Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
By Charles Mackay
Charles Mackay, Scottish poet, journalist, and editor was best known in his day for his verses, some of which were set to music. His book, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, was first published in 1841 (London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty), with a promise of additional material “should these be favorably received.” Apparently the work was indeed favorably received, resulting in a substantially revised, two-volume second edition being published in 1852 (London, Office of the National Illustrated Library, 227 Strand). The book has been reprinted often since.We present the second edition (1852) here. The two-volume set did not number the chapters. Volume I covered the present Chapters 1-8; Volume II began with “The Crusades.”Minor editorial modifications are: removing periods after the roman numerals designating kings and modifying some short abbreviations such as 2d to 2nd. Occasional typos are corrected, and a few corrections are made for consistency. Periods after subtitles are dropped.Lauren Landsburg
Editor, Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: Office of the National Illustrated Library
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
- Ch.1, Money Mania--The Mississippi Scheme
- Ch.2, The South-Sea Bubble
- Ch.3, The Tulipomania
- Ch.4, The Alchymists, (file a.)
- Ch.5, Modern Prophecies
- Ch.6, Fortune-Telling
- Ch.7, The Magnetisers
- Ch.8, Hair and Beard
- Ch.9, The Crusades
- Ch.10, The Witch Mania
- Ch.11, The Slow Poisoners
- Ch.12, Haunted Houses
- Ch.13, Popular Follies of Great Cities
- Ch.14, Popular Admiration of Great Thieves
- Ch.15, Duels and Ordeals
- Ch.16, Relics
And men still grope t’ anticipate
The cabinet designs of Fate;
Apply to wizards to foresee
What shall and what shall never be.Hudibras, part iii. canto 3.
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PLAN laid down, we proceed to the consideration of the follies into which men have been led by their eager desire to pierce the thick darkness of futurity. God himself, for his own wise purposes, has more than once undrawn the impenetrable veil which shrouds those awful secrets; and, for purposes just as wise, he has decreed that, except in these instances, ignorance shall be our lot for ever. It is happy for man that he does not know what the morrow is to bring forth; but, unaware of this great blessing, he has, in all ages of the world, presumptuously endeavoured to trace the events of unborn centuries, and anticipate the march of time. He has reduced this presumption into a study. He has divided it into sciences and systems without number, employing his whole life in the vain pursuit. Upon no subject has it been so easy to deceive the world as upon this. In every breast the curiosity exists in a greater or less degree, and can only be conquered by a long course of self-examination, and a firm reliance that the future would not be hidden from our sight, if it were right that we should be acquainted with it.
An undue opinion of our own importance in the scale of creation is at the bottom of all our unwarrantable notions in this respect. How flattering to the pride of man to think that the stars in their courses watch over him, and typify, by their movements and aspects, the joys or the sorrows that await him! He, less in proportion to the universe than the all-but invisible insects that feed in myriads on a summer’s leaf are to this great globe itself, fondly imagines that eternal worlds were chiefly created to prognosticate his fate. How we should pity the arrogance of the worm that crawls at our feet, if we knew that it also desired to know the secrets of futurity, and imagined that meteors shot athwart the sky to warn it that a tom-tit was hovering near to gobble it up; that storms and earthquakes, the revolutions of empires, or the fall of mighty monarchs, only happened to predict its birth, its progress, and its decay! Not a whit less presuming has man shewn himself; not a whit less arrogant are the sciences, so called, of astrology, augury, necromancy, geomancy, palmistry, and divination of every kind.
Leaving out of view the oracles of pagan antiquity and religious predictions in general, and confining ourselves solely to the persons who, in modern times, have made themselves most conspicuous in foretelling the future, we shall find that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the golden age of these impostors. Many of them have been already mentioned in their character of alchymists. The union of the two pretensions is not at all surprising. It was to be expected that those who assumed a power so preposterous as that of prolonging the life of man for several centuries, should pretend, at the same time, to foretell the events which were to mark that preternatural span of existence. The world would as readily believe that they had discovered all secrets, as that they had only discovered one. The most celebrated astrologers of Europe, three centuries ago, were alchymists. Agrippa, Paracelsus, Dr. Dee, and the Rosicrucians, all laid as much stress upon their knowledge of the days to come, as upon their pretended possession of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life. In their time, ideas of the wonderful, the diabolical, and the supernatural, were rifer than ever they were before. The devil or the stars were universally believed to meddle constantly in the affairs of men; and both were to be consulted with proper ceremonies. Those who were of a melancholy and gloomy temperament betook themselves to necromancy and sorcery; those more cheerful and aspiring, devoted themselves to astrology. The latter science was encouraged by all the monarchs and governments of that age. In England, from the time of Elizabeth to that of William and Mary, judicial astrology was in high repute. During that period flourished Drs. Dee, Lamb, and Forman; with Lilly, Booker, Gadbury, Evans, and scores of nameless impostors in every considerable town and village in the country, who made it their business to cast nativities, aid in the recovery of stolen goods, prognosticate happy or unhappy marriages, predict whether journeys would be prosperous, and note lucky moments for the commencement of any enterprise, from the setting up of a cobbler’s shop to the marching of an army. Men who, to use the words of Butler, did
“Deal in Destiny’s dark counsel,
And sage opinion of the moon sell;
To whom all people far and near
On deep importance did repair,
When brass and pewter pots did stray,
And linen slunk out of the way.”
Memoirs of his Life and Times, there are many notices of the inferior quacks who then abounded, and upon whom he pretended to look down with supreme contempt; not because they were astrologers, but because they debased that noble art by taking fees for the recovery of stolen property. From Butler’s
Hudibras, and its curious notes, we may learn what immense numbers of these fellows lived upon the credulity of mankind in that age of witchcraft and diablerie. Even in our day, how great is the reputation enjoyed by the almanac-makers, who assume the name of Francis Moore. But in the time of Charles I and the Commonwealth the most learned, the most noble, and the most conspicuous characters did not hesitate to consult astrologers in the most open manner. Lilly, whom Butler has immortalized under the name of Sydrophel, relates, that he proposed to write a work called
An Introduction to Astrology, in which he would satisfy the whole kingdom of the lawfulness of that art. Many of the soldiers were for it, he says, and many of the Independent party, and abundance of worthy men in the House of Commons, his assured friends, and able to take his part against the Presbyterians, who would have silenced his predictions if they could. He afterwards carried his plan into execution, and when his book was published, went with another astrologer named Booker to the headquarters of the parliamentary army at Windsor, where they were welcomed and feasted in the garden where General Fairfax lodged. They were afterwards introduced to the general, who received them very kindly, and made allusion to some of their predictions. He hoped their art was lawful and agreeable to God’s word; but he did not understand it himself. He did not doubt, however, that the two astrologers feared God, and therefore he had a good opinion of them. Lilly assured him that the art of astrology was quite consonant to the Scriptures; and confidently predicted from his knowledge of the stars, that the parliamentary army would overthrow all its enemies. In Oliver’s Protectorate, this quack informs us that he wrote freely enough. He became an Independent, and all the soldiery were his friends. When he went to Scotland, he saw a soldier standing in front of the army with a book of prophecies in his hand, exclaiming to the several companies as they passed by him, “Lo! hear what Lilly saith: you are in this month promised victory! Fight it out, brave boys! and then read that month’s prediction!”
After the great fire of London, which Lilly said he had foretold, he was sent for by the committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the causes of the calamity. In his
Monarchy or no Monarchy, published in 1651, he had inserted an hieroglyphical plate representing on one side persons in winding-sheets digging graves; and on the other a large city in flames. After the great fire, some sapient member of the legislature bethought him of Lilly’s book, and having mentioned it in the house, it was agreed that the astrologer should be summoned. Lilly attended accordingly, when Sir Robert Brooke told him the reason of his summons, and called upon him to declare what he knew. This was a rare opportunity for the vain-glorious Lilly to vaunt his abilities; and he began a long speech in praise of himself and his pretended science. He said that, after the execution of Charles I, he was extremely desirous to know what might from that time forth happen to the parliament and to the nation in general. He therefore consulted the stars, and satisfied himself. The result of his judgment he put into emblems and hieroglyphics, without any commentary, so that the true meaning might be concealed from the vulgar, and made manifest only to the wise; imitating in this the example of many wise philosophers who had done the like.
“Did you foresee the year of the fire?” said a member. “No,” quoth Lilly, “nor was I desirous. Of that I made no scrutiny.” After some further parley, the house found they could make nothing of the astrologer, and dismissed him with great civility.
One specimen of the explanation of a prophecy given by Lilly, and related by him with much complacency, will be sufficient to shew the sort of trash by which he imposed upon the million. “In the year 1588,” says he, “there was a prophecy printed in Greek characters, exactly deciphering the long troubles of the English nation from 1641 to 1660.” And it ended thus: “And after him shall come a dreadful dead man, and with him a royal G, of the best blood in the world, and he shall have the crown, and shall set England on the right way, and put out all heresies.” The following is the explanation of this oracular absurdity:
“Monkery being extinguished above eighty or ninety years, and the Lord General’s name being Monk, is the dead man. The royal G or C [it is gamma in the Greek, intending C in the Latin, being the third letter in the alphabet] is Charles II, who for his extraction may be said to be of the best blood of the world.”
In France and Germany astrologers met even more encouragement than they received in England. In very early ages, Charlemagne and his successors fulminated their wrath against them in common with sorcerers. Louis XI, that most superstitious of men, entertained great numbers of them at his court; and Catherine de Medicis, that most superstitious of women, hardly ever took any affair of importance without consulting them. She chiefly favoured her own countrymen; and during the time she governed France, the land was overrun by Italian conjurors, necromancers, and fortune-tellers of every kind. But the chief astrologer of that day, beyond all doubt, was the celebrated Nostradamus, physician to her husband, King Henry II. He was born in 1503, at the town of St. Remi, in Provence, where his father was a notary. He did not acquire much fame till he was past his fiftieth year, when his famous
Centuries, a collection of verses, written in obscure and almost unintelligible language, began to excite attention. They were so much spoken of in 1556, that Henry II resolved to attach so skilful a man to his service, and appointed him his physician. In a biographical notice of him prefixed to the edition of his
Vraies Centuries, published at Amsterdam in 1668, we are informed that he often discoursed with his royal master on the secrets of futurity, and received many great presents as his reward, besides his usual allowance for medical attendance. After the death of Henry he retired to his native place, where Charles IX paid him a visit in 1564; and was so impressed with veneration for his wondrous knowledge of the things that were to be, not in France only, but in the whole world for hundreds of years to come, that he made him a counsellor of state and his own physician, besides treating him in other matters with a royal liberality. “In fine,” continues his biographer, “I should be too prolix were I to tell all the honours conferred upon him, and all the great nobles and learned men that arrived at his house from the very ends of the earth, to see and converse with him as if he had been an oracle. Many strangers, in fact, came to France for no other purpose than to consult him.”
The prophecies of Nostradamus consist of upwards of a thousand stanzas, each of four lines, and are to the full as obscure as the oracles of old. They take so great a latitude, both as to time and space, that they are almost sure to be fulfilled somewhere or other in the course of a few centuries. A little ingenuity like that evinced by Lilly, in his explanation about General Monk and the dreadful dead man, might easily make events to fit some of them.
He is to this day extremely popular in France and the Walloon country of Belgium, where old farmer-wives consult him with great confidence and assiduity.
Catherine di Medicis was not the only member of her illustrious house who entertained astrologers. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, there was a man, named Basil, residing in Florence, who was noted over all Italy for his skill in piercing the darkness of futurity. It is said that he foretold to Cosmo di Medicis, then a private citizen, that he would attain high dignity, inasmuch as the ascendant of his nativity was adorned with the same propitious aspects as those of Augustus Caesar and the Emperor Charles V.
48* Another astrologer foretold the death of Prince Alexander di Medicis; and so very minute and particular was he in all the circumstances, that he was suspected of being chiefly instrumental in fulfilling his own prophecy—a very common resource with these fellows, to keep up their credit. He foretold confidently that the prince should die by the hand of his own familiar friend, a person of a slender habit of body, a small face, a swarthy complexion, and of most remarkable taciturnity. So it afterwards happened, Alexander having been murdered in his chamber by his cousin Lorenzo, who corresponded exactly with the above description.
49* The author of
Hermippus Redivivus, in relating this story, inclines to the belief that the astrologer was guiltless of any participation in the crime, but was employed by some friend of Prince Alexander, to warn him of his danger.
A much more remarkable story is told of an astrologer who lived in Romagna, in the fifteenth century, and whose name was Antiochus Tibertus.
50* At that time nearly all the petty sovereigns of Italy retained such men in their service; and Tibertus, having studied the mathematics with great success at Paris, and delivered many predictions, some of which, for guesses, were not deficient in shrewdness, was taken into the household of Pandolfo di Malatesta, the sovereign of Rimini. His reputation was so great, that his study was continually thronged either with visitors who were persons of distinction, or with clients who came to him for advice; and in a short time he acquired a considerable fortune. Notwithstanding all these advantages, he passed his life miserably, and ended it on the scaffold. The following story afterwards got into circulation, and has been often triumphantly cited by succeeding astrologers as an irrefragable proof of the truth of their science. It was said, that long before he died he uttered three remarkable prophecies—one relating to himself, another to his friend, and the third to his patron, Pandolfo di Malatesta. The first delivered was that relating to his friend Guido di Bogni, one of the greatest captains of the time. Guido was exceedingly desirous to know his fortune, and so importuned Tibertus, that the latter consulted the stars and the lines on his palm to satisfy him. He afterwards told him with a sorrowful face, that, according to all the rules of astrology and palmistry, he should be falsely suspected by his best friend, and should lose his life in consequence. Guido then asked the astrologer if he could foretell his own fate; upon which Tibertus again consulted the stars, and found that it was decreed from all eternity that he should end his days on the scaffold. Malatesta, when he heard these predictions, so unlikely, to all present appearance, to prove true, desired his astrologer to predict his fate also, and to hide nothing from him, however unfavourable it might be. Tibertus complied, and told his patron, at that time one of the most flourishing and powerful princes of Italy, that he should suffer great want, and die at last like a beggar in the common hospital of Bologna. And so it happened in all three cases. Guido di Bogni was accused by his own father-in-law, the Count di Bentivoglio, of a treasonable design to deliver up the city of Rimini to the papal forces, and was assassinated afterwards, by order of the tyrant Malatesta, as he sat at the supper-table, to which he had been invited in all apparent friendship. The astrologer was at the same time thrown into prison, as being concerned in the treason of his friend. He attempted to escape, and had succeeded in letting himself down from his dungeon-window into a moat, when he was discovered by the sentinels. This being reported to Malatesta, he gave orders for his execution on the following morning.
Malatesta had, at this time, no remembrance of the prophecy; and his own fate gave him no uneasiness: but events were silently working its fulfilment. A conspiracy had been formed, though Guido di Bogni was innocent of it, to deliver up Rimini to the pope; and all the necessary measures having been taken, the city was seized by the Count de Valentinois. In the confusion, Malatesta had barely time to escape from his palace in disguise. He was pursued from place to place by his enemies, abandoned by all his former friends, and, finally, by his own children. He at last fell ill of a languishing disease, at Bologna; and, nobody caring to afford him shelter, he was carried to the hospital, where he died. The only thing that detracts from the interest of this remarkable story is the fact, that the prophecy was made after the event.
For some weeks before the birth of Louis XIV, an astrologer from Germany, who had been sent for by the Marshal de Bassompierre and other noblemen of the court, had taken up his residence in the palace, to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to draw the horoscope of the future sovereign of France. When the queen was taken in labour, he was ushered into a contiguous apartment, that he might receive notice of the very instant the child was born. The result of his observations were the three words,
diu, durè, feliciter; meaning, that the new-born prince should live and reign long, with much labour, and with great glory. No prediction less favourable could have been expected from an astrologer, who had his bread to get, and who was at the same time a courtier. A medal was afterwards struck in commemoration of the event; upon one side of which was figured the nativity of the prince, representing him as driving the chariot of Apollo, with the inscription “Ortus solis Gallici,”—the rising of the Gallic sun.
The best excuse ever made for astrology was that offered by the great astronomer, Kepler, himself an unwilling practiser of the art. He had many applications from his friends to cast nativities for them, and generally gave a positive refusal to such as he was not afraid of offending by his frankness. In other cases he accommodated himself to the prevailing delusion. In sending a copy of his
Ephemerides to Professor Gerlach, he wrote, that
they were nothing but worthless conjectures; but he was obliged to devote himself to them, or he would have starved. “Ye overwise philosophers,” he exclaimed, in his
Tertius Interveniens; “ye censure this daughter of astronomy beyond her deserts!
Know ye not that she must support her mother by her charms? The scanty reward of an astronomer would not provide him with bread, if men did not entertain hopes of reading the future in the heavens.”
NECROMANCY was, next to astrology, the pretended science most resorted to, by those who wished to pry into the future. The earliest instance upon record is that of the witch of Endor and the spirit of Samuel. Nearly all the nations of antiquity believed in the possibility of summoning departed ghosts to disclose the awful secrets that God made clear to the disembodied. Many passages in allusion to this subject will at once suggest themselves to the classical reader; but this art was never carried on openly in any country. All governments looked upon it as a crime of the deepest dye. While astrology was encouraged, and its professors courted and rewarded, necromancers were universally condemned to the stake or the gallows. Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Arnold of Villeneuve, and many others, were accused by the public opinion of many centuries, of meddling in these unhallowed matters. So deep-rooted has always been the popular delusion with respect to accusations of this kind, that no crime was ever disproved with such toil and difficulty. That it met great encouragement, nevertheless, is evident from the vast numbers of pretenders to it; who, in spite of the danger, have existed in all ages and countries.
GEOMANCY, or the art of foretelling the future by means of lines and circles, and other mathematical figures drawn on the earth, is still extensively practised in Asiatic countries, but is almost unknown in Europe.
AUGURY, from the flight or entrails of birds, so favourite a study among the Romans, is, in like manner, exploded in Europe. Its most assiduous professors, at the present day, are the abominable Thugs of India.
DIVINATION, of which there are many kinds, boasts a more enduring reputation. It has held an empire over the minds of men from the earliest periods of recorded history, and is, in all probability, coeval with time itself. It was practised alike by the Jews, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans; is equally known to all modern nations, in every part of the world; and is not unfamiliar to the untutored tribes that roam in the wilds of Africa and America. Divination, as practised in civilized Europe at the present day, is chiefly from cards, the tea-cup, and the lines on the palm of the hand. Gipsies alone make a profession of it; but there are thousands and tens of thousands of humble families in which the good-wife, and even the good-man, resort to the grounds at the bottom of their teacups, to know whether the next harvest will be abundant, or their sow bring forth a numerous litter; and in which the young maidens look to the same place to know when they are to be married, and whether the man of their choice is to be dark or fair, rich or poor, kind or cruel. Divination by cards, so great a favourite among the moderns, is, of course, a modern science; as cards do not yet boast an antiquity of much more than four hundred years. Divination by the palm, so confidently believed in by half the village lasses in Europe, is of older date, and seems to have been known to the Egyptians in the time of the patriarchs; as well as divination by the cup, which, as we are informed in Genesis, was practised by Joseph. Divination by the rod was also practised by the Egyptians. In comparatively recent times, it was pretended that by this means hidden treasures could be discovered. It now appears to be altogether exploded in Europe. Onomancy, or the foretelling a man’s fate by the letters of his name, and the various transpositions of which they are capable, is a more modern sort of divination; but it reckons comparatively few believers.
The following list of the various species of Divination formerly in use, is given by Gaule, in his
Magastromancer, and quoted in Hone’s
Year-Book, p. 1517.
Stareomancy, or divining by the elements.
Aeromancy, or divining by the air.
Pyromancy, by fire.
Hydromancy, by water.
Geomancy, by earth.
Theomancy, pretending to divine by the revelation of the Spirit, and by the Scriptures, or word of God.
Demonomancy, by the aid of devils and evil spirits.
Idolomancy, by idols, images, and figures.
Psychomancy, by the soul, affections, or dispositions of men.
Anthropomancy, by the entrails of human beings.
Theriomancy, by beasts.
Ornithomancy, by birds.
Icthyomancy, by fishes.
Botanomancy, by herbs.
Lithomancy, by stones.
Kleromancy, by lots.
Oneiromancy, by dreams.
Onomancy, by names.
Arithmancy, by numbers.
Logarithmancy, by logarithms.
Sternomancy, by the marks from the breast to the belly.
Gastromancy, by the sound of, or marks upon, the belly.
Omphelomancy, by the navel.
Chiromancy, by the hands.
Podomancy, by the feet.
Onchyomancy, by the nails.
Cephaleonomancy, by asses’ heads.
Tephromancy, by ashes.
Kapnomancy, by smoke.
Knissomancy, by the burning of incense.
Ceromancy, by the melting of wax.
Lecanomancy, by basins of water.
Katoptromancy, by looking-glasses.
Chartomancy, by writing in papers, and by Valentines.
Macharomancy, by knives and swords.
Crystallomancy, by crystals.
Dactylomancy, by rings.
Koskinomancy, by sieves.
Axinomancy, by saws.
Chalcomancy, by vessels of brass, or other metal.
Spatilomancy, by skins, bones, &c.
Astromancy, by stars.
Sciomancy, by shadows.
Astragalomancy, by dice.
Oinomancy, by the lees of wine.
Sycomancy, by figs.
Tyromancy, by cheese.
Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or bran.
Krithomancy, by corn or grain.
Alectromancy, by cocks.
Gyromancy, by circles.
Lampadomancy, by candles and lamps.
ONEIRO-CRITICISM, or the art of interpreting dreams, is a relic of the most remote ages, which has subsisted through all the changes that moral or physical revolutions have operated in the world. The records of five thousand years bear abundant testimony to the universal diffusion of the belief, that the skilful could read the future in dreams. The rules of the art, if any existed in ancient times, are not known; but in our day, one simple rule opens the whole secret. Dreams, say all the wiseacres in Christendom, are to be interpreted by contraries. Thus, if you dream of filth, you will acquire something valuable; if you dream of the dead, you will hear news of the living; if you dream of gold and silver, you run a risk of being without either; and if you dream you have many friends, you will be persecuted by many enemies. The rule, however, does not hold good in all cases. It is fortunate to dream of little pigs, but unfortunate to dream of big bullocks. If you dream you have lost a tooth, you may be sure that you will shortly lose a friend; and if you dream that your house is on fire, you will receive news from a far country. If you dream of vermin, it is a sign that there will be sickness in your family; and if you dream of serpents, you will have friends who, in the course of time, will prove your bitterest enemies; but, of all dreams, it is most fortunate if you dream that you are wallowing up to your neck in mud and mire. Clear water is a sign of grief; and great troubles, distress, and perplexity are predicted, if you dream that you stand naked in the public streets, and know not where to find a garment to shield you from the gaze of the multitude.
In many parts of Great Britain, and the continents of Europe and America, there are to be found elderly women in the villages and country-places whose interpretations of dreams are looked upon with as much reverence as if they were oracles. In districts remote from towns it is not uncommon to find the members of a family regularly every morning narrating their dreams at the breakfast-table, and becoming happy or miserable for the day according to their interpretation. There is not a flower that blossoms, or fruit that ripens, that, dreamed of, is not ominous of either good or evil to such people. Every tree of the field or the forest is endowed with a similar influence over the fate of mortals, if seen in the night-visions. To dream of the ash, is the sign of a long journey; and of an oak, prognosticates long life and prosperity. To dream you strip the bark off any tree, is a sign to a maiden of an approaching loss of a character; to a married woman, of a family bereavement; and to a man, of an accession of fortune. To dream of a leafless tree, is a sign of great sorrow; and of a branchless trunk, a sign of despair and suicide. The elder-tree is more auspicious to the sleeper; while the fir-tree, better still, betokens all manner of comfort and prosperity. The lime-tree predicts a voyage across the ocean; while the yew and the alder are ominous of sickness to the young and of death to the old.
51* Among the flowers and fruits charged with messages for the future, the following is a list of the most important, arranged from approved sources, in alphabetical order:
Asparagus, gathered and tied up in bundles, is an omen of tears. If you see it growing in your dreams, it is a sign of good fortune.
Aloes, without a flower, betokens long life: in flower, betokens a legacy.
Artichokes. This vegetable is a sign that you will receive, in a short time, a favour from the hands of those from whom you would least expect it.
Agrimony. This herb denotes that there will be sickness in your house.
Anemone predicts love.
Auriculas, in beds, denote luck; in pots, marriage: while to gather them, foretells widowhood.
Bilberries predict a pleasant excursion.
Broom-flowers an increase of family.
Cauliflowers predict that all your friends will slight you, or that you will fall into poverty and find no one to pity you.
Dock-leaves, a present from the country.
Daffodils. Any maiden who dreams of daffodils is warned by her good angel to avoid going into a wood with her lover, or into any dark or retired place where she might not be able to make people hear her if she cried out. Alas for her if she pay no attention to the warning!
“Never again shall she put garland on;
Instead of it, she’ll wear sad cypress now,
And bitter elder broken from the bough.”
Figs, if green, betoken embarrassment; if dried, money to the poor and mirth to the rich.
Heart’s-ease betokens heart’s pain.
Lilies predict joy;
water-lilies, danger from the sea.
Lemons betoken a separation.
Pomegranates predict happy wedlock to those who are single, and reconciliation to those who are married and have disagreed.
Quinces prognosticate pleasant company.
Roses denote happy love, not unmixed with sorrow from other sources.
Sorrel. To dream of this herb is a sign that you will shortly have occasion to exert all your prudence to overcome some great calamity.
Sunflowers shew that your pride will be deeply wounded.
Violets predict evil to the single, and joy to the married.
Yellow-flowers of any kind predict jealousy.
Yew-berries predict loss of character to both sexes.
It should be observed that the rules for the interpretation of dreams are far from being universal. The cheeks of the peasant girl of England glow with pleasure in the morning after she has dreamed of a rose, while the
paysanne of Normandy dreads disappointment and vexation for the very same reason. The Switzer who dreams of an oak-tree does not share in the Englishman’s joy; for he imagines that the vision was a warning to him that, from some trifling cause, an overwhelming calamity will burst over him. Thus do the ignorant and the credulous torment themselves; thus do they spread their nets to catch vexation, and pass their lives between hopes which are of no value and fears which are a positive evil.
OMENS. Among the other means of self-annoyance upon which men have stumbled, in their vain hope of discovering the future, signs and omens hold a conspicuous place. There is scarcely an occurrence in nature which, happening at a certain time, is not looked upon by some persons as a prognosticator either of good or evil. The latter are in the greatest number, so much more ingenious are we in tormenting ourselves than in discovering reasons for enjoyment in the things that surround us. We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable; the cup of life is not bitter enough to our palate, and we distil superfluous poison to put into it, or conjure up hideous things to frighten ourselves at, which would never exist if we did not make them. “We suffer,” says Addison,
52* “as much from trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a star spoil a night’s rest, and have seen a man in love grow pale and lose his appetite upon the plucking of a merrythought. A screech-owl at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the voice of a cricket has struck more terror than the roaring of a lion. There is nothing so inconsiderable which may not appear dreadful to an imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail or a crooked pin shoot up into prodigies.”
The century and a quarter that has passed away since Addison wrote has seen the fall of many errors. Many fallacies and delusions have been crushed under the foot of Time since then; but this has been left unscathed, to frighten the weak-minded and embitter their existence. A belief in omens is not confined to the humble and uninformed. A general, who led an army with credit has been known to feel alarmed at a winding-sheet in the candle; and learned men, who had honourably and fairly earned the highest honours of literature, have been seen to gather their little ones around them, and fear that one would be snatched away, because,
“When stole upon the time the dead of night,
And heavy sleep had closed up mortal eyes,”
a dog in the street was howling at the moon. Persons who would acknowledge freely that the belief in omens was unworthy of a man of sense, have yet confessed at the same time that, in spite of their reason, they have been unable to conquer their fears of death when they heard the harmless insect called the death-watch ticking in the wall, or saw an oblong hollow coal fly out of the fire.
Many other evil omens besides those mentioned above alarm the vulgar and the weak. If a sudden shivering comes over such people, they believe that, at that instant, an enemy is treading over the spot that will one day be their grave. If they meet a sow when they first walk abroad in the morning, it is an omen of evil for that day. To meet an ass, is in like manner unlucky. It is also very unfortunate to walk under a ladder; to forget to eat goose on the festival of St. Michael; to tread upon a beetle, or to eat the twin nuts that are sometimes found in one shell. Woe, in like manner, is predicted to that wight who inadvertently upsets the salt; each grain that is overthrown will bring to him a day of sorrow. If thirteen persons sit at table, one of them will die within the year; and all of them will be unhappy. Of all evil omens, this is the worst. The facetious Dr. Kitchener used to observe that there was one case in which he believed that it was really unlucky for thirteen persons to sit down to dinner, and that was when there was only dinner enough for twelve. Unfortunately for their peace of mind, the great majority of people do not take this wise view of the matter. In almost every country of Europe the same superstition prevails, and some carry it so far as to look upon the number thirteen as in every way ominous of evil; and if they find thirteen coins in their purse, cast away the odd one like a polluted thing. The philosophic Beranger, in his exquisite song,
Thirteen at Table, has taken a poetical view of this humiliating superstition, and mingled, as is his wont, a lesson of genuine wisdom in his lay. Being at dinner, he overthrows the salt, and, looking round the room, discovers that he is the thirteenth guest. While he is mourning his unhappy fate, and conjuring up visions of disease and suffering and the grave, he is suddenly startled by the apparition of Death herself, not in the shape of a grim foe, with skeleton-ribs and menacing dart, but of an angel of light, who shews the folly of tormenting ourselves with the dread of her approach, when she is the friend, rather than the enemy, of man, and frees us from the fetters which bind us to the dust.
If men could bring themselves to look upon death in this manner, living well and wisely till her inevitable approach, how vast a store of grief and vexation would they spare themselves!
Among good omens, one of the most conspicuous is to meet a piebald horse. To meet two of these animals is still more fortunate; and if on such an occasion you spit thrice, and form any reasonable wish, it will be gratified within three days. It is also a sign of good fortune if you inadvertently put on your stocking wrong side out. If you wilfully wear your stocking in this fashion, no good will come of it. It is very lucky to sneeze twice; but if you sneeze a third time, the omen loses its power, and your good fortune will be nipped in the bud. If a strange dog follow you, and fawn on you, and wish to attach itself to you, it is a sign of very great prosperity. Just as fortunate is it if a strange male cat comes to your house and manifests friendly intentions towards your family. If a she cat, it is an omen, on the contrary, of very great misfortune. If a swarm of bees alight in your garden, some very high honour and great joys await you.
Besides these glimpses of the future, you may know something of your fate by a diligent attention to every itching that you may feel in your body. Thus, if the eye or the nose itches, it is a sign you will be shortly vexed; if the foot itches you will tread upon strange ground; and if the elbow itches, you will change your bedfellow. Itching of the right-hand prognosticates that you will soon have a sum of money; and, of the left, that you will be called upon to disburse it.
These are but a few of the omens which are generally credited in modern Europe. A complete list of them would fatigue from its length, and sicken from its absurdity. It would be still more unprofitable to attempt to specify the various delusions of the same kind which are believed among oriental nations. Every reader will remember the comprehensive formula of cursing preserved in
Tristram Shandy—curse a man after any fashion you remember or can invent, you will be sure to find it there. The oriental creed of omens is not less comprehensive. Every movement of the body, every emotion of the mind, is at certain times an omen. Every form and object in nature, even the shape of the clouds and the changes of the weather; every colour, every sound, whether of men or animals, or birds or insects, or inanimate things, is an omen. Nothing is too trifling or inconsiderable to inspire a hope which is not worth cherishing, or a fear which is sufficient to embitter existence.
From the belief in omens springs the superstition that has, from very early ages, set apart certain days, as more favourable than others, for prying into the secrets of futurity. The following, copied verbatim from the popular
Dream and Omen Book of Mother Bridget, will shew the belief of the people of England at the present day. Those who are curious as to the ancient history of these observances, will find abundant aliment in the
“The 1st of January.—If a young maiden drink, on going to bed, a pint of cold spring-water, in which is beat up an amulet, composed of the yolk of a pullet’s egg, the legs of a spider, and the skin of an eel pounded, her future destiny will be revealed to her in a dream. This charm fails of its effect if tried any other day of the year.
“Valentine Day.—Let a single woman go out of her own door very early in the morning, and if the first person she meets be a woman, she will not be married that year; if she meet a man, she will be married within three months.
“Lady Day.—The following charm may be tried this day with certain success: String thirty-one nuts on a string, composed of red worsted mixed with blue silk, and tie it round your neck on going to bed, repeating these lines:
“Oh, I wish ! oh, I wish to see
Who my true love is to be!
Shortly after midnight, you will see your lover in a dream, and be informed at the same time of all the principal events of your future life.
“St. Swithin’s Eve.—Select three things you most wish to know; write them down with a new pen and red ink on a sheet of fine wove paper, from which you must previously cut off all the corners and burn them. Fold the paper into a true lover’s knot, and wrap round it three hairs from your head. Place the paper under your pillow for three successive nights, and your curiosity to know the future will be satisfied.
“St. Mark’s Eve.—Repair to the nearest churchyard as the clock strikes twelve, and take from a grave on the south side of the church three tufts of grass (the longer and ranker the better), and on going to bed place them under your pillow, repeating earnestly three several times,
‘The Eve of St. Mark by prediction is blest,
Set therefore my hopes and my fears all to rest:
Let me know my fate, whether weal or woe;
Whether my rank’s to be high or low;
Whether to live single, or be a bride,
And the destiny my star doth provide.’
Should you have no dream that night, you will be single and miserable all your life. If you dream of thunder and lightning, your life will be one of great difficulty and sorrow.
“Candlemas Eve.—On this night (which is the purification of the Virgin Mary), let three, five, seven, or nine, young maidens assemble together in a square chamber. Hang in each corner a bundle of sweet herbs, mixed with rue and rosemary. Then mix a cake of flour, olive-oil, and white sugar; every maiden having an equal share in the making and the expense of it. Afterwards, it must be cut into equal pieces, each one marking the piece as she cuts it with the initials of her name. It is then to be baked one hour before the fire, not a word being spoken the whole time, and the maidens sitting with their arms and knees across. Each piece of cake is then to be wrapped up in a sheet of paper, on which each maiden shall write the love part of Solomon’s Songs. If she put this under her pillow she will dream true. She will see her future husband and every one of her children, and will know besides whether her family will be poor or prosperous, a comfort to her or the contrary.
“Midsummer.—Take three roses, smoke them with sulphur, and exactly at three in the day bury one of the roses under a yew tree; the second in a newly-made grave, and put the third under your pillow for three nights, and at the end of that period burn it in a fire of charcoal. Your dreams during that time will be prophetic of your future destiny, and, what is still more curious and valuable, says Mother Bridget, the man whom you are to wed will enjoy no peace till he comes and visits you. Besides this, you will perpetually haunt his dreams.
“St. John’s Eve.—Make a new pincushion of the very best black velvet (no inferior quality will answer the purpose), and on one side stick your name in full length with the very smallest pins that can be bought (none other will do). On the other side, make a cross with some very large pins, and surround it with a circle. Put this into your stocking when you take it off at night, and hang it up at the foot of the bed. All your future life will pass before you in a dream.
“First New Moon of the year.—On the first new moon in the year, take a pint of clear spring water and infuse into it the
white of an egg laid by a
white hen, a glass of
white wine, three almonds peeled
white, and a tablespoonful of
white rose-water. Drink this on going to bed, not making more nor less than three draughts of it; repeating the following verses three several times in a clear distinct voice, but not so loud as to be overheard by any body:
‘If I dream of water pure
Before the coming morn,
‘Tis a sign I shall be poor,
And unto wealth not born.
If I dream of tasting beer,
Middling then will be my cheer—
Chequer’d with the good and bad,
Sometimes joyful, sometimes sad;
But should I dream of drinking wine,
Wealth and pleasure will be mine.
The stronger the drink, the better the cheer—
Dreams of my destiny, appear, appear!’
“Twenty-ninth of February.—This day, as it only occurs once in four years, is peculiarly auspicious to those who desire to have a glance at futurity, especially to young maidens burning with anxiety to know the appearance and complexion of their future lords. The charm to be adopted is the following: Stick twenty-seven of the smallest pins that are made, three by three, into a tallow candle. Light it up at the wrong end, and then place it in a candlestick made out of clay, which must be drawn from a virgin’s grave. Place this on the chimney-place, in the left-hand corner, exactly as the clock strikes twelve, and go to bed immediately. When the candle is burnt out, take the pins and put them into your left shoe; and before nine nights have elapsed your fate will be revealed to you.”
We have now taken a hasty review of the various modes of seeking to discover the future, especially as practised in modern times. The main features of the folly appear essentially the same in all countries. National character and peculiarities operate some difference of interpretation. The mountaineer makes the natural phenomena which he most frequently witnesses prognosticative of the future. The dweller in the plains, in a similar manner, seeks to know his fate among the signs of the things that surround him, and tints his superstition with the hues of his own clime. The same spirit animates them all—the same desire to know that which Infinite Mercy has concealed. There is but little probability that the curiosity of mankind in this respect will ever be wholly eradicated. Death and ill fortune are continual bugbears to the weak-minded, the irreligious, and the ignorant; and while such exist in the world, divines will preach upon its impiety and philosophers discourse upon its absurdity in vain. Still, it is evident that these follies have greatly diminished. Soothsayers and prophets have lost the credit they formerly enjoyed, and skulk in secret now where they once shewed their faces in the blaze of day. So far there is manifest improvement.
“From great dangers the captive is escaped.
A little time, great fortune changed.
In the palace the people are caught.
By good augury the city is besieged.”
“What is this,” a believer might exclaim, “but the escape of Napoleon from Elba—his changed fortune, and the occupation of Paris by the allied armies?”
Let us try again. In his third century, prediction 98, he says:
“Two royal brothers will make fierce war on each other;
So mortal shall be the strife between them,
That each one shall occupy a fort against the other;
For their reign and life shall be the quarrel.”
Some Lillius Redivivus would find no difficulty in this prediction. To use a vulgar phrase, it is as clear as a pikestaff. Had not the astrologer in view Don Miguel and Don Pedro when he penned this stanza, so much less obscure and oracular than the rest?
Mother Bridget’s Dream-book and Oracle of Fate; the other is the
Norwood Gipsy. It is stated, on the authority of one who is curious in these matters, that there is a demand for these works, which are sold at sums varying from a penny to sixpence, chiefly to servant-girls and imperfectly-educated people, all over the country, of upwards of eleven thousand annually; and that at no period during the last thirty years has the average number sold been less than this. The total number during this period would thus amount to 330,000.