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be reached and injured, perhaps stolen, through his
body, as in the case of the soul which the wizard
got as it was handed about among the gods at the
sick man's door. This being an admitted and recog-
nised fact, it would be of the utmost importance for
a man to have a place of safe keeping where he could
deposit his soul in time of danger, and if this place
were very secure, it would be a manifest advantage
to have his soul kept there permanently. This
would make a man indej^endent of wizards on the
one hand and of mag-icians on the other. The former
could no longer hurt him ; the latter he could dis-
pense with when freed from the fear of witchcraft.
Such a man could boldlv strike out a new course,
and become a reformer by a defiance of the powers
of evil, and a total neglect of the gods. Hence it is
that such men, in popular imagination, are regarded
as giants, monsters of impiety, cruel and cunning,
regardless of all interests except their own, and
oppressing all who come into their power. Evidence
of this is found in the folk-lore tales taken from the
traditions of peoples living widely apart, and the
number and variety of such tales is proof that, at
one time, this was a sober belief widely diffused
throughout the world, and is a faithful reflection of
the facts of life, in relation to the unseen, as these
appeared to primitive man. These tales would in
the first instance be preserved and recited as a
true statement of the facts, and, handed down
through millemiiums of years, told at one time to
warn the impious, at another as nursery rhymes, or
by the fitful light of a blazing log on a winter's


night, to amuse the curious, they would preserve
much of their original form, though places and cir-
cumstances would change.

Such was the story of " Headless Hugh," of my
own nursery days. I still, when the winds howl
about the enables and amono- the trees, find mv mind
running back to the time when Headless Hugh was
a real living man, who on stormy nights rode along
the sea shore "between wave and sand," and
watched whether little boys went to sleep quietly.
If they did not he took them away on " the grey
filly that never had a bridle." It must be nearly
thirty years since I heard old Betty Miles tell the
story. I could repeat it word for word now, so per-
sistent are the impressions of childhood, especially
when accompanied by a wholesome state of terror.

Hugh was a prince of Lochlin, and was long held
captive by a giant who lived in a cave overlooking
the Sound of Mull, and known by his name to this
day. For many years Prince Hugh lived in the
dismal recess of this grotto. One night there was
a violent altercation between the giant and his wife,
and Hugh who lay very still listening, knowing that
he would be killed and eaten if it was known that
he overheard their conversation, discovered that the
giant's soul was in a great pearl — literally precious
o-em — which he always wore on his forehead. The
prince watched his opportunity, seized the pearl, and
havinc>- no means of escape or concealment, hastily
swallowed the gem. Like the lightning from the
clouds, the giant's sword flashed from its scabbard
and flew between Hugh's head and his body to


intercept the gem before it could be swallowed. It
was too late, and the giant fell down, sword in hand,
and ex})ired without a gasp. Hugh had lost his head,
but having the giant's soul in his body, saved his
life and gained his liberty. He took the giant's
sword, slew his wife, and then with the trusty
weapon buckled to his side he mounted " the grey
tilly that never had a bridle, and swifter than the
east wind," and made his way home unconscious of
the loss of his head. His friends did not recoo^nise
him, declared he was a ghost, and refused to admit
him to the palace, and so " he wanders in shades of
darkness for ever, riding the grey filly faster than the
east wind." On stormy nights he is seen riding along
the shore " between waves and sand." He has taken
many boys who would not go quietly to bed, and
none of them have ever returned. This is the outline
of a story I often heard from an old beldam who
made my young life a long-continued torment while
she had the opportunity of doing it.

Compared with it, the following Hindoo tale
betrays a common origin in the days when such facts
M'ere soberly believed. The story is of a giant or
magician who had held a beautiful queen captive for
twelve years. At last the queen's brother came to
visit her, and they both spoke the magician fair.
He told them, in a moment of confidence, that he
ke})t his soul thousands of miles away in a desolate
country covered with jungle. In this jungle there
was a circle of palm trees ; within the circle six
water tanks, piled one above another ; under the
]oA\'est a birdcage \\itli a small green parrot in it.


The parrot was his soul, or rather he kept his soul
in the parrot. The queen's brother hearing this
sought out the jungle, and at last found the cage
which he brought to the magician's palace. When
the magician saw it, he cried, " Give me my ])arrot."
The boy tore otf a wing; the magician lost an arm.
In this way he was torn limb from limb, and, finally,
when the parrot's neck was wrung he fell down
dead, his neck broken. ^'^ In another Hindoo story
the soul is in a necklet. In a well-known High-
land stor)' the giant says : " There is a great Hag-
stone under the threshold ; under the flagstone
is a wether ; in the wether's belly is a duck ; in
the duck's crop an egg, and that egg contains my
soul."+ The egg, as usual, is found and crushed
and the captive is set free. The giant dies, of

The same form of superstition and myth is common
to Teutons, Norse, Slavonians, Ancient Greeks, and
Jews. The history of Samson, + as recorded in the
Book of Judges, is a case in point. He remained
invulnerable till, through the wiles of his wife, he was
shorn of his locks, and then his strength departed.
The variations in this case from the Hindoo and
Celtic tales is nothing more than might be expected,
when the national characteristics of the Jews and
their peculiar history is taken into account. This
form of myth is as wide as humanity. I was on one
occasion sitting in a Hlubi chief's house waiting for
the appearance of the great man, who was doing his
toilet, to hold a palaver. Several of his chiefs and

* Mary Frere, Old Deccan Days. t Campbell. % Judges.


councillors were present, and entered freely into con-
versation with my attendants. I did not pay any
particular attention to what passed till one of my
own people said, in English, " Ntame has his soul in
these horns," at the same time pointing to a pair of
magnificent ox-horns placed in the roof by the
lightning doctor to protect the house and its in-
mates from the thunderbolt. The horns were those
of an animal offered in sacrifice and were sacred. I
took the statement at the time to mean that to hold
a palaver with Ntame was equivalent to holding con-
verse with an ox, and made no farther inquiries.
Whether my factotum spoke a parable, or stated a
sober fact gathered from the councillors present, I
cannot say. He addressed me in English, which he
spoke fluently, and as no one else present understood
a word of what he said I took his statement to be
a hint to be careful what I said, and how I received
our host's promises and professions of friendship. I
have had no opportunity of verifying the statement,
but the idea is in no way foreign to South African
thought. A man's soul there may dwell in the roof
of his house,* in a tree, by a spring of water, or on
some mountain scaur.

This form of superstition leads by an easy tran-
sition to totemism, and it is on this account I regard
it as more religion than magfic or witchcraft. The
object where the soul dwells is sacred, and it gets
its sanctity because it is the home of the soul. This
may be a bird, as the tufted crane among Kaflirs ; an
animal, as the crocodile, among Bechuanas ; an insect,

* J. Sutton, MS. notes.


as among the Hottentots, who regard the mantis
religiosa as a divinity. All tliese objects are sacred
because either a person's life is bound up with a
particular specimen, or the tribal life with a class.
The horns of a lightning sacrifice are sacred, and
must not be touched except by the doctor, but this
does not extend beyond the family in whose interests
the sacrifice was offered, while animals that are
sacred to the tribe are sacred to each individual
member of it. To shoot a crane would be a more
heinous offence than to shoot a fox before the
hounds. Again, tribes are named after animals or
objects, as the elephant people, the swimmers, men
of the wood, and such other names or titles de-
scriptive of supposed qualities as tradition has

In Sutherlandshire at the present day there is a
sept of Mackays known as "the descendants of the
seal." These claim as their ancestor a laird of
Borgie, who married a mermaid, and as the legend
has never been in print, I give it here as recently
told me by one well versed in north-country
mythology.* It is as follows : — The laird was in the
habit of going down to the sea rocks under his castle
to bathe and drink salt water. One day he saw a
mermaid close in shore, combing her hair and
swimming" about as if anxious to land. After
watching her for a time, he noticed her cowl on the
rocks beside him, and knowing she could not go to
sea without it he carried it up to the castle, hoping
she would follow him. This she did ; but he refused

* Rev. A. Mackay.


to give up the cowl and detained the maid herself,
whom he made his wife. To this she consented with
great reluctance, and told him her life was bound uj)
Avith the cowl, and if it rotted or was destroyed she
w(juld instantly die. The cowl was placed for
safety in the centre of a large hay-stack, and there it
lav for years. One day, during- the master's absence,
the servants were working among the hay and found
the cowl. They showed it to the lady of the house,
not knowing what it was. She took it, and then,
strapping her child securely in its cot, she left and
went to sea never to return again to Borgie. For
years she used to come close in shore that she mio-ht
see her boy, and then she would weep because he was
not of her own kind so that she might have him at
sea with her. The boy grew to be a man, and his
descendants have always been exempt from drowning.
They are famous swimmers, and are known locally
to this day as " Sliochd an roin," that is, the descen-
dants of the seal.

It is difficult to give an explanation of such myths
as this, but when I first heard it I began to make
inquiries, and discovered that there are floating-
traditions of shipwrecked crews having settled
down among the native population, and I ha^-e
thought that the Borg-ie mermaid may have been a
cast-away maiden. If so, was she detained against
her will '^. Did she make her escape ? Were there
negotiations about the custod}^ of her child between
her friends and the wild septs of the Eea}- country ?
And did local tradition weave these facts into the
legend as it was current half a century ago ? An


answer to these questions is made all the more diffi-
cult by the existence of other local traditions. There
is a sept known as " the men of the hide" in the
same district, and the tradition regarding their
name, if not their origin, is this : — The devil visited
the district to get the names of all those who were
willing to aid him. The laird of Cobachy met the
stranger, whom he found a "nice-spoken gentleman,"
albeit he was attired in a bull-hide with the horns
attached. The laird noticed that his visitor kept
his feet concealed, but in leaping a bog he got a
glimpse of the cloven hoof, and to get rid of him
recommended a visit to Melness. The devil put
to sea in his bull-hide, and raised the Kyle of
Tonofue into foam and furrow as he crossed. After
an interval he returned, and called to pay his
respects to his friend Cobachy. The latter asked
how he had succeeded. " Oh," said he, " that is
the place to go to ; I have covered my hide with
names. I got so many that some are marked on
the horns."* The men of the district are known
as Fir-na-Sioch — the men of the hide. This the
present generation resent, and are apt to fly to their
fists if bull-hides are mentioned.

* Rev. A. Mackay, MS. notes.



In any Inquiry into the religion of primitive men,
it is necessary, if we are to understand the signifi-
cance of many actions and famihar customs, to take
account of woman's position and her true sphere in
savage Hfe. Many travellers describe woman
among untutored tribes as a beast of burden pure
and simple ; an animal to be driven while it lasts and
can do useful work ; then left neglected to die, some-
times of hunger, but oftener by means still more
equivocal. There could be no greater error than to
accept such statements as correct, or as giving a
clue to woman's position and influence among the
community. That labour, which, according to
western ideas, belongs exclusively to men, falls to
the lot of women is true. Nor do they have a voice
In village councils and palavers. Even domestic
arrangements as brewing beer, the food for the day,
washing and the like are regulated by the men, but
this Is largely accounted for by the system of poly-
gamy. It is, however, this outward and apparent
joosltion of woman, which makes her appear to the
stranger of so little consequence In the affairs of the
community. She seems to be a mere drudge ; a beast
of burden with intelligence, and whose duty it is to


labour for her husband; bear children and rear them,
but take nothing to do with the produce of her own
labour or the training of her offspring.

We have already seen the prophetess at her work
in the Lake Region. We might find a woman
regent in South Africa, The wife of the noted chief
Makoma acted as regent during the minority of her
son, Sandili, and with conspicuous success. A
woman was once war doctor to Hintsa, and among
the Khonds a woman is not supposed to be unworthy
of representing the god life of creative energy and
reproduction. But it is more in the code of restric-
tions or taboos to which Avomen are subject that we
learn the important place assigned to them in the
moral and religious codes of savage men. Indivi-
dual women rising to eminence might prove too much
if that were taken by itself, but when we place such
facts beside the general treatment they receive, we
see how important is the place they occupy and the
influence they have on national life and religion.
For example. Among the objects placed under taboo
is blood, and especially woman's blood. So great is
the dread of its touching any part of the person,
and especiallv the head, which, in savage philosophy
is peculiarly sacred, that an Australian will not pass
under a leaning tree or the rails of a fence lest a
woman should have been on it, and that blood from
her, resting on the tree, might fall on him.* The
Siamese think it unlucky to pass under a rope on
which women's clothes are suspended. In New
Zealand the blood of women is supposed to have

* J. G. Frazer, quoting E. M. Curr.


disastrous effects upon males. If a South African
touches the blood of woman at certain periods his
bones become soft. If a woman steps over him,
or even over his spears he cannot hit his enemy
in battle. In Burmah it is an indignity to have
a woman overhead in a house of more than one
story, hence it is that most houses have but one
floor. In a house raised on piles, a servant will
not go in below the house for any purpose lest a
woman should be in the rooms over his head.

With divine and sacred persons a number of rules
have to be observed for their own safety and the
safety of the community. One of these is that the
sun may not shine upon them. The Mikado might
not touch the ground with his foot, nor was the sun
thought worthy to shine on his royal head. The heir
to the throne of Bogota forfeited his right to the suc-
cession if the sun shone direct upon him. In Sogomoso
the heir-apparent is shut up in seclusion for seven
years without seeing the light of the sun.* Now,
it is remarkable that girls at jDuberty and women
at regular intervals and after delivery are subjected
to the same rule of restrictions during a variable
period. In Laondo, a purely negro State, girls at
puberty are confined in separate huts, and may on
no account touch the ground during the period with
any part of their body. Among the Zulus and
kindred tribes, when the first signs of womanhood
show themselves, a girl, should she l^e walking or
workine: in the fields, runs to the river and hides her-
self for the day among the reeds that she may not be

* J. G. Frazer, quoting Alonzo de Zurita.



seen by men. Her head she covers with her blanket
that the sun may not shine on it and shrivel her up
into a withered skeleton, an assured result of any
disregard of custom. At night she returns home
and is closely secluded for a period of seven days.
She then resumes her work. New Ireland crirls are
confined for four or five years in small cages and
kept in the dark.*

Customs akin to these are world-wide, and have
left in the folk-lore of all nations evidence of their
being once universal. For example. A Greek story
warns a princess to be careful in her fifteenth year
lest the sun should shine on her. A Tyrolese legend
tells how a lovely maiden was doomed to be trans-
ported to the belly of a whale, Jonah fashion, if ever
a sunbeam fell upon her. Old Highland women,
when I was a boy, always made a great ado if girls
went, say to a hayfield, with bare heads. Boys
might, but it was not good for girls. It was not
altogether because they would get sunburned.
There were " other things," all of which was con-
veyed to them in hints of Delphic ambiguity, but
which was very awful to our youthful imagination.

The ground of this seclusion and guarding from
sunlight lies in the dread primitive man has of
woman's blood. Hence a woman must live apart
during the period; she is then unclean, and, should
any one come near her inadvertently, she must give
them warning not to approach. Similar restrictions
are imposed on women after delivery, when they
are secluded and guarded for weeks. Nor are

* Rev. B. Banks.


restrictions confined to the periods referred to.
Precautions must be taken ao-ainst accidents, as
these may happen at any moment. Scores of times
did I 23ut the question to South Africans : " Why
do your women never enter the village by the paths
the men follow ? " before I could o-et a satisfac-
tory answer. I was told it was custom ; women
must be taught obedience ; people always did it;
or that the master made rules and all must obey;
that it was to keep wives from quarrelling if they
saw the head of the village walking frequently with
a favourite wife ; because men are greater, that is,
more sacred, than women ; " the woman is to a man
a child." Gradually and indirectly I came to know
that the restriction was designed to avoid accidents
such as might happen with the advent of woman-
hood unexpectedly. The object of all such restrictions
is to neutralise the daug-erous influences which are
supposed to be connected with women at certain
periods. The woman is viewed as charged with
certain propei'ties ; properties productive of evil in
themselves, and which, in certain circumstances, she
can use with infinite power for mischief These
must be kept within bounds. If not, they may
prove destructive to the woman herself, as in the
Zulu shrivelling up, and to all with whom she comes
into contact.

The uncleanness of woman and the sanctity of the
sacred or divine man do not, to primitive men, differ
from one another. Both must be guarded against
and avoided when that is possible. Both must be
surrounded by taboos for this object as well as for

WOMAN . 199

their own sakes, so that their properties, which are
good or bad as they are directed, may be guided to
be conducive of grood to man.

Persons charged with such properties, and having
at their disposal such powers for good or evil, cannot
be without influence upon the community. Where
every action has a supernatural significance, it is
impossible to have any force in existence without
its tendino- to o-ive colour to all the institutions
existing^ anion o- men.

In a land where a woman may not touch a cow's
udder "^ on pain of direst results, we may expect to
find her wielding power however harshly she may
be treated. Even from the most closely guarded
harem come influences which go to make or mar the
state. The Lubare of Uganda may be under the
direction of a prophetess. In the Lake Region, the
prophetess is all powerful, and may determine peace
or war, as she often does in the south. The women
of most African tribes are modest and retiring, and
seldom address strangers except when they bring
articles for sale, and even then it is not uncommon
to find a husband or father accompany the woman
to do the actual trading while she carries the burden.
But this is not universal. There are tribes where
the women are bold, aggressive and self-assertive.
The Monbutto women are independent, obtrusive
and immodest."*" They do the field work as is done
by all African women, but in other respects assert
their independence in a manner rarely met with.
The Monbutto are an island of humanity, in the very

* Felkin. t Schweinfurth.


heart of Africa, differing in customs and habits from
all the surrounding tribes. Their laws and observ-
ances resemble, and especially the aggressive im-
modesty of their women, those of certain minor
tribes inland from Inhambane more than that of any
other African people. Dr. Schweinfurth does not
give in detail an account of their behaviour, but
leaves the reader to infer that as regards public
morality there is much to be desired. Our informa-
tion regarding the Inhambane tribes referred to is
also meagre. A few years ago, a Lieut. Underwood
and a German missionary were travelling together
through the country. Both were new to African
travel, and their ignorance of the language may
have prevented their understanding the meaning of
facts which came under their notice with painful
prominence. So obtrusive did they find the women
that they were compelled to get some of their own
Swazi women camp-followers to mount guard over
their persons in their tents while they slept.*
Whether this was a natural afifm-essiveness of
character, or the ordinary courtesies of the country
I do not know. It is common enouofh for a chief
to order one of the members of his harem to be
given to a distinguished stranger during his stay,
but the women will only repair to his tent at night
and as if by stealth. Though not objecting to a
temporary change of husband, they cannot effect the
change during the day lest the gods should be
offended, t When Dr. Felkin pressed King Mtesa
to replenish tlie mission larder, the king wearied

* Underwood, MS. notes. f Winterbotham.

WOMAN .201

with similar demands and anxious to settle the
question once for all, sent the doctor a parcel of
eighteen wives to attend upon him, and supply his
wants. The ungrateful man refused the kingly gift.
The subject of public morality it is impossible to
discuss in a popular work. But though not suitable
for the pages of a book intended for general readers,
its value in forming an estimate of the people's
character is considerable, and the man whose lot is
cast in Africa, cannot, without grave loss to his own
usefulness, dispense with an intimate acquaintance
with much that is unsavoury. To indicate the diffi-
culty of dealing with this, I transcril^e the first note
I made in collecting material for a separate chapter
on the subject. It is as follows : — " Before a Kordufan
girl consents to marry, she stipulates how many free
nights per week she may enjoy, and generally secures
every fourth night to do as she pleases." So
different are African standards from ours that
any thing said could only be suited for the pages of
a scientific iournal, as Is illustrated by the followino-
incident : — A missionary was one day addressing a
crowd of natives, many of whom had taken part in a

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 13 of 18)