Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
This charming bit of folk-lore shows the same careful attention to completeness of detail that the author would have bestowed upon a surgical topic—The romance of the witch hazel—its myths and legends—is one that comes near to people of this country, for the "water wizard" and the "diviner" of mineral wealth is not a stranger to the American public. Dr. Howe explains the workings of the divining rod and exposes the gullibility of persons who blindly allow themselves to be deluded by the peripatetic wielder of the magic wand.—Ed. Gleaner.
WITCH-HAZEL.—The folklore of Europe has reference on multiple occasions to the mythical properties and virtues of witch-hazel. In most instances pronounced magical powers are ascribed to the shrub, bush, twig, or tree. A forked staff of hazel-wood (... hazel (Corylus sp.) is not witch-hazel (Hamamelis sp.). Witch-hazel is native to the US, not to Europe. --Henriette.) is employed by witches as a wand to wave over a road, path, or way, or over a stream or pond of water, to influence the presiding deities or sprites of the locality, for good or evil to those passing. Sometimes a wand of ash was selected to execute a potent purpose; and the leaves of the ash tree were presumed to antidote the venom of serpents. A Swedish peasant will assure you that the touch of a hazel twig will extract the virus of a snake's bite; and that after a battle between serpents the wounded reptile will repair to a hazel bush, and there remain until the venom has been antidoted.
In the "Mythology of the Aryan Nations" we read that amulets to cure and keep off epilepsy are made of mistletoe, and that children are relieved of hernia by wearing a girdle of ash and hazel twigs or leaves. Fiske, in his "Myth and Myth-Makers" says: "The notion that snakes are afraid of an ash tree is not extinct even in the United States. The other day I was told, not by an old granny, but by a man fairly educated and endowed with a very unusual amount of good, common sense, that a rattlesnake will sooner go through fire than creep over ash leaves or into the shadow of an ash tree." I can assure the writer that I heard the same or similar statements in New England when I was a boy. Not many years ago I was visiting an uncle in Massachusetts, and while there I saw three or four men slowly pacing a piece of ground on a side hill a short distance away. I asked what the solemn appearing individuals were about. After being told that the elder of the group, who held a crooked stick in his two hands and watched the wand very closely, was a "locator of wells" and "finder of hidden treasure," I hastened to the scene with a view of learning the secret, or what I could in regard to it. I had heard of the mystery before, but had never seen the practical working of it. The wand was forked and of green hazel; the diviner's hands grasped the two branches of the stick, and the body of the little tree—the thickness of the thumb—stood upwards, when the implement had been properly manipulated and was in condition for the subtle action. The forked hazel stick was called a "divining rod" or "the witch's puzzle." When the bifurcate hazel stick had been grasped and held for manifestations and demonstrations, the front aspects of the hands did not face each other, but the backs were turned to one another, the little fingers being uppermost. Now, if anybody will thus grasp the folks of a "divining rod" made of apple tree, alder, or birch, and have the central stub or stump a foot long, the weight of it will incline the stalk to tip one way or the other; and if the wood be freshly cut, and the hands clutch the forks with firmness, the twisting force will wrench the green bark from its foundations. This part of the trick ends the experiment, and demonstrates the fact that a good spring of water is not far under ground. And what is a clincher of the feat, the sinkers of a well are about sure to find an abundance of pure water if they go deep enough into the earth! In the case referred to, the manipulator of the divining rod received a fee of three dollars. He had been summoned a distance of a few miles, and the owners of the land, who desired a good well for watering grazing cattle, were among the most intelligent and carefully educated in New England. To question the propriety of thus having a spring scientifically located would be to risk the reception of a severe rebuke! In Nebraska I saw a split piece of whalebone employed as a divining rod to locate a spot to be bored for water. The user of the implement received five dollars for his services. A doubting Thomas had the hardihood to say that a bore a hundred feet deep, more or less, the variation depending upon the surface, whether on a ridge or in a hollow, would surely strike a bed of gravel in that part of the country, where water existed in the greatest abundance. The bore was made with what are called "drive-wells," sections of iron tubing were driven into the earth till water flowed from the top segment. The "diviner" was engaged mostly in locating the presence of valuable minerals; and if his word could be credited, he never failed to find gold, silver, or lead in soil where the rod "worked" in his hands. The "rod" was made from a piece of whalebone about fifteen inches in length, and split from one end to within five or six inches of the other. A copper ferule enclosed the wand at the point where the split terminated. I believe the ring of metal was to prevent the whalebone from splitting into two parts. The diviner remarked that he had to employ a leaden ring when testing for copper! Thus it is ever with diviners, they know the worth of mystification and how to practice deceit. They understand the gullibility of human nature. It seemed to me that the Nebraska diviner employed forked whalebone because green witch-hazel did not flourish thereabouts. A fakir has to conform to the necessity of circumstances. If a witch can not find a hazel bush with which to make a wand, she can impart potency to a forked stick of any other tree or shrub. But the hazel sprout is the one fancied by writers upon witchcraft.
In Scandinavia two dry sticks of hazel-wood will develop fire when vigorously rubbed together; and the revealer of the secret of fire striking does not mention that primitive people the world over have always developed fire by rubbing dry sticks together—by friction.
The tale of William Tell, the Swiss archer, whom the tyrant Gessler meant to slay, but who saved his life by the extraordinary feat of shooting an apple from his son's head. was enabled so to do by fashioning an arrow from a twig of hazel, as a mediaeval chronicler relates. The weapon was then like the charmed gun which exercised such discrimination that it would miss a calf but hit a deer. I have quite shed tears over the exploits of the patriot Tell, and have seen the name of the famous Swiss coupled with that of Washington, therefore when I learned that there never was such a man as William Tell, no tyrant Gessler, no son to unflinchingly endure the sight of the fling arrow, I felt like distrusting the story of Achilles and his heel rendered vulnerable by escaping baptism in the river Styx:, and like questioning the very existence of the little hatchet which mutilated the cherry tree! The earliest account of the Tell-myth is the following, taken from "Historical Difficulties;" it is of Danish origin. "A certain Palnatoki, for some time among King Harold's bodyguard, had made his bravery odious to very many of his fellow soldiers by the zeal with which he surpassed them in the discharge of his duty. This man once, while talking tipsily over his cups, had boasted that he was so skilled as an archer that he could hit the smallest apple placed at a distance of fifty paces on a wand, and at the first shot. This boastful language soon reached the ears of his majesty, who had long sought an opportunity to involve the braggart in difficulty. The king ordered that a test of the archer's skill should be made by placing the apple on the son's head instead of the suggested wand, and with the threat that, unless the author of the promise could strike the mark at the first flight of the arrow, he should pay the penalty of his empty boasting by the loss of his own head. The king's command struck the soldier with dismay, for he was exceedingly fond of his darling boy—a lad six years of age. After the lad had been stationed at the given distance and the apple placed on his head, the father asked the privilege of speaking to his child before he discharged the perilous missile; and while whispering in the lad's ear and arranging his arms behind him, Palnatoki slipped a hazel stick into the boy's hands and stuck an apple on the upper end of it. The stick was not discovered and the first arrow in its flight split the apple and left the youth unharmed. The king then asked the archer why he had taken other arrows in his quiver when the terms were that he should try but once? The answer corresponded to the one ascribed to Tell: 'To kill thee, tyrant, had I slain my son.'" This story being centuries older than the Swiss production, the inference is that the latter is a borrowed affair; and what assurance have we that the Danish tale was not taken from an Aryan fable ? In fact, a kindred tale is in the folklore of Norway, Sweden, and Persia, and in each country the leading features of the legend are almost identical.
The Persian archer is armed with an ashen bow and a hazel arrow, therefore his weapon embraces a double charm. In regions where hamamelis does not abound the divining staff or wand is a "wish-rod," the virtues of the implement depending more upon its shape than upon the nature of the wood. The shepherd's crook was a favorite shape for the sorcerers of Greece and Rome. In Egypt a species of reed or palm was used to prognosticate events; and a soothsayer could not practice his arts till fifty years of age. And, like hags, the older they were and the more repulsive in looks, the deeper were they endowed with mystic wisdom.
" 'T is the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
And coming events cast their shadows before."
The more profound the ignorance of a people, the stronger is the belief in supernatural influences. In the jungles of Africa and Australia the devil is presumed to have more power than the Almighty, hence there is more attention given to the former majesty in worship. Among semi-barbarians religious devotion is about equally divided between the two "rulers of the affairs of men," and among the highly civilized and enlightened "his satanic majesty" is almost the subject of ridicule. In Job's time the devil divided honors with Jehovah, and wore a crown; now he is treated with scorn and contempt. The devil is the personification of evil, and has always ascribed to him a human form, though his pictures resemble mythological Pan—one foot is like that of a goat, and budding horns are seen on the forehead. It is a question what the cornua signify or typify. Pan has them, and they are thought to be a remnant of goat-like character; but horns are also symbols of strength and power. Jupiter sometimes is depicted with ram's coils on the sides of his head; the horns of the crescent have been placed upon the crown of Christ; and the Moses of Angelo has budding horns upon his head. The devil usually has a wand or trident, which is a compromise between that of Neptune and Mercury. This is vulgarly called his "pitch-fork," though it be trifurcate and has parallel prongs. In "The Last Judgment" the tail of the devil is barbed at the end, like that of the mythological dragon. In Scandinavia the "evil one" carries a caduceus made of hazel-wood, and the implement is bifurcate. Witch-hazel is a product of northern or cold climates, hence it is so often mentioned in the folklore of Norsemen.—HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1887.
The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.