Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, by Charles Godfrey Leland, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE HAUNTS, HOMES, AND HABITS OF WITCHES IN THE SOUTH SLAVIC LANDS—BOGEYS AND HUMBUGS
THE witches in Slavonian gypsy-lore have now and then parties which meet to spin, always by full moonlight on a cross-road. But it is not advisable, says KRAUSS, to pass by on such occasions, as the least they do to the heedless wayfarer is to bewitch and sink him into a deep
sleep. But they are particularly fond of assembling socially in the tops of trees, especially of the ash, walnut, and linden or lime kinds, preferring those whose branches grow in the manner here depicted.
It is but a few days ago, as I write, that I observed all along the route from Padua to Florence thousands of trees supporting vines, which trees had been trained to take this form, the farmers being as much influenced by "luck" in so doing as utility; for it is not really essential that the tree shall so exactly receive this shape, to hold a vine, as is proved by the fact that there are plantations here and there where this method of training the trees is not observed. It is very suggestive of the triçula or trident of Siva, which originated the trushul, or cross of the gypsies. As regards the properties of the ash tree KRAUSS remarks that "roots with magic power grew under ash trees," and quotes a song of a maiden who, having learned that her lover is untrue, replies:—
"Ima trava u okolo Save,
I korenja okolo jasenja,"
"There are herbs by the Save,
And roots around ash trees,"
—meaning that she can prepare a love-potion from these. There is in the Edda a passage in which we are also told that there are magic powers in the roots of trees, the reference being probably to the ash, and possibly to the alraun, or images made of its roots, which are sometimes misnamed mandrakes.
Other resorts of Slavonian gypsy witches are near or in deep woods and ravines, also on dung-hills, or places where ashes, lye, or rubbish is thrown, or among dense bushes. Or as soon as the sun sets they assemble in orchards of plum trees, or among ancient ruins, while on summer nights they hold their revels in barns, old hollow trees, by dark hedges or in subterranean caverns. The peasants greatly dread dung-hills after dark, for fear of cruel treatment by them. When a wild wind is blowing the witches love dearly to dance. Then they whirl about in eddying figures and capers, and when the sweat falls from them woe to the man who treads upon it!—for he will become at once dumb or lame, and may be called lucky should he escape with only an inflammation of the lungs. In fact, if a man even walks in a place where witches have been he will become bewildered or mad, and remain so till driven homeward by hunger. But such places may generally be recognized by their footprints in the sand; for witches have only four toes—the great toe being wanting. These mysterious four toe-tracks, which are indeed often seen, are supposed by unbelievers to be made by wild geese, swans, or wild ducks, but in reply to this the peasant or gypsy declares that witches often take the form of such fowl. And there is, moreover, much Rabbinical tradition which proves that the devil and his friends have feet like peacocks, which are notoriously birds of evil omen, as is set forth by a contributor to The St. James's Gazette, November 16, 1888:—
"Again, take peacocks. Nobody who has not gone exhaustively into the subject can have any adequate idea of the amount of general inconvenience diffused by a peacock. Broken hearts, broken limbs, pecuniary reverses, and various forms of infectious disease have all been traced to the presence of a peacock, or even a peacock feather, on the premises."
The evil reputation of the peacock is due to his having been the only creature who was induced to show Satan the way into Paradise. (For a poem on this subject, vide "Legends of the Birds," by C. G. LELAND, Philadelphia, 1864).
If any one should by chance pop in—like Tam O'Shanter—to an assembly of witches, he must at once quickly cover his head, make the sign of the cross, take three steps backwards and a fourth forwards. Then the witches
cannot injure him. Should a gentleman in London or Brighton abruptly intrude into a five o'clock tea, while Peel or Primrose witches are discussing some specially racy scandal, he should, however, make instantly so many steps backwards as will take him to his overcoat or cane, and then, after a turn, so many down-stairs as will bring him into the street.
If any man should take in his hand from the garden fence anything which a witch has laid there, he will in the same year fall sick, and if he has played with it he must die. There be land-witches and water-witches—whoever goes to swim in a place where these latter are found will drown and his body never be recovered. Sometimes in these places the water is very deep, but perfectly clear, in others it is still and very muddy, to which no one can come within seven paces because of an abominable and stifling vapour. And, moreover, as a dead cat is generally seen swimming on the top of such pools, no one need be endangered by them.
The fact that the gypsy and South Slavonian or Hungarian Folklore is directly derived from classic or Oriental sources is evident from the fact that the Shemitic-Persian devil, who is the head and body of all witchcraft in Western Europe, very seldom appears in that of the Eastern parts. The witches there seem invariably to derive their art from one another; even in Venice they have no unusual fear of death or of a future state. A witch who has received the gift or power of sorcery cannot die till she transfers it to another, and this she often finds it difficult to do, as is illustrated by a story told me in Florence in 1886 by the same girl to whom I have already referred.
"There was a girl here in the city who became a witch against her will. And how? She was ill in a hospital, and by her in a bed was una vecchia, ammalata gravamente, e non poteva morire—an old woman seriously ill, yet who could not die. And the old woman groaned and cried continually, 'Oimé! muoio! A chi lasció? non diceva che.' 'Alas! to whom shall I leave?'—but she did not say what. Then the poor girl, thinking of course she meant property, said: 'Lasciate à me—son tanto povera!' ('Leave it to me—I am so poor!) At once the old woman died, and 'La povera giovana se é trovato in eredita della streghoneria'—the poor girl found she had inherited witchcraft.
"Now the girl went home, where she lived with her brother and mother. And having become a witch she began to go out often by night, which the mother observing, said to her son, 'Qualche volta tu troverai tua sorella colla pancia grossa.' ('Some day you will find your sister with child.') 'Don't think such a thing, mamma,' he replied. 'However, I will find out where it is she goes.'
"So he watched, and one night he saw his sister go out of the door, sullo punto della mezza notte—just at midnight. Then he caught her by the hair, and twisted it round his arm. She began to scream terribly, when—ecco! there came running a great number of cats—e cominciarono a miolare, e fare un gran chiasso—they began to mew and make a great row, and for an hour the sister struggled to escape—but in vain, for her hair was fast—and screamed while the cats screeched, till it struck one, when the cats vanished and the sorella was insensible. But from that time she had no witchcraft in her, and became a buona donna, or good girl, as she had been before—come era prima.'"
It is very evident that in this story there is no diabolical agency, and that the witchcraft is simply a quality which is transferred like a disease, and which may be removed. Thus in Venice—where, as is evident from the works of BERNONI, the witches are of Gypsy-Slavic-Greek origin—a witch loses all her power if made to shed even one drop of blood, or sometimes if she be defeated or found out to be a witch. In none of these countries has she received the horrible character of a mere instrument of a stupendous evil power, whose entire will and work is to damn all mankind (already full of original sin) to eternal torture. For this ne plus ultra of horror could only result from the Hebrew-Persian conception of perfect malignity, incarnate as an anti-god, and be developed by gloomy ascetics who begrudged mankind every smile and every gleam of sunlight. In India and Eastern Europe the witch and demon are simply awful powers of nature, like thunder and pestilence, darkness and malaria, they nowhere appear as aiming at destroying the soul. For such an idea as this it required a theology and mythology emanating from the basis of an absolutely perfect monotheos, which gave birth to an antithesis; infinite good, when concentrated, naturally suggesting a shadow counterpart of evil. In Eastern Europe the witch is, indeed, still confused with the Vila, who was once, and often still is, a benevolent elementary spirit, who often punishes only the bad, and gladly favours the good. It is as
curious as it is interesting to see how, under the influence of the Church, everything which was not directly connected with the current theology was made to turn sour and bitter and poisonous, and how darkness and frost stole over flowery fields which once were gay in genial sunshine. It is a necessary result that in attaining higher ideals the lesser must fade or change. Devilism, or the dread of the child and savage of the powers of darkness and mysterious evil, ends by incarnating all that is painful or terrible in evil spirits, which suggest their opposites. From Devilism results Polytheism, with one leading and good spirit, who in time becomes supreme. Then we have Monotheism. But as evil still exists, it is supposed that there are innately evil powers or spirits who oppose the good. By following the same process the leader of these becomes an anti-type, Lucifer, or Satan, or arch-devil, the result being Dualism. In this we have a spirit endowed with incredible activity and power, who is only not omnipotent, and whose malignity far transcends anything attributed to the gods or devils of Polytheism. His constant aim is to damn all mankind to all eternity, and his power is so great that to save even a small portion of mankind from this fate, God himself, or His own Son, must undergo penance as a man—an idea found in the Buddhism of India. This is all the regular and logical sequence of Fetishism and Shamanism. Witchcraft, and the tales told of it, follow in the path of the religion of the age. In the earliest time women were apparently the only physicians-that is to say magicians-and as man was in his lowest stage the magic was a vile witchcraft. Then came the Shaman—a man who taught in Animism a more refined sorcery, which was, however, as yet the only religion. But the witch still existed, and so she continued to exist, pari passu, through all the developments of religion. And to this day every form and phase of the magician and witch exist somewhere, it sometimes happening that traces of the earliest and most barbarous sorcery are plain and palpable in the most advanced faith. There may be changes of name and of association, but in simple truth it is all "magic" and nothing else.
Gypsy, Hungarian, Slavonian, Indian, and Italian witches, however they may differ from those of Western Europe on theological grounds, agree with them in meeting for the purposes of riotous dancing and debauchery. It has been observed that this kind of erotic dancing appears to have been cultivated in the East, and even in Europe, from the earliest times, by a class of women who, if not absolutely proved to be gypsies, had at any rate many points of resemblance with them. "The Syrian girl who haunts the taverns round," described by VIRGIL, suggests the Syrian and Egyptian dancer, who is evidently of Indo-Persian—that is to say of Nuri, or gypsy—origin. The Spanish dancing girls of remote antiquity have been conjectured to have come from this universal Hindoo Romany stock. I have seen many of the Almeh in Egypt—they all seemed to be gypsyish, and many were absolutely of the Helebi, Nauar, or Rhagarin stocks. This is indeed not proved—that all the deliberately cultivated profligate dancing of the world is of Indo-Persian, or gypsy origin, but there is a great deal, a very great deal, which renders it probable. And it is remarkable that it occurred to PIERRE DELANCRE that the Persian ballerine had much in common with witches. Now the dancers of India are said to have originated in ten thousand gypsies sent from Persia, and who were of such vagabond habits that they could not be persuaded to settle down anywhere. Of these Delancre says:—
"The Persian girls dance at their sacrifices like witches at a Sabbat—that is naked—to the sound of an instrument. And the witches in their accursed assemblies are either entirely naked or en chemise, with a great cat clinging to their back, as many have at divers times confessed. The dame called Volta is the commonest and the most indecent. It is believed that the devil taught three kinds of dances to the witches of Ginevra, and these dances were very wild and rude, since in them they employed switches and sticks, as do those who teach animals to dance.
"And there was in this country a girl to whom the devil had given a rod of iron, which had the power to make any one dance who was touched with it. She ridiculed the judges during her trial, declaring they could not make her die, but they found a way to blunt her petulance.
"The devils danced with the most beautiful witches, in the form of a he-goat, or of any other animal, and coupled with them, so that no married woman or maid ever
came back from these dances chaste as they had gone. They generally dance in a round, back to back, rarely a solo, or in pairs.
"There are three kinds of witch-dances; the first is the trescone alla Boema, or the Bohemian rigadoon" (perhaps the polka), "the second is like that of some of our work-people in the country, that is to say by always jumping" (this may be like the Tyrolese dances), "the third with the back turned, as in the second rigadoon, in which all are drawn up holding one another by the hand, and in a certain cadence hustling or bumping one another, deretano contro deretano. These dances are to the sound of a tambourine, a flute, a violin, or of another instrument which is struck with a stick. Such is the only music of the Sabbat, and all witches assert that there are in the world no concerts so well executed."
"A tambourine, a violin, a flute," with perhaps a zimbel, which is struck with a stick. Does not this describe to perfection gypsy music, and is not the whole a picture of the wildest gypsy dancing wherever found? Or it would apply to the Hindoo debauches, as still celebrated in honour of Sakktya, "the female principle" in India. In any case the suggestion is a very interesting one, since it leads to the query as to whether the entire sisterhood of ancient strolling, licentious dancers, whether Syrian, Spanish, or Egyptian, were not possibly of Indian-gypsy origin, and whether, in their character as fortune-tellers and sorceresses, they did not suggest the dances said to be familiar to the witches.
Mr. DAVID RITCHIE, the editor, with Mr. FRANCIS GROOME, of the Journal of the Gypsy-Lore Society, has mentioned (vol. i. No. 2) that KLINGSOHR, a reputed author of the "Nibelungen Lied," was described as a "Zingar wizard" by DIETRICH the Thuringian. Like ODIN, this KLINGSOHR rode upon a wolf—a kind of steed much affected by witches and sorcerers. There is an old English rhyming romance in which a knight is represented as disguising himself as an Ethiopian minstrel. These and other stories—as, for instance, that of Sir Estmere—not only indicate a connection between the characters of minstrel and magician, but suggest that some kind of men from the far East first suggested the identity between them. Of course there have been wild dancers and witches, and minstrel-sorcerers, or vates, prophet-poets, in all countries, but it may also be borne in mind that nowhere in history do we find the female erotic
dancer and fortune-teller, or witch, combined in such vast numbers as in India and Persia, and that these were, and are, what may be truly called gypsies. Forming from prehistoric times a caste, or distinct class, it is very probable that they roamed from India to Spain, possibly here and there all over Europe. The extraordinary diplomatic skill, energy, and geographic knowledge displayed by the first band of gypsies who, about 1417, succeeded in rapidly obtaining permits for their people to wander in every country in Europe except England, indicate great unity of plan and purpose. That these gypsies, as supposed sorcerers, appearing in every country in Europe, should not have influenced and coloured in some way the conceptions of witchcraft seems to be incredible. If a superstitious man had never before in his life thought of witches dancing to the devil's music, it might occur to him when looking on at some of the performances of Spanish and Syrian gypsy women, and if the man had previously been informed—as everybody was in the fifteenth century or later—that these women were all witches and sorceresses, it could hardly fall to occur to him that it was after this fashion that the sisters danced at the Sabbat. Of which opinion all that can be said is, that if not proved it is extremely possible, and may be at least probed and looked into by those of the learned who are desirous of clearly establishing all the grounds and origins of ancient religious beliefs and superstitions, in which pies it may be found that witches and gypsies have had fingers to a far greater extent than grave historians have ever imagined.
The English gypsies believe in witches, among their own people, and it is very remarkable that in such cases at least as I have heard of, they do not regard them as âmes damnées or special limbs of Satan, but rather as some kinds of exceptionally gifted sorceresses or magicians. They are, however, feared from their supposed power to make mischief. Such a witch may be known by her hair, which is straight for three or four inches and then begins to curl—like a waterfall which comes down smoothly and then rebounds roundly on the rocks. It may be here remarked that all this gypsy conception of the witch is distinctly Hindoo and not in
the least European or of Christians, with whom she is simply a human devil utterly given over to the devil's desires. And it is very remarkable that even the English gypsies do not associate such erring sisters—or any other kind—with the devil, as is done by their more cultivated associates.
The witch, in gypsy as in other lore, is a haunting terror of the night. It has not, that I am aware, ever been conjectured that the word Humbug is derived from the Norse hum, meaning night, or shadows (tenebræ) (JONÆO, "Icelandic Latin glossary in Niall's Saga"), and bog, or bogey, termed in several old editions of the Bible a bug, or "bugges." And as bogey came to mean a mere scarecrow, so the hum-bugges or nightly terrors became synonymes for feigned frights. "A humbug, a false alarm, a bug-bear" ("Dean Milles MS." HALLIWELL). The fact that bug is specialty applied to a nocturnal apparition, renders the reason for the addition of hum very evident.
There is a great deal that is curious in this word Bogey. Bug-a-boo is suggestive of the Slavonian Bog and Buh, both meaning God or a spirit. Boo or bo is a hobgoblin in Yorkshire, so called because it is said to be the first word which a ghost or one of his kind utters to a human being, to frighten him. Hence, "he cannot say bo to a goose." Hence boggart, bogle, boggle, bo-guest, i.e., bar-geist, boll, boman, and, probably allied, bock (Devon), fear. Bull-beggar is probably a form of bu and bogey or boge, allied to boll (Northern), an apparition.