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Custom and Myth

Page: 46

The process by which the god ousted the beasts may perhaps be observed in Samoa. There (as Dr. Turner tells us in his ‘Samoa’) each family has its own sacred animal, which it may not eat. If this law be transgressed, the malefactor is supernaturally punished in a variety of ways. But, while each family has thus its totem, four or five different families recognise, in owl, crab, lizard, and so on, incarnations of the same god, say of Tongo. If Tongo had a temple among these families, we can readily believe that images of the various beasts in which he was incarnate would be kept within the consecrated walls. Savage ideas like these, if they were ever entertained in Greece, would account for the holy animals of the different deities. But it is obvious that the phenomena which we have been studying may be otherwise explained. It may be said that the Sminthian Apollo was only revered as the enemy and opponent of mice. St. Gertrude (whose heart was eaten by mice) has the same rôle in France. {119} The worship of Apollo, and the badge of the mouse, would, on this principle, be diffused by colonies from some centre of the faith. The images of mice in Apollo’s temples would be nothing more than votive offerings. Thus, in the church of a Saxon town, the verger shows a silver mouse dedicated to Our Lady. ‘This is the greatest of our treasures,’ says the verger. ‘Our town was overrun with mice till the ladies of the city offered this mouse of silver. Instantly all the mice disappeared.’ ‘And are you such fools as to believe that the creatures went away because a silver mouse was dedicated?’ asked a Prussian officer. ‘No,’ replied the verger, rather neatly; ‘or long ago we should have offered a silver Prussian.’

STAR MYTHS.

Artemus Ward used to say that, while there were many things in the science of astronomy hard to be understood, there was one fact which entirely puzzled him. He could partly perceive how we ‘weigh the sun,’ and ascertain the component elements of the heavenly bodies, by the aid of spectrum analysis. ‘But what beats me about the stars,’ he observed plaintively, ‘is how we come to know their names.’ This question, or rather the somewhat similar question, ‘How did the constellations come by their very peculiar names?’ has puzzled Professor Pritchard and other astronomers more serious than Artemus Ward. Why is a group of stars called the Bear, or the Swan, or the Twins, or named after the Pleiades, the fair daughters of the Giant Atlas? {121} These are difficulties that meet even children when they examine a ‘celestial globe.’ There they find the figure of a bear, traced out with lines in the intervals between the stars of the constellations, while a very imposing giant is so drawn that Orion’s belt just fits his waist. But when he comes to look at the heavens, the infant speculator sees no sort of likeness to a bear in the stars, nor anything at all resembling a giant in the neighbourhood of Orion. The most eccentric modern fancy which can detect what shapes it will in clouds, is unable to find any likeness to human or animal forms in the stars, and yet we call a great many of the stars by the names of men and beasts and gods. Some resemblance to terrestrial things, it is true, everyone can behold in the heavens. Corona, for example, is like a crown, or, as the Australian black fellows know, it is like a boomerang, and we can understand why they give it the name of that curious curved missile. The


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