An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 5SAVAGERY IN GREEK MYTH
As an example of how the savage element displays itself in the mythic tales of such a refined and poetically gifted people as the Greeks, the myth of the birth of Zeus may be instanced. When Cronus had displaced Uranus, the first monarch of Olympus, he took to wife Rhea, one of the Titan race. Gæa, his mother, however, prophesied that as he had overthrown Uranus, he himself would be overthrown by one of his own children. So uneasy did he become in consequence of this prediction that whenever a child was born to him he tore it from its mother's arms and swallowed it whole. Five children did he swallow in this manner, greatly to the grief of Rhea, who, lamenting to Gæa the loss of her offspring, was advised by her next time she had a child to take a stone and wrap it in swaddling-clothes and give it to Cronus to swallow as if it were the infant, at the same time carefully concealing the real child in some secluded place until it reached maturity. This Rhea did, and Cronus duly swallowed the stone she gave him, imagining it to be one of his own children and therefore his possible future destroyer. But Rhea hid the child in a cave in the island of Crete, where the goat Amalthea nourished him with her milk. There were placed in the infant's vicinity armed men, who, whenever he cried, performed a war-dance, clashing their spears and shields to drown his wailing; and so within a year the boy grew to full manhood. At length Gæa gave Cronus a draught which made him vomit up the stone he had swallowed, together with the five children previously devoured—two gods and three goddesses. These young gods made war upon the elder deities, and after a ten years' struggle were victorious over them, banishing them to the dismal region of Tartarus.
In this myth the savage element is strikingly apparent.[Pg 19] Through the mists of allegory we seem to discern (1) the replacement of one tribal head by another; (2) the prediction of the tribal prophetess or crone; (3) a condition of cannibalism; (4) a reminiscence of fetishistic stone-worship in a stone being mistaken for a young god; (5) the nurture of a child by a goat, perhaps a primitive form of nursing; (6) a war-dance by armed savages; (7) the younger men of the tribe banishing the older men to a less desirable spot; (8) the primitive right of the youngest son to succeed the father.
Now we find numerous myths similar to this in all quarters of the world. "Bushmen tell of Kwai Hemm, the devourer, who swallows that great god, the mantis insect, and disgorges him alive with all the other persons and animals engulphed in the course of a long and voracious career. The moon in Australia, while he lived on earth, was very greedy, and swallowed the eagle-god, whom he had to disgorge. Mr Im Thurn found similar tales among the Indians of Guiana. The swallowing and disgorging of Heracles by the monster that was to slay Hesione is well known. Scotch peasants tell of the same feats, but localize the myth on the banks of the Ken in Galloway. Basutos', Eskimos', Zulus', and European fairy-tales all possess this incident, the swallowing of many persons by a being from whose maw they return alive and in good case."
Many circumstances of myth go to illustrate its primitive and barbaric origin. The tales of gods who masquerade as animals are probably reminiscent of a time when they were worshipped in animal form. The Greek mysteries, which were merely acted myths, conserved the savage rite of daubing the initiate with clay, a practice common among African, Australian, South American, and Papuan uncivilized peoples. They also retained from primitive times the use of the 'bull-roarer,' two flattened pieces of wood attached to a string, which on being swung produces a mysterious humming noise, a device employed by many savage folk to keep away women and the profane from the performance of their rites and ceremonies. Early[Pg 20] man, engaged in ceaseless strife, regarded his gods as in constant conflict with giants or with each other. They abduct each other's wives, they are cowardly, gluttonous, immoral, and given to magic, just as is savage man himself.