Did they ever build children into bridges?
March 26, 2011 6:41 PM   Subscribe

Years ago, I read/saw/heard something about live children being bricked into the supports of bridges, presumably as part of some superstition/sacrifice/protection thing. I feel like it was presented as something that actually happened centuries ago, maybe in Europe, but I've never been able to find any reference to it sense. Do you know what I'm talking about? If so, did this really happen, or was it a detail in a fictional story?

As I remember it, it was definitely living children (I think orphans), and it was specific to the support structures of bridges. I think it may have been attributed to Britain, but I can't be sure. Googling hasn't helped at all, and I honestly don't even know how to search for something like this. I'd love to know more about this—whether it's based in actual fact, and where I may have heard it in the first place. It would have been in the early to mid 2000's that I came across it.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: preliminary googling finds this.

When the Bridge Gate at Bremen was demolished in the nineteenth century, the skeleton of a child was indeed found implanted in the foundations.
posted by Nomiconic at 6:49 PM on March 26, 2011


I believe I was taught that this happened in Egypt when the Jews were enslaved and building stuff for their masters, with Jewish babies, but I have no idea what the historic source is and whether it's accurate. It's mentioned here, which is nothing authoritative but confirms I haven't totally fabricated the thought.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:49 PM on March 26, 2011


Whoops, I didn't realize you specified bridges and not buildings in general. Never mind.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:50 PM on March 26, 2011


Response by poster: Nomiconic, that looks exactly like what I'm thinking of. What did you search for to find that? Non of my searches have even been close.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 6:52 PM on March 26, 2011


Also relevant
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:56 PM on March 26, 2011


Response by poster: I've never been able to find any reference to it since. Curse you, poor proofreading.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 6:57 PM on March 26, 2011


"London bridge children blood" because some other search I can't remember the exact terms for suggested that sprinkling blood on the bridges was also a practice.
posted by Nomiconic at 6:57 PM on March 26, 2011


I recently read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman and it's mentioned in there as a thing done with Jewish babies in Egypt, as needs more cowbell mentions above. I have no idea how true it is though, or even if it's based on a known myth. The book is a weird mix of obvious fable and authoritative sounding 'facts' and I don't know really know the Bible in any kind of detail, so I couldn't tell which bits he just made up himself.
posted by shelleycat at 7:12 PM on March 26, 2011


Best answer: The origins of the "London Bridge is Falling Down" version of the myth are examined here. Short version: Typical late-Victorian embellishment with overtones of alleged pagan practices.

Might also be worth looking at the legend of the Bridge of Arta (built in the early 1600's), particularly the poem which quotes a messenger from the Gods as saying:
"Unless you sacrifice a human, the bridge will never stand.
And don't you sacrifice an orphan, or a stranger, or a passer-by,
But only the chief mason's beautiful wife,
Who comes late in the afternoon and brings his supper."
posted by Pinback at 7:21 PM on March 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I read The Bridge on the Drina a few months ago and have a feeling there's something of that kind in there, but I'm afraid I can't remember.
posted by escabeche at 7:40 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This sounded instantly familiar when I read this post, and I have no idea where I might have read it, either, but a possibility from the right time period did spring to mind--might there have been some reference to it in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? The bit about Pharoah and such does not sound familiar, but it does feel like the sort of thing I might have read as a European superstition at some point, and that feels like something that would have been set in the right time period.

Granted, I am not willing to break out the whole long thing at this point to go see if I'm right. But it 'feels' like it could have been in a historical fiction piece like this that I heard it mentioned.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:43 PM on March 26, 2011


This is mentioned in Tracy Chevalier's Virgin Blue, as well as in one of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon (very minor plot point, I can't remember which book).
posted by jschu at 7:52 PM on March 26, 2011


Here's a compilation of myths and legends of human sacrifice. Entombment is mentioned often. Summaries and sources are listed. Creepy stuff!
posted by hooray at 7:54 PM on March 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I believe I was taught that this happened in Egypt when the Jews were enslaved and building stuff for their masters, with Jewish babies, but I have no idea what the historic source is and whether it's accurate.

Considering that there is zero evidence that the "Jews" ever lived in pharaonic Egypt, were enslaved there, or ever "built stuff" in Egypt before maybe the Hellenistic era - I'm going to say this has no historic source and is not accurate.
posted by Sara C. at 8:09 PM on March 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


This definitely comes up in Outlander, the first book of the Gabaldon series. She's a pretty obsessive researcher, so you may be able to find more information about foundation sacrifices through The Outlandish Companion: the bit in her novel is about the idea of sacrificing a human life to satisfy angry spirits when building a structure, not necessarily children or bridges but just the foundation of any structure, using any person. Googling "foundation sacrifice" gets you some information, for example this, about King Ahab. An academic site, here, relates a story about sacrificing children when erecting churches in Germany, with that whole bread and candle bit.
posted by brina at 8:37 PM on March 26, 2011


There's a related myth from Wales about a bridge too difficult for mortals to build - so the Devil built it in exchange for the first soul to cross the bridge.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Bridge,_Ceredigion
posted by annathea at 8:38 PM on March 26, 2011


Mason's wife was allegedly a sacrifice.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:42 PM on March 26, 2011


Best answer: Also--human sacrifice in myths and legends. Several references to buildings, etc. I used " bridge sacrifice" as my search term.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:49 PM on March 26, 2011


It's not physical burial per se, but the fantastic Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 is about the witch hunts that spread based on rumours that bridge builders
needed the names of living persons to write on paper slips, which could be nailed onto the tops of the pilings to add spiritual force to the blows of the sledgehammers. This was called "soulstealing" (chiao-hun). Those whose soul-force was thus stolen would fall ill and die.
posted by zamboni at 9:48 PM on March 26, 2011


James Gordon understood more than just about anybody that structures are built by people, and people have their own strengths, intelligence, idiosyncrasies, and superstitions.

In his book, Structures, or Why Things Don't Fall Down, he mentioned several instances of people being immured in the foundations of walls and bridges. "Even in England, as late as 1871, a certain Lord Leigh was seriously suspected of having built 'an obnoxious person' into the foundations of a bridge at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:24 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a young man I was told that the father of the last Shah of Iran had bandits walled up in the bridges as part of his pacification of the country. I crossed such bridges, but never saw the thieves, for obvious reasons, and this is the problem with your question: references are just that, mere references, and the only way to know for sure is to look inside the bridge. Even then we would have no way of knowing what a person was doing there? It's quite likely that those who died during the construction of the bridge were buried in situ, the site being a convenient place for such things.
posted by alonsoquijano at 11:01 PM on March 26, 2011


This myth comes up in The Bridge on the Drina, which is set in Bosnia and follows the history of the Mehmed-paša Sokolović Bridge. The novel actually tells the story of myth and explains the reality of the situation, and is also just a fantastic book.
posted by elsewhen at 11:45 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The legend of Manole, who built his wife into the walls of a monastery. Such legends are apparently common in Southeastern Europe.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:15 AM on March 27, 2011


A number of cultures used to have similar beliefs: ancient Hawaiians, for instance, used to put a live captive (an enemy warrior was best, if I recall) in the hole the first building support was dropped into. The belief was that this would both appease any angry gods, plus provide a (sorry for the pun!) built-in security guard.
posted by easily confused at 3:20 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


jschu - as well as in one of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon (very minor plot point, I can't remember which book).

I'm thinking of the Lord John Grey short story set in Germany, that first appeared in the Legends II collection (2004) and was later reprinted in Lord John and the Hand of Devils. (2007, thank you wikipedia).
posted by Lebannen at 3:41 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Oops, that should have been 'Lord John and the Succubus', etc. Apparently the ghost of the sacrificed child cries out when evildoers attept to cross the bridge. Spoiler alert; because Lord John is sensible, he discovers that there were not actually a succubus or the ghost of a child involved in the mysterious events of the story.)
posted by Lebannen at 3:51 AM on March 27, 2011


Best answer: This is, as has been said, a common feature of myths in southeastern Europe; the Greek version is the ballad about the Bridge of Arta; to quote that Wikipedia article:
The idea that a major edifice can not be built without a human sacrifice ("building in" of a person) was also common in the folklore of other Balkan peoples such as Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbs and Romanians; for example, the Romanian legend of Meşterul Manole. A masterbuilder being forced to sacrifice his wife in this way is a common theme in folk songs. A recurring plot element is the masterbuilders' decision to sacrifice the woman who comes first to the building site to bring them food. All but one break their promise and tell their wives to come late, and it is the wife of the only honest one that is sacrificed.
There are more examples at the Immurement article. A Google Books search on immurement legends will get you all kinds of useful references, like "The Balkan Immurement Legend: Between Myth and a Nationalist Project," by Tatjana Aleksić.

(It's a little depressing that the current "best answer" is wrong and useless; you might want to fix that.)
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on March 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Japanese folklore refer to hitobashira. There are a lot of folktales throughout Japan with this theme.
posted by vincele at 8:08 AM on March 27, 2011


(It's a little depressing that the current "best answer" is wrong and useless; you might want to fix that.)

languagehat, if you're talking about needs more cowbell, a tale of immurement being ahistorical does not prevent it from being where the poster heard about immurement. Part of the question is

I'd love to know more about this—whether it's based in actual fact, and where I may have heard it in the first place.
posted by zamboni at 8:38 AM on March 27, 2011


Yes, that's why I mentioned it, and why I gave the disclaimers I did. I'm not sure why the OP chose it as best answer though - perhaps that was an error.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:11 AM on March 27, 2011


jschu - as well as in one of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon (very minor plot point, I can't remember which book).

It's in the first book, in the first couple of chapters - the steps of their bed and breakfast are covered in what is most likely rooster blood, and the main character's scholar husband explains how a blood sacrifice was used in the old days in the foundation stones of buildings - usually the body of a worker - and that these cottages are too new, so they rectify it with a yearly application of rooster blood.
posted by annathea at 12:25 PM on March 27, 2011


The suggestion that London Bridge is Falling Down is connected to child sacrifice is discussed in Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography (and I'm going to out on a limb and suggest that it might also be in his book about the Thames, but I've not read it to be sure). He refernces Peter and Iona Opie who are mentioned in Pinbacks link above.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:31 PM on March 27, 2011


The first (and until today only) thing I ever heard about immurement was the plot of the Georgian movie "Legend of Surami Fortress" by Sergei Parajanov. Very beautiful and weird.
posted by hungrytiger at 4:35 PM on March 27, 2011


> a tale of immurement being ahistorical does not prevent it from being where the poster heard about immurement.

Yeah, you're right, I should have left that bilious addendum off. Sorry, having a bad day.
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on March 27, 2011


jschu - as well as in one of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon (very minor plot point, I can't remember which book).

Lebannen: I'm thinking of the Lord John Grey short story set in Germany, that first appeared in the Legends II collection (2004) and was later reprinted in Lord John and the Hand of Devils. (2007, thank you wikipedia).

annathea: It's in the first book, in the first couple of chapters - the steps of their bed and breakfast are covered in what is most likely rooster blood, and the main character's scholar husband explains how a blood sacrifice was used in the old days in the foundation stones of buildings - usually the body of a worker - and that these cottages are too new, so they rectify it with a yearly application of rooster blood.


Wow, it's a recurring theme in those books, then, because I was thinking of another situation-- in Drums of Autumn, Stephen Bonnet tells Roger about his narrow escape from being buried alive during the construction of a new house. It's discussed here.
posted by jschu at 7:01 PM on March 27, 2011


Bridge immurement is also mentioned in Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
posted by zamboni at 9:37 PM on November 8, 2011


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