Friday, October 4, 2019

Relics of Ancient Superstitions in Modern Greece (An Essay from 1856)

By Prof. Henry Martyn Baird (1832–1906)
Author of Modern Greece, A Narrative of a Residence and Travels in that Country (1856)

It is not my intention, in the present paper, to investigate the nature of superstition; nor shall I attempt to account for its origin and prevalence. In some form or other, it has existed in every country with which we are acquainted, and, at the present day, it can boast of as many slaves as in the most remote antiquity. This is a fact which Mr. De Quincey, in his admirable essay on Modern Superstition, has exhibited in a clear light. The European as well as the Asiatic, the inhabitant of Christian England, equally with the pagan, are firm believers in the reality of a vague and mysterious influence exercised over man, and the natural objects with which he is connected, by a superior order of beings.

There are some superstitions notions which are so widely diffused over the globe, that they seem to belong to no one country in particular, but, with slight differences, to be indigenous in each. Such, for example, is the belief in witchcraft, or supernatural power derived from compacts with Satan or other evil spirits. But others are no less clearly marked as peculiar, in their main features, to a district or country. I shall refer to a few examples comprised in this class now prevailing in Greece. The investigation of these is not merely a curious one, but of considerable weight in substantiating the proofs of the virtual identity of the Greek people in ancient and modern times, which are derived from sameness of character, language and manners. For although it is undoubtedly true that there may take place in the lapse of ages a gradual transfer of some characteristics from the conquered to the conquering race, the process is difficult, and becomes impossible when the races are far removed in point of cultivation, and dissimilar in taste. The simultaneous adoption of national characteristics, of language, manners and modes of thought, from a heterogeneous people, is an occurrence, of which history presents us no example.

Among the most inveterate forms of superstition prevalent in Greece, as well as in some parts of Italy, at the present day, is that which is popularly known under the name of the "Evil Eye" The earliest writings we possess contain reference to it. So great was supposed to be the power of envy, that the object towards which it was directed insensibly wasted away, unless its mysterious influence was destroyed by a more potent charm or incantation. Nor were its deleterious operations said to emanate from the eye alone, but the voice and even the breath were equally effective. Children were most exposed to this fascination, or bascania, as it was termed by the Greeks; yet it was maintained that adults were by no means exempt from it. It was even pretended that in distant parts of the globe, such as Africa, there were tribes who were so skilled in this magical art, that whole flocks of sheep fell victims to its ravages, while the giant trees of the forest withered as though before a devouring heat.

The marvelous power of the Evil Eye was called out by the sight of uninterrupted prosperity. Hence it was, that the ancients entertained so great apprehensions, when all their plans had been crowned with success. The story of Polycrates, of Samos, with which every reader of Greek history is familiar, furnishes an apt illustration. Herodotus tells us that, under the auspices of this tyrant, the small city of Samos enjoyed such unprecedented good-fortune, that, from insignificance, it reached the first rank among maritime states. His ships of war obtained the mastery of the sea, and effected considerable conquests, which were but the prelude to still greater successes. He was no less happy in his private undertakings, and opulence and elegance were displayed in his palaces. A faithful friend, however, had watched the course of his affairs with anxious solicitude, and, when he could no longer dissemble his fears, sent to warn the prince lest his excessive prosperity should excite the envy of the gods. Polycrates, it is said, obeying the suggestions of his adviser, took a seal which he prized for its extraordinary beauty, and cast it into the sea; in order, by a self-inflicted loss, to avert the jealousy which he might have incurred. But the gods, who had determined to destroy him, refused to accept this propitiation; and the seal was shortly after returned to him, having been discovered in the belly of a fish. His former friend, learning his ill-luck (as he regarded it), renounced his alliance, that he might not be a partaker in the fate which was soon to overtake the Samian tyrant.

The means employed to avert fascination were various. Anything disgusting or ludicrous answered the purpose; and hence arose the amulets which are seen sculptured on antique monuments, and are occasionally brought to light by excavation on ancient sites. The modern Greeks use the more sensible device of fastening a small bag about the necks of their children, containing a slip of paper, with a verse of Scripture written upon it; and it is said that the Turks turn the Koran to the same account.

An attentive traveler, even in Athens, will discover traces of the existence of this singular superstition among the people. When a Greek stops to admire a pretty child, he will, while taking it in his arms, or praising its beauty, spit on the ground before it. Nor will its mother, or nurse, disapprove of the action. The reason of this custom will be understood with a very little explanation. Praise, especially when excessive, is supposed to have the effect of fascinating its object; and, unless it be counteracted, the child must soon fall a victim to it. The most approved antidote among both ancients and moderns is spittle; and the ancients went so far as to state, that even pigeons covered their young with saliva, to guard them against fascination. Mr. Dodwell, in his Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (II., 35), relates an amusing incident, in illustration of this absurd practice. In the course of his rambles through the island of Corfu, the ancient Corcyra, he was invited into a neat cottage, and entertained with the delicious fruit and the wine of the country. His hosts had two remarkably fine children, who happened to be playing about; and thinking to gratify their parental pride, he tells us, he was lavish in his praises of the children. But, when he had repeated his admiration two or three times, the aged grandmother started up in alarm from a corner of the room, seized the children, and, dragging them to him, entreated him to spit in their faces. This strange request, which he at first imagined to proceed from a crazed mind, was supported by the parents of the children; but not until a Greek, who happened to be with him, had explained, "that, in order to destroy the evil effects of his superlative encomiums, the only remedy was, for him to spit in the faces of the children," could he bring himself to perform the ungracious duty. Not content with this operation, however, to which the children submitted with little or no repugnance, the mother took some oil from a lamp burning before the picture of the Virgin, which, as usual, decorated the interior of the cottage, and, mixing it with a handful of clay, placed a patch of it upon the forehead of each. This double precaution was supposed to prove entirely effectual.

Still another protection against the Evil Eye must be mentioned, which seems to have been as much in vogue in antiquity as it is in our day. I quote from A. Coray, the distinguished scholar of the former part of this century. "In Greece, the least educated part of the people even now believe that the glance of an envious person can injure physically by certain effluvia, which start like darts from his eyes, and strike the object of his envy. Is it a fine tree that a person looks upon with jealous eyes? It will quickly wither away. Is it an animal? It must perish. Is it a man, but especially a child? He will begin by languishing, and end by being the victim of the envy. But what must be done to protect one's self against the invisible arrows of this passion? Ask old gossips; they will recommend you, if the patient is a child, for instance, to tie upon its head a clove of garlic with the claw of that kind of crab known by the name of Cancer Pagurus, and which the modern Greeks call by the name of pagourion. Armed with this sort of amulet, which possesses the property of blunting the darts of envy, nothing more is to be feared from the envious."

There are yet other points of resemblance in this singular superstition, which prove the similarity of the form in which it now exists to that under which it flourished in ancient times. But enough has been adduced to satisfy the curious. I pass, therefore, to some other forms of superstition, in which the connection with the past is scarcely less apparent.

No one has attentively studied the character of the Greeks without observing the importance which was attributed to the employment of words of good omen. All names were studiously avoided which contained any allusion to misfortune. Cities even received new appellations when evil appeared to be associated with their previous ones. To such an extent was this reverential awe carried, that those very deities, whose chief aim was supposed to be the infliction of injury upon the human race, were known by titles implying the reverse of their well-known characters. The Furies, a race hostile to gods and men, were styled, in ordinary speech, "the well-disposed;" and the people were as careful to avoid exciting their enmity, by calling them hard names, as they were to load their altars with offerings. The modern Greek employs a similar euphemism when speaking of the small-pox. No disease, probably, has proved more disastrous in its visitations among the ignorant peasantry. This was particularly the case until the last few years; for there were no skillful practitioners to furnish remedies to the distressed. Yet this frightful malady, which has cursed so many a poor man's cabin, is mentioned by the anxious mother only as Eulogia, "the Blessing," Synchoremene, "the Forgiven."

The ordinary ballads, which, for many ages, have constituted so large a portion of the literature of Greece, bear abundant testimony to the assertion that many of the ancient superstitions of the country have their counterpart in those of the nineteenth century. By this, of course, is not meant that they are presented to our view in precisely the same shape. It would certainly be unreasonable to entertain such an expectation. Not to dwell on the fact that the mere length of time which has intervened must have left its impress on these, as upon everything else, we should not forget the modifications produced by great political revolutions, and by still greater changes in religion. It is singular, however, that, notwithstanding all these, many traces of antiquity yet remain. The name of Charon, the famous ferryman of the Styx, is, even now, in the mouths of the people; but his occupation has been altered. He is regarded as the conductor of souls to the lower regions, and mostly represents Death itself.

A considerable portion of the mythology of the ancient Greeks was framed by the impersonification of natural objects and agencies. Earth, air, and sea, were filled with these imaginary divinities; and mountains and forests possessed their hosts of guardian spirits. A similar superstition manifests itself in the ballads. The plague is represented sometimes as a blind woman who, in wandering about, is obliged to follow the walls; and hence, when it prevails, the superstitious are careful to keep as much as possible to the centre of their houses. In some ballads, the plague appears as a trio who, with paper, scissors, and broom, nearly discharge the functions of the ancients Fates. The lofty summit of Scardamyla, near Sparta, is believed by the neighboring rustics to be the habitation of three virgins who continually dance together, and precipitate over the rocks any unfortunate stranger that ventures to approach their retreat.

The testimony thus obtained from the superstitions of the modern Greeks, is a valuable auxiliary to that derived from their language and customs. After a long period of detraction, the truth is obtaining a hold in the minds of the educated, that the Greeks of our time are the legitimate offspring of the brave warriors of Marathon and Thermopylae. Their language, not exempt, it is true, from many a corruption, is still the language of Demosthenes and Plato: as in the sculptures of their own magnificent Parthenon, the fair outline may be marred in part by the tooth of time, yet, in some spot more protected than the rest, may be seen the mark of the chisel of a Phidias. In like manner, we have noticed the resemblance of some of the forms of superstition now prevalent to those of former times. More careful and thorough examination of this subject, on the part of scholars, would, doubtless, be rewarded by the discovery of many additional facts which might confirm and throw light upon the allusions of classical authors.

From The Young Men's Magazine, vol. 1, 1858, pp. 204-208.