“Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
Gray cock’s feather.”
IT was from a profound knowledge of human nature that Lord Bacon, in discoursing upon truth, remarked that a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. “Doth any man doubt,” he asks, “that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, and imaginations, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor, shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?” This admitted tendency of our nature, this love of the pleasing intoxication of unveracity, exaggeration, and imagination, may perhaps account for the high relish which children and nations yet in the childhood of civilization find in fabulous legends and tales of wonder. The Arab at the present day listens with eager interest to the same tales of genii and afrits, sorcerers and enchanted princesses, which delighted his ancestors in the times of Haroun al Raschid. The gentle, church-going Icelander of our time beguiles the long night of his winter with the very sagas and runes which thrilled with not unpleasing horror the hearts of the old Norse sea-robbers. What child, although Anglo-Saxon born, escapes a temporary sojourn in fairy-land? Who of us does not remember the intense satisfaction of throwing aside primer and spelling-book for stolen ethnographical studies of dwarfs, and giants? Even in our own country and time old superstitions and credulities still cling to life with feline tenacity. Here and there, oftenest in our fixed, valley-sheltered, inland villages,–slumberous Rip Van Winkles, unprogressive and seldom visited,–may be found the same old beliefs in omens, warnings, witchcraft, and supernatural charms which our ancestors brought with them two centuries ago from Europe.
The practice of charms, or what is popularly called “trying projects,” is still, to some extent, continued in New England. The inimitable description which Burns gives of similar practices in his Halloween may not in all respects apply to these domestic conjurations; but the following needs only the substitution of apple-seeds for nuts:–
“The auld gude wife’s wheel-hoordet nits
Are round an’ round divided;
An’ mony lads and lassies’ fates
Are there that night decided.
Some kindle couthie side by side
An’ burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride
And jump out owre the chimlie.”
One of the most common of these “projects” is as follows: A young woman goes down into the cellar, or into a dark room, with a mirror in her hand, and looking in it, sees the face of her future husband peering at her through the darkness,–the mirror being, for the time, as potent as the famous Cambuscan glass of which Chaucer discourses. A neighbor of mine, in speaking of this conjuration, adduces a case in point. One of her schoolmates made the experiment and saw the face of a strange man in the glass; and many years afterwards she saw the very man pass her father’s door. He proved to be an English emigrant just landed, and in due time became her husband. Burns alludes to something like the spell above described:–
“Wee Jenny to her grannie says,
‘will ye go wi’ me, grannie,
To eat an apple at the glass
I got from Uncle Johnnie?’
She fuff’t her pipe wi’ sic a lunt,
In wrath she was so vaporin’,
She noticed na an’ azle brunt
Her bran new worset apron.
“Ye little skelpan-limmer’s face,
How dare ye try sic sportin’,
An’ seek the foul thief ony place
For him to try your fortune?
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight;
Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For mony a one has gotten a fright,
An’ lived and died delecrit.”