solely to the service of the Virgin Mary ; and its walls are accordingly hung round with presents which have been from time to time offered by her worshippers as tokens of gratitude, and as memorials of her miraculous interference in their behalf, in cases of shipwreck, sickness, and distress.—In the church of the Campo Santo, an extensive cemetery near Bologna, the chains of several Christian captives redeemed from slavery amongst the Turks and Algerines are suspended from the walls as propitiatory offerings. and to perpetuate the memory of their deliverance.—Washington Irving also, in his recent interesting "Life of Columbus," mentions that Columbus, on his return from his first voyage of discovery, went barefoot with his crew on a pilgrimage to the nearest shrine, in performance of a vow which he had made during a furious storm, and offered up several gifts to commemorate his gratitude and unexpected preservation. Pilgrimages of this kind were frequent in those days of early navigation, in which mariners were less able to avoid the dangers of the deep than at the present time, when numerous ingenious inventions and improvements have so greatly diminished the difficulties and perils attendant on long voyages. Hence we so often find, in works which treat of maritime adventures at the period referred to, constant allusions to these traces of ancient popular customs, and to the strong resemblance which existed between them.



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