Sonntagskind: A Sunday's Child 1709-1734
IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME A CHILD BORN ON Sunday was thought to be blessed with magical gifts and good fortune. The Romans called him albae gallinae filius, child of the white hen, or fortunae filius, fortune’s child.
In German-speaking countries he is called a Sonntagskind, and in their legends and fairy tales only a Sun-day’s child can make contact with the realm of the spirits, be released from a spell, unearth treasures, have dreams fulfilled, and bring good fortune to others.
A Sonntagskind is able to give the worst disaster a happy outcome. Even today, in Austria and Germany, people will say of someone whose luck quickly shifts from bad to good, "He must be a Sonntagskind."
ON SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 1709, IN THE LUTHERAN CITY OF Windsheim, a dead baby was born to the Stöller family. The midwife, having tried everything she knew to revive him, packed her bag and departed. But the mother’s sister, who was attending the birth, would not give up hope for this Sonntagskind. The infant’s oldest brother, Augustin, watched as she wrapped the baby in hot blankets, replacing them when they became cold. At last, to every-one’s amazement, the baby gave a loud cry.
That afternoon he was christened Georg Wilhelm.
At the age of five, Georg entered the local Latin school, where his father was the music teacher. Every subject was taught in Latin, the language understood by learned people throughout Europe.
When he was fifteen, Georg won a scholarship to the highest level of the school and was required to sing in the church choir on special religious occasions. His other duty was to clean the town library, dusting the beautiful vellum-bound atlases and books about medicinal plants. He studied long hours and was always first in his class.
On holidays he discovered his love of nature in the nearby Schoszbach Forest, where gray herons nested and foxes, badgers, and river otters made their homes. He became familiar with the many rare and unusual plants that grew only in the region around Windsheim.
In 1729, when Georg was twenty years old, he received a scholarship to study religion and medicine at the University of Wittenberg. Everyone assumed he would return in a few years to become a Lutheran minister in his native town. In fact, he never went back to Windsheim and never saw his parents again.
After he completed his studies in Wittenberg, his scientific interests led him to the University of Halle, where he could study natural history by enrolling as a medical student and continue his religious education. He had no professor of botany or zoology as such during his first year, but he learned anatomy through the dissection of animals, and botany from the study of medicinal plants.
However, Georg went far beyond the courses offered by the university. Guided by published floras of the area, he extended his botany lessons to the countryside Halle.
In Georg’s second year, the internationally famous anatomist and zoologist Johann Friedrich Cassebohm joined the faculty as professor of medicine. Georg immediately enrolled in his zoology classes, where he was taught about animal development. The microscope introduced him to a new world of minute organisms.
During his vacations Georg took walking trips to visit his brother Augustin, who was practicing medicine twenty miles away, in Köthen. On one occasion he walked in the Harz Mountains, where he was awestruck by the dizzying depths of the cavernous Stolberg mines.
Georg paid for his medical training and earned his room and board by teaching classes and supervising a boys’ dormitory in the Latin school of the famous Francke Foundations, an institution that began as an orphanage and soon grew to encompass a whole village of schools. He became friendly with the oldest boy, Elias Reichard, who had returned to prepare for university after working for several years as a linen weaver’s apprentice. Elias received special permission to stay up later than the other students so that Georg could help him with difficult subjects. The record of their friendship offers evidence of prophetic side to Georg’s character, one aspect of a Sonntagskind.
Many years later, Elias recounted a conversation they had one night by the fireside while talking about supernatural experiences. When Georg claimed that he could see into the future, Elias begged him to do so. Georg began, "I am shortly going to fall into a serious illness (during which you, my dear Reichard, are going to sit up with me several nights), from which, however, I will recover, leave Halle, travel to the extreme end of Europe, suffer shipwreck, be cast upon an uninhabited island and die in a distant country."
Elias then held out his hand and asked his own fate. Georg scrutinized the lines on Elias’s palm and answered, "You will unexpectedly make the acquaintance of my oldest brother [Augustin]; however backward you still are in your studies, in the course of eight or nine years you will obtain a professorship . . . A short time later you will lose your father by death and only see him in his coffin; you will marry two noble ladies in succession and will reach the age of about eighty years."
Soon after this conversation the first prediction came true when Georg contracted a violent fever. Elias sat up with him for three nights, nursing him back to health.
In the following years the future unfolded just as Georg had foretold.
The Francke Foundations had a remarkable Cabinet of Artifacts and Curiosities, a collection of several thousand natural adman-made objects from around the world, used for teaching the students. Among its treasures were a crocodile, a swordfish, the horn of a narwhal, and a stuffed lizard three and a half feet long. Lutheran missionaries had sent quantities of seashells from the Indian Ocean and cases of preserved insects from Malabar, in India. As Georg and Professor Cassebohm explored this accumulation of preserved exotic creatures and anthropological artifacts brought back by travelers and former students, Georg may well have longed to explore faraway places himself and return with plants and animals no one in Halle had ever seen.
He discussed the possibility of going to Russia with his professors. In Germany there were too few university positions forth growing number of educated men, while the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, with its newly formed Imperial Academy of Sciences, offered many opportunities. A few years before, the brilliant Dr. Johann Georg Gmelin from Tübingen, who had earned his doctorate when he was only nineteen years old, had passed through Halle on his way to St. Petersburg. In just three years he had become a professor at the Academy. Now Professor Gmelin, no older than Georg Stöller, was preparing to embark on the Second Kamchatka Expedition.
Excerpted from Sea Cows, Shamans, and Scurvy by Ann Arnold
Copyright © 2008 by Ann Arnold
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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