Folk Lore by James Napier


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Page 1


The doctrine taught concerning Satan, his motives and influence in the
beginning of this century, supplied the popular mind with reasons to
account for almost all the evils, public and private, which befell
society; and as the observed ills of life, real or imaginary, greatly
outnumbered the observed good occurrences, the thought of Satan was more
constantly before the people's mind than was the thought of God.
Practically, it might be said, and said with a very near approach to
truth, that Satan, in popular estimation, was the greater of the two;
but theoretically, the superiority of God was allowed, for Satan it was
believed, was permitted by God to do what he did. It was commonly said,
"Never speak evil of the Deil, for he has a long memory." This Satanic
belief gave rise to a great amount of Folk Lore, and affected the whole
social system. Historians who take no account of such beliefs, but
regard them as trivialities, cannot but fail to represent faithfully the
condition and action of the people. Folk Lore has thus an important
historical bearing. Every age has had its own living Folk Lore, and,
beside this, a residuum of waning lore, regarded as superstitious, and
so it is at the present day. When we speak of the Folk Lore of our
grandfathers and great-grandfathers, we believe that we are speaking of
beliefs which have past away, beliefs from which we ourselves are free;
but if we consider the matter carefully we will find that in many
respects our beliefs and practices, although somewhat modernized, are
essentially little different from those of last century. Among the
better educated classes it may be said that much of the superstitions of
former times have passed away, and as education is extended they will
more and more become eradicated; but at present, in our rural districts
especially, the old beliefs still linger in considerable force. Many
think that the superstitions of last century died with the century, but
this is not so; and as these notions are curious and in many respects
important historical factors, I have thought it worth while to jot down
what of this Folk Lore has come under my observation during these last
sixty years.

In this collection I do not profess to include all that may come under
the head of Folk Lore, such, for example, as the reading of dreams and
cups, spaeing fortunes by cards or other methods--that class of
superstitions by which designing persons prey upon weak-minded people.

One principal object which I had in view in forming this collection, was
that it might supply a nucleus for the further development of the
subject. The instances which I have adduced belong to one locality, the
West of Scotland, and chiefly the neighbourhood west of Glasgow, but
different localities have different methods of formulating the same
superstition. By comparison, by separation of the local accretion from
the constant element, an approach to the original source and meaning of
a superstition may be obtained.

I have hope that the Folk Lore Society, just instituted, will consider
such details and variations, and endeavour to trace their history and
origin, and fearlessly give prominence to the still existing
superstitions, and exhibit their degrading influence on society.




The primary object of the following short treatise is to give an account
of some of those superstitions, now either dead or in their decadence,
but which, within the memory of persons now living, had a vigorous
existence, at least in the West of Scotland. A secondary object shall be
to trace out, where I think I can discover ground for so doing, the
origin of any particular superstition, and in passing I may notice the
duration in time and geographical distribution of some superstitions.
But, on the threshold of our inquiry, it may be of advantage to pause
and endeavour to reach a mutual understanding of the precise meaning of
the word Superstition--a word apparently, from the varied dictionary
renderings given of it, difficult to define. However we may disagree in
our definitions of the word, we all agree in regarding a superstitious
tone of mind as weak and foolish, and as no one desires to be regarded
as weak-minded or foolish, we naturally repel from ourselves as best we
can the odious imputation of being superstitious. There are few who seek
to know what superstition in its essence really is; most people are
satisfied to frame an answer to suit their own case, and so it happens
that we have a multiplicity of definitions for the word, many of which
are devoid of scientific solidity, and others have not even the merit of
intelligibility. A recent definition, extremely elastic, was propounded
by a popular preacher in a lecture delivered before the Glasgow Young
Men's Christian Association and reported in the newspapers,--"Superstition
is Scepticism," which may be legitimately paraphrased "Superstition is
not believing what I believe." Although this definition may be very
gratifying to the self pride of most of us, we must nevertheless reject
it, and look for a more definite and instructive signification, and for
this end we may very properly consult the meanings given in several
standard dictionaries and lexicons, for in them we expect to find
precision of statement, although in this instance I believe we shall be
disappointed. Theophrastus, who lived several centuries before the
Christian era, defines "Superstition" according to the translation given

state of mind with respect to the supernatural," and supplies the
following illustration: "The superstitious man is one, who, having taken
care to wash his hands and sprinkle himself in the temple, walks about
during the day with a little laurel in his mouth, and if he meets a
weasel on the road, dares not proceed on his way till some person has
passed, or till he has thrown three stones across the road."

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