In like manner, the Scottish, even of the better rank, avoid contracting marriage in the month of May, which genial season of flowers and breezes might, in other respects, appear so peculiarly favourable for that purpose. It was specially objected to the marriage of Mary with the profligate Earl of Bothwell, that the union was formed within this interdicted month. This prejudice was so rooted among the Scots, that, in 1684, a set of enthusiasts, called Gibbites, proposed to renounce it, among a long list of stated festivals, fast days, popish relics, not forgetting the profane names of the days of the week, names of the months, and all sorts of idle and silly practices which their tender consciences took an exception to. This objection to solemnize marriage in the merry month of May, however fit a season for courtship, is also borrowed from the Roman pagans, which, had these fanatics been aware of it, would have been an additional reason for their anathema against the practice. The ancients have given us as a maxim, that it is only bad women who marry in that month.*
The custom of saying " God bless you," when a person in company sneezes, is, in like manner, derived from sternutation being considered as a crisis of the plague at Athens, and the hope that, when it was attained, the patient had a chance of recovery.
* Malae nubent Maia.
But besides these, and many other customs which the various nations of Europe received from the classical times, and which it is not our object to investigate, they derived from thence a shoal of superstitious beliefs, which, blended and mingled with those which they brought with them out of their own country, fostered and formed the materials of a demonological creed which has descended down almost to our own times. Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic, seems to have taken uncontested possession of the attributes of Neptune. Amid the twilight winters and overpowering tempests of those gloomy regions, he had been not unnaturally chosen as the power most adverse to man, and the supernatural character with which he was invested has descended to our time under two different aspects. The Nixa of the Germans is one of those fascinating and lovely fays whom the ancients termed Naiads ; and unless her pride is insulted, or her jealousy awakened, by an inconstant lover, her temper is generally mild, and her actions beneficent. The Old Nick, known in England, is an equally genuine descendant of the northern sea god, and possesses a larger portion of his powers and terrors. The British sailor, who fears nothing else, confesses his terror for this terrible being, and believes him the author of almost all the various calamities to which the precarious life of a seaman is so continually exposed.
The Bhar-guest, or Bhar-geist, by which name it is generally acknowledged through various country parts of England, and particularly in Yorkshire, also called a Dobie—a local spectre which haunts a particular spot under various forms—is a deity, as his name implies, of Teutonic descent; and if it be true, as the author has been informed, that some families bearing the name of Dobie carry a phantom, or spectre passant, in their armorial bearings,* it plainly implies, that, however the word may have been selected for a proper name, its original derivation had not then been forgotten.
The classic mythology presented numerous points in which it readily coalesced with that of the Germans, Danes, and Northmen of a later period. They recognised the power of Erictho, Canidia, and other sorceresses, whose spells could perplex the course of the elements, intercept the influence of the sun, and prevent his beneficial operation upon the fruits of the earth; call down the moon from her appointed sphere, and disturb the original and destined course of nature by their words and charms, and the power of the evil spirits whom they evoked. They were also professionally implicated in all such mystic and secret rites and ceremonies as were used to conciliate the favour of the infernal powers, whose dispositions were supposed as dark and wayward as their realms were gloomy and dismal. Such hags were frequent agents in the violation of unburied bodies, and it was believed, by the vulgar at least, that it was dangerous to leave corpses unguarded, lest they should be mangled by the witches, who took from them the most choice ingredients composing their charms. Above all, it must not be forgotten that these frightful sorceresses possessed the power of transforming themselves and others into animals, which are used in their degree of quadrupeds, or in whatever other laborious occupation belongs to the transformed state. The poets of the heathens, with authors of fiction, such as Lucian and Apuleius, ascribe all these powers to the witches of the pagan world, combining them with the art of poisoning, and of making magical philtres, to seduce the affections of the young and beautiful; and such were the characteristics which, in greater or less extent, the people of the middle ages ascribed to the witches of their day.
* A similar bearing has been ascribed, for the same reason, to those of the name of Fantonie, who carried of old a goblin, or phantom, in a shroud sable passant, on a field azure. Both bearings are founded on what is called canting heraldry, a species of art disowned by the writers on the science, yet universally made use of, by those who practise the art of blazonry.
But in thus adopting the superstitions of the ancients, the conquerors of the Roman empire combined them with similar articles of belief, which they had brought with them from their original settlements in the North, where the existence of hags of the same character formed a great feature in their Sagas and their Chronicles. It requires but a slight acquaintance with these compositions, to enable the reader to recognise in the Galdrakinna of the Scalds, the Stryga, or witch-woman of more classical climates. In the northern ideas of witches, there was no irreligion concerned with their lore; on the contrary, the possession of magical knowledge was an especial attribute of Odin himself; and to intrude themselves upon a deity, and compel him to instruct them in what they desired to know, was accounted not an act of impiety, but of gallantry and high courage, among those sons of the sword and the spear. Their matrons possessed a high reputation for magic, for prophetic powers, for creating illusions ; and, if not capable of transformations of the human body, they were at least able to impose such fascination on the sight of their enemies as to conceal for a period the objects of which they were in search.