Custom and Myth

Page: 45

{109b} In the same way we found that the Peruvians fed their sacred beasts on what they usually saw them eat.

(2) The second point in our argument has already been sufficiently demonstrated. The mouse-name ‘Smintheus’ was given to Apollo in all the places mentioned by Strabo, ‘and many others.’

(3) The figure of the mouse will be associated with the god, and used as a badge, or crest, or local mark, in places where the mouse has been a venerated animal.

The passage already quoted from Ælian informs us that there stood ‘an effigy of the mouse beside the tripod of Apollo.’ In Chrysa, according to Strabo (xiii. 604), the statue of Apollo Smintheus had a mouse beneath his foot. The mouse on the tripod of Apollo is represented on a bas-relief illustrating the plague, and the offerings of the Greeks to Apollo Smintheus, as described in the first book of the ‘Iliad.’ {110a}

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The mouse is a not uncommon local badge or crest in Greece. The animals whose figures are stamped on coins, like the Athenian owl, are the most ancient marks of cities. It is a plausible conjecture that, just as the Iroquois when they signed treaties with the Europeans used their totems—bear, wolf, and turtle—as seals, {110b} so the animals on archaic Greek city coins represented crests or badges which, at some far more remote period, had been totems.

The Argives, according to Pollux, {110c} stamped the mouse on their coins. {110d} As there was a temple of Apollo Smintheus in Tenedos, we naturally hear of a mouse on the coins of the island. {111a} Golzio has published one of these mouse coins. The people of Metapontum stamped their money with a mouse gnawing an ear of corn. The people of Cumæ employed a mouse dormant. Paoli fancied that certain mice on Roman medals might be connected with the family of Mus, but this is rather guesswork. {111b}

We have now shown traces, at least, of various ways in which an early tribal religion of the mouse—the mouse pacarissa, as the Peruvians said—may have been perpetuated. When we consider that the superseding of the mouse by Apollo must have occurred, if it did occur, long before Homer, we may rather wonder that the mouse left his mark on Greek religion so long. We have seen mice revered, a god with a mouse-name, the mouse-name recurring in many places, the huaca, or idol, of the mouse preserved in the temples of the god, and the mouse-badge used in several widely severed localities. It remains (4) to examine the myths about mice. These, in our opinion, were probably told to account for the presence of the huaca of the mouse in temples, and for the occurrence of the animal in religion, and his connection with Apollo.

A singular mouse-myth, narrated by Herodotus, is worth examining for reasons which will appear later, though the events are said to have happened on Egyptian soil. {111c} According to Herodotus, one Sethos, a priest of Hephæstus (Ptah), was king of Egypt. He had disgraced the military class, and he found himself without an army when Sennacherib invaded his country. Sethos fell asleep in the temple, and the god, appearing to him in a vision, told him that divine succour would come to the Egyptians. {112a} In the night before the battle, field-mice gnawed the quivers and shield-handles of the foe, who fled on finding themselves thus disarmed. ‘And now,’ says Herodotus, ‘there standeth a stone image of this king in the temple of Hephæstus, and in the hand of the image a mouse, and there is this inscription, “Let whoso looketh on me be pious.”’

Prof. Sayce {112b} holds that there was no such person as Sethos, but that the legend ‘is evidently Egyptian, not Greek, and the name of Sennacherib, as well as the fact of the Assyrian attack, is correct.’ The legend also, though Egyptian, is ‘an echo of the biblical account of the destruction of the Assyrian army,’ an account which omits the mice. ‘As to the mice, here,’ says Prof. Sayce, ‘we have to do again with the Greek dragomen (sic). The story of Sethos was attached to the statue of some deity which was supposed to hold a mouse in its hand.’ It must have been easy to verify this supposition; but Mr. Sayce adds, ‘mice were not sacred in Egypt, nor were they used as symbols, or found on the monuments.’ To this remark we may suggest some exceptions. Apparently this one mouse was found on the monuments. Wilkinson (iii. 264) says mice do occur in the sculptures, but they were not sacred. Rats, however, were certainly sacred, and as little distinction is taken, in myth, between rats and mice as between rabbits and hares. The rat was sacred to Ra, the Sun-god, and (like all totems) was not to be eaten. {113a} This association of the rat and the Sun cannot but remind us of Apollo and his mouse. According to Strabo, a certain city of Egypt did worship the shrew-mouse. The Athribitæ, or dwellers in Crocodilopolis, are the people to whom he attributes this cult, which he mentions (xvii. 813) among the other local animal-worships of Egypt. {113b} Several porcelain examples of the field-mouse sacred to Horus (commonly called Apollo by the Greeks) may be seen in the British Museum.

That rats and field-mice were sacred in Egypt, then, we may believe on the evidence of the Ritual, of Strabo, and of many relics of Egyptian art. Herodotus, moreover, is credited when he says that the statue ‘had a mouse on its hand.’ Elsewhere, it is certain that the story of mice gnawing the bowstrings occurs frequently as an explanation of mouse-worship. One of the Trojan ‘mouse-stories’ ran—That emigrants had set out in prehistoric times from Crete. The oracle advised them to settle ‘wherever they were attacked by the children of the soil.’ At Hamaxitus in the Troad, they were assailed in the night by mice, which ate all that was edible of their armour and bowstrings. The colonists made up their mind that these mice were ‘the children of the soil,’ settled there, and adored the mouse Apollo. {114a} A myth of this sort may either be a story invented to explain the mouse-name; or a Mouse tribe, like the Red Indian Wolves, or Crows, may actually have been settled on the spot, and may even have resisted invasion. {114b} Another myth of the Troad accounted for the worship of the mouse Apollo on the hypothesis that he had once freed the land from mice, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose pipe (still serviceable) is said to have been found in his grave by men who were digging a mine. {114c}

Stories like these, stories attributing some great deliverance to the mouse, or some deliverance from mice to the god, would naturally spring up among people puzzled by their own worship of the mouse-god or of the mouse. We have explained the religious character of mice as the relics of a past age in which the mouse had been a totem and mouse family names had been widely diffused. That there are, and have been, mice totems and mouse family names among Semitic stocks round the Mediterranean is proved by Prof. Robertson Smith: {115a} ‘Achbor, the mouse, is an Edomite name, apparently a stock name, as the jerboa and another mouse-name are among the Arabs. The same name occurs in Judah.’ Where totemism exists, the members of each stock either do not eat the ancestral animal at all, or only eat him on rare sacrificial occasions. The totem of a hostile stock may be eaten by way of insult. In the case of the mouse, Isaiah seems to refer to one or other of these practices (lxvi.): ‘They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord.’ This is like the Egyptian prohibition to eat ‘the abominable’ (that is, tabooed or forbidden) ‘Rat of Ra.’ If the unclean animals of Israel were originally the totems of each clan, then the mouse was a totem, {115b} for the chosen people were forbidden to eat ‘the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.’ That unclean beasts, beasts not to be eaten, were originally totems, Prof. Robertson Smith infers from Ezekiel (viii. 10, 11), where ‘we find seventy of the elders of Israel—that is, the heads of houses—worshipping in a chamber which had on its walls the figures of all manner of unclean’ (tabooed) ‘creeping things, and quadrupeds, even all the idols of the House of Israel.’ Some have too hastily concluded that the mouse was a sacred animal among the neighbouring Philistines. After the Philistines had captured the Ark and set it in the house of Dagon, the people were smitten with disease. They therefore, in accordance with a well-known savage magical practice, made five golden representations of the diseased part, and five golden mice, as ‘a trespass offering to the Lord of Israel,’ and so restored the Ark. {116} Such votive offerings are common still in Catholic countries, and the mice of gold by no means prove that the Philistines had ever worshipped mice.

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Turning to India from the Mediterranean basin, and the Aryan, Semitic, and Egyptian tribes on its coasts, we find that the mouse was the sacred animal of Rudra. ‘The mouse, Rudra, is thy beast,’ says the Yajur Veda, as rendered by Grohmann in his ‘Apollo Smintheus.’ Grohmann recognises in Rudra a deity with most of the characteristics of Apollo. In later Indian mythology, the mouse is an attribute of Ganeça, who, like Apollo Smintheus, is represented in art with his foot upon a mouse.

Such are the chief appearances of the mouse in ancient religion. If he really was a Semitic totem, it may, perhaps, be argued that his prevalence in connection with Apollo is the result of a Semitic leaven in Hellenism. Hellenic invaders may have found Semitic mouse-tribes at home, and incorporated the alien stock deity with their own Apollo-worship. In that case the mouse, while still originally a totem, would not be an Aryan totem. But probably the myths and rites of the mouse, and their diffusion, are more plausibly explained on our theory than on that of De Gubernatis: ‘The Pagan sun-god crushes under his foot the Mouse of Night. When the cat’s away, the mice may play; the shadows of night dance when the moon is absent.’ {117a} This is one of the quaintest pieces of mythological logic. Obviously, when the cat (the moon) is away, the mice (the shadows) cannot play: there is no light to produce a shadow. As usually chances, the scholars who try to resolve all the features of myth into physical phenomena do not agree among themselves about the mouse. While the mouse is the night, according to M. de Gubernatis, in Grohmann’s opinion the mouse is the lightning. He argues that the lightning was originally regarded by the Aryan race as the ‘flashing tooth of a beast,’ especially of a mouse. Afterwards men came to identify the beast with his teeth, and, behold, the lightning and the mouse are convertible mythical terms! Now it is perfectly true that savages regard many elemental phenomena, from eclipses to the rainbow, as the result of the action of animals. The rainbow is a serpent; {117b} thunder is caused by the thunder-bird, who has actually been shot in Dacotah, and who is familiar to the Zulus; while rain is the milk of a heavenly cow—an idea recurring in the ‘Zend Avesta.’ But it does not follow because savages believe in these meteorological beasts that all the beasts in myth were originally meteorological. Man raised a serpent to the skies, perhaps, but his interest in the animal began on earth, not in the clouds. It is excessively improbable, and quite unproved, that any race ever regarded lightning as the flashes of a mouse’s teeth. The hypothesis is a jeu d’esprit, like the opposite hypothesis about the mouse of Night. In these, and all the other current theories of the Sminthian Apollo, the widely diffused worship of ordinary mice, and such small deer, has been either wholly neglected, or explained by the first theory of symbolism that occurred to the conjecture of a civilised observer. The facts of savage animal-worship, and their relations to totemism, seem still unknown to or unappreciated by scholars, with the exception of Mr. Sayce, who recognises totemism as the origin of the zoomorphic element in Egyptian religion.

Our explanation, whether adequate or not, is not founded on an isolated case. If Apollo superseded and absorbed the worship of the mouse, he did no less for the wolf, the ram, the dolphin, and several other animals whose images were associated with his own. The Greek religion was more refined and anthropomorphic than that of Egypt. In Egypt the animals were still adored, and the images of the gods had bestial heads. In Greece only a few gods, and chiefly in very archaic statues, had bestial heads; but beside the other deities the sculptor set the owl, eagle, wolf, serpent, tortoise, mouse, or whatever creature was the local favourite of the deity. {118a} Probably the deity had, in the majority of cases, superseded the animal and succeeded to his honours. But the conservative religious sentiment retained the beast within the courts and in the suit and service of the anthropomorphic god. {118b}