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Custom and Myth

Page: 21

This anecdote about Cronus was the stumbling-block of the orthodox Greek, the jest of the sceptic, and the butt of the early Christian controversialists. Found among Bushmen or Australians the narrative might seem rather wild, but it astonishes us still more when it occurs in the holy legends of Greece. Our explanation of its presence there is simple enough. Like the erratic blocks in a modern plain, like the flint-heads in a meadow, the story is a relic of a very distant past. The glacial age left the boulders on the plain, the savage tribes of long ago left the arrowheads, the period of savage fancy left the story of Cronus and the rites of the fetich-stone. Similar rites are still notoriously practised in the South Sea Islands, in Siberia, in India and Africa and Melanesia, by savages. And by savages similar tales are still told.

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We cannot go much lower than the Bushmen, and among Bushman divine myths is room for the ‘swallowing trick’ attributed to Cronus by Hesiod. The chief divine character in Bushman myth is the Mantis insect. His adopted daughter is the child of Kwai Hemm, a supernatural character, ‘the all-devourer.’ The Mantis gets his adopted daughter to call the swallower to his aid; but Kwai Hemm swallows the Mantis, the god-insect. As Zeus made his own wife change herself into an insect, for the convenience of swallowing her, there is not much difference between Bushman and early Greek mythology. Kwai Hemm is killed by a stratagem, and all the animals whom he has got outside of, in a long and voracious career, troop forth from him alive and well, like the swallowed gods from the maw of Cronus. {54a} Now, story for story, the Bushman version is much less offensive than that of Hesiod. But the Bushman story is just the sort of story we expect from Bushmen, whereas the Hesiodic story is not at all the kind of tale we look for from Greeks. The explanation is, that the Greeks had advanced out of a savage state of mind and society, but had retained their old myths, myths evolved in the savage stage, and in harmony with that condition of fancy. Among the Kaffirs {54b} we find the same ‘swallow-myth.’ The Igongqongqo swallows all and sundry; a woman cuts the swallower with a knife, and ‘people came out, and cattle, and dogs.’ In Australia, a god is swallowed. As in the myth preserved by Aristophanes in the ‘Birds,’ the Australians believe that birds were the original gods, and the eagle, especially, is a great creative power. The Moon was a mischievous being, who walked about the world, doing what evil he could. One day he swallowed the eagle-god. The wives of the eagle came up, and the Moon asked them where he might find a well. They pointed out a well, and, as he drank, they hit the Moon with a stone tomahawk, and out flew the eagle. {54c} This is oddly like Grimm’s tale of ‘The Wolf and the Kids.’ The wolf swallowed the kids, their mother cut a hole in the wolf, let out the kids, stuffed the wolf with stones, and sewed him up again. The wolf went to the well to drink, the weight of the stones pulled him in, and he was drowned. Similar stories are common among the Red Indians, and Mr. Im Thurn has found them in Guiana. How savages all over the world got the idea that men and beasts could be swallowed and disgorged alive, and why they fashioned the idea into a divine myth, it is hard to say. Mr. Tylor, in ‘Primitive Culture,’ {55a} adds many examples of the narrative. The Basutos have it; it occurs some five times in Callaway’s ‘Zulu Nursery Tales.’ In Greenland the Eskimo have a shape of the incident, and we have all heard of the escape of Jonah.


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