Sir James George Frazer (18541941). The Golden Bough. 1922.
§ 2. Iron tabooed
IN THE FIRST place we may observe that the awful sanctity of kings naturally leads to a prohibition to touch their sacred persons. Thus it was unlawful to lay hands on the person of a Spartan king: no one might touch the body of the king or queen of Tahiti: it is forbidden to touch the person of the king of Siam under pain of death; and no one may touch the king of Cambodia, for any purpose whatever, without his express command. In July 1874 the king was thrown from his carriage and lay insensible on the ground, but not one of his suite dared to touch him; a European coming to the spot carried the injured monarch to his palace. Formerly no one might touch the king of Corea; and if he deigned to touch a subject, the spot touched became sacred, and the person thus honoured had to wear a visible mark (generally a cord of red silk) for the rest of his life. Above all, no iron might touch the kings body. In 1800 King Tieng-tsong-tai-oang died of a tumour in the back, no one dreaming of employing the lancet, which would probably have saved his life. It is said that one king suffered terribly from an abscess in the lip, till his physician called in a jester, whose pranks made the king laugh heartily, and so the abscess burst. Roman and Sabine priests might not be shaved with iron but only with bronze razors or shears; and whenever an iron graving-tool was brought into the sacred grove of the Arval Brothers at Rome for the purpose of cutting an inscription in stone, an expiatory sacrifice of a lamb and a pig must be offered, which was repeated when the graving-tool was removed from the grove. As a general rule iron might not be brought into Greek sanctuaries. In Crete sacrifices were offered to Menedemus without the use of iron, because the legend ran that Menedemus had been killed by an iron weapon in the Trojan war. The Archon of Plataea might not touch iron; but once a year, at the annual commemoration of the men who fell at the battle of Plataea, he was allowed to carry a sword wherewith to sacrifice a bull. To this day a Hottentot priest never uses an iron knife, but always a sharp splint of quartz, in sacrificing an animal or circumcising a lad. Among the Ovambo of South-west Africa custom requires that lads should be circumcised with a sharp flint; if none is to hand, the operation may be performed with iron, but the iron must afterwards be buried. Amongst the Moquis of Arizona stone knives, hatchets, and so on have passed out of common use, but are retained in religious ceremonies. After the Pawnees had ceased to use stone arrow-heads for ordinary purposes, they still employed them to slay the sacrifices, whether human captives or buffalo and deer. Amongst the Jews no iron tool was used in building the Temple at Jerusalem or in making an altar. The old wooden bridge (Pons Sublicius) at Rome, which was considered sacred, was made and had to be kept in repair without the use of iron or bronze. It was expressly provided by law that the temple of Jupiter Liber at Furfo might be repaired with iron tools. The council chamber at Cyzicus was constructed of wood without any iron nails, the beams being so arranged that they could be taken out and replaced.
This superstitious objection to iron perhaps dates from that early time in the history of society when iron was still a novelty, and as such was viewed by many with suspicion and dislike. For everything new is apt to excite the awe and dread of the savage. It is a curious superstition, says a pioneer in Borneo, this of the Dusuns, to attribute anythingwhether good or bad, lucky or unluckythat happens to them to something novel which has arrived in their country. For instance, my living in Kindram has caused the intensely hot weather we have experienced of late. The unusually heavy rains which happened to follow the English survey of the Nicobar Islands in the winter of 18861887 were imputed by the alarmed natives to the wrath of the spirits at the theodolites, dumpy-levellers, and other strange instruments which had been set up in so many of their favourite haunts; and some of them proposed to soothe the anger of the spirits by sacrificing a pig. In the seventeenth century a succession of bad seasons excited a revolt among the Esthonian peasantry, who traced the origin of the evil to a watermill, which put a stream to some inconvenience by checking its flow. The first introduction of iron ploughshares into Poland having been followed by a succession of bad harvests, the farmers attributed the badness of the crops to the iron ploughshares, and discarded them for the old wooden ones. To this day the primitive Baduwis of Java, who live chiefly by husbandry, will use no iron tools in tilling their fields.
The general dislike of innovation, which always makes itself strongly felt in the sphere of religion, is sufficient by itself to account for the superstitious aversion to iron entertained by kings and priests and attributed by them to the gods; possibly this aversion may have been intensified in places by some such accidental cause as the series of bad seasons which cast discredit on iron ploughshares in Poland. But the disfavour in which iron is held by the gods and their ministers has another side. Their antipathy to the metal furnishes men with a weapon which may be turned against the spirits when occasion serves. As their dislike of iron is supposed to be so great that they will not approach persons and things protected by the obnoxious metal, iron may obviously be employed as a charm for banning ghosts and other dangerous spirits. And often it is so used. Thus in the Highlands of Scotland the great safeguard against the elfin race is iron, or, better yet, steel. The metal in any form, whether as a sword, a knife, a gun-barrel, or what not, is all-powerful for this purpose. Whenever you enter a fairy dwelling you should always remember to stick a piece of steel, such as a knife, a needle, or a fish-hook, in the door; for then the elves will not be able to shut the door till you come out again. So, too, when you have shot a deer and are bringing it home at night, be sure to thrust a knife into the carcase, for that keeps the fairies from laying their weight on it. A knife or nail in your pocket is quite enough to prevent the fairies from lifting you up at night. Nails in the front of a bed ward off elves from women in the straw and from their babes; but to make quite sure it is better to put the smoothing-iron under the bed, and the reaping-hook in the window. If a bull has fallen over a rock and been killed, a nail stuck into it will preserve the flesh from the fairies. Music discoursed on a Jews harp keeps the elfin women away from the hunter, because the tongue of the instrument is of steel. In Morocco iron is considered a great protection against demons; hence it is usual to place a knife or dagger under a sick mans pillow. The Singhalese believe that they are constantly surrounded by evil spirits, who lie in wait to do them harm. A peasant would not dare to carry good food, such as cakes or roast meat, from one place to another without putting an iron nail on it to prevent a demon from taking possession of the viands and so making the eater ill. No sick person, whether man or woman, would venture out of the house without a bunch of keys or a knife in his hand, for without such a talisman he would fear that some devil might take advantage of his weak state to slip into his body. And if a man has a large sore on his body he tries to keep a morsel of iron on it as a protection against demons. On the Slave Coast when a mother sees her child gradually wasting away, she concludes that a demon has entered into the child, and takes her measures accordingly. To lure the demon out of the body of her offspring, she offers a sacrifice of food; and while the devil is bolting it, she attaches iron rings and small bells to her childs ankles and hangs iron chains round his neck. The jingling of the iron and the tinkling of the bells are supposed to prevent the demon, when he has concluded his repast, from entering again into the body of the little sufferer. Hence many children may be seen in this part of Africa weighed down with iron ornaments.