Studies from an eastern home
The dread seven
BENEATH the neem they sit, as did the Norns of old beneath Yggdrasil--those seven dread sisters, of whom Sitola, goddess of Smallpox, is the first. All the rashes and eruptions they share amongst them, and the youngest of the seven is the old friend of our childhood, no less a personage than Measles herself. It is strange, we feel, this element of fear that seems so often associated in ancient mythology with the idea of femininity. Head of the Fates is she who cuts the thread of life, and all the three are womenkind. Ate, the sleepless doom that pursues after the shedder of blood, is a woman. The Harpies and avenging Erinys are daughters, not sons, of the gods and of Night. And here in India the power that is seen in the burning of fever and the wasting of disease is conceived as the presence within a man of the Mother Herself.
The fact is an added token of the antiquity of the association. When the administration of justice took the form of a curse or a vendetta, pronounced by the grey-haired women of the
village; when all power was as yet in the hands of the Mothers, and men were at best but their fierce and courageous children; when rulership could not be conceived of apart from the feminine--thus early awoke the idea of the divinity that is seen in the terrible and the irrevocable. Among peoples whose geographical compactness and comparative density hastened their political differentiation, the terror was more apt to take the form of a reflection of the fear of man and his just wrath. Righteous punishment was a thing to be looked for. The avenger of blood was most to be dreaded of all foes. But in India, that land of vast spaces and extended populations, the ideal of malign power remained mysterious, incalculable, and supernatural. From the beginning there was something inexplicable in the exercise of omnipotence. Could any sign of divine presence be more convincing, because more incomprehensible, than the spells of fever, or the anger of a rash? Naturally, then, the practice of worship developed the opposite power, that of healing.
Very quaint are the descriptions given by the faithful of the Seven Fearsome Sisters. That Smallpox makes affrighted goes without saying. Her power is open and irrepressible, afflicting men at noonday. But each one, even the youngest, has a potency of her own. Being the youngest, indeed, gives to Measles, it is said, a peculiar
ability to do mischief. Her very age makes her the pet of her father and mother. She is therefore much indulged. She lives suppressed: that is to say, she is apt to exercise her powers in secret, and to leave behind her when she goes some terrible memento of her visit, in a permanent blindness, deafness, or lameness. It is evident here that a good deal of fine medical observation has been put into the curious old myth of the seven sisters.
It would be strange, however, if so careful an index of diagnosis were entirely dissociated from all consideration of methods of treatment. As we might have expected, the priests of Sitola come from a peculiar caste, being known as Dom Brahmins, and are, in fact, doctors of a very ancient order. The oldest worships are connected with libations, the pouring-out of water before God; but in the worship of Sitola the idea of a sanative cleanliness is very prominently brought forward. One will sometimes, in the by-ways of some busy city, see women after nightfall pouring out water in the road before a temple and sweeping the place with a broom. They are praying to Sitola, the guide will tell us. For those who know have laid down the law that this goddess demands salutation with water and a broom. Indeed she clasps these in her own arms as represented in her images; and she comes to us, they
say, riding on the washerman's donkey, an unclean beast. In this last point, though undeniably forcible, public opinion is probably wrong. Sitola is represented, it is true, as riding on an ass, but in all likelihood this is because, in that remote past out of which she rose, the ass was the fleet courser, the splendid and romantic steed, hero of all the poetry that now centres in the horse. He may, in an age of degeneration, be relegated to the use of the laundryman's caste, daily parading the town with his load of soiled linen for the wash. But he is most emphatically one of those who have seen better days. Once upon a time he held a ruling position amongst animals, and in the Semitic races his appearance in a procession would seem to have indicated semi-royal state as late as the opening of the Christian era. Wild in the deserts of Arabia, he appears in the liturgy of ancient Egypt as the Sun-god, and scholars hold that traces of this identification may still be found in the Rig-Veda itself. Even now there is a breed in Persia which is famous and honoured, transcending even the horse in swiftness, and making it seem in no wise ludicrous that a goddess should be seated on an ass.
Many students will feel that the assignment of one whole divinity to the province of a single disease argues a state of society in which there was a very elaborate division of labour. Nor can
we help connecting this advance in social organisation with that sudden accession of medical science of which the worship of Sitola constitutes a remnant. The whole idea is a rare mixture of piety and wisdom. When the patient first succumbs to the malady, there is many a village-wife whose diagnosis is as valuable as the physician's or the priest's. The one anxiety is that the eruption should have free way. Should it remain suppressed, the case is regarded as grave. But if this is not so, and matters appear promising, the next step is to feed with a sufficient quantity of milk. The amount of this food that can be digested by a smallpox patient of robust constitution is said to be quite incredible. If the case is bad, however, there is nothing to be done but call for the special attendance of a priest of Sitola. In this case the sick man will be laid on the floor on cool banana leaves. He is also given medicine brought by the priest. A twig of neem is supplied to him, and except with it he is not allowed to touch his own skin. To tickle it with the sacred twig is an invocation of blessing. At the same time devotions are going on. At first, when the fell visitant was announced, the women of the household repaired in the evening to temple or tree, to offer their worship. Part of this consisted in placing flowers on top of an inverted pot, at the feet of the goddess, If the flowers fall, she is
pleased, and grants the prayer of her suppliant. But if they remain where they were placed, she is obdurate, and the end can hardly be bright. I have been told of one case in which the women had placed their flowers and sat in the attitude of prayer to see what was to be their fate. The blossoms did not fall, and in agony of mind the whole party bent still lower in prayer, imploring with clasped hands that the Devi might take pity and grant a life much loved. At this second prayer, as they watched and waited, the flowers fluttered down, slowly, slowly, and each one felt that an invisible hand had taken them, and the prayer would be fulfilled.
Only half the necessary offering is thus made, however. The idea, in Bengal at least, is that the Mother has been asked to visit the abode of her children and bless them with a healing touch. This is the element in the myth to which prominence is given, though it is not quite clear that there is not mixed with it an older notion that it is the presence of the goddess that has brought disaster, and that she is being begged to withdraw. Outside Bengal this last seems to be frankly the thought. But here we are mainly in the attitude of entreating the Mother to enter the house and bear away its misfortune. The more archaic fear may be traced in the fact that, while the illness remains, none in the house will venture to call it
by any name but "the mercy." And the visitors who generally throng to see an invalid remain here, it is true, on the threshold; but still they come, saying they are adoring the divine Mother, present in the sick. So the conception of the healing divinity of sweetness has not yet wholly emancipated itself from an older and less noble worship of fear; but it is on the way to do so, for when the recovery has taken place it is always unhesitatingly attributed to a visit of benediction, and many are the household tales of special experiences illustrating this. From the moment of the announcement, then, when the worship is offered, the house and everyone in it has to be kept in a state of such exceptional purity as is meet for those who expect a divine advent. No meat or fish may be cooked within the walls. Only after bathing, and wearing the cleanest of garments, may the sick be attended. Fresh flowers and incense are to be offered daily. Water and the broom must do even more than their ordinary work in constant cleansing. And finally, when the last remnant of his illness is well past, the patient marks his own recovery by a delightful bath, for which he has been prepared by massage, being rubbed with sandal-paste and turmeric, ancient luxuries of the toilet, full of coolness and fragrance.
The sons of Askr, or the ash, carried into Europe,
it is said, the use of bronze, the domesticated horse, and also the knowledge of massage and of healing drugs and oils. We have seen that the horse must have been subjugated by man and have reached the world's great trade-routes at Babylon and Nineveh only after the ass had been long familiar. We know also that it must have come from Central Asia, and the probability is that it had been tamed long enough before the memorising of the present Rig-Veda for its predecessor to be even then, amongst the Aryans, only a dim and half-conscious tradition. That Sitola and her sisters should number seven in all shows that they were the creation of some race in whom astronomic studies and planetary lore had already made the number seven peculiarly sacred and impressive, as it was among the singers of the Vedas. They appear also, on comparing their characters with those of the corresponding fear-creating goddesses of Europe, to belong to a civilisation in which political and military ideas were slower of growth and personal culture a larger factor. Bronze is held by some scholars to have been the result of the exchange of copper at Tamralipti or Tamluk, with the tin of Malacca, in the ages of the Asiatic merchant-civilisation, which preceded the rise of nationalities. In Asia, as also among the nomads of North America, there seems to have been a short Copper Age preceding the Bronze, Copper
razors and copper axes have been found in India, and copper knives on the site of ancient Troy. After this came bronze, and with bronze, as far as Europe was concerned, the knowledge of medicine and the use of the horse. Older, far older, than any of these, was that worship of the rude stone beneath the neem tree, as the throne of the Mother, and those seasonal dances that may have given rise to the tradition of the birth of Askr, the first man, from the ash. Holy indeed is the ground beneath the olive and the neem. Sacred homes of the Oil-Mother, from them and their long past has come every notion of priestly anointing that a younger world has seen. The chrism of baptism, the oil of coronation, and the last sad rite of unction and benediction to the forth-going soul--here, in the cool breeze that blows through our Indian tree of healing, may have been the birth of all these, and of how much more throughout the ages of aid and fellowship between man and man.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.