Images de page

in the accumulation of similitudes descriptive of natural objects, which became an inexhaustible repertory of raw material of myth and legend. Comparison is the handmaid of nomenclature.". The New Zealanders called the first horses that were imported big dogs; and the Kaffirs, on beholding a parasol for the first time, described it as a little cloud; for it is an instinct, if not a necessity, to borrow for the unknown the names already used for things known. When the Israelites were given manna, they asked at once, “ What is it ?" and so with every man, whatever arrests his attention he inquires what it is, and satisfies himself by putting the new experience alongside of some old and similar experiences, and out of this comparison producing a name. Thus, a flame sadly puzzled Areios. He ran his thoughts over a series of resemblances, trying and rejecting each in turn; he called the flame a golden hand, a red beard, a yellow tooth. By the Egyptians," said Herodotus, “ fire has been held to be a living beast, devouring everything it can seize, and when filled with food it perishes with what it has devoured.”2 In 1521 Magellan discovered the Ladrone or Mariana Islands, and the circumstances are recorded by Antonio Pigafelta, one of his companions, in an interesting narrative, in which he minutely describes the manners of the natives. The islanders caused Magellan much annoyance by their thieving habits. They stole everything they could lay hands on, and at last the captain with forty men went on shore and set fire to one of their villages. A hundred and eighty years afterwards the Jesuit Father Le Gobien visited these people. • What is most astonishing," he says, “and what people will find it difficult to believe, is that they have never seen fire. This so

· Farrar : Chapters on Language, p. 119; 1866.
& Herod. iii. 16.

necessary element was entirely unknown to them. They neither knew its use nor its qualities; and they were never more surprised than when they saw it for the first time on the descent that Magellan made on one of their islands, where he burnt some fifty of their houses, to punish the natives for the trouble they had given him. They at first regarded the fire as a kind of animal, which attached itself to the wood on which it fed. The first who came too near it having burnt themselves frightened the rest, and only dared look at it from afar; for fear, they said, of being bitten by it, and lest this terrible animal should poison them with its breath."1

Old John of Brompton, in describing a waterspout, invests his account with a mythological character. He says: “ Another remarkable thing is this, that took place during a certain month in the Gulf of Satalia (on the coast of Pamphylia). There appeared a great and black dragon which came in clouds, and let down his head into the water, whilst his tail seemed turned to the sky; and the dragon drew up the water to him by drinking, with such avidity, that if any ship, even though laden with men or any other heavy articles, had been near him when drinking, it would nevertheless have been sucked up and carried on high. In order, however, to avoid this danger, it is necessary, when people see it, at once to make an uproar, and to shout and hammer tables, so that the dragon, hearing the noise, and the voices of those shouting, may withdraw himself far off. Some people, however, assert that this is not a dragon, but the sun drawing up the waters of the sea ; which seems more probable.”2 The clouds perplexed our primeval ancestor, Areios. He 1 Le Gobien : Histoire des Isles Marianes, p. 44 ; Paris, 1700 • Apud Twysden : Hist. Anglicæ Script. x. 1216 ; 1652.

supposed them to be a shaggy fleece in which the sky wrapped itself when cold, or, when he saw them scudding before the wind, he said that they were horses; when they hung low and rounded, full with rain, he termed them udders; as they circled aloft, white and sunlit, on the blue sky, he thought they must be heavenly swans swimming on the great celestial lotus-pond.

So, too, Areios sought to explain the phenomenon of the sun by terrestrial analogies. It was a golden bird that died in fire and rose renovated from the flames; it was a wheel whirling in race through the sky; it was a blazing shield raised aloft, a golden bowl in which Helios sailed over the still heaven ocean; an egg laid by the red dawn; a golden flower that opened at morning; a face with streaming locks of light.

The stars were the myriad eyes of Argus, golden apples hanging on the world tree, chalices of light out of which the gods drank, diamonds strewing the great dark valley where night brooded over its luminous egg, the moon.

The moon was a silver boat in which a virgin queen sailed, it was a woman flying from the pursuit of the sun, a lamp, a mirror; diving under the sea, living under the waters half its time, it was a mermaid.

The thunder was the rumble of chariot-wheels, the roar of a mighty beast, the roll of a great skittle-ball, the banging of the heavenly door, the bray of an angelic trumpet.

The lightning was a serpent striking at its prey, a spear flung athwart the sky, a luminous fish darting in zigzags through the waters of heaven, a fiery scourge, the flashing of the divine eye, the outshot forked tongue of the tempest demon.

After a while, these rude analogies, thrown broadcast over the surface of man's impressionable self, by the vibra

tion of religious speculation were thrown into heaps and arranged in patterns, and took shape as sacred myths. In the midst of an immense variety of myths gathered from all parts of the world, a recurrence of the same figures is observable. In them there is a fixed stock of picturesque material worked up into a thousand different forms, an endless variety of figures made out of the same legendary counters.

The cloud was at one time supposed to be a white winged horse; it was then associated with the sky god, an earth shaker, as he was called, when he thundered and whirled his lightning trident. When Areios first saw the sea reflecting the sky, he bid it reflect the sky-gods as well, and Poseidon, who was once the same as Zeus, became lord of the deep. And then the story was told, of his having struck the earth and produced a horse, as being drawn in a chariot by winged steeds, as having horses sacrificed on his altars, and as having transformed himself into a horse to enjoy the company of Ceres.

The little scarlet and golden fragments of cloud flying around the setting sun were once supposed to be birds of gorgeous plumage. At that time Memnon was the name of the sun; but when this fact was forgotten, it was fabled that from the funeral pyre of Memnon birds had risen.

This forgetfulness of the origin of mythic pictures, together with the tenacious hold upon them maintained by the popular mind, operated in the production of sacred rites of which priests and people could not explain the purport. At one time the cloud was called a goat's hide or fleece; and the cloud and wind were naturally associated together. But when at Tangara in Boeotia, on the festival of Hermes the wind-god, a youth carried a lamb about the town to avert plague, the reason of the ceremony was


obscure enough. We know that the sheepskin was an apotypome of the cloud, and thus the idea that without a rainfall disease would become prevalent assumed this grotesque expression by symbolic rite, the significance of which was but partially understood.

In like manner, at the beginning of dog-days, a procession ascended Pelion composed of noble youths clothed in goat-skins, and the object of this pilgrimage was to procure rain from Zeus Aktaios.

In the north of Europe, as in India, the clouds were identified with cows; but, when men had learned their mistake, they preserved a remembrance of their primitive notion, by investing the heavenly goddess Perchta with a cow's hide.

Through a profusion of imagery stored in the memories of the people a thread was run and bound into a mythologic rosary, over which man might pour forth the deepest aspirations of his soul.

4. A fourth cause of the formation of myths is to be sought in the philological attempts of a people ignorant of philology. When a word used in sacred rites and prayers has lost its meaning, if by hazard it resemble some word in common employment, it is derived from that word, and a story to account for the derivation is constructed. A curious modern illustration has come under my own notice. At Sessay Church, in Yorkshire, is the brass of a certain Thomas Magnus. The peasantry, not understanding Latin, have been puzzled over the name Magnus, and have accounted for it by a fable. They say that this Thomas was an orphan lad who was found in the church porch, and was educated by the farmers of the parish, and called by them Thomas “Amang-us," or among us.

« PrécédentContinuer »