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Custom and Myth

Page: 57

ulu or mulu = μωλυ, the mysterious Homerik counter-charm to the charms of Kirkê’ (p. 60). Mr. Brown’s theory, therefore, is that moly originally meant ‘star.’ Circe is the moon, Odysseus is the sun, and ‘what watches over the solar hero at night when exposed to the hostile lunar power, but the stars?’ especially the dog-star.

The truth is, that Homer’s moly, whatever plant he meant by the name, is only one of the magical herbs in which most peoples believe or have believed. Like the Scottish rowan, or like St. John’s wort, it is potent against evil influences. People have their own simple reasons for believing in these plants, and have not needed to bring down their humble, early botany from the clouds and stars. We have to imagine, on the other hand (if we follow Mr. Brown), that in some unknown past the Cappadocians turned the Accadian word for a star into a local name of a plant, that this word reached Homer, that the supposed old Accadian myth of the star which watches over the solar hero retained its vitality in Greek, and leaving the star clung to the herb, that Homer used an ‘Akkado-Kappadokian’ myth, and that, many ages after, the Accadian star-name in its perverted sense of ‘rue’ survived in Cappadocia. This structure of argument is based on tablets which even Prof. Sayce cannot read, and on possibilities about the alliances of tongues concerning which we ‘know next to nothing.’ A method which leaves on one side the common, natural, widely-diffused beliefs about the magic virtue of herbs (beliefs which we have seen at work in Kensington and in Central Africa), to hunt for moly among stars and undeciphered Kappadokian inscriptions, seems a dubious method. We have examined it at full length because it is a specimen of an erudite, but, as we think, a mistaken way in folklore. M. Halévy’s warnings against the shifting mythical theories based on sciences so new as the lore of Assyria and ‘Akkadia’ are by no means superfluous. ‘Akkadian’ is rapidly become as ready a key to all locks as ‘Aryan’ was a few years ago.

‘KALEVALA’; OR, THE FINNISH NATIONAL EPIC.

It is difficult to account for the fact that the scientific curiosity which is just now so busy in examining all the monuments of the primitive condition of our race, should, in England at least, have almost totally neglected to popularise the ‘Kalevala,’ or national poem of the Finns. Besides its fresh and simple beauty of style, its worth as a storehouse of every kind of primitive folklore, being as it is the production of an Urvolk, a nation that has undergone no violent revolution in language or institutions—the ‘Kalevala’ has the peculiar interest of occupying a position between the two kinds of primitive poetry, the ballad and the epic. So much difficulty has been introduced into the study of the first developments of song, by confusing these distinct sorts of composition under the name of popular poetry, that it may be well, in writing of a poem which occupies a middle place between epic and ballad, to define what we mean by each.

The author of our old English ‘Art of Poesie’ begins his work with a statement which may serve as a text: ‘Poesie,’ says Puttenham, writing in 1589, ‘is more ancient than the artificiall of the Greeks and Latines, coming by instinct of nature, and used by the savage and uncivill, who were before all science and civilitie. This is proved by certificate of merchants and travellers, who by late navigations have surveyed the whole world, and discovered large countries, and strange people, wild and savage, affirming that the American, the Perusine, and the very canniball, do sing, and also say, their highest and holiest matters in certain riming versicles.’ Puttenham is here referring to that instinct of primitive men, which compels them in all moments of high-wrought feeling, and on all solemn occasions, to give utterance to a kind of chant. {157a} Such a chant is the song of Lamech, when he had ‘slain a man to his wounding.’ So in the Norse sagas, Grettir and Gunnar sing when they have anything particular to say; and so in the Märchen—the primitive fairy tales of all nations—scraps of verse are introduced where emphasis is wanted. This craving for passionate expression takes a more formal shape in the lays which, among all primitive peoples, as among the modern Greeks to-day, {157b} are sung at betrothals, funerals, and departures for distant lands. These songs have been collected in Scotland by Scott and Motherwell; their Danish counterparts have been translated by Mr. Prior. In Greece, M. Fauriel and Dr. Ulrichs; in Provence, Damase Arbaud; in Italy, M. Nigra; in Servia, Talvj; in France, Gérard de Nerval—have done for their separate countries what Scott did for the Border. Professor Child, of Harvard, is publishing a beautiful critical collection of English Volkslieder, with all known variants from every country.


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