Thursday, December 1, 2016

Origin of the Belief in Fairies by Thomas Keightley 1892

Origin of the Belief in Fairies by Thomas Keightley 1892

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According to a well-known law of our nature, effects suggest causes; and another law, perhaps equally general, impels us to ascribe to the actual and efficient cause the attribute of intelligence. The mind of the deepest philosopher is thus acted upon equally with that of the peasant or the savage; the only difference lies in the nature of the intelligent cause at which they respectively stop. The one pursues the chain of cause and effect, and traces out its various links till he arrives at the great intelligent cause of all, however he may designate him; the other, when unusual phenomena excite his attention, ascribes their production to the immediate agency of some of the inferior beings recognised by his legendary creed.

The action of this latter principle must forcibly strike the minds of those who disdain not to bestow a portion of their attention on the popular legends and traditions of different countries. Every extraordinary appearance is found to have its extraordinary cause assigned; a cause always connected with the history or religion, ancient or modern, of the country, and not unfrequently varying with a change of faith.

The noises and eruptions of Ætna and Stromboli were, in ancient times, ascribed to Typhon or Vulcan, and at this day the popular belief connects them with the infernal regions. The sounds resembling the clanking of chains, hammering of iron, and blowing of bellows, once to be heard in the island of Barrie, were made by the fiends whom Merlin had set to work to frame the wall of brass to surround Caermarthen. The marks which natural causes have impressed on the solid and unyielding granite rock were produced, according to the popular creed, by the contact of the hero, the saint, or the god: masses of stone, resembling domestic implements in form, were the toys, or the corresponding implements of the heroes and giants of old. Grecian imagination ascribed to the galaxy or milky way an origin in the teeming breast of the queen of heaven: marks appeared in the petals of flowers on the occasion of a youth's or a hero's untimely death: the rose derived its present hue from the blood of Venus, as she hurried barefoot through the woods and lawns; while the professors of Islâm, less fancifully, refer the origin of this flower to the moisture that exuded from the sacred person of their prophet. Under a purer form of religion, the cruciform stripes which mark the back and shoulders of the patient ass first appeared, according to the popular tradition, when the Son of God condescended to enter the Holy City, mounted on that animal; and a fish only to be found in the sea stills bears the impress of the finger and thumb of the apostle, who drew him out of the waters of Lake Tiberias to take the tribute-money that lay in his mouth. The repetition of the voice among the hills is, in Norway and Sweden, ascribed to the Dwarfs mocking the human speaker, while the more elegant fancy of Greece gave birth to Echo, a nymph who pined for love, and who still fondly repeats the accents that she hears. The magic scenery occasionally presented on the waters of the Straits of Messina is produced by the power of the Fata Morgana; the gossamers that float through the haze of an autumnal morning, are woven by the ingenious dwarfs; the verdant circlets in the mead are traced beneath the light steps of the dancing elves; and St. Cuthbert forges and fashions the beads that bear his name, and lie scattered along the shore of Lindisfarne.

In accordance with these laws, we find in most countries a popular belief in different classes of beings distinct from men, and from the higher orders of divinities. These beings are usually believed to inhabit, in the caverns of earth, or the depths of the waters, a region of their own. They generally excel mankind in power and in knowledge, and like them are subject to the inevitable laws of death, though after a more prolonged period of existence.

How these classes were first called into existence it is not easy to say; but if, as some assert, all the ancient systems of heathen religion were devised by philosophers for the instruction of rude tribes by appeals to their senses, we might suppose that the minds which peopled the skies with their thousands and tens of thousands of divinities gave birth also to the inhabitants of the field and flood, and that the numerous tales of their exploits and adventures are the production of poetic fiction or rude invention. It may further be observed, that not unfrequently a change of religious faith has invested with dark and malignant attributes beings once the objects of love, confidence, and veneration.

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