Popular Superstitions - The Holy Maul
( Originally Published 1884 )
Such of your readers as are members of the Camden Society may remember that in the volume of Anecdotes and Traditions, among other curious illustrations of our folk-lore, which Aubrey has recorded in his "Remains of Gentilism and Judaism," there occurs the following remarkable allusion to a very repulsive superstition :
"The Holy Mawle, which they fancy hung behind the church door, which when the father was seventie, the sonne might fetch to knock his father in head, as effete and of no more use."
To the short illustration which I then appended to Aubrey's brief notice, I would now add the following, in the hope that some one will devote himself to the clearing up of this very striking but obscure allusion.
Mr. Wright, in the interesting volume of Latin Stories edited by him for the Percy Society, has printed one (No. XXVI., p. 28) in which an old man, after surrendering all his property to the husband of his daughter, and being gradually treated by them worse and worse, until he was driven out of the house, contrived to procure good treatment again for the remainder of his days by pretending that he had in a certain chest a sum of money laid up, part of which was to be applied to the "good of his soul," and the rest to dispose of as he pleased. When, however, he was at the point of death, as it is graphically stated :
"antequam totaliter expiraret ad cistam currentes nihil invenerunt nisi malleum, in quo Anglicè script= erat :
" Wyht suyle a betel be he smyten,
" De un tiel mael seit il feru,
In a note on this story, Mr. Wright gives from John of Bromyard's "Summa Predicantium" the following somewhat more modern English verse, accompanied with a Latin version :
" Wit this betel the smieth,
" Quod est interpretatum
and states that the story and the verses appear to have been popular, and to have some connection with (if they are not the foundation of) the superstition alluded to by Aubrey.
I will now refer to a curious passage in a recently published dissertation by a German scholar, F. Nork, "On the Mythology of Popular Traditions and Tales." After speaking of the Tau playing an important part in the Egyptian mysteries of Isis, and the Gnostic system of the Opheites, figuring in the monuments of the Templars, and so in our own day appearing in the hammer of the Freemasons, he proceeds : "That the figure of the hammer, which the heathen compared with the sign of the cross, was held sacred is clear from Thor consecrating with it the funeral pile of Baldur. ('Then stood Thorr up and hallowed the pile with Miollnir' are the words of Mr. Dasent's picturesque translation of the prose Edda.) In the south of Germany there still exists a tradition which recognises the hammer as the symbol of the dedication of churches, a proof not only how far the cult of Thor had extended, but with what difficulty Christianity was enabled to overcome it." A tradition which was communicated by Baader to Mone's "Anzeiger fur Kunde Deutscher Vorzeit" for 1839, runs as follows :
"The three old chapels of Scheflersheim, Oberwittizhausen, and Grunfeldhausen were built by giants, who carried the great stones for that purpose in their aprons. When the first chapel was finished the master-builder threw up this hammer into the air with the intent of building another church on the spot where it should fall. At a distance of two miles the hammer fell to the ground, and there was the second church built. On its completion the giant as before threw his hammer into the air, and at the spot where it fell, two miles from the former place, built the third church."
That Thor, the conqueror of the giants, should in this legend figure as a giant, is owing to the indifference of Christianity, which borrowed the notion of the giants as master-builders from heathenism : but here Thor himself does not build the church, which if he had done, he would thereby have made public his veneration for that religion the head of which had appropriated his thunderbolt. (See Grimm's "Mythologie," p. 167, on the resemblance between Thor's hammer and the sign of the cross, etc.) Nork then proceeds to quote from Haupt's " Zeitschrift fur Deutch Alterthum," v. 72, the passage from Anecdotes and Traditions, with the following remarks upon it by Jacob Grimm :
"Were hammers, mallets, or beetles actually suspended, or their figures represented, at the entrance of heathen temples, so may the figures of them, as on other occasions, have found a place on the out-side of the walls of Christian churches, or have been built into the city gate. Originally they may have been representations of the sacred hammer of Donar (Thunder), which were afterwards explained by the popular legend that barbarous sons might avail themselves of the certainly not exercised law of putting their ` effete' parents to a more speedy death by means of a hammer. In several of the cities of Silesia and Saxony there hangs at the city gate a mallet, with this inscription :
" Wer den kindern gibt das brod
Which may be Englished thus
" Who to his children gives his bread,
In Osnabruck, according to Strodtmann, there is this rhyme in the front of a house, but it is not stated whether the mallet is there suspended, carved, or merely painted
" De sinen kindern gift dat braut, Un lut sulvest naut, Den sall me slaun mit der kusen daut."
" Here also again a reference to the hammer or mallet giving a death-blow to the greybeard, only so applied as to be a deserved punishment for folly in making over his property for the benefit of his children. There are thus three stages of the myth, and at present also of the symbol: 1. The hammer of the god; 2. The reference to the aged father ; 3. The compassionate interpretation of this reference. The English construction must necessarily, as the earlier, precede the German."
It is very probable that if you will permit me thus to draw attention through the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine to this curious, if not inviting subject, it may be the means of evoking from some of your numerous readers some fresh illustrations, if not an entire development of what is now so hidden in obscurity how far the original myth was naturalized in this country, and what have been its gradual modifications here. WILLIAM J. THOMS.