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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Myths and Folk-Lore of the Aryan Peoples
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
WITH the advance of the new science of folk-lore, we are apt to forget perhaps that the old literature on which the study is based is one of the richest and most entertaining in the world. Fairy-tale is its foster-mother, and the home out of which it passed is as mysterious as fairy-land itself, and as full of wonders; although the name of “Aryan” may seem at a first glance to suggest only the science of races, or the endless differences of the doctors of philology over the relations of myth to the decay of language. That, however, is a side of the subject upon which we are not called to dwell. Science apart, it is enough to show that the way into the old wonder-land where the early Aryans first drew breath, and shaped our speech, and began our traditions, may be traveled for the sheer pleasure of the adventure, as well as for abstruser ends. The mysterious door of the Aryan mythologies may look forbidding, but its “Open sesame!” is nothing more occult than the title of the first time-honored fairy-tale one happens to remember. And once inside this dim ancestral gate, the demesne is so richly fertile, and so various in its partitions and pleasaunces, that the idlest observer cannot but be allured further. The Aryan realm, eastern and western, includes not only the Greek, Scandinavian, and Indian mythologies, but Slavic folk-tales, Romanian folk-songs, Sicilian idyls, and all the confused popular traditions of the Anglo-Celtic peoples. If we may believe the folk-lorists,—as here at least we can do,—King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are among its heroic children, equally with Odin and Sigurd, or Heracles and Helen of Troy. Its music is echoed in the early Celtic elemental rhymes and poems, equally with the Vedic Hymns and the epic strain of Homer. Its traditions flit to and fro over the face of the earth, from the Ganges to the Mississippi, from the Thames to the Tiber. The nursery tales we tell our children to-day are, many of them, but variants of the old primitive tales of Light and Darkness, Sleep and Silence, told to the babes that watched the flames flicker, or heard the wolves howl, amid the trees of that unmapped region which was the birthplace of the Aryan peoples.  1
  It is clear that the primary myths and folk-tales of so vast an order of mankind, and the secondary more conscious literary development of the same subject-matter, together make an immense contribution to the world’s literature. We can at best indicate here a little of its richness and extent, referring our readers to the original authorities for the full history of the subject. Even so, it must be kept in mind that folk-lore is still a new science; and that collections of native tales and traditions, as they still survive to-day, have been made with anything like order only within the last half-century. Every year now sees valuable new contributions from the various folk-lore societies,—additions which, it is clear, must affect closely the labors of the comparative mythologists, and the results at which they arrive. Professor Max Müller’s works, Mr. J. G. Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough,’ Mr. Clodd’s ‘Myths and Dreams,’ Mr. Andrew Lang’s ‘Custom and Myth,’ Mr. Sidney Hartland’s ‘Legend of Perseus,’ Principal Rhys’s ‘Hibbert Lectures,’—all these are works which have helped to give folk-lore its modern status and significance; and they are but the pioneers of a critical and co-ordinating system which is only now beginning to assume its right effects and proportions. But here it is not with the method and modern theories, but with the legendary survivals and mythic traditions of folk-lore, that we are concerned. It is not even necessary for us to decide the vexed question of the exact region in Europe or Asia whence the Aryan peoples originally sprang. Whether indeed it be in the Ural slopes, the Norse valleys, or the plateau of the Himalaya, that the newest argument places the cradle of the Aryan, we shall still find, most likely, that the illustrations of the argument adduced are more interesting than the argument itself.  2
  In the same way, although we may not accept the solar theory in mythology, our interest in sun myths and the folk-tales that have grown out of them, will be undiminished. Again, if Mr. Herbert Spencer’s theory of the origin of mythology and its fables—that it was an outgrowth of primitive man’s ancestor-worship—seems doubtful, we shall still find the whole range of fetish and totem traditions and beliefs full of profoundly suggestive matter of fancy and matter of fact. Thinking on it, we shall turn with a new feeling to many old rural reminders of death; or to such testimony as that of Ovid’s lines,—
  “Est honor et tumulis,” etc.,— 1
in which he describes the Feast of the Romans in the Ides of February in honor of the ghosts of their ancestors.
  3
  The mysteries of death, and of the forces of nature; the interchange of light and darkness; the passing of the sun;—we need no theory to account for the early effect these had on the savage imaginations of our primitive Aryan forefathers. Of the aerial and earthly phenomena, which worked early upon the mind of man, and led him to weave a myth out of the emotions and sensations they caused, the sun perhaps affords the best instance. For, go where you will through the uttermost regions of the Aryan peoples, as we now recognize them, you will still find the sun, and with him the moon and the stars, regnant in the realm of folk-lore. Take in the ‘Rig-Veda’ (x. 95), the poem of the love of Urvasi and Pururavas, in which Professor Max Müller considers the latter to stand for the sun, while Urvasi is the early dawn. Or take the folk-song sung on New Year’s Eve by that most primitive and archaic of European peoples, the Mordvins,—an offshoot of the Finns, who live between the Volga and the Oka, in a territory extending on both sides of the Sura:—
  “Denyan Lasunyas
Is a bright moon,
His wife Masai
A ruddy sun.
And Denyan’s children
Are the stars.
            Tannysai!”
In this stanza it is seen that the sun is a woman, contrary to the custom in myth, early and late; except—and this is a matter of great and interesting significance—in the instance of Celtic, or at least Gaelic-Celtic myth and legendary lore, where the sun is always feminine. But indeed, to quote Mr. Edward Clodd, “the names given to the sun in mythology are as manifold as his aspects and influences, and as the moods of the untutored minds that endowed him with the complex and contrary qualities which make up the nature of man.” And the gender of the sun, as well as of many other natural phenomena, is found to change frequently in different tongues; but as a rule, in Aryan folk-lore, he is masculine, and the moon feminine. In the old Greek myths, both sun and moon are fully endowed with human qualities and human passions and failings; and yet the sun is godlike, and has powers far beyond those of humankind. “The sun,” we are reminded by the modern mythologists, “is all-seeing and all-penetrating. In a Greek song of to-day, a mother sends a message to an absent daughter by the sun; it is but an unconscious repetition of the request of the dying Ajax, that the heavenly body will tell his fate to his old father and his sorrowing spouse.”
  4
  If we arrive at something like a sympathetic understanding of the tendency in primitive man to humanize and personify the signs and appearances of nature, we shall be very near an explanation of the Greek mythology, and its marvelous confusion of noble and ignoble, of heroic and demoralized deities. The savage survival in that mythology of so many of the more gross and repulsive elements of folk-lore is but another proof of the extraordinary persistence of traditional ideas, as against consciously reasoned ideas, of nature. While in art, and in human intelligence and conduct of life, they had grown into the civilized condition which made an Aristotle and a Plato possible, their primitive mythopœic sense, as it existed some thousand years before, still retained its hold on them. Do we not find the same survival, in our most modern races, of superstitions as old as the oldest Aryan type?  5
  The oldest survivals of all in the Greek religion are not to be learnt from the pages of Homer and the Greek dramatists, but from what we may gather indirectly from those obscurer sources in which folk-lore has so often had its memorials overlaid with dust. To eke out these reminders, we have the more formal testimony of such authors as Pausanias and Eusebius, Herodotus and Lactantius, Porphyrius and Plutarch. Pausanias tells us, in mysterious terms, of the dreadful rites on the Lycæan Hill, as late as the second century. On the crest of the mountain is the altar of Zeus; and before it “stand two pillars facing the rising sun, and thereon golden eagles of yet more ancient workmanship. And on this altar they sacrifice to Zeus in a manner that may not be spoken, and little liking had I to make much search into this matter. But let it be as it is, and as it hath been from the beginning.” Mr. Lang, commenting on this ominous passage, reminds us 2 that “the traditional myths of Arcadia tell of the human sacrifices of Lycaon, and of men who, tasting the meat of a mixed sacrifice, put human flesh between their lips unawares.” The horrors of “Voodoo” among the negroes of Haiti, or the tradition of human sacrifices in the Vedic religion, or among the Druids in ancient time, show how religious rites were apt to conserve strange and terrible mythical ideas, century after century.  6
  From the Jewish and other non-Aryan rites, we may gather many interesting corroborative particulars as to the law and manner of sacrifice. But without following up the more tragic and terrible side of its ancient practice, as relating to the peculiar expiatory virtue of human victims, let us recall that much of the existing folk-lore of fire naturally associates itself with the lingering of the traditions concerning its use in the rites of the altar, from time immemorial.  7
  Those who have read Mr. J. G. Frazer’s remarkable treatise on the esoteric explanation of the old mythical traditions, ‘The Golden Bough,’ will readily recall the ancient mysteries of the lovely woodland lake of Nemi, with which he begins his book. The scene is enshrined in all its beauty, and idealized with a perfect imagination, in Turner’s picture of ‘The Golden Bough,’ in which the classic forms of the lovely nymphs of Diana’s train are seen dancing. But another form, ominous and sinister, was at one time to be seen in the sanctuary there,—that of the priest of Nemi, pacing the grove, sword in hand, awaiting the predestinate coming of him who should break off the Golden Bough from the one sacred tree, and try to slay him, and so succeed to his dreadful and mysterious priesthood. For a man could only become the priest of Nemi by first slaying a former holder of the office. And this was but the dark initiation of a profoundly symbolistic ritual in honor of the tutelary goddess, Diana Nemorensis,—Diana of the Grove,—in whose rites Fire played a very essential and striking part. Now, without following up Mr. Frazer’s suggestive line of argument, and without insisting theoretically on the significance of Fire as a Sun-symbol, or the Golden Bough as a Tree-symbol, or the slaying and the slain priest as a type of the “slain God,” it may be seen what a long series of vital associations is opened up to the student of folk-lore by such things. Many of our simplest festive and social celebrations to-day have an ancestry older far than the oldest literary memorials we possess.  8
  We still speak with a certain serious and hospitable sentiment of the hearth; which is a relic of the primitive awe and mythopœic sense with which our wild first forefathers regarded the familiar spirit that haunts every house, and makes life in our northern latitudes possible and pleasant. Most readers now can only recall, within their own experience, any acquaintance with primitive fire lore in connection with Christmas and its Yule log, or perhaps a fire set burning on New Year’s Eve and kept alight until the incoming of the New Year, or a bonfire lighted for some modern commemoration. But even so, it is remarkable that the sense of the mystery of the fire, and its essential sacredness, have so far escaped the cumulative attacks of all our anti-superstitious civilization. The pedigree, for instance, of the tradition about a sacred and inviolable hearth, or of a living fire that must not be extinguished, is one of the most interesting in all Aryan folk-lore. Accepting provisionally the theory that a Russo-Finnish region was at least one of the first to be touched by the effluent stream of the Aryan race, let us note that the sacredness of the fire is a prime article in the creed of the Russian peasant. Mr. W. R. S. Ralston tells us in his delightful ‘Songs of the Russian People,’ that when a Russian family moves to a new house “the fire is raked out of the old stove into a jar, and solemnly conveyed to the new one; the words ‘Welcome, grandfather, to the new home!’ being uttered when it arrives there.” Among that primitive Russian people the Mordvins, to whom we alluded above, on Christmas Eve a fire is lit in the stove with a special ceremony. A burning candle is placed before the stove, and a fagot of birch rods is lighted at its flame, while the mistress of the house says a half-pagan prayer. 3 This fagot is then placed on the hearth-stone, and the wood in the stove kindled from it; while a brand from the last Christmas festival is placed on top of the whole kindling.  9
  Passing now from the Mordvins to the Gaelic corner of the Aryan world, and from the domestic to the more ceremonial uses of fire, we find an extremely suggestive instance in the Scotch Highlands, where bonfires, known as the “Beltane Fires,” used to be kindled on May Day. The fires were kindled by antiquated methods, with no small ceremony, usually on some prominent hill-top. Traditionally, this fire and its ash had all kinds of magic virtues, in curing disease, breaking evil spells, etc. When the fire was well alight, an oatcake was made, toasted by its heat, and then broken into little bits; one piece being made black with charcoal. Next, the bits were put into a bonnet, and lots were drawn, and the man drawing the black bit was called Cailleach bealtine,—the Beltane carline,—and was supposed to be burnt in the fire as a sacrifice to Baal. His companions indeed made a show of putting him into the bonfire; but the ceremony was considered complete if he jumped thrice through the flames. In this, there is no doubt, as Mr. Frazer points out in his ‘Golden Bough,’ we have the clear trace of a human sacrifice by fire, lingering in a semi-playful rustic ceremony.  10
  In Europe generally, such fire feasts are held on Midsummer Eve (23d June) or Midsummer Day (24th June); and besides the usual bonfires, torch processions, and the custom of rolling a fiery wheel down the slopes of the appointed hill, formed part of the feast. One finds these still in many parts of Germany, as at Kouz on the Moselle; in Poitou; in Brittany; and they existed, or still exist, in Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and several parts of England.  11
  We have not space to do more than allude in passing to the curious and prevalent belief in “need-fires,” kindled to drive off plague, pestilence, and famine; always kindled by the friction of wood or the revolution of a wheel. As it is, we have taken but one out of the many familiar things of everyday association which are found on examination to discover the most remarkable traditionary interest, in the light of the old Aryan myths and folk-lore.  12
  The study of the lesser signs and symbols, the familiar odds and ends of daily life, that in primitive times were used to express man’s feeling for the mystery of a difficult world, ordered by laws and forces which he did not comprehend, brings us to the question of fetishes and fetishism; a term which was first used by that pioneer of mythology, De Brosses, in his ‘Culte des Dieux Fétiches,’ in the middle of the eighteenth century, and which is derived from a Portuguese word meaning a talisman. But on this, again, we can only touch in the briefest way; since to do justice to the subject it is necessary to adventure far outside our limits, and indeed into fields of extra-Aryan mythology, and of the folk-lore of non-Aryan savage tribes that do not come within our province. But Professor Max Müller, in his Hibbert Lectures and elsewhere, has used the evidence freely that is supplied in the Indo-Aryan literature, and all the profound sense of the infinite in the Indo-Aryan myths, in discounting the prevalence of fetishism among the primitive Aryans. We do not at all agree with his conclusions. But he helps us to see that the deities of the ‘Vedas’ and ‘Brahmanas’ (the hymns and books of devotion of India) are sprung from the same order of personified elemental phenomena as the fire-god or the sun-hero in other Aryan mythologies. To take Indra, the chief of these deities: we trace in the anomalous attributes of his divinity the signs of a savage deity who was now the offspring of a cow, now a ram,—a ram that on occasion could fly. Moreover, is there not a savage survival in the idea that Indra was much addicted to soma-drinking; or that he committed the “unpardonable sin” (according to the Vedic cult), i.e., the slaying of a Brahman? Indra even drank soma which was not intended for him, and the dregs became Vrittra the serpent, his enemy. In fighting this foe, Indra lost his energy, which fell to earth and begot trees and shrubs; while Vrittra, being cut in half, accounted for the moon and other phenomena in the universe. In pursuing this branch of mythology, the superb library afforded by the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ may be consulted, eked out by such other works as Dr. Muir’s ‘Ancient Sanskrit Texts,’ and Ludwig’s translation of the ‘Rig-Veda.’ The same mixture of sublime and ideal and lofty ideas with savage and primitive and wildly immoral conceptions of the gods, will be found in the Indo-Aryan, that is found in the Greek mythology.  13
  There is no need to dwell here on the account that Homer gives of the Greek gods, and their conduct and misconduct of their Divine affairs, for Homer will be found treated elsewhere; but let us recall that the children of Heaven and Earth, if we turn from Homer to Hesiod, included Ocean, Hyperion, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Tethys, and Cronus. And then we come to the Greek Indra, in Zeus; who unlike Indra, however, is born in the second generation of the gods, and even then only saved by a trick from the all-devouring wrath of his father Cronus. Cronus alone affords a myth that is a sort of test of the whole mythopœic making of divinities out of crude material, and preserving the cruder characteristics even in the highly developed forms of a complex, consciously arranged mythology. It is thus we follow the early Greek myths, and watch them passing out of pure folk-lore and primary mythology into secondary and literary forms, until we come to their presentment by Homer and Hesiod.  14
  It is the same process as we see, working on equally Aryan ideas, in the Scandinavian mythology; until it arrives at its secondary stage, in the marvelous world of human and divine creation in the ‘Nibelungen Lied.’ In this evolution of barbaric divinities, and the elaboration of the crude heroic ideal, Odin may be compared very suggestively with the Greek Zeus, and Zeus with the Vedic Indra; and Indra again with the Norse Odin: and much light may thus be gained by a resort to comparative mythology in considering the chief deities of the greater Indo-European systems of ex-Christian religion.  15
  But indeed, whether we study the great myths or the humblest things in folk-lore, the Indo-European or Aryan tongues will be found to stammer out at last but the same message of the infinities that received its highest expression in a Semitic tongue. The Celts and Germans, the Sanskrit and Zendish peoples, the Latins and Greeks, all belong to one family of speech; but even a ten-centuries’ maintained speech is less permanent, and a less certain synthetic measure of man, than human nature and human imagination. And it is only now, when folk-lore is beginning to see the common ground betwixt the Aryan and the non-Aryan races and their histories, that it is learning to make its lanterns light for us the “dark backward and abysm of time,” across which we look wistfully to the legended old dreams first dreamt in the childish cradle sleep of our race. Like faint memories of that cradle sleep, we listen now to the myths of the creation of the earth, and of man’s destiny; myths of the stars; myths of the joy and sorrow of life and death; and of fire and of the elements. Read apart, they are beautiful and divine fables; read in the unity of man’s common aspiration, they are the testament of the imperfect first beginning, and the slow growth toward perfection, of his expression of the mystery of nature, and of the eternal that is behind nature.  16
 
  A word remains to be said about the illustrative items that follow, which are chosen mainly with a view to showing the variety of the entertainment offered by the Aryan myths and folk-lore. As it is, we have omitted those fairy and folk tales, which are, like ‘Rumpelstilskin’ and ‘Jack the Giant-Killer,’ enshrined in every reader’s memory; we have omitted also such passages as those in Homer, or the ‘Nibelungen Lied,’ or in the Arthurian legendary romances, which fall under other departments of the present work. Of those which do appear, and which may not carry their full and sufficient explanation on the face of them, we may explain that the ‘Kinvad Bridge’ and the ‘Brig o’ Dread’ show the identity and the worldwide prevalence of the folk-lore relating to the passage of the souls of the dead. The contemporary Russian account of the faith in ‘Hangman’s Rope’ points to the old idea, common in witches’ prescriptions, of the virtue of a dead man’s hand or other belongings, especially if the man came by a dark and dreadful end; it is but another form, in fact, of fetish-worship. The tale of the ‘Bad Wife’ is a variant of one common to all tongues, relating to matrimonial troubles and the punishment of a local Hades,—the nearest convenient pit, or cave, or dark pool, Mare au diable, or “Devil’s Punchbowl.” The Silesian tale of the ‘Sleeping Army’ is a variant of a common tradition which is locally related of King Arthur and his knights in South Wales. The two May Day verses, and those relating to Christmas decorations, are but another relic of the old tree-worship, whose traces linger in many an unsuspected rustic rhyme to-day. Certain old English charms and superstitions relating to the sacred efficacy against evil of bread,—an idea common to all northern Aryan folk-lore,—may be found daintily preserved by Herrick, who was the earliest collector of Devonshire folk-lore. An old knife charm, and a variant of the custom of honoring the Christmas fire,—a relic of old fire-worship,—which we have described above among the Mordvins, are also taken from the ‘Hesperides.’ The ‘Legend of Bomere Pool,’ the tale of the ‘Fairy Prince from Lappmark,’ and the Catalonian folk-tale, serve to illustrate further the universal Aryan custom (and indeed the extra-Aryan custom too) of attaching mythical characters, good and evil, elvish and demonic, to marked localities, hills, lakes, and the like.  17
  All these, let us remind the reader finally, are but crumbs from the great feast, whose full equipment includes not only the humblest couplet or game-rhyme that children sing, but the mysteries of mediæval romance, and the epic glooms and splendors of all the Aryan mythologies.  18
 
Note 1. “And even to the tomb is honor paid.”—‘Fasti.’ [back]
Note 2. ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion,’ Vol. i., page 269. [back]
Note 3. “O Cham Pas, have mercy upon us; let the ruddy sun rise, warm us with his warmth, and cause our corn to grow in great plenty for us all!” [back]
 
 
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