Custom and Myth

Page: 29

In backward parts of Europe a strange custom forbids the bride to speak to her lord, as if in memory of a time when husband and wife were always of alien tribes, and, as among the Caribs, spoke different languages.

In the Bulgarian ‘Volkslied,’ the Sun marries Grozdanka, a mortal girl. Her mother addresses her thus:—

Grozdanka, mother’s treasure mine,
For nine long years I nourished thee,
For nine months see thou do not speak
To thy first love that marries thee.

M. Dozon, who has collected the Bulgarian songs, says that this custom of prolonged silence on the part of the bride is very common in Bulgaria, though it is beginning to yield to a sense of the ludicrous. {74a} In Sparta and in Crete, as is well known, the bridegroom was long the victim of a somewhat similar taboo, and was only permitted to seek the company of his wife secretly, and in the dark, like the Iroquois described by Lafitau.

Herodotus tells us (i. 146) that some of the old Ionian colonists ‘brought no women with them, but took wives of the women of the Carians, whose fathers they had slain. Therefore the women made a law for themselves, and handed it down to their daughters, that they should never sit at meat with their husbands, and that none should ever call her husband by his name.’ In precisely the same way, in Zululand the wife may not mention her husband’s name, just as in the Welsh fairy tale the husband may not even know the name of his fairy bride, on pain of losing her for ever. These ideas about names, and freakish ways of avoiding the use of names, mark the childhood of languages, according to Mr. Max Müller, {74b} and, therefore, the childhood of Society. The Kaffirs call this etiquette ‘Hlonipa.’ It applies to women as well as men. A Kaffir bride is not called by her own name in her husband’s village, but is spoken of as ‘mother of so and so,’ even before she has borne a child. The universal superstition about names is at the bottom of this custom. The Aleutian Islanders, according to Dall, are quite distressed when obliged to speak to their wives in the presence of others. The Fijians did not know where to look when missionaries hinted that a man might live under the same roof as his wife. {75a} Among the Turkomans, for six months, a year, or two years, a husband is only allowed to visit his wife by stealth.

The number of these instances could probably be increased by a little research. Our argument is that the widely distributed myths in which a husband or a wife transgresses some ‘custom’—sees the other’s face or body, or utters the forbidden name—might well have arisen as tales illustrating the punishment of breaking the rule. By a very curious coincidence, a Breton sailor’s tale of the ‘Cupid and Psyche’ class is confessedly founded on the existence of the rule of nuptial etiquette. {75b}

In this story the son of a Boulogne pilot marries the daughter of the King of Naz—wherever that may be. In Naz a man is never allowed to see the face of his wife till she has borne him a child—a modification of the Futa rule. The inquisitive French husband unveils his wife, and, like Psyche in Apuleius, drops wax from a candle on her cheek. When the pair return to Naz, the king of that country discovers the offence of the husband, and, by the aid of his magicians, transforms the Frenchman into a monster. Here we have the old formula—the infringement of a ‘taboo,’ and the magical punishment—adapted to the ideas of Breton peasantry. The essential point of the story, for our purpose, is that the veiling of the bride is ‘the custom of women,’ in the mysterious land of Naz. ‘C’est l’usage du pays: les maris ne voient leurs femmes sans voile que lorsqu’elles sont devenues mères.’ Now our theory of the myth of Urvasi is simply this: ‘the custom of women,’ which Pururavas transgresses, is probably a traditional Aryan law of nuptial etiquette, l’usage du pays, once prevalent among the people of India.