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Custom and Myth

Page: 89

The second question now arises: Can we infer from survivals of totemism among Aryans that these Aryans had once been organised on the full totemistic principle, probably with polyandry, and certainly with female descent? Where totemism now exists in full force, there we find exogamy and derivation of the family name through women, the latter custom indicating uncertainty of male parentage in the past. Are we to believe that the same institutions have existed wherever we find survivals of totemism? If this be granted, and if the supposed survivals of totemism among Aryans be accepted as genuine, then the Aryans have distinctly come through a period of kinship reckoned through women, with all that such an institution implies. For indications that the Aryans of Greece and India have passed through the stage of totemism, the reader may be referred to Mr. M’Lennan’s ‘Worship of Plants and Animals’ (‘Fortnightly Review,’ 1869, 1870). The evidence there adduced is not all of the same value, and the papers are only a hasty rough sketch based on the first testimonies that came to hand. Probably the most important ‘survival’ of totemism in Greek legend is the body of stories about the amours of Zeus in animal form. Various noble houses traced their origin to Zeus or Apollo, who, as a bull, tortoise, serpent, swan, or ant, had seduced the mother of the race. The mother of the Arcadians became a she-bear, like the mother of the bear stock of the Iroquois. As we know plenty of races all over the world who trace their descent from serpents, tortoises, swans, and so forth, it is a fair hypothesis that the ancestors of the Greeks once believed in the same fables. In later times the swan, serpent, ant, or tortoise was explained as an avatar of Zeus. The process by which an anthropomorphic god or hero succeeds to the exploits of animals, of theriomorphic gods and heroes, is the most common in mythology, and is illustrated by actual practice in modern India. When the Brahmins convert a pig-worshipping tribe of aboriginals, they tell their proselytes that the pig was an avatar of Vishnu. The same process is found active where the Japanese have influenced the savage Ainos, and persuaded them that their bear- or dog-father was a manifestation of a deity. We know from Plutarch (‘Theseus’) that, in addition to families claiming descent from divine animals, one Athenian yενος, the Ioxidæ, revered an ancestral plant, the asparagus. A vaguer indication of totemism may perhaps be detected in the ancient theriomorphic statues of Greek gods, as the Ram-Zeus and the Horse-headed Demeter, and in the various animals and plants which were sacred to each god and represented as his companions.

The hints of totemism among the ancient Irish are interesting. One hero, Conaire, was the son of a bird, and before his birth his father (the bird) told the woman (his mother) that the child must never eat the flesh of fowls. ‘Thy son shall be named Conaire, and that son shall not kill birds.’ {265a} The hero Cuchullain, being named after the dog, might not eat the flesh of the dog, and came by his ruin after transgressing this totemistic taboo. Races named after animals were common in ancient Ireland. The red-deer and the wolves were tribes dwelling near Ossory, and Professor Rhys, from the frequency of dog names, inclines to believe in a dog totem in Erin. According to the ancient Irish ‘Wonders of Eri,’ in the ‘Book of Glendaloch,’ ‘the descendants of the wolf are in Ossory,’ and they could still transform themselves into wolves. {265b} As to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, there is little evidence beyond the fact that the patronymic names of many of the early settlements of Billings, Arlings, and the rest, are undeniably derived from animals and plants. The manner in which those names are scattered locally is precisely like what results in America, Africa, and Australia from the totemistic organisation. {265c} In Italy the ancient custom by which animals were the leaders of the Ver sacrum or armed migration is well known. The Piceni had for their familiar animal or totem (if we may call it so) a woodpecker; the Hirpini were like the ‘descendants of the wolf’ in Ossory, and practised a wolf-dance in which they imitated the actions of the animal.


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