[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]

CHAPTER IV
DIVINATIONS AND OBSERVANCES

" Lheie ersooyl myr hay er ny sleityn as myr heayn er y traie."
" To melt away as the mist from the mountains and as the ebbing tide froze the shore."

(Manx charm.)

1. Divinations.

CERTAIN traditional rites and customs surviving at the present day or till quite recently, and practised, many of them, on special days of the calendar, remain to be added to those described by Waldron and Train, and by others after them. Any one custom must not necessarily be understood to belong exclusively to one particular day, for the date of observance in some cases varies in different districts.

The Manx people has inherited a strong faith in that species of the unseen which is not countenanced by orthodox Christianity. From this naturally springs a desire to question the invisible powers about one's future and to influence them in the questioner's favour.

There is a lingering belief which is not unlike a reflex of the Platonic doctrine of the Creation, a belief that every human being has a visible star in the sky which corresponds to, or is in sympathy with, him or her. More than once I have heard from a companion looking up at the night sky the speculation, " I wonder which is my star ? " A well-known method of divination by the stars is to count seven of them on seven successive nights, and after the last enumeration your future husband or wife will come to you in a dream. Another way of using the seven stars is to wish silently after the seventh count, and your wish will shortly be fulfilled.1 I used to class these ideas as offshoots from the vulgarized astrology of palmists, gypsies, and other popular tellers of fortunes, but I am inclined now to see in them an adaptation of the general European beliefs of the same purport, though those may have been derived from an astrological source. For was it not the sweet influences of the Pleiades, the Seven Stars in chief, which our forefathers and mothers sought to bind with their spells ?

A wish, also, may be formulated to oneself, with some hope of fulfilment, during the passage of a shooting-star across the heavens. What looks like a modern adaptation of the same rite is attached to the Wishing Gate on the Lewaigue Hill road near Ramsey, Here you must lean over the gate, watch for the red flash from the Point of Ayre lighthouse, and formulate your wish when it appears.

If a shooting-star seems to come towards the direction in which one is walking or facing, it is a lucky sign ; if it seems to go away, it is unlucky.

Another wishing-spot also overlooks the sea. The groove of rock at Scarlett known as Cromwell's Walk has a flat place half-way along its ledge called Cromwell's Chair. Sit on it and wish. If you are favoured by the genius loci your wish will come true in three hours, days, weeks, months, or years-there will be a three in it, at all events. This belief dates back at least thirty years. St. Maughold's Chair, by his well on a sea-cliff at Maughold, had a similar reputation for granting wishes, but the number three was not involved, so far as I know. Some of the Manx holy wells, which are equally potent, have been dealt with in the first Scrapbook.

To return now to methods of divination. An outpost of clairvoyance or the Second Sight is the power of recognizing and interpreting natural omens. By this I mean the discerning of future events by means of an object which is taken as a symbol, or which in some cases delivers its message by its actual resemblance to something familiar ; whereas the true Sight thrusts its symbol or its picture upon the consciousness from an inner source by its own mysterious energy. In both kinds of vision the coming event is apprehended in a sudden inspiration or illumination ; both constitute a prophetic faculty which shades off, through the practice of divination by a recognized ritual, into the various methods of casual fortune - telling and omen - reading which sometimes reveal or develop an innate faculty but are more often worthless. The ability to see and read " signs " seems to have for its physical basis that visualizing power by which some persons can, for example, " see things in the fire," often in a purely fanciful way and without reference to realities or actual events. But these cloudy regions of the mind do not lend themselves easily to definitions and distinctions, and a specimen of what they produce will be more useful than any attempts to analyse them.

For example, configurations among natural objects sometimes present themselves, into which a symbolic shape or meaning can be read by an imaginative mind. J.M., a man I know fairly well, while walking on the hills notices some arrangement of bushes or clouds, flocks of animals or birds, or the shape of a distant fold-he avoids or is unable to give an exact description of what he sees-which reminds him of a coffin; and he says there will very shortly be a death in the district. When he and his companion get back that evening they hear that a woman who has been lying sick for a long time has just died.

More commonly practised is the questioning of the future deliberately by a recognized ritual. A woman whom I knew in Ramsey, Mrs. C., practised for her own benefit, and for others without payment, a method which is employed in England also. She melted lead in a pan over the kitchen fire and dropped it slowly into a basin of clear water. From the shapes taken by the cooling metal she made her predictions. Her scrutiny of the contents of the basin may have served to evoke a glimmering of clairvoyance, for she hit the mark oftener than she was likely to do by intelligent guessing.

In the Dalby and Glen May district there is a practice (also followed in Britain, e.g. in Northamptonshire, and in Brittany) of noticing and writing down the doings of the weather on New Year's Day and each of the successive eleven days, making twelve altogether. Some people begin with Old New Year's Day. As these twelve days are as to weather, so will be the ensuing twelve months, month for day. In other parts of the Island the particulars are recorded from the first day of February, a date which is in any case concerned with the weather of the future as prognosticated by the appearances and actions of the Calliagh and of St. Maughold.2 The importance of 1st February is partly explained by the Manxman's custom of reckoning Spring to consist of February, March and April; Summer of May, June and July; Autumn of August, September and October ; while the three remaining months belong to Winter. The modern names for the months in Manx merely describe their respective positions in these seasons—the first month of Spring, and so on. The two Manx dictionaries, however, have between them preserved for us four month-names of an earlier type: Mee ny Mannan, Mee ny Meayllagh, Yn Baaltin, and Yn Sauin.

Another method of foretelling the future in the Dalby district on Twelfth Night was to place " hibbin " (ivy) leaves in a bowl or pan of fresh and clean spring-water, a separate leaf for each person concerned, just as in the use of the salt-heaps. These leaves were left undisturbed on the hearth all night, and according to the varying depths to which they had sunk by the following morning was presaged the health of each person concerned. If your leaf was half-way down in the water, it meant a serious illness, but you would recover. If the leaf had settled at the bottom, it meant death. If it remained floating on the surface, that was a sure sign that all would go well with you during the next twelve months. Omens were also taken from the appearance of fine cracks in the leaves after their over-night immersion ; these were considered to be a bad sign, generally speaking, but the exact rules for interpreting the patterns do not seem to be clearly remembered. A similar practice was carried out in Cornwall, also on Twelfth Night.3 Among the many hill-tops appointed for the ceremonial bonfires on Midsummer, May Eve and November Eve-one or another of these dates, or all of them, were thus signalized in different placeswere two which I have not seen mentioned in this connexion : Cronk Illiu at the southern end of Patrick parish, and Slieu Chairn [sic Chiarn] in Lonan. On the shapely summit of the latter hill the fires were encircled by a ring of dancers. At other times, spectral fires were seen there in the darkness by dwellers below, which had left no marks of burning when the ground was examined by daylight. At sunrise on May morning—alternatively on the morning of Easter Day—the figure of a tall youth was traditionally expected to be visible from the foot of the hill, moving across the summit from East to West. If a man who had a dispute with another man ran round the cairn three times he would get the better of his adversary. And a kind of moss which grew there was useful in lovecharms.4

The tall shape moving westward is reminiscent of a charm used by girls at a river-pool named Lhing Berrey Dhone in the neighbouring parish of Maughold at the rising of the harvest moon :

" Berrey, Berrey, give to me
My true lover's form to see!
If he walks from East to West
I'll wed within the year at best," etc.

It may not have been unconnected with the presence of the lucky herb just mentioned that young men used to go to the top of Slieu Chairn to wish for good fortune in their love-affairs, or even to get a sight of their future wives. From a letter by the same hand as the foregoing notes concerning that hill I have permission to quote the following account of such a rite:

" On May Eve a newly-sharpened sickle was carried up the hill, and certain herbs were cut with it, in silence, on the way up, also some gorse-bons 5 and rushes. At the top of the hill a big sod was cut out, and the diviner stood on the bare place and repeated a charm while making a fire under his own feet of the gorse and rushes. As soon as it was alight he stepped out and threw the herbs on it, after which he expected to see his future wife appear in the smoke and flames. When the fire had died out the sod was replaced. I had this description from a man who had done it himself in his youth, and he declared solemnly that he saw the woman he afterwards married."

1 In Brittany and Germany the would-be diviner fasts from daybreak until she is able to count the first nine stars coming out in the evening sky.

2 For details see A Manx Scrapbook, pp. 350 and 384. The Calliagh as a weather-Prophet is also alluded to in other works on Manx folk-lore.

3 There the ivy-leaves were first drawn through a wedding-ring. Their shrivelling or turning black in the water foretold death before next Twelfth-tide ; if spotted with red, a violent death. " These prophecies through superstition sometimes unluckily fulfilled themselves. Ivy-leaves were also used to discover when girls would marry." (Miss Courtney, Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore, page 17)

4 These beliefs about Slieu Chairn Gerjoil (to give it its full name) are taken from a paper by Miss Mona Douglas which was read at the Celtic Congress held in Glasgow in September, 1929.

5" Bons," sticks for firewood.

2. The Crow's Foot.

Like fire itself (which we shall return to shortly) its product ashes figured conspicuously in Manx divinations and charms. The strewing of ashes evenly about the hearth (the fine turf - ash is to be understood, of course) on Twelfth Night in the expectation of finding a mystic footprint impressed in them next morning has already been recorded by Train.1 What he calls "the fairy foot" and " the ominous print," which betokened a death or a birth according to the direction in which it pointed is, more exactly, a sign resembling the " broad arrow," known to Manx people as " the crow's foot." It is noticeable—I am theorizing now, not reporting a popular explanation—that in the questioning of Fate by means of ashes, as in the omens taken from salt and from ivy-leaves, it is the invisible presences of the night who are appealed to. What these visitors from another world really were is plainly seen in the more fundamental custom which in Man has been adapted for a divinatory purpose. "French and Scotch peasants," says Andrew Lang,2 "are or were in the habit of burning the bed on which a patient died, of spreading the ashes smooth on the floor, and of examining these next day to see whether the revenant of the dead had marked them with his feet. An inspector of natives in Australia (who does not seem ever to have heard of the Scotch and French superstition) found Australians carefully smoothing sand round the grave of a tribesman, and watching every morning for the print of his ghostly tread. Now here, we may say with some confidence, is an instance of a savage belief perpetuated in Europe."

Though Lady Wilde,2 in recording the same method of divination in Ireland as that used in the Isle of Man, says it is done in the name of the Evil One, she seems to imply that the footprint has a human shape, for " if the impress is perfectly flat, it indicates marriage and a long life ; but if the toes are bent down into the ashes, death will inevitably follow." Andrew Lang, however, in a note on the practice in Scotland contributed to the Morning Post of 19th October, 1906, says that the spirit was expected to leave a print like a bird's claw ; in which we can easily recognize the Manx " crow's foot." Another correspondent stated that it was a very ancient Eastern custom, illustrating the belief that a demon had cock's feet and left the prints wherever he trod, although himself invisible. In the Outer Hebrides the hearth - ashes were spread out on the eve of St. Bride's Day, and the footprint, which promised all kinds of fortunate increase if it appeared, was that of Bride herself.3 Estonia, while practising the divination, preserves what seems to be the basis of it ; in that country the straw of the bed on which a man has died is burnt, and footprints which come in its ashes tell whether the next death will be that of a man or a beast.4

The symbol which, as we have just seen, was called by the Manx " the crow's foot," is worthy of further investigation. It was visible not only in the ashes spread for divination, but was supposed, in the Isle of Man, to appear and disappear from time to time on a stone or boulder or other substance, by some species of magic agency which nobody now seems able to define, and to be seen there by those for whom it was intended. The only comment I have ever been able to extract by a casual reproduction of it in the sight of persons who might be expected to know it, was " that's a bad sign." In its mysterious comings and goings it reminds one of the demonic raven on the white war-standard, which portended victory or defeat to the armies of the Northmen - or so the Anglo-Saxons believed. But the true import of the mark itself is strongly suggested by two passages in the Reverend Father Sinistrari of Arneno's 17th - century work on Demoniality. Of the eleven ceremonies of initiation into witchcraft, the ninth, he says, is the scratching of the Novice's name in the Black Book by the Devil's Claw (ungue Diaboli in eo exarantur) ; and in the eleventh the Novice is sealed to the Devil by a secret mark, the seal (sigillum) by which such tokens are imprinted being the Devil's Claw. It is true that the Reverend Father tells us the character in the latter case is not always of the same form, but sometimes resembles a toad's foot, a hare, a spider, and so forth.

In Elton's edition of Saxo Grammaticus there is a passage of dialogue on page 80 in which Bjarke enquires of Rute, " But where now is he that is commonly called Odin, the mighty in battle, content ever with a single eye ? If thou see him anywhere, Rute, tell me." Rute replies, " Bring thine eye closer and look under my arm akimbo ; thou must first hallow thine eyes with the victorious sign, if thou wilt safely know the War-god face to face." York Powell, in a footnote, explains Rute's injunction thus : " Bjarke was to gain second sight by looking under the bent arm of Rute. . . . The ' conquering sign' in the next line (victrici signo) is probably the broad arrow of Tew (Tyr), the sign of which was to be made before second sight could be obtained." Looking through the arm akimbo is certainly understood to help in rendering visible what is ordinarily invisible, just as does the view through a knot-hole, through a ring, through the forefinger and thumb placed tip to tip, through the legs spread apart, through a water-horse's halter or bridle, if one can conveniently be obtained-through almost anything, in short, which helps to focus the mind on a limited field of vision; but in this Danish saga the use of the arrow sign seems to have been intended to protect the seer against the blinding apparition of a god, rather than, of itself, to confer second sight. This is further implied by the word " safely."

That the " crow's foot " should have brought a magical atmosphere with it down the ages is not surprising, for being the old German rune which stood for the letter T 6 it was employed as the symbol for the arch-deity and war-god Tius, Tiu, Tiw, Ti, Tyr, Zio, etc., forms taken by the divine name in the various Teutonic tongues ; somewhat as the triskele (supposed to have been the prototype of the trie cassyn or Three Legs of Man) was Odin's sign, according to the Earl of Southesk's Origins of Pictish Symbolism. Grimm has some suggestive remarks on this arrow-like ancient signature of a god who may be placed, he says, " on a level with the loftiest deities of antiquity " before his eclipse by Odin. " T, equivalent to Tyr, appears to have been a supremely honoured symbol, and the name of this god to have been specially sacred : in scratching the runes of victory on the sword, the name of Tyr had to be twice inserted. The shape of the rune ˆ has an obvious resemblance to the old - established symbol of the planet Mars when set upright- õ - and an Anglo-Saxon poem on the runes expressly says : ' tir is one of the tokens, a certain sign.' " " The rune . . . may be the picture of a sword with its handle, or of a spear."7 Grimm's translator, Stallybrass, plausibly suggests an arrow. In his Supplementary Volume Grimm opines that this ancient Mars-symbol stood for the war-god's shield and spear. Could it not represent an even earlier weapon than the metal ones, namely, the spear-head or arrow-head of stone ?-implements which are still, in some countries, regarded with superstitious awe. No instance is mentioned by Grimm of the use of the symbol in magic, but a sign charged with such dynamic power did not escape the attention of the devisers of charms and amulets. There are, for example, in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (vol. xxvii., pages 467-8) three illustrations of flint arrow-heads mounted in silver which were used as amulets in Scotland in the early 17th century. All have the " crow's foot " engraved or scratched on the back of the mount, together with initials, presumably those of the person for whose benefit the amulets were fashioned. (See also vol. xxiv. of the same Proceedings.)

The sign has associations in the Scottish Isles which are significant of its great antiquity. In the course of an official report on the agrarian customs of the Outer Hebrides, Alexander Carmichael, prior to the publication of his Carmina Gadelica, describes the casting of lots for rigs of land. " The constable takes a rod and divides the scat [share of land] into six equal divisions. At the boundary of each division he cuts a mark-Gaelic, beum-in the ground, which is called by the curious name of tort. The tort resembles the broad arrow of the Ordnance Department. The word tort signifies a notch, and is applied to cattle whose ears are notched. These notch-eared cattle-tore-chluasach-are frequent in the Western Isles, and are spoken of as sliocd a chroidh mhara, the descendants of the fabled sea-cattle."8 The same mark was used, among others, in recording temporary divisions of land among English villagers also.

The crow's foot was also a " bardic letter " or " druidical symbol " for T.9 It was used occasionally in Ogam writing as a symbol for P.

What may be the oldest example of the crow's foot or broad arrow as a symbol appears among the remains dug up by Schliemann at Hissarlik. At the level of the nethermost of the nine cities which grew up and perished in turn on this site (the sixth was the Troy besieged by the Achaeans about 1200 B.C.) occurred a great number of terra-cotta whorls belonging, Schliemann says, to the Neolithic Age. At any rate, the settlement was founded somewhere about 3000 B.C. On some of these whorls four broad arrows are scratched in a circle around a central disc. Schliemann thought they were not meant for use but were ex votos (or " idols " as his translator has it) intentionally made to resemble in shape the heroic sepulchral mounds of that neighbourhood, and of many other parts of the world. Possibly this opinion has now been superseded ; indeed, Suchardt affirms in his notes that they were actually used in spinning.

In one case the sign alternates with the sun-symbol, and all are grouped around a larger sun-symbol. A similar sign is repeated on other articles, but having more branches than the two of the broad arrow.10 The whorl-ornamentation in which the arrow is associated with the circle-and-dot of the sun is selected by Goblet d'Alviella for representation in his Migration of Symbols (plate ii.).

The Manx name, crow's foot, or the French name, pied de grue, are preferable to " Broad Arrow " ; for the Government mark, which is not traceable further back than the 15th century, is thought to owe its form to a misunderstanding of a rudely cut anchor with its flukes.11

1 Historical Account, ii., 115.

2 Introduction to vol. ii, of the Folk-lore Record.

3 Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland, page 120.

4 Carmina Gadelica, i., 168.

5 Teutonic Mythology, page 1844.

6 Their name for the letter, and consequently for its rune, was lac-not very different from the " toc " of our telephonists in France during the war.

7 Teutonic Mythology, pages 200 and 204.

8 Celtic Review, x., 358

9 Davies, Celtic Researches, plates 1 and 2.

10 See Ilios, plates xliii., xxiii., xxxiii., xxxiv., the plate of whorls, and the inset illustrations with their respective letterpress.

11 Notes and Queries, ser. 11, vol. 9, pages 17, 52, 481

 

3. The Virtues of Salt and Ashes.

In many divinations, the Dark Powers are expected to transmit their verdict or message through certain materials which, by their magical associations, are peculiarly fit for the purpose : ashes which retain something of the still-living dead, or ashes of the hearth-fire, the focus of the family's past and present life ; and salt. In the Isle of Man, for instance, ash from the housefire was carried on the person to ward off evil influences ; it was strewn on the earth or floor in the form of a ring, for the same purpose as a defensive circle was drawn by necromancers. Conversely, ash was scattered about anything which was suspected of uncanniness, to restrict its power for harm.

Salt is universally used to negative dangerous and corruptive forces, and a hundred examples of its employment in folk-custom could be quoted. Manx people carried a small quantity in the pocket—perhaps a few do still—especially when likely to be exposed to risk from witches or fairies. For the same reason it was sprinkled lightly over provisions, and over farm implements and sea tackle, particularly the nets. It was—and perhaps still is occasionally—thrown into the kitchen fire to allay a storm. Its preservative virtue was, in fact, transferred from the material plane to that of the unseen.

Salt was also used as a medium through which Fate declared its intentions. On Old Christmas Eve (Twelfth Night, 6th January) it was a custom a few years ago in the Parish of Patrick, and doubtless elsewhere, to set upright on the kitchen table a row of thimblefuls of salt. Each heap, moulded by a thimble, stood for a member of the household. If, when the earliest riser came downstairs next morning, any of the salt-heaps was found to have fallen over and scattered, it was understood to be an omen of the death during the coming twelve months of the person whom the heap represented. Those which only leaned a little sideways prefigured an illness or accident ; the extent of the list showed whether the affliction would be serious or slight. The person whose salt-heap remained standing upright and uncrumbled could look forward to a fortunate year. A similar practice is mentioned briefly by Moore,1 probably from information by Rhys, who gives it more fully as heard by him in the North of the Island.2 I insert the Dalby canon for comparison, with the remark that in North Germany the same divination is practised with flour on St. Andrew's Eve ;3 while Grimm says, " On Christmas Eve put a little heap of salt on the table ; if it melts overnight, you die next year ; if not, not." 4 Roeder must have heard of it in Rushen, for he alludes to the use of thimbles full of salt for some fortune-telling purpose, but without giving any details. 5

Ashes and salt combined had their place in the soddag valloo, " silent cake," eaten late on Old November Eve to bring about a dream-sight of the husband-to-be, as is recorded by Train and others. It must be baked in ashes on the hearth ; it had to be over-salted, and a small quantity of fine ash or of soot —another hearth-product—was one of its indispensable ingredients.6 The correct shape, I have been told, was three-cornered, and this, too, may have had significance. A salt herring eaten just before retiring would bring the future husband in a dream, to relieve the thirst. With the same laudable purpose the Greek girls make their supper of a cake containing an excessive quantity of salt.7

1 Folk-lore of I. of M., page 140.

2 Celtic Folk-lore, page 318.

3 Thorpe, Northern Mythology, iii., 145.

4 Teutonic Mythology, page 1118.

5 Lioar Manninagh, iii., 180.

6 Manx babies were marked with soot to protect them from the fairies. (Roeder.) In the case of the " Michaelmas cake " made in Ross-shire a small piece was thrown into the fire " for the Donas "--presumably a hearth-spirit.

7 Lawson, Ancient Greek Religion and Modern Greek Folklore, page 303.

4. The Significance of Fire.

In the original intention, then, of the hearth-baked soddag with its addition of soot or ash the Powers of Darkness and of the Underworld were invoked, and they communicated their answer through a dream or a vision. They were, ultimately, the dead ancestors, and it has already been pointed out that the use of the hearth as a burial-place in prehistoric times has heightened its natural significance as the centre of the family life. " Le grammairien Servius, qui était fort instruit des antiquités grecques et romaines dit que c'ëtait un usage trés-ancien d'ensevelir les morts dans les maisons, et il ajoute : ' Par suite de cet usage, c'est aussi dans les maisons qu'on honore les Lares et les Pënates.' Cette phrase établit nettement une antique relation entre les cultes des morts et le foyer. On peut donc penser que le foyer domestique n'a été à l'origine que le symbole du culte des morts, que sous cette pierre du foyer un ancêtre reposait, que le fen y était allumé pour l'honorer et que ce feu semblait entretenir la vie en lui ou reprësentait son âme toujours vigilante."1

Fustel de Coulanges here seems to go rather too far in opining that the domestic hearth originated from a cult of the dead, for surely its usefulness must have been the prime consideration. But its acquired sacredness may, as is suggested by Mr. J. C. Lawson,1 have prompted the use of torches, lit from the hearth, at pagan and early Christian funerals, and the presence of the " unsleeping lamp," similarly kindled, at modern Greek gravesides. In the Isle of Man there is no direct evidence of the interment of the dead or their ashes within the walls of the dwelling ; burial in a neighbouring field was preferred. Scraps of lost traditions, however, are to be found preserved in the old songs of the Island, and it may not be amiss to draw attention to a passage in one called " My Henn Ghooinney Mie," although possibly nothing more may have been intended than a culminating stroke of humour. At the end of this Darby-and-Joan duet the old woman asks, " And where shall I bury thee, my good old man ? " to which he replies, " In the smoke-hole, my good old woman." Towl-yaagh is now equivalent to " chimney," though it meant originally the hole in the roof through which some of the smoke of the central hearth found its way out.3 The smaller Manx dwellings, even in the towns, had no chimneys till the beginning of the 18th century, after which date they were gradually introduced by legal compulsion.4 In Scotland the smoke-holes were not made directly above the fireplace, lest rain should fall on the fire, and probably the same precaution was observed in Man.5

Without wishing to stress the allusion to burial in a towl yaagh, it may still be said that the fire on the hearth was, in the Isle of Man as in every other country, the heart and soul of the dwelling and its inmates ; greater care was taken to keep it alight from night to morning, and from May Eve to May Eve, than considerations of mere convenience demanded, even in the days before matches were invented.6 Behind these superstitious observances in domestic life, the particulars of which we shall come to in a moment, looms a myth.

In the Manx development of this myth the element takes on a two-sided significance : by fire the Island was discovered for men's use and misuse, and by fire it has ever since been prevented from reverting to its original condition. The revealing flame lit by a mortal visitant on the shore where he had accidentally landed drove the gloomy mists up into the mountains and exposed the seaboard to the human race.7 Consequently arose the belief that if the Island should ever be wholly without a fire for even the briefest moment it would vanish again into its primeval mystery ; or as Waldron heard it, " terrible revolutions and mischiefs would immediately ensue." How the vigilance of the Laxey people once saved the country is told in the following account of the myth by a Solway-side laird of a century ago. After describing the wonders of a magic island which appeared off the shore of his estate once in every seven years, he continues : " The Manxmen's Isle was ance enchanted the same way, but a spark of fire, lighted on't ance frae out a sailor's pipe, broke the charm, whilk has hinner'd it to sink mair ; but war a' the fires at ony time to gang out, it wad just gae whar it was again ; ance they went a' out but a wee bit gleed in Luxy ;8 and faith, the Isle of Man was begun to shog and quake."9

Geologists will tell us that it has already been under water more than once and is to be submerged again, but perhaps the sea-changes hinted at in the myth are not to be understood literally. The need for a continuity of fire in the Island, however, has been accepted literally enough by its population in the past, although custom, in seeming contradiction, sanctioned an annual extinction and relighting of the hearth-fire. " The house-fires were everywhere extinguished on 30th April, and fresh ones laid on 1st May and ignited by rubbing two sticks together."10It may be doubted whether the frictional method of kindling was employed for the annual relighting of the domestic fires. What was generally done is described by Dr. Kelly in his Manx Dictionary, under the word " Baaltin (laa)." On May Day, he says, fires were kindled on hill-tops in order that the smoke might blow over the farms and cattle. From these sacred fires were re-ignited the domestic hearths, and it is quite possible that at the date Kelly was compiling his dictionary—the end of the 18th century-the ancient method of friction was still employed to engender the flames of purification. It was in use in Cumberland and Westmorland at a much later date ; Sullivan, in his volume on those counties, published in 1857, describes it on page 116 in these words

" The Need-fire was once an annual observance, and is still occasionally employed . . . as a charm for various diseases to which cattle are liable. All the fires in the village are first carefully put out, a deputation going round to each house to see that not a spark remains. Two pieces of wood are then ignited by friction, and within the influence of the fire thus kindled the cattle are brought. . . . The charm being ended in one village, the fire may be transferred to the next, and thus propagated as far as it is required." Sullivan mentions a corroborative passage in Miss Martineau's Lake Guide.

There was a taboo on the use of fire for certain purposes at a certain time of the year in the Isle of Man. " Having occasion to send a horse to be shod on 5th January last, the smith refused, on the ground that it was very unlucky to light a fire and temper iron before Christmas had expired. The utmost that he would do was to put a nail in to secure the old shoe."11 This was in the year 1878. The 5th of January is, of course, Christmas Eve by the old way of reckoning. Train gives Good Friday as a day when no iron, even in the forms of griddle, poker or tongs, should touch the fire ;12 which agrees with the teaching in the North-East of England and in Cumbria " Blacksmiths will not light their fires on Good Friday,"13 and " Good Friday is kept by the smith as a sort of holiday " because of the nails used in the Crucifixion. 14

The importance attributed to keeping the Manx home-fires burning reappears in the apocryphal " law ' believed to regulate squatters on other men's land. If, after sufficient materials for four walls and a roof have been collected in readiness, a dwelling-house can be run up between sunset and sunrise, and smoke sent out of the chimney, the house belongs to the man who, with his friends' help, has built it ; but if and when the fire fails to be continuous, the site reverts to the owner of the land. Only the stones of the building then belong to the tenant, who may take them away if he chooses. A cottage in Ballarragh village, Lonan, now stands empty and unrepaired on account of the uncertainty created by this belief.15

The use of fire to counteract overlooking or bespelling by witches is a familiar theme which I shall recur to in dealing with the subject of witchcraft. It is a curious point that the witches were supposed to be personally yet invisibly present, at the time of the " burning-out," in the bushes and the boats from which it was sought to expel them ; wherein may be recognized one of many instances of the transference of fairy characteristics to witchcraft. (See Appendix I.)

 

1 La Gité Antique, chap. iii. In the same chapter it is shown that the terms Lares, Heroes, and others signifying the ancestral souls of a family, came to be used indistinguishably from the terms for the domestic hearth-fire ; so close was felt to be the bond between the fire and those who had, while alive, tended it, enjoyed its use, and worshipped it.

2 Loc. cit., page 507. [ Lawson, Ancient Greek Religion and Modern Greek Folklore]

3 Students of Manx folk-song will be interested to see that " My Henn Ghooinney Mie " has a brother in the Principality, " Yr Hen Wr Mwyn," the Pleasant Old Man, who appears to resemble him fairly closely; (Welsh Folk-song Journal, i., 81-84; iii., 26). The Welshman ends his whimsical answers to a string of serious questions by asking to be buried under the hearthstone, where he may have the pleasure of listening to the porridge boiling, " fal-de-ral." That they would be buried under the hearth was also a threat to unruly Welsh children.

4 See Moore's Notes and Documents, page 46.

5 The hovels in which the poorer sort lived had something the appearance of a sleeping walrus, the rough branches which constituted the roof were covered with the coarse bent which grew on the Curragh. At one end it was carried up and tied round some rough stakes to form a chimney for the peat smoke to escape. At the opposite end it was brought down to a long tail and kept tight by a large stone swinging dependent from it. The walls were built of sods. The interior was shared with the pigs and poultry and sometimes railed off for a cow if the intaek could support one." (Our Centenarian Grandfather, ed. A. G. Bradley, p. 224.) This relates to the North of the Island in the thirties of the 19th century.

6 In Cumberland and Westmorland the conservation of the hearth-fire of peat was carried still further. " Many fires in the Lake District had never been altogether extinguished for years ; and I know the case of a man who possessed his grandfather's fire-the fire never having been altogether extinguished for three generations. "-Ellwood, Laheland and Iceland (Eng. Dialect Soc.), page 6.

7 Exactly the same story is told by Wood-Martin concerning the island of Inisbofin, Co. Galway. Two fog-bewildered fishermen landed there and lighted a fire, " but no sooner had the flame touched the rock than the fog suddenly lifted and the fishermen found themselves on the solid land of inisbofin, which has ever since remained."-Elder Faiths, ii., 221. Giraldus Cambrensis gives a similar account of the fixing of a newly-risen island, apparently the Orkney islet of Eynhallow, in his Topography of Ireland, chap. xii.

Myths dwindle into superstitions. In the Isle of Man to-day there is a vestige of a prejudice against making a fire on or against a shore-rock.

8 Glowing ember in Laxey.

9 Gallovidian Encyclopedia, page 307.

10 Our Centenarian Grandfather, edited by A. G. Bradley.

11 Notes and Queries, ser. 5, vol. x., p. 23

12 Historical Account, ii., 117. The whole passage occurs also in Letters from the Isle of Man, page 57, under the date 1846. It is paraphrased by Moore in his Folk-lore (p. 109) without any indication of its source. In the Letters it runs thus : " No one is allowed to put any iron in the fire on Good Friday, and the tongs are placed aside for fear anyone should use them to stir the fire, and a stick of the rowan-tree is substituted ; and even a griddle is not suffered to hang over the fire, but the bannock or soddag is made with three corners, and baked on the hearth." Was this a special cake made on Good Friday only ?

13 County Folk-lore (Northumberland), page 56.

14 Sullivan, Cumberland and Westmorland, page 164.

15 For the information that it is necessary to maintain the fire in these circumstances I am indebted to Miss Mona Douglas.


 

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