November 15, 2011

Birth of Leland: in darksome lore

I was born on the 15th of August, 1824, in a house which was in Philadelphia, and in Chestnut Street, the second door below Third Street, on the north side. It had been built in the old Colonial time, and in the room in which I first saw life there was an old chimney-piece, which was so remarkable that strangers visiting the city often came to see it.

So begins the Memoirs of Charles Godfrey Leland, who grew up to become a prominent writer, particularly of humor and folklore. He credits his early interest in reading to his mother, who was "devoted to literature to a degree which was unusual at that time." He also notes he started reading because of chronic illness in his youth.

Leland told the story, almost certainly untrue, that his first nurse performed a ritual on him only a few days after his birth. He had been brought to the garret of the house by the Dutch woman and left sleeping next to an open Bible with a key and a knife on his infant chest. At his head were lighted candles, a plate of salt, and a pile of money. The nurse explained the ritual would ensure his rising in life. He later learned, however, she was a sorceress and the ritual ensured that the child would become interested "in darksome lore" and a scholar of the occult.

Sure enough, after studying at Princeton, traveling to Europe, and fighting in the French Revolution, working as a journalist, and fighting in the American Civil War, he studied more exotic religions and beliefs. He particularly showed an interest in Gypsies, Wicca, and more. From the introduction to his 1882 book The Gypsies:

I have frequently been asked, "Why do you take an interest in gypsies?"

And it is not so easy to answer. Why, indeed? ...But I cannot tell you why. Why do I love to wander on the roads to hear the birds; to see old church towers afar, rising over fringes of forest, a river and a bridge in the foreground, and an ancient castle beyond, with a modern village springing up about it, just as at the foot of the burg there lies the falling trunk of an old tree, around which weeds and flowers are springing up, nourished by its decay? Why love these better than pictures, and with a more than fine-art feeling? Because on the roads, among such scenes, between the hedge-rows and by the river, I find the wanderers who properly inhabit not the houses but the scene, not a part but the whole. These are the gypsies, who live like the birds and hares, not of the house-born or the townbred, but free and at home only with nature.

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