The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 35

Page 1


By Superstition is to be understood, not the whole body of heathen religion, which we think of as a delusion, a false belief, but the retention of particular heathen practices and principles. The christian convert rejected and loathed the gods of the heathen, but still there lingered in his heart notions and habits, which having no obvious references to the old faith, seemed not directly opposed to the new. Whatever Christianity has left a vacuum, where its spirit could not at once penetrate the ruder minds, there superstitions or over-belief grew rank. In Low German they say bi-glove by-belief, in Nethl. overgelôf, bygelôf, Dan. overtro, Icel. hiatrû, all modelled on the Latin superstitio, which itself is traceable to superstes (surviving), and denotes a persistence of individual men in views which the common sense of the majority has abandoned. A fortune-teller was to the Romans 'superstitiosus homo.' And the Swed. term vidskepelse seems primarily to mean a sort of magic, not superstition (p. 1036; see Suppl.). (1)

There are two kinds of superstition, an active and a passive, one being more the augurium, sortilegium, the other more the omen of the ancients. (2) If, without man's active participation, some startling sign be vouchsafed him by a higher power, he prognosticates from it good hap or ill. If the sign did not arise of itself, if he elicits it by his own contrivance, then there is possitive superstition. Naturally christianity succeeded better in combating the positive superstition that was mixed up with heathen rites, than the negative and involuntary, which swayed the mind of man as the fear of ghosts does.

The usages of active superstition always have some practical aim. A man wants to escape a present evil, to throw off a sickness, to get rid of his enemy, or he wishes to know and secure his future luck. And here we must not overlook how often, according to a difference of period or nationality, the same customs acquire a new relation and meaning, (3) being often torn away from their connection, e.g. what had a distinct reference to sacrifice will, standing by itself, be unintelligible; and the same was the case with the objects of sorcery. What our forefathers hoped or feared had reference more to war and victory; the farmer of today cares about his corn and cattle. If the heathen sorceress with her hail destroys the host of the enemy, the modern witch makes foul weather for her neighbour's field. So the farmer promises himself a plenteous crop on the strength of an omen that in olden time betokened victory. Yet farming and cattle-breeding have a long history too, and a number of superstitious rites connected with them stretch without a break through many centuries. Likewise all the superstitions that look to domestic life, to birth and death, wooing and wedding, are rooted in nature, and almost unchangeable through the lapse of ages; superstition constitutes a kind of religion for all the lower kind of household wants.

Divinations form a leading feature of superstition. Man would fain lift the veil that time and space have cast over his weightiest concerns; by the use of mysterious means he thinks he can arrive at the truth. Divination lawful and unlawful has always been a function of the priest (or head of a family) and of the magician (p. 862-3): the one belongs to religion, the other to superstition.

Various words for divining and soothsaying were given at the beginning of last chapter, when we had to settle the meaning of magic. I have now to add an OHG. heilisôn augurari (AS. hâlsian); heilisôd omen, augurium; heilisari augur (AS. hâlsere), heilisara auguratrix. In MHG. these words had died out. One must distinguish them from OHG. heilizan salutare, AS. hâletan (see Suppl.).

The sacred priestly divination appears, like the priestly office itself (p. 93), to have been hereditary in families. A female fortune-teller declared that the gift had long been in her family, and on her death the grace would descend to her eldest daughter (Sup. H, cap. 107): from mother to daughter therefore, and from father to son; by some it is maintained that soothsaying and the gift of healing must be handed down from women to men, from men to women. To this day there are families that have the peculiar gift of foreseeing what will happen, especially fires, deaths and corpses: in L. Germany they call such people vorkiekers, fore-peepers. It is also said they can quad sehn, i.e. see or scent any coming misfortune, nay, the power is even allowed to horses, sheep and dogs: horses prophesy (p. 658), hounds can see spirits (p. 667). And notice in particular, that such men can impart their gift to him that treads on their right foot and looks over their left shoulder; this was apparently a very ancient, even a heathen posture, it was a legal formality in taking possession of cattle (RA. 589), and may have been tolerated among christians in other cases, e.g. one who is doing penance has to step on the right foot of the hermit, Ls. 1, 593. The first child christened at a newly consecrated font receives the power to see spirits and coming events, until some one shall from idle curiosity tread on his left foot and look over his right shoulder, when the gift will pass away to him, Sup. I, 996; on the other hand, he that looks through the loop of the wise man's arm (p. 939) becomes a seer of spirits, he beholds the natural and preternatural: even to the dog the gift descends, if you tread on his right foot and make him look over your right shoulder, Sup. I, 1111. Again, children born with the helmet can see spirits, ghosts or witches (p. 874n.). In all this we see the last quiverings of life in practices of the heathen priesthood, before they pass into mere conjuring and witchcraft (see Suppl.).

Divination is directed mainly to the discovery of future things, they being the most uncertain. The past is done and known, or can be ascertained in many ways; what goes on in the present, at a distance, we seldom feel any temptation to find out; an instance occurred at p. 1091n., where the pilgrim is enabled by magic to see what is going on at his home. Yet the present has its puzzles too, when methods have to be decided on, especially property to be divided.

When events and deeds of the past were wrapt in obscurity, antiquity had a thrice-hallowed means of discovery, the ordeals or judgments of God, a retrospective divination of sure and infallible success, such as judicial procedures demanded. But to every German ordeal it is essential that the accused should perform its ritus himself; in no case could it be placed in the judge's hands. This fact distinguishes it from the sieve-driving or sieve-turning practised since the Mid. Ages, which was performed by wise women, witches, conjurors, and even by respectable persons, to bring concealed criminals to light: the woman held a sieve that was an heirloom between her two middle fingers, uttered a spell, and then went over the names of suspected persons; when she came to that of the culprit, the sieve began to sway and tilt over. (4) The plan was adopted against thieves, and such as in a tumult had inflicted wounds; and sometimes to reveal the future, e.g. who should be a girl's sweetheart. I find the first mention of it in the poem cited on p. 1048: 'und daz ein wîp ein sib tribe, sunder vleisch und sunder ribe, dâ niht inne wære,' this I take to be a lie, says the author; his incredulity seems to rest on the tilting over, the sieve is void, has neither flesh nor bone. The sieve was also laid on a pair of tongs, which were held up between the two middle fingers. In Denmark the master of the house himself took the trial in hand, balancing the sieve on the point of a pair of scissors, Sup. Dan. 132. This sieve-running (sieve-chasing, sieve-dance) must have been very common in France and Germany in the 16-17th cent., many books mention it, and couple together sieve-turners and spell-speakers; (5) it may here and there be still in use, conf. Stender sub v. 'seetinu, tezzinaht,' and his Gram. p. 299; it seems the Lettons stick it on a pair of shears. But it was already known to the Greeks, Theocritus 3, 31 mentions a koskinomantij, and Lucian (Alex. 7) speaks of koskinw manteuesqai among the Paphlagonians; Potter 1, 766 thus describes the process of koskinomanteia: they held up the sieve by a string, prayed to the gods, then ran over the names of the suspects; at that of the doer the sieve set off spinning (see Suppl.).

In the same way people stuck a hereditary key in the Bible (at the first chap. of John), (6) or a cleaver in a wooden ball, which began to move when they came to the right name, Sup. I, 932. I surmise that the revolution of the lotter-wood worn by spruch-sprecher (lotter-buben, frei-harte, H. Sachs iv. 3, 58a) was also for divining purposes; in the early Fragm. 15c we find: 'louf umbe lotterholz, louf umbe gedrâte!' On this I shall be more explicit in another place.

It may be regarded as a relic of the judicium offae or casei (RA. 932), that those suspected of a theft were made to eat of a consecrated cheese: the morsel sticks in the throat of the real thief (Sup. H, cap. 51). (7)

Other methods of forecasting the future were likewise available for detecting thieves or any malefactors.

The lot (OHG. hlôz, Goth. hláuts, AS. hleát, ON. hlutr) was the venerablest and fairest of all kinds of divination. A difficult and doubtful matter was to be raised thereby above human caprice and passion, and receive the highest sanction, e.g. in dividing an inheritance, in ascertaining the right victim (conf. p. 230), and so forth. Lot therefore decides a present uncertainty, but it may also extend to the future. Originally placed in the hands of a priest or judge, it afterwards became an instrument of sorcery (p. 1034-7), and sortilegus, sortiarius, sorcier are all derived from sors. Our OHG. hliozan seems in like manner to have passed out of the meaning sortiri into that of augurari, incantare, which it retains in its MHG. form liezen, Hoffm. fundgr. 2, 67. Er. 8123.

It was managed in two ways: the priest or the paterfamilias cast the lot, and interpreted it when fallen, or he held it out to the party to draw; the first was for indicating the future, the last for adjusting the present.

Let Tacitus describe the first kind: 'Sortium consuetudo simplex. Virgam, frugiferae arbori decisam, in surculos amputant, eosque notis quibusdam discretos super candidam vestem temere ac fortuitu spargunt. Mox si publice consuletur, sacerdos civitatis, sin privatim ipse pater familiae, precatus deos coelumque suspiciens, ter singulos tollit, sublatos secundum impressam ante notam interpretatur. Si prohibuerunt, nulla de eadem re in eundem diem consultatio; sin permissum, auspiciorum adhuc fides exigitur,' Germ. 10. ---- Here the lots are but preliminary to the entire transaction, and if they prove unfavourable, further divination is not proceeded with. I need not transcribe the important explanations my Brother has given in his work on Runes pp. 296-307. A connection there certainly is between these lots and the runes and ciphers; lot-books are mentioned as early as the 13th cent., Ls. 3, 169. Kolocz. 70 (see Suppl.).

The Armenians from the movement of cypress boughs: 'quarum cupressorum surculis ramisque seu leni sive violento vento agitatis Armenii flamines ad longum tempus in auguriis uti consueverunt,' as Moses Chorenensis (ed. 1736, p. 54) tells us in the 5thcent.

A long array of divinations seems to have been diffused over Europe by the Greeks and Romans; (8) from this source come Hartlieb's accounts of hydromantia, pyromantia (the fiur-sehen of Altd. bl. 1, 365), chiromantia (MHG. the tisch in der hant, Er. 8136), on which see more in Haupt's Zeitschr. 3, 271 (see Suppl.). The crystal-gazing of the pure child, Sup. H, cap. 90, is the 'gastromantia ex vase aqua pleno, cujus meditullium (belly of the jar) vocabatur gastrh.' (9)

More to the purpose are customs peculiar to certain nations, and not traceable to the above source: in these we either find a different procedure, or the forecasts are gathered from natural objects by lying in wait, listening, looking.

Our ancestors (acc. to Tac. Germ. 3) contrived to foresee the issue of a battle by the spirited or faltering delivery of the war-song.

The ancient Poles reckoned on victory if water drawn in a sieve was carried before the army without running through. I quote the words of the Chronicon Montis Sereni (Menken 2, 227. Hoffm. script. rer. lus. 4, 62): Anno 1209 Conradus, orientalis marchio, Lubus castrum soceri sui Wlodislai ducis Poloniae, propter multas quas ab eo patiebatur injurias, obsedit. Wlodislaus vero, obsidionem vi solvere volens, collecto exercitu copioso, marchioni mandavit, se ei altera die congressurum. Vespere autem diei praecedentis Oderam fluvium cum suis omnibus transgressus, improvisus supervenire hostibus moliebatur. Unus vero eorum qui supani dicuntur vehementer ei coepit obsistere, monens ne tempus pugnae statutum praeveniret, quia hoc factum nullius rectius quam infidelitatis posset nomine appellari. Quem dum dux timiditatis argueret, et fidelitatis qua ei teneretur commoneret, respondit: 'ego quidem ad pugnam pergo, sed scio me patriam meam de cetero non visurum.' Habebat autem (sc. Wlodislaus) ducem belli pythonissam quandam, quae de flumine cribo haustam nec defluentem, ut ferebatur, ducens aquam exercitum praecedebat, et hoc signo eis victoriam promittebat. Nec latuit marchionem adventus eorum, sed mature suis armatis et ordinatis occurrens, forti congressu omnes in fugam vertit, pythonissa primitus interfecta. Ille etiam supanus viriliter pugnans cum multis aliis interfectus est.---What is here an omen of success is elsewhere a test of innocence: a true-hearted boy carries water in a sieve, and not a drop runs out, KM. 3, 254; according to Indian belief the innocent can take water up in a lump like a ball. 'Exstat Tucciae vestalis incestae precatio, qua usa aquam in cribro tulit,' Pliny 28, 3; a witch sets a girl the task of fetching water in the sieve, Norske ev. 1, 88; the vestal had also to carry fire in a brazen sieve (supra p. 611), and a Dan. fairytale in Molbech's Ev. p. 22 actually speaks of carrying the sun in a sieve. The sieve comes before us as a sacred old-world vessel with miraculous properties. What the myth imports the proverb treats as sheer impossibilities: 'er schepfet wazzer mit dem sibe, swer âne vrîe milte mit sper und mit schilte ervehten wil êre und lant,' he draws water in a sieve, who by brute force, etc., Troj. 18536. 'Lympham infundere cribro,' Reinard. 3, 1637 (see Suppl.).


1. Also Swed. skrok, skråk, superstitio; the ON. skrök, figmentum. OHG. gameitheit superstitio, vanitas, Graff 2, 702. In Mod. Germ. I find zipfel-glaube, Schmid's Schwäb. id. 547. Lett. blehnu tizziba, faith in idle things (blehnas). Back

2. Divine omnipotence produces miracles (p. 1031), a chance phenomenon mere presages, omina, portenta, in which sense Ulphilas renders terata by faúratanja, Mk. 13, 22. John 6, 26. I Cor. 12, 12. With tani I can hardly connect anything but ON. tenîngr, talus, or OHG. zeno, provoco, Graff 5, 673 (see Suppl.). Back

3. It is conceivable that remnants of the old Roman divinatio were still in vogue at the time of the Lombards: 'habebat tunc Agilulf quendam de suis aruspicem puerum, qui per artem diabolicam, quid futurum portenderent ictus fulminum intelligebat,' Paul. Diac. 3, 30. The Etruscan haruspicia were especially directed to fulgura, O. Müll. 2, 32. Back

4. Sieve-running is described differently in the Meckl. jahrb. 5, 108: A sieve inherited from kinsfolk is set up on its edge, an inherited pair of scissors is opened and its points stuck into the sieve's edge deep enough to lift it by. Then two persons of different families take it to a perfectly dark place, put the middle finger of the right hand under the scissors' ring, and so raise the sieve. At the slightest movement of course the ring will slip off the finger, and the sieve fall, as in the dark it does not hang quite perpendicular. Then one begins to ask the other: 'I ask thee in the name of G., etc., tell me truth and lie not, who stole so and so? did Hans, Fritz, Peter?' At the name of the guilty party the ring slips off, the sieve falls to the ground, and the thief is known. In all the other descriptions I have read, the thing is done in daylight, and the sieve does not fall, but spins round. Back

5. Fischart's Dämonom. p. 71. Hartm. on Spells 99. Simplic. 2, 352. Ettner's Apoth. 1187. J. Praetorius on Sieve-running. Curiae Varisc. 1677. 4. Rommel's Hess. gesch. 6, 61. In Burgundy 'tonai le taimi,' Noels Borg. p. 374; taimi is the Fr. tamis, Nethl. teems, in Teutonista tempse, but in Diut. 2, 209 tempf. If Graff has not misread this, we might make of Tamfana (pp. 80. 257. 278) a goddess named after the sieve she held in her hand; that would look heathenish. Back

6. H. Stahl's Westfal. sagen, Elberf. 1831. p. 127 gives a fuller account: The hered. key is put inside a hered. Bible, so that the ward part of the key lies on the words 'In the beginning was the Word,' and the ring stands out of the book. The tie it up tight with string, and hang it up by the end of the string to the ceiling. Then two people hold their fingers under the ring, touching it gently, and the injured party asks: 'has there been a witch at my cow?' The other must say No, and the complainant answer Yes, and this they keep up for some time. If the cow be really bewitched, the Bible begins to turn round, and then more questions are asked. If there has been no witchery, or the wrong witch is named, the Bible remains still. The turnings of sieve and key resemble those of the wishing-rod, p. 975. Back

7. The Observationes ad Ivonis epistolas p. 157 have the following: 'Formulae in codicibus monasteriorum, quibus ad detegenda furta jubebatur oratio dominica scribi in pane et caseo, postea fieri cruces de tremulo, quarum una sub dextero pede, alia super caput suspecti viri poneretur, deinde post varias numinis invocationes imprecari, ut lingua et guttur rei alligaretur, ne transglutire posset, sed eorum (coram?) omnibus tremeret, nec haberet quo requiesceret. Cf. formulam Dunstani Cantuar. editam a Pitthoeo in glossario capitulariorum.' Against crossing cheeses (de caseis cruce non signandis) several ordinances were issued in the 15th cent. (docs. of 1430, '48, '70, '77 in Monum. boic. 16. 50. 55. 58. 61). Back

8. Alphabetically arranged in Fabricii Bibliogr. antiq. (ed. 3 Hamb. 1760), 4, pp. 593-613. Conf. Potter's Archäol. 1, 758-769. Back

9. Melber de Geroltzhofen says in Vocabularius predicantium (sheet R 4): 'Nigromantia. schwartz kunst die do ist mit uffsehung der dotten, mit den der nigromanticus zaubert, oder mit den dryen ersten schollen, die der pfaff wirfft ynsz grab, oder mit den wydhopffen, die do lauffen by den grebern.' The passage is also quoted from Melber in Jod. Eychman's Vocab. predic., Nürnbg 1483. Back

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