Custom and Myth

Page: 28

{69a} Violet also, according to Sir G. W. Cox, {69b} is a loud or crying colour. ‘The word (ιος), as applied to colour, is traced by Professor Max Müller to the root i, as denoting a “crying hue,” that is, a loud colour.’ It is interesting to learn that our Aryan fathers spoke of ‘loud colours,’ and were so sensitive as to think violet ‘loud.’ Besides, Pururavas calls himself Vasistha, which, as we know, is a name of the sun; and if he is called Aido, the son of Ida, the same name is elsewhere given {69c} to Agni, the fire. ‘The conclusion of the argument is that antiquity spoke of the naked sun, and of the chaste dawn hiding her face when she had seen her husband. Yet she says she will come again. And after the sun has travelled through the world in search of his beloved, when he comes to the threshold of Death and is going to end his solitary life, she appears again, in the gloaming, the same as the dawn, as Eos in Homer, begins and ends the day, and she carries him away to the golden seats of the Immortals.’ {69d}

Kuhn objects to all this explanation, partly on what we think the inadequate ground that there is no necessary connection between the story of Urvasi (thus interpreted) and the ritual of sacred fire-lighting. Connections of that sort were easily invented at random by the compilers of the Brahmanas in their existing form. Coming to the analysis of names, Kuhn finds in Urvasi ‘a weakening of Urvankî (uru + anc), like yuvaça from yuvanka, Latin juvencus . . . the accent is of no decisive weight.’ Kuhn will not be convinced that Pururavas is the sun, and is unmoved by the ingenious theory of ‘a crying colour,’ denoted by his name, and the inference, supported by such words as rufus, that crying colours are red, and therefore appropriate names of the red sun. The connection between Pururavas and Agni, fire, is what appeals to Kuhn—and, in short, where Mr. Müller sees a myth of sun and dawn, Kuhn recognises a fire-myth. Roth, again (whose own name means red), far from thinking that Urvasi is ‘the chaste dawn,’ interprets her name as die geile, that is, ‘lecherous, lascivious, lewd, wanton, obscene’; while Pururavas, as ‘the Roarer,’ suggests ‘the Bull in rut.’ In accordance with these views Roth explains the myth in a fashion of his own. {70a}

Here, then, as Kuhn says, ‘we have three essentially different modes of interpreting the myth,’ {70b} all three founded on philological analysis of the names in the story. No better example could be given to illustrate the weakness of the philological method. In the first place, that method relies on names as the primitive relics and germs of the tale, although the tale may occur where the names have never been heard, and though the names are, presumably, late additions to a story in which the characters were originally anonymous. Again, the most illustrious etymologists differ absolutely about the true sense of the names. Kuhn sees fire everywhere, and fire-myths; Mr. Müller sees dawn and dawn-myths; Schwartz sees storm and storm-myths, and so on. As the orthodox teachers are thus at variance, so that there is no safety in orthodoxy, we may attempt to use our heterodox method.

None of the three scholars whose views we have glanced at—neither Roth, Kuhn, nor Mr. Müller—lays stress on the saying of Urvasi, ‘never let me see you without your royal garments, for this is the custom of women.’ {71} To our mind, these words contain the gist of the myth. There must have been, at some time, a custom which forbade women to see their husbands without their garments, or the words have no meaning. If any custom of this kind existed, a story might well be evolved to give a sanction to the law. ‘You must never see your husband naked: think what happened to Urvasi—she vanished clean away!’ This is the kind of warning which might be given. If the customary prohibition had grown obsolete, the punishment might well be assigned to a being of another, a spiritual, race, in which old human ideas lingered, as the neolithic dread of iron lingers in the Welsh fairies.

Our method will be, to prove the existence of singular rules of etiquette, corresponding to the etiquette accidentally infringed by Pururavas. We shall then investigate stories of the same character as that of Urvasi and Pururavas, in which the infringement of the etiquette is chastised. It will be seen that, in most cases, the bride is of a peculiar and perhaps supernatural race. Finally, the tale of Urvasi will be taken up again, will be shown to conform in character to the other stories examined, and will be explained as a myth told to illustrate, or sanction, a nuptial etiquette.

The lives of savages are bound by the most closely-woven fetters of custom. The simplest acts are ‘tabooed,’ a strict code regulates all intercourse. Married life, especially, moves in the strangest fetters. There will be nothing remarkable in the wide distribution of a myth turning on nuptial etiquette, if this law of nuptial etiquette proves to be also widely distributed. That it is widely distributed we now propose to demonstrate by examples.

The custom of the African people of the kingdom of Futa is, or was, even stricter than the Vedic custom of women—‘wives never permit their husbands to see them unveiled for three years after their marriage.’ {72}

In his ‘Travels to Timbuctoo’ (i. 94), Caillié says that the bridegroom ‘is not allowed to see his intended during the day.’ He has a tabooed hut apart, and ‘if he is obliged to come out he covers his face.’ He ‘remains with his wife only till daybreak’—like Cupid—and flees, like Cupid, before the light. Among the Australians the chief deity, if deity such a being can be called, Pundjel, ‘has a wife whose face he has never seen,’ probably in compliance with some primæval etiquette or taboo. {73a}

Among the Yorubas ‘conventional modesty forbids a woman to speak to her husband, or even to see him, if it can be avoided.’ {73b} Of the Iroquois Lafitau says: ‘Ils n’osent aller dans les cabanes particulières où habitent leurs épouses que durant l’obscurité de la nuit.’ {73c} The Circassian women live on distant terms with their lords till they become mothers. {73d} Similar examples of reserve are reported to be customary among the Fijians.