"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Book Clipping of the Day

"London Times," September 28, 1786

A while ago, I posted the above newspaper item on Twitter. Supernatural cat enthusiast that I am, I looked around on the internet to see if I could find any further details. The search led me to a late eighteenth-century book, "The Habitable World Described," by Rev. Dr. John Trusler. His rather delightful description of Lapland folklore and customs seemed worth sharing here:

There is scarce a country under the sun, where the name of Lapland has reached, but what has heard of their magic, which is not yet quite abolished among them. These countries, says Olaus Magnus, speaking of Finland and Lapland, (but who was a very credulous man,) were in the time of paganism, so well instructed in sorcery, as if they had been disciples of Zoroaster, the Persian. They are such prodigious sorcerers, says Peter Claudi, writing of the Norwegian Laplanders of later times, that I much question whether they ever could, or can now, be matched in this art, by any upon earth. At present, however, they do not practise it so frequently, nor so publicly as they did in former times, the king of Sweden having put a stop to it by severe laws.

The reason the people give for using it, is to defend themselves against the evil designs of their countrymen, for which reason parents instruct their children in the art, and when they die, bequeath to them as part of their inheritance, such spirits and daemons as they have found serviceable to themselves. Were I to mention the many wonderous stories and miracles, which many respectable writers have said they have wrought, the reader would only laugh at me, for magic in this enlightened age, is wholly exploded. But, according to the opinion of Laplanders, certain families have their own daemons, not only differing from the familiar spirits of others, but also quite contrary and opposite to them, that is, spirits belonging to them, hostile to those of others, and securing them against the daemons of other families. Some Laplanders are weak enough to believe, that they are possessed by a daemon from their very infancy, and some from the time of manhood.

Whilst he was busy in the woods, a Laplander will tell you, a spirit appeared to him and offered him assistance on certain conditions, which he accepted. This settled, the daemon taught him a certain song, which he is obliged to keep in constant remembrance. These spirits, say they, appear under different shapes, some like fishes, some birds, others like a serpent or dragon, others in the shape of pigmies, about three feet high. No sooner are they seized, as they suppose by the geniis, but they appear like madmen, bereaved of reason. This continues for six months, during which time, they do not suffer any of their family or relations to come near them; but, range about the woods and other solitary places, melancholy and thoughtful, scarce taking any food; which renders them extremely weak. If you ask their children where, or how, they receive their sustenance, they will tell you, from their genii.

In every house in Danish Lapland, there is a large black cat, which is highly respected by them. The Laplanders talk to it, as if it was a rational creature, and go out of their huts every night with it to consult it alone, and it will follow them like a dog, either a fishing or hunting. Though this animal looks like a cat, I should have believed it, says the French gentleman, (whom I have mentioned,) had I had but a little more superstition, to have been a familiar spirit ministering to them.

Whenever a Laplander, says Lundius, has occasion for his familiar spirit, he calls to him and makes him come, by merely singing the song he taught him at the first interview, by which means, he has him at his service whenever he pleases; but they never appear to the women, or enter into their service. To exercise their sorceries, they have recourse to certain instruments, a drum, knots, darts, spells and the like. The magical drum, called by the natives Quobdasor Rannus, is made out of the hollow trunk of a pine, fir or birch-tree, growing in certain particular places, and turning according to the course of the sun. 
It is made out of the root, cleft asunder, and hollowed out on one side, over which they stretch a skin, the other side is convex, with a handle raised by notching the wood deep on each side of it. They resemble our kettle-drums, but are of an oval form. On the skin which covers this drum they draw in red paint, made of the bark of an alder-tree, boiled and beaten, various figures of their own Gods, as well as of Jesus Christ, the apostles, sun, moon, stars, birds and rivers. Whenever they are disposed to beat this drum, (which they often do, with a short piece of reindeer's horn, the end of which branches out like the capital Y;) they place a large brass ring with several small ones strung on it, on a figure drawn for the sun, in the centre of the skin that covers this drum, which when beaten, dances over these figures, and according to its progress, the sorcerer prognosticates.

The Finlanders, bordering upon Norway, and subject to the crown of Denmark, use these drums likewise. They are considered as sacred things, are always carefully wrapped up, and never suffered to be touched by marriageable women. If a family drum is to be removed from one part of the country to another, it is either carried last of all and by the hands of a man, or else must be brought, by a quite different road, or some untrod way, lest if any one, but more especially a woman should pass the same way after it, it might endanger her health, if not her life. Should it so happen, says Wormius, that a woman is obliged to travel the same way, through which the drum has been carried before, she presents a brass ring for the use of the drum, to break the enchantment.

Now these superstitious people weakly imagine they can effect four things by the help of this drum, viz. to learn what is passing in distant places, though never so remote; to know the good and bad success of any undertaking; what issue any distemper is likely to have; to cure diseases, and to know what sort of sacrifice their Gods are best pleased with. The drummers are generally men who are bred to the profession, live by it, and those who wish to consult them, pay in proportion to the enquiries they make. He who beats the drum kneels down, as do all the persons present, and sings a song with a loud voice. After he has done beating it, he falls down, with his face on the ground, and the drum over his head, as if in a trance, the men and women present, continue their singing without intermission, till the drum-beater is awakened from his trance, to put him in mind of what is desired to be known, and take singular care that no fly or insect incommodes him; for they imagine, if he was either disturbed, or they were to discontinue singing, he never would come to life again. When the man awakes from his trance, in which he is sometimes many hours, and during which time they conceive his soul to have left his body, he tells what he has been able to learn, by help of his drum.

Another instrument of their magic is a cord with knots, which they use, to raise a wind. And northern masters of vessels are such dupes to the arts of these impostors, as to buy these cords, in order to procure the gale they have occasion for. Of three knots tied in this cord, by loosening the first, they are to have a tolerable fair wind, at untying the second, a very fresh gale, but by loosening the third, they are to have very tempestuous weather; this art of magic is most practised by those Laplanders subject to the crown of Norway, and who live upon that coast. The mariners of those seas, are also weak enough to suppose, that these magicians can stop a ship in full sail, let the wind blow never so strong; and that there is no remedy against this enchantment, but by smearing the masts and doors of the vessel with the menstrual blood of virgins, which was the opinion of Pliny, (Lib. 28. c. 7.) I am very apt to believe, says he, what is related of the menstrual blood, viz. that it destroys all magical arts, if smeared only on the posts of the doors.

The French traveller whom I have already mentioned, gives us the following relation of this magical process, but as his account is wonderful, and not accompanied with his name, we must leave the credit of it to our readers.

We were becalmed on the Finland coast; some of our crew were so superstitious as to give credit to the common opinion, that the inhabitants of the country under the artic-polar circle, as well as those that dwelt on the coasts of the sea of Finland, are wind-merchants, and can raise and sell a gale when they please. It is certain, they are almost all of them wizards, and as children of the prince of the air, pretend to dispose of the wind, as their proper merchandize. We were weary of lying upon that coast, and this led us to try means to get off, however impossible these means might seem to be. The captain of our ship was for trading with the wizards, accordingly he sent his long-boat ashore, with his mate, to trade with some of these men, and purchase a wind, a commodity we then stood much in need of. Though I believed nothing of the matter, I had the curiosity to accompany him. We landed at the first village we came to, and applied ourselves to the chief necromancer, told him what we wanted, and asked, if he could furnish us with a wind that would last till we reached Mourmanskimre. The conjurer gravely replied, No; and told us his power extended no farther than the promontory of Rouxella.

It being a great way to that place, we thought if we got there, we might easily make the north-cape, of course requested him to go on board with us, and make his bargain with the captain. The wizard consented, took three of his comrades with him, leaped into a small fishing-boat, and accompanied us to the ship. The price was soon agreed on, (ten Kronen, about 35 or 36 shillings English, and a pound of tobacco,) for which the wizard was to furnish us with a fair wind to Rouxella. The money being paid, he tied a woollen rag to the corner of our fore-mast. It was about half a yard long, and a nail in breadth, with three knots in it. This was all the captain had for his ten Kronen. When the necromancer had done this feat, he returned on shore with his companions. The captain, agreeable to the instructions he had received from the conjurer, untied the first knot in the rag, and it so happened, that the wind immediately blew west, south-west, a brisk gale, and carried us thirty leagues beyond Maelstroom, without giving our captain any occasion to untie the second knot, and this accident confirmed our crew in their diabolical superstition.

This Maelstroom is an eddy or whirl-pool in the Norwegian sea, in which many vessels that approach too near it, have perished, (of which we shall speak more in our account of Norway.) The wind beginning to shift a little, and inclining to the north, our captain untied a second knot, which kept it in it's old corner till we made the promontory of Rouxella. When we had passed it, the needle of our compass turned back half an inch, which led some to fancy there was load-stone in the mountain, and had we not had a very dexterous pilot, we should certainly have lost our course.

We were two days and two nights in this dangerous situation, having nothing to depend upon but our pilot's experience. On the third day, being far distant from the mountains of Rouxella, the needle of our compass pointed again to it's center, from which we concluded that we drew near the north-cape, where the wind failing us, our captain untied the third knot, at which there arose a north north-east wind, so violent, that we thought the heavens would fall on us, and that God was going justly to punish us for not relying on his providence, but dealing with infernal artists. We could bear no sail during the tempest. Our ship drove at the mercy of the winds and waves, and we expected every instant to go to the bottom. Every one fell on his knees and begged God's pardon. I own, I never was so much afraid in all my life, and I believe the whole crew were in equal consternation, when by good luck, or through Divine mercy, the extraordinary force and agitation of the waves prevented our striking, and drove us a musket-shot off the rocks, for we had been driven very near the shore. On the fourth day the wind was laid, and, being pretty fair, we, in two days after, put into port.

A third instrument of their magic, is a leaden dart, about four inches long, which they suppose the magician can send forth to a great distance, to take revenge of their enemies, who are thereupon seized with a cancerous tumour in the legs or arms, so as to destroy them in three days.

They have a variety of other magical contrivances to bring about certain purposes, which it would tire the readers patience to relate. The magic cord indeed, to procure favourable winds, is a very common traffic on the banks of the red sea, and is managed with great address on the part of the magician, who thus keeps up the price of his knotted Talisman.


  1. The political geography of the book's author is a bit inexpert, but he tells a good tale. I especially like the idea of 'wind-merchants', and the phrase 'mountains of Rouxella'. The latter sound a nice place to which to escape, don't they?

    1. I could use one or two of those cat consultants, as well.

  2. The Lapps were still at that time -- and still are today a shamanic society with a thin over-lay of Lutheranism. The comparison with Zoroastrian mages is completely laughable. I will not call their beliefs primitive as there actually is quite a bit of reality grounding it. The problem remains for these early visitors to put away all their Judeo-Christian conceptions of what constitutes reality and spirituality.


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