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Custom and Myth

Page: 51

It would be easy to multiply examples of this stage of thought among Aryans and savages. But we have probably brought forward enough for our purpose, and have expressly chosen instances from the most widely separated peoples. These instances, it will perhaps be admitted, suggest, if they do not prove, that the Greeks had received from tradition precisely the same sort of legends about the heavenly bodies as are current among Eskimo and Bushmen, New Zealanders and Iowas. As much, indeed, might be inferred from our own astronomical nomenclature. We now give to newly discovered stars names derived from distinguished people, as Georgium Sidus, or Herschel; or, again, merely technical appellatives, as Alpha, Beta, and the rest. We should never think when ‘some new planet swims into our ken’ of calling it Kangaroo, or Rabbit, or after the name of some hero of romance, as Rob Roy, or Count Fosco. But the names of stars which we inherit from Greek mythology—the Bear, the Pleiads, Castor and Pollux, and so forth—are such as no people in our mental condition would originally think of bestowing. When Callimachus and the courtly astronomers of Alexandria pretended that the golden locks of Berenice were raised to the heavens, that was a mere piece of flattery constructed on the inherited model of legends about the crown (Corona) of Ariadne. It seems evident enough that the older Greek names of stars are derived from a time when the ancestors of the Greeks were in the mental and imaginative condition of Iowas, Kanekas, Bushmen, Murri, and New Zealanders. All these, and all other savage peoples, believe in a kind of equality and intercommunion among all things animate and inanimate. Stones are supposed in the Pacific Islands to be male and female and to propagate their species. Animals are believed to have human or superhuman intelligence, and speech, if they choose to exercise the gift. Stars are just on the same footing, and their movements are explained by the same ready system of universal anthropomorphism. Stars, fishes, gods, heroes, men, trees, clouds, and animals, all play their equal part in the confused dramas of savage thought and savage mythology. Even in practical life the change of a sorcerer into an animal is accepted as a familiar phenomenon, and the power of soaring among the stars is one on which the Australian Biraark, or the Eskimo Shaman, most plumes himself. It is not wonderful that things which are held possible in daily practice should be frequent features of mythology. Hence the ready invention and belief of star-legends, which in their turn fix the names of the heavenly bodies. Nothing more, except the extreme tenacity of tradition and the inconvenience of changing a widely accepted name, is needed to account for the human and animal names of the stars. The Greeks received from the dateless past of savage intellect the myths, and the names of the constellations, and we have taken them, without inquiry, from the Greeks. Thus it happens that our celestial globes are just as queer menageries as any globes could be that were illustrated by Australians or American Indians, by Bushmen or Peruvian aborigines, or Eskimo. It was savages, we may be tolerably certain, who first handed to science the names of the constellations, and provided Greece with the raw material of her astronomical myths—as Bacon prettily says, that we listen to the harsh ideas of earlier peoples ‘blown softly through the flutes of the Grecians.’

This position has been disputed by Mr. Brown, in a work rather komically called ‘The Law of Kosmic Order.’ Mr. Brown’s theory is that the early Accadians named the zodiacal signs after certain myths and festivals connected with the months. Thus the crab is a figure of ‘the darkness power’ which seized the Akkadian solar hero, Dumuzi, and ‘which is constantly represented in monstrous and drakontic form.’ The bull, again, is connected with night and darkness, ‘in relation to the horned moon,’ and is, for other reasons, ‘a nocturnal potency.’ Few stars, to tell the truth, are diurnal potencies. Mr. Brown’s explanations appear to me far-fetched and unconvincing. But, granting that the zodiacal signs reached Greece from Chaldæa, Mr. Brown will hardly maintain that Australians, Melanesians, Iowas, Amazon Indians, Eskimo, and the rest, borrowed their human and animal stars from ‘Akkadia.’ The belief in animal and human stars is practically universal among savages who have not attained the ‘Akkadian’ degree of culture. The belief, as Mr. Tylor has shown, {137} is a natural result of savage ideas. We therefore infer that the ‘Akkadians,’ too, probably fell back for star-names on what they inherited from the savage past. If the Greeks borrowed certain star-names from the Akkadians, they also, like the Aryans of India, retained plenty of savage star-myths of their own, fables derived from the earliest astronomical guesses of early thought.

The first moment in astronomical science arrives when the savage, looking at a star, says, like the child in the nursery poem, ‘How I wonder what you are!’ The next moment comes when the savage has made his first rough practical observations of the movements of the heavenly body. His third step is to explain these to himself. Now science cannot offer any but a fanciful explanation beyond the sphere of experience. The experience of the savage is limited to the narrow world of his tribe, and of the beasts, birds, and fishes of his district. His philosophy, therefore, accounts for all phenomena on the supposition that the laws of the animate nature he observes are working everywhere. But his observations, misguided by his crude magical superstitions, have led him to believe in a state of equality and kinship between men and animals, and even inorganic things. He often worships the very beasts he slays; he addresses them as if they understood him; he believes himself to be descended from the animals, and of their kindred. These confused ideas he applies to the stars, and recognises in them men like himself, or beasts like those with which he conceives himself to be in such close human relations. There is scarcely a bird or beast but the Red Indian or the Australian will explain its peculiarities by a myth, like a page from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses.’ It was once a man or a woman, and has been changed to bird or beast by a god or a magician. Men, again, have originally been beasts, in his philosophy, and are descended from wolves, frogs or serpents, or monkeys. The heavenly bodies are traced to precisely the same sort of origin; and hence, we conclude, come their strange animal names, and the strange myths about them which appear in all ancient poetry. These names, in turn, have curiously affected human beliefs. Astrology is based on the opinion that a man’s character and fate are determined by the stars under which he is born. And the nature of these stars is deduced from their names, so that the bear should have been found in the horoscope of Dr. Johnson. When Giordano Bruno wrote his satire against religion, the famous ‘Spaccio della bestia trionfante,’ he proposed to banish not only the gods but the beasts from heaven. He would call the stars, not the Bear, or the


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