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Custom and Myth

Page: 17

‘Come now,’ as Herodotus would say, ‘I will show once more that the mysteries of the Greeks resemble those of Bushmen.’ In Lucian’s Treatise on Dancing, {41b} we read, ‘I pass over the fact that you cannot find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing. . . . To prove this I will not mention the secret acts of worship, on account of the uninitiated. But this much all men know, that most people say of those who reveal the mysteries, that they “dance them out.”’ Here Liddell and Scott write, rather weakly, ‘to dance out, let out, betray, probably of some dance which burlesqued these ceremonies.’ It is extremely improbable that, in an age when it was still forbidden to reveal the ορyια, or secret rites, those rites would be mocked in popular burlesques. Lucian obviously intends to say that the matter of the mysteries was set forth in ballets d’action. Now this is exactly the case in the surviving mysteries of the Bushmen. Shortly after the rebellion of Langalibalele’s tribe, Mr. Orpen, the chief magistrate in St. John’s Territory, made the acquaintance of Qing, one of the last of an all but exterminated tribe. Qing ‘had never seen a white man, except fighting,’ when he became Mr. Orpen’s guide. He gave a good deal of information about the myths of his people, but refused to answer certain questions. ‘You are now asking the secrets that are not spoken of.’ Mr. Orpen asked, ‘Do you know the secrets?’ Qing replied, ‘No, only the initiated men of that dance know these things.’ To ‘dance’ this or that means, ‘to be acquainted with this or that mystery;’ the dances were originally taught by Cagn, the mantis, or grasshopper god. In many mysteries, Qing, as a young man, was not initiated. He could not ‘dance them out.’ {42}

There are thus undeniably close resemblances between the Greek mysteries and those of the lowest contemporary races.

As to the bull-roarer, its recurrence among Greeks, Zunis, Kamilaroi, Maoris, and South African races, would be regarded, by some students, as a proof that all these tribes had a common origin, or had borrowed the instrument from each other. But this theory is quite unnecessary. The bull-roarer is a very simple invention. Anyone might find out that a bit of sharpened wood, tied to a string, makes, when whirred, a roaring noise. Supposing that discovery made, it is soon turned to practical use. All tribes have their mysteries. All want a signal to summon the right persons together and warn the wrong persons to keep out of the way. The church bell does as much for us, so did the shaken seistron for the Egyptians. People with neither bells nor seistra find the bull-roarer, with its mysterious sound, serve their turn. The hiding of the instrument from women is natural enough. It merely makes the alarm and absence of the curious sex doubly sure. The stories of supernatural consequences to follow if a woman sees the turndun lend a sanction. This is not a random theory, without basis. In Brazil, the natives have no bull-roarer, but they have mysteries, and the presence of the women at the mysteries of the men is a terrible impiety. To warn away the women, the Brazilians make loud ‘devil-music’ on what are called ‘jurupari pipes.’ Now, just as in Australia, the women may not see the jurupari pipes on pain of death. When the sound of the jurupari pipes is heard, as when the turndun is heard in Australia, every woman flees and hides herself. The women are always executed if they see the pipes. Mr. Alfred Wallace bought a pair of these pipes, but he had to embark them at a distance from the village where they were procured. The seller was afraid that some unknown misfortune would occur if the women of his village set eyes on the juruparis. {44}

The conclusion from all these facts seems obvious. The bull-roarer is an instrument easily invented by savages, and easily adopted into the ritual of savage mysteries. If we find the bull-roarer used in the mysteries of the most civilised of ancient peoples, the most probable explanation is, that the Greeks retained both the mysteries, the bull-roarer, the habit of bedaubing the initiate, the torturing of boys, the sacred obscenities, the antics with serpents, the dances, and the like, from the time when their ancestors were in the savage condition. That more refined and religious ideas were afterwards introduced into the mysteries seems certain, but the rites were, in many cases, simply savage. Unintelligible (except as survivals) when found among Hellenes, they become intelligible enough among savages, because they correspond to the intellectual condition and magical fancies of the lower barbarism. The same sort of comparison, the same kind of explanation, will account, as we shall see, for the savage myths as well as for the savage customs which survived among the Greeks.


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