Copyright
John Rhys.

Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) online

. (page 27 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) → online text (page 27 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


ticular class of charm involving the use of herbs. Thus
there used to be at one time a famous charmer living
near Kirk Michael, to whom the fishermen were in the
habit of resorting, and my informant told me that he
had been deputed more than once by his fellow fisher-
men to go to him in consequence of their lack of success
in the fishing. The charmer gave him a packet of
herbs, cut small, with directions that they should be
boiled, and the water mixed with some spirits rum,
I think and partly drunk in the boat by the captain
and the crew, and partly sprinkled over the boat and
everything in it. The charmer clearly defined his
position in the matter to my informant. ' I cannot/ he
said, ' put the fish in your nets for you ; but if there
is any mischief in the way of your luck, I can remove
that for you/ The fishermen themselves had, however,
more exaggerated notions of the charmer's functions,
for once on a time my informant spent on drink for
his boon companions the money which he was to give
the charmer, and then he collected herbs himself
it did not much matter what herbs and took them
to his captain, who, with the crew, went through the
proper ritual, and made a most successful haul that
night. In fact, the only source of discontent was the
charmer's not having distributed the fish over two
nights, instead of endangering their nets by an excessive
haul all in one night. They regarded him as able to
do almost anything he liked in the matter.

A lady at Andreas gave me an account of a celebrated



iv] MANX FOLKLORE



299



charmer who lived between there and the coast. He
worked on her husband's farm, but used to be frequently
called away to be consulted. He usually cut up worm-
wood for the people who came to him, and if there was
none to be had, he did not scruple to rob the garden of
any small sprouts it contained of cabbage or the like.
He would chop them small, and give directions about
boiling them and drinking the water. He usually
charged any one leaving him to speak to nobody on the
way, lest he break the charm, and this mysteriousness
was evidently an important element in his profession.
But he was, nevertheless, a thriftless fellow, and when
he went to Peel, and sent the crier round to announce
his arrival, and received a good deal of money from the
fishermen, he seldom so conducted himself as to bring
much of his earnings home. He died miserably some
seven or eight years ago at Ramsey, and left a widow
in great poverty. As to the present day, the daughter
of a charmer now dead is married to a man living in
a village on the southern side of the island, and she
appears to have inherited her father's reputation for
charming, as the fishermen from all parts are said to
flock to her for luck. Incidentally, I have heard in the
south more than once of her being consulted in cases
of sudden and dangerous illness, even after the best
medical advice has been obtained : in fact, she seems
to have a considerable practice.

In answer to my question, how the charmer who
died at Ramsey used to give the sailors luck in the
fishing, my informant at Andreas could not say, except
that he gave them herbs as already described, and she
thought also that he sold them wisps to place under
their pillows. I gather that the charms were chiefly
directed to the removal of supposed impediments to
success in the fishing, rather than to any act of a more



3 oo CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

positive nature. So far as I have been able to ascertain,
charming is hereditary, and they say that it descends
from father to daughter, and then from daughter to
son, and so on a remarkable kind of descent, on which
I should be glad to learn the opinion of anthropologists.
One of the best Manx scholars in the island related to
me how some fishermen once insisted on his doing the
charmer for them because of his being of such and such
a family, and how he made fools of them. It is my
impression that the charming families are compara-
tively few in number, and this looks as if they descended
from the family physicians or druids of one or two
chieftains in ancient times. It is very likely a question
which could be cleared up by a local man familiar with
the island and all that tradition has to say on the subject
of Manx pedigrees.

In the case of animals ailing, the herbs were also
resorted to; and, if the beasts happened to be milch
cows, the herbs had to be boiled in some of their milk.
This was supposed to produce wonderful results,
described as follows by a man living at a place on the
way from Castletown up South Barrule : A farmer in
his parish had a cow that milked blood, as he described
it, and this in consequence of a witch's ill-will. He
went to the charmer, who gave him some herbs, which
he was to boil in the ailing cow's milk, and the charmer
charged him, whatever he did, not to quit the con-
coction while it was on the fire, in spite of any noises
he might hear. The farmer went home and proceeded
that night to boil the herbs as directed, but he suddenly
heard a violent tapping at the door, a terrible lowing
of the cattle in the cow-house, and stones coming down
the ' chumley ' : the end of it was that he suddenly fled
and sprang into bed to take shelter behind his wife.
He went to the charmer again, and related to him what



iv] MANX FOLKLORE



301



had happened : he was told that he must have more
courage the next time, unless he wished his cow to die.
He promised to do his best, and this time he stood his
ground in spite of the noises and the creaking of the
windows until, in fact, a back window burst into
pieces and bodily let a witch in, who craved his pardon,
and promised nevermore to molest him or his. This
all happened at the farm in question in the time of
the present farmer's grandfather. The boiling of the
charmer's herbs in milk always produces a great
commotion and lowing among the cattle, and it in-
variably cures the ailing ones: this is firmly believed by
respectable farmers whom I could name, in the north
of the island in particular, and I am alluding to men
whom one might consider fairly educated members of
their class.

In the last mentioned instance not only is the requi-
site cure effected, but the witch who caused the
mischief is brought on the spot. I have recently heard
of a parallel to this in a belief which appears to be
still prevalent in the Channel Islands, more especially
Guernsey. The following incidents have been com-
municated to me by an ardent folklorist, who has friends
in the islands :

An old woman in Torteval became ill, and her two
sons were told that if they tried one of the charms of
divination, such as boiling certain weeds in a pot, the
first person to come to the house would prove to be the
one who had cast a spell over their mother. Accord-
ingly they made their bouillederie, and who should come
to the door but a poor, unoffending Breton onion seller,
and as he was going away he was waylaid by the two
sons, who beat him within an inch of his life. They
were prosecuted and sentenced to terms of imprison-
ment ; but the charming did not come out in the



3 02 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

evidence, though it was generally known to have been
the reason for the assault. This account was given my
informant in 1898, and the incident appears to have
happened not very long before. Another is related
thus : A certain family suffered from a plague of lice,
which they regarded as the consequence of a spell.
They accordingly made their boiling of herbs and
looked for the first comer. He turned out to be a
neighbour of theirs who wished to buy some turnip
seeds. The family abused him roundly. He went away,
but he was watched and caught by two of the sons of
the house, who beat him cruelly. They, on being
prosecuted, had to pay him 5 damages. This took
place in the summer of 1898, in the narrator's own
parish, in Guernsey. I have also another case of recent
date, to the effect that a young woman, whose churning
was so unsuccessful that the butter would not come,
boiled herbs in the prescribed way. She awaited the
first comer, and, being engaged, her intended husband
was not unnaturally the first to arrive. She abused
him so unsparingly that he broke off the engagement.
These instances go far enough to raise the question
why the boiling of herbs should be supposed to bring
the culprit immediately on the spot, but they hardly go
any further, namely, to help us to answer it.

Magic takes us back to a very primitive and loose
manner of thinking ; so the marvellously easy way in
which it identifies any tie of association, however
flimsy, with the insoluble bond of relationship which
educated men and women regard as connecting cause
and effect, renders even simpler means than I have
described quite equal to the undoing of the evils
resulting from the activity of the evil eye. Thus, let
us suppose that a person endowed with the evil eye
has just passed by the farmer's herd of cattle, and a



iv] MANX FOLKLORE 303

calf has suddenly been seized with a serious illness, the
farmer hurries after the man of the evil eye to get
the dust from under his feet. If he objects, the farmer
may, as has sometimes been actually done, throw
him down by force, take off his shoes, and scrape off
the dust adhering to their soles, and carry it back to
throw over the calf. Even that is not always necessary,
as it appears to be quite enough if he takes up dust
where he of the evil eye has just trod the ground.
There are innumerable cases on folk-record of both
means proving entirely efficacious, and they remind one
of a story related in the Itinerarium Kambrice, i. n, by
Giraldus, as to the archbishop when he was preaching
in the neighbourhood of Haverfordwest. A certain
woman had lost her sight, but had so much faith in
that holy man that she sent her son to try and procure
the least bit of the fringe of his clothing. The youth,
unable to make his way through the crowd that sur-
rounded the preacher, waited till it dispersed, and then
took home to his mother the sod on which he had
stood and on which his feet had left their mark. That
earth was applied by her to her face and eyes, with the
result that she at once recovered her sight. A similar
question of psychology presents itself in a practice
intended as a preservative against the evil eye rather
than as a cure. I allude to what I have heard about
two maiden ladies living in a Manx village which I
know very well : they are natives of a neighbouring
parish, and I am assured that whenever a stranger
enters their house they proceed, as soon as he goes
away, to strew a little dust or sand over the spot where
he stood. That is understood to prevent any malignant
influence resulting from his visit. This tacit identi-
fying of a man with his footprints may be detected in
a more precarious and pleasing form in a quaint conceit



304 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

familiar to me in the lyrics of rustic life in Wales, when,
for example, a coy maiden leaves her lovesick swain
hotly avowing his perfect readiness to cusanu ol ei
thraed, that is, to do on his knees all the stages of her
path across the meadow, kissing the ground wherever
it has been honoured with the tread of her dainty foot.
Let me take another case, in which the cord of associa-
tion is not so inconceivably slender, namely, when two
or more persons standing in a close relation to one
another are mistakenly treated a little too much as if
mutually independent, the objection is heard that it
matters not whether it is A or B, that it is, in fact, all
the same, as they belong to the same concern. In
Welsh this is sometimes expressed by saying, Yr un
yw Huw'r Glyn a'i glocs, that is, ' Hugh of the Glen and
his clogs are all one.' Then, when you speak in English
of a man ' standing in another's shoes,' I am by no
means certain, that you are not employing an expression
which meant something more to those who first used it
than it does to us. Our modern idioms, with all their
straining after the abstract, are but primitive man's
mental tools adapted to the requirements of civilized
life, and they often retain traces of the form and shape
which the neolithic worker's chipping and polishing
gave them.

It is difficult to arrange these scraps under any
clearly classified headings, and now that I have led the
reader into the midst of matters magical, perhaps I may
just as well go on to the mention of a few more :
I alluded to the boiling of the herbs according to the
charmer's orders, with the result, among other things,
of bringing the witch to the spot. This is, however,
not the only instance of the importance and strange
efficacy of fire. For when a beast dies on a farm, of
course it dies, according to the old-fashioned view of



iv] MANX FOLKLORE



35



things as I understand it, from the influence of the evil
eye or the interposition of a witch. So if you want to
know to whom you are indebted for the loss of the
beast, you have simply to burn its carcase in the open
air and watch who comes first to the spot or who first
passes by : that is the criminal to be charged with the
death of the animal, and he cannot help coming there
such is the effect of the fire. A Michael woman, who
is now about thirty, related to me how she watched
while the carcase of a bewitched colt was burning, how
she saw the witch coming, and how she remembers her
shrivelled face, with nose and chin in close proximity.
According to another native of Michael, a well informed
middle-aged man, the animal in question was oftenest
a calf, and it was wont to be burnt whole, skin and all.
The object, according to him, is invariably to bring the
bewitcher on the spot, and he always comes ; but I am
not clear what happens to him when he appears. My
informant added, however, that it was believed that,
unless the bewitcher got possession of the heart of the
burning beast, he lost all his power of bewitching. He
related, also, how his father and three other men were
once out fishing on the west coast of the island, when
one of the three suddenly expressed his wish to land.
As they were fishing successfully some two or three
miles from the shore, they would not hear of it. He,
however, insisted that they must put him ashore at
once, which made his comrades highly indignant ; but
they soon had to give way, as they found that he was
determined to leap overboard unless they complied.
When he got on shore they watched him hurrying
away towards where a beast was burning in the corner
of a field.

Manx stories merge this burning in a very perplexing
fashion with what may be termed a sacrifice for luck.

RHVS X



3 o6 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

The following scraps of information will make it clear
what I mean : A respectable farmer from Andreas told
me that he was driving with his wife to the neighbouring
parish of Jurby some years ago, and that on the way
they beheld the carcase of a cow or an ox burning in
a field, with a woman engaged in stirring the fire. On
reaching the village to which they were going, they
found that the burning beast belonged to a farmer
whom they knew. They were further told it was no
wonder that the said farmer had one of his cattle burnt,
as several of them had recently died. Whether this
was a case of sacrifice or not I cannot say. But let me
give another instance : a man whom I have already
mentioned, saw at a farm nearer the centre of the island
a live calf being burnt. The owner bears an English
name, but his family has long been settled in Man.
The farmer's explanation to my informant was that the
calf was burnt to secure luck for the rest of the herd,
some of which were threatening to die. My informant
thought there was absolutely nothing the matter with
them, except that they had too little food. Be that as
it may, the one calf was sacrificed as a burnt offering
to secure luck for the rest of the cattle. Let me here
also quote Mr. Moore's note in his Manx Surnames,
p. 184, on the place-name Cabbal yn Oural Losht,
or the 'Chapel of the Burnt Sacrifice.' 'This name,'
he says, ' records a circumstance which took place in
the nineteenth century, but which, it is to be hoped,
was never customary in the Isle of Man. A farmer,
who had lost a number of his sheep and cattle by
murrain, burned a calf as a propitiatory offering to
the Deity on this spot, where a chapel was afterwards
built. Hence the name.' Particulars, I may say, of
time, place, and person, could be easily added to
Mr. Moore's statement, excepting, perhaps, as to the



iv] MANX FOLKLORE



3<>7



deity in question : on that point I have never been
informed, but Mr. Moore was probably right in the use
of the capital d, as the sacrificer was, according to all
accounts, a devout Christian. I have to thank Sir
Frederick Pollock for calling my attention to a parallel
this side of the sea : he refers me to Worth's History of
Devonshire (London, 1886), p. 339, where one reads the
following singular passage : ' Living animals have
been burnt alive in sacrifice within memory to avert
the loss of other stock. The burial of three puppies
" brandise-wise " in a field is supposed to rid it of
weeds.' The second statement is very curious, and
the first seems to mean that preventive sacrifices have
been performed in Devonshire within the memory of
men living in the author's time.

One more Manx instance : an octogenarian woman,
born in the parish of Bride, and now living at Kirk
Andreas, saw, when she was a ' lump of a girl ' of ten
or fifteen years of age, a live sheep being burnt in a field
in the parish of Andreas, on May-day, whereby she
meant the first of May reckoned according to the Old
Style. She asserts 1 very decidedly that it was son
oural, ' for a sacrifice,' as she put it, and ' for an object
to the public ' : those were her words when she ex-
pressed herself in English. Further, she made the
statement that it was a custom to burn a sheep on Old
May-day for a sacrifice. I was fully alive to the interest
of this evidence, and cross-examined her so far as her
age allows of it, and I find that she adheres to her
statement with all firmness, but I distinguish two or
three points in her evidence : i. I have no doubt that
she saw, as she was passing by a certain field on the
borders of Andreas parish, a live sheep being burnt on

1 This chapter was written in 1891, except the portions of it which refer
to later dates indicated.

X 2



3 o8 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

Old May-day. 2. But her statement that it was son
ottra/, or as a sacrifice, was probably only an inference
drawn by her, possibly years afterwards, on hearing
things of the kind discussed. 3. Lastly, I am convinced
that she did hear the May-day sacrifice discussed, both
in Manx and in English: her words, 'for an object to
the public,' are her imperfect recollection of a phrase
used in her hearing by somebody more ambitious of
employing English abstract terms than she is ; and the
formal nature of her statement in Manx, that it was
customary on May-day to burn as a sacrifice one head
of sheep (Laa Boaldyn va diaghtey dy lostey son oural
un baagh keyrragh), produces the same impression on
my mind, that she is only repeating somebody else's
words. I mention this more especially as I have failed
to find anybody else in Andreas or Bride, or indeed in
the whole island, who will now confess to having ever
heard of the sheep sacrifice on Old May-day.

The time assigned to the sheep sacrifice, namely
May-day, leads me to make some remarks on the im-
portance of that day among the Celts. The day meant
is, as I have already said, Old May- day, in Manx
Shenn Laa Boaldyn, the belltaine of Cormac's Glossary,
Scotch Gaelic bealtuinn. This was a day when syste-
matic efforts were made to protect man and beast against
elves and witches ; for it was then that people carried
crosses of rowan in their hats and placed May flowers
over the tops of their doors and elsewhere as preserva-
tives against all malignant influences. With the same
object in view crosses of rowan were likewise fastened
to the tails of the cattle, small crosses which had to be
made without the help of a knife : I exhibited a tiny
specimen at one of the meetings of the Folk-Lore
Society. Early on May morning one went out to
gather the dew as a thing of great virtue, as in other



iv] MANX FOLKLORE 309

countries. At Kirk Michael one woman, who had been
out on this errand years ago, told me that she washed
her face with the dew in order to secure luck, a good
complexion, and safety against witches. The break of
this day is also the signal for setting the ling or the
gorse on fire, which is done in order to burn out the
witches wont to take the form of the hare ; and guns,
I am told, were freely used to shoot any game met with
on that morning. With the proper charge some of the
witches were now and then hit and wounded, where-
upon they resumed the human form and remained
cripples for the rest of their lives. Fire, however,
appears to have been the chief agency relied on to clear
away the witches and other malignant beings ; and I
have heard of this use of fire having been carried so
far that a practice was sometimes observed as, for
example, in Lezayre of burning gorse, however little,
in the hedge of each field on a farm in order to drive
away the witches and secure luck.

The man who told me this, on being asked whether
he had ever heard of cattle being driven through fire or
between two fires on May-day, replied that it was not
known to him as a Manx custom, but that it was an
Irish one. A cattle-dealer whom he named used on
May-day to drive his cattle through fire so as to singe
them a little, as he believed that would preserve them
from harm. He was an Irishman, who came to the
island for many years, and whose children are settled
in the island now. On my asking him if he knew
whence the dealer came, he answered, ' From the moun-
tains over there,' pointing to the Mourne Mountains
looming faintly in the mists on the western horizon.
The Irish custom known to my Manx informant is in-
teresting both as throwing light on the Manx custom,
and as being the continuation of a very ancient rite



3 io CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

mentioned by Cormac. That writer, or somebody in
his name, says that belltaine, May-day, was so called
from the ' lucky fire,' or the ' two fires,' which the druids
of Erin used to make on that day with great incantations ;
and cattle, he adds, used to be brought to those fires, or
to be driven between them, as a safeguard against the
diseases of the year. Cormac J says nothing, it will be
noticed, as to one of the cattle or the sheep being sacri-
ficed for the sake of prosperity to the rest. However,
Scottish 2 May-day .customs point to a sacrifice having
been once usual, and that possibly of human beings,
and not of sheep as in the Isle of Man. I have else-
where 3 tried to equate these Celtic May-day practices
with the Thargelia 4 of the Athenians of antiquity. The
Thargelia were characterized by peculiar rites, and
among other things then done, two adult persons were
led about, as it were scapegoats, and at the end they
were sacrificed and burnt, so that their ashes might be
dispersed. Here we seem to be on the track of a very
ancient Aryan practice, although the Celtic season does
not quite coincide with the Greek one. Several items
of importance for comparison here will be found passed
under careful review in a most suggestive paper by
Mr. Lawrence Gomme, 'On the Method of determining
the Value of Folklore as Ethnological Data,' in the Fourth
Report of the Ethnographical Survey Committee 5 .
It is probably in some ancient May-day custom that

1 See the Stokes-O'Donovan edition of Cormac (Calcutta, 1868), pp.
19, 23.

2 Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland, xi. 620 ; Pennant's
Tour in Scotland in 1769 (3rd edition, Warrington, 1774), i. 97, 186, 291 ;
Thomas Stephens' Gododiti, pp. 124-6; and Dr. Murray in the New English
Dictionary, s. v. Beltane.

3 In my Hibbert Lectures on Celtic Heathendom, pp. 517-21.

* As to the Thargelia and Delia, see Preller's Griecliische Mythologie, \.
260-2, and A. Mommsen's Heortologie, pp. 414-25.

5 See section H of the Report of the Liverpool Meeting of the British
Association in 1896, pp. 626-56.



iv] MANX FOLKLORE 31 1

we are to look for the key to a remarkable place-name
occurring several times in the island : I allude to that of
Cronk yn Irree Laa, which probably means the Hill of
the Rise of Day. This is the name of one of the moun-
tains in the south of the island, but it is also borne by



Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) → online text (page 27 of 35)