Custom and Myth eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 287 pages of information about Custom and Myth.

Thus, to take the instance of modern Greece, the high gods of the divine race of Achilles and Agamemnon are forgotten, but the descendants of the Penestae, the villeins of Thessaly, still dread the beings of the popular creed, the Nereids, the Cyclopes, and the Lamia. {178}

The last lesson we would attempt to gather from the ‘Kalevala’ is this:  that a comparison of the thoroughly popular beliefs of all countries, the beliefs cherished by the non-literary classes whose ballads and fairy tales have only recently been collected, would probably reveal a general identity, concealed by diversity of name, among the ’lesser people of the skies,’ the elves, fairies, Cyclopes, giants, nereids, brownies, lamiae.  It could then be shown that some of these spirits survive among the lower beings of the mythology of what the Germans call a cultur-volk like the Greeks or Romans.  It could also be proved that much of the narrative element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular or childish form in primitive fairy tales.  The question would then come to be, Have the higher mythologies been developed, by artistic poets, out of the materials of a race which remained comparatively untouched by culture; or are the lower spirits, and the more simple and puerile forms of myth, degradations of the inventions of a cultivated class?


There is something remarkable, and not flattering to human sagacity, in the periodical resurrection of superstitions.  Houses, for example, go on being ‘haunted’ in country districts, and no educated man notices the circumstance.  Then comes a case like that of the Drummer of Tedworth, or the Cock Lane Ghost, and society is deeply moved, philosophers plunge into controversy, and he who grubs among the dusty tracts of the past finds a world of fugitive literature on forgotten bogies.  Chairs move untouched by human hands, and tables walk about in lonely castles of Savoy, and no one marks them, till a day comes when the furniture of some American cottage is similarly afflicted, and then a shoddy new religion is based on the phenomenon.  The latest revival among old beliefs is faith in the divining rod.  ’Our liberal shepherds give it a shorter name,’ and so do our conservative peasants, calling the ‘rod of Jacob’ the ‘twig.’  To ‘work the twig’ is rural English for the craft of Dousterswivel in the ‘Antiquary,’ and perhaps from this comes our slang expression to ‘twig,’ or divine, the hidden meaning of another.  Recent correspondence in the newspapers has proved that, whatever may be the truth about the ‘twig,’ belief in its powers is still very prevalent.  Respectable people are not ashamed to bear signed witness of its miraculous powers of detecting springs of water and secret mines.  It is habitually used by the miners in the Mendips, as Mr. Woodward found ten years ago; and forked hazel divining rods from the Mendips are a recognised part of ethnological collections.  There are two ways of investigating the facts or fancies about the rod.  One is to examine it in its actual operation—­a task of considerable labour, which will doubtless be undertaken by the Society for Psychical Research; the other, and easier, way is to study the appearances of the divining wand in history, and that is what we propose to do in this article.

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Custom and Myth from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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