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Custom and Myth

Page: 49

The Australians have, properly speaking, no bears, though the animal called the native bear is looked up to by the aborigines with superstitious regard. But among the North American Indians, as the old missionaries Lafitau and Charlevoix observed, ‘the four stars in front of our constellation are a bear; those in the tail are hunters who pursue him; the small star apart is the pot in which they mean to cook him.’

It may be held that the Red Men derived their bear from the European settlers. But, as we have seen, an exact knowledge of the stars has always been useful if not essential to savages; and we venture to doubt whether they would confuse their nomenclature and sacred traditions by borrowing terms from trappers and squatters. But, if this is improbable, it seems almost impossible that all savage races should have borrowed their whole conception of the heavenly bodies from the myths of Greece. It is thus that Egede, a missionary of the last century, describes the Eskimo philosophy of the stars: ‘The notions that the Greenlanders have as to the origin of the heavenly lights—as sun, moon, and stars—are very nonsensical; in that they pretend they have formerly been as many of their own ancestors, who, on different accounts, were lifted up to heaven, and became such glorious celestial bodies.’ Again, he writes: ‘Their notions about the stars are that some of them have been men, and others different sorts, of animals and fishes.’ But every reader of Ovid knows that this was the very mythical theory of the Greeks and Romans. The Egyptians, again, worshipped Osiris, Isis, and the rest as ancestors, and there are even modern scholars, like Mr. Loftie in his ‘Essay of Scarabs,’ who hold Osiris to have been originally a real historical person. But the Egyptian priests who showed Plutarch the grave of Osiris, showed him, too, the stars into which Osiris, Isis, and Horus had been metamorphosed. Here, then, we have Greeks, Egyptians, and Eskimo, all agreed about the origin of the heavenly lights, all of opinion that ‘they have formerly been as many of their own ancestors.’

The Australian general theory is: ‘Of the good men and women, after the deluge, Pundjel (a kind of Zeus, or rather a sort of Prometheus of Australian mythology) made stars. Sorcerers (Biraark) can tell which stars were once good men and women.’ Here the sorcerers have the same knowledge as the Egyptian priests. Again, just as among the Arcadians, ‘the progenitors of the existing tribes, whether birds, or beasts, or men, were set in the sky, and made to shine as stars.’ {130}

We have already given some Australian examples in the stories of the Pleiades, and of Castor and Pollux. We may add the case of the Eagle. In Greece the Eagle was the bird of Zeus, who carried off Ganymede to be the cup-bearer of Olympus.


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