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Custom and Myth

Page: 48

Now it is time to prove the truth of our assertion that the star-stories of savage and of civilised races closely resemble each other. Let us begin with that well-known group the Pleiades. The peculiarity of the Pleiades is that the group consists of seven stars, of which one is so dim that it seems entirely to disappear, and many persons can only detect its presence through a telescope. The Greeks had a myth to account for the vanishing of the lost Pleiad. The tale is given in the ‘Catasterismoi’ (stories of metamorphoses into stars) attributed to Eratosthenes. This work was probably written after our era; but the author derived his information from older treatises now lost. According to the Greek myth, then, the seven stars of the Pleiad were seven maidens, daughters of the Giant Atlas. Six of them had gods for lovers; Poseidon admired two of them, Zeus three, and Ares one; but the seventh had only an earthly wooer, and when all of them were changed into stars, the maiden with the mortal lover hid her light for shame.

Now let us compare the Australian story. According to Mr. Dawson (‘Australian Aborigines’), a writer who understands the natives well, ‘their knowledge of the heavenly bodies greatly exceeds that of most white people,’ and ‘is taught by men selected for their intelligence and information. The knowledge is important to the aborigines on their night journeys;’ so we may be sure that the natives are careful observers of the heavens, and are likely to be conservative of their astronomical myths. The ‘Lost Pleiad’ has not escaped them, and this is how they account for her disappearance. The Pirt Kopan noot tribe have a tradition that the Pleiades were a queen and her six attendants. Long ago the Crow (our Canopus) fell in love with the queen, who refused to be his wife. The Crow found that the queen and her six maidens, like other Australian gins, were in the habit of hunting for white edible grubs in the bark of trees. The Crow at once changed himself into a grub (just as Jupiter and Indra used to change into swans, horses, ants, or what not) and hid in the bark of a tree. The six maidens sought to pick him out with their wooden hooks, but he broke the points of all the hooks. Then came the queen, with her pretty bone hook; he let himself be drawn out, took the shape of a giant, and ran away with her. Ever since there have only been six stars, the six maidens, in the Pleiad. This story is well known, by the strictest inquiry, to be current among the blacks of the West District and in South Australia.

Mr. Tylor, whose opinion is entitled to the highest respect, thinks that this may be a European myth, told by some settler to a black in the Greek form, and then spread about among the natives. He complains that the story of the loss of the brightest star does not fit the facts of the case.

We do not know, and how can the Australians know, that the lost star was once the brightest? It appears to me that the Australians, remarking the disappearances of a star, might very naturally suppose that the Crow had selected for his wife that one which had been the most brilliant of the cluster. Besides, the wide distribution of the tale among the natives, and the very great change in the nature of the incidents, seem to point to a native origin. Though the main conception—the loss of one out of seven maidens—is identical in Greek and in Murri, the manner of the disappearance is eminently Hellenic in the one case, eminently savage in the other. However this may be, nothing of course is proved by a single example. Let us next examine the stars Castor and Pollux. Both in Greece and in Australia these are said once to have been two young men. In the ‘Catasterismoi,’ already spoken of, we read: ‘The Twins, or Dioscouroi.—They were nurtured in Lacedæmon, and were famous for their brotherly love, wherefore, Zeus, desiring to make their memory immortal, placed them both among the stars.’ In Australia, according to Mr. Brough Smyth (‘Aborigines of Victoria’), Turree (Castor) and Wanjel (Pollux) are two young men who pursue Purra and kill him at the commencement of the great heat. Coonar toorung (the mirage) is the smoke of the fire by which they roast him. In Greece it was not Castor and Pollux, but Orion who was the great hunter placed among the stars. Among the Bushmen of South Africa, Castor and Pollux are not young men, but young women, the wives of the Eland, the great native antelope. In Greek star-stories the Great Bear keeps watch, Homer says, on the hunter Orion for fear of a sudden attack. But how did the Bear get its name in Greece? According to Hesiod, the oldest Greek poet after Homer, the Bear was once a lady, daughter of Lycaon, King of Arcadia. She was a nymph of the train of chaste Artemis, but yielded to the love of Zeus, and became the ancestress of all the Arcadians (that is, Bear-folk). In her bestial form she was just about to be slain by her own son when Zeus rescued her by raising her to the stars. Here we must notice first, that the Arcadians, like Australians, Red Indians, Bushmen, and many other wild races, and like the Bedouins, believed themselves to be descended from an animal. That the early Egyptians did the same is not improbable; for names of animals are found among the ancestors in the very oldest genealogical papyrus, {128} as in the genealogies of the old English kings. Next the Arcadians transferred the ancestral bear to the heavens, and, in doing this, they resembled the Peruvians, of whom Acosta says: ‘They adored the star Urchuchilly, feigning it to be a Ram, and worshipped two others, and say that one of them is a sheep, and the other a lamb . . . others worshipped the star called the Tiger. They were of opinion that there was not any beast or bird upon the earth, whose shape or image did not shine in the heavens.’

But to return to our bears.


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