Custom and Myth
It has been shown that the art which aims at decoration is better adapted to both the purposes and materials of savages than the art which aims at representation. As a rule, the materials of the lower savages are their own bodies (which they naturally desire to make beautiful for ever by tattooing), and the hard substances of which they fashion their tools and weapons. These hard substances, when worked on with cutting instruments of stone or shell, are most easily adorned with straight cut lines, and spirals are therefore found to be, on the whole, a comparatively late form of ornament.
We have now to discuss the efforts of the savage to represent. Here, again, we have to consider the purpose which animates him, and the materials which are at his service. His pictures have a practical purpose, and do not spring from what we are apt, perhaps too hastily, to consider the innate love of imitation for its own sake. In modern art, in modern times, no doubt the desire to imitate nature, by painting or sculpture, has become almost an innate impulse, an in-born instinct. But there must be some ‘reason why’ for this; and it does not seem at all unlikely that we inherit the love, the disinterested love, of imitative art from very remote ancestors, whose habits of imitation had a direct, interested, and practical purpose. The member of Parliament who mimics the crowing of a cock during debate, or the street boy who beguiles his leisure by barking like a dog, has a disinterested pleasure in the exercise of his skill; but advanced thinkers seem pretty well agreed that the first men who imitated the voices of dogs, and cocks, and other animals, did not do so merely for fun, but with the practical purpose of indicating to their companions the approach of these creatures. Such were the rude beginnings of human language: and whether that theory be correct or not, there are certainly practical reasons which impel the savage to attempt imitative art. I doubt if there are many savage races which do not use representative art for the purposes of writing—that is, to communicate information to persons whom they cannot reach by the voice, and to assist the memory, which, in a savage, is perhaps not very strong. To take examples. A savage man meets a savage maid. She does not speak his language, nor he hers. How are they to know whether, according to the marriage laws of their race, they are lawful mates for each other? This important question is settled by an inspection of their tattooed marks. If a Thlinkeet man of the Swan stock meets an Iroquois maid of the Swan stock they cannot speak to each other, and the ‘gesture language’ is cumbrous. But if both are tattooed with the swan, then the man knows that this daughter of the swan is not for him. He could no more marry her than Helen of Troy could have married Castor, the tamer of horses. Both are children of the Swan, as were Helen and Castor, and must regard each other as brother and sister. The case of the Thlinkeet man and the Iroquois maid is extremely unlikely to occur; but I give it as an example of the practical use among savages, of representative art.
Among the uses of art for conveying intelligence we notice that even the Australians have what the Greeks would have called the σκυταλη, a staff on which inscriptions, legible to the Aborigines, are engraven. I believe, however, that the Australian σκυταλη is not usually marked with picture-writing, but with notches—even more difficult to decipher. As an example of Red Indian picture-writing we publish a scroll from Kohl’s book on the natives of North America. This rude work of art, though the reader may think little of it, is really a document as important in its way as the Chaldæan clay tablets inscribed with the record of the Deluge. The coarsely-drawn figures recall, to the artist’s mind, much of the myth of Manabozho, the Prometheus and the Deucalion, the Cain and the Noah of the dwellers by the great lake. Manabozho was a great chief, who had two wives that quarrelled. The two stumpy half-figures (4) represent the wives; the mound between them is the displeasure of Manabozho. Further on (5) you see him caught up between two trees—an unpleasant fix, from which the wolves and squirrels refused to extricate him. The kind of pyramid with a figure at top (8) is a mountain, on which when the flood came, Manabozho placed his grandmother to be out of the water’s way. The somewhat similar object is Manabozho himself, on the top of his mountain. The animals you next behold (10) were sent out by Manabozho to ascertain how the deluge was faring, and to carry messages to his grandmother. This scroll was drawn, probably on birch bark, by a Red Man of literary attainments, who gave it to Kohl (in its lower right-hand corner (11) he has pictured the event), that he might never forget the story of the Manabozhian deluge. The Red Indians have always, as far as European knowledge goes, been in the habit of using this picture-writing for the purpose of retaining their legends, poems, and incantations. It is unnecessary to say that the picture-writing of Mexico and the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt are derived from the same savage processes. I must observe that the hasty indications of the figure used in picture-writing are by no means to be regarded as measures of the Red Men’s skill in art. They can draw much better than the artist who recorded the Manabozhian legend, when they please.