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Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday , December 25, 1841, pp.387-388.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]



   THE present article, we conceive, may fitly be introduced towards the close of the lengthened series of papers which have now been given up on the subject of Superstitions. Its purpose is to review a number of the most remarkable phenomena recorded in history, which have been viewed by ignorance and credulity as miracles and prodigies, as well as to examine how far these were attributable either to the simple and spontaneous agency of nature, or to the practices of designing men, better skilled in occult sciences than those on whom they sought to impose. A very able work on this subject was published in Paris a few years ago by M. Eusebe Salverte, which, though not translated, as far as we are aware, into English, was so minutely and ably reviewed in the Foreign Quarterly Review at the time of its appearance, that we have the advantage of possessing a full sketch of the learned author’s investigations. This treatise, with some others on the same subject, and particularly the recent work called Thaumaturgia, supply ample materials for our comparatively brief sketch. 

   Of the class of seemingly marvellous phenomena referable to the simple operation of natural causes, whether unseen, neglected, or misunderstood, numberless instances might be drawn from the pages of history – and instances where the attestation is too strong to permit a doubt of the actual occurrence of the apparent marvel. Take, for example, the much-famed miracle which Milton thus speaks of: 

“Thammuz came next behind; 

Whose annual wound in Lebanon allured 

The Syrian damsels to lament his fate 

In amorous ditties all a summer’s day; 

While smooth Adonis from his native rock 

Ran purple to the sea, supposed with blood 

Of Thammuz, yearly wounded.” 

   This marvel arose from the fact of the river Adonis being impregnated during certain seasons with dust raised from the red soil of Mount Libanus, near which its course lay. Any man of common acuteness, who took the trouble to look into this matter, must have discovered the truth, but the ignorant public were perfectly contented with the supernatural solution, and there the matter rested. Again, a rock near Corfu bore, and still bears, the likeness of a ship. It was accordingly set down, in the religious creed of Greece and Rome, as the identical Phæacian ship which Neptune turned into stone, on account of its having previously borne Ulysses, the slayer of his son Polypheme. A number of similar resemblances have since been discovered; and one, existing near the Cape of Good Hope, has been held by some as the real origin of the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Certain plants, also, are mentioned by Pliny as having the “magical property” of congealing water. The truth here, is, that the juice of vegetables of a highly mucilaginous character becomes inspissated or highly thickened on being poured into water, but of course quite in a natural manner. A like erroneous interpretation of a simple natural fact was made by Virgil in the case of silk. He says that it was gathered by the seres “from the leaves of the trees on which it grew,” when it was only deposited there by the silk-worm. When very young, a brood of rattlesnakes was observed to retreat into the mouth of the mother on the approach of danger; and this at once raised the report, which Virgil sanctions, that such animals bring their progeny into the world by the mouth. 

   Other marvels of a purely natural origin are mentioned in abundance by the historian of Rome. For example, they describe with awe the appearance of two suns at one time in the heavens.* This is a phenomenon which has often been witnessed in [Britain] and other places, and is caused simply by the clouds being so arranged as to reflect the image of the actual luminary. Armies were seen in old days fighting in the air;** and as the phenomenon always took place when mortal troops were really campaigning on the solid earth, the appearance was held as a fearful supernatural omen. The same thing has been seen in recent times. Sully, an unquestionable authority, saw troops battling in the air before the battle of Ivry. His master, Henry, was then skirmishing at a short distance, and, beyond doubt, the appearance was caused by the reflection in a peculiar state of the atmosphere. This explains why the marvel always took place when armies were really in the field. If it be remarked that it was frequently observed on the eve of and not during battle, we believe the explanation of this to be, that the reflected semblance of an army, even when at rest, would be so wavering and so much broken, as to have the appearance of troops actually in an engagement. Again, fiery spears are mentioned as having been seen in the heavens. We need not go beyond the boreal lights for an interpretation of this species of vision. Showers of milk, or blood, of stones, of ashes, and of frogs, have all been paralleled in our own times; or at least substances have fallen which might really receive some of these appellations, while, in other cases, they did not come from the sky at all. The blood red spots left on stones and leaves in summer are deposited, it is now known, by flies, and those seen on snow have been ascertained to be a vegetable production. Milky spots might readily result from the solution of light-coloured aerolites in water, or from a fall of them mixed with snow. In May 1819, hailstones of a great size, some of them weighing a pound, fell in the commune of Grignoncourt, in the department of the Vosges. On being allowed to melt, a thin coffee-coloured stone, flat, and about the size of a two-franc piece, with a hole in the centre, was found in each. The solution of these would produce a dingy milky appearance in water. As to falls of simple stones, there are too common to require explanation. Millions of them fell at one time within these few weeks in the north of Europe. Showers of frogs and fishes are also too frequent in Scotland alone to render a supernatural interpretation necessary. 

   Of natural phenomena such as these, the priests and soothsayers of antiquity took ample advantage, always interpreting them in any way they thought fit. They could, however, make miracles, when nature gave them none. It may be inferred that the Chaldean magi, for example, possessed sciences, though self-interest and the rules of their caste dictated its concealment from the general public. Their undoubted advances in astronomy and other exact sciences lead us to such a conclusion, and it is borne out by our acquaintance with their studies. the learned Jew, Moses Maimonides, reveals to us that the first part of the Chaldean magic consisted in the study of metals, plants, and animals; the second comprehended the study of the weather, the air, astronomy generally, and the fit times and seasons for experimental and magical operations; while the third part of the course had reference to the ceremonies to be practised at or before such processes. While the first part of the course directly indicates the pointed attention paid by these earliest philosophers of the world to chemistry, organic, and inorganic, even the last section of the course must be viewed as of importance in the case of experimental deceptions. It would be very convenient for a trickster to tell his dupes that the success of the marvel depended on their adherence to certain rules, such as shutting their eyes at a fixed period in the operations. To envelop a simple fact in a cloud of unmeaning rules was the best way, moreover, of giving it a mystic and profound character. Here also lies the cause of much acquired knowledge being lost in the course of time, instead of augmentations being made to it. The later magic possessed, for the most part, but the shadow without the substance. 

   In entering into details respecting the knowledge possessed by the ancients in the physical sciences, we must take up the subject at a period somewhat later than that of the Chaldean magi. But we have various hints respecting the early physics of the East in existing works. The flying-chariot, for example, of the 110th and 115th nights of the Arabian Tales, is mentioned not as a magical structure, but as a master-piece of human art. A vessel with a small boat attached to it is also mentioned in these tales. The description of this machine comes very near to that of a balloon. “The vessel,” it is said, “shooting into the air, rapidly transports the traveller to the place of his destination.” As attempts have apparently been made by man in all ages to traverse the air, it is not unlikely that the idea of this machine may have been suggested by some real attempts at aërostation with rarefied air. The astonishing tricks of the modern Indian jugglers, now well known, seem to have been early practised. the old writer Apollonius mentions, that when he visited an Indian temple, the priests struck the ground in cadence with their wands, and the ground undulated like the sea to the height of about two yards. It is probable that the wands gave the signal here to a scene-shifter. Some light is thrown on the mechanical means by which this trick was effected, by the visible remains of a similar kind of apparatus in the sanctuary of the temple of Ceres at Eleusis. The floor is rough, unpolished, and on a much lower level than that of the entrance portico. That a moveable wooden floor once covered this, is rendered extremely probable by the existence of two deep grooves, which apparently received pulleys for raising some heavy body; there are also grooves in which the counterpoises might have been suspended, and eight large holes, pierced in as many blocks of marble raised above the ground, in which pegs might have been inserted, to fix, when necessary, the wood-work at its proper level. Priests in India, and priests in Greece, seem to have been all of one kidney. 

   Apollonius also saw tripods or stools, which, like those of Olympus mentioned by Homer, took their places at table without any apparent moving cause. great mechanical ingenuity must have been exercised in such a case as this, to hide the process from the eyes of an acute and inquisitive stranger. The Roman magistrates, in the year 186 B.C., detected the trick of a machine which raised into the air individuals whom the priests wished to represent as carried off by the gods; and the same kind of machine was afterwards openly introduced into the theatres. 

   The knowledge of acoustics possessed by the ancients is shown to have been very considerable, by the numerous marvels reported of the oracles of old, the contrivances effecting which have been discovered in many cases. Being a faculty dependent on man’s physical constitution, the counterfeiting of sounds, or ventriloquism, must doubtless have been a customary practice with the priests. At the command of the gymnosophists of Upper Egypt, a tree spoke to Apollonius. “The voice was distinct, but weak, and similar to the voice of a woman.” Though the “weakness” would indicate the concealment of the speaker (a child, most probably) in the tree, yet a knowledge of the art of Monsieur Alexandre would have accomplished the trick even without resorting to such means. But the common stratagem in the case of oracular images and heads was simply the dexterous concealment of some party in or near the image. Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, exposed the cheats of the pagan priesthood by showing that their talking statues were hollow within, and communicated with dark passages in the walls. At Pompeii, at this hour, such passages are visible in the sanctuaries of the temples. A knowledge of acoustics would be requisite to render even these contrivances safe and available, but the ancients were acquainted with deeper secrets connected with the science. “As an engine of terror, we find the imitative thunder of the Egyptian Labyrinth (Plin. Hist. Nat. xxxvi. 13), and a contrivance which distinguished this model of all similar buildings was likely to be repeated in every other. Organs, hydraulic organs especially, were well known to the ancients. The inference, we think, is plain in the latter case, and the former leads at once to the supposition of some scheme analogous to that employed for the invisible girl, and exhibitions of a similar description; an hypothesis which throws some light upon the expression of Mercurius Trismegistus, that the Egyptian priests ‘possessed the art of constructing gods,’ statues endued with intelligence, which predicted the future, and interpreted dreams (Merc. Tris. Pymander. Asclepius, 145, 165). He even states that theurgists devoted to less pure doctrines could make gods, statues animated by demons, and which, by supernatural virtues, were but slightly inferior to the sacred works of the true priests; in other words, says M. Salverte, the same secret in physics was employed by two rival colleges of priests. The principles which govern the reverberation of sound are so easily to be apprehended by an acute observer, that however absurd may have been the exoteric doctrines of the priests with regard to echo, we can scarcely suppose them to have been ignorant, if not of its true nature, at least of the laws by which it is governed; and adding this to the fact, that under peculiar circumstances an echo has been returned from the clouds, there will be found few more efficient instruments of delusion and terror.” 

   The most effective principles of the science of optics are so simple in their character, that the discovery of them by the ancients can scarcely be doubted; and it is reasonable, also, to conclude, that from them sprung the illusive appearances of spirits, demons, palaces, and the like, presented by the priesthood to the people. The rudest form of the camera requires, we know, but a small aperture in the side of an otherwise perfectly dark room, and yet that shape of the instrument is a perfectly efficient one. Could we believe such a natural phenomenon to have escaped the eyes of men so generally acute as the priests of antiquity? Again, does not the following passage almost demonstrate that the phantasmagoria is not a modern invention, but a re-discovery? It is from a very ancient writer. “In a manifestation which ought not to be revealed… there appeared on the wall of the temple a mass of light, which seems at first very distant; it transforms itself, as if in contracting, into a face evidently divine and supernatural, but of a severe aspect, mingled with mildness, and very beautiful. According to what is taught in a mysterious religion, the Alexandrians honour this as Osiris and Adonis.” The Foreign Quarterly reviewer, already quoted, thus speaks on the subject of the optical knowledge of the ancients. “Under the head of Optics, M. Salverte slightly considers the question if telescopes were known to the ancients, which he answers in the affirmative; to this conclusion we had long since arrived, and shall briefly state the grounds on which that opinion principally depends. If we admit that tradition must have truth for its basis, the traditionary evidence on this point is strong, the direct evidence the same, the inductions still stronger. Aristotle (Meteor. I) states that mirrors were employed by the Greeks when they surveyed the appearances of the heavens. We learn from D’Herbelot that the Persians pretend that Alexander the Great found a mirror in Babylon in which the universe was represented. The Pharos of Alexandria is said to have contained, under the Ptolemies, a mirror in which the approach of distant vessels might be discerned. Strabo remarks (lib. iii. c. 138), that vapours produce the same effect as the tubes in magnifying objects of vision by refraction, thereby implying, as Sir William Drummond has observed, that lenses were placed in the tubes of the dioptrons. In the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, night 606, an ivory tube one foot in length and one inch in diameter, furnished with a glass at each extremity, is spoken of, by applying which tube to the eye, objects that we desire to see may be discovered. Roger Bacon speaks of Cæsar having examined the coast of Britain from that of Gaul by means of a glass. That the use of metallic mirrors was well known to the ancients, is evident. Aulus Gellius (Noet. Att. xvi. 18), on the authority of Varro, mentions mirrors which presented multiplied and inverted images, and, what is more remarkable, which in a particular position lost the property of reflecting. The stories of the destruction of the Roman fleet by the burning mirror of Archimedes, and that of Vitalian by a similar contrivance of Proclus, may be apocryphal, without invalidating the fact that the ancients knew that such a use might be made of them; and from this to the examination of the image formed in their focus, the interval was trifling. But further, the exquisite delicacy of the engraving of antique gems seems to involve the supposition of some arrangement of lenses corresponding to a microscope, which again implies some previous knowledge of the telescope, particularly if the statement of Suidas is to be considered conclusive as to the fact that burning mirrors were occasionally made of glass.” Sir William Drummond also points out the strong improbability that the ancients could have attained their astronomical knowledge without the aid of proper instruments. From their numbering fifteen planetary bodies, for example, it is reasonable to infer that the Brahmins had discovered the satellites of Jupiter. It is certain that the Persians and Egyptians believed the Milky Way to be a galaxy of stars, a fact only verified by Galileo with the telescope. 

   This subject, we find, cannot be satisfactorily reviewed in one article. The chemistry of the ancients, with other sciences, will therefore be taken up in another number. 

*  In Balfour’s ‘Historical Works’ (1824), for the year 1441, we’re told; 

“The year 1441 was very memorable for [omens] and wonders. In March, the 17th day, appeared 3 suns in the firmament, at [noon] of the day; and in August, a fearful comet, having a crowned sword hanging from it. After which ensued a great [grumbling] of all kinds of beasts, and famine of corn and [food].” – James II., pp.166-189

**  Reports of which appear both in Chambers’ ‘Domestic Annals’ (1885) under the year 1564; 

“In the ensuing month meteorological signs even more alarming to the great Reformer took place. There were seen in the firmament (Feb. 15 and 18), says he, ‘battles arrayit, spears and other weapons, and as it had been the joining of two armies. Thir things were not only observed, but also spoken and constantly affirmed by men of judgment and credit.’ Nevertheless, he adds, ‘the queen and our court made merry.’ 

The Reformer considered these appearances as declarations of divine wrath against the iniquity of the land. Most probably they were resolvable into a simple example of the aurora borealis.” – Reign of Mary, 1561-1565, pp.13-29

and in Balfour’s ‘Historical Works’ (1824) under the year 1529; 

“In Agust, this same zeire, light candells appeire one the topes of the mountans, neir Stirling, befor the sune; and 2 battalions of armed men seeme to skirmishe, in order of batell, in the firmament, to the grate astonishment of maney thousands that did behold the same.” – James V., pp.238-275

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