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Custom and Myth

Page: 33

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The taboos are, to see the beloved unveiled, to utter his or her name, to touch her with a metal ‘terrible to ghosts and spirits,’ or to do some action which will revive the associations of a former life. We have shown that rules of nuptial etiquette resembling these in character do exist, and have existed, even among Greeks—as where the Milesian, like the Zulu, women made a law not to utter their husbands’ names. Finally, we think it a reasonable hypothesis that tales on the pattern of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ might have been evolved wherever a curious nuptial taboo required to be sanctioned, or explained, by a myth. On this hypothesis, the stories may have been separately invented in different lands; but there is also a chance that they have been transmitted from people to people in the unknown past of our scattered and wandering race. This theory seems at least as probable as the hypothesis that the meaning of an Aryan proverbial statement about sun and dawn was forgotten, and was altered unconsciously into a tale which is found among various non-Aryan tribes. That hypothesis again, learned and ingenious as it is, has the misfortune to be opposed by other scholarly hypotheses not less ingenious and learned.

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As for the sun-frog, we may hope that he has sunk for ever beneath the western wave.

A FAR-TRAVELLED TALE.

A modern novelist has boasted that her books are read ‘from Tobolsk to Tangiers.’ This is a wide circulation, but the widest circulation in the world has probably been achieved by a story whose author, unlike Ouida, will never be known to fame. The tale which we are about to examine is, perhaps, of all myths the most widely diffused, yet there is no ready way of accounting for its extraordinary popularity. Any true ‘nature-myth,’ any myth which accounts for the processes of nature or the aspects of natural phenomena, may conceivably have been invented separately, wherever men in an early state of thought observed the same facts, and attempted to explain them by telling a story. Thus we have seen that the earlier part of the Myth of Cronus is a nature-myth, setting forth the cause of the separation of Heaven and Earth. Star-myths again, are everywhere similar, because men who believed all nature to be animated and personal, accounted for the grouping of constellations in accordance with these crude beliefs. {87} Once more, if a story like that of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ be found among the most diverse races, the distribution becomes intelligible if the myth was invented to illustrate or enforce a widely prevalent custom. But in the following story no such explanation is even provisionally acceptable.

The gist of the tale (which has many different ‘openings,’ and conclusions in different places) may be stated thus: A young man is brought to the home of a hostile animal, a giant, cannibal, wizard, or a malevolent king. He is put by his unfriendly host to various severe trials, in which it is hoped that he will perish. In each trial he is assisted by the daughter of his host. After achieving the adventures, he elopes with the girl, and is pursued by her father. The runaway pair throw various common objects behind them, which are changed into magical obstacles and check the pursuit of the father. The myth has various endings, usually happy, in various places. Another form of the narrative is known, in which the visitors to the home of the hostile being are, not wooers of his daughter, but brothers of his wife. {88} The incidents of the flight, in this variant, are still of the same character. Finally, when the flight is that of a brother from his sister’s malevolent ghost, in Hades (Japan), or of two sisters from a cannibal mother or step-mother (Zulu and Samoyed), the events of the flight and the magical aids to escape remain little altered. We shall afterwards see that attempts have been made to interpret one of these narratives as a nature-myth; but the attempts seem unsuccessful. We are therefore at a loss to account for the wide diffusion of this tale, unless it has been transmitted slowly from people to people, in the immense unknown prehistoric past of the human race.

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