Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by comparative mythology by John Fiske

Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by comparative mythology by John Fiske Scanned by Charles Keller with OmniPage Professional OCR software MYTHS AND MYTH-MAKERS OLD TALES AND SUPERSTITIONS INTERPRETED BY COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY BY JOHN FISKE La mythologie, cette science toute nouvelle, qui nous fait suivre les croyances de nos peres, depuis le berceau
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Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by comparative mythology by John Fiske

Scanned by Charles Keller with OmniPage Professional OCR software



La mythologie, cette science toute nouvelle, qui nous fait suivre les croyances de nos peres, depuis le berceau du monde jusqu’aux superstitions de nos campagnes.–EDMOND SCHERER



IN publishing this somewhat rambling and unsystematic series of papers, in which I have endeavoured to touch briefly upon a great many of the most important points in the study of mythology, I think it right to observe that, in order to avoid confusing the reader with intricate discussions, I have sometimes cut the matter short, expressing myself with dogmatic definiteness where a sceptical vagueness might perhaps have seemed more becoming. In treating of popular legends and superstitions, the paths of inquiry are circuitous enough, and seldom can we reach a satisfactory conclusion until we have travelled all the way around Robin Hood’s barn and back again. I am sure that the reader would not have thanked me for obstructing these crooked lanes with the thorns and brambles of philological and antiquarian discussion, to such an extent as perhaps to make him despair of ever reaching the high road. I have not attempted to review, otherwise than incidentally, the works of Grimm, Muller, Kuhn, Breal, Dasent, and Tylor; nor can I pretend to have added anything of consequence, save now and then some bit of explanatory comment, to the results obtained by the labour of these scholars; but it has rather been my aim to present these results in such a way as to awaken general interest in them. And accordingly, in dealing with a subject which depends upon philology almost as much as astronomy depends upon mathematics, I have omitted philological considerations wherever it has been possible to do so. Nevertheless, I believe that nothing has been advanced as established which is not now generally admitted by scholars, and that nothing has been advanced as probable for which due evidence cannot be produced. Yet among many points which are proved, and many others which are probable, there must always remain many other facts of which we cannot feel sure that our own explanation is the true one; and the student who endeavours to fathom the primitive thoughts of mankind, as enshrined in mythology, will do well to bear in mind the modest words of Jacob Grimm,– himself the greatest scholar and thinker who has ever dealt with this class of subjects,–“I shall indeed interpret all that I can, but I cannot interpret all that I should like.”

PETERSHAM, September 6, 1872.












FEW mediaeval heroes are so widely known as William Tell. His exploits have been celebrated by one of the greatest poets and one of the most popular musicians of modern times. They are doubtless familiar to many who have never heard of Stauffacher or Winkelried, who are quite ignorant of the prowess of Roland, and to whom Arthur and Lancelot, nay, even Charlemagne, are but empty names.

Nevertheless, in spite of his vast reputation, it is very likely that no such person as William Tell ever existed, and it is certain that the story of his shooting the apple from his son’s head has no historical value whatever. In spite of the wrath of unlearned but patriotic Swiss, especially of those of the cicerone class, this conclusion is forced upon us as soon as we begin to study the legend in accordance with the canons of modern historical criticism. It is useless to point to Tell’s lime-tree, standing to-day in the centre of the market-place at Altdorf, or to quote for our confusion his crossbow preserved in the arsenal at Zurich, as unimpeachable witnesses to the truth of the story. It is in vain that we are told, “The bricks are alive to this day to testify to it; therefore, deny it not.” These proofs are not more valid than the handkerchief of St. Veronica, or the fragments of the true cross. For if relics are to be received as evidence, we must needs admit the truth of every miracle narrated by the Bollandists.

The earliest work which makes any allusion to the adventures of William Tell is the chronicle of the younger Melchior Russ, written in 1482. As the shooting of the apple was supposed to have taken place in 1296, this leaves an interval of one hundred and eighty-six years, during which neither a Tell, nor a William, nor the apple, nor the cruelty of Gessler, received any mention. It may also be observed, parenthetically, that the charters of Kussenach, when examined, show that no man by the name of Gessler ever ruled there. The chroniclers of the fifteenth century, Faber and Hammerlin, who minutely describe the tyrannical acts by which the Duke of Austria goaded the Swiss to rebellion, do not once mention Tell’s name, or betray the slightest acquaintance with his exploits or with his existence. In the Zurich chronicle of 1479 he is not alluded to. But we have still better negative evidence. John of Winterthur, one of the best chroniclers of the Middle Ages, was living at the time of the battle of Morgarten (1315), at which his father was present. He tells us how, on the evening of that dreadful day, he saw Duke Leopold himself in his flight from the fatal field, half dead with fear. He describes, with the loving minuteness of a contemporary, all the incidents of the Swiss revolution, but nowhere does he say a word about William Tell. This is sufficiently conclusive. These mediaeval chroniclers, who never failed to go out of their way after a bit of the epigrammatic and marvellous, who thought far more of a pointed story than of historical credibility, would never have kept silent about the adventures of Tell, if they had known anything about them.

After this, it is not surprising to find that no two authors who describe the deeds of William Tell agree in the details of topography and chronology. Such discrepancies never fail to confront us when we leave the solid ground of history and begin to deal with floating legends. Yet, if the story be not historical, what could have been its origin? To answer this question we must considerably expand the discussion.

The first author of any celebrity who doubted the story of William Tell was Guillimann, in his work on Swiss Antiquities, published in 1598. He calls the story a pure fable, but, nevertheless, eating his words, concludes by proclaiming his belief in it, because the tale is so popular! Undoubtedly he acted a wise part; for, in 1760, as we are told, Uriel Freudenberger was condemned by the canton of Uri to be burnt alive, for publishing his opinion that the legend of Tell had a Danish origin.[1]

[1] See Delepierre, Historical Difficulties, p. 75.

The bold heretic was substantially right, however, like so many other heretics, earlier and later. The Danish account of Tell is given as follows, by Saxo Grammaticus:–

“A certain Palnatoki, for some time among King Harold’s body-guard, had made his bravery odious to very many of his fellow-soldiers by the zeal with which he surpassed them in the discharge of his duty. This man once, when talking tipsily over his cups, had boasted that he was so skilled an archer that he could hit the smallest apple placed a long way off on a wand at the first shot; which talk, caught up at first by the ears of backbiters, soon came to the hearing of the king. Now, mark how the wickedness of the king turned the confidence of the sire to the peril of the son, by commanding that this dearest pledge of his life should be placed instead of the wand, with a threat that, unless the author of this promise could strike off the apple at the first flight of the arrow, he should pay the penalty of his empty boasting by the loss of his head. The king’s command forced the soldier to perform more than he had promised, and what he had said, reported, by the tongues of slanderers, bound him to accomplish what he had NOT said. Yet did not his sterling courage, though caught in the snare of slander, suffer him to lay aside his firmness of heart; nay, he accepted the trial the more readily because it was hard. So Palnatoki warned the boy urgently when he took his stand to await the coming of the hurtling arrow with calm ears and unbent head, lest, by a slight turn of his body, he should defeat the practised skill of the bowman; and, taking further counsel to prevent his fear, he turned away his face, lest he should be scared at the sight of the weapon. Then, taking three arrows from the quiver, he struck the mark given him with the first he fitted to the string. . . . . But Palnatoki, when asked by the king why he had taken more arrows from the quiver, when it had been settled that he should only try the fortune of the bow ONCE, made answer, ‘That I might avenge on thee the swerving of the first by the points of the rest, lest perchance my innocence might have been punished, while your violence escaped scot-free.’ “[2]

[2] Saxo Grammaticus, Bk. X. p. 166, ed. Frankf. 1576.

This ruthless king is none other than the famous Harold Blue-tooth, and the occurrence is placed by Saxo in the year 950. But the story appears not only in Denmark, but in Fingland, in Norway, in Finland and Russia, and in Persia, and there is some reason for supposing that it was known in India. In Norway we have the adventures of Pansa the Splay-footed, and of Hemingr, a vassal of Harold Hardrada, who invaded England in 1066. In Iceland there is the kindred legend of Egil brother of Wayland Smith, the Norse Vulcan. In England there is the ballad of William of Cloudeslee, which supplied Scott with many details of the archery scene in “Ivanhoe.” Here, says the dauntless bowman,

“I have a sonne seven years old;
Hee is to me full deere;
I will tye him to a stake–
All shall see him that bee here– And lay an apple upon his head,
And goe six paces him froe,
And I myself with a broad arrowe Shall cleave the apple in towe.”

In the Malleus Maleficarum a similar story is told Puncher, a famous magician on the Upper Rhine. The great ethnologist Castren dug up the same legend in Finland. It is common, as Dr. Dasent observes, to the Turks and Mongolians; “and a legend of the wild Samoyeds, who never heard of Tell or saw a book in their lives relates it, chapter and verse, of one of their marksmen.” Finally, in the Persian poem of Farid-Uddin Attar, born in 1119, we read a story of a prince who shoots an apple from the head of a beloved page. In all these stories, names and motives of course differ; but all contain the same essential incidents. It is always an unerring archer who, at the capricious command of a tyrant, shoots from the head of some one dear to him a small object, be it an apple, a nut, or a piece of coin. The archer always provides himself with a second arrow, and, when questioned as to the use he intended to make of his extra weapon, the invariable reply is, “To kill thee, tyrant, had I slain my son.” Now, when a marvellous occurrence is said to have happened everywhere, we may feel sure that it never happened anywhere. Popular fancies propagate themselves indefinitely, but historical events, especially the striking and dramatic ones, are rarely repeated. The facts here collected lead inevitably to the conclusion that the Tell myth was known, in its general features, to our Aryan ancestors, before ever they left their primitive dwelling-place in Central Asia.

It may, indeed, be urged that some one of these wonderful marksmen may really have existed and have performed the feat recorded in the legend; and that his true story, carried about by hearsay tradition from one country to another and from age to age, may have formed the theme for all the variations above mentioned, just as the fables of La Fontaine were patterned after those of AEsop and Phaedrus, and just as many of Chaucer’s tales were consciously adopted from Boccaccio. No doubt there has been a good deal of borrowing and lending among the legends of different peoples, as well as among the words of different languages; and possibly even some picturesque fragment of early history may have now and then been carried about the world in this manner. But as the philologist can with almost unerring certainty distinguish between the native and the imported words in any Aryan language, by examining their phonetic peculiarities, so the student of popular traditions, though working with far less perfect instruments, can safely assert, with reference to a vast number of legends, that they cannot have been obtained by any process of conscious borrowing. The difficulties inseparable from any such hypothesis will become more and more apparent as we proceed to examine a few other stories current in different portions of the Aryan domain.

As the Swiss must give up his Tell, so must the Welshman be deprived of his brave dog Gellert, over whose cruel fate I confess to having shed more tears than I should regard as well bestowed upon the misfortunes of many a human hero of romance. Every one knows how the dear old brute killed the wolf which had come to devour Llewellyn’s child, and how the prince, returning home and finding the cradle upset and the dog’s mouth dripping blood, hastily slew his benefactor, before the cry of the child from behind the cradle and the sight of the wolf’s body had rectified his error. To this day the visitor to Snowdon is told the touching story, and shown the place, called Beth-Gellert,[3] where the dog’s grave is still to be seen. Nevertheless, the story occurs in the fireside lore of nearly every Aryan people. Under the Gellert-form it started in the Panchatantra, a collection of Sanskrit fables; and it has even been discovered in a Chinese work which dates from A. D. 668. Usually the hero is a dog, but sometimes a falcon, an ichneumon, an insect, or even a man. In Egypt it takes the following comical shape: “A Wali once smashed a pot full of herbs which a cook had prepared. The exasperated cook thrashed the well-intentioned but unfortunate Wali within an inch of his life, and when he returned, exhausted with his efforts at belabouring the man, to examine the broken pot, he discovered amongst the herbs a poisonous snake.”[4] Now this story of the Wali is as manifestly identical with the legend of Gellert as the English word FATHER is with the Latin pater; but as no one would maintain that the word father is in any sense derived from pater, so it would be impossible to represent either the Welsh or the Egyptian legend as a copy of the other. Obviously the conclusion is forced upon us that the stories, like the words, are related collaterally, having descended from a common ancestral legend, or having been suggested by one and the same primeval idea.

[3] According to Mr. Isaac Taylor, the name is really derived from “St. Celert, a Welsh saint of the fifth century, to whom the church of Llangeller is consecrated.” (Words and Places, p. 339.)

[4] Compare Krilof’s story of the Gnat and the Shepherd, in Mr. Ralston’s excellent version, Krilof and his Fables, p. 170. Many parallel examples are cited by Mr. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. I. pp. 126-136. See also the story of Folliculus,–Swan, Gesta Romanorum, ad. Wright, Vol. I. p. lxxxii

Closely connected with the Gellert myth are the stories of Faithful John and of Rama and Luxman. In the German story, Faithful John accompanies the prince, his master, on a journey in quest of a beautiful maiden, whom he wishes to make his bride. As they are carrying her home across the seas, Faithful John hears some crows, whose language he understands, foretelling three dangers impending over the prince, from which his friend can save him only by sacrificing his own life. As soon as they land, a horse will spring toward the king, which, if he mounts it, will bear him away from his bride forever; but whoever shoots the horse, and tells the king the reason, will be turned into stone from toe to knee. Then, before the wedding a bridal garment will lie before the king, which, if he puts it on, will burn him like the Nessos-shirt of Herakles; but whoever throws the shirt into the fire and tells the king the reason, will be turned into stone from knee to heart. Finally, during the wedding-festivities, the queen will suddenly fall in a swoon, and “unless some one takes three drops of blood from her right breast she will die”; but whoever does so, and tells the king the reason, will be turned into stone from head to foot. Thus forewarned, Faithful John saves his master from all these dangers; but the king misinterprets his motive in bleeding his wife, and orders him to be hanged. On the scaffold he tells his story, and while the king humbles himself in an agony of remorse, his noble friend is turned into stone.

In the South Indian tale Luxman accompanies Rama, who is carrying home his bride. Luxman overhears two owls talking about the perils that await his master and mistress. First he saves them from being crushed by the falling limb of a banyan-tree, and then he drags them away from an arch which immediately after gives way. By and by, as they rest under a tree, the king falls asleep. A cobra creeps up to the queen, and Luxman kills it with his sword; but, as the owls had foretold, a drop of the cobra’s blood falls on the queen’s forehead. As Luxman licks off the blood, the king starts up, and, thinking that his vizier is kissing his wife, upbraids him with his ingratitude, whereupon Luxman, through grief at this unkind interpretation of his conduct, is turned into stone.[5]

[5] See Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Nations, Vol. I. pp. 145-149.

For further illustration we may refer to the Norse tale of the “Giant who had no Heart in his Body,” as related by Dr. Dasent. This burly magician having turned six brothers with their wives into stone, the seventh brother–the crafty Boots or many-witted Odysseus of European folk-lore–sets out to obtain vengeance if not reparation for the evil done to his kith and kin. On the way he shows the kindness of his nature by rescuing from destruction a raven, a salmon, and a wolf. The grateful wolf carries him on his back to the giant’s castle, where the lovely princess whom the monster keeps in irksome bondage promises to act, in behalf of Boots, the part of Delilah, and to find out, if possible, where her lord keeps his heart. The giant, like the Jewish hero, finally succumbs to feminine blandishments. “Far, far away in a lake lies an island; on that island stands a church; in that church is a well; in that well swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg; and in that egg there lies my heart, you darling.” Boots, thus instructed, rides on the wolf’s back to the island; the raven flies to the top of the steeple and gets the church-keys; the salmon dives to the bottom of the well, and brings up the egg from the place where the duck had dropped it; and so Boots becomes master of the situation. As he squeezes the egg, the giant, in mortal terror, begs and prays for his life, which Boots promises to spare on condition that his brothers and their brides should be released from their enchantment. But when all has been duly effected, the treacherous youth squeezes the egg in two, and the giant instantly bursts.

The same story has lately been found in Southern India, and is published in Miss Frere’s remarkable collection of tales entitled “Old Deccan Days.” In the Hindu version the seven daughters of a rajah, with their husbands, are transformed into stone by the great magician Punchkin,–all save the youngest daughter, whom Punchkin keeps shut up in a tower until by threats or coaxing he may prevail upon her to marry him. But the captive princess leaves a son at home in the cradle, who grows up to manhood unmolested, and finally undertakes the rescue of his family. After long and weary wanderings he finds his mother shut up in Punchkin’s tower, and persuades her to play the part of the princess in the Norse legend. The trick is equally successful. “Hundreds of thousands of miles away there lies a desolate country covered with thick jungle. In the midst of the jungle grows a circle of palm-trees, and in the centre of the circle stand six jars full of water, piled one above another; below the sixth jar is a small cage which contains a little green parrot; on the life of the parrot depends my life, and if the parrot is killed I must die.”[6] The young prince finds the place guarded by a host of dragons, but some eaglets whom he has saved from a devouring serpent in the course of his journey take him on their crossed wings and carry him to the place where the jars are standing. He instantly overturns the jars, and seizing the parrot, obtains from the terrified magician full reparation. As soon as his own friends and a stately procession of other royal or noble victims have been set at liberty, he proceeds to pull the parrot to pieces. As the wings and legs come away, so tumble off the arms and legs of the magician; and finally as the prince wrings the bird’s neck, Punchkin twists his own head round and dies.

[6] The same incident occurs in the Arabian story of Seyf-el-Mulook and Bedeea-el-Jemal, where the Jinni’s soul is enclosed in the crop of a sparrow, and the sparrow imprisoned in a small box, and this enclosed in another small box, and this again in seven other boxes, which are put into seven chests, contained in a coffer of marble, which is sunk in the ocean that surrounds the world. Seyf-el-Mulook raises the coffer by the aid of Suleyman’s seal-ring, and having extricated the sparrow, strangles it, whereupon the Jinni’s body is converted into a heap of black ashes, and Seyf-el-Mulook escapes with the maiden Dolet-Khatoon. See Lane’s Arabian Nights, Vol. III. p. 316.

The story is also told in the highlands of Scotland, and some portions of it will be recognized by the reader as incidents in the Arabian tale of the Princess Parizade. The union of close correspondence in conception with manifest independence in the management of the details of these stories is striking enough, but it is a phenomenon with which we become quite familiar as we proceed in the study of Aryan popular literature. The legend of the Master Thief is no less remarkable than that of Punchkin. In the Scandinavian tale the Thief, wishing to get possession of a farmer’s ox, carefully hangs himself to a tree by the roadside. The farmer, passing by with his ox, is indeed struck by the sight of the dangling body, but thinks it none of his business, and does not stop to interfere. No sooner has he passed than the Thief lets himself down, and running swiftly along a by-path, hangs himself with equal precaution to a second tree. This time the farmer is astonished and puzzled; but when for the third time he meets the same unwonted spectacle, thinking that three suicides in one morning are too much for easy credence, he leaves his ox and runs back to see whether the other two bodies are really where he thought he saw them. While he is framing hypotheses of witchcraft by which to explain the phenomenon, the Thief gets away with the ox. In the Hitopadesa the story receives a finer point. “A Brahman, who had vowed a sacrifice, went to the market to buy a goat. Three thieves saw him, and wanted to get hold of the goat. They stationed themselves at intervals on the high road. When the Brahman, who carried the goat on his back, approached the first thief, the thief said, ‘Brahman, why do you carry a dog on your back?’ The Brahman replied, ‘It is not a dog, it is a goat.’ A little while after he was accosted by the second thief, who said, ‘Brahman, why do you carry a dog on your back?’ The Brahman felt perplexed, put the goat down, examined it, took it up again, and walked on. Soon after he was stopped by the third thief, who said, ‘Brahman, why do you carry a dog on your back?’ Then the Brahman was frightened, threw down the goat, and walked home to perform his ablutions for having touched an unclean animal. The thieves took the goat and ate it.” The adroitness of the Norse King in “The Three Princesses of Whiteland” shows but poorly in comparison with the keen psychological insight and cynical sarcasm of these Hindu sharpers. In the course of his travels this prince met three brothers fighting on a lonely moor. They had been fighting for a hundred years about the possession of a hat, a cloak, and a pair of boots, which would make the wearer invisible, and convey him instantly whithersoever he might wish to go. The King consents to act as umpire, provided he may once try the virtue of the magic garments; but once clothed in them, of course he disappears, leaving the combatants to sit down and suck their thumbs. Now in the “Sea of Streams of Story,” written in the twelfth century by Somadeva of Cashmere, the Indian King Putraka, wandering in the Vindhya Mountains, similarly discomfits two brothers who are quarrelling over a pair of shoes, which are like the sandals of Hermes, and a bowl which has the same virtue as Aladdin’s lamp. “Why don’t you run a race for them?” suggests Putraka; and, as the two blockheads start furiously off, he quietly picks up the bowl, ties on the shoes, and flies away![7]

[7] The same incident is repeated in the story of Hassan of El-Basrah. See Lane’s Arabian Nights, Vol. III p. 452.

It is unnecessary to cite further illustrations. The tales here quoted are fair samples of the remarkable correspondence which holds good through all the various sections of Aryan folk-lore. The hypothesis of lateral diffusion, as we may call it, manifestly fails to explain coincidences which are maintained on such an immense scale. It is quite credible that one nation may have borrowed from another a solitary legend of an archer who performs the feats of Tell and Palnatoki; but it is utterly incredible that ten thousand stories, constituting the entire mass of household mythology throughout a dozen separate nations, should have been handed from one to another in this way. No one would venture to suggest that the old grannies of Iceland and Norway, to whom we owe such stories as the Master Thief and the Princesses of Whiteland, had ever read Somadeva or heard of the treasures of Rhampsinitos. A large proportion of the tales with which we are dealing were utterly unknown to literature until they were taken down by Grimm and Frere and Castren and Campbell, from the lips of ignorant peasants, nurses, or house-servants, in Germany and Hindustan, in Siberia and Scotland. Yet, as Mr. Cox observes, these old men and women, sitting by the chimney-corner and somewhat timidly recounting to the literary explorer the stories which they had learned in childhood from their own nurses and grandmas, “reproduce the most subtle turns of thought and expression, and an endless series of complicated narratives, in which the order of incidents and the words of the speakers are preserved with a fidelity nowhere paralleled in the oral tradition of historical events. It may safely be said that no series of stories introduced in the form of translations from other languages could ever thus have filtered down into the lowest strata of society, and thence have sprung up again, like Antaios, with greater energy and heightened beauty.” There is indeed no alternative for us but to admit that these fireside tales have been handed down from parent to child for more than a hundred generations; that the primitive Aryan cottager, as he took his evening meal of yava and sipped his fermented mead, listened with his children to the stories of Boots and Cinderella and the Master Thief, in the days when the squat Laplander was master of Europe and the dark-skinned Sudra was as yet unmolested in the Punjab. Only such community of origin can explain the community in character between the stories told by the Aryan’s descendants, from the jungles of Ceylon to the highlands of Scotland.

This conclusion essentially modifies our view of the origin and growth of a legend like that of William Tell. The case of the Tell legend is radically different from the case of the blindness of Belisarius or the burning of the Alexandrian library by order of Omar. The latter are isolated stories or beliefs; the former is one of a family of stories or beliefs. The latter are untrustworthy traditions of doubtful events; but in dealing with the former, we are face to face with a MYTH.

What, then, is a myth? The theory of Euhemeros, which was so fashionable a century ago, in the days of the Abbe Banier, has long since been so utterly abandoned that to refute it now is but to slay the slain. The peculiarity of this theory was that it cut away all the extraordinary features of a given myth, wherein dwelt its inmost significance, and to the dull and useless residuum accorded the dignity of primeval history. In this way the myth was lost without compensation, and the student, in seeking good digestible bread, found but the hardest of pebbles. Considered merely as a pretty story, the legend of the golden fruit watched by the dragon in the garden of the Hesperides is not without its value. But what merit can there be in the gratuitous statement which, degrading the grand Doric hero to a level with any vulgar fruit-stealer, makes Herakles break a close with force and arms, and carry off a crop of oranges which had been guarded by mastiffs? It is still worse when we come to the more homely folk-lore with which the student of mythology now has to deal. The theories of Banier, which limped and stumbled awkwardly enough when it was only a question of Hermes and Minos and Odin, have fallen never to rise again since the problems of Punchkin and Cinderella and the Blue Belt have begun to demand solution. The conclusion has been gradually forced upon the student, that the marvellous portion of these old stories is no illegitimate extres-cence, but was rather the pith and centre of the whole,[8] in days when there was no supernatural, because it had not yet been discovered that there was such a thing as nature. The religious myths of antiquity and the fireside legends of ancient and modern times have their common root in the mental habits of primeval humanity. They are the earliest recorded utterances of men concerning the visible phenomena of the world into which they were born.

[8] “Retrancher le merveilleux d’un mythe, c’est le supprimer.”–Breal, Hercule et Cacus, p. 50.

That prosaic and coldly rational temper with which modern men are wont to regard natural phenomena was in early times unknown. We have come to regard all events as taking place regularly, in strict conformity to law: whatever our official theories may be, we instinctively take this view of things. But our primitive ancestors knew nothing about laws of nature, nothing about physical forces, nothing about the relations of cause and effect, nothing about the necessary regularity of things. There was a time in the history of mankind when these things had never been inquired into, and when no generalizations about them had been framed, tested, or established. There was no conception of an order of nature, and therefore no distinct conception of a supernatural order of things. There was no belief in miracles as infractions of natural laws, but there was a belief in the occurrence of wonderful events too mighty to have been brought about by ordinary means. There was an unlimited capacity for believing and fancying, because fancy and belief had not yet been checked and headed off in various directions by established rules of experience. Physical science is a very late acquisition of the human mind, but we are already sufficiently imbued with it to be almost completely disabled from comprehending the thoughts of our ancestors. “How Finn cosmogonists could have believed the earth and heaven to be made out of a severed egg, the upper concave shell representing heaven, the yolk being earth, and the crystal surrounding fluid the circumambient ocean, is to us incomprehensible; and yet it remains a fact that they did so regard them. How the Scandinavians could have supposed the mountains to be the mouldering bones of a mighty Jotun, and the earth to be his festering flesh, we cannot conceive; yet such a theory was solemnly taught and accepted. How the ancient Indians could regard the rain-clouds as cows with full udders milked by the winds of heaven is beyond our comprehension, and yet their Veda contains indisputable testimony to the fact that they were so regarded.” We have only to read Mr. Baring-Gould’s book of “Curious Myths,” from which I have just quoted, or to dip into Mr. Thorpe’s treatise on “Northern Mythology,” to realize how vast is the difference between our stand-point and that from which, in the later Middle Ages, our immediate forefathers regarded things. The frightful superstition of werewolves is a good instance. In those days it was firmly believed that men could be, and were in the habit of being, transformed into wolves. It was believed that women might bring forth snakes or poodle-dogs. It was believed that if a man had his side pierced in battle, you could cure him by nursing the sword which inflicted the wound. “As late as 1600 a German writer would illustrate a thunder-storm destroying a crop of corn by a picture of a dragon devouring the produce of the field with his flaming tongue and iron teeth.”

Now if such was the condition of the human intellect only three or four centuries ago, what must it have been in that dark antiquity when not even the crudest generalizations of Greek or of Oriental science had been reached? The same mighty power of imagination which now, restrained and guided by scientific principles, leads us to discoveries and inventions, must then have wildly run riot in mythologic fictions whereby to explain the phenomena of nature. Knowing nothing whatever of physical forces, of the blind steadiness with which a given effect invariably follows its cause, the men of primeval antiquity could interpret the actions of nature only after the analogy of their own actions. The only force they knew was the force of which they were directly conscious,–the force of will. Accordingly, they imagined all the outward world to be endowed with volition, and to be directed by it. They personified everything,–sky, clouds, thunder, sun, moon, ocean, earthquake, whirlwind.[9] The comparatively enlightened Athenians of the age of Perikles addressed the sky as a person, and prayed to it to rain upon their gardens.[10] And for calling the moon a mass of dead matter, Anaxagoras came near losing his life. To the ancients the moon was not a lifeless ball of stones and clods: it was the horned huntress, Artemis, coursing through the upper ether, or bathing herself in the clear lake; or it was Aphrodite, protectress of lovers, born of the sea-foam in the East near Cyprus. The clouds were no bodies of vaporized water: they were cows with swelling udders, driven to the milking by Hermes, the summer wind; or great sheep with moist fleeces, slain by the unerring arrows of Bellerophon, the sun; or swan-maidens, flitting across the firmament, Valkyries hovering over the battle-field to receive the souls of falling heroes; or, again, they were mighty mountains piled one above another, in whose cavernous recesses the divining-wand of the storm-god Thor revealed hidden treasures. The yellow-haired sun, Phoibos, drove westerly all day in his flaming chariot; or perhaps, as Meleagros, retired for a while in disgust from the sight of men; wedded at eventide the violet light (Oinone, Iole), which he had forsaken in the morning; sank, as Herakles, upon a blazing funeral-pyre, or, like Agamemnon, perished in a blood-stained bath; or, as the fish-god, Dagon, swam nightly through the subterranean waters, to appear eastward again at daybreak. Sometimes Phaethon, his rash, inexperienced son, would take the reins and drive the solar chariot too near the earth, causing the fruits to perish, and the grass to wither, and the wells to dry up. Sometimes, too, the great all-seeing divinity, in his wrath at the impiety of men, would shoot down his scorching arrows, causing pestilence to spread over the land. Still other conceptions clustered around the sun. Now it was the wonderful treasure-house, into which no one could look and live; and again it was Ixion himself, bound on the fiery wheel in punishment for violence offered to Here, the queen of the blue air.

[9] “No distinction between the animate and inanimate is made in the languages of the Eskimos, the Choctaws, the Muskoghee, and the Caddo. Only the Iroquois, Cherokee, and the Algonquin-Lenape have it, so far as is known, and with them it is partial.” According to the Fijians, “vegetables and stones, nay, even tools and weapons, pots and canoes, have souls that are immortal, and that, like the souls of men, pass on at last to Mbulu, the abode of departed spirits.”–M’Lennan, The Worship of Animals and Plants, Fortnightly Review, Vol. XII. p, 416.

[10] Marcus Aurelius, V. 7.

This theory of ancient mythology is not only beautiful and plausible, it is, in its essential points, demonstrated. It stands on as firm a foundation as Grimm’s law in philology, or the undulatory theory in molecular physics. It is philology which has here enabled us to read the primitive thoughts of mankind. A large number of the names of Greek gods and heroes have no meaning in the Greek language; but these names occur also in Sanskrit, with plain physical meanings. In the Veda we find Zeus or Jupiter (Dyaus-pitar) meaning the sky, and Sarameias or Hermes, meaning the breeze of a summer morning. We find Athene (Ahana), meaning the light of daybreak; and we are thus enabled to understand why the Greek described her as sprung from the forehead of Zeus. There too we find Helena (Sarama), the fickle twilight, whom the Panis, or night-demons, who serve as the prototypes of the Hellenic Paris, strive to seduce from her allegiance to the solar monarch. Even Achilleus (Aharyu) again confronts us, with his captive Briseis (Brisaya’s offspring); and the fierce Kerberos (Carvara) barks on Vedic ground in strict conformity to the laws of phonetics.[11] Now, when the Hindu talked about Father Dyaus, or the sleek kine of Siva, he thought of the personified sky and clouds; he had not outgrown the primitive mental habits of the race. But the Greek, in whose language these physical meanings were lost, had long before the Homeric epoch come to regard Zeus and Hermes, Athene, Helena, Paris, and Achilleus, as mere persons, and in most cases the originals of his myths were completely forgotten. In the Vedas the Trojan War is carried on in the sky, between the bright deities and the demons of night; but the Greek poet, influenced perhaps by some dim historical tradition, has located the contest on the shore of the Hellespont, and in his mind the actors, though superhuman, are still completely anthropomorphic. Of the true origin of his epic story he knew as little as Euhemeros, or Lord Bacon, or the Abbe Banier.

[11] Some of these etymologies are attacked by Mr. Mahaffy in his Prolegomena to Ancient History, p. 49. After long consideration I am still disposed to follow Max Muller in adopting them, with the possible exception of Achilleus. With Mr. Mahaffy s suggestion (p. 52) that many of the Homeric legends may have clustered around some historical basis, I fully agree; as will appear, further on, from my paper on “Juventus Mundi.”

After these illustrations, we shall run no risk of being misunderstood when we define a myth as, in its origin, an explanation, by the uncivilized mind, of some natural phenomenon; not an allegory, not an esoteric symbol,–for the ingenuity is wasted which strives to detect in myths the remnants of a refined primeval science,–but an explanation. Primitive men had no profound science to perpetuate by means of allegory, nor were they such sorry pedants as to talk in riddles when plain language would serve their purpose. Their minds, we may be sure, worked like our own, and when they spoke of the far-darting sun-god, they meant just what they said, save that where we propound a scientific theorem, they constructed a myth.[12] A thing is said to be explained when it is classified with other things with which we are already acquainted. That is the only kind of explanation of which the highest science is capable. We explain the origin, progress, and ending of a thunder-storm, when we classify the phenomena presented by it along with other more familiar phenomena of vaporization and condensation. But the primitive man explained the same thing to his own satisfaction when he had classified it along with the well-known phenomena of human volition, by constructing a theory of a great black dragon pierced by the unerring arrows of a heavenly archer. We consider the nature of the stars to a certain extent explained when they are classified as suns; but the Mohammedan compiler of the “Mishkat-ul-Ma’sabih” was content to explain them as missiles useful for stoning the Devil! Now, as soon as the old Greek, forgetting the source of his conception, began to talk of a human Oidipous slaying a leonine Sphinx, and as soon as the Mussulman began, if he ever did, to tell his children how the Devil once got a good pelting with golden bullets, then both the one and the other were talking pure mythology.

[12] Les facultes qui engendrent la mythologie sont les memes que celles qui engendront la philosophie, et ce n’est pas sans raison que l’Inde et la Grece nous presentent le phenomene de la plus riche mythologie a cote de la plus profonde metaphysique. “La conception de la multiplicite dans l’univers, c’est le polytheisme chez les peuples enfants; c’est la science chez les peuples arrives a l’age mur.–Renan, Hist. des Langues Semitiques, Tom. I. p. 9.

We are justified, accordingly, in distinguishing between a myth and a legend. Though the words are etymologically parallel, and though in ordinary discourse we may use them interchangeably, yet when strict accuracy is required, it is well to keep them separate. And it is perhaps needless, save for the sake of completeness, to say that both are to be distinguished from stories which have been designedly fabricated. The distinction may occasionally be subtle, but is usually broad enough. Thus, the story that Philip II. murdered his wife Elizabeth, is a misrepresentation; but the story that the same Elizabeth was culpably enamoured of her step-son Don Carlos, is a legend. The story that Queen Eleanor saved the life of her husband, Edward I., by sucking a wound made in his arm by a poisoned arrow, is a legend; but the story that Hercules killed a great robber, Cacus, who had stolen his cattle, conceals a physical meaning, and is a myth. While a legend is usually confined to one or two localities, and is told of not more than one or two persons, it is characteristic of a myth that it is spread, in one form or another, over a large part of the earth, the leading incidents remaining constant, while the names and often the motives vary with each locality. This is partly due to the immense antiquity of myths, dating as they do from a period when many nations, now widely separated, had not yet ceased to form one people. Thus many elements of the myth of the Trojan War are to be found in the Rig-Veda; and the myth of St. George and the Dragon is found in all the Aryan nations. But we must not always infer that myths have a common descent, merely because they resemble each other. We must remember that the proceedings of the uncultivated mind are more or less alike in all latitudes, and that the same phenomenon might in various places independently give rise to similar stories.[13] The myth of Jack and the BeanStalk is found not only among people of Aryan descent, but also among the Zulus of South Africa, and again among the American Indians. Whenever we can trace a story in this way from one end of the world to the other, or through a whole family of kindred nations, we are pretty safe in assuming that we are dealing with a true myth, and not with a mere legend.

[13] Cases coming under this head are discussed further on, in my paper on “Myths of the Barbaric World.”

Applying these considerations to the Tell myth, we at once obtain a valid explanation of its origin. The conception of infallible skill in archery, which underlies such a great variety of myths and popular fairy-tales, is originally derived from the inevitable victory of the sun over his enemies, the demons of night, winter, and tempest. Arrows and spears which never miss their mark, swords from whose blow no armour can protect, are invariably the weapons of solar divinities or heroes. The shafts of Bellerophon never fail to slay the black demon of the rain-cloud, and the bolt of Phoibos Chrysaor deals sure destruction to the serpent of winter. Odysseus, warring against the impious night-heroes, who have endeavoured throughout ten long years or hours of darkness to seduce from her allegiance his twilight-bride, the weaver of the never-finished web of violet clouds,–Odysseus, stripped of his beggar’s raiment and endowed with fresh youth and beauty by the dawn-goddess, Athene, engages in no doubtful conflict as he raises the bow which none but himself can bend. Nor is there less virtue in the spear of Achilleus, in the swords of Perseus and Sigurd, in Roland’s stout blade Durandal, or in the brand Excalibur, with which Sir Bedivere was so loath to part. All these are solar weapons, and so, too, are the arrows of Tell and Palnatoki, Egil and Hemingr, and William of Cloudeslee, whose surname proclaims him an inhabitant of the Phaiakian land. William Tell, whether of Cloudland or of Altdorf, is the last reflection of the beneficent divinity of daytime and summer, constrained for a while to obey the caprice of the powers of cold and darkness, as Apollo served Laomedon, and Herakles did the bidding of Eurystheus. His solar character is well preserved, even in the sequel of the Swiss legend, in which he appears no less skilful as a steersman than as an archer, and in which, after traversing, like Dagon, the tempestuous sea of night, he leaps at daybreak in regained freedom upon the land, and strikes down the oppressor who has held him in bondage.

But the sun, though ever victorious in open contest with his enemies, is nevertheless not invulnerable. At times he succumbs to treachery, is bound by the frost-giants, or slain by the demons of darkness. The poisoned shirt of the cloud-fiend Nessos is fatal even to the mighty Herakles, and the prowess of Siegfried at last fails to save him from the craft of Hagen. In Achilleus and Meleagros we see the unhappy solar hero doomed to toil for the profit of others, and to be cut off by an untimely death. The more fortunate Odysseus, who lives to a ripe old age, and triumphs again and again over all the powers of darkness, must nevertheless yield to the craving desire to visit new cities and look upon new works of strange men, until at last he is swallowed up in the western sea. That the unrivalled navigator of the celestial ocean should disappear beneath the western waves is as intelligible as it is that the horned Venus or Astarte should rise from the sea in the far east. It is perhaps less obvious that winter should be so frequently symbolized as a thorn or sharp instrument. Achilleus dies by an arrow-wound in the heel; the thigh of Adonis is pierced by the boar’s tusk, while Odysseus escapes with an ugly scar, which afterwards secures his recognition by his old servant, the dawn-nymph Eurykleia; Sigurd is slain by a thorn, and Balder by a sharp sprig of mistletoe; and in the myth of the Sleeping Beauty, the earth-goddess sinks into her long winter sleep when pricked by the point of the spindle. In her cosmic palace, all is locked in icy repose, naught thriving save the ivy which defies the cold, until the kiss of the golden-haired sun-god reawakens life and activity.

The wintry sleep of nature is symbolized in innumerable stories of spell-bound maidens and fair-featured youths, saints, martyrs, and heroes. Sometimes it is the sun, sometimes the earth, that is supposed to slumber. Among the American Indians the sun-god Michabo is said to sleep through the winter months; and at the time of the falling leaves, by way of composing himself for his nap, he fills his great pipe and divinely smokes; the blue clouds, gently floating over the landscape, fill the air with the haze of Indian summer. In the Greek myth the shepherd Endymion preserves his freshness in a perennial slumber. The German Siegfried, pierced by the thorn of winter, is sleeping until he shall be again called forth to fight. In Switzerland, by the Vierwald-stattersee, three Tells are awaiting the hour when their country shall again need to be delivered from the oppressor. Charlemagne is reposing in the Untersberg, sword in hand, waiting for the coming of Antichrist; Olger Danske similarly dreams away his time in Avallon; and in a lofty mountain in Thuringia, the great Emperor Yrederic Barbarossa slumbers with his knights around him, until the time comes for him to sally forth and raise Germany to the first rank among the kingdoms of the world. The same story is told of Olaf Tryggvesson, of Don Sebastian of Portugal, and of the Moorish King Boabdil. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, having taken refuge in a cave from the persecutions of the heathen Decius, slept one hundred and sixty-four years, and awoke to find a Christian emperor on the throne. The monk of Hildesheim, in the legend so beautifully rendered by Longfellow, doubting how with God a thousand years ago could be as yesterday, listened three minutes entranced by the singing of a bird in the forest, and found, on waking from his revery, that a thousand years had flown. To the same family of legends belong the notion that St. John is sleeping at Ephesus until the last days of the world; the myth of the enchanter Merlin, spell-bound by Vivien; the story of the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who dozed away fifty-seven years in a cave; and Rip Van Winkle’s nap in the Catskills.[14]

[14] A collection of these interesting legends may be found in Baring-Gould’s “Curious Myths of the Middle Ages,” of which work this paper was originally a review.

We might go on almost indefinitely citing household tales of wonderful sleepers; but, on the principle of the association of opposites, we are here reminded of sundry cases of marvellous life and wakefulness, illustrated in the Wandering Jew; the dancers of Kolbeck; Joseph of Arimathaea with the Holy Grail; the Wild Huntsman who to all eternity chases the red deer; the Captain of the Phantom Ship; the classic Tithonos; and the Man in the Moon.

The lunar spots have afforded a rich subject for the play of human fancy. Plutarch wrote a treatise on them, but the myth-makers had been before him. “Every one,” says Mr. Baring-Gould, “knows that the moon is inhabited by a man with a bundle of sticks on his back, who has been exiled thither for many centuries, and who is so far off that he is beyond the reach of death. He has once visited this earth, if the nursery rhyme is to be credited when it asserts that

‘The Man in the Moon
Came down too soon
And asked his way to Norwich’;

but whether he ever reached that city the same authority does not state.” Dante calls him Cain; Chaucer has him put up there as a punishment for theft, and gives him a thorn-bush to carry; Shakespeare also loads him with the thorns, but by way of compensation gives him a dog for a companion. Ordinarily, however, his offence is stated to have been, not stealing, but Sabbath-breaking,–an idea derived from the Old Testament. Like the man mentioned in the Book of Numbers, he is caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath; and, as an example to mankind, he is condemned to stand forever in the moon, with his bundle on his back. Instead of a dog, one German version places with him a woman, whose crime was churning butter on Sunday. She carries her butter-tub; and this brings us to Mother Goose again:–

“Jack and Jill went up the hill To get a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, And Jill came tumbling after.”

This may read like mere nonsense; but there is a point of view from which it may be safely said that there is very little absolute nonsense in the world. The story of Jack and Jill is a venerable one. In Icelandic mythology we read that Jack and Jill were two children whom the moon once kidnapped and carried up to heaven. They had been drawing water in a bucket, which they were carrying by means of a pole placed across their shoulders; and in this attitude they have stood to the present day in the moon. Even now this explanation of the moon-spots is to be heard from the mouths of Swedish peasants. They fall away one after the other, as the moon wanes, and their water-pail symbolizes the supposed connection of the moon with rain-storms. Other forms of the myth occur in Sanskrit.

The moon-goddess, or Aphrodite, of the ancient Germans, was called Horsel, or Ursula, who figures in Christian mediaeval mythology as a persecuted saint, attended by a troop of eleven thousand virgins, who all suffer martyrdom as they journey from England to Cologne. The meaning of the myth is obvious. In German mythology, England is the Phaiakian land of clouds and phantoms; the succubus, leaving her lover before daybreak, excuses herself on the plea that “her mother is calling her in England.”[15] The companions of Ursula are the pure stars, who leave the cloudland and suffer martyrdom as they approach the regions of day. In the Christian tradition, Ursula is the pure Artemis; but, in accordance with her ancient character, she is likewise the sensual Aphrodite, who haunts the Venusberg; and this brings us to the story of Tannhauser.

[15] See Procopius, De Bello Gothico, IV. 20; Villemarque, Barzas Breiz, I. 136. As a child I was instructed by an old nurse that Vas Diemen’s Land is the home of ghosts and departed spirits.

The Horselberg, or mountain of Venus, lies in Thuringia, between Eisenach and Gotha. High up on its slope yawns a cavern, the Horselloch, or cave of Venus within which is heard a muffled roar, as of subterranean water. From this cave, in old times, the frightened inhabitants of the neighbouring valley would hear at night wild moans and cries issuing, mingled with peals of demon-like laughter. Here it was believed that Venus held her court; “and there were not a few who declared that they had seen fair forms of female beauty beckoning them from the mouth of the chasm.”[16] Tannhauser was a Frankish knight and famous minnesinger, who, travelling at twilight past the Horselberg, “saw a white glimmering figure of matchless beauty standing before him and beckoning him to her.” Leaving his horse, he went up to meet her, whom he knew to be none other than Venus. He descended to her palace in the heart of the mountain, and there passed seven years in careless revelry. Then, stricken with remorse and yearning for another glimpse of the pure light of day, he called in agony upon the Virgin Mother, who took compassion on him and released him. He sought a village church, and to priest after priest confessed his sin, without obtaining absolution, until finally he had recourse to the Pope. But the holy father, horrified at the enormity of his misdoing, declared that guilt such as his could never be remitted sooner should the staff in his hand grow green and blossom. “Then Tannhauser, full of despair and with his soul darkened, went away, and returned to the only asylum open to him, the Venusberg. But lo! three days after he had gone, Pope Urban discovered that his pastoral staff had put forth buds and had burst into flower. Then he sent messengers after Tannhauser, and they reached the Horsel vale to hear that a wayworn man, with haggard brow and bowed head, had just entered the Horselloch. Since then Tannhauser has not been seen.” (p. 201.)

[16] Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. I. p. 197.

As Mr. Baring-Gould rightly observes, this sad legend, in its Christianized form, is doubtless descriptive of the struggle between the new and the old faiths. The knightly Tannhauser, satiated with pagan sensuality, turns to Christianity for relief, but, repelled by the hypocrisy, pride, and lack of sympathy of its ministers, gives up in despair, and returns to drown his anxieties in his old debauchery.

But this is not the primitive form of the myth, which recurs in the folk-lore of every people of Aryan descent. Who, indeed, can read it without being at once reminded of Thomas of Erceldoune (or Horsel-hill), entranced by the sorceress of the Eilden; of the nightly visits of Numa to the grove of the nymph Egeria; of Odysseus held captive by the Lady Kalypso; and, last but not least, of the delightful Arabian tale of Prince Ahmed and the Peri Banou? On his westward journey, Odysseus is ensnared and kept in temporary bondage by the amorous nymph of darkness, Kalypso (kalnptw, to veil or cover). So the zone of the moon-goddess Aphrodite inveigles all-seeing Zeus to treacherous slumber on Mount Ida; and by a similar sorcery Tasso’s great hero is lulled in unseemly idleness in Armida’s golden paradise, at the western verge of the world. The disappearance of Tannhauser behind the moonlit cliff, lured by Venus Ursula, the pale goddess of night, is a precisely parallel circumstance.

But solar and lunar phenomena are by no means the only sources of popular mythology. Opposite my writing-table hangs a quaint German picture, illustrating Goethe’s ballad of the Erlking, in which the whole wild pathos of the story is compressed into one supreme moment; we see the fearful, half-gliding rush of the Erlking, his long, spectral arms outstretched to grasp the child, the frantic gallop of the horse, the alarmed father clasping his darling to his bosom in convulsive embrace, the siren-like elves hovering overhead, to lure the little soul with their weird harps. There can be no better illustration than is furnished by this terrible scene of the magic power of mythology to invest the simplest physical phenomena with the most intense human interest; for the true significance of the whole picture is contained in the father’s address to his child,

“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind; In durren Blattern sauselt der Wind.”

The story of the Piper of Hamelin, well known in the version of Robert Browning, leads to the same conclusion. In 1284 the good people of Hamelin could obtain no rest, night or day, by reason of the direful host of rats which infested their town. One day came a strange man in a bunting-suit, and offered for five hundred guilders to rid the town of the vermin. The people agreed: whereupon the man took out a pipe and piped, and instantly all the rats in town, in an army which blackened the face of the earth, came forth from their haunts, and followed the piper until he piped them to the river Weser, where they alls jumped in and were drowned. But as soon as the torment was gone, the townsfolk refused to pay the piper on the ground that he was evidently a wizard. He went away, vowing vengeance, and on St. John’s day reappeared, and putting his pipe to his mouth blew a different air. Whereat all the little, plump, rosy-cheeked, golden-haired children came merrily running after him, their parents standing aghast, not knowing what to do, while he led them up a hill in the neighbourhood. A door opened in the mountain-side, through which he led them in, and they never were seen again; save one lame boy, who hobbled not fast enough to get in before the door shut, and who lamented for the rest of his life that he had not been able to share the rare luck of his comrades. In the street through which this procession passed no music was ever afterwards allowed to be played. For a long time the town dated its public documents from this fearful calamity, and many authorities have treated it as an historical event.[17] Similar stories are told of other towns in Germany, and, strange to say, in remote Abyssinia also. Wesleyan peasants in England believe that angels pipe to children who are about to die; and in Scandinavia, youths are said to have been enticed away by the songs of elf-maidens. In Greece, the sirens by their magic lay allured voyagers to destruction; and Orpheus caused the trees and dumb beasts to follow him. Here we reach the explanation. For Orpheus is the wind sighing through untold acres of pine forest. “The piper is no other than the wind, and the ancients held that in the wind were the souls of the dead.” To this day the English peasantry believe that they hear the wail of the spirits of unbaptized children, as the gale sweeps past their cottage doors. The Greek Hermes resulted from the fusion of two deities. He is the sun and also the wind; and in the latter capacity he bears away the souls of the dead. So the Norse Odin, who like Hermes fillfils a double function, is supposed to rush at night over the tree-tops, “accompanied by the scudding train of brave men’s spirits.” And readers of recent French literature cannot fail to remember Erokmann-Chatrian’s terrible story of the wild huntsman Vittikab, and how he sped through the forest, carrying away a young girl’s soul.

[17] Hence perhaps the adage, “Always remember to pay the piper.”

Thus, as Tannhauser is the Northern Ulysses, so is Goethe’s Erlking none other than the Piper of Hamelin. And the piper, in turn, is the classic Hermes or Orpheus, the counterpart of the Finnish Wainamoinen and the Sanskrit Gunadhya. His wonderful pipe is the horn of Oberon, the lyre of Apollo (who, like the piper, was a rat-killer), the harp stolen by Jack when he climbed the bean-stalk to the ogre’s castle.[18] And the father, in Goethe’s ballad, is no more than right when he assures his child that the siren voice which tempts him is but the rustle of the wind among the dried leaves; for from such a simple class of phenomena arose this entire family of charming legends.

[18] And it reappears as the mysterious lyre of the Gaelic musician, who

“Could harp a fish out o’ the water,
Or bluid out of a stane,
Or milk out of a maiden’s breast,
That bairns had never nane.”

But why does the piper, who is a leader of souls (Psychopompos), also draw rats after him? In answering this we shall have occasion to note that the ancients by no means shared that curious prejudice against the brute creation which is indulged in by modern anti-Darwinians. In many countries, rats and mice have been regarded as sacred animals; but in Germany they were thought to represent the human soul. One story out of a hundred must suffice to illustrate this. “In Thuringia, at Saalfeld, a servant-girl fell asleep whilst her companions were shelling nuts. They observed a little red mouse creep from her mouth and run out of the window. One of the fellows present shook the sleeper, but could not wake her, so he moved her to another place. Presently the mouse ran back to the former place and dashed about, seeking the girl; not finding her, it vanished; at the same moment the girl died.”[19] This completes the explanation of the piper, and it also furnishes the key to the horrible story of Bishop Hatto.

[19] Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. II. p. 159.

This wicked prelate lived on the bank of the Rhine, in the middle of which stream he possessed a tower, now pointed out to travellers as the Mouse Tower. In the year 970 there was a dreadful famine, and people came from far and near craving sustenance out of the Bishop’s ample and well-filled granaries. Well, he told them all to go into the barn, and when they had got in there, as many as could stand, he set fire to the barn and burnt them all up, and went home to eat a merry supper. But when he arose next morning, he heard that an army of rats had eaten all the corn in his granaries, and was now advancing to storm the palace. Looking from his window, he saw the roads and fields dark with them, as they came with fell purpose straight toward his mansion. In frenzied terror he took his boat and rowed out to the tower in the river. But it was of no use: down into the water marched the rats, and swam across, and scaled the walls, and gnawed through the stones, and came swarming in about the shrieking Bishop, and ate him up, flesh, bones, and all. Now, bearing in mind what was said above, there can be no doubt that these rats were the souls of those whom the Bishop had murdered. There are many versions of the story in different Teutonic countries, and in some of them the avenging rats or mice issue directly, by a strange metamorphosis, from the corpses of the victims. St. Gertrude, moreover, the heathen Holda, was symbolized as a mouse, and was said Go lead an army of mice; she was the receiver of children’s souls. Odin, also, in his character of a Psychopompos, was followed by a host of rats.[20]

[20] Perhaps we may trace back to this source the frantic terror which Irish servant-girls often manifest at sight of a mouse.

As the souls of the departed are symbolized as rats, so is the psychopomp himself often figured as a dog. Sarameias, the Vedic counterpart of Hermes and Odin, sometimes appears invested with canine attributes; and countless other examples go to show that by the early Aryan mind the howling wind was conceived as a great dog or wolf. As the fearful beast was heard speeding by the windows or over the house-top, the inmates trembled, for none knew but his own soul might forthwith be required of him. Hence, to this day, among ignorant people, the howling of a dog under the window is supposed to portend a death in the family. It is the fleet greyhound of Hermes, come to escort the soul to the river Styx.[21]

[21] In Persia a dog is brought to the bedside of the person who is dying, in order that the soul may be sure of a prompt escort. The same custom exists in India. Breal, Hercule et Cacus, p. 123.

But the wind-god is not always so terrible. Nothing can be more transparent than the phraseology of the Homeric Hymn, in which Hermes is described as acquiring the strength of a giant while yet a babe in the cradle, as sallying out and stealing the cattle (clouds) of Apollo, and driving them helter-skelter in various directions, then as crawling through the keyhole, and with a mocking laugh shrinking into his cradle. He is the Master Thief, who can steal the burgomaster’s horse from under him and his wife’s mantle from off her back, the prototype not only of the crafty architect of Rhampsinitos, but even of the ungrateful slave who robs Sancho of his mule in the Sierra Morena. He furnishes in part the conceptions of Boots and Reynard; he is the prototype of Paul Pry and peeping Tom of Coventry; and in virtue of his ability to contract or expand himself at pleasure, he is both the Devil in the Norse Tale,[22] whom the lad persuades to enter a walnut, and the Arabian Efreet, whom the fisherman releases from the bottle.

[22] The Devil, who is proverbially “active in a gale of wind,” is none other than Hermes.

The very interesting series of myths and popular superstitions suggested by the storm-cloud and the lightning must be reserved for a future occasion. When carefully examined, they will richly illustrate the conclusion which is the result of the present inquiry, that the marvellous tales and quaint superstitions current in every Aryan household have a common origin with the classic legends of gods and heroes, which formerly were alone thought worthy of the student’s serious attention. These stories–some of them familiar to us in infancy, others the delight of our maturer years–constitute the debris, or alluvium, brought down by the stream of tradition from the distant highlands of ancient mythology.

September, 1870.


IN the course of my last summer’s vacation, which was spent at a small inland village, I came upon an unexpected illustration of the tenacity with which conceptions descended from prehistoric antiquity have now and then kept their hold upon life. While sitting one evening under the trees by the roadside, my attention was called to the unusual conduct of half a dozen men and boys who were standing opposite. An elderly man was moving slowly up and down the road, holding with both hands a forked twig of hazel, shaped like the letter Y inverted. With his palms turned upward, he held in each hand a branch of the twig in such a way that the shank pointed upward; but every few moments, as he halted over a certain spot, the twig would gradually bend downwards until it had assumed the likeness of a Y in its natural position, where it would remain pointing to something in the ground beneath. One by one the bystanders proceeded to try the experiment, but with no variation in the result. Something in the ground seemed to fascinate the bit of hazel, for it could not pass over that spot without bending down and pointing to it.

My thoughts reverted at once to Jacques Aymar and Dousterswivel, as I perceived that these men were engaged in sorcery. During the long drought more than half the wells in the village had become dry, and here was an attempt to make good the loss by the aid of the god Thor. These men were seeking water with a divining-rod. Here, alive before my eyes, was a superstitious observance, which I had supposed long since dead and forgotten by all men except students interested in mythology.

As I crossed the road to take part in the ceremony a farmer’s boy came up, stoutly affirming his incredulity,

and offering to show the company how he could carry the rod motionless across the charmed spot. But when he came to take the weird twig he trembled with an ill-defined feeling of insecurity as to the soundness of his conclusions, and when he stood over the supposed rivulet the rod bent in spite of him,–as was not so very strange. For, with all his vague scepticism, the honest lad had not, and could not be supposed to have, the foi scientifique of which Littre speaks.[23]

[23] “Il faut que la coeur devienne ancien parmi les aneiennes choses, et la plenitude de l’histoire ne se devoile qu’a celui qui descend, ainsi dispose, dans le passe. Mais il faut que l’esprit demeure moderne, et n’oublie jamais qu’il n’y a pour lui d’autre foi que la foi scientifique.’–LITTRS.

Hereupon I requested leave to try the rod; but something in my manner seemed at once to excite the suspicion and scorn of the sorcerer. “Yes, take it,” said he, with uncalled-for vehemence, “but you can’t stop it; there’s water below here, and you can’t help its bending, if you break your back trying to hold it.” So he gave me the twig, and awaited, with a smile which was meant to express withering sarcasm, the discomfiture of the supposed scoffer. But when I proceeded to walk four or five times across the mysterious place, the rod pointing steadfastly toward the zenith all the while, our friend became grave and began to philosophize. “Well,” said he, “you see, your temperament is peculiar; the conditions ain’t favourable in your case; there are some people who never can work these things. But there’s water below here, for all that, as you’ll find, if you dig for it; there’s nothing like a hazel-rod for finding out water.”

Very true: there are some persons who never can make such things work; who somehow always encounter “unfavourable conditions” when they wish to test the marvellous powers of a clairvoyant; who never can make “Planchette” move in conformity to the requirements of any known alphabet; who never see ghosts, and never have “presentiments,” save such as are obviously due to association of ideas. The ill-success of these persons is commonly ascribed to their lack of faith; but, in the majority of cases, it might be more truly referred to the strength of their faith,–faith in the constancy of nature, and in the adequacy of ordinary human experience as interpreted by science.[24] La foi scientifique is an excellent preventive against that obscure, though not uncommon, kind of self-deception which enables wooden tripods to write and tables to tip and hazel-twigs to twist upside-down, without the conscious intervention of the performer. It was this kind of faith, no doubt, which caused the discomfiture of Jacques Aymar on his visit to Paris,[25] and which has in late years prevented persons from obtaining the handsome prize offered by the French Academy for the first authentic case of clairvoyance.

[24] For an admirable example of scientific self-analysis tracing one of these illusions to its psychological sources, see the account of Dr. Lazarus, in Taine, De l’Intelligence, Vol. I. pp. 121-125.

[25] See the story of Aymar in Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. I. pp. 57-77. The learned author attributes the discomfiture to the uncongenial Parisian environment; which is a style of reasoning much like that of my village sorcerer, I fear.

But our village friend, though perhaps constructively right in his philosophizing, was certainly very defective in his acquaintance with the time-honoured art of rhabdomancy. Had he extended his inquiries so as to cover the field of Indo-European tradition, he would have learned that the mountain-ash, the mistletoe, the white and black thorn, the Hindu asvattha, and several other woods, are quite as efficient as the hazel for the purpose of detecting water in times of drought; and in due course of time he would have perceived that the divining-rod itself is but one among a large class of things to which popular belief has ascribed, along with other talismanic properties, the power of opening the ground or cleaving rocks, in order to reveal hidden treasures. Leaving him in peace, then, with his bit of forked hazel, to seek for cooling springs in some future thirsty season, let us endeavour to elucidate the origin of this curious superstition.

The detection of subterranean water is by no means the only use to which the divining-rod has been put. Among the ancient Frisians it was regularly used for the detection of criminals; and the reputation of Jacques Aymar was won by his discovery of the perpetrator of a horrible murder at Lyons. Throughout Europe it has been used from time immemorial by miners for ascertaining the position of veins of metal; and in the days when talents were wrapped in napkins and buried in the field, instead of being exposed to the risks of financial speculation, the divining-rod was employed by persons covetous of their neighbours’ wealth. If Boulatruelle had lived in the sixteenth century, he would have taken a forked stick of hazel when he went to search for the buried treasures of Jean Valjean. It has also been applied to the cure of disease, and has been kept in households, like a wizard’s charm, to insure general good-fortune and immunity from disaster.

As we follow the conception further into the elf-land of popular tradition, we come upon a rod which not only points out the situation of hidden treasure, but even splits open the ground and reveals the mineral wealth contained therein. In German legend, “a shepherd, who was driving his flock over the Ilsenstein, having stopped to rest, leaning on his staff, the mountain suddenly opened, for there was a springwort in his staff without his knowing it, and the princess [Ilse] stood before him. She bade him follow her, and when he was inside the mountain she told him to take as much gold as he pleased. The shepherd filled all his pockets, and was going away, when the princess called after him, ‘Forget not the best.’ So, thinking she meant that he had not taken enough, he filled his hat also; but what she meant was his staff with the springwort, which he had laid against the wall as soon as he stepped in. But now, just as he was going out at the opening, the rock suddenly slammed together and cut him in two.”[26]

[26] Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, p. 177.

Here the rod derives its marvellous properties from the enclosed springwort, but in many cases a leaf or flower is itself competent to open the hillside. The little blue flower, forget-me-not, about which so many sentimental associations have clustered, owes its name to the legends told of its talismanic virtues.[27] A man, travelling on a lonely mountain, picks up a little blue flower and sticks it in his hat. Forthwith an iron door opens, showing up a lighted passage-way, through which the man advances into a magnificent hall, where rubies and diamonds and all other kinds of gems are lying piled in great heaps on the floor. As he eagerly fills his pockets his hat drops from his head, and when he turns to go out the little flower calls after him, “Forget me not!” He turns back and looks around, but is too bewildered with his good fortune to think of his bare head or of the luck-flower which he has let fall. He selects several more of the finest jewels he can find, and again starts to go out; but as he passes through the door the mountain closes amid the crashing of thunder, and cuts off one of his heels. Alone, in the gloom of the forest, he searches in vain for the mysterious door: it has disappeared forever, and the traveller goes on his way, thankful, let us hope, that he has fared no worse.

[27] The story of the luck-flower is well told in verse by Mr. Baring Gould, in his Silver Store, p. 115, seq.

Sometimes it is a white lady, like the Princess Ilse, who invites the finder of the luck-flower to help himself to her treasures, and who utters the enigmatical warning. The mountain where the event occurred may be found almost anywhere in Germany, and one just like it stood in Persia, in the golden prime of Haroun Alraschid. In the story of the Forty Thieves, the mere name of the plant sesame serves as a talisman to open and shut the secret door which leads into the robbers’ cavern; and when the avaricious Cassim Baba, absorbed in the contemplation of the bags of gold and bales of rich merchandise, forgets the magic formula, he meets no better fate than the shepherd of the Ilsenstein. In the story of Prince Ahmed, it is an enchanted arrow which guides the young adventurer through the hillside to the grotto of the Peri Banou. In the tale of Baba Abdallah, it is an ointment rubbed on the eyelid which reveals at a single glance all the treasures hidden in the bowels of the earth

The ancient Romans also had their rock-breaking plant, called Saxifraga, or “sassafras.” And the further we penetrate into this charmed circle of traditions the more evident does it appear that the power of cleaving rocks or shattering hard substances enters, as a primitive element, into the conception of these treasure-showing talismans. Mr. Baring-Gould has given an excellent account of the rabbinical legends concerning the wonderful schamir, by the aid of which Solomon was said to have built his temple. From Asmodeus, prince of the Jann, Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada, wrested the secret of a worm no bigger than a barley-corn, which could split the hardest substance. This worm was called schamir. “If Solomon desired to possess himself of the worm, he must find the nest of the moor-hen, and cover it with a plate of glass, so that the mother bird could not get at her young without breaking the glass. She would seek schamir for the purpose, and the worm must be obtained from her.” As the Jewish king did need the worm in order to hew the stones for that temple which was to be built without sound of hammer, or axe, or any tool of iron,[28] he sent Benaiah to obtain it. According to another account, schamir was a mystic stone which enabled Solomon to penetrate the earth in search of mineral wealth. Directed by a Jinni, the wise king covered a raven’s eggs with a plate of crystal, and thus obtained schamir which the bird brought in order to break the plate.[29]

[28] 1 Kings vi. 7.

[29] Compare the Mussulman account of the building of the temple, in Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 337, 338. And see the story of Diocletian’s ostrich, Swan, Gesta Romanorum, ed. Wright, Vol I. p. lxiv. See also the pretty story of the knight unjustly imprisoned, id. p. cii.

In these traditions, which may possibly be of Aryan descent, due to the prolonged intercourse between the Jews and the Persians, a new feature is added to those before enumerated: the rock-splitting talisman is always found in the possession of a bird. The same feature in the myth reappears on Aryan soil. The springwort, whose marvellous powers we have noticed in the case of the Ilsenstein shepherd, is obtained, according to Pliny, by stopping up the hole in a tree where a woodpecker keeps its young. The bird flies away, and presently returns with the springwort, which it applies to the plug, causing it to shoot out with a loud explosion. The same account is given in German folk-lore. Elsewhere, as in Iceland, Normandy, and ancient Greece, the bird is an eagle, a swallow, an ostrich, or a hoopoe.

In the Icelandic and Pomeranian myths the schamir, or “raven-stone,” also renders its possessor invisible,–a property which it shares with one of the treasure-finding plants, the fern.[30] In this respect it resembles the ring of Gyges, as in its divining and rock-splitting qualities it resembles that other ring which the African magri-cian gave to Aladdin, to enable him to descend into the cavern where stood the wonderful lamp.

[30] “We have the receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.”– Shakespeare, Henry IV. See Ralston, Songs of the Russian People, p. 98

According to one North German tradition, the luck-flower also will make its finder invisible at pleasure. But, as the myth shrewdly adds, it is absolutely essential that the flower be found by accident: he who seeks for it never finds it! Thus all cavils are skilfully forestalled, even if not satisfactorily disposed of. The same kind of reasoning is favoured by our modern dealers in mystery: somehow the “conditions” always are askew whenever a scientific observer wishes to test their pretensions.

In the North of Europe schamir appears strangely and grotesquely metamorphosed. The hand of a man that has been hanged, when dried and prepared with certain weird unguents and set on fire, is known as the Hand of Glory; and as it not only bursts open all safe-locks, but also lulls to sleep all persons within the circle of its influence, it is of course invaluable to thieves and burglars. I quote the following story from Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology”: “Two fellows once came to Huy, who pretended to be exceedingly fatigued, and when they had supped would not retire to a sleeping-room, but begged their host would allow them to take a nap on the hearth. But the maid-servant, who did not like the looks of the two guests, remained by the kitchen door and peeped through a chink, when she saw that one of them drew a thief’s hand from his pocket, the fingers of which, after having rubbed them with an ointment, he lighted, and they all burned except one. Again they held this finger to the fire, but still it would not burn, at which they appeared much surprised, and one said, ‘There must surely be some one in the house who is not yet asleep.’ They then hung the hand with its four burning fingers by the chimney, and went out to call their associates. But the maid followed them instantly and made the door fast, then ran up stairs, where the landlord slept, that she might wake him, but was unable, notwithstanding all her shaking and calling. In the mean time the thieves had returned and were endeavouring to enter the house by a window, but the maid cast them down from the ladder. They then took a different course, and would have forced an entrance, had it not occurred to the maid that the burning fingers might probably be the cause of her master’s profound sleep. Impressed with this idea she ran to the kitchen and blew them out, when the master and his men-servants instantly awoke, and soon drove away the robbers.” The same event is said to have occurred at Stainmore in England; and Torquermada relates of Mexican thieves that they carry with them the left hand of a woman who has died in her first childbed, before which talisman all bolts yield and all opposition is benumbed. In 1831 “some Irish thieves attempted to commit a robbery on the estate of Mr. Naper, of Loughcrew, county Meath. They entered the house armed with a dead man’s hand with a lighted candle in it, believing in the superstitious notion that a candle placed in a dead man’s hand will not be seen by any but those by whom it is used; and also that if a candle in a dead hand be introduced into a house, it will prevent those who may be asleep from awaking. The inmates, however, were alarmed, and the robbers fled, leaving the hand behind them.”[31]

[31] Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England, p. 202

In the Middle Ages the hand of glory was used, just like the divining-rod, for the detection of buried treasures.

Here, then, we have a large and motley group of objects–the forked rod of ash or hazel, the springwort and the luck-flower, leaves, worms, stones, rings, and dead men’s hands–which are for the most part competent to open the way into cavernous rocks, and which all agree in pointing out hidden wealth. We find, moreover, that many of these charmed objects are carried about by birds, and that some of them possess, in addition to their generic properties, the specific power of benumbing people’s senses. What, now, is the common origin of this whole group of superstitions? And since mythology has been shown to be the result of primeval attempts to explain the phenomena of nature, what natural phenomenon could ever have given rise to so many seemingly wanton conceptions? Hopeless as the problem may at first sight seem, it has nevertheless been solved. In his great treatise on “The Descent of Fire,” Dr. Kuhn has shown that all these legends and traditions are descended from primitive myths explanatory of the lightning and the storm-cloud.[32]

[32] Kuhn, Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Gottertranks. Berlin, 1859.

To us, who are nourished from childhood on the truths revealed by science, the sky is known to be merely an optical appearance due to the partial absorption of the solar rays in passing through a thick stratum of atmospheric air; the clouds are known to be large masses of watery vapour, which descend in rain-drops when sufficiently condensed; and the lightning is known to be a flash of light accompanying an electric discharge. But these conceptions are extremely recondite, and have been attained only through centuries of philosophizing and after careful observation and laborious experiment. To the untaught mind of a child or of an uncivilized man, it seems far more natural and plausible to regard the sky as a solid dome of blue crystal, the clouds as snowy mountains, or perhaps even as giants or angels, the lightning as a flashing dart or a fiery serpent. In point of fact, we find that the conceptions actually entertained are often far more grotesque than these. I can recollect once framing the hypothesis that the flaming clouds of sunset were transient apparitions, vouchsafed us by way of warning, of that burning Calvinistic hell with which my childish imagination had been unwisely terrified;[33] and I have known of a four-year-old boy who thought that the snowy clouds of noonday were the white robes of the angels hung out to dry in the sun.[34] My little daughter is anxious to know whether it is necessary to take a balloon in order to get to the place where God lives, or whether the same end can be accomplished by going to the horizon and crawling up the sky;[35] the Mohammedan of old was working at the same problem when he called the rainbow the bridge Es-Sirat, over which souls must pass on their way to heaven. According to the ancient Jew, the sky was a solid plate, hammered out by the gods, and spread over the earth in order to keep up the ocean overhead;[36] but the plate was full of little windows, which were opened whenever it became necessary to let the rain come through.[37] With equal plausibility the Greek represented the rainy sky as a sieve in which the daughters of Danaos were vainly trying to draw water; while to the Hindu the rain-clouds were celestial cattle milked by the wind-god. In primitive Aryan lore, the sky itself was a blue sea, and the clouds were ships sailing over it; and an English legend tells how one of these ships once caught its anchor on a gravestone in the churchyard, to the great astonishment of the people who were coming out of church. Charon’s ferry-boat was one of these vessels, and another was Odin’s golden ship, in which the souls of slain heroes were conveyed to Valhalla. Hence it was once the Scandinavian practice to bury the dead in boats; and in Altmark a penny is still placed in the mouth of the corpse, that it may have the means of paying its fare to the ghostly ferryman.[38] In such a vessel drifted the Lady of Shalott on her fatal voyage; and of similar nature was the dusky barge, “dark as a funeral-scarf from stem to stern,” in which Arthur was received by the black-hooded queens.[39]

[33] “Saga me forwhan byth seo sunne read on aefen? Ic the secge, forthon heo locath on helle.–Tell me, why is the sun red at even? I tell thee, because she looketh on hell.” Thorpe, Analecta Anglo-Saxonica, p. 115, apud Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 63. Barbaric thought had partly anticipated my childish theory.

[34] “Still in North Germany does the peasant say of thunder, that the angels are playing skittles aloft, and of the snow, that they are shaking up the feather beds in heaven.”– Baring-Gould, Book of Werewolves, p. 172.

[35] “The Polynesians imagine that the sky descends at the horizon and encloses the earth. Hence they call foreigners papalangi, or ‘heaven-bursters,’ as having broken in from another world outside.”–Max Muller, Chips, II. 268.

[36] “–And said the gods, let there be a hammered plate in the midst of the waters, and let it be dividing between waters and waters.” Genesis i. 6.

[37] Genesis vii. 11.

[38] See Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, p 120; who states also that in Bengal the Garrows burn their dead in a small boat, placed on top of the funeral-pile.

In their character of cows, also, the clouds were regarded as psychopomps; and hence it is still a popular superstition that a cow breaking into the yard foretokens a death in the family.

[39] The sun-god Freyr had a cloud-ship called Skithblathnir, which is thus described in Dasent’s Prose Edda: “She is so great, that all the AEsir, with their weapons and war-gear, may find room on board her”; but “when there is no need of faring on the sea in her, she is made. . . . with so much craft that Freyr may fold her together like a cloth, and keep her in his bag.” This same virtue was possessed by the fairy pavilion which the Peri Banou gave to Ahmed; the cloud which is no bigger than a man’s hand may soon overspread the whole heaven, and shade the Sultan’s army from the solar rays.

But the fact that a natural phenomenon was explained in one way did not hinder it from being explained in a dozen other ways. The fact that the sun was generally regarded as an all-conquering hero did not prevent its being called an egg, an apple, or a frog squatting on the waters, or Ixion’s wheel, or the eye of Polyphemos, or the stone of Sisyphos, which was no sooner pushed to the zenith than it rolled down to the horizon. So the sky was not only a crystal dome, or a celestial ocean, but it was also the Aleian land through which Bellerophon wandered, the country of the Lotos-eaters, or again the realm of the Graiai beyond the twilight; and finally it was personified and worshipped as Dyaus or Varuna, the Vedic prototypes of the Greek Zeus and Ouranos. The clouds, too, had many other representatives besides ships and cows. In a future paper it will be shown that they were sometimes regarded as angels or houris; at present it more nearly concerns us to know that they appear, throughout all Aryan mythology, under the form of birds. It used to be a matter of hopeless wonder to me that Aladdin’s innocent request for a roc’s egg to hang in the dome of his palace should have been regarded as a crime worthy of punishment by the loss of the wonderful lamp; the obscurest part of the whole affair being perhaps the Jinni’s passionate allusion to the egg as his master: “Wretch! dost thou command me to bring thee my master, and hang him up in the midst of this vaulted dome?” But the incident is to some extent cleared of its mystery when we learn that the roc’s egg is the bright sun, and that the roc itself is the rushing storm-cloud which, in the tale of Sindbad, haunts the sparkling starry firmament, symbolized as a valley of diamonds.[40] According to one Arabic authority, the length of its wings is ten thousand fathoms. But in European tradition it dwindles from these huge dimensions to the size of an eagle, a raven, or a woodpecker. Among the birds enumerated by Kuhn and others as representing the storm-cloud are likewise the wren or “kinglet” (French roitelet); the owl, sacred to Athene; the cuckoo, stork, and sparrow; and the red-breasted robin, whose name Robert was originally an epithet of the lightning-god Thor. In certain parts of France it is still believed that the robbing of a wren’s nest will render the culprit liable to be struck by lightning. The same belief was formerly entertained in Teutonic countries with respect to the robin; and I suppose that from this superstition is descended the prevalent notion, which I often encountered in childhood, that there is something peculiarly wicked in killing robins.

[40] Euhemerism has done its best with this bird, representing it as an immense vulture or condor or as a reminiscence of the extinct dodo. But a Chinese myth, cited by Klaproth, well preserves its true character when it describes it as “a bird which in flying obscures the sun, and of whose quills are made water-tuns.” See Nouveau Journal Asiatique, Tom. XII. p. 235. The big bird in the Norse tale of the “Blue Belt” belongs to the same species.

Now, as the raven or woodpecker, in the various myths of schamir, is the dark storm-cloud, so the rock-splitting worm or plant or pebble which the bird carries in its beak and lets fall to the ground is nothing more or less than the flash of lightning carried and dropped by the cloud. “If the cloud was supposed to be a great bird, the lightnings were regarded as writhing worms or serpents in its beak. These fiery serpents, elikiai gram-moeidws feromenoi, are believed in to this day by the Canadian Indians, who call the thunder their hissing.”[41]

[41] Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. II. p. 146. Compare Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 237, seq.

But these are not the only mythical conceptions which are to be found wrapped up in the various myths of schamir and the divining-rod. The persons who told these stories were not weaving ingenious allegories about thunder-storms; they were telling stories, or giving utterance to superstitions, of which the original meaning was forgotten. The old grannies who, along with a stoical indifference to the fate of quails and partridges, used to impress upon me the wickedness of killing robins, did not add that I should be struck by lightning if I failed to heed their admonitions. They had never heard that the robin was the bird of Thor; they merely rehearsed the remnant of the superstition which had survived to their own times, while the essential part of it had long since faded from recollection. The reason for regarding a robin’s life as more sacred than a partridge’s had been forgotten; but it left behind, as was natural, a vague recognition of that mythical sanctity. The primitive meaning of a myth fades away as inevitably as the primitive meaning of a word or phrase; and the rabbins who told of a worm which shatters rocks no more thought of the writhing thunderbolts than the modern reader thinks of oyster-shells when he sees the word ostracism, or consciously breathes a prayer as he writes the phrase good bye. It is only in its callow infancy that the full force of a myth is felt, and its period of luxuriant development dates from the time when its physical significance is lost or obscured. It was because the Greek had forgotten that Zeus meant the bright sky, that he could make him king over an anthropomorphic Olympos. The Hindu Dyaus, who carried his significance in his name as plainly as the Greek Helios, never attained such an exalted position; he yielded to deities of less obvious pedigree, such as Brahma and Vishnu.

Since, therefore, the myth-tellers recounted merely the wonderful stories which their own nurses and grandmas had told them, and had no intention of weaving subtle allegories or wrapping up a physical truth in mystic emblems, it follows that they were not bound to avoid incongruities or to preserve a philosophical symmetry in their narratives. In the great majority of complex myths, no such symmetry is to be found. A score of different mythical conceptions would get wrought into the same story, and the attempt to pull them apart and construct a single harmonious system of conceptions out of the pieces must often end in ingenious absurdity. If Odysseus is unquestionably the sun, so is the eye of Polyphemos, which Odysseus puts out.[42] But the Greek poet knew nothing of the incongruity, for he was thinking only of a superhuman hero freeing himself from a giant cannibal; he knew nothing of Sanskrit, or of comparative mythology, and the sources of his myths were as completely hidden from his view as the sources of the Nile.

[42] “If Polyphemos’s eye be the sun, then Odysseus, the solar hero, extinguishes himself, a very primitive instance of suicide.” Mahaffy, Prolegomena, p. 57. See also Brown, Poseidon, pp. 39, 40. This objection would be relevant only in case Homer were supposed to be constructing an allegory with entire knowledge of its meaning. It has no validity whatever when we recollect that Homer could have known nothing of the incongruity.

We need not be surprised, then, to find that in one version of the schamir-myth the cloud is the bird which carries the worm, while in another version the cloud is the rock or mountain which the talisman cleaves open; nor need we wonder at it, if we find stories in which the two conceptions are mingled together without regard to an incongruity which in the mind of the myth-teller no longer exists.[43]

[43] The Sanskrit myth-teller indeed mixes up his materials in a way which seems ludicrous to a Western reader. He describes Indra (the sun-god) as not only cleaving the cloud-mountains with his sword, but also cutting off their wings and hurling them from the sky. See Burnouf, Bhagavata Purana, VI. 12, 26.

In early Aryan mythology there is nothing by which the clouds are more frequently represented than by rocks or mountains. Such were the Symplegades, which, charmed by the harp of the wind-god Orpheus, parted to make way for the talking ship Argo, with its crew of solar heroes.[44] Such, too, were the mountains Ossa and Pelion, which the giants piled up one upon another in their impious assault upon Zeus, the lord of the bright sky. As Mr. Baring-Gould observes: “The ancient Aryan had the same name for cloud and mountain. To him the piles of vapour on the horizon were so like Alpine ranges, that he had but one word whereby to designate both.[45] These great mountains of heaven were opened by the lightning. In the sudden flash he beheld the dazzling splendour within, but only for a moment, and then, with a crash, the celestial rocks closed again. Believing these vaporous piles to contain resplendent treasures of which partial glimpse was obtained by mortals in a momentary gleam, tales were speedily formed, relating the adventures of some who had succeeded in entering these treasure-mountains.”

[44] Mr. Tylor offers a different, and possibly a better, explanation of the Symplegades as the gates of Night through which the solar ship, having passed successfully once, may henceforth pass forever. See the details of the evidence in his Primitive Culture, I. 315.

[45] The Sanskrit parvata, a bulging or inflated body, means both “cloud” and “mountain.” “In the Edda, too, the rocks, said to have been fashioned out of Ymir’s bones, are supposed to be intended for clouds. In Old Norse Klakkr means both cloud and rock; nay, the English word CLOUD itself has been identified with the Anglo-Saxon clud, rock. See Justi, Orient und Occident, Vol. II. p. 62.” Max Muller, Rig-Veda, Vol. 1. p. 44.

This sudden flash is the smiting of the cloud-rock by the arrow of Ahmed, the resistless hammer of Thor, the spear of Odin, the trident of Poseidon, or the rod of Hermes. The forked streak of light is the archetype of the divining-rod in its oldest form,–that in which it not only indicates the hidden treasures, but, like the staff of the Ilsenstein shepherd, bursts open the enchanted crypt and reveals them to the astonished wayfarer. Hence the one thing essential to the divining-rod, from whatever tree it be chosen, is that it shall be forked.

It is not difficult to comprehend the reasons which led the ancients to speak of the lightning as a worm, serpent, trident, arrow, or forked wand; but when we inquire why it was sometimes symbolized as a flower or leaf; or when we seek to ascertain why certain trees, such as the ash, hazel, white-thorn, and mistletoe, were supposed to be in a certain sense embodiments of it, we are entering upon a subject too complicated to be satisfactorily treated within the limits of the present paper. It has been said that the point of resemblance between a cow and a comet, that both have tails, was quite enough for the primitive word-maker: it was certainly enough for the primitive myth-teller.[46] Sometimes the pinnate shape of a leaf, the forking of a branch, the tri-cleft corolla, or even the red colour of a flower, seems to have been sufficient to determine the association of ideas. The Hindu commentators of the Veda certainly lay great stress on the fact that the palasa, one of their lightning-trees, is trident-leaved. The mistletoe branch is forked, like a wish-bone,[47] and so is the stem which bears the forget-me-not or wild scorpion grass. So too the leaves of the Hindu ficus religiosa resemble long spear-heads.[48] But in many cases it is impossible for us to determine with confidence the reasons which may have guided primitive men in their choice of talismanic plants. In the case of some of these stories, it would no doubt be wasting ingenuity to attempt to assign a mythical origin for each point of detail. The ointment of the dervise, for instance, in the Arabian tale, has probably no special mythical significance, but was rather suggested by the exigencies of the story, in an age when the old mythologies were so far disintegrated and mingled together that any one talisman would serve as well as another the purposes of the narrator. But the lightning-plants of Indo-European folk-lore cannot be thus summarily disposed of; for however difficult it may be for us to perceive any connection between them and the celestial phenomena which they represent, the myths concerning them are so numerous and explicit as to render it certain that some such connection was imagined by the myth-makers. The superstition concerning the hand of glory is not so hard to interpret. In the mythology of the Finns, the storm-cloud is a black man with a bright copper hand; and in Hindustan, Indra Savitar, the deity who slays the demon of the cloud, is golden-handed. The selection of the hand of a man who has been hanged is probably due to the superstition which regarded the storm-god Odin as peculiarly the lord of the gallows. The man who is raised upon the gallows is placed directly in the track of the wild huntsman, who comes with his hounds to carry off the victim; and hence the notion, which, according to Mr. Kelly, is “very common in Germany and not extinct in England,” that every suicide by hanging is followed by a storm.

[46] In accordance with the mediaeval “doctrine of signatures,” it was maintained “that the hard, stony seeds of the Gromwell must be good for gravel, and the knotty tubers of scrophularia for scrofulous glands; while the scaly pappus of scaliosa showed it to be a specific in leprous diseases, the spotted leaves of pulmonaria that it was a sovereign remedy for tuberculous lungs, and the growth of saxifrage in the fissures of rocks that it would disintegrate stone in the bladder.” Prior, Popular Names of British Plants, Introd., p. xiv. See also Chapiel, La Doctrine des Signatures. Paris, 1866.