THERE is another class of superstitions which have prevailed from ages the most remote to the present day, although now they are dying out—at least, they are not now employed to determine such important matters as they
once were. I refer to the practice of divining, or casting lots. In early times such practices were regarded as a direct appeal to God. From the Old and New Testaments we learn that these practices were resorted to by the Jews; but in modern times, and among Western nations, the lot was regarded as an appeal to the devil as much as to God. I have known people object to the lot as a sinful practice; but, at the same time, they were in the constant habit of directing their own course by such an appeal, as, for instance, when they were about to travel on some important business, they would fix that, if certain events happened, they would regard such as a good omen from God, and would accordingly undertake their journey; but if not, they would regard the non-occurrence as an unfavourable omen, and defer their journey, in submission, as they supposed, to the will of God. In modern times, the practice of casting lots to determine legal or other important questions has been abandoned
by civilized nations; but the practice still exists in less civilized communities, and is employed to determine such serious matters as involve questions of life or death, and it still survives among us in trivial matters, as games.
In my young days, a process of divining, allied to casting lots, was resorted to by young women in order to discover a thief, or to ascertain whether a young man who was courting one of them was in earnest, and would in the future become that girl's husband. The process was called the Bible and key trial, and the formula was as follows:—A key and Bible were procured, the key being so much longer than the Bible that, when placed between the leaves, the head and handle would project.
If the enquiry was about the good faith of a sweetheart, the key was placed in Ruth i. 1 6, on the words, "Entreat me not to leave thee: where thou goest I will go," etc.
The Bible was then closed, and tied round with tape. Two neutral persons, sitting opposite each other, held out the forefingers of their right hand's, and the person who was consulting the oracle suspended the Bible between their two hands, resting the projecting parts of the key on the outstretched forefingers. No one spoke except the enquirer, and she, as she placed the key and Bible in position, repeated slowly the whole passage, "Entreat me not to leave thee," John or James, or whatever the name of the youth was, "for where thou goest I will go," etc. If the key and Bible turned and fell off the fingers, the answer was favourable; and generally by the time the whole passage was repeated this was the result, provided the parties holding up the key and Bible were firm and steady. For the detection of a thief, the formula was the same, with only
this difference, that the key was put into the Bible at the fiftieth Psalm, and the enquirer named the suspected thief, and then repeated the eighteenth verse of that Psalm, "When thou sawest a thief then thou consentest with him," etc. If the Bible turned round and fell, it was held to be proof that the person named was the thief. This method of divining was not frequently practised, not through want of faith in its efficacy, but through superstitious terror, for the movement of the key was regarded as evidence that some unseen dread power was present, and so overpowering occasionally was the impression produced that the young woman who was chief actor in the scene fainted. The parties holding the key and Bible were generally old women, whose faith in the ordeal was perfect, and who, removed by their age from the intenser sympathies of youth, could therefore hold their hands with steadier nerve. It is only when firm hands hold it that the turning takes place, for this phenomenon depends upon the regular and steady pulsations in the fingers, and when held steadily the ordeal
There were various other methods for divining or consulting fate or deity. M 'Tagart refers to a practice of divining by the staff. When a pilgrim at any time got bewildered, he would poise his staff perpendicularly, and there leave it to fall of itself; and in whatever direction it fell, that was the road he would take, believing himself supernaturally directed. Townsmen when they wished to go on a pleasure excursion to the country, and careless or unsettled which way to go, would apply to this form of lot. In the old song of "Jock Burnie" there occurs the following verse:—
'En' on en' he poised his rung, then
Watch'd the airt its head did fa',
Whilk was east, he lapt and sung then.
For there his dear bade, Meg Macraw."
This practice was common with boys in the country fifty years ago, both for determining where to go for pleasure, or if in a game one of their number had hidden, and could not be found, as a last resort the stick was poised, and in whatever direction the stick fell, search was renewed in that direction.
Such things as these seem trifling, and it would seem folly to treat them seriously; but they were not always trifling matters. Some of our Biblical scholars say that it was to this kind of divining that the prophet Hosea referred when he said, "Their staff declareth unto them,'' and at the present day there are nations who practice such methods for determining important affairs of life.
The New Zealand sorcerers use sticks for divining, which they throw into the air, and come to their decisions by observing in which direction these sticks fall. Even in such matters as sickness or bodily injury, the direction in which the falling sticks lie, or it may be a certain stick in the group, directs the way to a physician. In ancient times the Magian form of divining was by staves or sticks. The diviner carried with him a bundle of willow wands, and when about to divine he untied the bundle and laid the wands upon the ground ; then he gathered them and threw them from him, repeating certain words as if consulting some divinity. The wands were of different lengths, and their numbers varied from three to nine, but only the odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 belonged to heaven, the even numbers 2, 4, 6, 8 belonged to earth.
The Chinese divine after this fashion at the present day. From such ideas has doubtless arisen the saying that
there is luck in odd numbers, a belief which, after a fashion, still prevails.
The virtue and mysterious power of the divining rod is still believed by many, and has frequently been resorted to during this century for the purpose of discovering water springs and metallic veins. The diviner takes a willow wand with a forked end: the forked points are held in his two hands, the other end pointing horizontally in front of him, and as he walks slowly over a field he watches the movements of the rod. When it bends towards the earth, as if apparently strongly attracted thereto, he feels certain he is passing over a spring or metallic vein. But the phenomenon, it is believed, will not take place with every one who may try it, there being only certain parties, mediums as we would name them in these days, who have the gift of operating successfully; and such parties obtained great fame in countries and districts where water was scarce, as they were able to point out the exact spots where wells should be dug, and also in such counties as Cornwall, where they could point out the spots where a mine could profitably be sunk. Again and again within these few )'ears have warm controversies been carried on in public papers on the question of the reality of the virtue and power of the dousing rod for discovering minerals or mineral veins. Some have argued that a hazel rod is as perfect as a willow rod, and have adduced instances of its successful application.
There was another form of divining essentially an appeal to the lot, in which a stick was used, and which was frequently employed to determine matters of considerable
importance. Boys resorted to it in their games in order to determine between two parties, to settle for example
which side should take a certain part in a game, or which of two lads, leaders in a game, should have the first choice of associates. A long stick was thrown into the air and caught by one of the parties, then each alternately grasped it hand over hand, and he who got the last hold was the successful party. He might not have sufficient length of stick to fill his whole hand, but if by closing his hand upon the end projecting from his opponent's hand, he could support the weight of the stick, this was enough.
The various methods of divining which are generally regarded as modern inventions, such as the many forms of divining by cards, the reading of the future from the position of the leaves of tea in a tea-cup, etc., we will pass by without comment, only remarking that the prevalence among us still of such superstitious notions shows that men, notwithstanding our boasted civilisation, are still open to believe in mysteries which, to commonsense, are incredible, without exhibiting the slightest trace of scepticism, and without taking any trouble to investigate the truth of the pretensions, contenting themselves with a saying I have often heard—"Wonderful things were done of old which we cannot understand, and God's hand is not yet shortened. He can do now what He did then." And so they save themselves trouble of reasoning, a process which, to the majority, is disagreeable.