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Custom and Myth

Page: 25

The system according to which we tried to interpret the myth is less ondoyant et divers. We do not even pretend to explain everything. We do not guess at the meaning and root of the word Cronus. We only find parallels to the myth among savages, whose mental condition is fertile in such legends. And we only infer that the myth of Cronus was originally evolved by persons also in the savage intellectual condition. The survival we explain as, in a previous essay, we explained the survival of the bull-roarer by the conservatism of the religious instinct.

CUPID, PSYCHE, AND THE ‘SUN-FROG.’

‘Once upon a time there lived a king and a queen,’ says the old woman in Apuleius, beginning the tale of Cupid and Psyche with that ancient formula which has been dear to so many generations of children. In one shape or other the tale of Cupid and Psyche, of the woman who is forbidden to see or to name her husband, of the man with the vanished fairy bride, is known in most lands, ‘even among barbarians.’ According to the story the mystic prohibition is always broken: the hidden face is beheld; light is brought into the darkness; the forbidden name is uttered; the bride is touched with the tabooed metal, iron, and the union is ended. Sometimes the pair are re-united, after long searchings and wanderings; sometimes they are severed for ever. Such are the central situations in tales like that of Cupid and Psyche.

In the attempt to discover how the ideas on which this myth is based came into existence, we may choose one of two methods. We may confine our investigations to the Aryan peoples, among whom the story occurs both in the form of myth and of household tale. Again, we may look for the shapes of the legend which hide, like Peau d’Ane in disguise, among the rude kraals and wigwams, and in the strange and scanty garb of savages. If among savages we find both narratives like Cupid and Psyche, and also customs and laws out of which the myth might have arisen, we may provisionally conclude that similar customs once existed among the civilised races who possess the tale, and that from these sprang the early forms of the myth.

In accordance with the method hitherto adopted, we shall prefer the second plan, and pursue our quest beyond the limits of the Aryan peoples.

The oldest literary shape of the tale of Psyche and her lover is found in the Rig Veda (x. 95). The characters of a singular and cynical dialogue in that poem are named Urvasi and Pururavas. The former is an Apsaras, a kind of fairy or sylph, the mistress (and a folle maîtresse, too) of Pururavas, a mortal man. {65} In the poem Urvasi remarks that when she dwelt among men she ‘ate once a day a small piece of butter, and therewith well satisfied went away.’ This slightly reminds one of the common idea that the living may not eat in the land of the dead, and of Persephone’s tasting the pomegranate in Hades.

Of the dialogue in the Rig Veda it may be said, in the words of Mr. Toots, that ‘the language is coarse and the meaning is obscure.’ We only gather that Urvasi, though she admits her sensual content in the society of Pururavas, is leaving him ‘like the first of the dawns’; that she ‘goes home again, hard to be caught, like the winds.’ She gives her lover some hope, however—that the gods promise immortality even to him, ‘the kinsman of Death’ as he is. ‘Let thine offspring worship the gods with an oblation; in Heaven shalt thou too have joy of the festival.’


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