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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 105

Sir George Gomme in his Folklore as an Historical Science (p. 171) says that a "restored and complete example is in a position to be compared either with similar survivals in other countries on the same level of culture, or within the same ethnological or political sphere of influence, or with living[Pg 234] customs, rites, or beliefs of peoples of a more backward state of culture or in a savage state of culture. Comparison of this kind is of value. Comparison of a less technical or comprehensive kind may be of value in the hands of a great master; but it is often not only valueless but mischievous in the hands of less experienced writers, who think that comparison is justified wherever similarity is discovered."

One of the common grounds of folklore and myth is that where religious elements obviously enter into folk-belief and custom. These may furnish us with new knowledge of a god or a cult. For example, many fragments of the old religion of Central America still linger in the folklore of the Indians of Guatemala; the witch-lore of Italy is full of obscure allusions to the classical deities of Rome; and the folklore of the Arabs of Egypt here and there touches hands with the ancient religion of that country. In Scotland such examples are frequent. That of the thunder-god Brounger has already been alluded to. It is on record that the fishermen of Newhaven, which Brounger haunted, have an almost equal dislike to hearing the name of a certain Johnny Boag or Boggie, and that they have been known to stay from sea because this name had been mentioned in their hearing while on the way to the boats. The Slavonic word for god is bôg—a word which has run through a number of modifications, but has finished with us Britons as 'bogy,' or 'bogle,' and 'bugbear' (compare Welsh brog, a goblin). At the fishing on the Cromarty Firth a salmon must never be spoken of. If it were, the whole crew would start, grasp the nearest iron thowel, and fervently exclaim, "Cauld iron, cauld iron!" in order to avert the omen. Thus the name was taboo, and it looks as if it were of the class of 'names of power' which may not be spoken. Certain 'hidden' names of the Egyptian deities also must not be spoken, or dire consequences would ensue. "If one of them is uttered on the bank of the river the torrent is set free."[1] It appears then as if 'Salmon' was the appellation of an ancient fish-totem whose name was taboo. Iron is of course the terror of all 'tricksy sprites,' and the theory has been advanced that the prehistoric bronze-users, in[Pg 235] whom some see the fairies of folklore, detested and feared the metal employed by the conquering iron-users, seeing in their trenchant blades, against which the bronze leaf-shaped falchion would shiver into pieces, the evidence of a magic power. "In the North of Ireland an iron poker laid across the table kept away the fairies till the child was baptized,"[2] and the efficacy of iron in warding off fairy attacks is notorious all over the Highlands.

Another name which is taboo in the Highlands is that of the minister. I am at a loss to assign a reason for this, unless as the 'descendant' of the pagan priest he was regarded as 'magical.' More understandable is the terror when such words as cat, pig, dog, and hare were mentioned; and of this class the salmon name-taboo may be a member. The first two of the above words should be pronounced 'Theebet' and 'Sandy.' To allude to any animal at sea is unlucky. From Campbell (op. cit., p. 239) we learn that among the Highlanders when in a boat at sea "it is forbidden to call things by the names by which they were known on land." Thus a boat-hook should not be called croman in Gaelic, but a chliob; a knife not sgian but a ghair (the sharp one); a fox, the 'red dog'; and a seal, the 'bald beast.' Even places seen from the sea undergo a change of appellation when the speaker is afloat. It is evident that these precautions were originally adopted from a desire not to incur the displeasure of powerful supernatural beings. Thus when certain tribes of North American Indians periodically sacrifice an eagle, the totem of their tribe, they strive to avert the vengeance of the bird by saying to each other: "A snow-bird has been slain." The supernatural power must be hoodwinked at all costs. What could be the character of a supernatural power who must be deceived in this way? Although Christianity had a firm grip enough on land, was it a negligible quantity when afloat? It is from such examples as these that folklore may assist the mythologist who gropes for the principles of ancient mythic ideas. The student of the mythic system of any race should apply himself with the utmost earnestness to the study of the folklore of its modern representatives.

[Pg 236]

THE MAGIC OF ITALY

As showing how ancient myth may be embedded in modern folklore, the discoveries of the late Charles Godfrey Leland have an importance it would be difficult to over-estimate. In his preface to his Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches of Italy, he says:


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