Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Thaumaturgia by An Oxonian

Part 4 out of 5

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

extraordinary among the virtues attributed to music by the ancients,
than what Aristotle relates in its supposed power of softening the
rigour of punishment. The Tyrhenians, says he, never scourge their
slaves, but by the sound of flutes, looking upon it as an instance of
humanity to give some counterpoise to pain, and thinking by such a
diversion to lessen the sum total of the punishment. To this account may
be added a passage from Jul. Pallus, by which we learn, that in the
_triremes_, or vessels with three banks of oars, there was always a
_tibicen_, or flute-player, not only to mark the time, or cadence for
each stroke of the oar, but to sooth and cheer the rowers by the
sweetness of the melody. And from this custom Quintilian took occasion
to say, that music is the gift of nature, to enable us the more
patiently to support toil and labour.[118]

These are the principal passages which antiquity furnishes, relative to
the medicinal effects of music; in considering which, reliance is placed
on the judgment of M. Burette, whose opinions will come with the more
weight, as he had not only long made the music of the ancients his
particular study, but was a physician by profession. This writer, in a
dissertation on the subject, has examined and discussed many of the
stories above related, concerning the effects of music in the cure of
diseases. He allows it to be possible, and even probable, that music, by
reiterated strokes and vibrations given to the nerves, fibres, and
animal spirits, may be of use in the cure of certain diseases; yet he by
no means supposes that the music of the ancients possessed this power in
a greater degree than the modern music, but rather that a very coarse
and vulgar music is as likely to operate effectually on such occasions
as the most refined and perfect. The savages of America pretend to
perform these cures by the music and jargon of their imperfect
instruments; and in Apulia, where the bite of the tarantula is pretended
to be cured by music, which excites a desire to dance, it is by an
ordinary tune, very coarsely performed.[119]

Baglivi refines on the doctrine of effluvia, by ascribing his cures of
the bite of the tarantula to the peculiar undulation any instrument or
tune makes by its strokes in the air; which, vibrating upon the external
parts of the patient, is communicated to the whole nervous system, and
produces that happy alteration in the solids and fluids which so
effectually contributes to the cure. The contraction of the solids, he
says, impresses new mathematical motions and directions to the fluids;
in one or both of which is seated all distempers, and without any other
help than a continuance of faith, will alter their quality; a philosophy
as wonderful and intricate as the nature of the poison it is intended to
expel; but which, however, supplies this observation, that, if the
particles of sound can do so much, the effluvia of amulets may do more.

Credulity must be very strong in those who believe it possible for music
to drive away the pestilence. Antiquity, however, as mentioned above,
relates that Thaletas, a famous lyric poet, contemporary with Solon, was
gifted with this power; but it is impossible to render the fact
credible, without qualifying it by several circumstances omitted in the
relation. In the first place, it is certain, that this poet was received
among the Lacedemonians during the plague, by command of an oracle: that
by virtue of this mission, all the poetry of the hymns which he sung,
must have consisted of prayers and supplications, in order to avert the
anger of the gods against the people, whom he exhorted to sacrifices,
expiations, purifications, and many other acts of devotion, which,
however superstitious, could not fail to agitate the minds of the
multitude, and to produce nearly the same effects as public fasts, and,
in catholic countries, processions, as at present, in times of danger,
by exalting the courage, and by animating hope. The disease having,
probably, reached its highest pitch of malignity when the musician
arrived, must afterwards have become less contagious by degrees; till,
at length, ceasing of itself, by the air wafting away the seeds of
infection, and recovering its former purity, the extirpation of the
disease was attributed by the people to the music of Thaletas, who had
been thought the sole mediator, to whom they owed their happy

This is exactly what Plutarch means, who tells the story; and what Homer
meant, in attributing the curation of the plague among the Greeks, at
the siege of Troy, to music:

With hymns divine the joyous banquet ends,
The Poeans lengthen'd till the sun descends:
The Greeks restor'd, the grateful notes prolong;
Apollo listens and approves the song.[120]

For the poet in these lines seems only to say, that Apollo was rendered
favourable, and had delivered the Greeks from the scourge with which
they were attacked, in consequence of Chriseis having been restored to
her father, and of sacrifices and offerings.

M. Burette thinks it easy to conceive, that music may be really
efficacious in relieving, if not in removing, the pains of sciatica; and
that independent of the greater or less skill of the musician. He
supposes this may be effected in two different ways: first, by
flattering the ear, and diverting the attention; and, secondly, by
occasioning oscillations and vibrations of the nerves, which may,
perhaps, give motions to the humours, and remove the obstructions which
occasion this disorder. In this manner the action of musical sounds
upon the fibres of the brain and animal spirits, may sometimes soften
and alleviate the sufferings of epileptics and lunatics, and calm even
the most violent fits of these two cruel disorders. And if antiquity
affords examples of this power, we can oppose to them some of the same
kind said to have been effected by music, not of the most exquisite
sort. For not only M. Burette, but many modern philosophers, physicians,
and anatomists, as well as ancient poets and historians, have believed,
that music has the power of affecting, not only the mind, but the
nervous system, in such a manner as will give a temporary relief in
certain diseases, and, at length, even operate a radical cure.

In the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences for 1707 and 1708, we meet
with many accounts of diseases, which, after having resisted and baffled
all the most efficacious remedies in common use, had, at length, given
way to the soft impressions of harmony. M. de Mairan, in the Memoirs of
the same Academy, 1737, reasons upon the medicinal powers of music in
the following manner:--"It is from the mechanical and involuntary
connexion between the organ of hearing, and the consonances excited in
the outward air, joined to the rapid communication of the vibrations of
this organ to the whole nervous system, that we owe the cure of
spasmodic disorders, and of fevers attended with a delirium and
convulsions, of which our Memoirs furnish many examples."

The late learned Dr. Branchini, professor of physic at Udine, collected
all the passages preserved in ancient authors, relative to the medicinal
application of music, by Asclepiades; and it appears from this work that
it was used as a remedy by the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and
Romans, not only in acute, but chronical disorders. This writer gives
several cases within his own knowledge, in which music has been
efficacious; but the consideration as well as the honour of these, more
properly belong to _modern_ than to ancient music.

Music, of all arts, gives the most universal pleasure, and pleases
longest and oftenest. Infants are charmed with the melody of sounds, and
old age is animated by enlivening notes. The Arcadian shepherds drew
pleasure from their reeds; the solitude of Achilles was cheered by his
lyre; the English peasant delights in his pipe and tabor; the
mellifluous notes of the flute solace many an idle hour; and the
charming of snakes and other venomous reptiles, by the power of music,
is well attested among the Indians. "Music and the sounds of
instruments," says Vigneul de Marville, "contribute to the health of the
body and mind; they assist the circulation of the blood, they dissipate
vapours, and open the vessels, so that the action of perspiration is
freer." The same author tells a story of a person of distinction, who
assured him, that once being suddenly seized with a violent illness,
instead of a consultation of physicians, he immediately called a band of
musicians, and their violins acted so well upon his inside, that his
bowels became perfectly in tune, and in a few hours were harmoniously

Farinelli, the famous singer, was sent for to Madrid to try the effect
of his magical voice on the king of Spain. His Majesty was absorbed in
the deepest melancholy; nothing could excite an emotion in him; he lived
in a state of total oblivion of life; he sat in a darkened chamber,
entirely given up to the most distressing kind of madness. The
physicians at first ordered Farinelli to sing in an outer room; and for
the first day or two this was done, without producing any effect on the
royal patient. At length it was observed, that the king, awakening from
his stupor, seemed to listen; on the next day tears were seen starting
from his eyes: the day after he ordered the door of his chamber to be
left open, and at length the perturbed spirit entirely left our modern
Saul, and the _medicinal_ music of Farinelli effected what medicine
itself had denied.

"After food," says Sir William Jones,[121] "when the operations of
digestion and absorption gives so much employment to the vessels, that a
temporary state of mental repose, especially in hot climates, must be
found essential to health, it seems reasonable to believe that a few
agreeable airs, either heard or played without effort, must have all the
good effects of sleep, and none of its disadvantages; putting, as Milton
says, '_the soul in tune_' for any subsequent exertion; an experiment
often made by myself. I have been assured by a credible witness, that
two wild antelopes often used to come from their woods to the place
where a more savage beast, Serajuddaulah, entertained himself with
concerts, and that they listened to the strains with the appearance of
pleasure, till the monster, in whose soul there was no music, shot one
of them to display his archery." A learned native told Sir William Jones
that he had frequently seen the most venomous snakes leave their holes
upon hearing tunes on a flute, which, as he supposed, gave them peculiar

Of the surprising effects of music, the two following instances, with
which we shall close these remarks, are related in the history of the
Royal Academy of Society of Paris.

A famous musician, and great composer was taken ill of a fever, which
assumed the continued form, with a gradual increase of the symptoms. On
the second day he fell into a very violent delirium, almost constantly
accompanied by cries, tears, terrors, and a perpetual watchfulness. The
third day of his delirium one of those natural instincts, which make, as
it is said, sick animals seek out for the herbs that are proper to their
case, set him upon desiring earnestly to hear a little concert in his
chamber. His physician could hardly be prevailed upon to consent to it.
On hearing the first modulations, the air of his countenance became
serene, his eyes sparkled with a joyful alacrity, his convulsions
absolutely ceased, he shed tears of pleasure, and was then possessed for
music with a sensibility he never before had, nor after, when he was
recovered. He had no fever during the whole concert, but, when it was
over, he relapsed into his former condition.

The fever and delirium were always suspended during the concert, and
music was become so necessary to the patient, that at night he obliged a
female relation who sometimes sat up with him, to sing and even to
dance, and who, being much afflicted, was put to great difficulty to
gratify him. One night, among others, he had none but his nurse to
attend him, who could sing nothing better than some wretched country
ballads. He was satisfied to put up with that, and he even found some
benefit from it. At last ten days of music cured him entirely, without
other assistance than of being let blood in the foot, which was the
second bleeding that was prescribed for him, and was followed by a
copious evacuation.

This account was communicated to the Academy by M. Dodart, who had it
well authenticated.

The second instance of the extraordinary effect of music is related of a
dancing-master of Alais, in the province of Languedoc. Being once
over-fatigued in Carnival time by the exercise of his profession, he was
seized with a violent fever, and on the fourth or fifth day, fell into a
lethargy, which continued upon him for a considerable time. On
recovering he was attacked with a furious and mute delirium, wherein he
made continual efforts to jump out of bed, threatened, with a shaking
head and angry countenance, those who attended him, and even all that
were present; and he besides obstinately refused, though without
speaking a word, all the remedies that were presented to him. One of the
assistants bethought himself that music perhaps might compose a
disordered imagination. He accordingly proposed it to his physician, who
did not disapprove the thought, but feared with good reason the
ridicule of the execution which might still have been infinitely
greater, if the patient should happen to die under the operation of such
a remedy.

A friend of the dancing master, who seemed to disregard the caution of
the physician, and who could play on the violin, seeing that of the
patient hanging up in the chamber, laid hold of it, and played directly
for him the air most familiar to him. He was cried out against more than
the patient who lay in bed, confined in a straight jacket; and some were
ready to make him desist; when the patient, immediately sitting up as a
man agreeably surprised, attempted to caper with his arms in unison with
the music; and on his arms being held, he evinced, by the motion of his
head, the pleasure he felt. Sensible, however, of the effects of the
violin, he was suffered by degrees to yield to the movement he was
desirous to perform,--when, strange as it may appear, his furious fits
abated. In short, in the space of a quarter of an hour, the patient fell
into a profound sleep, and a salutary crisis in the interim rescued him
from all danger.


[116] Dr. Burney's History of Music.

[117] It has been asserted by several moderns, that deaf people can hear
best in a great noise; perhaps to prove that Greek noise could do
nothing which the modern cannot operate as effectually: and Dr. Willis
in particular tells us of a lady who could hear only while a drum was
beating, in so much that her husband, the account says, hired a drummer
as her servant, in order to enjoy the pleasures of her conversation.

[118] Many of the ancients speak of music as a recipe for every kind of
malady, and it is probable that the Latin was _praecinere_, to charm
away pain, _incantare_ to enchant, and our own word _incantation_, came
from the medical use of song.

[119] M. Burette, with Dr. Mead, Baglivi, and all the learned of their
time throughout Europe, seem to have entertained no doubt of this fact,
which, however, philosophical and curious enquirers have since found to
be built upon fraud and fallacy. Vide Serrao, _della Tarantula o vero
falangio di Puglia._

[120] Pope's translation of the Iliad, Book 1.

[121] See a curious Dissertation on the musical modes of the Hindoos by
Sir W. Jones.



The common opinion of comets being the presages of evil is an old pagan
superstition, introduced and entertained among Christians by their
prejudice for antiquity; and which Mr. Bayle says is a remnant of pagan
superstition, conveyed from father to son, ever since the first
conversion from paganism; as well because it has taken deep root in the
minds of men, as because Christians, generally speaking, are as far gone
in the folly of finding presages in every thing, as infidels themselves.
It may be easily conceived how the pagans might be brought stedfastly to
believe that comets, eclipses, and thunderstorms, were the forerunners
of calamities, when man's strong inclination for the marvellous is
considered, and his insatiable curiosity for prying into future events,
or what is to come to pass. This desire of peeping into futurity, as has
already been shown, has given birth to a thousand different kinds of
divination, all alike whimsical and impertinent, which in the hands of
the more expert and cunning have been made most important and
mysterious tools. When any one has been rogue enough to think of making
a penny of the simplicity of his neighbours, and has had the ingenuity
to invent something to amuse, the pretended faculty of foretelling
things to come, has always been one of the readiest projects. From hence
always the assumption of judiciary astrology. Those who first began to
consult the motions of the heavens, had no other design in view, than
the enriching their minds with so noble a knowledge; and as they had
their genius bent on the pursuit of useful knowledge, they never dreamed
of converting astrology or a knowledge of the stars to the purpose of
picking the pockets of the credulous and ignorant, of whose blind side
advantage was taken by these sideral sages to turn them to account by
making them believe that the doctrine of the stars comprehended the
knowledge of all things that were, or are, or ever shall be; so that
every one, for his money, might come to them and have their fortune

The better to gull the world, the Star-gazers assert that the heavens
are the book in which God has written the destiny of all things; and
that it is only necessary to learn to read this book, which is simply
the construction of the stars, to be able to know the whole history of
what is to come to pass. Very learned men, Origen and Plotinus among the
rest, were let into the secret, and grew so fond of it, that the
former,[122] willing to support his opinion by something very solid,
catches at the authority of an Apocryphal book, ascribed to the
patriarch Joseph, where Jacob is introduced speaking to his twelve sons:
"I have read in the register of heaven what shall happen to you and your
children."[123] But comets were the staple commodity that turned
principally to account. In compliance, however, with the impressions of
fear which the strangeness and excessive length of these stars made upon
mankind, the Astrologers did not hesitate to pronounce them of a malign
tendency; and the more so when they found they had, by this means, made
themselves in some degree necessary, in consequence of the impatient
applications that were made to them as from the mouth of an oracle, what
particular disaster such and such a comet portended.

Eclipses furnished more frequent occasions for the exercise of their
talent. From this worthy precedent of Judicial Astrology, others took
the hint and invented new modes of divination, such as Geomancy,
Chiromancy, Onomancy, and the like; till the world by degrees became so
overrun with superstition, that the least trifle was converted into a
presage or presentiment; and the more so when this kind of knowledge
became the business of religion; and when the substance of divine
worship consisted in the ordinances of Augurs who, to make themselves
necessary in the world, were obliged to keep up and quicken men's
apprehensions of the wrath of God, took special care to cultivate
comets, and bring it into a proverb, that "so many comets so many
calamities." They knew, as Livy expresses it, that it was best to fish
in troubled waters, where, speaking of a contagious distemper, which,
from the country villages, spread over the city, occasioned by an
extraordinary drought in the year of Rome 326, he observes how, at last,
it infected the mind,[124] by the management of those who lived in the
superstition of the people; so that nothing was to be seen or heard
except some new fangled ceremony or other in every corner. "The devil,"
as Bayle says, "who had a hopeful game on't, and saw superstition the
surest way to get himself worshipped under the name of the false gods,
in a hundred various ways, all criminal and abominable in the sight of
the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, never failed, on the appearance
of any rare meteor, or uncommon star, to exert his imposing arts, and
make idolaters believe, they were the signs of divine wrath, and that
they were all undone unless they appeased their gods by sacrifices of
men and brute beasts."

Politicians have also lent a helping hand to give presages a reputation,
as an excellent scheme, either to intimidate the people, or to raise
their drooping spirits. Had the Roman soldiers been free thinkers,
Drusus, the son of Tiberius, had not been so fortunate as to quell a
desperate mutiny among the legions of Pannonia, who utterly refused to
obey his commands; but an eclipse, which critically intervened, broke
their refractory spirits to such a degree, that Drusus, who managed
their panic fear with great dexterity and address, did what he liked
with them.

An eclipse of the moon put the army of Alexander the Great into such a
consternation, some days before the battle of Arbela, that the soldiers,
under the impression that heaven was against them, were very reluctant
to advance; and their devotion turning to downright disobedience,
Alexander commanded the Egyptian astrologers, who were the deepest
versed in the mystery of the stars, to give their opinions of this
eclipse in the presence of all the officers of his army. Without giving
themselves much trouble to explain the physical cause which it was their
interest to conceal from the people, the wise men declared that the sun
was on the side of the Grecians, and the moon for the Persians; and that
this planet was never in an eclipse, but it threatened them with some
mighty disaster: of this they quoted several ancient examples among the
kings of Persia, who, after an eclipse, had always found their gods
unpropitious in the day of battle. "Nothing," says Quintus Curtius,[125]
"is so effectual as superstition for keeping the vulgar under. Be they
ever so unruly and inconstant, if once their minds are possessed with
the vain visions of religion, they are all obedience to the soothsayer,
whatever becomes of the general." The answer of the Egyptian astrologers
being circulated among the soldiers, restored their confidence and their

On another occasion Alexander, just before he passed the river
Granicus, observing the circumstance of time, which was the month
Desius, reckoned unfortunate to the Macedonians from all antiquity, it
made the soldiers melancholy; he immediately ordered this dangerous
month to be called by the name of that which preceded it, well knowing
what power and influence vain religious scruples have over little and
ignorant minds. He sent private orders to Aristander his chief
soothsayer, just offering up a sacrifice for a happy passage, to write
on the liver of the victim with a liquor prepared for that purpose, that
the gods had "granted the victory to Alexander." The notice of this
miracle filled the men with invincible ardour; and now they rent the air
with acclamations, exclaiming that the day was their own, since the gods
had vouchsafed them such plain demonstrations of their favour. The
history, indeed, of this mighty conqueror, affords more such examples of
artifice, though he always affected to conquer by mere dint of bravery.
But what is still more extraordinary, this very hero, who palmed so
often such tricks upon others, was himself caught in his turn, as being
well as exceedingly superstitious by fits. We say nothing of
Themistocles,[126] who, in the war between Xerxes and the Athenians,
despairing to prevail upon his countrymen by force of reasoning to quit
their city, and betake themselves to sea, set all the engines of
religion to work; forged oracles, and procured the priests to circulate
among the people, that Minerva had fled from Athens, and had taken the
way which led to the port. Philip of Macedon, whose talent lay in
conquering his enemies by good intelligence, purchased at any price, had
as many oracles at command as he pleased; and hence Demosthenes justly
suspecting too good an understanding between Philip and the Delphian
priestess, rallied her with so much acrimony upon her partiality to that
prince. It is equally obvious how the same reasons of state, which kept
up the popular superstition for other prodigies, should take care to
encourage it with regard to comets and other celestial appearances.

Panegyrists have also done their parts to promote the superstition of
presages, as well as the flattering of poets and orators. When a hero is
to be found and extolled, they exclaim, that _all nature adores him;
that she exerts her utmost powers to serve him; that she mourns at his
misfortunes, promises him long before hand to the world; and when the
world, by its sins, is unworthy to possess him longer, heaven, which
calls him home, hangs out new lights, etc._ With this hyperbole M.
Balzac regaled Cardinal Richelieu, adding, that _to form such a
minister, universal nature was on the stretch; God gives him first by
promise, and makes him the expectation of ages_. For this he was
attacked by the critics, but he defended himself; alleging, that other
panegyrics had gone some notes higher: he, for example, among the
ancients, who said of certain great souls that _all the orders of heaven
were called together to fancy a fine destiny for them_, and that
illustrious nation who wrote that _the eternal mind was wrapt in deep
contemplation, and big with the vast design, when it conceived such a
genius as Cardinal Hippolito d'Este_. Why could not this same writer
have thought of one example more, such as that of the priest who told
the Emperor Constantine that _divine Providence, not content with
qualifying him for the empire of the world, had formed virtues in his
soul, which should entitle him to reign in heaven with his only son_.
Thus have flatterers seized the most surprising natural effects to
enhance their hero's glory, and make their court to great men. The poets
of the time of Augustus vied with each other in persuading the world
that the murder of Julius Caesar was the cause of all the prodigies that
followed. Horace, for instance, in one of his odes, attempts to prove
that the overflowings of rivers were reckoned among bad presages; and
pretends that the Tiber had not committed all those ravages, but in
complaisance to his wife Ilia, who was bent on the death of his kinsman
Caesar; and that all the other calamities which subsequently afflicted
or threatened the Roman empire, were the consequences of his
assassination. If Virgil may be credited,[127] the sun was so troubled at
the death of Caesar that it went into deep mourning, and so obscured his
beams, that the world was alarmed lest it never should appear again. In
the mean time, no sooner was the comet observed, which followed this
murder, than another set of flatterers pretended that it was Caesar's
soul received into the order of the Gods; and they dedicated a temple[128]
to the comet, and set up the image of Caesar with a star on his

It appears from the sermons of the ancient fathers, that the Christians
of that time believed they gave great relief to the moon in an eclipse,
by raising hideous shouts to the skies, which they imagined recovered
her out of her fainting fit, and without which she must inevitably have
expired. St. Ambrose, the author of the 215th sermon _de tempore_, bound
up with those of St. Austin, and St. Eloy, Bishop of Noyon, declaim
particularly against this abuse. It appears also from the Homilies of
St. Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Austin, and others, that the Christians
of their days drew several kinds of presages from persons sneezing at
critical times; from meeting a cat, a dog, or an ill-looking (squinting)
woman, a maiden, one blind of an eye, or a cripple; on being caught by
the cloak on stepping out of a door, or from a sudden catch in one's
joint or limb.

St. Eloy tells his people plainly, that whoever pays attention to what
he meets at his first going out or coming in, or to any particular
voice, or to the chirping of a bird, is so far a Pagan. Indeed, all
these, and innumerable others of the same description of superstitious
among Christians, are remnants of ancient paganism; as they have been
denounced by the censures of popes, provincial councils, synodical
decrees, and other grave authorities. And, though there were not such a
cloud of witnesses, there would be no difficulty in proving the disease
of pagan origin. For, independent of those who preached the gospel of
our Saviour, having never promulgated such notions, we learn from
several ancient authorities, that the Gentiles had all these
superstitions in the highest regard. It was one general opinion among
them, that the eclipses of the moon were the consequence of certain
magic words by which sorcerers could wrench her from the skies, and drag
her near enough the earth to cast a frothy spittle on their herbs--one
of the principal ingredients in their incantations. To rescue the moon
from the supposed torture she was in, and to frustrate the charm, it was
necessary to prevent her from hearing the magic words, by drowning in
noise and hideous outcries, for which purpose the people used to
assemble during an eclipse of the moon with _rough_ music, such as
frying pans, brazen vessels, old tin kettles, etc. According to Pietro
della Voile, the Persians keep up the same ridiculous ceremony to this
day. It is likewise, according to Tavernier, observed in the kingdom of
Tunquin, where they imagine the moon to be, at that time, struggling
with a dragon. It is to the same source that we owe the imaginary raging
heat of the dog-star--the pretended presages of several evils ascribed
to eclipses, and all the allusions of astrology.

In a treatise written by Abogard, Bishop of Lyons, in 833, composed to
undeceive a world of people, who were persuaded that there were
enchanters who could command thunder, and hail, and tempest, to destroy
the fruits of the earth; and that they drove a great trade by this
mystery with the people of a certain country called Magonia, who came
once a year, sailing in large fleets through the air, to freight with
the blighted corn, for which they paid down ready money to the
enchanters. So little was this matter doubted, that one day the bishop
had enough to do to save three men and a woman from being stoned to
death, the people insisting they had just fallen overboard from one of
these aerial ships.

We do not here examine whether, in those days, the people literally were
more superstitious and credulous than in the days of paganism. It is
enough to say, that they were of very easy belief; and hence men began
to write their histories in the style of romance, mixing up a thousand
fables with the deeds of great men, such as Roland, nephew to
Charlemagne; which so suited the taste of the age, that no book would
afterwards go down in any other style--witness, for instance, the Manual
of Devotions by James de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa, composed towards
the latter end of the thirteenth century; and in which Melchior Canus, a
learned Spanish bishop, is so scandalized in his eleventh book of Common
Places. Another doctor of divinity,[129] speaking of the depraved state of
the times, says, "It was the error, or rather folly, of some of the
ancients, to think, that in writing the actions of illustrious men, the
style must sink, unless they mixed up with it the ornaments, for so they
called them, of poetical fiction, or something of this sort; and,
consequently, thus blended truth with fable." This being the prevailing
fashion of the times, we are inclined to believe, that in the histories
of the crusades, many apocryphal subjects are introduced, which ought,
consequently, to be read _cum grano salis_. This is decidedly the
opinion of Pere Maimbourg,[130] who, after the relation of the battle of
Iconium, won by Frederick of Barbarossa, 1190, says, "What was chiefly
wonderful after this battle, was the conqueror's sustaining little or no
loss, which most people ascribed to the particular protection of St.
Victor and St. George, names oftenest invoked in the Christian army,
which many of them said they saw engaging at the head of the squadrons.
Whether in reality there might be something in it extraordinary, which
has often happened, as the Scriptures inform us; or whether, by often
hearing of celestial squadrons appearing at the battle of Antioch in the
first crusade, warm imaginations possessed with the belief, and
penetrated with these ideas, formed new apparitions of their own, but
sure it is, that one Louie Helfenstein, a gentleman of reputation, and
far from a visionary, affirmed to the emperor, on his oath, and on the
vow of a pilgrim devoted to the holy sepulchre and the crusade, that _he
often saw St. George charge at the head of the squadrons, and put the
enemy to flight_; which was afterwards confirmed by the Turks
themselves, owning that they saw some troops in white charge in the
first ranks in the Christian army, though there were really none of that
livery. No one, I know, is bound (continues P. Maimbourg) to believe
visions of this kind, subject for the most part to notorious illusion:
but I know too, that an historian is not of his own authority, to reject
them, especially when supported by such remarkable testimony.

"And though he be at liberty to believe or not, yet he has no regret, by
suppressing them, to deprive the reader of his liberty, when he meets
with passages of this kind, of judging as he thinks fit." This
reflection (says Bayle) from so celebrated an historian, not suspected
of favouring the Hugonot incredulity, is a strong presumption on my

The abuse of presentiments has been carried to the very Scriptures. We
are told, that the manner of Tamerlane giving his blessing to his two
sons, by bowing down the head of the elder, and chucking the youngest
under the chin, was a presage of the elevation of the latter in
prejudice to the former, was grounded on the 48th chapter of Genesis,
where Jacob is represented laying his right hand on the head of the
younger, forseeing by inspiration that he would be the greater of the
two. Meanwhile there is a difference between the two benedictions. The
Tartar, wholly destitute of the knowledge of future events, did not
diversify the motion of his hands, on purpose to establish a presage;
and God never vouchsafing this knowledge to infidels, did not guide his
hands in a particular manner to form a presage of what should befal his
children;--whereas Jacob, on the contrary, filled with the spirit of
prophecy, whereby he saw the fortunes of his children, directed his
words and actions according to this knowledge; by which means both
became presages.

Presages, presentiments, and prodigies, might be multiplied ad
infinitum. Whoever reads the Roman historians will be surprised at their
number, and which frequently filled the people with the most dreadful
apprehensions. It must be confessed, that some of these seem altogether
supernatural; while much the greater part only consist of some of the
uncommon productions of nature, which superstition always attributed to
a superior cause, and represented as the prognostications of some
impending misfortunes. Of this class may be reckoned the appearance of
two suns;[131] the nights illuminated by rays of light; the views of
fighting armies; swords and spears darting through the air; showers of
milk, of blood, of stones, of ashes, or of fire; and the birth of
monsters, of children, or of beasts who had two heads; or of infants who
had some feature resembling those of the brute creation. These were all
dreadful prodigies which filled the people with inexpressible
astonishment, and the whole Roman empire with an extreme perplexity; and
whatever unhappy event followed, repentance was sure to be either caused
or predicted by them.


[122] Euseb. Praep. Evang. l. 6. c. 9.

[123] Legi in tabulis coeli quaecunque contingent vobis et Feliis

[124] Nec corpora modo affecta tabo, sed animos quoque multiplex
religio, et pleraque externa invasit, novos ritus sacrificando
vaticinandoque, inferentibus in domos, quibus quaestui sunt capti
superstitione animi. L. 4, dec. 1.

[125] Tacit, Annal. lib. 1, et ib. 4, cap. 10.

[126] Plutarch in his life.

[127] Georg. l. 1.

[128] Suetonius in vita Caesaris.

[129] Petseus, in Galfredo Monimetensi.

[130] Hist. Crusade, l. 5.

[131] Nothing is more easy than to account for these productions, which
have no relation to any events, no more than comets, that may happen to
follow them. The appearance of two suns has frequently happened in
England, as well as in other places, and is only caused by the clouds
being placed in such a situation as to reflect the image of that
luminary; nocturnal fires, inflamed spears, fighting armies, were no
more than what we call aurora borealis, northern lights, or inflamed
vapours floating in the air; showers of stones, of ashes, or of fire,
were no other than the effects of the eruptions of some volcano at a
considerable distance. Showers of milk were only caused by some quality
in the air condensing and giving a whitish colour to the water, etc.



The meteors known to the ancients were called [Greek: Lampdes Pithoi]
Bolides, Faces, Globi, etc. from particular differences in their shape
and appearance, and sometimes under the general term of comets. In the
Philosophical Transactions, they are called, indiscriminately,
fire-balls, or fiery meteors; and names of similar import have been
applied to them in the different languages of Europe. The most material
circumstances observed of such meteors may be brought under the
following heads: 1. Their general appearance. 2. Their path. 3. Their
shape or figure. 4. Their light and colour. 5. Their height. 6. The
noise with which they are accompanied. 7. Their fire. 8. Duration, 9.
Their velocity. Under these different heads meteors have been
investigated by the scrutinizing of philosophy, and many superstitious
notions, long entertained concerning them, entirely exploded. Meteoric
phenomena, it has been demonstrated, all proceed from one common
cause--irregularity in the density of the atmosphere. When the
atmospheric fluid is homogenous and of equal density, the rays of light
pass without obstruction or alteration in their shape or direction; but
when they enter from a rarer into a denser medium, they are refracted or
bent out of their course; and this with greater or less effect according
to the different degrees of density in the media, or the deviation of
the ray from the perpendicular. If the second medium be very dense in
proportion, the ray will be both refracted and reflected; and the object
from which it proceeds, will assume a variety of grotesque and
extraordinary shapes, and it will sometimes appear as in a reflection
from a concave mirror, dilated in size, and changed in situation.

The following striking effects are known to proceed from this simple

The first is the mirage, seen in the desert of Africa. M. Monge, a
member of the National Institute, accompanied the French army into
Egypt. In the desert, between Alexandria and Cairo, the mirage of the
blue sky was inverted, and so mingled with the sand below, as to impart
to the desolate and arid wilderness an appearance of the most rich and
beautiful country. They saw, in all directions, green islands,
surrounded with extensive lakes of pure and transparent water. Nothing
could be conceived more lovely and picturesque than this landscape. On
the tranquil surface of the lakes, the trees and houses, with which the
islands were covered, were strongly reflected with vivid hues, and the
party hastened forward to enjoy the cool refreshments of shade and
stream, which these populous villages preferred to them. When they
arrived, the lake, on whose bosom they floated, the trees, among whose
foliage they were embowered, and the people who stood on the shore
inviting their approach, had all vanished, and nothing remained but an
uniform and irksome desert of sand and sky, with a few naked huts and
ragged shrubs. Had they not been undeceived by their nearer approach,
there was not a man in the French army who would not have sworn, that
the visionary trees and lakes had a real existence in the midst of the

The same appearance precisely was observed by Dr. Clarke at Raschid, or
Rosetta. The city seemed surrounded by a beautiful sheet of water, and
so certain was his Greek interpreter, who was acquainted with the
country, of this fact, that he was quite indignant at an Arab, who
attempted to explain to him, that it was a mere optical delusion. At
length, they reached Rosetta in about two hours, without meeting any
water; and, on looking back on the sand they had just crossed, it seemed
to them, as if they had just waded through a vast blue lake.

A similar deception takes place in northern climates. Cities,
battlements, houses, and all the accompaniments of populous places, are
seen in desolate regions, where life goes out, and where human foot has
never trod. When approached they vanish, and nothing remains but a
rugged rock, or a misshapen iceberg.

Captain Scoresby, in his voyage to the arctic regions, on the coast of
East Greenland, constantly saw those visionary cities, and gives some
highly curious plates of the appearances they presented. They resembled
the real cities seen on the coast of Holland, where towers, and
battlements, and spires, "bosomed high in tufted trees," rise on the
level horizon, and are seen floating on the surface of the sea. Among
the optic deceptions noticed by Captain Scoresby, was one of a very
singular nature. His ship had been separated by the ice, from that of
his father for some time; and he was looking for her every day, with
great anxiety. At length, one evening, to his utter astonishment, he saw
her suspended in the air in an inverted position, traced on the horizon
in the clearest colours, and with the most distinct and perfect
representation. He sailed in the direction in which he saw this
visionary phenomenon, and actually found his father's vessel by its
indication. He was divided from him by immense masses of icebergs, and
at such a distance that it was quite impossible to have seen the ship in
her actual situation, or seen her at all, if her spectrum, or image, had
not been thus raised several degrees above the horizon into the sky, by
this most extraordinary refraction, in the same manner as the sun is
often seen, after he is known to have set, and actually sunk far below
the line of direct vision.

The _Fata Morgana_ are further illustrations of this optic delusion.
This phenomenon is seen at the Pharo of Messina, in Sicily, under
certain circumstances. The spectator must stand with his back to the
east, on an elevated place behind the city, commanding a view of the
bay, and having the mountains, like a wall, opposite to him, to darken
the back ground of the picture; no wind must be abroad to ruffle the
surface of the sea; and the waters must be pressed up by currents, as
they sometimes are, to a considerable height in the middle of the
strait, and present a slight convex surface. When all these
circumstances occur, as soon as the sun rises over the heights of the
Calabrian shore, and makes an angle of 45 degrees with the horizon, all
the objects on the shore at Reggio are transferred to the middle of the
strait, and seen distinctly on the surface of the water, forming an
immoveable landscape of rocks, trees, and houses, and a moveable one of
men, horses, and cattle; these are formed into a thousand separate
compartments, presenting most beautiful and ever varying pictures of
animate and inanimate nature, on the swelling surface of the water,
broken by the currents, present separate plates of convex mirrors to
reflect them; they then as suddenly disappear, as the broad aquatic
mirror of the current passes on.

Sometimes the atmosphere is so dense that the objects are seen, like
Captain Scoresby's ship, snatched up into the regions of the air, thirty
or forty feet above the level of the sea; and in cloudy weather, nearer
to the surface, bordered with vivid prismatic colours. Sometimes
colonades of temples and churches, with cross-crowned spires, are all
represented as floating on the sea, and by a sudden change of
representation, the pillars are curved into arcades, and the crosses are
bent into crescents, and all the edifices of the floating city undergo
the most extraordinary and fantastic mutations. All these images are so
distinct, and produce objects seemingly as palpable as they are visible,
as sensible to touch as to sight, that the people of the country are
firmly persuaded of their reality. They consider the edifices as the
enchanted palaces of the fairy Morgana, and the moving objects as living
things which inhabit them. Whenever the optic phenomenon occurs, they
meet together in crowds, with an intense curiosity, mixed with awe and
apprehension, which is not removed by an acquaintance with those natural
causes, by which Mr. Swinburn and other foreign travellers, who have
witnessed the scene, are able to account for it.

The lakes of Ireland are equally susceptible of producing those vivid
delusions, and the imagination of the people, as lively as that of the
Sicilians, clothes them with an equal reality. There is scarcely a loch
in that country, in which the remains of cities have not been at various
times discovered; and many men have been met with who would solemnly
swear they saw, and who no doubt did see, representations of them in
certain states of the atmosphere. The most celebrated is that which
occurs on the lake of Killarney. This romantic sheet of water is bounded
on one side by a semi-circle of rugged mountains, and on the other by a
flat morass, and the vapour generated in the mass, and broken by the
mountains, continually represent the most fantastic objects; and often
those on shore are transferred to the water, like the Fata Morgana.

Many of the rocks are distinguished for their marked and lengthened
echoes, and the structure, which in acoustics reflects sounds to the
ear, from a point from whence they did not come, reflects images on the
eye, from a place very different from where the objects stood which
produced them. Frequently men riding along shore, are seen as if they
were moving across the lake, and this has given rise to the story of
O'Donougho. This celebrated chieftain was, according to the tradition of
the country, endued with the gift of magic; and, on one occasion, his
lady requested him to change his shape, that she might see a proof of
it. He complied, on condition that she would not be terrified, as such
an effect on her must prove fatal to him. Her mind failed her, however,
in the experiment, and at the sight of some horrible figure he assumed,
she shrieked, and he disappeared through the window of his castle, which
overhung the lake. From that time he continues an enchanted being,
condemned to ride a horse, shod with silver, over the surface of the
lake, till his horse's shoes are worn out. On every May morning he is
visible, and crowds assemble on the shore to see him. Many affirm they
have seen him; and one person relates many particulars of his
apparition, that the deception must have proceeded from some real
object, a man riding along shore, and transferred to the middle of the
water, by the optic delusion of the Fata Morgana.

But perhaps the most wonderful, and apparently preternatural effect
arising from this cause, is the _spectre of the Hartz Mountains_ in
Hanover. There is one particular hill, called the Brocken, in which he
appears, terrifying the credulous, and gratifying the curious to a very
high degree. The most distinct and interesting account is given by Mr.
Hawe, who himself was a witness to it. He had climbed to the top of the
mountain thirty times, and had been disappointed, but he persevered, and
was at length highly gratified. The sun rose about four o'clock in a
serene sky, free from clouds, and its rays passed without obstruction,
over another mountain, called the Heinschoe. About a quarter past five
he looked round to see if the sky was clear, and if there was any chance
of his witnessing what he so ardently wished, when suddenly he saw the
Achtermanshoe, a human figure of monstrous size turned towards him, and
glaring at him. While gazing on this gigantic spectre with wonder mixed
with an irrepressible feeling of awe and apprehension, a sudden gust of
wind nearly carried off his own hat, and he clapped his hand to his head
to detain it, when to his great delight the colossal spectre did the
same. He then changed his body into a variety of attitudes, all which
the figure exactly imitated, but at length suddenly vanished without any
apparent cause, and again as suddenly appeared. He called the landlord
of the inn, who had accompanied him, to stand beside him, and in a
little time two correspondent figures, of dilated size, appeared on the
opposite mountain. They saluted them in various ways by different
movements of their bodies, all which the giants returned with perfect
politeness, and then vanished. A traveller now joined Mr. Hawe and the
innkeeper, and they kept steadily looking for their aerial friends, when
they suddenly appeared again three in number, who all performed exactly
the same movements as their correspondent spectators. Having continued
thus for some time, appearing and disappearing alternately, sometimes
faintly, and sometimes more distinct, they at length faded away not
again to return. They proved, however, that the preternatural spectre,
which had so long filled the country with awe and terror, was no unreal
being, still less an existence whose appearance suspended the ordinary
laws of God and Nature; that, on the contrary, it was the simple
production of a common cause, exhibited in an unusual manner, but as
regular an effect, and as easy to be accounted for, as the reflection of
a face in a looking glass.

This constitution of the atmosphere, and its capability of dilating
objects, and altering their position by reflection and refraction, will
easily account for many phenomena which have been considered miraculous
and preternatural in early ages, by the ignorant; and in our own, by the
weak and superstitious. Such was probably the origin of the crosses seen
by Constantine and Constantius in the first ages of Christianity, and
such was that of the cross which appeared in the sky in France, to which
so many bore attestation. A large cross of wood, painted red, had been
erected beside the church, as a part of the ceremony they were
performing. In the winter, when the air is most frequently condensed by
cold, and its different strata of various degrees of tenacity, on a
clear evening after rain, when particles of humidity, still floating in
the air gives it greater power of reflection and refraction, when the
sun was setting, and his horizontal beams found most favourable to
produce meteoric phenomena, the spectrum of this wooden cross was cast
on the concave surface of some atmospheric mirror, and so reflected
back to the eyes of the spectators from an opposite place, retaining
exactly the same shape and proportions, but dilated in size, and changed
in position; and it was moreover tinged with red, the very colour of the
object of which it was the reflected image. This delusive appearance
continued till the sun was so far sunk below the horizon, as to afford
no more light to illumine the object, and the image ceased when the rays
were no longer distinctly reflected.



Many of the prodigies recorded by the ancients, admit of a natural
explanation; and an attentive examination will show that a small number
of causes, which may be discerned and developed, will serve for the
explanation of nearly the whole of them. There are two reasons for our
believing accounts of prodigies:--

1. The number and agreement of these accounts, and the confidence to
which the observers and witnesses are entitled.

2. The possibility of dissipating what is wonderful, by ascertaining any
one of the principal causes which might have given to a natural fact a
tinge of the marvellous.

Now, as regards the first reason, the ancients have recorded various
occurrences: for instance, a shower of quicksilver at Rome is mentioned
by Dion Cassius, in the year 197 of our era, and a similar event is
related under the reign of Aurelian. If we attend to phenomena taking
place in our time, such as a shower of blood, tremendous hail stones
weighing a pound each, and containing a stone within them; showers of
frogs, and other almost unaccountable occurrences, we must consign them
to, "the annals in which science has inserted the facts, she has
recognized as such, without as yet pretending to explain them."

Respecting the second reason, the deceptive appearance which nature
sometimes assumes, the exaggeration, almost unavoidable, by partially
informed observers, of the details of a phenomenon, or its duration;
improper, ill-understood, or badly translated expressions, figurative
language, and a practical style; erroneous explanations of emblematical
representations; apologues and allegories adopted as real facts. Such
are the causes, which, singly or together, have frequently swollen with
prodigious fictions the page of history; and it is by carefully removing
this envelope, that elucidations must be sought of what has hitherto
been improperly and disdainfully rejected. A few examples will
illustrate these several positions.

The river Adonis being impregnated, during certain seasons, with volumes
of dust raised from the red soil of that part of Mount Libanus near
which it flows, gave rise to the fable of the periodical effusion of the
blood of Adonis. There is a rock near the Island of Corfu, which bears
the resemblance of a ship under sail: the ancients adapted the story to
the phenomenon, and recognised in it the Phenician ship, in which
Ulysses returned to his country, converted into stone by Neptune, for
having carried away the slayer of his son Polyphemus. A more extensive
acquaintance with the ocean, has shown that this appearance is not
unique; a similar one on the coast of Patagonia, has more than once
deceived both French and English navigators; and rock Dunder, in the
West Indies, bears a resemblance, at a distance equally illusive. There
is another recorded by Captain Hardy, in his recent travels in Mexico,
near the shore of California; and the "story of the flying Dutchman," is
founded on a similar appearance at the Cape of Good Hope, connected with
a tradition which has been long current there among the Dutch colonists.
Another instance is afforded by the chimaera, the solution of which
enigma, as given by Ovid, is so fully substantiated by the very
intelligent British officer who surveyed the Caramania a few years
since. Scylla the sea monster, which devoured six of the rowers of
Ulysses, M. Salverte, a recent compiler on the marvellous, is tempted to
regard as an overgrown polypus magnified by the optical power of poetry,
though we are disposed to give the credit to an alligator, or its mate,
a crocodile; and this occurrence is not so fictitiously represented, as
it is supposed to be.


In the enumeration of plants possessing magical properties, Pliny
mentions those which, according to Pythagoras, have the property of
concealing water. Elsewhere, without having resource to magic, he
assigns to hemp an analogous quality. According to him, the juice of
this plant poured into water becomes suddenly inspissated and
congealed. It is probable enough, that he indicated a species of mallow,
the hemp-leaved marsh-mallow, of which the mucilaginous juice produces
this effect to a certain point, and an effect which may also be obtained
from every vegetable as rich in mucilage.

Of vegetable productions, many produce intoxicating effects, such as
berries of the night-shade,[132] scammony, and various species of fungi.
These unquestionably have been made subservient to demonological
purposes, which, with the ignorant, have passed off for supernatural
agency. The priests, to whom the little comparative learning of the dark
ages attached, knew well how to impose upon the credulous: but
imposition was not always their object; an extent of benevolence
prevailed which contemplated the relief of their fellow creatures
afflicted with sickness.

It was maintained by the Egyptians that, besides the gods, there were
many demons which communicated with mortals, and which were often
rendered visible by certain ceremonies and songs; that genii exercised
an habitual and powerful influence over every particle of matter; that
thirty-six of these beings presided over the various members of the
human body; and thus, by magical incantations, it might be strengthened,
or debilitated, afflicted with, or delivered from disease. Thus, in
every case of sickness, the spirit presiding over the afflicted part,
was first duly invoked. But the magicians did not trust solely to their
vain invocations; they were well acquainted with the virtues of certain
herbs, which they wisely employed in their attempts at healing. These
herbs were greatly esteemed: such, for instance, as the _cynocephalia_,
or, as the Egyptians themselves termed the _asyrites_,[133] which was used
as a preventive against witchcraft; and the nepenthes which Helen
presented in a potion to Menelaus, and which was believed to be powerful
in banishing sadness, and in restoring the mind to its accustomed, or
even to greater, cheerfulness, were of Egyptian growth. But whatever may
be the virtues of such herbs, they were used rather for their magical,
than for their medicinal qualities; every cure was cunningly ascribed to
the presiding demons, with which not a few boasted that they were, by
means of their art, intimately connected.

There can be no question, as attested by the earliest records, that the
ancients were in possession of many potent remedies. Melampus of Argos,
the most ancient Greek physician with whom we are acquainted, is reputed
to have cured one of the Argonauts of barrenness, by exhibiting the rust
of iron dissolved in wine, for the space of ten days. The same physician
used hellebore as a purgative on the daughters of King Proteus, who were
labouring under hypochondriasis or melancholy. Bleeding was also a
remedy of very early origin, and said to have been first suggested by
the hypopotamus or sea horse, which at a certain time of the year was
observed to cast itself on the sea shore, and to wound itself among the
rocks or stones, to relieve its plethora. Podalerius, on his return from
the Trojan war, cured the daughter of Damaethus, who had fallen from a
height, by bleeding her in both arms. Opium, the concrete juice of the
poppy, was known in the earliest ages; and probably it was opium that
Helen mixed with wine, and gave to the guests of Menelaus, under the
expressive name of _Nepenthe_, to drown their cares, and encrease their
hilarity. This conjecture, in a considerable degree, is supported from
the fact, that Homer's Nepenthe was procured from the Egyptian Thebes,
whence the tincture of opium, according to the nomenclature of the
pharmacopeia about fifty years ago, and still known by this name in the
older writers; and, if Dr. Darwin may be credited, the Cumaean Sybil
never sat on the portending tripod without first swallowing a few drops
of juice of the cherry-laurel.

There is every reason to believe that the Pagan priesthood were under
the influence of some narcotic preparation during the display of their
oracular power, but the effects produced would seem rather to resemble
those of opium, or perhaps of stramonium, than of prussic acid, which
the cherry-laurel water is known to contain.

The priests of the American Indians, says Monardur, whenever they were
consulted by the chief gentlemen, or _caciques_, as they are called,
took certain leaves of the tobacco, and cast them into the fire, and
then received the smoke thus produced by them into their mouths, which
caused them to fall upon the ground. After having remained in this
position for some time in a state of stupor, they recovered, and
delivered the answers, which they pretended to have received during the
supposed intercourse with the world of spirits.

The narcotic, or sedative influence of the garden radish, was known in
the earliest times. In the fables of antiquity we read, that, after the
death of Adonis, Venus, to console herself, and repress her desires, lay
down upon a bed of lettuces. The sea onion, or squill, was administered
by the Egyptians, in cases of dropsy, under the mystic title of the eye
of Typhon. The practices of incision and scarification, were employed in
the Greek camp at the siege of Troy; and the application of spirits to
wounds, was likewise understood; for we find Nestor applying a poultice
compounded of cheese, onion, and meal, mixed up with the wine of
Pramnos, to the wounds of Machaon.

To bring some inactive substance into repute, as promising some
extraordinary, nay, wonderful medicinal properties, requires only the
sanction of a few great names; and when once established on such a
basis, ingenuity, argument, and even experiment, may open their
otherwise powerful batteries in vain. In this manner all the quack
medicines, ever held in any estimation, got into repute. And the same
vulgar prejudice, which induces people to retain an accustomed remedy
upon bare assertion and presumption, either of ignorance or partiality,
will, in like manner, oppose the introduction of any innovation in
practice with asperity, and not unfrequently with a quantum sufficit of
scrutiny and abuse, unless, indeed, it be supported by authorities of
still greater weight and consideration.

The history of many articles of diet, as well as medicine, amply prove
how much their reputation and fate have depended upon some authority or
other. Ipecacuanha had been imported into England for many years, before
Helvetius, under the patronage of Louis XIV, succeeded in introducing it
into practice in France; and, to the Queen of Charles II., we are
indebted for the introduction of that popular beverage, tea, into
England. Tobacco has suffered as many variable vicissitudes in its fame
and character. It has been successively opposed and commended by
physicians, condemned and praised by priests and kings, and proscribed
and protected by governments, until, at length, this once insignificant
production of a little island, has succeeded in propagating itself
through every climate and country. Nor is the history of the potatoe
less remarkable or less strikingly illustrative of the imperious
influence of authority. This valuable plant, for upwards of two
centuries, received an unprecedented opposition from vulgar prejudice,
which all the philosophy of the age was unable to dissipate, until Louis
XIV. wore a bunch of the flowers of the potatoe, in the midst of his
court, on a day of mirth and festivity. The people then, for the first
time, obsequiously acknowledged its utility, and began to express their
astonishment at the apathy which had so long prevailed with regard to
its general cultivation.

Another instance may be furnished of overbearing authority, in giving
celebrity to a medicine, or in depriving it of that reputation to which
its virtues entitle it, is seen in the history of the Peruvian bark.
This famed medicine was imported into Spain by the Jesuits, where it
remained seven years, before a trial was given to it. A Spanish priest
was the first to whom it was administered, in the year 1639, and even
then its use was extremely limited; and it would undoubtedly have sunk
into oblivion, but for the supreme power of the church of Rome, under
whose protecting auspices it gained a temporary triumph over the
passions and prejudices which opposed its introduction. Pope Innocent X.
at the intercession of the Cardinal de Lugo, who was formerly a Spanish
Jesuit, ordered the bark to be duly examined, and on the favourable
report, which was the result of this examination, it immediately rose
into high favour and celebrity.

The root of the male fern, a nostrum for the cure of the tape worm, was
secretly retailed by Madame Noufleur. This secret was purchased by Louis
XV. for a considerable sum of money. It was not until this event that
the physicans discovered, that the same remedy had been administered in
the same complaint by Galen. The history of popular remedies in the cure
of gout, is equally illustrative of this subject. The Duke of Portland's
celebrated powder was nothing less than the _deacintaureon_ of Caelius
Aurelianus, or the _antidotus et duobus centaurae generibus_ of Aetius,
the receipt for which, a friend of his grace brought with him from
Switzerland, into which country, in all likelihood, it had been
introduced by the early medical writers, who had transcribed it from the
Greek volumes, soon after their arrival into the western part of

The active ingredient of a no less celebrated preparation for the same
complaint, the _Eau medicinale_ de Husson, a medicine brought into
fashion by M. de Husson, a military officer in the service of Louis XVI
has been discovered to be the meadow saffron. Upon searching after and
trying the properties of this herb, it was observed that similar effects
in the cure of the gout were ascribed to a certain plant, called
hermodaclyllus, by Oribasius (an eminent physician of the 4th century)
and Aetius, who flourished at Alexandria towards the end of the 5th
century, but more particularly by Alexander of Tralles, a physician of
Asia Minor, whose prescription consisted of hermodaclyllus, ginger,
pepper, cummin seed, aniseed, and scammony, which he says will enable
those who take it to walk immediately. On an inquiry being immediately
set on foot for the discovery of this unknown plant, a specimen of it
was procured at Constantinople, and it actually did turn out to be a
species of meadow saffron, the colchicum autumnale of Linnaeus.

The celebrated fever powder of Dr. James was evidently not his original
composition, but an Italian nostrum, invented by a person of the name of
Lisle; a receipt for the preparation of which is to be found at length
in Colborne's complete English Dispensary for the year 1756. The various
secret preparations of opium which have been extolled as the discovery
of modern days, may be recognised in the works of ancient authors. The
use of prussic acid in the cure of consumptions, lately suggested by M.
Magendie, at Paris, is little more than the revival of the Dutch
practice in this disorder; for Linnaeus informs us, that distilled
laurel water was frequently used in the cure of pulmonary

We shall conclude these observations with a few remarks on what are
termed _patent medicines, nostrums_, or _quack medicines_, and their
boasted pretensions in general. There is, in fact, but one state of
perfect health, yet the deviations from this state, and the general
species of diseases are almost infinite. Hence it will easily be
understood, that in the classes of medical remedies, there must likewise
he a great variety, and that some of them are even of opposite
tendencies. Such are both the warm and cold bath considered as medical
remedies. Though opposite to each other in their sensible effects, each
of them manifests its medical virtues, yet only in such a state of the
body as will admit of using it with advantage. From these premises, it
is evident that an universal remedy, or one that possesses healing
powers for the _cure of all diseases_, is, in fact, a non-entity, a mere
delusion, the existence of which is physically impossible, as the mere
idea of such a thing involves a contradiction. How, for instance, can it
he conceived, that the same remedy should be capable of restoring the
tone of the muscular fibres, when they are relaxed, and also have the
power of relaxing them when they are too rigid; that it should coagulate
the fluids when in a state of resolution, and again attenuate them when
they are too viscid; that it should moderate the nerves when in a state
of preturnatural sensibility, and likewise restore them to their proper
degree of irritability when they are in a contrary state.

The belief in an universal remedy has long been abandoned, even among
the vulgar, and long exploded in those classes of society, which are not
influenced by prejudice, or tinctured with fanaticism. It is, however,
sincerely to be regretted, that the daily press continues to be
inundated with advertisements; and that the lower, and less informed
class of the community, are still imposed upon by a set of privileged
impostors, who frequently puzzle the intelligent to decide, whether the
impudence or the industry with which they endeavour to establish the
reputation of their respective poisons, be the most prominent feature in
their character. In illustration of this last observation, it may
further be observed, that most of the nostrums advertised as cough
drops, etc., are preparations of opium, similar, but inferior, to the
well-known paregoric elixir of the shops, but disguised and rendered
more deleterious by the addition of heating and aromatic gums. The
injury which may be occasioned by the indiscriminate employment of such
medicines might be very serious and irremediable, as is well known to
every person possessing the smallest portion of medical knowledge. The
boasted, though groundless pretensions of certain illiterate empirics to
cure diseases which have eluded the skill and penetration of the
faculty, is another absurdity into which people of good common sense
have been most woefully entrapped. The lessons of experience ought to
prove the most useful, as purchased at the greatest trouble and expense;
but if people choose to run over a precipice with their eyes open, they
leave themselves nothing to regret, and the public less to lament, by
their fall.

It was justly observed by the sagacious and intelligent Bacon, "that a
reflecting physician is not directed by the opinion which the multitude
entertain of a favourite remedy, but that be must be guided by a sound
judgment; and consequently, he is led to make very important
distinctions between those things which only by their name pass for
medical remedies, and others, which in reality possess healing powers."
We avail ourselves of the quotation, as it indirectly censures the
conduct of certain medical practitioners, who do not scruple to
recommend what are vulgarly called patent and other quack preparations,
the composition of which is carefully concealed from the public. Having
acquired their unmerited reputation by mere chance, and being supported
by the most refined artifices, in order to delude the unwary, we are
unable to come at the evidence of perhaps nine tenths of those who have
experienced their fatal effects, and who are now no longer in a
situation to complain.

From universal remedies or panaceas, to nostrums and specifics, such,
for instance, as pretend to cure the _same_ disease in every patient, is
easy and natural. With the latter also, impositions of a dangerous
tendency are often practised. It may be asked how far they are
practicably admissible, and in what cases they are wholly unavailing?
The answer is not difficult. In those diseases, which in every instance
depend upon the same cause, as in agues, the small-pox, measles, and
many other contagious distempers, the possibility of specifics, in a
limited sense, may be rationally, though hypothetically admitted. But in
either maladies, the causes of which depend on a variety of other
concurrent circumstances, and the cure of which in different
individuals, frequently requires very opposite remedies, as in dropsy,
various species of colds, the almost infinite variety of consumptions,
etc. a specific remedy is an imposition upon the common sense of
mankind. Those who are but imperfectly acquainted with the various
causes from which the same disorder originates in different individuals,
can never entertain such a vulgar and dangerous notion. They will easily
perceive, how much depends upon ascertaining with precision, the seat
and cause of the complaint, before any medicine can be presented with
safety or advantage:--even life and death are, we are sorry to add, too
often decided by the first steps. Different constitutions, different
symptoms, and stages of disease, all require more or less a separate
consideration. What is more natural than to place confidence in a
remedy, which has been known to afford relief to others in the same kind
of disposition? The patient anxiously enquires after a person who has
been afflicted with the same malady; he is eager to know the remedy that
has been used with success; his friend or neighbour imparts to him the
wished for intelligence; he is determined to give the medicine a fair
trial, and takes it with confidence. From what has been stated, it will
not be difficult to conceive, that if his case does not exactly
correspond with that of his friend, any _chance_ remedy may prove
extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

Hence it becomes evident, that the results are not to be depended upon,
nor the chance risked. The physician is obliged to employ all his
sagacity, supported by his own experience, as well as by that of his
predecessors; and yet he is often under the necessity of discovering,
from the progress of the disease, what he could not derive from the
minutest research. How then can it be expected, that a novice in the art
of healing should be more successful, when the whole of his method of
cure is either the impulse of the moment, or the effect of his own
credulity? It may be therefore truly said, that life and death are
frequently entrusted to chance!

The late Dr. Huxham, a physician of some eminence in his day, when
speaking of Asclepiades, the Roman empiric, says: "This man from a
_declaimer_ turned _physician_, and set himself up to oppose all the
physicians of his time; and the novelty of the thing bore him out, as it
frequently doth the quacks of the present time; and ever _will while the
majority of the world are fools_." In another place, he curiously
contrasts the too timid practice of some regular physicians, with the
hazardous treatment, which is the leading feature of quacks: "The timid,
low, insipid practice with some, is almost as dangerous as the bold,
unwarranted empiricism of others; time and opportunity, never to be
regained, are often lost by the former; while with the latter, by a
_bold push_, you are sent off the stage in a moment."

From what has been said, it may confidently be asserted, that a
universal remedy still remains as great a desideratum as the
philosopher's stone; and either can only obtain credit with the
weak-minded, the credulous, or the fanatic. One of the most unfortunate
circumstances in the history of such medicines, is the insinuating and
dangerous method, by which they are puffed into notice. And as we have
little of the beneficial effects which they daily must produce, by being
promiscuously applied, people attend only to the extraordinary
instances, perhaps not one in fifty, where they have afforded a
temporary or apparent relief. It is well known, that the more powerful
a remedy is, the more permanent and dangerous must be its effects on the
constitution; especially if it be introduced like many patent medicines,
by an almost indefinite encrease of the dose. There is another
consideration, not apt to strike those who are unacquainted with the
laws of the animal economy. When it is intended to bring about any
remarkable change in the system of an organized body, such means are
obliged to be employed as may contribute to produce that change without
affecting too violently the living powers, or without carrying their
action to an improper length. Indeed, the patient may be gradually
habituated to almost any stimulus, but at the expence of a paralytic
stroke on an impaired constitution. Such are among the melancholy
effects of imposture and credulity! "Were it possible," says a learned
authority, "to collect all the cases of sacrifices to the mysterious
infatuation, it is probable that their number would exceed the enormous
havoc made by gunpowder or the sword." Another reputable writer makes
the following terse remark on this subject: "As matters stand at
present," says he, "it is easier to cheat a man out of his life, than of
a shilling: and almost impossible either to detect or punish the
offender. Notwithstanding this, people still shut their eyes, and take
every thing upon trust, that is administered by any pretender to
medicine, without daring to ask him a reason for any part of his
conduct. Implicit faith, every where else the object of ridicule, is
still sacred here."


[132] The berries of the belladonna or deadly nightshade, produce, when
eaten, a furious madness, followed by sleep, which lasts for twenty-four
hours. Such drugs as produce mental stupefaction, without impairing the
physical powers, may have given rise to the accounts of men being
transformed into brutes, so frequent in what are denominated the
fabulous writers, while the evanescent but exquisite joys of an opposite
description, an anticipation of what implicit obedience would ensure
them for ever, produced blind, furious, devoted adherents to any
philosophical speculator, who would venture to try so desperate an

[133] The Rowan tree or Mountain ash, is used by the Scottish peasantry
with the same view; and a small twig of it is sewed up in the cow's
tail, to preserve the animal and its produce from the influence of
witches and warlocks.

[134] See Pharmacologia, by Dr. Paris.

[135] Vide "Amenetates Academicae," vol. 4.



Obeah, a pretended sort of witchcraft, arising from a superstitious
credulity, prevailing among the negroes, has ever been considered as a
most dangerous practice, to suppress which, in our West India colonies,
the severest laws have been enacted. The Obeah is considered as a potent
and most irresistible spell, withering and paralyzing, by indiscribable
terrors and unusual sensations, the devoted victim. One negro who
desires to be revenged on another, and is afraid to make an open and
manly attack on his adversary, has usually recourse to this practice.
Like the witches' cauldron in Macbeth, it is a combination of many
strange and ominous things. Earth gathered from a grave, human blood, a
piece of wood fastened in the shape of a coffin, the feathers of the
carion crow, a snake or alligator's tooth, pieces of egg-shell, and
other nameless ingredients, compose the fatal mixture. The whole of
these articles may not be considered as absolutely necessary to complete
the charm, but two or three are at least indispensable.[136]

It will of course be conceived, that the practice of OBEAH can have
little effect, unless a negro is conscious that it is practised upon
him, or thinks so;[137] for, as the whole evil consists in the terrors of
a superstitious imagination, it is of little consequence whether it be
practised or not, if he only imagines that it is. But if the charm fails
to take hold of the mind of the proscribed person, another and more
certain expedient is resorted to--the secretly administering of poison
to him. This saves the reputation of the sorcerer, and effects the
purpose he had in view.

An OBEAH man or woman (for it is practised by both sexes) is a very
dangerous person on a plantation; and the practice of it is made felony
by law, punishable with death where poison has been administered, and
with transportation where only the charm has been used. But numbers
have, and may be swept off, by its infatuation, before the crime is
detected; for, strange as it may appear, so much do the negroes stand in
awe of those _Obeah_ professors, so much do they dread their malice and
their power, that, though knowing the havoc they have made, and are
still making, they are afraid to discover them to the whites; and,
others perhaps, are in league with them for sinister purposes of
mischief and revenge.

A negro, under the infatuation of Obeah, can only be cured of his
terrors by being made a Christian: refuse him this boon, and he sinks a
martyr to imagined evils. A negro, in short, considers himself as no
longer under the influence of this sorcery when he becomes a christian.
And instances are known of negroes, who, being reduced by the fatal
influence of Obeah to the lowest state of dejection and debility, from
which there were little hopes of recovery, have been surprisingly and
rapidly restored to health and cheerfulness by being baptized
christians. The negroes believe also in apparitions, and stand in great
dread of them, conceiving that they forbode death, or some other great
evil, to those whom they visit; in short, that the spirits of the dead
come upon the earth to be revenged on those who did them evil when in
life. Thus we see, that not only from the remotest antiquity, but even
among slaves and barbarians, the belief in supernatural agencies has
been a popular creed, not, in fact, confined to any distant race or
tribe of people; and, what is still more surprising, there is a singular
and most remarkable identity in the notion or conception of their
infernal ministry.

In the British West Indies, the negroes of the windward coast are called
_Mandingoes_, a name which is here taken as descriptive of a peculiar
race or nation. There seems reason, however, to believe, that a
_Mandingo_ or _Mandinga_-man, is properly the same with an Obi-man. A
late traveller in Brazil gives us the following anecdotes of the
_Mandinga_ and _Mandingueiro_ of the negroes in that country. "One day,"
says Mr. Koster, "the old man (a negro named Apollinario) came to me
with a face of dismay, to show me a ball of leaves, tied up with a plant
called _cypo_, which he had found under a couple of boards, upon which
he slept, in an out-house. The ball was about the size of an apple. I
could not imagine what had caused his alarm, until he said that it was
_Mandinga_ which had been set for the purpose of killing him; and he
bitterly bewailed his fate, that at his age, any one should wish to
hasten his death, and to carry him from this world, before our lady
thought fit to send him. I knew that two of the black women were at
variance, and suspicion fell upon one of them, who was acquainted with
the old _Mandingueiro_ of Engenho Velho; therefore she was sent for. I
judged that the _Mandinga_ was not set for Apollonario, but for the
negress whose business it was to sweep the out-house. I threatened to
confine the suspected woman at Gara unless she discovered the whole
affair. She said the Mandinga was placed there to make one of the
negresses dislike her fellow-slaves, and prefer her to the other. The
ball of _Mandinga_ was formed of five or six kinds of leaves of trees,
among which was the pomegranate leaf; there were likewise two or three
bits of rag, each of a peculiar kind; ashes, which were the bones of
some animals; and there might be other ingredients besides, but these
were what I could recognize. This woman either could not from ignorance,
or would not give any information respecting the several things of which
the ball was composed. I made this serious matter of the _Mandinga_,
from knowing the faith which not only many of the negroes have in it,
but also some of the mulatto people. There is another name for this kind
of charm; it is called _feitico_, and the initiated are called
_feiticeros_; of these there was formerly one at the plantation of St.
Joam, who became so much dreaded, that his master sold him to be sent to

Speaking of the green-beads (_contas verdas_) which are another object
of superstition in South America, and of the reliance placed upon them
by the Valentoens, a lawless description of persons among the colonists
of Brazil; the same author gives us this further view of the
_Mandingueiros_ and their charms. "These men," says he, "wore on their
necks strings of green beads, which had either come from the coast of
Africa, bearing the wonderful property of conveying in safety their
possessors through all descriptions of perils, or were charmed by the
Mandingueiros, African sorcerers, who had been brought over to the
Brazils as slaves, and in secret continued the prohibited practice of
imparting this virtue to them. Vincente had been acquainted with some of
the men, and was firmly persuaded of the virtues of the green beads.
When I expressed my doubts of the efficacy of the beads, against a
musket ball well directed, his anger rose; but there was pity mingled
with it."

Labat brings these stones from the Orellana, or river of the Amazons. "I
was informed," says our author, "that _Contas verdas_ came from Africa;
but some have found their way from the Orellana, and been put into
requisition by the _Mandingueiros_." Mr. Southey has also given an
account of the "green stones of the Amazons," in his history of Brazil,
vol. 1. p. 107.

In another place, some traveller presents us with the _Mandingueiros_ in
the new character of charmer of snakes. "The Mandingueiros are famous,
among other feats, for handling poisonous snakes, and can, by particular
noises or tunes, call those reptiles from their holes, and make them
assemble around them. These sorcerers profess to render innoxious the
bites of snakes, to persons who submit to their charms and ceremonies.
One of the modes which is adopted for this purpose, is that of allowing
a tame snake to crawl over the head, face, and shoulders of the person
who is to be _curado do cobras_, cured of snakes, as they term it. The
owner of the snake repeats a certain number of words during the
operation, of which, the meaning, if they contain any, is only known to
the initiated. The rattle-snake is said to be, above all other species,
the most susceptible of attention to the tunes of the Mandingueiros."
The above accounts I should not have related upon the authority of one
or two authors, I have heard them repeated by several individuals, and
even some men of education have spoken of the reputed efficacy of the
tame snakes of the Mandingueiros, as if they were somewhat staggered in
their belief of it. "These men do certainly play strange tricks and very
dexterously." The same writer also observes, "One of the negroes whom I
had hired with the plantation of Jaguaribi, had one leg much thicker
than the other. This was occasioned, as he told me, by the bite of a
rattlesnake; he said he had been _cured_ from the bites of snakes by a
certain _curador de cobra_, or Mandingueiro, and had therefore not died;
but that as the 'moon was strong,' he had not escaped receiving some
injury from the bite."

Beaver, in his African Memoranda, says, "There is another sort of people
who travel about in the country, called Mandingo-men, (these are
Mahommedans;) they do not work; they go from place to place, and when
they find any chiefs or people, whom they think they can make anything
of, they take up their abode sometime with them, and make _gree-grees_,
and sometimes cast seed from them for which they make them pay."

On this, and other occasion, the word _gree-gree_ is applied to a house
whence oracles are delivered: but it is also used for a charm or obi.
"They themselves," (the natives of the coast) says the author, last
quoted, "always wear _gree-grees_, or charms, which they purchase of the
_Mandingoes_, to guard them against the effects of certain arms, or of
poison, and on which they place the utmost reliance. They have one
against poison; another against a musket; another against a sword; and
another against a knife; and, indeed, against almost every thing that
they think can hurt them. Mandingo priest, or _gris gris_ merchant, that
is, a seller of charms, which carried about a person, secure the wearer
from any evils,--such as poison, murder, witchcraft, etc. To this priest
I had made some handsome presents, and he, in return, gave me twelve
gris gris, and assured me that they would inevitably secure me from all
danger, at the same time he gave me directions how to dispose of them.
Some were to be carried about my person; one secretly placed over each
archway; another kept under my pillow, and another under the door of the
house I was then building." The Byugas hold these people in great
reverence, and say that they 'talk with God.'

Mr. Long, in his history of the West Indies, states that, under the
general name of Obi-men is also included the class of _Myal_ men, or
those who, by means of a narcotic poison, made with the juice of an herb
(said to be the branched Calalue, a species of solanum) which occasions
a trance of a certain duration, endeavour to convince the deluded
spectators of their power to reanimate dead bodies.

Additional particulars of this superstition preserved by Labat,
Edwards, and others, are to be joined with those now produced;[138] but
after all, the questions to be solved are, whether Obi, Mandinga, and
_gree gree_, are usually words of similar import, and whether those who
are conversant in them are all alike, priests of one system of religious
faith and worship, or whether the one does not belong to the worship of
a good power, and the other to that of an evil one.

It is remarkable, that while the Etymology of _Obi_ has been sought in
the names of ancient deities of Egypt, and in that of the serpent in the
language of the coast, the actual name of the evil deity or _Devil_, in
the same language, appears to have escaped attention. That name is
written by Mr. Edwards, _Obboney_; and the bearer of it is described as
a malicious deity, the author of all evil, the inflictor of perpetual
diseases, and whose anger is to be appeased only by human sacrifices.
This evil deity is the Satan of our own faith; and it is the worship of
Satan which, in all parts of the world constitutes the essence of

If this name of _Obboney_ has any relation to the Ob of Egypt, and if
the Ob, both anciently in Egypt, and to this day in the west of Africa,
signifies "a serpent," what does this discover to our view, but that
Satan has the name of _serpent_ among the Negro nations as well as among
those of Europe? As to how it has happened that the serpent, which, in
some systems, is the emblem of the good spirit, is in others the emblem
of the evil one, that is a topic which belongs to a more extensive
enquiry. This is enough for our present satisfaction to remember that
the profession of, and belief in sorcery or witchcraft, supposes the
existence of two deities, the one, the author of good, and the other the
author of evil; the one worshipped by good men for good things, and for
good purposes: and the other by bad men for bad things and purposes; and
that this worship is sorcery and the worshippers sorcerers.

It will be seen above, that since African charms are to prevent evil,
and others to procure it, the first belong to the worship, and are
derived from the power, of the good spirit; and the second are from the
opposite source. It is to be concluded, then, that the superstition of
_Obi_ is no other than the practice of, and belief in the worship of
_Obboney_ or _Oboni_, the evil deity of the Africans, the serpent of
Africa and of Europe, and the old serpent and Satan of the scriptures;
and that the witchcraft of the negroes is evidently the same with our
own. It might indeed be further shown, that the latter have their
temporary transformations of men into alligators, wolves, and the like,
as the French have their loups-garoux, the Germans their war-wolves,
wolf-men, and the rest.[139]

The negroes practising obeah are acquainted with some very powerful
vegetable poisons, which they use on these occasions, and by which they
acquire much extensive credit. Their fetiches are their household gods,
or domestic divinities; one of whom is supposed to preside over a whole
province, and one over every family. This idol is a tree, the head of an
ape, a bird, or any such thing, as their fancy may suggest. The negroes
have long been held famous in the act of secret or slow poisoning.

If doubts and difficulties envelope the discovery of poisons, whose
distinguishing character is the rapidity of these effects, how much
greater must be the uncertainty when we are required to ascertain the
administrations of what are called slow poisons. This subject, indeed,
is so closely entwined with popular superstitions, that it is difficult
to separate truth from falsehood. In Italy, for example, it was formerly
said, that poisons were made to destroy life at any stated period--from
a few hows to a year. This, however, turns out to be a mere fiction;
and, it is well understood, that we know of no substances that will
produce death at a determinate epoch. The following case of the late
Prince Charles of Augustenburgh, nevertheless, shows that the idea of
slow poison is still very prevalent, even among the physicians of
continental Europe.

Prince Charles of Augustenburgh, Crown Prince of Sweden, and the
predecessor of Bernadotte, in that station, fell dead from his horse on
the 22nd of May, 1810, while reviewing troops in Scania. His death,
during that stormy period of public affairs, excited great attention,
and an opinion soon spread abroad that he had been poisoned. The king
ordered a judicial investigation; and it appeared that Dr. Rossi, the
physician of the late Prince, had, without directions, proceeded to
inspect the body twenty-four hours after death; that he had performed
this operation with great negligence, omitting many things which the law
presented, which the assisting physicians proposed, and which were
essential to render it satisfactory; and finally, that the coats of the
stomach, instead of being preserved and submitted to chemical analysis
were, according to his own acknowledgment, thrown away. The royal
tribunal adjudged him to be deprived of his appointment, and to be
banished from the kingdom. This decision would not of course, diminish
the suspicion already excited; and among other physicians, who were
consulted on the case, M. Lodin, professor of Medicine at Lynkoping,
presented two memoirs, in which he stated it as his opinion, that a
_slow poison_ of a vegetable nature, and probably analogous to the _aqua
tofania_, had been administered to the Prince, and that this had caused
the apopletic fit of which he died. His reasons were:

1. That the Prince had always enjoyed good health previous to his
arrival in Sweden, and, indeed, had not been ill, until after eating a
cold pie at an inn, in Italy. He was shortly after seized with violent
vomiting, while the rest of the company experienced no ill effects.

2. The Prince was naturally very temperate.

3. Ever since he arrived in Sweden he had experienced a loss of
appetite, with cholic and diarrhoea; and

4. That on dissection, the spleen was found of a black colour and in a
state of decomposition, and the liver indurated and dark coloured.
Whilst during life he had experienced no symptoms corresponding to these
appearances. Dr. Lodin confessed, however, that he was unacquainted with
the effects that indicate the administration of a slow poison, but
thought the previous symptoms were such as might be expected from it.

For the credit of the profession, this conjectural opinion met with
decided reprobation from other medical men. It appeared that the Prince
had, for several days previously, been subject to giddiness and pain in
the head, and that all the symptoms were readily referable to a simple
case of apoplexy, while the appearances on dissection showed that rapid
tendency to putrefaction, which is frequently observed in similar cases.

The public are highly indebted to professor Beckman for a very elaborate
article, in which he has concentrated nearly all that is known
concerning _secret poisoning_. Of this we shall here present our readers
with an abstract, as peculiarly adapted to the demonology of medicine,
aided with some facts from other sources.

Professor Beckman considers it unquestionable, that the ancients were
acquainted with this kind of poison, and thinks that it may be proved
from the testimony of Plutarch, Quintilian, and other respectable
authors. The former states that a slow poison, which occasioned heat, a
cough, spitting of blood, a consumption, and weakness of intellect, was
administered to Aratus of Sicyon. Theophrastus speaks of a poison
prepared from aconite, which could be moderated in such a manner as to
have effect in two or three months, or at the end of a year or two
years; and he also relates, that Thrasyas had discovered a method of
preparing from other plants a poison which, given in small doses,
occasioned a certain but easy death, without any pain, and which could
be kept back for a long time without causing weakness or corruption. The
last poison was much used at Rome, about two hundred years before the
christian era. At a later period, a female named Locusta, was the agent
in preparing these poisons, and she destroyed, in this way, at the
instigation of Nero, Britannicus, son of Agrippina.

The Carthagenians seem also to have been acquainted with this act of
diabolical poisoning; and they are said, on the authority of Aulus
Gellius, to have administered some to Regulus, the Roman general.
Contemporary writers, however, it must be added, do not mention this.

The principal poisons known to the ancients were prepared from plants,
and particularly aconite, hemlock, and poppy, or from animal substances;
and among the latter none is more remarkable than that obtained from the
sea-hare (_Lepus marinus_ or _Apylsia depilans_ of the system of
nature). With this, Titus is said to have been dispatched by Domitian.
They do not seem to have been acquainted with the common mineral

In the year 1659, during the pontificate of Alexander VII, it was
observed at Rome, that many young women became widows, and that many
husbands died when they became disagreeable to their wives. The
government used great vigilance to detect the poisoners, and suspicion
at length fell upon a society of young wives, whose president appeared
to be an old woman, who pretended to foretel future events, and who had
often predicted very exactly the death of many persons. By means of a
crafty female their practices were detected; the whole society were
arrested and put to the torture, and the old woman, whose name was
Spara, and four others, were publicly hanged. This Spara was a Sicilian,
and is said to have acquired her knowledge from Tofania at Palermo.

Tophania, or Tofania, was an infamous woman, who resided first at
Palermo and afterwards at Naples. She sold the poison which from her
acquired the name of Aqua della Toffana (it was also called _Acquetta di
Napoli_, or _Acquetta_ alone), but she distributed her preparation by
way of charity to such wives as wished to have other husbands. From four
to six drops were sufficient to destroy a man; and it was asserted, that
the dose could be so proportioned as to operate in a certain time. Labat
says, that Tofania distributed her poison in small glass phials, with
this inscription--_Manna of St. Nicholas of Bavi_, and ornamented with
the image of the saint. She lived to a great age, but was at last
dragged from a monastery, in which she had taken refuge, and put to the
torture, when she confessed her crimes and was strangled.

In no country, however, has the art of poisoning excited more attention
than it did in France, about the year 1670. Margaret d'Aubray, wife of
the Marquis de Brinvillier, was the principal agent in this horrible
business. A needy adventurer, named Godin de St. Croix, had formed an
acquaintance with the Marquis during their campaigns in the
Netherlands--became at Paris a constant visitor at his house, where in a
short time he found means to insinuate himself into the good graces of
the Marchioness. It was not long before this Marquis died; not, however,
until their joint fortune was dissipated. Her conduct, in openly
carrying on this amour, induced her father to have St. Croix arrested
and sent to the Bastile. Here he got acquainted with an Italian, of the
name of Exili, from whom he learnt the art of preparing poisons.

After a year's imprisonment St. Croix was released, when he flew to the
Marchioness and instructed her in the art, in order that she might
employ it in bettering the circumstances of both. She assumed the
appearance of a nun, distributed food to the poor, nursed the sick in
the Hotel Dieu, and tried the strength of her poisons, undetected, on
these hapless wretches. She bribed one Chaussee, St. Croix's servant, to
poison her own father, after introducing him into his service, and also
her brother, and endeavoured to poison her sister. A suspicion arose
that they had been poisoned, and the bodies were opened, but no
detection followed at this time. Their villainous practices were brought
to light in the following manner:--St. Croix, when preparing poison, was
accustomed to wear a glass mask; but, as this happened once to drop off
by accident, he was suffocated and found dead in his laboratory.
Government caused the effects of this man, who had no family, to be
examined, and a list of them to be made out. On searching them, there
was found a small box, to which St. Croix had affixed a written paper
containing a request, that after his death "it might be delivered to the
Marchioness de Brinvillier, who resides in the street Neuve St. Paul, as
every thing it contains concerns her, and belongs to her alone; and as,
besides, there is nothing in it that can be of use to any person except
her; and in case she shall be dead before me, to burn it, and every
thing it contains; without opening or altering any thing; and in order
that no one may plead ignorance, I swear by God, whom I adore, and all
that is most sacred, that I advance nothing but what is true. And if my
intentions, just and reasonable as they are, be thwarted in this point,
I charge their consciences with it, both in this world and the next, in
order that I may unload mine, protesting that this is my last will. Done
at Paris, this 25th May, in the afternoon, 1672. _De Sainte Croix_"

Nothing could he a greater inducement to have it opened, than this
singular petition, and that being done, there was found in it a great
abundance of poisons of every kind, with labels, on which their effects
proved, by experiments on animals, were marked. The principal poison,
however, was corrosive sublimate. When the Marchioness heard of the
death of her lover and instructor, she was desirous to have the casket,
and endeavoured to get possession of it by bribing the officers of
justice; but as she failed in this, she quitted the kingdom. La
Chaussee, however, continued at Paris, laid claim to the property of St.
Croix, was seized and imprisoned, confessed more acts of villainy than
was suspected, and was in consequence broke alive upon the wheel, in
1673,--The Marchioness fled to England, and from thence to Liege, where
she took refuge in a convent. Desgrais, an officer of justice, was
dispatched in pursuit of her, and having assumed the dress of an Abbe,
contrived to entice her from this privileged place. Among her effects at
the convent there was found a confession, and a complete catalogue of
all her crimes, in her own hand-writing. She was taken to Paris,
convicted, and on the 16th of July, 1676, publicly beheaded, and
afterwards burnt.

The practice of poisoning was not, however, suppressed by this
execution, and it was asserted, that confessions of a suspicious nature
were constantly made to the priests. A court for watching, searching
after, and punishing prisoners was at length established in 1697, under
the title of _chambre de poison_, or _chambre ardente_. This was shortly
used as a state engine, against those who were obnoxious to the court,
and the names of individuals of the first rank, both male and female,
were prejudiced. Two females, la Vigreux and la Voison were burnt alive,
by order of this court, in February, 1680. But it was abolished in the
same year.

Professor Beckman relates the following, as communicated to him by
Linnaeus: "Charles XI, King of Sweden, having ruined several noble
families by seizing on their property, and having, after that, made a
journey to Torneo, he fell into a consumptive disorder, which no
medicine could cure. One day he asked his physician in a very earnest
manner what was the cause of his illness. The physician replied, 'Your
Majesty has been loaded with too many maledictions.'--'Yes,' returned
the king, 'I wish to God that the reduction of the nobilities' estates
had not taken place, and that I had never undertaken a journey to
Torneo.' After his death his intestines were found to be full of small

There has been a great diversity of opinions as to the nature of these
poisons. That prepared by Tofania appears to have been a clear insipid
water, and the sale of aqua fortis was for a long time forbidden in
Rome, because it was considered the principal ingredient. This, however,
is not probable.

In Paris, the famous _poudre de succession_ (also a secret poison) was
at one time supposed to consist of diamond dust, powdered exceedingly
fine; and at another time, to contain sugar of lead as the principal
ingredient. Haller was of this last opinion. In the casket of St. Croix
were found sublimate, opium, regulus of antimony, vitriol, and a large
quantity of poison ready prepared, the principal ingredients of which
the physicians were not able to detect. Garelli, physician to Charles
VI, King of the Two Sicilies, at the time when Tofania was arrested,
wrote to the celebrated Hoffman, that the Aqua Tofania was nothing else
than crystallized arsenic, dissolved in a large quantity of water by
decoction, with the addition, (but for what purpose we know not) of the
herb _Cymbalaria_, (probably the _Antirrhinum Cymbalaria_). And this
information he observes, was communicated to him by his imperial majesty
himself, to whom the judicial procedure, confirmed by the confession of
the criminal, was transmitted. But it was objected to this opinion, that
it differed from the ordinary effects of arsenic, in never betraying
itself by any particular action on the human body.

The Abbe Gagliani, on the other hand, asserts that it is a mixture of
opium and cantharides, and that the liquor obtained from its
composition, is as limpid as rock water, and without taste. Its effects
are slow, and almost imperceptible. Beckman appears to favour this idea,
and suggests that a similar poison is used in the East, under the name
of _powst_, being water that had stood a night over the juice of
poppies. It is given to princes, whom it is wished to despatch
privately; and produces loss of strength and understanding, so that they
die in the end, torpid and insensible.[140]

The following extract will show that secret poisoning has penetrated
into the forests of America. "The celebrated chief, _Blackbird_ of the
Omawhaws, gained great reputation as a medicine man; his adversaries
fell rapidly before his potent spells. His medicine was arsenic,
furnished him for this purpose by the villainy of the traders."[141]


[136] Various etymologies have been suggested for the word obi. Mr.
Long, in a paper transmitted several years since, by the agents of
Jamaica to the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council, and by the
latter subjoined to the report on the slave trade, expresses himself on
this subject as follows: "From the learned Mr. Bryant's commentary on
the word OPH, we obtain a very probable etymology of the term; 'a
serpent,' in the Egyptian language, was called _Aub_ or _Ob_."
'_Obion_,' is still the Egyptian name of a serpent.' 'Moses, in the name
of God, forbids the Israelites to inquire of the demon _Ob_, which is
translated in our Bible, charmer or wizzard, _Divinator aut
sorcilegus_.' The woman of Endor is called _Oub_ or _Ob_, translated
Pythonissa; and _Oubaois_ (he cites Horus Apollo) was the name of the
Basilisk or royal serpent, emblem of the sun, and an ancient oracular
deity of Africa. Their etymology, if admitted, connects the modern
superstitions of the west of Africa, with the ancient ones of the east
of that continent, from which source they have also been spread in
Europe. They are humble parts of the great system which is adorned with
the fables of Osiris and Isis; and they comprise not only the Obi of
Africa, but the witchcraft of our own country. That superstition is
every where connected with the worship of the serpent, and with the moon
and the cat. Skulls and teeth of cats are among the principal
ingredients of the African charms or _Obies_.

[137] Mr. Long gives the following account of the furniture of the house
of an Obi-woman, or African witch in Jamaica: "The whole inside of the
roof, (which was of thatch) and every crevice of the walls were stuck
with the implements of her trade, consisting of rags, feathers, bones of
cats, and a thousand other articles. Examining further, a large earthen
pot or jar, close covered, contained a prodigious quantity of round
balls of earth or clay, of various dimensions, large and small, whitened
on the outside, and variously compounded, some with hair and rags, or
feathers of all sorts, and strongly bound with twine: others blended
with the upper section of the skulls of cats, or set round with cats'
teeth and claws, or with human or dogs' teeth, and some glass beads of
different colours. There were also a great many egg-shells filled with a
viscous or gummy substance, the qualities of which were neglected to be
examined; and many little bags filled with a variety of articles, the
particulars of which cannot, at this distance of time, be recollected."
Shakespeare and Dryden, have left us poetical accounts of the
composition of European _Obies_ or charms, with which, and with more
historical descriptions, the above may be compared. The midnight hours
of the professors of Obi, are also to be compared with the witches of
Europe. Obi, therefore, is the serpent-worship. The Pythoness, at
Delphos, was an Obi-woman. With the serpent-worship is joined that of
the sun and moon, as the governors of the visible world, and emblems of
the male and female nature of the godhead; and to the cat, on account of
her nocturnal prowlings, is ascribed a mysterious relationship to the
moon. The dog and the wolf, doubtless for the same reason, are similarly

[138] The superstition of Obi was never generally remarked upon in the
British West Indies till the year 1760, when, after an insurrection in
Jamaica, of the Coromantyn or Gold Coast negroes, it was found that it
had been made an instrument for promoting that disturbance. An old
Coromantyn negro, the chief instigator and oracle of the insurgents of
the parish of St. Mary, in which the insurrection broke out, who had
administered the _Fetiche_ or solemn oath to the conspirators, and
furnished them with a magical preparation, which was to make them
invulnerable, was at that time apprehended and punished, and a law was
enacted for the suppression of the practice, under which several
examples were made, but without effecting for many years, any diminution
of the evil sought to be remedied.

[139] In Kosters's travels in Brazil, we read of a negro who was
reported by one of his fellows to become occasionally _lobas homen_ or
wolf-man. "I asked him," said the author, "to explain; when he said,
that the man was at times transformed into an animal, of the size of a
calf with the figure of a dog;" and in the African memoranda is an
account of a negro who professed and even believed to have the power of
transforming himself into an alligator, in which state he devoured men.
Upon being questioned by Captain Beaver, he answered, "I can change
myself into an alligator, and have often done it." But though these may
be genuine African superstitions, and not such as have been introduced
by the Portuguese, yet it is certain there is no part of Europe to which
they do not equally belong.

[140] Beckman, vol 1, p. 74 to 103.

[141] See Major Long's expedition, vol. 1. p. 226.



The ancient magicians, among other pretended extraordinary powers of
accomplishing wonderful things by their superior knowledge of the secret
powers of nature, of the virtues of plants and minerals, and of the
motions and influence of the stars, attached no small degree of mystic
importance to rings, the origin of which, their matter and uses,
together with the supposed virtues of the stones set in them, afford a
subject squaring so much with our design, and so deserving of notice
from the curious, that no apology need be made for discoursing on them.

According to the accounts of the heathen mythologists, Prometheus, who,
in the first times, had discovered a great number of secrets, having
been delivered from the charms, by which he was fastened to mount
Caucasus for stealing fire from heaven, in memory or acknowledgment of
the favour he received from Jupiter, made himself of one of those
chains, a ring, in whose collet he represented the figure of part of the
rock where he had been detained--or rather, as Pliny says, set it in a
bit of the same rock, and put it on his finger. This was the first ring
and the first stone. But we otherwise learn, that the use of rings is
very ancient, and the Egyptians were the first inventors of them; which
seems confirmed by the person of Joseph, who, as we read (Genesis, chap,
xi.) for having interpreted Pharoah's dream, received not only his
liberty, but was rewarded with his prince's ring, a collar of gold, and
the superintendancy of Egypt.

Josephus, in the third book of Jewish antiquities says, the Israelites
had the use of them after passing the Red Sea, because Moses at his
return from Mount Sinai, found that they had forged the golden calf from
their wives' rings, enriched with precious stones. The same Moses,
upwards of 400 years before the wars of Troy, permitted the priests he
had established, the use of gold rings, enriched with precious stones.
The high priest wore upon his ephod, which was a kind of camail, rich
rings, that served as clasps; a large emerald was set and engraved with
mysterious names. The ring he wore on his finger was of inestimable
value and celestial virtue. Had not Aaron, the high priest of the
Hebrews, a ring on his finger, whereof the diamond, by its virtues,
operated prodigious things? For it changed its vivid lustre into a dark
colour, when the Hebrews were to be punished by death for their sins.
When they were to fall by the sword it appeared of a blood colour; if
they were innocent it sparkled as usual.

It is observable that the ancient Hebrews used rings even in the time of
the wars of Troy. Queen Jezebel, to destroy Nabath, as it is related in
the first Book of Kings, made use of the ring of Ahab, King of the
Israelites, her husband, to seal the counterfeit letters that ordered
the death of that unfortunate man. Did not Judah, as mentioned in the
38th chapter of Genesis, abuse his daughter-in-law, Thamar, who had
disguised herself, by giving her his ring and bracelets, as a pledge of
the faith he had promised her?

Though Homer is silent in regard to rings, both in his Iliad and
Odyssey, they were, notwithstanding, used in the time of the Greeks and
Trojans; and from them they were received by several other nations. The
Lacedemonians, as related by Alexander, ab. Alexandro, pursuant to the
orders of their king, Lycurgus, had only iron rings, despising those of
gold; either their king was thereby willing to retrench luxury, or to
prohibit the use of them.

The ring was reputed, by some nations, a symbol of liberality, esteem,
and friendship, particularly among the Persians, none being permitted to
wear any, except they were given by the king himself. This is what may
also be remarked in the person of Apollonius Thyaneus, as a token of
singular esteem and liberality, received one from the great Iarchas,
prince of the Gymnosophists, who were the ancient priests of India and
dwelt in forests, as our ancient bards and druids, where they applied
themselves to the study of wisdom, and to the speculation of the heaven
and stars. This philosopher, by the means of that ring, learned every
day the secrets of nature.

Though the ring found by Gyges, shepherd to the King of Lydia, has more
of fable than of truth in it, it will not, however, be amiss, to relate
what is said concerning Herodotus, Coelius, after Plato and Cicero, in
the third book of his Offices. This Gyges, after a great flood, passed
into a very deep cavity in the earth, where having found in the belly of
a brazen horse, with a large aperture in it, a human body of enormous
size, he pulled from off one of the fingers a ring of surprising virtue;
for the stone on the collet rendered him who wore it invisible, when the
collet was turned towards the palm of the hand, so that the party could
see, without being seen, all manner of persons and things. Gyges, having
made trial of its efficacy, bethought himself that it would be a means
for ascending the throne of Lydia, and for gaining the Queen by it. He
succeeded in his designs, having killed Candaules, her husband. The dead
body this ring belonged to was that of an ancient Brahman, who, in his
time, was chief of that sect.

The rings of the ancients often served for seals. Alexander the Great,
after the death and defeat of Darius, used his ring for sealing the
letters he sent into Asia, and his own for those he sent to Europe. It
is customary in Rome for the bridegroom to send the bride, before
marriage, a ring of iron, without either stone or collet, to denote how
lasting their union ought to be, and the frugality they were to observe
together; but luxury herein soon gained ground, and there was a
necessity for moderating it. Caius Marius did not wear one of gold till
his third consulship; and Tiberius, as Suetonius says, made some
regulations in the authority of wearing rings; for, besides the liberty
of birth, he required a considerable revenue, both on the father and
grandfather's side.

In a Polyglot dictionary, published in the year 1625, by John Minshew,
our attention was attracted by the following observations, under the
article "RINGFINGER.--Vetus versiculus singulis digitis Annulum trebuens
Miles. Mercator. Stultus. Maritus. Amator. Pollici adscribitur Militi,
seu Doctor. Mercatorem a pollice secundum, stultorum, tertium. Nuptorum
vel studiosorum quartum. Amatorum ultimum."

By which it appears, that the fingers on which annuli were anciently
worn were directed by the calling, or peculiarity of the party. Were it

A soldier, or doctor, to him was assigned the thumb.
A sailor, the finger next the thumb.
A fool, the middle finger.
A married or diligent person, the fourth or ring finger.
A lover, the last or little finger.

The medicinal or curative power of rings are numerous and, as a matter
of course, founded on imaginary qualities. Thus the wedding ring rubbing
upon that little abscess called the stye, which is frequently seen on
the tarsi of the eyes, is said to remove it. Certain rings are worn as
talismans, either on the fingers or suspended from the neck; the
efficacy of which may be referred to the effects usually produced by
these charms.



Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest