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Popular Superstitions - On Sorcery And Witchcraft

( Originally Published 1884 )

One of the vain and groundless pretentions of the ancient professors of sorcery and witchcraft was, that they could raise, controul, and dispose of the winds. Thus Medea says,

"Ventos abigoque vocoque." Ov. : Met. vii. [202.]

The witches in " Macbeth" converse to the same effect :

1st Witch. A sailor's wife had chesnuts in her lap,
And mouncht, and mouncht, and mouncht ; Give me, quoth I.
Aroint thee, witch ! the rump fed ronyon cries,
Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' th' Tyger,
But in a sieve I'll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,
I'll do I'll do and I'll do.
2nd Witch. I'll give thee a wind.
1st Witch. Thou art kind.
3rd Witch. And I another,
1st Witch. I myself have all the other.
And the very points they blow ;
All the quarters that they know
I' th' shipman's card

* * * *

Though his bark cannot be lost Yet it shall be tempest-tost."—Act i. Sc. 3.

" The Laplanders," says Scheffer, " have a cord tied with knots for the raising of the wind ; they, as Ziegler relates it, tye their magical knots in this cord ; when they untie the first there blows a favourable gale of wind, when the second, a brisker; when the third, the sea and wind grow mighty stormy and tempestuous. This that we have reported concerning the Laplanders, is by Olaus Magnus, and justly, related of the Finlanders, who border on the sea, and sell winds to those merchants that traffic with them, when they are at any time detained by a contrary one."

Scheffer thinks that what Ziegler relates of the Laplanders does not, in fact, belong to them, but to the Finlanders of Norway, because no other writers mention it, and because the Laplanders live in an inland country. However, the method of selling winds is this : " They deliver a small rope with three knots upon it, with this caution, that when they loose the first they shall have a good wind ; if the second, a stronger ; if the third, such a storm will arise that they can neither see how to direct the ship and avoid rocks, or so much as stand upon the decks, or handle the tackling." He notes also another particular, not less extraordinary than the selling of winds. " Those," says he, " that are skilled in this art, have command chiefly over the winds that blow at their birth, so that this wind obeys principally one man, that another, as if they obtained this power when they first received their birth." Something of this, of one person's having power over one wind, and another over another, is evidently alluded to in the conversation of the witches in "Macbeth," quoted above. These Northern wizards pretended also to a power of stopping the course of ships. This, it seems, was attributed both to the Finlanders of Norway, and the Laplanders, who, according to the different affection they have for merchants, make the sea either calmer or more tempestuous.*

But, sir, I shall now show you that these notions and practices were not confined to these Northern parts only, but likewise extended to the more Southern ones. Thus Pomponius Mela, who wrote in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, delivers, concerning a set of priestesses in the island of Sena, or the Isle des Saints, on the coast of Gaul, " Sena, in Britannico mari Osismicis adversa litoribus, Gallici numinis oraculo insignis est : Cujus antistites, perpetua virginitate sanctae, numero novem esse traduntur ; Barrigenas vocant, putantque ingeniis singularibus praeditas, maria ac ventos concitare carminibus, seque, in quae velint animalia, vertere, sanare quae apud alios insanabilia sunt, scire ventura et praedicare : sed non nisi deditas navigantibus, et in id tantum ut se consulerent profectis ;" which may be translated thus : " The island of Sena, which lies in the British sea, opposite to the coast of Osismici, is famous for an oracle of a Gaulish deity. The priestesses, who profess perpetual virginity, are said to be in number nine: they call them Barriginae, and esteem them to be endowed with very extraordinary qualities ; such as troubling the sea, and raising the winds by their enchantments ; transforming themselves into whatever animals they please ; curing disorders incurable by everybody else, and knowing and foretelling things future. However, they are subservient only to sea-faring people, and only to such of them as come on purpose to consult them."

'Tis remarkable that they were thought not only able to disturb the sea and raise the wind, as the Laplanders, or rather Finlanders, above are supposed to be ; but moreover to be employed, as they were, chiefly in the service of navigators, which makes the resemblance more striking. A learned man thinks, and another great scholar assents to it, that the French word " Baragouin " comes from the mumblings and gibberish of these sorcerers, who were called " Barriginae."

But there is an instance still more apposite than this ; Ranulph Higden tells us in the " Polychronicon," p. 195, that the witches its the Isle of Man anciently sold winds to mariners, and delivered them in knots tied upon a thread, exactly as the Laplanders did. " In illa insula vigent sortilegia, superstitiones, atque Praestigia, nam mulieres ibidem navigaturis ventum vendunt, quasi sub tribus fili nodis inclusum, ita ut sicut plus de vento habere voluerint plures nodos evolvant." [See Rolls Series, vol. ii., p. 42.]

This notion of confining and bestowing winds, is as ancient as it was extensive, for thus it is said of AEolus in the " Odyssey " :

"The king with mighty gifts my suit approv'd,
The adverse winds in leathern bags he brac'd,
Compress'd their force, and lock's each struggling blast
These in my hollow ships the monarch hung
Securely fetter'd by a silver thong."*

Eustatius says they who practised the art of incantation, or charms, made use of the skin of a dolphin, and pretended by certain ceremonies to bind or loose the wind as they pleased. 'However, Ulysses's companions were so foolish afterwards as to set these adverse winds at liberty. But there is some difference between this case and those above mentioned ; AEolus, being king of the winds, was a proper power to dispose of them; and, moreover, they were the adverse, or unfriendly winds that were imprisoned, whilst the favourable ones were at liberty. Calypso, in other places of the "Odyssey," is supposed to be able to confer favourable winds.

This approaches nearer to the cases of Lapland and the Isle of Man, only it is not said that her winds were confined, as those of the witches and sorcerers of the north are supposed to be.

Our sailors, I am told, at this very day, I mean the vulgar sort of them, have a strange opinion of the devil's power and agency in stir-ring up winds, and that this is the reason why they so seldom whistle on ship-board, esteeming that to be a mocking, and consequently an enraging, of the devil. And it appears now that even Zoroaster himself imagined there was an evil spirit called Vato, that could excite violent storms of wind.* But, notwithstanding all this, God is said " to bring the winds out of His treasures ;" it is also written, that " at His word the stormy wind ariseth ;" so that the devil was formerly endeavouring to ape the divine omnipotency in this particular, as well as so many others. He is, indeed, called in Scripture, "the prince of the power of the air ;" and it is wonderful to reflect how far, and how wide, and how generally, he had propagated the false persuasion, that he and his instruments, witches and wizards, had it in their power to raise or abate, to change, to communicate, to sell and transfer, a wind.



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