Custom and Myth
The singular wall-picture (Fig. 9) from a cave in South Africa, which we copy from the ‘Cape Monthly Magazine,’ probably represents a magical ceremony. Bushmen are tempting a great water animal—a rhinoceros, or something of that sort—to run across the land, for the purpose of producing rain. The connection of ideas is scarcely apparent to civilised minds, but it is not more indistinct than the connection between carrying a bit of the rope with which a man has been hanged and success at cards—a common French superstition. The Bushman cave-pictures, like those of Australia, are painted in black, red, and white. Savages, like the Assyrians and the early Greeks, and like children, draw animals much better than the human figure. The Bushman dog in our little engraving (Fig. 7) is all alive—almost as full of life as the dog which accompanies the centaur Chiron, in that beautiful vase in the British Museum which represents the fostering of Achilles. The Bushman wall-paintings, like those of Australia, seem to prove that savage art is capable of considerable freedom, when supplied with fitting materials. Men seem to draw better when they have pigments and a flat surface of rock to work upon, than when they are scratching on hard wood with a sharp edge of a broken shell. Though the thing has little to do with art, it may be worth mentioning, as a matter of curiosity, that the labyrinthine Australian caves are decorated, here and there, with the mark of a red hand. The same mysterious, or at least unexplained, red hand is impressed on the walls of the ruined palaces and temples of Yucatan—the work of a vanished people.
There is one singular fact in the history of savage art which reminds us that savages, like civilised men, have various degrees of culture and various artistic capacities. The oldest inhabitants of Europe who have left any traces of their lives and handiwork must have been savages. Their tools and weapons were not even formed of polished stone, but of rough-hewn flint. The people who used tools of this sort must necessarily have enjoyed but a scanty mechanical equipment, and the life they lived in caves from which they had to drive the cave-bear, and among snows where they stalked the reindeer and the mammoth, must have been very rough. These earliest known Europeans, ‘palæolithic men,’ as they called, from their use of the ancient unpolished stone weapons, appear to have inhabited the countries now known as France and England, before the great Age of Ice. This makes their date one of incalculable antiquity; they are removed from us by a ‘dark backward and abysm of time.’ The whole Age of Ice, the dateless period of the polishers of stone weapons, the arrival of men using weapons of bronze, the time which sufficed to change the climate and fauna and flora of Western Europe, lie between us and palæolithic man. Yet in him we must recognise a skill more akin to the spirit of modern art than is found in any other savage race. Palæolithic man, like other savages, decorated his weapons; but, as I have already said, he did not usually decorate them in the common savage manner with ornamental patterns. He scratched on bits of bone spirited representations of all the animals whose remains are found mixed with his own. He designed the large-headed horse of that period, and science inclines to believe that he drew the breed correctly. His sketches of the mammoth, the reindeer, the bear, and of many fishes, may be seen in the British Museum, or engraved in such works as Professor Boyd Dawkins’s ‘Early Man in Britain.’ The object from which our next illustration (Fig. 12) was engraved represents a deer, and was a knife-handle. Eyes at all trained in art can readily observe the wonderful spirit and freedom of these ancient sketches. They are the rapid characteristic work of true artists who know instinctively what to select and what to sacrifice.
Some learned men, Mr. Boyd Dawkins among them, believe that the Eskimo, that stunted hunting and fishing race of the Western Arctic circle, are descendants of the palæolithic sketchers, and retain their artistic qualities. Other inquirers, with Mr. Geikie and Dr. Wilson, do not believe in this pedigree of the Eskimo. I speak not with authority, but the submission of ignorance, and as one who has no right to an opinion about these deep matters of geology and ethnology. But to me, Mr. Geikie’s arguments appear distinctly the more convincing, and I cannot think it demonstrated that the Eskimo are descended from our old palæolithic artists. But if Mr. Boyd Dawkins is right, if the Eskimo derive their lineage from the artists of the Dordogne, then the Eskimo are sadly degenerated. In Mr. Dawkins’s ‘Early Man’ is an Eskimo drawing of a reindeer hunt, and a palæolithic sketch of a reindeer; these (by permission of the author and Messrs. Macmillan) we reproduce. Look at the vigour and life of the ancient drawing—the feathering hair on the deer’s breast, his head, his horns, the very grasses at his feet, are touched with the graver of a true artist (Fig. 14). The design is like a hasty memorandum of Leech’s. Then compare the stiff formality of the modern Eskimo drawing (Fig. 13). It is rather like a record, a piece of picture-writing, than a free sketch, a rapid representation of what is most characteristic in nature. Clearly, if the Eskimo come from palæolithic man, they are a degenerate race as far as art is concerned. Yet, as may be seen in Dr. Rink’s books, the Eskimo show considerable skill when they have become acquainted with European methods and models, and they have at any rate a greater natural gift for design than the Red Indians, of whose sacred art the Thunderbird brooding over page 298 is a fair example. The Red Men believe in big birds which produce thunder. Quahteaht, the Adam of Vancouver’s Island, married one, and this (Fig. 11) is she.