Brownies and Invisible Friends

I thought I’d post this excerpt From Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (published in 1703). A fascinating glimpse into the enchanted world of the Scottish Isles in the 17th century, even if through Martin’s Protestant at times pejorative framing. That these are said to have been laid aside show the Protestant determination to disenchant at work.

My division of one paragraph into two.

They had a universal custom, of pouring a Cow’s Milk upon a little Hill, or big Stone, where the Spirit call’d Browny was believ’d to lodg: this spirit always appear’d in the shape of a tall Man, having very long brown Hair. There was scarce any the least Village in which this superstitious Custom did not prevail. I enquir’d the reason for it from several well-meaning Women, who, until of late, had practic’d it; and they told me, that it hasd been transmitted to them by their Ancestors successfully, who believ’d it was most attended with good Fortune, but the most Credulous of the Vulgar had now laid is aside.

It was an ordinary thing among the Over-curious to consult an invisible Oracle, concerning the Fate of Families, and Batles, etc. This was perform’d three different ways; the first was by a Company of Men, one of whom being detach’d by Lot, was afterwards carry’d to a river, which was the boundary between two Villages; four of the Company laid hold on him, an having shut his Eyes, they took him by the Legs and Arms, and then tossing him to and again, struck his Hips with force against the Bank. One of them cry’d out. What is it you have got here? Another answers, A Log of Birch-wood. The other cries again, Let his invisible Friends appear from all quarters, and let them relieve him by giving an Answer to our present Demands: and in a few Minutes after, a number of little creatures came from the Sea, who answer’d the Questions, and disappeared suddenly. The Man was then set at liberty, and they all returned home, to take their Measures according to the Prediction of their false Prophets; but the poor deluded Fools were abused, for the Answer was still ambiguous. This was always practiced in the Night, and may literally be called the works of Darkness.

Yes, divination and prophecy tends to be ambiguous,–I’d say by nature.


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