Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 178

As the names of the Greek gods and heroes have in a great measure been found to correspond with the Sanskrit names of physical things, we have been able to read some of the first thoughts of primitive man; and “the obvious meaning” of many words “did much to preserve vestiges of plain sense in classic legend, in spite of all the efforts of the commentators.”

According to the philologists, therefore, these thoughts had already assumed a definite form in the remote epoch when many [384] nations, now scattered over the face of the earth, occupied the same country, spoke the same language, and formed but one people. Of course, “as long as such beings as Heaven or Sun are consciously talked of in mythic language, the meaning of their legends is open to no question, and the action ascribed to them will as a rule be natural and appropriate;” but with the gradual diffusion of this one people to various parts of the earth, the original meaning of these words was entirely lost, and they came to be looked upon eventually simply as the names of deities or heroes—very much in the way that the word “good-by” has long survived its original form as a conscious prayer, “God be with you!” and the word “ostracism” has lost all connection with an oyster shell.

The primitive meaning of a myth died away with the original meaning of a word; and it is because “the Greek had forgotten that Zeus (Jupiter) meant ‘the bright sky,’ that he could make him king” over a company of manlike deities on Olympus.

We can best explain how the many anomalies occur, and how the myths got so tangled up together that now it is almost impossible to disentangle them and trace them back to their original meanings, by comparing their descent through the ages to the course of a snowball, which, rolling down a mountain side, gathers to itself snow, earth, rocks, etc., until, in the vast agglomeration of kindred and foreign substances, the original nucleus is entirely lost to sight.

The fact that there are many different myths to explain the same phenomenon can readily be accounted for by the old saying, “circumstances alter cases.” Thus the heat of the sun, for example, so beneficial at certain times, may prove baleful and injurious at others.

The philologists, who believe that all myths (except the imitative myths, of which the tale of Berenice is a fair example) were originally nature myths, have divided them into a few large classes, which include the myths of the sky, the sun, dawn, daylight, night, moon, earth, sea, clouds, fire, wind, and finally those of the underworld and of the demons of drought and darkness.



Taking them in the order in which they are presented in this work, we find among the myths of the sky, Uranus, whose name, like that of the old Hindoo god Varuna, is derived from the Sanskrit root var (“to veil, conceal, or cover”). This god was therefore a personification of the heavens, which are spread out like a veil, and cover all the earth; and we are further told that he hurled the thunder and lightning, his Cyclop children, down from his abode into the abyss called Tartarus.