Custom and Myth

Page: 52

Swan, or the Pleiads, but Truth, Mercy, Justice, and so forth, that men might be born, not under bestial, but moral influences. But the beasts have had too long possession of the stars to be easily dislodged, and the tenure of the Bear and the Swan will probably last as long as there is a science of Astronomy. Their names are not likely again to delude a philosopher into the opinion of Aristotle that the stars are animated.

This argument had been worked out to the writer’s satisfaction when he chanced to light on Mr. Max Müller’s explanation of the name of the Great Bear. We have explained that name as only one out of countless similar appellations which men of every race give to the stars. These names, again, we have accounted for as the result of savage philosophy, which takes no great distinction between man and the things in the world, and looks on stars, beasts, birds, fishes, flowers, and trees as men and women in disguise. Mr. Müller’s theory is based on philological considerations. He thinks that the name of the Great Bear is the result of a mistake as to the meaning of words. There was in Sanskrit, he says, {140} a root ark, or arch, meaning ‘to be bright.’ The stars are called riksha, that is, bright ones, in the Veda. ‘The constellations here called the Rikshas, in the sense of the “bright ones,” would be homonymous in Sanskrit with the Bears. Remember also that, apparently without rhyme or reason, the same constellation is called by Greeks and Romans the Bear. . . . There is not the shadow of a likeness with a bear. You will now perceive the influence of words on thought, or the spontaneous growth of mythology. The name Riksha was applied to the bear in the sense of the bright fuscous animal, and in that sense it became most popular in the later Sanskrit, and in Greek and Latin. The same name, “in the sense of the bright ones,” had been applied by the Vedic poets to the stars in general, and more particularly to that constellation which in the northern parts of India was the most prominent. The etymological meaning, “the bright stars,” was forgotten; the popular meaning of Riksha (bear) was known to everyone. And thus it happened that, when the Greeks had left their central home and settled in Europe, they retained the name of Arktos for the same unchanging stars; but, not knowing why those stars had originally received that name, they ceased to speak of them as arktoí, or many bears, and spoke of them as the Bear.’

This is a very good example of the philological way of explaining a myth. If once we admit that ark, or arch, in the sense of ‘bright’ and of ‘bear,’ existed, not only in Sanskrit, but in the undivided Aryan tongue, and that the name Riksha, bear, ‘became in that sense most popular in Greek and Latin,’ this theory seems more than plausible. But the explanation does not look so well if we examine, not only the Aryan, but all the known myths and names of the Bear and the other stars. Professor Sayce, a distinguished philologist, says we may not compare non-Aryan with Aryan myths. We have ventured to do so, however, in this paper, and have shown that the most widely severed races give the stars animal names, of which the Bear is one example. Now, if the philologists wish to persuade us that it was decaying and half-forgotten language which caused men to give the names of animals to the stars, they must prove their case on an immense collection of instances—on Iowa, Kaneka, Murri, Maori, Brazilian, Peruvian, Mexican, Egyptian, Eskimo, instances. It would be the most amazing coincidence in the world if forgetfulness of the meaning of their own speech compelled tribes of every tongue and race to recognise men and beasts, cranes, cockatoos, serpents, monkeys, bears, and so forth, in the heavens. How came the misunderstood words always to be misunderstood in the same way? Does the philological explanation account for the enormous majority of the phenomena? If it fails, we may at least doubt whether it solves the one isolated case of the Great Bear among the Greeks and Romans. It must be observed that the philological explanation of Mr. Müller does not clear up the Arcadian story of their own descent from a she-bear who is now a star. Yet similar stories of the descent of tribes from animals are so widespread that it would be difficult to name the race or the quarter of the globe where they are not found. Are they all derived from misunderstood words meaning ‘bright’? These considerations appear to be a strong argument for comparing not only Aryan, but all attainable myths. We shall often find, if we take a wide view, that the philological explanation which seemed plausible in a single case is hopelessly narrow when applied to a large collection of parallel cases in languages of various families.

Finally, in dealing with star myths, we adhere to the hypothesis of Mr. Tylor: ‘From savagery up to civilisation,’ Akkadian, Greek, or English, ‘there may be traced in the mythology of the stars a course of thought, changed, indeed, in application, yet never broken in its evident connection from first to last. The savage sees individual stars as animate beings, or combines star-groups into living celestial creatures, or limbs of them, or objects connected with them; while at the other extremity of the scale of civilisation the modern astronomer keeps up just such ancient fancies, turning them to account in useful survival, as a means of mapping out the celestial globe.’


‘I have found out a new cure for rheumatism,’ said the lady beside whom it was my privilege to sit at dinner. ‘You carry a potato about in your pocket!’

Some one has written an amusing account of the behaviour of a man who is finishing a book. He takes his ideas everywhere with him and broods over them, even at dinner, in the pauses of conversation. But here was a lady who kindly contributed to my studies and offered me folklore and survivals in cultivated Kensington.

My mind had strayed from the potato cure to the New Zealand habit of carrying a baked yam at night to frighten away ghosts, and to the old English belief that a bit of bread kept in the pocket was sovereign against evil spirits. Why should ghosts dread the food of mortals when it is the custom of most races of mortals to feed ancestral ghosts? The human mind works pretty rapidly, and all this had passed through my brain while I replied, in tones of curiosity: ‘A potato!’

‘Yes; but it is not every potato that will do. I heard of the cure in the country, and when we came up to town, and my husband was complaining of rheumatism, I told one of the servants to get me a potato for Mr. Johnson’s rheumatism. “Yes, ma’am,” said the man; “but it must be a stolen potato.” I had forgotten that. Well, one can’t ask one’s servants to steal potatoes. It is easy in the country, where you can pick one out of anybody’s field.’ ‘And what did you do?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I drove to Covent Garden and ordered a lot of fruit and flowers. While the man was not looking, I stole a potato—a very little one. I don’t think there was any harm in it.’ ‘And did Mr. Johnson try the potato cure?’ ‘Yes, he carried it in his pocket, and now he is quite well. I told the doctor, and he says he knows of the cure, but he dares not recommend it.’

How oddly superstitions survive! The central idea of this modern folly about the potato is that you must pilfer the root. Let us work the idea of the healing or magical herb backwards, from Kensington to European folklore, and thence to classical times, to Homer, and to the Hottentots. Turning first to Germany, we note the beliefs, not about the potato, but about another vegetable, the mandrake. Of all roots, in German superstition, the Alraun, or mandrake, is the most famous. The herb was conceived of, in the savage fashion, as a living human person, a kind of old witch-wife. {144}