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Custom and Myth

Page: 91

(6.) There remains the evidence of actual fact and custom among Aryan peoples. The Lycians, according to Herodotus, ‘have this peculiar custom, wherein they resemble no other men, they derive their names from their mothers, and not from their fathers, and through mothers reckon their kin.’ Status also was derived through the mothers. {273b} The old writer’s opinion that the custom (so common in Australia, America, and Africa) was unique, is itself a proof of his good faith. Bachofen (p. 390) remarks that several Lycian inscriptions give the names of mothers only. Polybius attributes (assigning a fantastic reason) the same custom of counting kin through mothers to the Locrians. {273c} The British and Irish custom of deriving descents through women is well known, {273d} and a story is told to account for the practice. The pedigrees of the British kings show that most did not succeed to their fathers, and the various records of early Celtic morals go to prove that no other system of kinship than the maternal would have possessed any value, so uncertain was fatherhood. These are but hints of the prevalence of institutions which survived among Teutonic races in the importance attached to the relationship of a man’s sister’s son. Though no longer his legal heir, the sister’s son was almost closer than any other kinsman.

We have now summarised and indicated the nature of the evidence which, on the whole, inclines us to the belief of Mr. M’Lennan rather than of Sir Henry Maine. The point to which all the testimony adduced converges, the explanation which most readily solves all the difficulties, is the explanation of Mr. M’Lennan. The Aryan races have very generally passed through the stage of scarcity of women, polyandry, absence of recognised male kinship, and recognition of kinship through women. What Sir Henry Maine admits as the exception, we are inclined to regard as having, in a very remote past, been the rule. No one kind of evidence—neither traces of marriage by capture, of exogamy, of totemism, of tradition, of noted fact among Lycians and Picts and Irish—would alone suffice to guide our opinion in this direction. But the cumulative force of the testimony strikes us as not inconsiderable, and it must be remembered that the testimony has not yet been assiduously collected.

Let us end by showing how this discussion illustrates the method of Folklore. We have found anomalies among Aryans. We have seen the gens an odd, decaying institution. We have seen Greek families claim descent from various animals, said to be Zeus in disguise. We have found them tracing kinship and deriving names from the mother. We have found stocks with animal and vegetable names. We have found half-brothers and sisters marrying. We have noted prohibition to marry anyone of the same family name. All these institutions are odd, anomalous, decaying things among Aryans, and the more civilised the Aryans the more they decay. All of them are living, active things among savages, and, far from being anomalous, are in precise harmony with savage notions of the world. Surely, then, where they seem decaying and anomalous, as among Aryans, these customs and laws are mouldering relics of ideas and practices natural and inevitable among savages.

THE ART OF SAVAGES. {276}

‘Avoid Coleridge, he is useless,’ says Mr. Ruskin. Why should the poetry of Coleridge be useful? The question may interest the critic, but we are only concerned with Mr. Ruskin here, for one reason. His disparagement of Coleridge as ‘useless’ is a survival of the belief that art should be ‘useful.’ This is the savage’s view of art. He imitates nature, in dance, song, or in plastic art, for a definite practical purpose. His dances are magical dances, his images are made for a magical purpose, his songs are incantations. Thus the theory that art is a disinterested expression of the imitative faculty is scarcely warranted by the little we know of art’s beginnings. We shall adopt, provisionally, the hypothesis that the earliest art with which we are acquainted is that of savages contemporary or extinct. Some philosophers may tell us that all known savages are only degraded descendants of early civilised men who have, unluckily and inexplicably, left no relics of their civilisation. But we shall argue on the opposite theory, that the art of Australians, for example, is really earlier in kind, more backward, nearer the rude beginnings of things, than the art of people who have attained to some skill in pottery, like the New Caledonians. These, again, are much more backward, in a state really much earlier, than the old races of Mexico and Peru; while they, in turn, show but a few traces of advance towards the art of Egypt; and the art of Egypt, at least after the times of the Ancient Empire, is scarcely advancing in the direction of the flawless art of Greece. We shall be able to show how savage art, as of the Australians, develops into barbarous art, as of the New Zealanders; while the arts of strange civilisations, like those of Peru and Mexico, advance one step further; and how, again, in the early art of Greece, in the Greek art of ages prior to Pericles, there are remains of barbaric forms which are gradually softened into beauty. But there are necessarily breaks and solutions of continuity in the path of progress.

One of the oldest problems has already risen before us in connection with the question stated—is art the gratification of the imitative faculty? Now, among the lowest, the most untutored, the worst equipped savages of contemporary races, art is rather decorative on the whole than imitative. The patterns on Australian shields and clubs, the scars which they raise on their own flesh by way of tattooing, are very rarely imitations of any objects in nature. The Australians, like the Red Indians, like many African and some aboriginal Indian races, Peruvians, and others, distinguish their families by the names of various plants and animals, from which each family boasts its descent. Thus you have a family called Kangaroos, descended, as they fancy, from the kangaroo; another from the cockatoo, another from the black snake, and so forth. Now, in many quarters of the globe, this custom and this superstition, combined with the imitative faculty in man, has produced a form of art representing the objects from which the families claim descent. This art is a sort of rude heraldry—probably the origin of heraldry. Thus, if a Red Indian (say a Delaware) is of the family of the Turtle, he blazons a turtle on his shield or coat, probably tattoos or paints his breast with a figure of a turtle, and always has a turtle, reversed, designed on the pillar above his grave when he dies, just as, in our mediæval chronicles, the leopards of an English king are reversed on his scutcheon opposite the record of his death. But the Australians, to the best of my knowledge, though they are much governed by belief in descent from animals, do not usually blazon their crest on their flesh, nor on the trees near the place where the dead are buried. They have not arrived at this pitch of imitative art, though they have invented or inherited a kind of runes which they notch on sticks, and in which they convey to each other secret messages. The natives of the Upper Darling, however, do carve their family crests on their shields. In place of using imitative art, the Murri are said, I am not quite sure with what truth, to indicate the distinction of families by arrangements of patterns, lines and dots, tattooed on the breast and arms, and carved on the bark of trees near places of burial. In any case, the absence of the rude imitative art of heraldry among a race which possesses all the social conditions that produce this art is a fact worth noticing, and itself proves that the native art of one of the most backward races we know is not essentially imitative.


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