Essay: The Appeal of Ordeal

William Butler Yeats tells of Icelandic peasants who found a skull in a cemetery and suspected it might be that of the poet Egill. "Its great thickness made them feel certain it was," he writes, but "to be doubly sure they put it on a wall and hit it hard blows with a hammer." When it did not break, "they were convinced that it was in truth the skull of the poet and worthy of every honor."

The human propensity to test the worthiness of a thing by seeing how well it stands up to...

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