[237]

CHAPTER VIII

HOLED STONES AND MARTYR WEIGHTS

In the porch of the interesting old church of Sta. Maria in Cosmedin near the Tiber is preserved a huge circular stone like a millstone. It is composed of white marble, upwards of five feet in diameter, and is finished after the model of the dramatic mask used in the ancient theatres. In the centre is a round hole perforating the mass right through, forming the mouth of the mask. It is called the Bocca della Verita, and has given its name to the irregular piazza in which the church is situated. It is so called from the use to which it has been put from time immemorial, as an ordeal for testing the guilt or innocence of an accused person. If the suspected individual on making an affirmation thrust his hand through the hole and was able to draw it back again, he was pronounced innocent; but if, on the contrary, the hand remained fixed in the marble jaws, the person was declared to have sworn falsely and was pronounced guilty. The marble mouth was supposed by the superstitious to contract or expand itself according to the moral character of the arraigned person. No reason has been given why this singular marble mask should have been placed in this church, nor is anything known of its previous history. Some have conjectured that it served as an impluvium or mouth of a drain in the centre of a court to let the water run off; and others regard it as having been an ornament for a fountain,[238] like the colossal mask of marble out of the mouth of which a jet of water falls into a fountain in the Via de Mascherone, called after it, near the Farnese Palace, and the marble mask which belongs to a small fountain on the opposite side of the river near the Palazzo Salviati. But the question arises, Why should the Bocca della Verita, if such was its origin, have been used for the superstitious purpose connected with it? Our answer to this question must lead us back to the Temple of Ceres and Proserpine which originally stood on the site of the church of Sta. Maria in Cosmedin, and of the materials of which the Christian edifice was largely built.

In primitive times the worship of clefts in rocks, holes in the earth, or stones having a natural or artificial perforation, appears to have been almost universal. We find traces of it in almost every country, and amongst almost every people. These sacred chasms or holes were regarded as emblems of the celestial mother, and persons went into them and came out again, so as to be born anew, or squeezed themselves through the holes in order to obtain the remission of their sins. In ancient Palestine this form of idolatry was known as the worship of Baal-perazim, or Baal of the clefts or breaches. David obtained a signal victory over the Philistines at one of the shrines of this god, and burnt there the images peculiar to this mode of worship which the enemy had left behind in its flight. About two miles from Bombay there is a rock on the promontory of the Malabar Hill, which has a natural crevice, communicating with a cavity below, and opening upon the sea. This crevice is too narrow for corpulent persons to squeeze through, but it is constantly resorted to for purposes of moral purification. Through natural or artificial caverns in India pilgrims enter at the south side, and make their exit at the northern, as was anciently the custom in the Mithraic mysteries. Those who pass through such caves are considered to receive by this action a new birth of the soul. According to the same idea the rulers of Travancore, who[239] are Nairs by caste, are made into Brahmins when they ascend the throne by passing through a hole in a large golden image of a cow or lotus flower, which then becomes the property of the Brahmin priests. It is possible that there may be an allusion to this primitive custom in the rule of the Jewish Temple, mentioned by Ezekiel,—"He that entereth in by the way of the north gate to worship shall go out by the way of the south gate; and he that entereth by the way of the south gate shall go forth by the way of the north gate: he shall not return by the way of the gate whereby he came in, but shall go forth over against it." This arrangement may have been made not as a mere matter of convenience, but as a survival of the old practice of "passing through" a sacred cave or crevice for the forgiveness of sins;—a survival purified and ennobled in the service of God.

The oldest of all religious monuments of which we have any existing trace are cromlechs, found mostly in waste, uncultivated places. These are of various forms, but they are mostly tripods, consisting of a copestone poised upon three other stones, two at the head and one at the foot. The supports are rough boulders, the largest masses of stone that could be found or moved; and the copestone is an enormous flat square block, often with cup-shaped hollows carved upon its surface. Under this copestone there was a vacant space, varying in size from a foot or two to the height of a man on horseback. Through this vacant space persons used to pass; and the narrower the space, the more difficult the feat of crawling through, the more meritorious was the act. In our own country there are numerous relics of this primitive custom. In Cornwall there are two holed stones, one called Tolven, situated near St. Buryan, and the other called Men-an-tol, near Madron, which have been used within living memory for curing infirm children by passing them through the aperture. In the parish of Minchin Hampton, Gloucestershire, is a stone called Long Stone, seven or eight feet in height, having near the bottom of it a large[240] perforation, through which, not many years since, children brought from a considerable distance were passed for the cure of measles and whooping-cough. On the west side of the Island of Tyree in Scotland is a rock with a crevice in it through which children were put when suffering from various infantile diseases. In connection with the ancient ruined church of St. Molaisse on the Island of Devenish in Loch Erne in Ireland, there is an artificially perforated stone, through which persons still pass, when the opening will admit, in order to be regenerated. If the hole be too small, they put the hand or the foot through it, and the effect is thus limited. Examples of such holed stones are to be found in some of the old churches of Ireland, such as Castledermot, County Kildare; Kilmalkedar, County Kerry; Kilbarry, near Tarmon Barry, on the Shannon. In Madras, diseased children are passed under the lintels of doorways; and in rural parts of England they used to be passed through a cleft ash tree. At Maryhill, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, about a year ago, when an epidemic of measles and whooping-cough was prevalent, two mothers took advantage, for the carrying out of this superstition, of the presence in the village of an ass which drew the cart of a travelling rag-gatherer. They stood one on each side of the animal. One woman then took one of the children and passed it face downward through below the ass's belly to the other woman, who in turn handed it back with its face this time turned towards the sky. The process having been repeated three times, the child was taken away to the house, and then the second child was similarly treated. The mothers were thoroughly satisfied that their children were the better of the magic process.

A mysterious virtue was supposed to be connected with passing under the ancient gate of Mycenæ by the primitive race who constructed it. Jacob's words at Bethel, "This is the gate of heaven," may have an allusion to the prehistoric custom of the place; for we have reason to[241] believe that a dolmen existed there, consecrated to solar worship, the original name of Bethel being Beth-on, the house of the sun. The hollow space beneath the dolmen was considered the altar-gate leading to paradise, so that whosoever passed through it was certain to obtain new life or immortality. It was an old superstition that the dead required to be brought out of the house not by the ordinary door of the living, but by a breach made specially in the wall, in order that they might thus pass through a species of purgatory. We find an exceedingly interesting example of this primitive superstition in the punishment that was imposed upon the survivor in the famous combat between the Horatii and Curiatii, when he murdered his sister, on account of her unpatriotic devotion to her slain lover. The father of Horatius, after making a piacular sacrifice, erected a beam across the street leading from the Vicus Cyprius to the Carinæ, with an altar on each side—the one dedicated to Juno Sororia and the other to Janus Curiatius—and under this yoke he made his son pass with his head veiled. This beam long survived under the name of Tigillum Sororium or Sister's Beam, and was constantly repaired at the public expense.

In modern times there are two most remarkable survivals of the same kind. One of them is in the corridor of the mosque of Aksa at Jerusalem. In this place are two pillars, standing close together, and like those in the mosque of Omar at Cairo, they are used as a test of character. It is said that whosoever can squeeze himself between them is certain of paradise, and must be a good Moslem. The pillars have been worn thin by the friction of countless devotees. An iron bar has now, however, been placed between the pillars by the present enlightened Pasha of Jerusalem to prevent the practice in future. The other instance is what is popularly known as "threading the needle" in the Cathedral of Ripon. Beneath the central tower of this minster there is a small crypt or vaulted cell entered from the nave by a narrow[242] passage. At the north side of this crypt there is an opening thirteen inches by eighteen, called St. Wilfred's needle. This passage was formerly used as a test of character; for only an honest man, one new-born, could pass through it. "They pricked their credits who could not thread the needle," was the quaint remark of old Fuller in reference to the original use of the opening. It may be remarked that the well-known boys' game of "Through the needle's e'e, boys," had its origin in all likelihood in the old superstition. Thus we can trace the use made of the Bocca della Verita in Rome to the primitive idolatry associated perhaps with the Temple of Ceres that formerly stood on the spot.

Some other superstitious practices of a closely allied nature may be traced to the same source. In the Orkney Islands, not far from the famous Standing Stones of Stennis, there is a single monolith with a large hole through it, which has become celebrated, owing to the allusion to it of Sir Walter Scott in his novel of the Pirate. It is called Odin's Stone; and till a very recent period it was the local custom to take an oath by joining hands through the hole in it; and this oath was considered even by the regular courts of Orkney as peculiarly solemn and binding; the person who violated it being accounted infamous and excluded from society. In the old churchyard of the ruined monastery of Saints Island in the Shannon, there is an ancient black marble flagstone called the "Cremave" or "swearing stone." The saints are said to have made it a revealer of truth. Any one suspected of falsehood is brought here, and if the accused swears falsely the stone has the power to set a mark upon him and his family for several generations. But if no mark appears he is known to be innocent. Many other equally interesting instances might be quoted all akin to the superstition in Rome. It is not too fanciful to suppose that even the Jewish mode of making a covenant had something to do with this primitive custom. The animal offered in sacrifice was divided into two[243] pieces, and so arranged that a space was left between them. Through this space, between the parts, the contracting persons passed in order to ratify the covenant. We have a striking account of this ceremony in the case of Abraham; and it is in allusion to it that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that we have boldness to enter into the holiest "by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh."

The superstitious practices connected with clefts and holed stones were denounced by councils of the Christian Church, which subjected transgressors to various penalties. Consequently this mode of worship came into evil repute; and what was formerly considered a meritorious action, securing the cure of disease or future happiness, became a deed of evil, to be followed by some calamity. For this reason the primitive symbolism was reversed in many cases, such as "passing under a ladder," which is now considered unlucky; or in Eastern lands going between a wall and a pole, between two women or two dogs, which the Talmud forbids as an omen of evil.

Passing from the subject of holed stones I proceed to consider another class of interesting prehistoric objects that survive in the more primitive churches of Rome. In the same church of Sta. Maria in Cosmedin—where the Bocca della Verita which I have described occurs—there is a curious crypt called the chapel of St. Cyril, who undertook a mission about the year eight hundred and sixty to convert the Slavs in Bulgaria to Christianity, and suffered martyrdom in the attempt. Beside an ancient altar of primitive construction on one side is preserved a large slab of granite on which St. Cyril is said to have knelt when he was put to death; and half-sunk in the wall opposite are two large, smooth, dark-coloured stones, in shape not unlike curling stones—or an orange from which a portion has been sliced off horizontally. They cannot fail to be seen when attention is directed to them.

Such stones, often made level at the top and bottom,[244] and with a ring inserted in the upper surface, are not uncommon in the older churches of Rome, although they are very seldom noticed, as their significance is only known to a few experts. One is placed in the centre of the middle nave of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine, on the top of a short spirally-fluted column of white marble, which marks the spot where St. Dominic, the founder of the order of the Dominicans, used to kneel down and pray. It has received the name of Pietra di Paragone, or the Touchstone. Another may be seen at the entrance of the church of Santa Pudenziana, on the Esquiline, supposed to have been built on the site of the house of the Roman senator Pudens, whose daughter, Pudentiana, St. Peter is said to have converted to Christianity. A third exists among the extensive collection of relics belonging to the ten thousand three hundred martyrs whose remains, according to tradition, were deposited in the church of S. Prassede, at the beginning of the ninth century, by Paschal I. Two stones may be observed upon the gable wall immediately above the basins of holy water in the interior of the church of S. Nicolo in Carcere, near the Ghetto. Two others are inserted in the wall of the Baptistery of St. John Lateran, between the vestibule and the octagonal area containing the so-called gigantic font in which Constantine was baptized. A very interesting stone hangs suspended from the gilded iron grating which protects the crypt or confessional of St. Laurence, immediately underneath the high altar of the great Basilica of San Lorenzo beyond the Gate. A stone still more remarkable, guarded by a strong iron grating, projects half its bulk from the wall on the right-hand side of the arch which divides the transept from the middle nave in the venerable church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Two other stones may be seen in the quaint old church of SS. Cosma e Damiano at the south-eastern angle of the Roman Forum, composed of portions of three pagan temples. They are inserted in the plain whitewashed[245] walls on both sides of the circular arch through which you pass from the round vestibule into the interior of the church. I have noticed similar stones in no less than twenty places besides those I have mentioned; and I am assured that they may be seen in many more churches.

It is very difficult to obtain any accurate or satisfactory information regarding these curious stones. They go by the name of Lapides Martyrum, or Martyr-stones. During the persecutions of the early Christians in Rome they are said to have been hung round the necks of those who were condemned to be drowned in the Tiber. In the reign of the emperor Diocletian many martyrs perished in this way, and the stones by which they were sunk beneath the fatal waters, according to the popular idea, were afterwards found, and carefully preserved as holy relics in the churches in which they are now to be seen. Beyond doubt they are genuine remains of antiquity, and some of them at least may have been used for the purpose alleged; although we cannot be sure, in any case, that the story connected with particular stones is authentic. St. Sabine desired that the stone which was to be tied to him when thrown in the river should be buried with his body, and this might have been done in the case of other martyrs. The stones in the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano are supposed to have been the very ones that were fastened to the necks of these devoted Christians when they were thrown into the Tiber in the reign of Maximian. But as the place and manner of their martyrdom are involved in hopeless obscurity, the various accounts given of both being contradictory, the ecclesiastical legend has no weight. Cosma and Damian were Arabian doctors who were converted to Christianity, and belonged to the class called "silverless martyrs"—that is, physicians who took no fee from those whom they cured, but only stipulated that they should believe in Christ the Great Physician. They occupied in Christian hagiology the same place[246] as the ancient myth of Esculapius occupied in pagan mythology.

Around the stone in the church of Santa Sabina a curious legend has gathered. The sacristan, a Dominican friar of the neighbouring convent, is in the habit of telling the visitors that the devil one day, while St. Dominic was kneeling on the pavement as usual, hurled the huge stone in question, with his utmost force, against the head of the saint; but, strange to say, it either missed him altogether or failed to do him any injury, the saint going calmly on with his devotions as if nothing had happened. On the stone in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere there is an inscription in Latin, informing us that it was fastened round the neck of St. Calixtus, the Bishop of Rome, who, after having been scourged during an outbreak of pagan hostility, was thrown out of a window in his house in the Trastevere, and flung into a well. The stone in the Basilica of S. Lorenzo is connected with the sufferings and death either of St. Justinian or of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr, who was stoned to death in Palestine, and whose remains, miraculously recovered, are supposed to rest in the crypt below, along with those of St. Laurence. All these relics are devoutly worshipped, and they are believed to cure diseases, and to protect against evil those who touch them.

Examining the martyr-stones more closely, we find abundant evidence to confirm the account which is usually given of their origin, viz. that they were first used as Roman measures of weight. Several of them have inscribed upon their upper surface the names of the quæstors or prefects who issued them, as well as the number of pounds and ounces which they represented; the pounds being distinguished by figures, and the ounces expressed by dots or small circles. Numbers of such ancient Roman weights of stone, similarly inscribed, may be seen in the Kircherian Museum in the Collegio Romano. One specimen bears an inscription which signifies that, by the authority of Augustus, the weight[247] was preserved in the temple of the goddess Ops, the wife of Saturn, and one of the most ancient deities of Italy, where the public money was deposited. Montfaucon, in the third volume of his learned and elaborate work on Antiquity, has a plate illustrating a number of characteristic specimens of these weights from the cabinet of St. Germain's. This previous use would lead us to suspect that all the stones in the Roman churches did not figure in scenes of martyrdom. Some of them, indeed, were found in the loculi or graves of the Catacombs; but this circumstance of itself does not prove that the body interred therein had been that of a martyr, and that the stone had been employed in his execution. We know that the early Christians were in the habit of depositing in the graves of their friends the articles that were most valued by them during life. And hence, in the Catacombs, a singular variety of objects have been found. Stone weights, therefore, may have been put into the graves of Christians, not as instruments of suffering but as objects typical of the occupation of the departed in this life, in accordance with the habit of their pagan forefathers, which the Roman Christians had adopted. Some, however, of the stones, as I have said, may have been used according to the popular legend for the drowning of martyrs; and these weights were conveniently at hand in places of public resort, and lent themselves readily, by the rings inserted in many of them, to the persecutor's purpose.

The material of which they are composed is in nearly all cases the same. It is a stone of extreme hardness and of various shades of colour, from a light green to a dark olive, with a degree of transparency equal to that of wax and susceptible of a fine polish. By some writers it is called a black stone; but this colour may have been given to it by frequent handling when in use, and by the grime of age since. It was called by the Romans, from the use made of it in fabricating measures of weight, lapis æquipondus, and from its supposed[248] efficacy in the cure of diseases of the kidneys lapis nephriticus. Fabreti says that it got the name of lapis Lydius from the locality from which it was believed to have come. It is a kind of nephrite or jade, a mineral which usually occurs in talcose or magnesian rocks. At one time it was supposed to exist only on the river Kara-Kash, in the Kuen Luen mountains north of Cashmere, and for thousands of years the mines of that locality were the only known worked ones of pure jade. It has since, however, been found in New Zealand and in India; while the discoverers of South America obtained specimens of it in its natural state from the natives of Peru, who used it for making axes and arrow-heads, and gave it the name of piedra de yjada, from which comes our common word jade, on account of its use as a supposed cure for the iliac passion. It may be mentioned that there is a mineral closely allied to jade called "Saussurite," discovered by the great geologist whose name it bears near Monte Rosa, and since found on the borders of the Lake of Geneva, near Genoa, and in Corsica. It is possible that the martyr-stones may be made of this mineral, for they have not been analysed. But if they are, as it is supposed, made of true jade, the fact opens up many important questions.

No stone has a more remarkable history. It is an object of interest alike to the geologist and the antiquarian; and in spite of the most patient inquiry its antecedents are surrounded with a mystery which cannot be satisfactorily solved. Its antiquity is beyond doubt. In the most ancient books of China it is noticed as one of the articles of tribute paid to the emperor. Dr. Schliemann found it among the ruins of Troy. But its history stretches into the misty past far anterior in time to all ordinary records, to Cyclopean constructions, or to pictured and sculptured stones. One of the most curious things brought to light in connection with the prehistoric annals of our race is the wide diffusion of this mineral in regions as far apart as China and Britain. Owing to[249] its extreme hardness and susceptibility to polish, it was highly prized by the neolithic races for the manufacture of stone axes and hammers. In nearly every European country implements of jade belonging to the primitive inhabitants have been discovered. Some of the most beautiful belonged to one of the latest settlements of the stone age at Gerlafingen, in the Lake of Bienne, and were mixed with bronze celts of primitive type, indicating that the people of these lake-dwellings lived during the transition period between stone and bronze.

The presence of such celts made of jade obviously points to a connection at a very early period with the East, from whence the stone must have been brought, for it has never been found in a natural state west of the Caspian. An interesting controversy upon this subject was created about eight years ago by the finding in the bed of the Rhone of a jade strigil, an instrument curved and hollowed like a spoon used to scrape the skin while bathing. Various conjectures were formed as to how this isolated object could have found its way from its distant quarry in the East to this obscure spot among the Alps. Professor Max Müller, and those who along with him advocate the Oriental origin of the first settlers in Europe, are of opinion that this strigil and the various jade implements found in the Swiss lake-dwellings, are relics of this Western migration from the primitive cradle of the Aryan race on the plateaus of Central Asia. The implements could only have come from the East, for the other sources of jade supply in New Zealand and America—since discovered—were altogether unknown in those primitive times. And this conclusion is supported by an imposing array of concurrent philological evidence, based upon the resemblances between the Aryan languages of Europe, so strangely akin to each other, and the ancient dialects of India and Persia. But plausible as this argument looks, the more probable explanation is that the inhabitants of Europe obtained the material which they laboriously fashioned into tools[250] from the East, according to a system of barter similar to that which still exists amongst tribes more rude and savage than the Swiss lake-dwellers. Numerous facts of a like tendency are on record, such as the finding in the mounds of the Mississippi valley, side by side, obsidian from Mexico and mica from the Alleghanies, and in the mounds around the great northern lakes large tropical shells two thousand miles from their native habitat. The ancient inhabitants of China and India found at a very early period that they possessed in their jade rocks a very valuable material, in exchange for which they could get what they wanted from the Western races; while these Western races had at least one article which they could barter for the much-prized jade implements, viz. linen cloth, the weaving of which was practised in the oldest settlements, hanks of unspun flax and thread, nets and cloth of the same material having been found not unfrequently in the lake dwellings.

What an interesting glimpse into the far-off past does this link of connection between the East and the West give us! It indicates a degree of civilisation which we are not accustomed to associate with these primeval times. Archæologists are of opinion that the race who inhabited Central Europe during the earlier part of the stone age were akin to the modern Laplanders. The people of the lake dwellings, however, and especially those who used jade implements, who replaced them, were a superior and more civilised race. The evidence of the articles which they used, with the exception of jade itself, points not to an Asiatic origin, but rather to a connection with the shores on both sides of the Mediterranean. When they migrated northwards they brought with them the flax and the cereals of Egypt, and introduced with them the southern weeds which grew among these cultivated plants. The seeds of the catch-fly of Crete, which does not grow in Switzerland or Germany, have been found among the relics of the earliest of the lake[251] dwellings; while the familiar corn blue-bottle of our autumn fields was first brought from its native Sicily by this lacustrine people in whose cultivated fields it grew as a weed, and by them spread over all Western and Northern Europe. Such are the interesting associations and profound problems connected with the material of the martyr weights. And it is unique in this respect, that it meets us as far back as the first traces of neolithic man in Central Europe—nay, farther back still, in the palæolithic flints found in the caves near Mentone; and that it is still used in the countries where it is found for a great variety of useful and ornamental purposes, idols being carved out of it, and altars adorned with its semi-transparent olive-green slabs. The inhabitants of the South Sea Islands until recently used it for their stone implements in the same way that the ancient lake dwellers did; and the Mogul emperors of Delhi set such a high value upon it on account of its superstitious virtues that they had it cut, jewelled, and enamelled into the most exquisite forms.

In Rome the martyr weights, as relics of the stone age, afford a curious example of a very primitive epoch projecting far into a highly-civilised one. Stone weights continued in use long after bronze and iron implements were constructed, on account of the sacred associations connected with them. Weights and measures were regarded by the Romans as invested with a peculiar religious significance; the stone of which the weights were composed was called from that circumstance, or because of the occult qualities attributed to it, lapis divinus; and therefore there was a deep-seated prejudice, which reached down to the days of the highest splendour of the Empire, against the introduction of a new substance. This was the case with all articles used in religious ceremonies. As late as the period of St. Paul's residence in Rome, and at the time of the first persecution of the Christians, ancient pagan rites were celebrated in the Forum, in which the use of metal was[252] forbidden; and only stone hatchets could be employed in slaughtering animals, and only earthen vessels used in carrying the significant parts of the sacrifices into the temples. Treaties were also ratified by striking the victim offered on the occasion with a flint hatchet. The ancient Egyptians, although using iron and bronze for other objects, invariably used stone knives in preparing bodies for the process of embalming. The sacrifices which the Mexicans offered to their idols at the time of the Spanish conquest were cut up by means of knives of obsidian, which they obtained from the lavas of their volcanoes. In the Bible we have several traces of the same universal custom. The Jews seem to have performed the rite of circumcision with flint implements, for we read in Exodus that Zipporah, the wife of Moses, took a sharp stone for that purpose; and the phrase translated "sharp knives" in Joshua v. 2—"At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time"—should be translated, as in the marginal reference, knives of flint. To the same ancient widespread habit may doubtless be referred the prohibition, mentioned in Exodus and Deuteronomy, against making an altar in any special place where God recorded His name, of hewn stone, or polluting it by lifting up any iron tool upon it. So strong is the conservative instinct in religion that to this very day the enlightened Brahmin of India will not use ordinary fire for sacred purposes, will not procure a fresh spark even from flint and steel, but reverts to, or rather continues the primitive way of obtaining it by friction with a wooden drill. Everywhere innovations in religious worship are resisted with more or less reason or prejudice. The instinct is universal, and has its good and its evil side.



Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

Page Updated 6:40 PM Wednesday 9/18/2013