Nature Myths

By Andrew Lang.

Savage fancy, curiosity and credulity illustrated in nature myths—In these all phenomena are explained by belief in the general animation of everything, combined with belief in metamorphosis—Sun myths, Asian, Australian, African, Melanesian, Indian, Californian, Brazilian, Maori, Samoan—Moon myths, Australian, Muysca, Mexican, Zulu, Macassar, Greenland, Piute, Malay—Thunder myths—Greek and Aryan sun and moon myths—Star myths—Myths, savage and civilised, of animals, accounting for their marks and habits—Examples of custom of claiming blood kinship with lower animals—Myths of various plants and trees—Myths of stones, and of metamorphosis into stones, Greek, Australian and American—The whole natural philosophy of savages expressed in myths, and survives in folk-lore and classical poetry; and legends of metamorphosis. 


The intellectual condition of savages which has been presented and established by the evidence both of observers and of institutions, may now be studied in savage myths.  These myths, indeed, would of themselves demonstrate that the ideas which the lower races entertain about the world correspond with our statement.  If any one were to ask himself, from what mental conditions do the following savage stories arise? he would naturally answer that the minds which conceived the tales were curious, indolent, credulous of magic and witchcraft, capable of drawing no line between things and persons, capable of crediting all things with human passions and resolutions.  But, as myths analogous to those of savages, when found among civilised peoples, have been ascribed to a psychological condition produced by a disease of language acting after civilisation had made considerable advances, we cannot take the savage myths as proof of what savages think, believe and practice in the course of daily life.  To do so would be, perhaps, to argue in a circle.  We must therefore study the myths of the undeveloped races in themselves.

These myths form a composite whole, so complex and so nebulous that it is hard indeed to array them in classes and categories.  For example, if we look at myths concerning the origin of various phenomena, we find that some introduce the action of gods or extra-natural beings, while others rest on a rude theory of capricious evolution; others, again, invoke the aid of the magic of mortals, and most regard the great natural forces, the heavenly bodies, and the animals, as so many personal characters capable of voluntarily modifying themselves or of being modified by the most trivial accidents.  Some sort of arrangement, however, must be attempted, only the student is to understand that the lines are never drawn with definite fixity, that any category may glide into any other category of myth.

We shall begin by considering some nature myths—myths, that is to say, which explain the facts of the visible universe. These range from tales about heaven, day, night, the sun and the stars, to tales accounting for the red breast of the ousel, the habits of the quail, the spots and stripes of wild beasts, the formation of rocks and stones, the foliage of trees, the shapes of plants.  In a sense these myths are the science of savages; in a sense they are their sacred history; in a sense they are their fiction and romance.  Beginning with the sun, we find, as Mr. Tylor says, that “in early philosophy throughout the world the sun and moon are alive, and, as it were, human in their nature”.  The mass of these solar myths is so enormous that only a few examples can be given, chosen almost at random out of the heap.  The sun is regarded as a personal being, capable not only of being affected by charms and incantations, but of being trapped and beaten, of appearing on earth, of taking a wife of the daughters of men.  Garcilasso de la Vega has a story of an Inca prince, a speculative thinker, who was puzzled by the sun-worship of his ancestors.  If the sun be thus all-powerful, the Inca inquired, why is he plainly subject to laws?  why does he go his daily round, instead of wandering at large up and down the fields of heaven?  The prince concluded that there was a will superior to the sun’s will, and he raised a temple to the Unknown Power.  Now the phenomena which put the Inca on the path of monotheistic religion, a path already traditional, according to Garcilasso, have also struck the fancy of savages.  Why, they ask, does the sun run his course like a tamed beast?  A reply suited to a mind which holds that all things are personal is given in myths.  Some one caught and tamed the sun by physical force or by art magic.

In Australia the myth says that there was a time when the sun did not set.  “It was at all times day, and the blacks grew weary.  Norralie considered and decided that the sun should disappear at intervals.  He addressed the sun in an incantation (couched like the Finnish Kalewala in the metre of Longfellow’s Hiawatha); and the incantation is thus interpreted: “Sun, sun, burn your wood, burn your internal substance, and go down”.  The sun therefore now burns out his fuel in a day, and goes below for fresh firewood.

In New Zealand the taming of the sun is attributed to the great hero Maui, the Prometheus of the Maoris.  He set snares to catch the sun, but in vain, for the sun’s rays bit them through.  According to another account, while Norralie wished to hasten the sun’s setting, Maui wanted to delay it, for the sun used to speed through the heavens at a racing pace.  Maui therefore snared the sun, and beat him so unmercifully that he has been lame ever since, and travels slowly, giving longer days.  “The sun, when beaten, cried out and revealed his second great name, Taura-mis-te-ra.” It will be remembered that Indra, in his abject terror when he fled after the slaying of Vrittra, also revealed his mystic name.  In North America the same story of the trapping and laming of the sun is told, and attributed to a hero named Tcha-ka-betch.  In Samoa the sun had a child by a Samoan woman.  He trapped the sun with a rope made of a vine and extorted presents.  Another Samoan lassoed the sun and made him promise to move more slowly.  These Samoan and Australian fancies are nearly as dignified as the tale in the Aitareya Brahmana.  The gods, afraid “that the sun would fall out of heaven, pulled him up and tied him with five ropes”.  These ropes are recognised as verses in the ritual, but probably the ritual is later than the ropes.  In Mexico we find that the sun himself (like the stars in most myths) was once a human or pre-human devotee, Nanahuatzin, who leapt into a fire to propitiate the gods.  Translated to heaven as the sun, Nanahuatzin burned so very fiercely that he threatened to reduce the world to a cinder.  Arrows were therefore shot at him, and this punishment had as happy an effect as the beatings administered by Maui and Tcha-ka-betch.  Among the Bushmen of South Africa the sun was once a man, from whose armpit a limited amount of light was radiated round his hut.  Some children threw him up into the sky, and there he stuck, and there he shines.  In the Homeric hymn to Helios, as Mr. Max Muller observes, “the poet looks on Helios as a half god, almost a hero, who had once lived on earth,” which is precisely the view of the Bushmen.  Among the Aztecs the sun is said to have been attacked by a hunter and grievously wounded by his arrows.  The Gallinomeros, in Central California, seem at least to know that the sun is material and impersonal.  They say that when all was dark in the beginning, the animals were constantly jostling each other.  After a painful encounter, the hawk and the coyote collected two balls of inflammable substance; the hawk (Indra was occasionally a hawk) flew up with them into heaven, and lighted them with sparks from a flint.  There they gave light as sun and moon.  This is an exception to the general rule that the heavenly bodies are regarded as persons.  The Melanesian tale of the bringing of night is a curious contrast to the Mexican, Maori, Australian and American Indian stories which we have quoted.  In Melanesia, as in Australia, the days were long, indeed endless, and people grew tired; but instead of sending the sun down below by an incantation when night would follow in course of nature, the Melanesian hero went to Night (conceived of as a person) and begged his assistance.  Night (Qong) received Qat (the hero) kindly, darkened his eyes, gave him sleep, and, in twelve hours or so, crept up from the horizon and sent the sun crawling to the west.  In the same spirit Paracelsus is said to have attributed night, not to the absence of the sun, but to the apparition of certain stars which radiate darkness.  It is extraordinary that a myth like the Melanesian should occur in Brazil.  There was endless day till some one married a girl whose father “the great serpent,” was the owner of night.  The father sent night bottled up in a gourd.  The gourd was not to be uncorked till the messengers reached the bride, but they, in their curiosity, opened the gourd, and let night out prematurely.

The myths which have been reported deal mainly with the sun as a person who shines, and at fixed intervals disappears.  His relations with the moon are much more complicated, and are the subject of endless stories, all explaining in a romantic fashion why the moon waxes and wanes, whence come her spots, why she is eclipsed, all starting from the premise that sun and moon are persons with human parts and passions.  Sometimes the moon is a man, sometimes a woman and the sex of the sun varies according to the fancy of the narrators.  Different tribes of the same race, as among the Australians, have different views of the sex of moon and sun.  Among the aborigines of Victoria, the moon, like the sun among the Bushmen, was a black fellow before he went up into the sky.  After an unusually savage career, he was killed with a stone hatchet by the wives of the eagle, and now he shines in the heavens.  Another myth explanatory of the moon’s phases was found by Mr. Meyer in 1846 among the natives of Encounter Bay.  According to them the moon is a woman, and a bad woman to boot.  She lives a life of dissipation among men, which makes her consumptive, and she wastes away till they drive her from their company.  While she is in retreat, she lives on nourishing roots, becomes quite plump, resumes her gay career, and again wastes away.  The same tribe, strangely enough, think that the sun also is a woman.  Every night she descends among the dead, who stand in double lines to greet her and let her pass.  She has a lover among the dead, who has presented her with a red kangaroo skin, and in this she appears at her rising.  Such is the view of rosy-fingered Dawn entertained by the blacks of Encounter Bay.  In South America, among the Muyscas of Bogota, the moon, Huythaca, is the malevolent wife of the child of the sun; she was a woman before her husband banished her to the fields of space.  The moon is a man among the Khasias of the Himalaya, and he was guilty of the unpardonable offence of admiring his mother-in-law.  As a general rule, the mother-in-law is not even to be spoken to by the savage son-in-law.  The lady threw ashes in his face to discourage his passion, hence the moon’s spots.  The waning of the moon suggested the most beautiful and best known of savage myths, that in which the moon sends a beast to tell mortals that, though they die like her, like her they shall be born again.  Because the spots in the moon were thought to resemble a hare they were accounted for in Mexico by the hypothesis that a god smote the moon in the face with a rabbit; in Zululand and Tibet by a fancied translation of a good or bad hare to the moon.

The Eskimos have a peculiar myth to account for the moon’s spots.  Sun and moon were human brother and sister.  In the darkness the moon once attempted the virtue of the sun.  She smeared his face over with ashes, that she might detect him when a light was brought.  She did discover who her assailant had been, fled to the sky, and became the sun.  The moon still pursues her, and his face is still blackened with the marks of ashes.  Gervaise says that in Macassar the moon was held to be with child by the sun, and that when he pursued her and wished to beat her, she was delivered of the earth.  They are now reconciled.  About the alternate appearance of sun and moon a beautifully complete and adequate tale is told by the Piute Indians of California.  No more adequate and scientific explanation could possibly be offered, granting the hypothesis that sun and moon are human persons and savage persons.  The myth is printed as it was taken down by Mr. De Quille from the lips of Tooroop Eenah (Desert Father), a chief of the Piutes, and published in a San Francisco newspaper.

“The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens.  He is the big chief.  The moon is his wife and the stars are their children.  The sun eats his children whenever he can catch them.  They flee before him, and are all the time afraid when he is passing through the heavens.  When he (their father) appears in the morning, you see all the stars, his children, fly out of sight—go away back into the blue of the above—and they do not wake to be seen again until he, their father, is about going to his bed.

“Down deep under the ground—deep, deep, under all the ground—is a great hole.  At night, when he has passed over the world, looked down on everything and finished his work, he, the sun, goes into his hole, and he crawls and creeps along it till he comes to his bed in the middle part of the earth.  So then he, the sun, sleeps there in his bed all night.

“This hole is so little, and he, the sun, is so big, that he cannot turn round in it; and so he must, when he has had all his sleep, pass on through, and in the morning we see him come out in the east.  When he, the sun, has so come out, he begins to hunt up through the sky to catch and eat any that he can of the stars, his children, for if he does not so catch and eat he cannot live.  He, the sun, is not all seen.  The shape of him is like a snake or a lizard.  It is not his head that we can see, but his belly, filled up with the stars that times and times he has swallowed.

“The moon is the mother of the heavens and is the wife of the sun.  She, the moon, goes into the same hole as her husband to sleep her naps.  But always she has great fear of the sun, her husband, and when he comes through the hole to the nobee (tent) deep in the ground to sleep, she gets out and comes away if he be cross.

“She, the moon, has great love for her children, the stars, and is happy to travel among them in the above; and they, her children, feel safe, and sing and dance as she passes along.  But the mother, she cannot help that some of her children must be swallowed by the father every month.  It is ordered that way by the Pah-ah (Great Spirit), who lives above the place of all.

“Every month that father, the sun, does swallow some of the stars, his children, and then that mother, the moon, feels sorrow.  She must mourn; so she must put the black on her face for to mourn the dead.  You see the Piute women put black on their faces when a child is gone.  But the dark will wear away from the face of that mother, the moon, a little and a little every day, and after a time again we see all bright the face of her.  But soon more of her children are gone, and again she must put on her face the pitch and the black.”

Here all the phenomena are accounted for, and the explanation is as advanced as the Egyptian doctrine of the hole under the earth where the sun goes when he passes from our view.  And still the Great Spirit is over all: Religion comes athwart Myth.

Mr. Tylor quotes a nature myth about sun, moon and stars which remarkably corresponds to the speculation of the Piutes.  The Mintira of the Malayan Peninsula say that both sun and moon are women.  The stars are the moon’s children; once the sun had as many.  They each agreed (like the women of Jerusalem in the famine), to eat their own children; but the sun swallowed her whole family, while the moon concealed hers.  When the sun saw this she was exceedingly angry, and pursued the moon to kill her.  Occasionally she gets a bite out of the moon, and that is an eclipse.  The Hos of North-East India tell the same tale, but say that the sun cleft the moon in twain for her treachery, and that she continues to be cut in two and grow again every month.  With these sun and moon legends sometimes coexists the RELIGIOUS belief in a Creator of these and of all things.

In harmony with the general hypothesis that all objects in nature are personal, and human or bestial, in real shape, and in passion and habits, are the myths which account for eclipses.  These have so frequently been published and commented on that a long statement would be tedious and superfluous.  To the savage mind, and even to the Chinese and the peasants of some European countries, the need of an explanation is satisfied by the myth that an evil beast is devouring the sun or the moon.  The people even try by firing off guns, shrieking, and clashing cymbals, to frighten the beast (wolf, pig, dragon, or what not) from his prey.  What the hungry monster in the sky is doing when he is not biting the sun or moon we are not informed.  Probably he herds with the big bird whose wings, among the Dacotahs of America and the Zulus of Africa, make thunder; or he may associate with the dragons, serpents, cows and other aerial cattle which supply the rain, and show themselves in the waterspout.  Chinese, Greenland, Hindoo, Finnish, Lithunian and Moorish examples of the myth about the moon-devouring beasts are vouched for by Grimm.  A Mongolian legend has it that the gods wished to punish the maleficent Arakho for his misdeeds, but Arakho hid so cleverly that their limited omnipotence could not find him.  The sun, when asked to turn spy, gave an evasive answer.  The moon told the truth.  Arakho was punished, and ever since he chases sun and moon.  When he nearly catches either of them, there is an eclipse, and the people try to drive him off by making a hideous uproar with musical and other instruments. Captain Beeckman in 1704 was in Borneo, when the natives declared that the devil “was eating the moon”.

Dr. Brinton in his Myths and Myth-Makers gives examples from Peruvians, Tupis, Creeks, Iroquois and Algonkins.  It would be easy, and is perhaps superfluous, to go on multiplying proofs of the belief that sun and moon are, or have been, persons.  In the Hervey Isles these two luminaries are thought to have been made out of the body of a child cut in twain by his parents.  The blood escaped from the half which is the moon, hence her pallor.  This tale is an exception to the general rule, but reminds us of the many myths which represent the things in the world as having been made out of a mutilated man, like the Vedic Purusha.  It is hardly necessary, except by way of record, to point out that the Greek myths of sun and moon, like the myths of savages, start from the conception of the solar and lunar bodies as persons with parts and passions, human loves and human sorrows.  As in the Mongolian myth of Arakho, the sun “sees all and hears all,” and, less honourable than the Mongolian sun, he plays the spy for Hephaestus on the loves of Ares and Aphrodite.  He has mistresses and human children, such as Circe and Aeetes.

The sun is all-seeing and all-penetrating. In a Greek song of to-day a mother sends a message to an absent daughter by the sun; it is but an unconscious repetition of the request of the dying Ajax that the heavenly body will tell his fate to his old father and his sorrowing spouse.

Selene, the moon, like Helios, the sun, was a person, and amorous.  Beloved by Zeus, she gave birth to Pandia, and Pan gained her affection by the simple rustic gift of a fleece.  The Australian Dawn, with her present of a red kangaroo skin, was not more lightly won than the chaste Selene.  Her affection for Endymion is well known, and her cold white glance shines through the crevices of his mountain grave, hewn in a rocky wall, like the tombs of Phrygia. She is the sister of the sun in Hesiod, the daughter (by his sister) of Hyperion in the Homeric hymns to Helios.

In Greece the aspects of sun and moon take the most ideal human forms, and show themselves in the most gracious myths.  But, after all, these retain in their anthropomorphism the marks of the earliest fancy, the fancy of Eskimos and Australians.  It seems to be commonly thought that the existence of solar myths is denied by anthropologists.  This is a vulgar error.  There is an enormous mass of solar myths, but they are not caused by “a disease of language,” and—all myths are not solar!

There is no occasion to dwell long on myths of the same character in which the stars are accounted for as transformed human adventurers.  It has often been shown that this opinion is practically of world-wide distribution.  We find it in Australia, Persia, Greece, among the Bushmen, in North and South America, among the Eskimos, in ancient Egypt, in New Zealand, in ancient India—briefly, wherever we look.  The Sanskrit forms of these myths have been said to arise from confusion as to the meaning of words.  But is it credible that, in all languages, however different, the same kind of unconscious puns should have led to the same mistaken beliefs?  As the savage, barbarous and Greek star-myths (such as that of Callisto, first changed into a bear and then into a constellation) are familiar to most readers, a few examples of Sanskrit star-stories are offered here from the Satapatha Brahmana.  Fires are not, according to the Brahmana ritual, to be lighted under the stars called Krittikas, the Pleiades.  The reason is that the stars were the wives of the bears (Riksha), for the group known in Brahmanic times as the Rishis (sages) were originally called the Rikshas (bears).  But the wives of the bears were excluded from the society of their husbands, for the bears rise in the north and their wives in the east.  Therefore the worshipper should not set up his fires under the Pleiades, lest he should thereby be separated from the company of his wife.  The Brahmanas also tell us that Prajapati had an unholy passion for his daughter, who was in the form of a doe.  The gods made Rudra fire an arrow at Prajapati to punish him; he was wounded, and leaped into the sky, where he became one constellation and his daughter another, and the arrow a third group of stars.  In general, according to the Brahmanas, “the stars are the lights of virtuous men who go to the heavenly world”.

Passing from savage myths explanatory of the nature of celestial bodies to myths accounting for the formation and colour and habits of beasts, birds and fishes, we find ourselves, as an old Jesuit missionary says, in the midst of a barbarous version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  It has been shown that the possibility of interchange of form between man and beast is part of the working belief of everyday existence among the lower peoples.  They regard all things as on one level, or, to use an old political phrase, they “level up” everything to equality with the human status.  Thus Mr. Im Thurn, a very good observer, found that to the Indians of Guiana “all objects, animate or inaminate, seem exactly of the same nature, except that they differ by the accident of bodily form”.  Clearly to grasp this entirely natural conception of primitive man, the civilised student must make a great effort to forget for a time all that science has taught him of the differences between the objects which fill the world.  “To the ear of the savage, animals certainly seem to talk.”  “As far as the Indians of Guiana are concerned, I do not believe that they distinguish such beings as sun and moon, or such other natural phenomena as winds and storms, from men and other animals, from plants and other inanimate objects, or from any other objects whatsoever.”  Bancroft says about North American myths, “Beasts and birds and fishes fetch and carry, talk and act, in a way that leaves even Aesop’s heroes quite in the shade”.

The savage tendency is to see in inanimate things animals, and in animals disguised men.  M. Reville quotes in his Religions des Peuples Non-Civilise’s, i. 64, the story of some Negroes, who, the first time they were shown a cornemuse, took the instrument for a beast, the two holes for its eyes.  The Highlander who looted a watch at Prestonpans, and observing, “She’s teed,” sold it cheap when it ran down, was in the same psychological condition.  A queer bit of savage science is displayed on a black stone tobacco-pipe from the Pacific Coast.  The savage artist has carved the pipe in the likeness of a steamer, as a steamer is conceived by him.  “Unable to account for the motive power, he imagines the paddle to be linked round the tongue of a coiled serpent, fastened to the tail of the vessel,” and so he represents it on the black stone pipe.  Nay, a savage’s belief that beasts are on his own level is so literal, that he actually makes blood-covenants with the lower animals, as he does with men, mingling his gore with theirs, or smearing both together on a stone; while to bury dead animals with sacred rites is as usual among the Bedouins and Malagasies to-day as in ancient Egypt or Attica.  In the same way the Ainos of Japan, who regard the bear as a kinsman, sacrifice a bear once a year.  But, to propitiate the animal and his connections, they appoint him a “mother,” an Aino girl, who looks after his comforts, and behaves in a way as maternal as possible.  The bear is now a kinsman, [Greek text omitted], and cannot avenge himself within the kin.  This, at least, seems to be the humour of it.  In Lagarde’s Reliquiae Juris Ecclesiastici Antiquissimae a similar Syrian covenant of kinship with insects is described.  About 700 A. D., when a Syrian garden was infested by caterpillars, the maidens were assembled, and one caterpillar was caught.  Then one of the virgins was “made its mother,” and the creature was buried with due lamentations.  The “mother” was then brought to the spot where the pests were, her companions bewailed her, and the caterpillars perished like their chosen kinsman, but without extorting revenge.  Revenge was out of their reach.  They had been brought within the kin of their foes, and there were no Erinnyes, “avengers of kindred blood,” to help them.  People in this condition of belief naturally tell hundreds of tales, in which men, stones, trees, beasts, shift shapes, and in which the modifications of animal forms are caused by accident, or by human agency, or by magic, or by metamorphosis.  Such tales survive in our modern folk-lore.  To make our meaning clear, we may give the European nursery-myth of the origin of the donkey’s long ears, and, among other illustrations, the Australian myth of the origin of the black and white plumage of the pelican.  Mr. Ralston has published the Russian version of the myth of the donkey’s ears.  The Spanish form, which is identical with the Russian, is given by Fernan Caballero in La Gaviota.

“Listen! do you know why your ears are so big?” (the story is told to a stupid little boy with big ears).  “When Father Adam found himself in Paradise with the animals, he gave each its name; those of THY species, my child, he named ‘donkeys’.  One day, not long after, he called the beasts together, and asked each to tell him its name.  They all answered right except the animals of THY sort, and they had forgotten their name!  Then Father Adam was very angry, and, taking that forgetful donkey by the ears, he pulled them out, screaming ‘You are called DONKEY!’  And the donkey’s ears have been long ever since.”  This, to a child, is a credible explanation.  So, perhaps, is another survival of this form of science—the Scotch explanation of the black marks on the haddock; they were impressed by St. Peter’s finger and thumb when he took the piece of money for Caesar’s tax out of the fish’s mouth.

Turning from folk-lore to savage beliefs, we learn that from one end of Africa to another the honey-bird, schneter, is said to be an old woman whose son was lost, and who pursued him till she was turned into a bird, which still shrieks his name, “Schneter, Schneter”.  In the same way the manners of most of the birds known to the Greeks were accounted for by the myth that they had been men and women.  Zeus, for example, turned Ceyx and Halcyon into sea-fowls because they were too proud in their married happiness.  To these myths of the origin of various animals we shall return, but we must not forget the black and white Australian pelican.  Why is the pelican parti-coloured?  For this reason:

After the Flood (the origin of which is variously explained by the Murri), the pelican (who had been a black fellow) made a canoe, and went about like a kind of Noah, trying to save the drowning.  In the course of his benevolent mission he fell in love with a woman, but she and her friends played him a trick and escaped from him.  The pelican at once prepared to go on the war-path.  The first thing to do was to daub himself white, as is the custom of the blacks before a battle.  They think the white pipe-clay strikes terror and inspires respect among the enemy.  But when the pelican was only half pipe-clayed, another pelican came past, and, “not knowing what such a queer black and white thing was, struck the first pelican with his beak and killed him.  Before that pelicans were all black; now they are black and white.  That is the reason.”

“That is the reason.”  Therewith native philosopy is satisfied, and does not examine in Mr. Darwin’s laborious manner the slow evolution of the colour of the pelican’s plumage.  The mythological stories about animals are rather difficult to treat, because they are so much mixed up with the topic of totemism.  Here we only examine myths which account by means of a legend for certain peculiarities in the habits, cries, or colours and shapes of animals.  The Ojibbeways told Kohl they had a story for every creature, accounting for its ways and appearance.  Among the Greeks, as among Australians and Bushmen, we find that nearly every notable bird or beast had its tradition.  The nightingale and the swallow have a story of the most savage description, a story reported by Apollodorus, though Homer refers to another, and, as usual, to a gentler and more refined form of the myth.  Here is the version of Apollodorus.  “Pandion” (an early king of Athens) “married Zeuxippe, his mother’s sister, by whom he had two daughters, Procne and Philomela, and two sons, Erechtheus and Butes.  A war broke out with Labdas about some debatable land, and Erechtheus invited the alliance of Tereus of Thrace, the son of Ares.  Having brought the war, with the aid of Tereus, to a happy end, he gave him his daughter Procne to wife.  By Procne, Tereus had a son, Itys, and thereafter fell in love with Philomela, whom he seduced, pretending that Procne was dead, whereas he had really concealed her somewhere in his lands.  Thereon he married Philomela, and cut out her tongue.  But she wove into a robe characters that told the whole story, and by means of these acquainted Procne with her sufferings.  Thereon Procne found her sister, and slew Itys, her own son, whose body she cooked, and served up to Tereus in a banquet.  Thereafter Procne and her sister fled together, and Tereus seized an axe and followed after them.  They were overtaken at Daulia in Phocis, and prayed to the gods that they might be turned into birds.  So Procne became the nightingale, and Philomela the swallow, while Tereus was changed into a hoopoe.”  Pausanias has a different legend; Procne and Philomela died of excessive grief.

These ancient men and women metamorphosed into birds were HONOURED AS ANCESTORS by the Athenians.  Thus the unceasing musical wail of the nightingale and the shrill cry of the swallow were explained by a Greek story.  The birds were lamenting their old human sorrow, as the honey-bird in Africa still repeats the name of her lost son.

Why does the red-robin live near the dwellings of men, a bold and friendly bird?  The Chippeway Indians say he was once a young brave whose father set him a task too cruel for his strength, and made him starve too long when he reached man’s estate.  He turned into a robin, and said to his father, “I shall always be the friend of man, and keep near their dwellings.  I could not gratify your pride as a warrior, but I will cheer you by my songs.”  The converse of this legend is the Greek myth of the hawk.  Why is the hawk so hated by birds?  Hierax was a benevolent person who succoured a race hated by Poseidon.  The god therefore changed him into a hawk, and made him as much detested by birds, and as fatal to them, as he had been beloved by and gentle to men.  The Hervey Islanders explain the peculiarities of several fishes by the share they took in the adventures of Ina, who stamped, for example, on the sole, and so flattened him for ever.  In Greece the dolphins were, according to the Homeric hymn to Dionysus, metamorphosed pirates who had insulted the god.  But because the dolphin found the hidden sea-goddess whom Poseidon loved, the dolphin, too, was raised by the grateful sea-god to the stars. The vulture and the heron, according to Boeo (said to have been a priestess in Delphi and the author of a Greek treatise on the traditions about birds), were once a man named Aigupios (vulture) and his mother, Boulis.  They sinned inadvertently, like Oedipus and Jocasta; wherefore Boulis, becoming aware of the guilt, was about to put out the eyes of her son and slay herself.  Then they were changed, Boulis into the heron, “which tears out and feeds on the eyes of snakes, birds and fishes, and Aigupios into the vulture which bears his name”.  This story, of which the more repulsive details are suppressed, is much less pleasing and more savage than the Hervey Islanders’ myth of the origin of pigs.  Maaru was an old blind man who lived with his son Kationgia.  There came a year of famine, and Kationgia had great difficulty in finding food for himself and his father.  He gave the blind old man puddings of banana roots and fishes, while he lived himself on sea-slugs and shellfish, like the people of Terra del Fuego.  But blind old Maaru suspected his son of giving him the worst share and keeping what was best for himself.  At last he discovered that Kationgia was really being starved; he felt his body, and found that he was a mere living skeleton.  The two wept together, and the father made a feast of some cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit, which he had reserved against the last extremity.  When all was finished, he said he had eaten his last meal and was about to die.  He ordered his son to cover him with leaves and grass, and return to the spot in four days.  If worms were crawling about, he was to throw leaves and grass over them and come back four days later.  Kationgia did as he was instructed, and, on his second visit to the grave, found the whole mass of leaves in commotion.  A brood of pigs, black, white and speckled, had sprung up from the soil; famine was a thing of the past, and Kationgia became a great chief in the island.

“The owl was a baker’s daughter” is the fragment of Christian mythology preserved by Ophelia.  The baker’s daughter behaved rudely to our Lord, and was changed into the bird that looks not on the sun.  The Greeks had a similar legend of feminine impiety by which they mythically explained the origin of the owl, the bat and the eagle-owl.  Minyas of Orchomenos had three daughters, Leucippe, Arsippe and Alcathoe, most industrious women, who declined to join the wild mysteries of Dionysus.  The god took the shape of a maiden, and tried to win them to his worship.  They refused, and he assumed the form of a bull, a lion, and a leopard as easily as the chiefs of the Abipones become tigers, or as the chiefs among the African Barotse and Balonda metamorphose themselves into lions and alligators.  The daughters of Minyas, in alarm, drew lots to determine which of them should sacrifice a victim to the god.  Leucippe drew the lot and offered up her own son.  They then rushed to join the sacred rites of Dionysus, when Hermes transformed them into the bat, the owl and the eagle-owl, and these three hide from the light of the sun.

A few examples of Bushman and Australian myths explanatory of the colours and habits of animals will probably suffice to establish the resemblance between savage and Hellenic legends of this character.  The Bushman myth about the origin of the eland (a large antelope) is not printed in full by Dr. Bleek, but he observes that it “gives an account of the reasons for the colours of the gemsbok, hartebeest, eland, quagga and springbok”.  Speculative Bushmen seem to have been puzzled to account for the wildness of the eland.  It would be much more convenient if the eland were tame and could be easily captured.  They explain its wildness by saying that the eland was “spoiled” before Cagn, the creator, or rather maker of most things, had quite finished it.  Cagn’s relations came and hunted the first eland too soon, after which all other elands grew wild.  Cagn then said, “Go and hunt them and try to kill one; that is now your work, for it was you who spoilt them”.  The Bushmen have another myth explanatory of the white patches on the breasts of crows in their country.  Some men tarried long at their hunting, and their wives sent out crows in search of their husbands.  Round each crow’s neck was hung a piece of fat to serve as food on the journey.  Hence the crows have white patches on breast and neck.

In Australia the origins of nearly all animals appear to be explained in myths, of which a fair collection is printed in Mr.  Brough Symth’s Aborigines of Victoria.  Still better examples occur in Mrs. Langloh Parker’s Australian Legends.  Why is the crane so thin?  Once he was a man named Kar-ween, the second man fashioned out of clay by Pund-jel, a singular creative being, whose chequered career is traced elsewhere in our chapter on “Savage Myths of the Origin of the World and of Man”.  Kar-ween and Pund-jel had a quarrel about the wives of the former, whom Pund-jel was inclined to admire.  The crafty Kar-ween gave a dance (jugargiull, corobboree), at which the creator Pund-jel was disporting himself gaily (like the Great Panjandrum), when Kar-ween pinned him with a spear.  Pund-jel threw another which took Kar-ween in the knee-joint, so that he could not walk, but soon pined away and became a mere skeleton.  “Thereupon Pund-jel made Kar-ween a crane,” and that is why the crane has such attenuated legs.  The Kortume, Munkari and Waingilhe, now birds, were once men.  The two latter behaved unkindly to their friend Kortume, who shot them out of his hut in a storm of rain, singing at the same time an incantation.  The three then turned into birds, and when the Kortume sings it is a token that rain may be expected.

Let us now compare with these Australian myths of the origin of certain species of birds the Greek story of the origin of frogs, as told by Menecrates and Nicander.  The frogs were herdsmen metamorphosed by Leto, the mother of Apollo.  But, by way of showing how closely akin are the fancies of Greeks and Australian black fellows, we shall tell the legend without the proper names, which gave it a fictitious dignity.



“A woman bore two children, and sought for a water-spring wherein to bathe them.  She found a well, but herdsmen drove her away from it that their cattle might drink.  Then some wolves met her and led her to a river, of which she drank, and in its waters she bathed her children.  Then she went back to the well where the herdsmen were now bathing, and she turned them all into frogs.  She struck their backs and shoulders with a rough stone and drove them into the waters, and ever since that day frogs live in marshes and beside rivers.”

A volume might be filled with such examples of the kindred fancies of Greeks and savages.  Enough has probably been said to illustrate our point, which is that Greek myths of this character were inherited from the period of savagery, when ideas of metamorphosis and of the kinship of men and beasts were real practical beliefs.  Events conceived to be common in real life were introduced into myths, and these myths were savage science, and were intended to account for the Origin of Species.  But when once this train of imagination has been fired, it burns on both in literature and in the legends of the peasantry.  Every one who writes a Christmas tale for children now employs the machinery of metamorphosis, and in European folk-lore, as Fontenelle remarked, stories persist which are precisely similar in kind to the minor myths of savages.

Reasoning in this wise, the Mundas of Bengal thus account for peculiarities of certain animals.  Sing Bonga, the chief god, cast certain people out of heaven; they fell to earth, found iron ore, and began smelting it.  The black smoke displeased Sing Bonga, who sent two king crows and an owl to bid people cease to pollute the atmosphere.  But the iron smelters spoiled these birds’ tails, and blackened the previously white crow, scorched its beak red, and flattened its head.  Sing Bonga burned man, and turned woman into hills and waterspouts.

Examples of this class of myth in Indo-Aryan literature are not hard to find.  Why is dawn red?  Why are donkeys slow?  Why have mules no young ones?  Mules have no foals because they were severely burned when Agni (fire) drove them in a chariot race.  Dawn is red, not because (as in Australia) she wears a red kangaroo cloak, but because she competed in this race with red cows for her coursers.  Donkeys are slow because they never recovered from their exertions in the same race, when the Asvins called on their asses and landed themselves the winners.  And cows are accommodated with horns for a reason no less probable and satisfactory.

Though in the legends of the less developed peoples men and women are more frequently metamorphosed into birds and beasts than into stones and plants, yet such changes of form are by no means unknown.  To the north-east of Western Point there lies a range of hills, inhabited, according to the natives of Victoria, by a creature whose body is made of stone, and weapons make no wound in so sturdy a constitution.  The blacks refuse to visit the range haunted by the mythic stone beast.  “Some black fellows were once camped at the lakes near Shaving Point.  They were cooking their fish when a native dog came up.  They did not give him anything to eat.  He became cross and said, ‘You black fellows have lots of fish, but you give me none’.  So he changed them all into a big rock.  This is quite true, for the big rock is there to this day, and I have seen it with my own eyes.”  Another native, Toolabar, says that the women of the fishing party cried out yacka torn, “very good”.  A dog replied yacka torn, and they were all changed into rocks.  This very man, Toolabar, once heard a dog begin to talk, whereupon he and his father fled.  Had they waited they would have become stones.  “We should have been like it, wallung,” that is, stones.

Among the North American Indians any stone which has a resemblance to the human or animal figure is explained as an example of metamorphosis.  Three stones among the Aricaras were a girl, her lover and her dog, who fled from home because the course of true love did not run smooth, and who were petrified.  Certain stones near Chinook Point were sea-giants who swallowed a man.  His brother, by aid of fire, dried up the bay and released the man, still alive, from the body of the giant.  Then the giants were turned into rocks.  The rising sun in Popol Vuh (if the evidence of Popol Vuh, the Quichua sacred book, is to be accepted) changed into stone the lion, serpent and tiger gods.  The Standing Rock on the Upper Missouri is adored by the Indians, and decorated with coloured ribbons and skins of animals.  This stone was a woman, who, like Niobe, became literally petrified with grief when her husband took a second wife.  Another stone-woman in a cave on the banks of the Kickapoo was wont to kill people who came near her, and is even now approached with great respect.  The Oneidas and Dacotahs claim descent from stones to which they ascribe animation.  Montesinos speaks of a sacred stone which was removed from a mountain by one of the Incas.  A parrot flew out of it and lodged in another stone, which the natives still worship. The Breton myth about one of the great stone circles (the stones were peasants who danced on a Sunday) is a well-known example of this kind of myth surviving in folk-lore.  There is a kind of stone Actaeon near Little Muniton Creek, “resembling the bust of a man whose head is decorated with the horns of a stag”.  A crowd of myths of metamorphosis into stone will be found among the Iroquois legends in Report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1880-81.  If men may become stones, on the other hand, in Samoa (as in the Greek myth of Deucalion), stones may become men.  Gods, too, especially when these gods happen to be cuttlefish, might be petrified.  They were chased in Samoa by an Upolu hero, who caught them in a great net and killed them.  “They were changed into stones, and now stand up in a rocky part of the lagoon on the north side of Upolu.” Mauke, the first man, came out of a stone.  In short, men and stones and beasts and gods and thunder have interchangeable forms.  In Mangaia the god Ra was tossed up into the sky by Maui and became pumice-stone.  Many samples of this petrified deity are found in Mangaia.  In Melanesia matters are so mixed that it is not easy to decide whether a worshipful stone is the dwelling of a dead man’s soul or is of spiritual merit in itself, or whether “the stone is the spirit’s outward part or organ”.  The Vui, or spirit, has much the same relations with snakes, owls and sharks. Qasavara, the mythical opponent of Qat, the Melanesian Prometheus, “fell dead from heaven” (like Ra in Mangia), and was turned into a stone, on which sacrifices are made by those who desire strength in fighting.

Without delaying longer among savage myths of metamorphosis into stones, it may be briefly shown that the Greeks retained this with all the other vagaries of early fancy.  Every one remembers the use which Perseus made of the Gorgon’s head, and the stones on the coast of Seriphus, which, like the stones near Western Point in Victoria, had once been men, the enemies of the hero.  “Also he slew the Gorgon,” sings Pindar, “and bare home her head, with serpent tresses decked, to the island folk a stony death.”  Observe Pindar’s explanatory remark: “I ween there is no marvel impossible if gods have wrought thereto”.  In the same pious spirit a Turk in an isle of the Levant once told Mr. Newton a story of how a man hunted a stag, and the stag spoke to him.  “The stag spoke?” said Mr. Newton.  “Yes, by Allah’s will,” replied the Turk.  Like Pindar, he was repeating an incident quite natural to the minds of Australians, or Bushmen, or Samoans, or Red Men, but, like the religious Pindar, he felt that the affair was rather marvellous, and accounted for it by the exercise of omnipotent power.  The Greek example of Niobe and her children may best be quoted in Mr.  Bridges’ translation from the Iliad:--

And somewhere now, among lone mountain rocks
On Sipylus, where couch the nymphs at night
Who dance all day by Achelous’ stream,
The once proud mother lies, herself a rook,
And in cold breast broods o’er the goddess’ wrong.

·        Prometheus the fire-bringer.

In the Iliad it is added that Cronion made the people into stones.  The attitude of the later Greek mind towards these myths may be observed in a fragment of Philemon, the comic poet. “Never, by the gods, have I believed, nor will believe, that Niobe the stone was once a woman.  Nay, by reason of her calamities she became speechless, and so, from her silence, was called a stone.”

There is another famous petrification in the Iliad.  When the prodigy of the snake and the sparrows had appeared to the assembled Achaeans at Aulis, Zeus displayed a great marvel, and changed into a stone the serpent which swallowed the young of the sparrow.  Changes into stone, though less common than changes into fishes, birds and beasts, were thus obviously not too strange for the credulity of Greek mythology, which could also believe that a stone became the mother of Agdestis by Zeus.

As to interchange of shape between men and women and PLANTS, our information, so far as the lower races are concerned, is less copious.  It has already been shown that the totems of many stocks in all parts of the world are plants, and this belief in connection with a plant by itself demonstrates that the confused belief in all things being on one level has thus introduced vegetables into the dominion of myth.  As far as possessing souls is concerned, Mr.  Tylor has proved that plants are as well equipped as men or beasts or minerals.  In India the doctrine of transmigration widely and clearly recognises the idea of trees or smaller plants being animated by human souls”.  In the well-known ancient Egyptian story of “The Two Brothers,” the life of the younger is practically merged in that of the acacia tree where he has hidden his heart; and when he becomes a bull and is sacrificed, his spiritual part passes into a pair of Persea trees.  The Yarucaris of Bolivia say that a girl once bewailed in the forest her loverless estate.  She happened to notice a beautiful tree, which she adorned with ornaments as well as she might.  The tree assumed the shape of a handsome young man—

She did not find him so remiss,
But, lightly issuing through,
He did repay her kiss for kiss,
With usury thereto.

J. G. Muller, who quotes this tale from Andree, says it has “many analogies with the tales of metamorphosis of human beings into trees among the ancients, as reported by Ovid”.  The worship of plants and trees is a well-known feature in religion, and probably implies (at least in many cases) a recognition of personality.  In Samoa, metamorphosis into vegetables is not uncommon.  For example, the king of Fiji was a cannibal, and (very naturally) “the people were melting away under him”.  The brothers Toa and Pale, wishing to escape the royal oven, adopted various changes of shape.  They knew that straight timber was being sought for to make a canoe for the king, so Pale, when he assumed a vegetable form, became a crooked stick overgrown with creepers, but Toa “preferred standing erect as a handsome straight tree”.  Poor Toa was therefore cut down by the king’s shipwrights, though, thanks to his brother’s magic wiles, they did not make a canoe out of him after all. In Samoa the trees are so far human that they not only go to war with each other, but actually embark in canoes to seek out distant enemies.  The Ottawa Indians account for the origin of maize by a myth in which a wizard fought with and conquered a little man who had a little crown of feathers.  From his ashes arose the maize with its crown of leaves and heavy ears of corn.

In Mangaia the myth of the origin of the cocoa-nut tree is a series of transformation scenes, in which the persons shift shapes with the alacrity of medicine-men.  Ina used to bathe in a pool where an eel became quite familiar with her.  At last the fish took courage and made his declaration.  He was Tuna, the chief of all eels.  “Be mine,” he cried, and Ina was his.  For some mystical reason he was obliged to leave her, but (like the White Cat in the fairy tale) he requested her to cut off his eel’s head and bury it.  Regretfully but firmly did Ina comply with his request, and from the buried eel’s head sprang two cocoa trees, one from each half of the brain of Tuna.  As a proof of this be it remarked, that when the nut is husked we always find on it “the two eyes and mouth of the lover of Ina”.  All over the world, from ancient Egypt to the wigwams of the Algonkins, plants and other matters are said to have sprung from a dismembered god or hero, while men are said to have sprung from plants.  We may therefore perhaps look on it as a proved point that the general savage habit of “levelling up” prevails even in their view of the vegetable world, and has left traces (as we have seen) in their myths.

Turning now to the mythology of Greece, we see that the same rule holds good.  Metamorphosis into plants and flowers is extremely common; the instances of Daphne, Myrrha, Hyacinth, Narcissus and the sisters of Phaethon at once occur to the memory.

Most of those myths in which everything in Nature becomes personal and human, while all persons may become anything in Nature, we explain, then, as survivals or imitations of tales conceived when men were in the savage intellectual condition.  In that stage, as we demonstrated, no line is drawn between things animate and inanimate, dumb or “articulate speaking,” organic or inorganic, personal or impersonal.  Such a mental stage, again, is reflected in the nature-myths, many of which are merely “aetiological,”— assign a cause, that is, for phenomena, and satisfy an indolent and credulous curiosity.

We may be asked again, “But how did this intellectual condition come to exist?”  To answer that is no part of our business; for us it is enough to trace myth, or a certain element in myth, to a demonstrable and actual stage of thought.  But this stage, which is constantly found to survive in the minds of children, is thus explained or described by Hume in his Essay on Natural Religion:

“There is an universal tendency in mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities . . . of which they are intimately conscious”.  Now they believe themselves to be conscious of magical and supernatural powers, which they do not, of course, possess.  These powers of effecting metamorphosis, of “shape-shifting,” of flying, of becoming invisible at will, of conversing with the dead, of miraculously healing the sick, savages pass on to their gods (as will be shown in a later chapter), and the gods of myth survive and retain the miraculous gifts after their worshippers (become more reasonable) have quite forgotten that they themselves once claimed similar endowments.  So far, then, it has been shown that savage fancy, wherever studied, is wild; that savage curiosity is keen; that savage credulity is practically boundless.  These considerations explain the existence of savage myths of sun, stars, beasts, plants and stones; similar myths fill Greek legend and the Sanskrit Brahmanes.  We conclude that, in Greek and Sanskrit, the myths are relics (whether borrowed or inherited) of the savage mental status.





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