Nostrums and Specifics by Albany Poyntz

The title of “Talisman” might be fairly prefixed to this chapter; but we will content ourselves with the word nostrum. Considering the number of these specifics, and the blind confidence of the world in their efficacy, the credulous must be surprised at the ailments which still afflict humanity. Previous to the introduction of quinine, the ague was supposed to be cured by dipping in three holy waters, in three different churches, on the same Sunday; a difficult remedy for people residing where there is only one church! A variety of charms for the ague are still in popular use.

Unsuccessful gamesters used formerly to make a knot in their linen; of late years they have contented themselves with changing their chair as a remedy against ill-luck. As a security against cowardice, it was once only necessary to wear a pin plucked from the winding sheet of a corpse. To insure a prosperous accouchement to your wife, you had but to tie her girdle to a bell and ring it three times. To get rid of warts, you were to fold up in a rag as many peas as you had warts, and throw them upon the high road; when the unlucky person who picked them up became your substitute. In the present day, to cure a tooth-ache, you go to your dentist. In the olden time you would have solicited alms in honour of St. Lawrence, and been relieved without cost or pain.

The greater number of these charms or remedies were not resorted to by the multitude alone, but recommended by Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. In the treaty on superstitions by the learned Curé, Thiers, these remedies are recorded; being about as effective as the talismans of the ancients, including the famed Palladium of Troy.

Rome had faith in celestial bucklers, and the stone of the Mother of the Gods. Virgil was skilled in the composition of talismans; a brazen fly attributed to him attained more celebrity in his time than the immortal “Georgics.” This fly being suspended from one of the gates of Naples, the charm proved so effective, that not a fly entered that city for a space of eight years. A trumpet held by a statue, also invented by Virgil, possessed the power of laying the dust in his garden!

Gregory of Tours mentions that the city of Paris was secured from rats, snakes, and fires, during a long period by means of a rat, a snake, and dormouse of brass, which were destroyed by the Vandals. Pliny suggests that Milo of Crotona was indebted for his prodigious strength to a talisman, as we know that of Samson to have lain in his hair. The Egyptian warriors wore figures of scarabs, in order to fortify their courage; and Dr. Hufeland informs us that a German army having been defeated by the French in the olden time, talismans were found upon the bodies of the dead and wounded.

Among the first talismans was that mentioned by Suidas as worn by the Kings of Egypt to endow them with the love of justice. Pericles was proud of wearing a talisman presented to him by the Grecian ladies. Macrobus relates that the victors in the public games used to procure themselves little boxes, in which mathematicians had inclosed preservatives against envy; while Thiers informs us that an illustrious astrologer invented a talisman for intercepting the approach of flies to a house; when to his horror, no sooner was it suspended, than a fly, more daring than the rest, deposed a contemptuous mark of disregard upon the charm. The absurdity of these inventions, it is needless to assert; but let us consider the subject of the ancient talismans simply as subjects only of curiosity.

Talismans were cast in metal melted under the influence of a constellation communicating some specific virtue. Amulets, talismans of a secondary order, but equally efficacious, were formed of plants, figures designed on ivory, metals, or precious stones. Such designs were called “gamahez”—whence the word “cameo;”—and were preservatives against fever, rheumatism, gout, tooth-ache, paralysis, apoplexy, cold, and other diseases. The Platonists were great champions of amulets and talismans. Gaffard wrote a treatise in assertion of their efficacy, and to defend them against the imputation of magic. Not many years ago, the ladies of Paris used to wear iron rings, manufactured by the celebrated locksmith, Georget, which, like the galvanic rings now in fashion, were considered a guarantee against the headache. A few uneradicated roots of popular prejudice will always remain to produce a new crop.

How were simple mortals to suppose themselves in error when following such examples as Cato, Varro, and Julius Cæsar? The two first conceived that no evil could overtake them so long as they made use of certain mysterious words; and Cæsar, after falling out of his chariot, would not resume his place till he had recited certain words to which he attributed the virtue of warding off falls.

Father Thiers relates that, in his time, the Benedictines of Germany and France pretended to possess medals which protected them and their cattle from accidents, sorcery, and witchcraft. According to his version, about the year 1647, there was a vigorous crusade against sorcery, and many magicians were executed. At Straubing, several declared, when legally examined, that their maledictions were of no effect upon either the cattle or inhabitants of the Castle of Nattemberg, in which were deposited certain medals of St. Benedict, of which they gave the precise description. A certain number of initials were inscribed upon them, which being filled up with Latin words, signified “Divine cross, guide my steps, banish Satan, cease to tempt me, I know thy poisons, and will eschew them.” No sooner did the monks hear of this discovery than they began casting medals of a peculiar kind, which soon abounded in Germany.

The French Benedictines became equally zealous; and having struck a similar medal, published that it contained a charm against witchcraft and disease, and was a guarantee against all ailings of man or beast; the former requiring only to carry them in their pockets, the latter suspended bell-fashion from their necks.

Father Thiers so far from accrediting the efficacy of these medals, declares that the French Benedictines ought to be too enlightened to encourage such absurdities. But whether in good or bad faith, certain it is that they made a speculation of trading with the medals. Thiers also treats as impostors the curers of burns, and preventers of fire, who pretend to disregard the danger of fire arms. According to a popular tradition, a burn was cured by saying: “Fire lose thy heat, as Judas did his colour when he betrayed the Lord.” A chimney on fire was extinguished by making three crosses upon the chimney-piece. Any fire was quickly subdued by throwing an egg into the flames, which had been laid on the Thursday, or Friday of Holy Week, during the celebration of divine service. No fire arms availed against a person repeating thrice, “Malatus dives fulgiter regissa,” or wearing a band with a mystical inscription, every letter being separated by a cross. The learned father declares such practices to be absurd, and relates the following anecdote.

“An old woman of Louvain, who had an affection of the eyes was assured she had only to pronounce a few mysterious words to be cured. She instantly addressed a young scholar of the University, offering to present him with a new coat if he would write the words she dictated to him. The youth consented, and seemed to write as she dictated. But on delivering to her the sealed document, he enjoined her not to open it till she was cured, on which she presented him the new coat and withdrew. Shortly afterwards, her eyes being recovered, she confided her secret to a neighbour suffering from the same affliction; who taking the mysterious paper into her care, received the same benefit. Enchanted by their good fortune, they determined to know the secret, and broke the seal of the document; which was found to contain the following phrase, which the youth had maliciously inserted. ‘May the devil tear out thine eyes, old witch, and fill up the sockets with burning embers.’”

In the beginning of the last century, there were individuals who professed to have a powder which extinguished fire. This was contained in a barrel, and thrown into the flames. The barrel was in fact double, the external one being full of water, the internal charged with gunpowder sufficient to cause an explosion; and the water so dispersed, of course, extinguished the fire, if inconsiderable. Had the authors of this invention not kept it secret, we might have respected them; for though it produced no great result, an idea though only half conceived may be the forerunner of more important discoveries. Attempts have been made of late years to guarantee thatched roofs against fire, by impregnating them with a preparation of which we know not the composition. The success, though not complete, should not be discouraged; for repeated experiments may be finally successful. Flowers of sulphur are often employed for the extinction of fires in chimnies, possessing properties which render the action of fire less intense.

However absurd the miraculous virtues attributed to talismans and amulets, in some cases, the security they inspire may be of use to those who have faith in their power. Imagination counts for something in the moral organisation of man; and through the constant action and reaction of the one on the other, the body may be at times advantageously soothed by the serenity conferred on the mind through the influence of the fancy.