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Up From Savagery

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

The History of the Devil. The Horned God of the West. By R. Lowe Thompson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. The Story of Superstition. By Philip F. Waterman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50. Witchcraft in Old and Nczv England. By George Lyman Kittredgc. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $6.00.

On every material and many, a spiritual count, this is the most powerful country in the world. One irrefutable proof of our greatness is the acute realization on the part of the more thoughtful section of our citizenry that all is not as it should be. Take the ten leading magazines of, say, August, 1929, read the hundred general articles they contain, and ponder the fact that ninety per cent, of them are adversely critical of what is going on in the United States. This will save us. Rome felt that she was safe until well on into the fourth century. She fell. Watch a woman or a bald-headed man in a public building fussing and fidgeting around about a supposed draft. That person never catches a cold then and there. The athlete, on the contrary, who sits down in a draft with no thought of harm begins to sneeze immediately and cough later.

Another and sounder proof of our greatness lies in the nature of the facts recorded in the three books before us. Each deals with things dumb and devilish—and each is dedicated by the author to his wife. What progress we have made since the incidents that fill the pages of these three studied volumes took place I We have literally come up from savagery. We may still have slander; but we do not boil the slanderer. We may still hesitate about raising an umbrella in the house, but if someone does and a pet scheme of ours later goes wrong, we do not rush to the courts and have the fellow hanged for his intimacy with the powers of hell. We may, still do a number of things, from lynching to libelling, that are vicious and malicious, but we know too much to fancy that our deeds are to be traced back to the whinnying of a colt at the crossroads, or to the squinting of a jack-rabbit out from under a blackberry bush.

And as to general decency, plain civic virtue, we have our little children romp in innocence around a maypole with no thought in the world that their charming and fascinating game symbolizes an act so brutish that, while it may be set forth in a scholarly book, a reviewer passes it over in the silence born of shame. We are powerful, for we are making progress. The whole world is, for the same reason. When compared with the black perversities that were commonplaces, and religious ones at that, only a few hundred years ago, we, the people of 1929 wherever we may be, stand out as paragons of respectability, as models of decency, intelligence, and the hope that is the brightest of all—the hope that is concurrent with honest progress.

It is an amazing series of happenings and beliefs that these three writers have set forth. The nine chapters of Mr. Thompson’s book cover the field of deviltry from the crass antics of the Stone Age man nine thousand years ago to the relatively innocuous doings of the easily-imposed-upon of yesterday, to-day, and, in high probability of to-morrow too; for complete sense is a consummation which, however devoutly it may be wished for, is unattainable. One feature of Mr. Thompson’s study is its humor. He is a scholar with brains enough to see that jauntiness need not be a vice. He gives Valerius Maximus as authority for the statement that a Celt would lend money on a promissory note redeemable in the next world, and adds, “as indeed men do in a vaguer sense to-day.” Commenting on the ceremonial use of red in darker days, he says that the color “is still preferred by, children, nursemaids, and simple-minded colonels.” Commenting on La Volta, the Tarentelle, and other witch dances he goes over, with a smirk, to the “Charleston,” the “Black Bottom” and other species of pedal imbecilities. He shows quite neatly the fallacy of trying to enable oneself to see under water by eating fishes’ eyes, or of restoring lost hair through the application of the grease of a shaggy bear.

His study is informative, irk though it may at times because of the cocksureness with which he writes. After stating, on the authority of another, that baboons huddle up together and become quite dejected, though everything is going well with them, when it grows dark, that wild Kaffirs show the same sort of “Hesperian depression,” he calls to witness, in the same connection, the effect as well as the popularity of the hymn “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.” He derives “Sabbath” from s’esbattre, meaning “to frolic,” intimates that Joan of Arc was a “female proxy, gentle, perhaps (like Florence Nightingale!), but none the less a fanatic in her faith, as many witches were,” and invariably writes “mislike” when what he really, means is “dislike.”

On page 329, Professor Kittredge, falling back on Dr. Johnson, states that “men usually need not so much to be informed as to be reminded.” The mot applies heavily to Mr. Waterman’s admirable treatise, “The Story of Superstition.” One reads its 307 pages with a temptation at times to exclaim: O where have I read all this so many times before? But it is an excellent subject: superstition. The wood’s full of it! It is still on the rampage in the United States, but there is sound reason to feel that it is slowly but surely losing ground. Mr. Waterman writes kindly, fully, and with an abundant sense of support. He knows what he is talking about. And if there be a superstition, harmful, stupid, or merely funny, that is not listed in his volume, then the world must be even more superstitious than it seems. He uses this illustration by way of showing the thinness of supernatural beliefs. The corner stone of a great building is being laid. The ceremony is on. The leader of the ritualistic procedure forgets his speech, or drops his trowel, or does something else that is queer as a result of stage fright. What effect will this have on the building? None. But suppose the workman puts in a faulty beam, or does not know how to join supports, or lay brick—what then? The building will collapse. In other words, it is the realities that count. Mr. Waterman claims that our fraternal orders are all based on superstition; but nothing collapses because of the small role that they after all play in real life.

His study is replete with information. He tells us, among a legion of other things, that kings are nothing but holdovers from superstition; that tombstones are older than the alphabet, and that they were originally intended to symbolize the entrance or the threshold to the abode of the dead as opposed to the world of the living; that the Jews worshipped the cross, for good though complicated reasons, long before the beginning of the present era; that the fairy tale of Bluebeard probably arose out of the unhappy career of Giles de Rais, who was executed in 1440; that “thug,” “assassin,” and “bogy” are all words derived from what were originally devoutly religious rites; and, like Thompson and Kittredge, he gives many and many, a date on which some dumb or even harmful superstition vanished either because the world had so advanced in general enlightenment that the people themselves voluntarily discontinued its practice or because the government as such had become sufficiently intelligent to write into its statutes laws forbidding the perpetuation of these things, harmful, depressing, or merely silly. Mr. Waterman leaves his grateful reader under the impression that superstition is dying out. Each of his twenty-seven chapters has a motto prefixed. That of the first is from John Morley: “Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat.”

There are eighteen chapters in Professor Kittredge’s hook, “Witchcraft in Old and New England,” only one of which deals with half of his title, “New England.” Since he himself uses such linguistic antiques as “for the nonce” and “I crave your pardon,” the reviewer may be permitted a feeble pun. Kittredge’s is a notable book: for of its 641 pages, 268 pages are taken up with notes. On pages 3-4 there is a long quotation with its note; a correct note of course. On page 361, this same quotation is repeated in full and supplied with another note; a correct note of course. One humble Mountaineer feels that this is a technical faux pas from Cambridge-on-Charles.

American interest naturally centres in the Salem holocaust. George Lyman Kittredge claims, since only twenty-eight dire deaths actually took place in 1692, that seventeenth century Massachusetts was one of the most decent spots on the earth, for think how many witches were burned in England 1 He avers robustly that witchcraft is a common heritage of humanity. That is sweeping, even brushing. One reads the book and sees Harvard’s leading light saying: Gentlemen, I admit that some twenty-odd people were burned, in 1692, not far from the Harvard Yard but, human nature being what it is, the gift of Prometheus might just as well have been exploited in Smackover, Arkansas, or Medicine Hat, Alberta, and probably would have been used somewhere else had not Salem had at the time the requisite supply of folks.

Kittredge’s is a study of immense erudition. He gives the Puritans a clean bill of health in the witch business by using the same argument that would be used were one to state that the Methodists had nothing at all to do with the defeat of Governor Smith, for some of them voted for him. He absolves King James I completely, and brings out a book which bears the gold seal of Harvard in which “truth” in Latin is made to look as though it were three words.


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