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Custom and Myth

Page: 31

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The best known example of this variant of the tale is the story of Bheki, in Sanskrit. Mr. Max Müller has interpreted the myth in accordance with his own method. {77} His difficulty is to account for the belief that a king might marry a frog. Our ancestors, he remarks, ‘were not idiots,’ how then could they tell such a story? We might reply that our ancestors, if we go far enough back, were savages, and that such stories are the staple of savage myth. Mr. Müller, however, holds that an accidental corruption of language reduced Aryan fancy to the savage level. He explains the corruption thus: ‘We find, in Sanskrit, that Bheki, the frog, was a beautiful girl, and that one day, when sitting near a well, she was discovered by a king, who asked her to be his wife. She consented, on condition that he should never show her a drop of water. One day, being tired, she asked the king for water; the king forgot his promise, brought water, and Bheki disappeared.’ This myth, Mr. Müller holds, ‘began with a short saying, such as that “Bheki, the sun, will die at the sight of water,” as we should say that the sun will set, when it approaches the water from which it rose in the morning.’ But how did the sun come to be called Bheki, ‘the frog’? Mr. Müller supposes that this name was given to the sun by some poet or fisherman. He gives no evidence for the following statement: ‘It can be shown that “frog” was used as a name for the sun. Now at sunrise and sunset, when the sun was squatting on the water, it was called the “frog.”’ At what historical period the Sanskrit-speaking race was settled in seats where the sun rose and set in water, we do not know, and ‘chapter and verse’ are needed for the statement that ‘frog’ was actually a name of the sun. Mr. Müller’s argument, however, is that the sun was called ‘the frog,’ that people forgot that the frog and sun were identical, and that Frog, or Bheki, was mistaken for the name of a girl to whom was applied the old saw about dying at sight of water. ‘And so,’ says Mr. Müller, ‘the change from sun to frog, and from frog to man, which was at first due to the mere spell of language, would in our nursery tales be ascribed to miraculous charms more familiar to a later age.’ As a matter of fact, magical metamorphoses are infinitely more familiar to the lowest savages than to people in a ‘later age.’ Magic, as Castren observes, ‘belongs to the lowest known stages of civilisation.’ Mr. Müller’s theory, however, is this—that a Sanskrit-speaking people, living where the sun rose out of and set in some ocean, called the sun, as he touched the water, Bheki, the frog, and said he would die at the sight of water. They ceased to call the sun the frog, or Bheki, but kept the saying, ‘Bheki will die at sight of water.’ Not knowing who or what Bheki might be, they took her for a frog, who also was a pretty wench. Lastly, they made the story of Bheki’s distinguished wedding and mysterious disappearance. For this interpretation, historical and linguistic evidence is not offered. When did a Sanskrit-speaking race live beside a great sea? How do we know that ‘frog’ was used as a name for ‘sun’?

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We have already given our explanation. To the savage intellect, man and beast are on a level, and all savage myth makes men descended from beasts; while stories of the loves of gods in bestial shape, or the unions of men and animals, incessantly occur. ‘Unnatural’ as these notions seem to us, no ideas are more familiar to savages, and none recur more frequently in Indo-Aryan, Scandinavian, and Greek mythology. An extant tribe in North-West America still claims descent from a frog. The wedding of Bheki and the king is a survival, in Sanskrit, of a tale of this kind. Lastly, Bheki disappears, when her associations with her old amphibious life are revived in the manner she had expressly forbidden.

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Our interpretation may be supported by an Ojibway parallel. A hunter named Otter-heart, camping near a beaver lodge, found a pretty girl loitering round his fire. She keeps his wigwam in order, and ‘lays his blanket near the deerskin she had laid for herself. “Good,” he muttered, “this is my wife.”’ She refuses to eat the beavers he has shot, but at night he hears a noise, ‘krch, krch, as if beavers were gnawing wood.’ He sees, by the glimmer of the fire, his wife nibbling birch twigs. In fact, the good little wife is a beaver, as the pretty Indian girl was a frog. The pair lived happily till spring came and the snow melted and the streams ran full. Then his wife implored the hunter to build her a bridge over every stream and river, that she might cross dry-footed. ‘For,’ she said, ‘if my feet touch water, this would at once cause thee great sorrow.’ The hunter did as she bade him, but left unbridged one tiny runnel. The wife stumbled into the water, and, as soon as her foot was wet, she immediately resumed her old shape as a beaver, her son became a beaverling, and the brooklet, changing to a roaring river, bore them to the lake. Once the hunter saw his wife again among her beast kin. ‘To thee I sacrificed all,’ she said, ‘and I only asked thee to help me dry-footed over the waters. Thou didst cruelly neglect this. Now I must remain for ever with my people.’

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This tale was told to Kohl by ‘an old insignificant squaw among the Ojibways.’ {80a} Here we have a precise parallel to the tale of Bheki, the frog-bride, and here the reason of the prohibition to touch water is made perfectly unmistakable. The touch magically revived the bride’s old animal life with the beavers. Or was the Indian name for beaver (temaksé) once a name for the sun? {80b}

A curious variant of this widely distributed Märchen of the animal bride is found in the mythical genealogy of the Raja of Chutia Nagpur, a chief of the Naga, or snake race. It is said that Raja Janameja prepared a yajnya, or great malevolently magical incantation, to destroy all the people of the serpent race. To prevent this annihilation, the supernatural being, Pundarika Nag, took a human form, and became the husband of the beautiful Parvati, daughter of a Brahman. But Pundarika Nag, being a serpent by nature, could not divest himself, even in human shape, of his forked tongue and venomed breath. And, just as Urvasi could not abide with her mortal lover, after he transgressed the prohibition to appear before her naked, so Pundarika Nag was compelled by fate to leave his bride, if she asked him any questions about his disagreeable peculiarities. She did, at last, ask questions, in circumstances which made Pundarika believe that he was bound to answer her. Now the curse came upon him, he plunged into a pool, like the beaver, and vanished. His wife became the mother of the serpent Rajas of Chutia Nagpur. Pundarika Nag, in his proper form as a great hooded snake, guarded his first-born child. The crest of the house is a hooded snake with human face. {81a}

Here, then, we have many examples of the disappearance of the bride or bridegroom in consequence of infringement of various mystic rules. Sometimes the beloved one is seen when he or she should not be seen. Sometimes, as in a Maori story, the bride vanishes, merely because she is in a bad temper. {81b} Among the Red Men, as in Sanskrit, the taboo on water is broken, with the usual results. Now for an example in which the rule against using names is infringed. {82a}

This formula constantly occurs in the Welsh fairy tales published by Professor Rhys. {82b} Thus the heir of Corwrion fell in love with a fairy: ‘They were married on the distinct understanding that the husband was not to know her name, . . . and was not to strike her with iron, on pain of her leaving him at once.’ Unluckily the man once tossed her a bridle, the iron bit touched the wife, and ‘she at once flew through the air, and plunged headlong into Corwrion Lake.’

A number of tales turning on the same incident are published in ‘Cymmrodor,’ v. I. In these we have either the taboo on the name, or the taboo on the touch of iron. In a widely diffused superstition iron ‘drives away devils and ghosts,’ according to the Scholiast on the eleventh book of the ‘Odyssey,’ and the Oriental Djinn also flee from iron. {82c} Just as water is fatal to the Aryan frog-bride and to the Red Indian beaver-wife, restoring them to their old animal forms, so the magic touch of iron breaks love between the Welshman and his fairy mistress, the representative of the stone age.

In many tales of fairy-brides, they are won by a kind of force. The lover in the familiar Welsh and German Märchen sees the swan-maidens throw off their swan plumage and dance naked.. He steals the feather-garb of one of them, and so compels her to his love. Finally, she leaves him, in anger, or because he has broken some taboo. Far from being peculiar to Aryan mythology, this legend occurs, as Mr. Farrer has shown, {83a} in Algonquin and Bornoese tradition. The Red Indian story told by Schoolcraft in his ‘Algic Researches’ is most like the Aryan version, but has some native peculiarities. Wampee was a great hunter, who, on the lonely prairie, once heard strains of music. Looking up he saw a speck in the sky: the speck drew nearer and nearer, and proved to be a basket containing twelve heavenly maidens. They reached the earth and began to dance, inflaming the heart of Wampee with love. But Wampee could not draw near the fairy girls in his proper form without alarming them. Like Zeus in his love adventures, Wampee exercised the medicine-man’s power of metamorphosing himself. He assumed the form of a mouse, approached unobserved, and caught one of the dancing maidens. After living with Wampee for some time she wearied of earth, and, by virtue of a ‘mystic chain of verse,’ she ascended again to her heavenly home.


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