Of Prejudices Attached to Certain Animals

by Albany Poyntz

Innumerable are the auguries which the remnants of ancient superstition have attached to certain animals. To meet a flock of sheep, is considered a lucky omen. To overtake one when proceeding to the house of a friend, determines many people to turn back as indicative of an inhospitable reception.

Two magpies are sure forerunners of good news; but a single one is supposed to foreshow tidings of the death of a friend.

Spiders are of evil omen; though the mischief they convey is attributed, in Scotland, solely to the family of Bruce. There is a French proverb which says, “Arraignée du soir—espoir,” as if the hour of the day influenced the nature of the omen. Lalande, the astronomer, is known to have been fond of eating spiders. Yet the insect is an object of repugnance to most people; and is, in some species, venomous.

Of all reptiles, the toad is the most universally detested; as if gifted with a magnetism of repulsion. The Abbé Rousseau asserts in his Treatise on Natural History, that the sight of a toad has been known to produce convulsions and death. “Having enclosed one of these reptiles,” says he, “in a glass jar, I stood watching it; when the creature rose on its hinder legs, fixing its red and inflamed eyes upon me, till I became so faint and depressed, as to be on the point swooning. A cold dew rose upon my face, such as announces the approach of death.” This was probably the result of fear alone. Two living beings cannot long stare fixedly at each other without one giving way. The power of the visual organ is very great; and the stronger controls the weaker. As the pointer arrests the partridge, the eye of Marius arrested the arm of the Cimber sent to assassinate him; and by fixing his eye upon a troublesome dog, Talma could always prevent its barking. The toad is a disgusting animal, but not a noxious animal. It destroys many insects injurious to the beauty of our flower-gardens, and plumpness of our esculents; while for sobriety, it has no competitor. Toads have been found imbedded in blocks of marble and trunks of trees, deprived of all chance of external air or nutriment.

The lizard, which is nearly as unseemly to look on as the toad, has long been deemed the friend of man; and the vulgar had formerly a superstition that a piece of lizard’s tail worn on the person secured good fortune.

Lizards are sociably disposed, and fond of the human voice. They are said by travellers in Surinam and Cayenne, to awake a sleeping person on the approach of the rattlesnake. Alarmed at the approach of a snake, they have probably been known to cross the face of some man lying asleep; and have thus given rise to a popular fallacy. But if lizards be not the benefactors of the human race, at least they do us no harm; a quality that might be advantageously transferred to many of our own species.

Pliny maintains that oysters grow fat or thin according to the phases of the moon; while most modern oyster-eaters attribute the change to certain months rather than certain weeks of the year. It is an equally erroneous supposition that milk promotes the digestion of oysters; which may be proved by trying to dissolve them in hot or cold milk. The prejudice that they are out of season when no R figures in the name of the month, originated in the difficulty of transferring them fresh from the coast to the capital during the months of May, June, July, and August. By the sea-side, they will be found good at all seasons of the year.

In ancient times, the appearance of an owl in the day-time was esteemed a prodigy; and the Romans used to rush to the temples, offering incense to the Gods! Pliny considers the apparition of an owl an omen of sterility; and an omelet made of owl’s eggs was a sovereign specific against ebriety. Among villagers, the shriek of the owl is still dreaded as a summons to the other world. Yet this bird was favoured by dedication to the Goddess of Wisdom, though ungifted with the powers of divination ascribed by the Greeks to the vulture. According to the ancients, the vulture possessed such olfactory powers, that it could foreshow the death of a person three days previous to his decease.

It may be observed, that all the animals to which particular superstitions are attached, were known to the ancients; whereas those discovered during the latter ages are free from imputation of supernatural power.

The wild beasts of all climates make man their prey; but none kill him by a look, as was said of the basilisk. Among the ancients, Aristotle, Pliny, and Galen, persisted in the foregoing opinion; and among modern propagators of errors, the German Athazen, and the Italian Vitello. If Rome, the superb, crouched before an owl, a basilisk compelled Alexander to raise the siege of an Asiatic city. Taking the besieged under its protection, a basilisk, esconced betwixt two stones on the ramparts, repulsed, without moving, two hundred Macedonians who were rash enough to attack it. Sir Thomas Brown suggests the possibility, that the poison of the basilisk may be so intense and subtle, as to be darted forth by means of its visual organ.

The venomous bite of the viper has given rise to a variety of popular prejudices. The tooth of St. Amable was once the only specific; to which succeeded a faith in the antidote of Maltese earth. Meanwhile the utmost efforts of the faculty remain fruitless against the bite of the rattle-snake, of the cobra di manilla, and several other of the more venomous species. The quality of their venom is supposed to remain unimpaired by the death of the reptiles; and instances are cited of individuals having died of handling them, even after being preserved in spirits of wine. The venom is deposited in two vesicles on either side the head, above the muscle of the upper jaw, the remainder of its body being completely innocuous; so that, in former days, viper broth was frequently prescribed in pulmonary complaints. The venom of the viper becomes less intense as it advances in age.

It used to be believed, that the saliva of man was fatal to vipers, as their venom to ourselves; an opinion maintained by Aristotle, Galen, Varro, Pliny, and Figuier, the surgeon. The latter asserts that he killed a viper by the effect of his own saliva. The experiments by Redi, the learned physician of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and many others, proved the absurdity of the idea.

Benvenuto Cellini declares, in his Memoirs, that he saw a salamander in the midst of his own fire; probably a lizard, inadvertantly brought from the country among the logs of wood. No one has yet pleaded guilty to having seen a phœnix, though for ages, a popular superstition attached to this fabulous bird. The unicorn also continues to be placed among the apocryphal animals, with the great sea-serpent of the American coast.

The bite of the tarentula spider was long said to produce involuntary dancing; simply because the persons bitten, on applying to the local practitioners of the healing art, were instantly ordered to dance the pizzica, the rapid Sicilian dance of the provinces where the tarentula abounds, in order to promote circulation and neutralize the effects of the poison. Whole villages used to assemble to witness the result, and whenever the patient expired of the bite of the reptile, he was said to have danced himself to death. Such is the origin of the Neapolitan superstition of the tarentula.