Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anglo-Saxon Superstitions by William & Robert Chambers 1842

ANGLO-SAXON SUPERSTITIONS by William and Robert Chambers 1842

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At a comparatively early era, the mythology and minor superstitions of the Scandinavians, as well as the follies of Druidism, disappeared in Britain as the familiar superstitions of the Anglo-Saxon race became predominant. Like the Scandinavians of the north, the Anglo-Saxons deduced their descent from Odin, whom they worshipped along with Thor, Freya, and other imaginary deities of the Gothic people. They also worshipped idols emblematic of the sun, moon, earth, and various seasons and circumstances. In particular, they sacrificed to one goddess called Eostre, in the month of April, and her name still expresses the festival of Easter in the Christian church. In token of devotional feelings towards the sun, they solemnised a festival to that luminary on the day of December in which the days began to lengthen, a log of wood being burnt on the occasion as an emblem of returning light and heat. From this ancient practice, therefore, may be traced the custom of burning the Yule log at Christmas, which is still continued in many parts of England. Among the Anglo-Saxon superstitions was included a belief in giants, dwarfs, and elves, all of a spiritual order, but partaking in some degree of human attributes and feelings. In the term elfi or elves, we have one of the earliest traces on record of those ideal fairy tribes who afterwards figured in the familiar superstitions of the British islands. The Gothic nations, of whom the Anglo-Saxons were a branch, had various orders of elves, who were understood to haunt the fields, the woods, mountains, and waters, and received denominations accordingly, as field-elfin, dun-elfin, &c. Whether this varied race of spirits originated in the east, whence so many superstitions spread into ancient Europe, is not satisfactorily known, although it is probable that they did, and were of the same genus as the peri of tho Persians, a being not dissimilar in character to our fay or fairy. Both in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon superstitions, elves formed an important order of beings, not unlike in character to the demigods, naiads, driads, and other imaginary spirits of the Greek and Roman mythologies, and like them exerted a certain influence over human affairs.

Besides a belief in these mysterious elfin tribes, the Anglo-Saxons brought with them to England the still darker and more dangerous doctrines of witchcraft and divination, before which the reasoning powers of the people quailed, and all intellectual advancement was impeded. The general introduction of Christianity about the year 600, abolished, as a matter of course, the more gross pagan observances, but failed to extirpate the familiar and less obvious superstitions of the people. Witchcraft, wizardry, magic, divination, preparations of charms, and other mystic follies having no foundation in truth, continued to flourish, although opposed both by the more intelligent clergy and the kings. It is from the statutes, indeed, which Alfred, Canute, and other monarchs, passed for the prevention of magical practices, that we chiefly know their nature and extent. Wiglaer, a wizard, and wicca, a witch, are persons severely denounced. Penalties are enjoined if any one should destroy another by wiccecraeft. They appear to have used philtres, for it is declared a crime in any one to use witchcraft, or potions to produce another's love. Canute enjoins his people not to worship fire or floods, wells or stones, or any sort of tree; not to frame death-spells, either by lot or otherwise; and not to effect any thing by phantoms. Wizards, we also learn, pretended to the power of letting loose tempests, and controlling the visible operations of nature.

The introduction of Christianity, as has been mentioned, failed to dissipate the familiar superstitions of the English; a circumstance which can excite no surprise, as no pains were taken to enlighten the understandings of the people, or make them acquainted with the true causes of natural phenomena. We accordingly find, that from the seventh to the sixteenth century, the belief in demons, spirits, lubber fiends, and elves, of every shade and character, prevailed without intermission, and with no further challenge from the clergy than as being individually manifestations of the devil, on whom now the whole load of superstition was based. One goblin, in particular, formed the theme of innumerable legends. What was his name originally in continental Europe, whence he emigrated with the Anglo-Saxons, is of little consequence; in England he became known by the title of Father Rush, from a belief that he had on one occasion personated a monk or friar, and, to serve his own malignant purposes, had in that capacity long imposed on a religious brotherhood; afterwards, this appellation went out of repute, and he was popularly known and feared by the familiar name of Robin Goodfellow, and performed many useful services in the rural districts of England. It is not a little strange that both monks and clergy sanctioned these fancies, and increased their number by the propagation of legends, which we venture to say could not now receive the approbation of a single individual, lay or clerical, in England. Of these it is only necessary to mention tho absurd stories which were fabricated and circulated respecting Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in the year 988. When a boy, he is stated to have studied theology so sedulously as to reduce him to the point of death, when he was suddenly restored by some divine medicine sent to him by an angel in a storm. So extraordinary a circumstance could not but demand grateful thanksgivings, and Dunstan started from his bed and ran with full speed towards the church. Satan met him in the way, surrounded with numerous black dogs, and endeavoured to defeat his pious intention. But Dunstan was not to be overcome; he instantly prayed for ability, and was enabled to cudgel the devil and his black dogs so effectually, that they left him and the angel together; the latter of whom, finding the church door fastened, took up the pious youth in his arms, and conveyed him to his devotions through the roof. Another time the devil attempted to intrude himself upon St Dunstan's studies in his laboratory, but the saint speedily punished his impertinence, by taking from the fire his tongs, which were red hot, and with them seized the nose of the fiend, who was thereupon glad to make his escape. It is lamentable to think how such vain imaginations should have so long weighed upon the understandings of the people, and engrafted a habitual dread of the supernatural, which till this day exerts an influence over the untutored mind.


Saint Dunstan he flourished his amateur tongs.—
"'Tis labour, 'tis labour, that conquers all wrongs."
He blew up his furnace to fashion a hinge,—
"No man who can work to the devil need cringe."
He took up his hammer to work at the bar.
When outside the smithy a voice cried "ha! ha!"
He muttered a prayer 'gainst the power of evil,
And when he looked up, he was faced by the devil.

"You said," cried the devil, "'tis labour that wins;
"That a man who can work is absolved from his sins;
"A crowbar I want, and three skeleton keys;—
"Now prove your own precept by making me these."
The saint took the tongs that were hot from the fire,
Shouted "Satan avaunt!" and anathemas dire,
And crying, "thou falsest of develish foes!"
Be seized him, and held him quite fast by the nose.

But if Dunstan had virtue, the devil had power,—
"If you won't work my evil," he said, with a glower,
"If you won't make my crowbar and skeleton keys,
"You shall work till you do; you may do as you please."
So although Dunstan died, and was buried full deep,
And churches were built over where he should sleep,
The roar of his furnace still answers the search,
In the north-eastern corner of Avalon Church.

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