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Superstitious Customs And Beliefs

( Originally Published 1884 )

Papal Superstitions

IN my last communication, I presented you with some specimens of the delusions of the Church of Rome with regard to Demoniacism. [See note 26.] I will now instance two other old superstitions, I. of the Devil creating storms of Thunder and Lightning, and the power of Saints, and Reliques of Saints, to appease the same; and 2. of treasures buried in the earth being guarded by evil spirits.

The first idea seems to have arisen from a wretched translation and explication of the oriental expressions, the prince of darkness; the prince of the powers of the air; attributing to the Devil the power to raise storms of wind and hail.

The witches, as is wellknown, obtained of him a share in that controul ; whence so much has been said of the old hags on the coast of Norway, who sell winds to the sailors ; and it is no less notorious that the bells bear inscriptions relative to their efficacy in dispersing by their sacred peals these diabolical tempests, whence in some parts of Germany a storm-tithe still continues to be paid.

In fact it was an ancient relict of Paganism, when such old bel-dames as those of Norway used to dig a hole in the ground, and after muttering a miserable jargon, a horrid tempest of conflicting elements was to be brought on.

In the life of St. Hidulphus, the axiom, that the Devil is the author of thunder and hail-storms is not only adopted in the abstract, but it is completely described in all its circumstances; neither prayer, Deum invocare, nor any other means, will serve at all. For instance, once on the festival of St. Hidulphus, all of a sudden down comes a torrent of sonorous hail ; the clouds pour a whole flood at once ; and yet the unconquerable lightning struggles through ; in a vast explosion the thunders roll their tremendous noise ; the tempest growls ; it was feared the sky would burst and tumble down. The frightened monks ran to the altars. Some fetched out crucifixes ; some brought forth reliques ; some shouldered ponderous saints ; others spread out the altar-cloths, corporalia, in the open air ; others rang the bells ; others called upon God. The more they did all this, the worse it was. The monks, perceiving that prayer had no power against this disaster, betook themselves to their ordinary resource, and implored the aid of their patron, St. Hidulphus. They exposed the bier, on which his holy body lay, and invoked him with much vociferation, altisonis vocibus ipsum inclamantes. No otherwise than as if the clouds were intelligent creatures, they incontinently obeyed the command of the minister of God. The storm divided itself into four parts. All was serene and bright. The brethren Overjoyed return, and celebrate a great mass, missam majorem. The business, however, was not yet over; the horrible uproar of the atmosphere came on again, as suddenly as it had been appeased by the exposure of the sacred relics. Lightning and thunder were now much worse than before. The brethren, therefore, fetch their auxiliary again, glebam sancti contra a๋ris tempestates pugnaturam, in conjunction with crucifixes and censers. What could they do more? On the appearance of the corpse, and the soul of the saint in heaven having prayed to God, all was immediately clear again. Every one was filled with exultation, and the monks carried back the shrine, praising God with all their might. Now, after much toil and terror, they at last, very late, sat down to dinner. But they had not yet rose up from the table, when they heard it begin to thunder again ; the ragged and fierce lightnings dart hither and thither in dreadful coruscations ; the hail rattles on the roof. What should the monks do, seeing now death stared them in the face ? They leave off eating ; rise up ; the people bawl out for the sacred helper to come forth. He is fetched with all speed, and now happily wages the third war. All is calm and serene. As these storms, however, had greatly terrified the brethren by their frequent recurrence, it was deemed advisable to keep the sacred coffin without, with watches about it, lest the fury should recommence in the night. And so at last they went to bed. Now, when the storm-leader (tempestatum ductor is a description of the Devil), saw, that he could not have his will, on account of the presence of the saint his antagonist ; he deter-mined to show at least what he would have done, if he could. In the middle of that very night such a quantity of hail was showered down between the cloister and the hospital, in perfect silence, cum summo silentio (lest the brethren, perceiving it, should go and tell the saint of it) demissa est, as the author learnt from written accounts prout scriptum reperi, that this heap of hail could not be melted by the sultry heat of full fifteen days ; while without the monastery there was not a single hailstone.

I have only here to observe, that in concilio Bracarensi in the sixth century, tom. iii. Harduini canone, it was expressly forbid, under penalty of anathema, not to believe that the Devil creates lightning, thunder, and hail. But Mabillon makes no remark relating to this subject on the writer of the legends.

Immediately after this follows another story of a storm, as a proof that our Hidulphus was equally able to chastise his scorners, as to protect his votaries. On the festival of the same saint, in another (likewise unstated) year, a boor was carrying in his hay, instead of being at church, as it was the saint's festival. He had not reached home, when suddenly a storm arose. Thunder, lightning, and hail raged so together, that the boor could not think of any other means of safety, than by creeping under his cart. But in vain ; a violent gust of wind overturned the vehicle, scattered the hay, and threatened to pelt the boor to death with hail-stones, which melting, nearly suffocated him with water, while the flashes of lightning assailed him on all sides. The whole village came out, to see what damage had been here and there done by the storm to the fruits of the earth ; but found absolutely nothing injured, excepting this half-dead peasant : they, therefore, conveyed him home, and acknowledged the righteous judgment. Had he called upon St. Hidulph, he would presently have chased away the storm.

The whole of the second superstition I shall notice, that Spirits are the invisible owners of treasures buried in the earth, and absolutely will not give them up, unless violently forced to do so, is entirely of Pagan origin.

The prayer of St. Christopher was in some places used by Papists with all due devotion, in order to discover buried treasures, of which this saint was appointed inspector general.

I will here relate a short anecdote, preserved by Theodorus, Theophanes, and several others, not very modern authors. Chubdadesar was a fortress situated between the Indians and the Persians, wherein a great treasure was reported to lie buried. The Persian King Cabades would fain have got it into his hands ; but it was guarded by some evil spirits. The King. therefore, commanded all the arts that his magicians could devise to be employed. These not succeeding, he ordered the Jews to exert their endeavours; but neither were these able to effect his purpose. It next occurred to him, to try whether it could not be brought about by the Christians. Accordingly a Bishop of the Christians residing in Persia was conducted to the spot. He held ouvaEiv, took the communion first himself, then went and drove away the daemons with the sign of the cross, and afterwards delivered the castle to the King without further difficulty. Cabades was so rejoiced at this miracle, that he thenceforth assigned the fore most place next to his person to the Christian Bishops, whereas till then Jews and Manicheans had held precedence. He likewise granted perfect liberty to all, that whoever would, might be baptized.

Here it is obvious, that the same opinion or principle was attributed to the Magicians, Jews, and Christians : that is,, of having the controul over treasures in the custody of malignant spirits, so as to force them to give up their deposit; and as here, the King, on looking about him for such arts, found them principally with the Christians : so, it is historically true, that even at present Protestants believe the Catholic Clergy or Monks still employ these potent spells. Gregorius even authenticates such enchantments. For, Dial. lib. i. cap. 4, he relates of the sorcerer Basilius (who had taken refuge in a monastery, because of an inquiry that was instituted) here, as he himself avers, several times lifted up the cell of St. Equitius into the air by arts of magic, but could do no harm to anybody.

The deservedly famous Theoderic, Astrogothic King of Italy, published an express prohibitory dcree against all such superstitious traffic, and absolutely forbad, under severe penalties, the murmur animarum for the future, as utterly unbecoming Christians.


In the county of Donnegal, at the distance of four miles ,from Lough Ewens, and in the midst of Mountains and morasses, extending every way to a considerable distance, there is a very fine lake, in ancient times called Lough Fine,' or White Lake. This piece of water is about a mile and an half in breadth, and somewhat more in length. To an island near the centre of it, from the beginning of May until about the middle of August every year, Popish penitents resort from all parts of Ireland to expiate their sins. This they do in obedience to their confessors, who may enjoin them any other penance at their discretion nearer home. The number, therefore, of these pilgrims who take this tour depends more on the friendship of distant priests to the prior of Lough Derg, than on the opinion of superior efficacy in this particular expiation. However, to keep up that opinion, and to give a countenance to the lucrative practice founded on it, the priests frequently the titular bishops sometimes, and now and then a Romanist of some fashion appear among the penitents. The rest are all of the poorer sort, to the number of three or four thousand every year. Of those the greater part are only proxies for wealthier people, who at a small expence in cash, thus discharge their sins, through the feet and knees of their indigent neighbours. As soon as a pilgrim hath arrived at the summit of a neighbouring mountain, from whence the holy lake is to be seen, he or she is obliged to uncover both hands and feet ; thus to walk to the water side, and thence, at the expence of sixpence, to be wafted into the island. On this island are erected two chapels and fifteen other houses, all thatched,for the accommodation of priests and penitents. To these houses there are several confessionals, so contrived that the priest cannot see the person who disburthens his conscience. Each pilgrim on landing here is confessed anew, and enjoined a longer or shorter station (so the performance of this penance is called), according to the quality of his sins, his leisure, or the judgment of his confessor. He subsists on oatmeal, sometimes made into bread, and on water, during his stay in the island, which lasts three, six, or nine days, as the station is more or less extended.

To have a right idea of that part of the penance now to be mentioned, it must first be told that there are seven heaps of rude stones, with each of them a cross at top, about five or six yards from one another. At a couple of yards' distance from each is a circular row of the like stones not above a yard in height, drawn round the central heap, with a little gap or passage on one side. The pilgrim is obliged to foot it without shoes or stockings nine times round the outside of each row on a path consisting of very rough and sharp stones, and must by no means pick his steps, for this would hinder the remission of his sins at the soles of his feet, their proper outlet, and besides, divide his attention from the Ave Maries and Paternosters, whereof he is to mumble a certain number, letting fall a bead at each as he circulates, for on the holy string depends the arithmetic of a devotion which has number but no weight. These heaps and vows are called the beds of so many celebrated Saints in the Roman Calendar.

When this is over, and the penitent's conscience and pocket are called to a fresh account (for every day, sometimes more than once a day, he confesses and pays sixpence), he is sent to traverse on his bare knees, and on stones as sharp as before, the shorter paths within each row, and round the little heap nine times, repeating aves and dropping beads till his account is out, at which he kisses the cross, and his knees make holiday. After this preparation he is admitted into purgatory, which is in reality nothing more than two parallel rows of pretty large stones, set upright at the distance of scarcely three feet, with others as large laid over, altogether forming a kind of narrow vault of not more than four feet elevation ; pervious here and there to the light. This vault is only so long as to hold twelve penitents at once, who sit close to one another in a row, with their chins almost touching their knees, without eating, drinking, or sleeping, for the space of twenty-four hours, repeating aves and dropping beads as above. To prevent in this situation the danger of a nap, each penitent is armed with a long pin, more pungent it should seem than conscience herself to be suddenly inserted into the elbow of his next neighbour at the first approach of a nod. But not to depend wholly on either, the priest hath inserted into his mind an article of faith more stimulating than even the pin ; namely, that if any penitent should fall asleep in purgatory, the devil thereby acquires a right to the whole covey, having already swept away two, and having a prophecy in his favour that he shall get a third. To this is sometimes added an extraordinary exposure or two in cases uncommonly criminal, such as setting the delinquents to roost on beams that go across the chapel, with their busts sticking through the thatch.

The sufferings here mentioned do not carry off the whole mass of sins. Some are forced through the feet, some through the knees, but the remainder is so softened and loosened, that a good washing is sufficient to scour them away. In order to this, the penitent is placed on a flat stone in the lake, where, standing in the water up to his breast or chin, according to his stature, and repeating and dropping beads to a considerable amount, he is reduced to the innocence of a child just christened.

When all is over, the priest bores a gimblet-hole through the pilgrim's staff near the top, in which he fastens a cross peg, gives him as many holy pebbles out of the lake as he cares to carry away, for amulets to be presented to his friends, and so dismisses him, an object of veneration to all other papists, not thus initiated, who no sooner see the pilgrim's cross in his hands, than they kneel down to get his blessing.

It is long since I formed a design of communicating my sentiments of the state of the Romish religion in Ireland, to the public, and the evil thereof, with a scheme for the amending it ; but meeting with an extract of a letter from an English gentleman, who made the tour of Ireland last summer, giving an account of the pilgrimage of Lough Finn, with a gentleman's remarks on the pernicious consequences attending it, I could not any longer be at rest while I thought of any-thing that might advance religion, or the welfare of any of his Majesty's dominions, especially that island which Providence ordered to be the place wherein I first drew the breath of life.

This gentleman's account is literally true of that place, and manner of pilgrimage; and, besides it, there is, in the West of the county of Mayo, in Connaught, another place of extraordinary worship, or pilgrimage, called Croagh Pattric, and, I doubt not but Leinster and Munster each has their extraordinary provincial places of pilgrimages. Besides these, there is not a parish in Ireland that has not, or had, their places of doing pennances, though many of them are grown obsolete, each dedicated to their respective Saint, and certain days in every year set apart, whereon in the morning they confess, do penance, and hear mass, and in the evening are guilty of the greatest debauches.

In the year 1750, there was one of these obsolete wells found in the parish of Cual Eira, eight miles south-west from Sligoe, which was vaulted overhead with long flags laid across from side to side. The pretended manner of finding it is thus told : "There was a man in the village, who either was sick himself, or one of his family (as I remember the story), who dreamt, that if he would go to such an heap of stones, by digging he would find a well, and by drinking the water, and bathing, he would find a certain cure, for it was an holy well ; which dream was communicated to the priest, and all was executed accordingly, and had the desired success."

This being noted in the country, there soon resorted thither every Saturday night, to the number of between two and three thousand patients, and others, of all disorders, and those whose disorders would not permit them to be taken thither, the water was brought home to them, and some made a trade of carrying the water to distant parts (as many did, about the year 1736, from Lough Finn, as I remember) to cure all manner of disorders, (and which water, in 1736, I very well remember, sold, where I lived, at 6d., 8d. and 10d. per quart, according to the different success of sale the carriers had on the road) and, to give the greater sanction to our present well, the priests foretold that there was to be a lockruinn, i.e., an heavenly illumination at mid-night, about the well, on such a Saturday night, and whether the breaking out of a bright star happened, or the imposition of them that was in the secret, by a glance of light from the fire (for they had a booth and fire all night) I can't tell, but some said there was the forementioned light, and others not; but afterwards these illuminations were common every Saturday night, but hid from unbelievers and hereticks, for many of them, through the general report, had credulity enough to resort thither for relief. To make everything look the more feasible, they wanted a name for this holy well, therefore the clergy could not, of their own authority, give it one, but must write to the Pope, to know its name in his 'Kalendar,' which took up most of that summer; who had for answer, that there had been an holy well at that place, which was called Tobar na Ttrinoid, i.e., Trinity Well; therefore he sent a Bull to have it called its former name. There was great resort the next year, but how long it continued, or if it does still continue in vogue, I cannot tell, as towards the end of 1752 I left that part of the country, and cannot say I have heard anything of it since.

One Sunday evening I had a desire, through curiosity, to go and see this extraordinary place, and lo ! this miraculous well had scarce as much water left as would cover one's shoe-soles, and that as thick as any puddle whatever; and I was told that before any was admitted to bathe, all that was to drink was ordered to lave their water, and then they went through their course of devotions, and, though they could only wet their feet, it was sufficient to supply the deficiency of the water, which the Saint-founder had been so sparing of ; for, sure, if he could give it the efficacy of healing, he also could increase its quantity for the convenience of the publick. But so it was, that five days out of seven was necessary for recruiting the water to supply the market on Saturday and Sunday, far on no other days had it its divine quality, so that those that were so sacrilegious as to steal it on any other days were not to partake of its virtues.

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