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

Part 1 out of 5

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

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.

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

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

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

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

[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

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.

[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

"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

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

[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

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

[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

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

[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

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,


Back to Full Books