Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Nereus, another personification of the sea, whose name is derived from nao (“to flow”), is quite inseparable from his native element, even in the Greeks’ conception of him, as are also the Tritons, Oceanides, Nereides, and the alluring Sirens; who, however, have also been viewed as personifications of the winds.
The cloud myths, to which frequent allusion has already been made, comprise not only the cattle of the sun, the Centaurs, Nephele, Phryxus, Helle, and Pegasus, but as, “in primitive Aryan lore, the sky itself was a blue sea, and the clouds were ships sailing over it,” so Charon’s boat was supposed to be one of these vessels, and the gilded shallop [Pg 398] in which the sun daily made his pilgrimage back to the far east, another.
As the ancient Aryan had the same word to denote cloud and mountain (“for the piles of vapor on the horizon were so like Alpine ranges”), the cloud and mountain myths are often the same. In the story of Niobe we have one of the cloud myths. According to some mythologists, Niobe herself is a personification of the clouds. Her many children, the mists, are fully as beautiful as Apollo and Diana, by whose bright darts they are ruthlessly slain. Niobe grieves so sorely at their untimely death, that she dissolves in a rain of tears, which turns into hard ice on the mountain summit. According to other authorities, she was a personification of winter, and her tears represented the thaw occasioned by the sunbeams (Apollo’s arrows).
The fire myths also form quite a large class, and comprise the Cyclopes (the thunder and lightning), children of Heaven and Earth, whose single blazing eye has been considered an emblem of the sun. They forge the terrible thunderbolts, the weapons of the sky (Jupiter), by means of which he is enabled to triumph over all his enemies, and rule supreme.
The Titans are emblems of the subterranean fires and the volcanic forces of nature, which, hidden deep underground, occasionally emerge, heave up great masses of rock, and hurl them about with an accompaniment of deafening roars, while their ponderous tread causes the very earth beneath them to tremble.
In this group we also find Prometheus, whose name has been traced to the Sanskrit pramantha (or “fire drill”). Learned men have therefore proved that the “beneficent Titan, who stole fire from heaven and bestowed it upon mankind as the richest of boons,” was originally nothing but [Pg 399] the lightning (“the celestial drill which churns fire out of the clouds”); but the Greeks had so entirely forgotten this etymological meaning, that they interpreted his name as the “fore-thinker,” and considered him endowed with extraordinary prophetic powers.
Vulcan (or Hephæstus), strictly “the brightness of the flame,” another fire hero, is represented as very puny at birth, because the flame comes from a tiny spark. His name is derived from the Hindoo agni, whence come the Latin ignis and the English verb to ignite. Vulcan dwells by preference in the heart of volcanoes, where the intense heat keeps the metals in fusion, and so malleable that he can mold them at will; and, as “the association of the heavenly fire with the life-giving forces of nature is very common,” the Hindoo Agni was considered the patron of marriage as well as of fire; and the Greeks, to carry out this idea, united their fire god, Hephæstus, to the goddess of marriage, Aphrodite.
The Greek Hestia (or Latin Vesta) was also a personification of fire; and, her name having retained its primitive meaning to a great extent, “she continued to the end, as she had been from the beginning, the household altar, the sanctuary of peace and equity, and the source of all happiness and wealth.” Her office was not limited merely to the hearths of households and cities, for it was supposed “that in the center of the earth there was a hearth which answered to the hearth placed in the center of the universe.”