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Custom and Myth

Page: 20

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We have here a typical example of the way in which mythology puzzled the early philosophers of Greece. Socrates was anxious to be pious, and to respect the most ancient traditions of the gods. Yet at the very outset of sacred history he was met by tales of gods who mutilated and bound their own parents. Not only were such tales hateful to him, but they were of positively evil example to people like Euthyphro. The problem remained, how did the fathers of the Athenians ever come to tell such myths?

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Let us now examine the myth of Cronus, and the explanations which have been given by scholars. Near the beginning of things, according to Hesiod (whose cosmogony was accepted in Greece), Earth gave birth to Heaven. Later, Heaven, Uranus, became the husband of Gæa, Earth. Just as Rangi and Papa, in New Zealand, had many children, so had Uranus and Gæa. As in New Zealand, some of these children were gods of the various elements. Among them were Oceanus, the deep, and Hyperion, the sun—as among the children of Earth and Heaven, in New Zealand, were the Wind and the Sea. The youngest child of the Greek Heaven and Earth was ‘Cronus of crooked counsel, who ever hated his mighty sire.’ Now even as the children of the Maori Heaven and Earth were ‘concealed between the hollows of their parents’ breasts,’ so the Greek Heaven used to ‘hide his children from the light in the hollows of Earth.’ Both Earth and her children resented this, and, as in New Zealand, the children conspired against Heaven, taking Earth, however, into their counsels. Thereupon Earth produced iron, and bade her children avenge their wrongs. {49a} Now fear fell on all of them, except Cronus, who, like Tutenganahau, was all for action. Cronus determined to end the embraces of Heaven and Earth. But, while the Maori myth conceives of Heaven and Earth as of two beings which have never been separated before, Hesiod makes Heaven amorously approach his wife from a distance. Then Cronus stretched out his hand, armed with a sickle of iron, or steel, and mutilated Uranus. Thus were Heaven and Earth practically divorced. But as in the Maori myth one of the children of Heaven clave to his sire, so, in Greek, Oceanus remained faithful to his father. {49b}

This is the first portion of the Myth of Cronus. Can it be denied that the story is well illustrated and explained by the New Zealand parallel, the myth of the cruelty of Tutenganahau? By means of this comparison, the meaning of the myth is made clear enough. Just as the New Zealanders had conceived of Heaven and Earth as at one time united, to the prejudice of their children, so the ancestors of the Greeks had believed in an ancient union of Heaven and Earth. Both by Greeks and Maoris, Heaven and Earth were thought of as living persons, with human parts and passions. Their union was prejudicial to their children, and so the children violently separated the parents. This conduct is regarded as impious, and as an awful example to be avoided, in Maori pahs. In Naxos, on the other hand, Euthyphro deemed that the conduct of Cronus deserved imitation. If ever the Maoris had reached a high civilisation, they would probably have been revolted, like Socrates, by the myth which survived from their period of savagery. Mr. Tylor well says, {50a} ‘Just as the adzes of polished jade, and the cloaks of tied flax-fibre, which these New Zealanders were using but yesterday, are older in their place in history than the bronze battle-axes and linen mummy-cloths of ancient Egypt, so the Maori poet’s shaping of nature into nature-myth belongs to a stage of intellectual history which was passing away in Greece five-and-twenty centuries ago. The myth-maker’s fancy of Heaven and Earth as father and mother of all things naturally suggested the legend that they in old days abode together, but have since been torn asunder.’

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That this view of Heaven and Earth is natural to early minds, Mr. Tylor proves by the presence of the myth of the union and violent divorce of the pair in China. {50b} Puang-ku is the Chinese Cronus, or Tutenganahau. In India, {50c} Dyaus and Prithivi, Heaven and Earth, were once united, and were severed by Indra, their own child.

This, then, is our interpretation of the exploit of Cronus. It is an old surviving nature-myth of the severance of Heaven and Earth, a myth found in China, India, New Zealand, as well as in Greece. Of course it is not pretended that Chinese and Maoris borrowed from Indians and Greeks, or came originally of the same stock. Similar phenomena, presenting themselves to be explained by human minds in a similar stage of fancy and of ignorance, will account for the parallel myths.

The second part of the myth of Cronus was, like the first, a stumbling-block to the orthodox in Greece. Of the second part we offer no explanation beyond the fact that the incidents in the myth are almost universally found among savages, and that, therefore, in Greece they are probably survivals from savagery. The sequel of the myth appears to account for nothing, as the first part accounts for the severance of Heaven and Earth. In the sequel a world-wide Märchen, or tale, seems to have been attached to Cronus, or attracted into the cycle of which he is centre, without any particular reason, beyond the law which makes detached myths crystallise round any celebrated name. To look further is, perhaps, chercher raison où il n’y en a pas.

The conclusion of the story of Cronus runs thus:—He wedded his sister, Rhea, and begat children—Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and, lastly, Zeus. ‘And mighty Cronus swallowed down each of them, each that came to their mother’s knees from her holy womb, with this intent, that none other of the proud children of Uranus should hold kingly sway among the Immortals.’ Cronus showed a ruling father’s usual jealousy of his heirs. It was a case of Friedrich Wilhelm and Friedrich. But Cronus (acting in a way natural in a story perhaps first invented by cannibals) swallowed his children instead of merely imprisoning them. Heaven and Earth had warned him to beware of his heirs, and he could think of no safer plan than that which he adopted. When Rhea was about to become the mother of Zeus, she fled to Crete. Here Zeus was born, and when Cronus (in pursuit of his usual policy) asked for the baby, he was presented with a stone wrapped up in swaddling bands. After swallowing the stone, Cronus was easy in his mind; but Zeus grew up, administered a dose to his father, and compelled him to disgorge. ‘The stone came forth first, as he had swallowed it last.’ {52a} The other children also emerged, all alive and well. Zeus fixed the stone at Delphi, where, long after the Christian era, Pausanias saw it. {52b} It was not a large stone, Pausanias tells us, and the Delphians used to anoint it with oil and wrap it up in wool on feast-days. All Greek temples had their fetich-stones, and each stone had its legend. This was the story of the Delphian stone, and of the fetichism which survived the early years of Christianity. A very pretty story it is. Savages more frequently smear their fetich-stones with red paint than daub them with oil, but the latter, as we learn from Theophrastus’s account of the ‘superstitious man,’ was the Greek ritual.

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