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Custom and Myth

Page: 16

{36b}

Servius, the ancient commentator on Virgil, mentions, among other opinions, this—that the vannus was a sieve, and that it symbolised the purifying effect of the mysteries. But it is clear that Servius was only guessing; and he offers other explanations, among them that the vannus was a crate to hold offerings, primitias frugum.

We have studied the bull-roarer in Australia, we have caught a glimpse of it in England. Its existence on the American continent is proved by letters from New Mexico, and by a passage in Mr. Frank Cushing’s ‘Adventures in Zuni.’ {37} In Zuni, too, among a semi-civilised Indian tribe, or rather a tribe which has left the savage for the barbaric condition, we find the bull-roarer. Here, too, the instrument—a ‘slat,’ Mr. Gushing calls it—is used as a call to the ceremonial observance of the tribal ritual. The Zunis have various ‘orders of a more or less sacred and sacerdotal character.’ Mr. Cushing writes:—

These orders were engaged in their annual ceremonials, of which little was told or shown me; but, at the end of four days, I heard one morning a deep whirring noise. Running out, I saw a procession of three priests of the bow, in plumed helmets and closely-fitting cuirasses, both of thick buckskin—gorgeous and solemn with sacred embroideries and war-paint, begirt with bows, arrows, and war-clubs, and each distinguished by his badge of degree—coming down one of the narrow streets. The principal priest carried in his arms a wooden idol, ferocious in aspect, yet beautiful with its decorations of shell, turquoise, and brilliant paint. It was nearly hidden by symbolic slats and prayer-sticks most elaborately plumed. He was preceded by a guardian with drawn bow and arrows, while another followed, twirling the sounding slat, which had attracted alike my attention and that of hundreds of the Indians, who hurriedly flocked to the roofs of the adjacent houses, or lined the street, bowing their heads in adoration, and scattering sacred prayer-meal on the god and his attendant priests. Slowly they wound their way down the hill, across the river, and off toward the mountain of Thunder. Soon an identical procession followed and took its way toward the western hills. I watched them long until they disappeared, and a few hours afterward there arose from the top of ‘Thunder Mountain’ a dense column of smoke, simultaneously with another from the more distant western mesa of ‘U-ha-na-mi,’ or ‘Mount of the Beloved.’

Then they told me that for four days I must neither touch nor eat flesh or oil of any kind, and for ten days neither throw any refuse from my doors, nor permit a spark to leave my house, for ‘This was the season of the year when the “grandmother of men” (fire) was precious.’

Here then, in Zuni, we have the bull-roarer again, and once more we find it employed as a summons to the mysteries. We do not learn, however, that women in Zuni are forbidden to look upon the bull-roarer. Finally, the South African evidence, which is supplied by letters from a correspondent of Mr. Tylor’s, proves that in South Africa, too, the bull-roarer is employed to call the men to the celebration of secret functions. A minute description of the instrument, and of its magical power to raise a wind, is given in Theal’s ‘Kaffir Folklore,’ p. 209. The bull-roarer has not been made a subject of particular research; very probably later investigations will find it in other parts of the modern world besides America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. I have myself been fortunate enough to encounter the bull-roarer on the soil of ancient Greece and in connection with the Dionysiac mysteries. Clemens of Alexandria, and Arnobius, an early Christian father who follows Clemens, describe certain toys of the child Dionysus which were used in the mysteries. Among these are turbines, κωνοι, and ρομβοι. The ordinary dictionaries interpret all these as whipping-tops, adding that ρομβος is sometimes ‘a magic wheel.’ The ancient scholiast on Clemens, however, writes: ‘The κωνος is a little piece of wood, to which a string is fastened, and in the mysteries it is whirled round to make a roaring noise.’ {39} Here, in short, we have a brief but complete description of the bull-roarer of the Australian turndun. No single point is omitted. The κωνος, like the turndun, is a small object of wood, it is tied to a string, when whirled round it produces a roaring noise, and it is used at initiations. This is not the end of the matter.

In the part of the Dionysiac mysteries at which the toys of the child Dionysus were exhibited, and during which (as it seems) the κωνος, or bull-roarer, was whirred, the performers daubed themselves all over with clay. This we learn from a passage in which Demosthenes describes the youth of his hated adversary, Æschines. The mother of Æschines, he says, was a kind of ‘wise woman,’ and dabbler in mysteries. Æschines used to aid her by bedaubing the initiate over with clay and bran. {40a} The word αποματτων, here used by Demosthenes, is explained by Harpocration as the ritual term for daubing the initiated. A story was told, as usual, to explain this rite. It was said that, when the Titans attacked Dionysus and tore him to pieces, they painted themselves first with clay, or gypsum, that they might not be recognised. Nonnus shows, in several places, that down to his time the celebrants of the Bacchic mysteries retained this dirty trick. Precisely the same trick prevails in the mysteries of savage peoples. Mr. Winwood Reade {40b} reports the evidence of Mongilomba. When initiated, Mongilomba was ‘severely flogged in the Fetich House’ (as young Spartans were flogged before the animated image of Artemis), and then he was ‘plastered over with goat-dung.’ Among the natives of Victoria, {40c} the ‘body of the initiated is bedaubed with clay, mud, charcoal powder, and filth of every kind.’ The girls are plastered with charcoal powder and white clay, answering to the Greek gypsum. Similar daubings were performed at the mysteries by the Mandans, as described by Catlin; and the Zunis made raids on Mr. Cushing’s black paint and Chinese ink for like purposes. On the Congo, Mr. Johnson found precisely the same ritual in the initiations. Here, then, not to multiply examples, we discover two singular features in common between Greek and savage mysteries. Both Greeks and savages employ the bull-roarer, both bedaub the initiated with dirt or with white paint or chalk. As to the meaning of the latter very un-Aryan practice, one has no idea. It is only certain that war parties of Australian blacks bedaub themselves with white clay to alarm their enemies in night attacks. The Phocians, according to Herodotus (viii. 27), adopted the same ‘aisy stratagem,’ as Captain Costigan has it. Tellies, the medicine-man (μαντις), chalked some sixty Phocians, whom he sent to make a night attack on the Thessalians. The sentinels of the latter were seized with supernatural horror, and fled, ‘and after the sentinels went the army.’ In the same way, in a night attack among the Australian Kurnai, {41a} ‘they all rapidly painted themselves with pipe-clay: red ochre is no use, it cannot frighten an enemy.’ If, then, Greeks in the historic period kept up Australian tactics, it is probable that the ancient mysteries of Greece might retain the habit of daubing the initiated which occurs in savage rites.


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