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Custom and Myth

Page: 13

The bull-roarer has, of all toys, the widest diffusion, and the most extraordinary history. To study the bull-roarer is to take a lesson in folklore. The instrument is found among the most widely severed peoples, savage and civilised, and is used in the celebration of savage and civilised mysteries. There are students who would found on this a hypothesis that the various races that use the bull-roarer all descend from the same stock. But the bull roarer is introduced here for the very purpose of showing that similar minds, working with simple means towards similar ends, might evolve the bull-roarer and its mystic uses anywhere. There is no need for a hypothesis of common origin, or of borrowing, to account for this widely diffused sacred object.

The bull-roarer has been, and is, a sacred and magical instrument in many and widely separated lands. It is found, always as a sacred instrument, employed in religious mysteries, in New Mexico, in Australia, in New Zealand, in ancient Greece, and in Africa; while, as we have seen, it is a peasant-boy’s plaything in England. A number of questions are naturally suggested by the bull-roarer. Is it a thing invented once for all, and carried abroad over the world by wandering races, or handed on from one people and tribe to another? Or is the bull-roarer a toy that might be accidentally hit on in any country where men can sharpen wood and twist the sinews of animals into string? Was the thing originally a toy, and is its religious and mystical nature later; or was it originally one of the properties of the priest, or medicine-man, which in England has dwindled to a plaything? Lastly, was this mystical instrument at first employed in the rites of a civilised people like the Greeks, and was it in some way borrowed or inherited by South Africans, Australians, and New Mexicans? Or is it a mere savage invention, surviving (like certain other features of the Greek mysteries) from a distant stage of savagery? Our answer to all these questions is that in all probability the presence of the ρομβος, or bull-roarer, in Greek mysteries was a survival from the time when Greeks were in the social condition of Australians.

In the first place, the bull-roarer is associated with mysteries and initiations. Now mysteries and initiations are things that tend to dwindle and to lose their characteristic features as civilisation advances. The rites of baptism and confirmation are not secret and hidden; they are common to both sexes, they are publicly performed, and religion and morality of the purest sort blend in these ceremonies. There are no other initiations or mysteries that civilised modern man is expected necessarily to pass through. On the other hand, looking widely at human history, we find mystic rites and initiations numerous, stringent, severe, and magical in character, in proportion to the lack of civilisation in those who practise them. The less the civilisation, the more mysterious and the more cruel are the rites. The more cruel the rites, the less is the civilisation. The red-hot poker with which Mr. Bouncer terrified Mr. Verdant Green at the sham masonic rites would have been quite in place, a natural instrument of probationary torture, in the Freemasonry of Australians, Mandans, or Hottentots. In the mysteries of Demeter or Bacchus, in the mysteries of a civilised people, the red-hot poker, or any other instrument of torture, would have been out of place. But in the Greek mysteries, just as in those of South Africans, Red Indians, and Australians, the disgusting practice of bedaubing the neophyte with dirt and clay was preserved. We have nothing quite like that in modern initiations. Except at Sparta, Greeks dropped the tortures inflicted on boys and girls in the initiations superintended by the cruel Artemis. {33} But Greek mysteries retained the daubing with mud and the use of the bull-roarer. On the whole, then, and on a general view of the subject, we prefer to think that the bull-roarer in Greece was a survival from savage mysteries, not that the bull-roarer in New Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa is a relic of civilisation.


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