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Custom and Myth

Page: 22

It has been suggested that night, covering up the world, gave the first idea of the swallowing myth. Now in some of the stories the night is obviously conceived of as a big beast which swallows all things. The notion that night is an animal is entirely in harmony with savage metaphysics. In the opinion of the savage speculator, all things are men and animals. ‘Ils se persuadent que non seulement les hommes et les autres animaux, mais aussi que toutes les autres choses sont animées,’ says one of the old Jesuit missionaries in Canada. {55b} ‘The wind was formerly a person; he became a bird,’ say the Bushmen.

G’ oö ka! Kui (a very respectable Bushman, whose name seems a little hard to pronounce), once saw the wind-person at Haarfontein. Savages, then, are persuaded that night, sky, cloud, fire, and so forth, are only the schein, or sensuous appearance, of things that, in essence, are men or animals. A good example is the bringing of Night to Vanua Lava, by Qat, the ‘culture-hero’ of Melanesia. At first it was always day, and people tired of it. Qat heard that Night was at the Torres Islands, and he set forth to get some. Qong (Night) received Qat well, blackened his eyebrows, showed him Sleep, and sent him off with fowls to bring Dawn after the arrival of Night should make Dawn a necessary. Next day Qat’s brothers saw the sun crawl away west, and presently Night came creeping up from the sea. ‘What is this?’ cried the brothers. ‘It is Night,’ said Qat; ‘sit down, and when you feel something in your eyes, lie down and keep quiet.’ So they went to sleep. ‘When Night had lasted long enough, Qat took a piece of red obsidian, and cut the darkness, and the Dawn came out.’ {56}

Night is more or less personal in this tale, and solid enough to be cut, so as to let the Dawn out. This savage conception of night, as the swallower and disgorger, might start the notion of other swallowing and disgorging beings. Again the Bushmen, and other savage peoples, account for certain celestial phenomena by saying that ‘a big star has swallowed his daughter, and spit her out again.’ While natural phenomena, explained on savage principles, might give the data of the swallow-myth, we must not conclude that all beings to whom the story is attached are, therefore, the Night. On this principle Cronus would be the Night, and so would the wolf in Grimm. For our purposes it is enough that the feat of Cronus is a feat congenial to the savage fancy and repugnant to the civilised Greeks who found themselves in possession of the myth. Beyond this, and beyond the inference that the Cronus myth was first evolved by people to whom it seemed quite natural, that is, by savages, we do not pretend to go in our interpretation.

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To end our examination of the Myth of Cronus, we may compare the solutions offered by scholars. As a rule, these solutions are based on the philological analysis of the names in the story. It will be seen that very various and absolutely inconsistent etymologies and meanings of Cronus are suggested by philologists of the highest authority. These contradictions are, unfortunately, rather the rule than the exception in the etymological interpretation of myths.

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The opinion of Mr. Max Müller has always a right to the first hearing from English inquirers.


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