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* Wad dell.


purged territory and finding it unoccupied, take up
their abode there till once more carried to the river
and so cast out. Illustrations of this might be
multiplied indefinitely, but what has been given
may be taken as characteristic of a particular phase
of thouo-ht.

Now this belongs to an early and very rude state
of society — to the time before man had differen-
tiated clearly between the natural and supernatural,
and when he still believed himself to have power
over the unseen world. The condition has continued
among peoples far removed from the flowing current
of civilisation, and who had not invented the art of
writing. It has survived through the hunting,
pastoral, and agricultural stages of progress among
rude peoples, and seems to persist wherever man is
unable to record his thoughts in symbols readily
understood by his fellows. But although this
peculiar belief in man's powers over the world of
spirits persists in barbarous countries, to use a
common expression, we should hardly be prepared
for its persistency in Christian times in Europe, and
among the most highly educated communities in
civihsed lands. Few peoples have enjoyed greater
educational advantages, so far as the bulk of the
peasantry is concerned, than the Scotch, and still we
find among them, even at the present day, many
persons who believe in man's power to call the devil
at will. That such faith should be found universal
amono- savag-es is consistent with all we know of the
progress of human thought ; that Christian commu-
nities should continue, generation after generation,


through millenniums of years, to believe in the power
of their religious teachers on the one hand, and of
their wizards and witches on the other, to control
demons and influence nature, is one of those curious
phenomena which show how narrow are the limits
which divide savage man from civilised, and make us
pause to ask, how much of truth, absolute truth, we,
any of us, know concerning ourselves, and the
mysterious, unsatisfied yearnings of our souls for a
fuller, truer, and clearer knowledge of the unseen.

Not more than a century ago it was no uncommon
thing to appeal to priest or presbyter to visit this
village or that to " lay the devil," and the curious
thing is, that men of education and experience of the
world went through the mummeries supposed to
have that effect. A priest of the Braes of Lochaber
" laid " the devil about what is now Spean Bridge,
and the Reformed faith proceeded no farther up the
glen of the Spean. A successor of his, however,
doubted whether he had but half laid him in
Inveroy, the next district to Spean Bridge, the
inhabitants of which, according to the worthy father,
did justice neither to God nor man. This " laying "
of the devil was rendered necessary through his
being " raised " by persons who had that power
being: in leag-ue with him, and without whose aid he
" could not leave his hole." How this was done I
have failed to discover with certainty. The "lay-
ing " was by bell, book and candle, or within Refor-
mation times " by prayer and the exercise of the
power of prayer," a phrase as difficult of interpreta-
tion as anv African oracle of them all. Praver one


can understand, but what is the " power of prayer "
as appUed to the " laying " of the devil ? As to the
" raising " of his majesty, one old man told me the
following incident, for the truth of which he vouched
on personal knowledge, " for," said he, " it happened
when I was a good bit o' a callant." I give his own
words as nearly as I can remember.

" It's a long time since, but I mind it as if it were
yesterday. The boys were having a wild night.
Two old men had just finished wi' a pickle malt for
the new year like, and there was plenty going.
About the middle of the night, at the turn as you
would say, one of the young men began to curse and
swear awful. He called on the devil, and said he
mio-ht come and take him. Some o' them were a
wee sober, and bade him keep quiet, but he gaed
worse, and defied a' the devils in hell, and said he
would like to smell their brimstone. That moment
there was an awful flash of lightning, and a w^oman,
said no to be canny, or the likes o' her, came down
the chimney and stood afore him. She stood facing
him, and said : ' Ye want to see the devil : he may be
here sooner nor ye think.' Sorry a word more did she
say when the house was filled wi' burning brimstone,
and something going up and down in a blue flame on
the crook" — [i.e., the chain for hanging pots over the
fire]. " Then it made a noise such as the like was
never heard, and gaed out o' sight. The gun-
barrels in the house were twisted and broken, and
the next day the smell o' brimstone was strong on
their clothes. None of them could ever tell right
how it happened, but there's nae doubt about it.


It's as true as gospel." And then the old man pro-
ceeded to detail other experiences of his youth, and
to bemoan the scepticism of the age, which was sure
to bring the curse of God down upon the world.
This was not an ignorant man, but one fairly well
informed ; a man who knew his Bible, and could
correct preachers on points of Calvinistic theology.
I knew him well, and he represented current opinion
among middle-aged and old people in parts of the
Highlands about twenty years ago. How the devil
was "laid" in this case my informant did not re-
member, but he was fully informed how it was done
in other cases, and believed as firmly as he did in his
own existence that the art " was known to many of
the godly in olden times."

There is a woman of my acquaintance in lleay who
can " do things." Some years ago she asked a
coach-driver for a " sail " in his vehicle. He re-
fused. " Very well," said Annie ; " I will be in
Thurso before you," A mile farther on one of his
horses fell stone dead, and he had the mortification
of seeing the witch pass with an air of triumj^h. The
owner has never refused her a " sail " since then.

A former minister of the parish of Reay in Caith-
ness, a Mr. Pope, was a man of more than local re-
putation. He came to the parish when the people
were largely pagan, and being a man of herculean
strength, used gentle physical persuasion by means
of an oaken cudgel, known as the "bailiff," to bring
his parishioners to church. His feats of strength,
and especially his having first thrashed, and then
driven before him to church, a local character re-


t>-arded with dread as a giant in strength and a tiger
in temper, gave him an extraordinary influence over
his unruly flock. Supernatural powers were freely
attributed to him, and this for reasons of his own he
may have encouraged. Among other powers he
possessed he was regarded as being able to " lay the
devil " at will. It so happened that the people of
Strath}^, in the neighbouring parish, " raised " the
fiend but could not get him " laid " again. In dire
extremity they went to Mr. Pope, and on some pre-
text induced him to visit Strathy. When nearing
the place "he got the smell of the fiend," and knew
why they had sent for him. He was excessively
angry, but having gone so far he proceeded to the
place, and so eflectually did he dispose of their
troublesome visitor, that, as I was told last summer,
"the devil has never since been raised in the district."
Did the scope of our inquiry permit, illustrations
of the same practice of expelling the devil could be
drawn from the usages of the Teutonic peoples of
Europe. This is represented by such practices as
are observed among the Finns of Eastern Russia.
There on the last day of the year a band of young
girls march through the streets and stop at each
house corner, which they beat with wands they carry
for the purpose. As they beat each house they say^
in chorus, " We are driving Satan out of the village."
After they have in this manner visited all the
houses, they march in procession to the river, singing
as they go, and when they arrive there throw their
wands, devils and all, into the water to float away
down stream. "At Brunnen, in Switzerland, the boys


go about fn procession on Twelfth Night, carryino-
torches and lanterns, and makino- a o-reat noise with
horns, cowbells, and whips. This is said to frighten
away two female spirits of the wood — Strudeli and
Striitteli." * These are but illustrations of the simjDler
forms of a custom observed by all the peoj^les of
Europe ; a custom which in many cases became
grafted on to the services of the Christian Church, t
no man can tell how, but which clearly carry us l^ack
to an age when the jieoples of Europe were, b}^
painful experience, groping their way towards a
knowledge of truth, as the Central African of to-day
is undoubtedly doino-. For what are all relio-ions

•JO o

but a searching after truth ; the expression of man's
desire to attain to a true and final knowledsfe of
causes, and his own relation to these ?

* Usener, quoted by J. G. Frazer.

t In Eoss-shire there is a common custom when drinking from a road-
side spring to tie a bit of rag to a branch or tuft of grass. This I have
heard explained as an offering to the spirit of the spring, while others say
it is to ban evil from the water. In either case it is a survival of a long-
forgotten past — a simple action, carrying us back to a time when spirits
inhabited every grove and running stream.



When man reached the coiicei^tion of good and evil
spirits as personal and separate existences— that is
to say, beings capable of being influenced by him
and having an influence over him — it needed but the
advent of a Milton to set the gods by the ears. But
before the Miltonic conception was reached there
was a long transition period during which the gods
set men by the ears. We have seen that kings and
divine priests claimed to have in their own persons :
flrst, the spirit of the creative and reproductive
powers of nature ; next, that of their ancestors and
predecessors, this latter passing over to the idea of
an impersonal god. These were the beneficent
patrons of men, w^ho gave them rain, sunshine,
crops, fecundity, successful hunting, and kindred
blessings. During the world's youth the want of
these was attributed to the negligence of the king,
and w ith the laj^se of time, perhaps to his malice or
ill-will, as when the king was said " to have a bad
heart." It was no uncommon experience for the
king to be called sharply to task when the course of
nature trot into confusion and disorder, and men
began to feel the pinch of want or the inconvenience
of having to travel far afield for game. With the


advent of evil spirits the blame could be laid on
their shoulders for all the ills that afflicted humanity.
Evil persons were supposed to be in league with
those evil spirits, and to be their agents in carrying
out their nefarious purposes. As the good spirits
acted for men's benefit through the king or tribal
priest, so other malign spirits acted through persons
whose whole object was pure mischief for its own
sake, except when bribed to do good actions by
large gifts. The expulsion of spirits had not yet
occurred to man ; propitiation did not always suit
his purpose ; and yet the case required that drastic
remedies should be adopted. It was obviously a
matter of the first importance that means should be
discovered for the detection and extermination, if
possible, of the class of persons who brought the ills
from which men suffered upon them.

In earlier times the king himself was frequently
put to death when he failed to order the course of
nature regularly, and give the blessings expected
from him, and if so, there could be no hesitation or
doubt about the art of those who wilfully disturbed
the course of nature being a capital crime, or rather
the capital crime beyond all others even by com-
parison. For to savage man there is no crime com-
parable to witchcraft in malignity of purpose and
object. Here, then, we have the origin of that system
of jurisprudence and religious ritual which, j^roject-
ing itself into civilised and Christian times, pursued
its victims, under the sanction of civil law and
church judicatories, as persons who ought not to
live. Primitive faith, or superstition as we call it


now, clung for generations to men professing to be
disciples of Him \vho came to show the higher and
better way, so tenaciously that they could, without
pity or compunction, see their fellows amidst blazing
faggots for an imaginary crime. If the growth of
thought has been so slow within historic times, and
among a people with a written language, what must
it have been among primitive men ? When religion,
with all the sanction it received from the sacred
books of Christianity, took so many centuries to
realise such elementary facts regarding man's rela-
tion to the supernatural, do we wonder that millen-
niums pass without any appreciable difference in
custom and myth among savages ?

But how were wizards and witches to be dis-
covered when the world Avas young, and before men
learned to recognise the " witch's mark ? " Spirits
bent on evil gave no outward token of their
presence so far as that could possible he avoided.
These spirits would only l)e harboured by persons of
the most malignant disposition, or who for some
reason had a grudge against their kind. S<^ the
spirits sought out those who, through neglect or ill-
treatment, had been soured and rendered bitter in
heart against their fellows.* Thus it happened
that deformed persons, and those who through any
infirmity were unable to take their place and act
their part in life like their fellows, were believed to
be possessed of the devil, or, in other words, were
wizards and witches. Dwarfs, dumb persons, women
who never were sought in marriage, and those with

* J. Sutton, MS. notes.


any facial peculiarities or defects which made them
conspicuous, were most frequently regarded as the
incarnation of the evil spirit of the world. From
them it was impossible to expel or allure the demon
as in the case of a patient who was devil-possessed,
for, unlike the sick, the devil dwelt within the
wizards by their own w411 and choice. They were
themselves devils incarnate as the king or high
priest was incarnate god. Such being the case, the
only hope of safety, the sole means of security, lay
in the rigfid enforcement of that curious Mosaic
enactment : " Thou shall not suffer a witch to

Let us now consider how man, as he groped his
way towards a higher conception of truth and the
facts with which he found himself surrounded in the
world, sought to protect himself against the malign
influences exercised by those persons who entered
into league with evil spirits, for the purpose of
injuring their kind. And here it will be better to
begin with the southern portion of Africa, with the
customs of which I am familiar, and which have
been studied and recorded with a greater degree of
minuteness than those of any other part of the
continent. In any study of witchcraft it must be
borne in mind that the wizard's power is unlimited,
or only bounded by such limitations and restrictions
as the gods are subject to. Evil spirits are as
powerful as good ; hence it follows that the good
must have assistance from man himself, if they are
to cope successfully with evil. Man and the gods.

• * Exod. xxii. 18.


may keep evil in check. Either of them alone would
be unequal to the task. Can the beneficent god
give rain ? The wizard can thwart his purpose by
the simplest of expedients. Can he make domestic
animals prolific ? The wizard has but to get a hair
out of a cow's tail to bring murrain among them.
Does the " father of men " give easy delivery to
mothers? The wizard causes death in childbed
or blights the offspring with a curse. Throughout
the whole circle of social and domestic life the good
designs of Providence and the gods can be frustrated
by the art of witchcraft, and, indeed, the wizard may
in a sense, be said to be more powerful than the
gods. To them belong the initiative ; all things
are under their control and ordered by them ; and
the wizard has but to lie in wait till the gods act,
and then, by the practice of his art, frustrates their
intentions by marring their work. He, on the other
hand, is safe from assault by the gods, for he never
initiates any original work on his own account. His
business is to watch their doings, and when they
favour men to bring calamity and death.

So the Hottentot priest, wdien he sacrifices for
any purpose, takes the most extraordinary precau-
tions against malign influences. He keeps his
purpose a profound secret, lest his intentions should
l3ecome known to some " suspect person." At the
sacrifice none must be present except such as can be
fully trusted. And here lies his chief difiiculty.
Wizards are as cunning as are evil spirits themselves^
and adopt every kind of disguise so as to remain
unsuspected. He can guard against the presence of



reputed wizards and suspect persons. But these
have " friends " who are neither known nor sus-
pected, and should one of them be present to inform
the wizard of what goes on, and convey to him as
much as a single hair from the sacrifice, or even a
blade of grass from the spot on which an important
person, as the chief or priest, sat, he can accomplish
all the evil that he could have done by his presence
among the crowd. For some reason, which I never
could discover, suspect persons cannot be, or at all
events are not, put on trial till specific acts can l^e
charged against them before a properly consti-
tuted tribunal. They cannot even be shut up by
such methods as we have often found so convenient
beyond St. George's Channel.

Under such circumstances it is necessary to have
a method by which guilt can be easily and surely
brought home to those practising the unlawful art.
This is done by a class of men known as witch-
doctors. These are really magicians or priests, who,
because of the dignity of their calling, occupy a
premier position among the religious teachers of
Africa. They are permitted to have armed retainers,
and to rank on an equality with heads of clans.
Their places of residence are sanctuaries ; they
hold court and try causes ; their persons are
sacred, and in virtue of their office they are entitled
to receive fees in connection with all cases and trials.
The following may be taken as illustrative of the
witch-doctor's method of procedure : — When any
one, say a man in middle life, falls ill, his friends,
believing him to be bewitched, repair to the witch-


doctor's house, and sit down outside in a waiting-
attitude. After a brief interval the doctor appears,
says " Good morning," and then sitting down, takes a
leisurely pinch of snuff. If the visitors ask for
tobacco, he knows it is but an ordinary call, and
enters into conversation on current topics. If they
do not ask a pinch, he retires to his house, and
returns with a dry hide and a small bundle of sticks
which he throws down before his visitors. He then
says, " You have come about a child ? "

They, beating softly on the hide, reply : " We
a^iTee. "

The doctor proceeds : " You are going to speak
about a woman ? "

" We agree," say the strangers, while they con-
tinue their gentle beating.

" The man you have come about is very ill," may
be the doctor's next remark.

" We agree, we agree," cry out the visitors, this
time beating violently.

On such lines the doctor proceeds till he has
learned all he wishes to know : the man's age ;
whether of a strong or weakly constitution; how
long he has been ill ; whether he has any known
enemy, and his means. After this he sits a long
while in silence, and then says, oracularly, " You are
beino' killed." When asked how and by whom, he
replies that he cannot tell ; they must return on the
following day, and meantime the gods may divulge to
him the secret. He mentions his fee, generally an
ox, as a retainer, and this must be brought when
they return next day, otherwise no revelations will


be made to him. He is the servant of the gods,
and what is oiven to him is offered to them. The
deputation then retire, and when they go home a
trusted friend receives a hint as to whom they sus-
pect of bewitching the patient. This neighbour
goes at dead of night, and has an interview with
the doctor, who is now in a position to act. A muster
of villagers is duly called, attendance at which is
compulsory on pain of confessed guilt. The accused
marches, in ignorance of his doom, with the caval-
cade On the way he may be casually asked,
" What does the person bewitching our brother
deserve ? " and he of course promptly replies, " He
must die."

The ritual follow^ed at the meeting varies, but the
following is one method. All the villagers give up
their arms to the doctor's guard, and then seat them-
selves in a semicircle. The doctor sings, dances,
capers and mutters incantations within the circle of
expectant sitters ; then rushing up to the doomed
man cries out, " This is the wizard who bewitched
so and so, the gods name him." He then runs in
among his armed guards, and all the people jump up,
leaving the culprit sitting alone. He must not
move, nor will any one go near him. No one is
allowed to plead his cause even if they wished. His
friends are disarmed and cannot strike a blow for
him. The man's doom is inexorably fixed, and his
only chance of escape is the somewhat slender one
of the chief ordering an ox to be substituted and
offered as a sacrifice ; this, or a clean pair of lieels, if
he can show them. On crossing the border of the


tribal territory he is safe, there being no extradition
treaty for wizards.

As we move northwards we find the same or
even greater precautions taken against witchcraft,
but the system of jurisprudence is modified. In the
Nyassa region, for example, the ofiice of discovering
persons who practise the illegal art falls not to the
priest, but to the prophetess, who is frequently the
principal wife of the chief, and one of the most for-
midable and justly dreaded persons met with in
Africa. It is to the prophetess the ancestral spirits
make known the will of the gods. When she sees
these face to face, which always happens at the dead
hour of night, she begins by raving and scream-
ing, which she continues till the whole village is
astir, and she herself utterly prostrated by her
exertions ; she then throws herself on the ground in
a kind of trance, during which the villagers gather
round her, awe-stricken, waiting for the oracle of the
god, for she is now god-possessed. After such posses-
sion and revelations she may impose impossible tasks
on men, and these they will attempt without ques-
tion as their destiny.* She may demand human
sacrifices, and no one dare deny her victims.
Suppose she declares a victim must be offered to a
mountain deity — for there are gods of the valleys and
gods of the hills, deities of the river and of the forest
— the victim is conducted to the spot indicated and
bound hand and foot to a tree, If during the first
night he is killed by beasts of prey, the gods have
accepted the sacrifice ; if not, he is left to die of

* Rev. Duff Macdonald.


starvation or thrown into a pool. The slave was not
worthy the god's acceptance ; he is of no further use
to any one.

It is, however, as a detective of wizards and
witches the proj^hetess is in most constant demand.
When she travels on such duty she is accompanied
by a strong guard ; and when she orders a meeting
of a clan or tribe attendance is compulsory. When
all are assembled, our friend, who is clad with a
scanty loin cloth and literally covered from head to
heels with rattles and fantasies, rushes about among
the crowd in the most frantic manner. She shouts
and raves and rants like one demented. After
which, assuming a calm judicial manner, she goes
from one to another touching each person's hand.
As she touches the hand of the bewitcher, she starts
back with a loud shriek and yells, " This is him, the
murderer. Blood is in his hand.""^' Havino- discovered
the culprit, she next proceeds to prove his guilt.
This she does by " finding the horns " he used in the

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 8 of 18)