Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology

Author: John Fiske

V. Myths of the Barbaric World.

THE theory of mythology set forth in the four preceding papers, and illustrated by the examination of numerous myths relating to the lightning, the storm-wind, the clouds, and the sunlight, was originally framed with reference solely to the mythic and legendary lore of the Aryan world. The phonetic identity of the names of many Western gods and heroes with the names of those Vedic divinities which are obviously the personifications of natural phenomena, suggested the theory which philosophical considerations had already foreshadowed in the works of Hume and Comte, and which the exhaustive analysis of Greek, Hindu, Keltic, and Teutonic legends has amply confirmed. Let us now, before proceeding to the consideration of barbaric folk-lore, briefly recapitulate the results obtained by modern scholarship working strictly within the limits of the Aryan domain.

In the first place, it has been proved once for all that the languages spoken by the Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Kelts, Slaves, and Teutons are all descended from a single ancestral language, the Old Aryan, in the same sense that French, Italian, and Spanish are descended from the Latin. And from this undisputed fact it is an inevitable inference that these various races contain, along with other elements, a race-element in common, due to their Aryan pedigree. That the Indo-European races are wholly Aryan is very improbable, for in every case the countries overrun by them were occupied by inferior races, whose blood must have mingled in varying degrees with that of their conquerors; but that every Indo-European people is in great part descended from a common Aryan stock is not open to question.

In the second place, along with a common fund of moral and religious ideas and of legal and ceremonial observances, we find these kindred peoples possessed of a common fund of myths, superstitions, proverbs, popular poetry, and household legends. The Hindu mother amuses her child with fairy-tales which often correspond, even in minor incidents, with stories in Scottish or Scandinavian nurseries; and she tells them in words which are phonetically akin to words in Swedish and Gaelic. No doubt many of these stories might have been devised in a dozen different places independently of each other; and no doubt many of them have been transmitted laterally from one people to another; but a careful examination shows that such cannot have been the case with the great majority of legends and beliefs. The agreement between two such stories, for instance, as those of Faithful John and Rama and Luxman is so close as to make it incredible that they should have been independently fabricated, while the points of difference are so important as to make it extremely improbable that the one was ever copied from the other. Besides which, the essential identity of such myths as those of Sigurd and Theseus, or of Helena and Sarama, carries us back historically to a time when the scattered Indo-European tribes had not yet begun to hold commercial and intellectual intercourse with each other, and consequently could not have interchanged their epic materials or their household stories. We are therefore driven to the conclusion—which, startling as it may seem, is after all the most natural and plausible one that can be stated—that the Aryan nations, which have inherited from a common ancestral stock their languages and their customs, have inherited also from the same common original their fireside legends. They have preserved Cinderella and Punchkin just as they have preserved the words for father and mother, ten and twenty; and the former case, though more imposing to the imagination, is scientifically no less intelligible than the latter.

Thirdly, it has been shown that these venerable tales may be grouped in a few pretty well defined classes; and that the archetypal myth of each class—the primitive story in conformity to which countless subsequent tales have been generated—was originally a mere description of physical phenomena, couched in the poetic diction of an age when everything was personified, because all natural phenomena were supposed to be due to the direct workings of a volition like that of which men were conscious within themselves. Thus we are led to the striking conclusion that mythology has had a common root, both with science and with religious philosophy. The myth of Indra conquering Vritra was one of the theorems of primitive Aryan science; it was a provisional explanation of the thunder-storm, satisfactory enough until extended observation and reflection supplied a better one. It also contained the germs of a theology; for the life-giving solar light furnished an important part of the primeval conception of deity. And finally, it became the fruitful parent of countless myths, whether embodied in the stately epics of Homer and the bards of the Nibelungenlied, or in the humbler legends of St. George and William Tell and the ubiquitous Boots.

Such is the theory which was suggested half a century ago by the researches of Jacob Grimm, and which, so far as concerns the mythology of the Aryan race, is now victorious along the whole line. It remains for us to test the universality of the general principles upon which it is founded, by a brief analysis of sundry legends and superstitions of the barbaric world. Since the fetichistic habit of explaining the outward phenomena of nature after the analogy of the inward phenomena of conscious intelligence is not a habit peculiar to our Aryan ancestors, but is, as psychology shows, the inevitable result of the conditions under which uncivilized thinking proceeds, we may expect to find the barbaric mind personifying the powers of nature and making myths about their operations the whole world over. And we need not be surprised if we find in the resulting mythologic structures a strong resemblance to the familiar creations of the Aryan intelligence. In point of fact, we shall often be called upon to note such resemblance; and it accordingly behooves us at the outset to inquire how far a similarity between mythical tales shall be taken as evidence of a common traditional origin, and how far it may be interpreted as due merely to the similar workings of the untrained intelligence in all ages and countries.

Analogies drawn from the comparison of languages will here be of service to us, if used discreetly; otherwise they are likely to bewilder far more than to enlighten us. A theorem which Max Muller has laid down for our guidance in this kind of investigation furnishes us with an excellent example of the tricks which a superficial analogy may play even with the trained scholar, when temporarily off his guard. Actuated by a praiseworthy desire to raise the study of myths to something like the high level of scientific accuracy already attained by the study of words, Max Muller endeavours to introduce one of the most useful canons of philology into a department of inquiry where its introduction could only work the most hopeless confusion. One of the earliest lessons to be learned by the scientific student of linguistics is the uselessness of comparing together directly the words contained in derivative languages. For example, you might set the English twelve side by side with the Latin duodecim, and then stare at the two words to all eternity without any hope of reaching a conclusion, good or bad, about either of them: least of all would you suspect that they are descended from the same radical. But if you take each word by itself and trace it back to its primitive shape, explaining every change of every letter as you go, you will at last reach the old Aryan dvadakan, which is the parent of both these strangely metamorphosed words.[130] Nor will it do, on the other hand, to trust to verbal similarity without a historical inquiry into the origin of such similarity. Even in the same language two words of quite different origin may get their corners rubbed off till they look as like one another as two pebbles. The French words souris, a "mouse," and souris, a "smile," are spelled exactly alike; but the one comes from Latin sorex and the other from Latin subridere.

[130] For the analysis of twelve, see my essay on "The Genesis of Language," North American Review, October 1869, p. 320.

Now Max Muller tells us that this principle, which is indispensable in the study of words, is equally indispensable in the study of myths.[131] That is, you must not rashly pronounce the Norse story of the Heartless Giant identical with the Hindu story of Punchkin, although the two correspond in every essential incident. In both legends a magician turns several members of the same family into stone; the youngest member of the family comes to the rescue, and on the way saves the lives of sundry grateful beasts; arrived at the magician’s castle, he finds a captive princess ready to accept his love and to play the part of Delilah to the enchanter. In both stories the enchanter’s life depends on the integrity of something which is elaborately hidden in a far-distant island, but which the fortunate youth, instructed by the artful princess and assisted by his menagerie of grateful beasts, succeeds in obtaining. In both stories the youth uses his advantage to free all his friends from their enchantment, and then proceeds to destroy the villain who wrought all this wickedness. Yet, in spite of this agreement, Max Muller, if I understand him aright, would not have us infer the identity of the two stories until we have taken each one separately and ascertained its primitive mythical significance. Otherwise, for aught we can tell, the resemblance may be purely accidental, like that of the French words for "mouse" and "smile."

[131] Chips from a German Workshop, Vol. II. p. 246.

A little reflection, however, will relieve us from this perplexity, and assure us that the alleged analogy between the comparison of words and the comparison of stories is utterly superficial. The transformations of words—which are often astounding enough—depend upon a few well-established physiological principles of utterance; and since philology has learned to rely upon these principles, it has become nearly as sure in its methods and results as one of the so-called "exact sciences." Folly enough is doubtless committed within its precincts by writers who venture there without the laborious preparation which this science, more than almost any other, demands. But the proceedings of the trained philologist are no more arbitrary than those of the trained astronomer. And though the former may seem to be straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel when he coolly tells you that violin and fiddle are the same word, while English care and Latin cura have nothing to do with each other, he is nevertheless no more indulging in guess-work than the astronomer who confesses his ignorance as to the habitability of Venus while asserting his knowledge of the existence of hydrogen in the atmosphere of Sirius. To cite one example out of a hundred, every philologist knows that s may become r, and that the broad a-sound may dwindle into the closer o-sound; but when you adduce some plausible etymology based on the assumption that r has changed into s, or o into a, apart from the demonstrable influence of some adjacent letter, the philologist will shake his head.

Now in the study of stories there are no such simple rules all cut and dried for us to go by. There is no uniform psychological principle which determines that the three-headed snake in one story shall become a three-headed man in the next. There is no Grimm’s Law in mythology which decides that a Hindu magician shall always correspond to a Norwegian Troll or a Keltic Druid. The laws of association of ideas are not so simple in application as the laws of utterance. In short, the study of myths, though it can be made sufficiently scientific in its methods and results, does not constitute a science by itself, like philology. It stands on a footing similar to that occupied by physical geography, or what the Germans call "earth-knowledge." No one denies that all the changes going on over the earth’s surface conform to physical laws; but then no one pretends that there is any single proximate principle which governs all the phenomena of rain-fall, of soil-crumbling, of magnetic variation, and of the distribution of plants and animals. All these things are explained by principles obtained from the various sciences of physics, chemistry, geology, and physiology. And in just the same way the development and distribution of stories is explained by the help of divers resources contributed by philology, psychology, and history. There is therefore no real analogy between the cases cited by Max Muller. Two unrelated words may be ground into exactly the same shape, just as a pebble from the North Sea may be undistinguishable from another pebble on the beach of the Adriatic; but two stories like those of Punchkin and the Heartless Giant are no more likely to arise independently of each other than two coral reefs on opposite sides of the globe are likely to develop into exactly similar islands.

Shall we then say boldly, that close similarity between legends is proof of kinship, and go our way without further misgivings? Unfortunately we cannot dispose of the matter in quite so summary a fashion; for it remains to decide what kind and degree of similarity shall be considered satisfactory evidence of kinship. And it is just here that doctors may disagree. Here is the point at which our "science" betrays its weakness as compared with the sister study of philology. Before we can decide with confidence in any case, a great mass of evidence must be brought into court. So long as we remained on Aryan ground, all went smoothly enough, because all the external evidence was in our favour. We knew at the outset, that the Aryans inherit a common language and a common civilization, and therefore we found no difficulty in accepting the conclusion that they have inherited, among other things, a common stock of legends. In the barbaric world it is quite otherwise. Philology does not pronounce in favour of a common origin for all barbaric culture, such as it is. The notion of a single primitive language, standing in the same relation to all existing dialects as the relation of old Aryan to Latin and English, or that of old Semitic to Hebrew and Arabic, was a notion suited only to the infancy of linguistic science. As the case now stands, it is certain that all the languages actually existing cannot be referred to a common ancestor, and it is altogether probable that there never was any such common ancestor. I am not now referring to the question of the unity of the human race. That question lies entirely outside the sphere of philology. The science of language has nothing to do with skulls or complexions, and no comparison of words can tell us whether the black men are brethren of the white men, or whether yellow and red men have a common pedigree: these questions belong to comparative physiology. But the science of language can and does tell us that a certain amount of civilization is requisite for the production of a language sufficiently durable and wide-spread to give birth to numerous mutually resembling offspring Barbaric languages are neither widespread nor durable. Among savages each little group of families has its own dialect, and coins its own expressions at pleasure; and in the course of two or three generations a dialect gets so strangely altered as virtually to lose its identity. Even numerals and personal pronouns, which the Aryan has preserved for fifty centuries, get lost every few years in Polynesia. Since the time of Captain Cook the Tahitian language has thrown away five out of its ten simple numerals, and replaced them by brand-new ones; and on the Amazon you may acquire a fluent command of some Indian dialect, and then, coming back after twenty years, find yourself worse off than Rip Van Winkle, and your learning all antiquated and useless. How absurd, therefore, to suppose that primeval savages originated a language which has held its own like the old Aryan and become the prolific mother of the three or four thousand dialects now in existence! Before a durable language can arise, there must be an aggregation of numerous tribes into a people, so that there may be need of communication on a large scale, and so that tradition may be strengthened. Wherever mankind have associated in nations, permanent languages have arisen, and their derivative dialects bear the conspicuous marks of kinship; but where mankind have remained in their primitive savage isolation, their languages have remained sporadic and transitory, incapable of organic development, and showing no traces of a kinship which never existed.

The bearing of these considerations upon the origin and diffusion of barbaric myths is obvious. The development of a common stock of legends is, of course, impossible, save where there is a common language; and thus philology pronounces against the kinship of barbaric myths with each other and with similar myths of the Aryan and Semitic worlds. Similar stories told in Greece and Norway are likely to have a common pedigree, because the persons who have preserved them in recollection speak a common language and have inherited the same civilization. But similar stories told in Labrador and South Africa are not likely to be genealogically related, because it is altogether probable that the Esquimaux and the Zulu had acquired their present race characteristics before either of them possessed a language or a culture sufficient for the production of myths. According to the nature and extent of the similarity, it must be decided whether such stories have been carried about from one part of the world to another, or have been independently originated in many different places.

Here the methods of philology suggest a rule which will often be found useful. In comparing, the vocabularies of different languages, those words which directly imitate natural sounds— such as whiz, crash, crackle—are not admitted as evidence of kinship between the languages in which they occur. Resemblances between such words are obviously no proof of a common ancestry; and they are often met with in languages which have demonstrably had no connection with each other. So in mythology, where we find two stories of which the primitive character is perfectly transparent, we need have no difficulty in supposing them to have originated independently. The myth of Jack and his Beanstalk is found all over the world; but the idea of a country above the sky, to which persons might gain access by climbing, is one which could hardly fail to occur to every barbarian. Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world. In South Africa, as well as in Germany, the habits of the fox and of his brother the jackal have given rise to fables in which brute force is overcome by cunning. In many parts of the world we find curiously similar stories devised to account for the stumpy tails of the bear and hyaena, the hairless tail of the rat, and the blindness of the mole. And in all countries may be found the beliefs that men may be changed into beasts, or plants, or stones; that the sun is in some way tethered or constrained to follow a certain course; that the storm-cloud is a ravenous dragon; and that there are talismans which will reveal hidden treasures. All these conceptions are so obvious to the uncivilized intelligence, that stories founded upon them need not be supposed to have a common origin, unless there turns out to be a striking similarity among their minor details. On the other hand, the numerous myths of an all-destroying deluge have doubtless arisen partly from reminiscences of actually occurring local inundations, and partly from the fact that the Scriptural account of a deluge has been carried all over the world by Catholic and Protestant missionaries.[132]

[132] For various legends of a deluge, see Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 85-106.

By way of illustrating these principles, let us now cite a few of the American myths so carefully collected by Dr. Brinton in his admirable treatise. We shall not find in the mythology of the New World the wealth of wit and imagination which has so long delighted us in the stories of Herakles, Perseus, Hermes, Sigurd, and Indra. The mythic lore of the American Indians is comparatively scanty and prosaic, as befits the product of a lower grade of culture and a more meagre intellect. Not only are the personages less characteristically pourtrayed, but there is a continual tendency to extravagance, the sure index of an inferior imagination. Nevertheless, after making due allowances for differences in the artistic method of treatment, there is between the mythologies of the Old and the New Worlds a fundamental resemblance. We come upon solar myths and myths of the storm curiously blended with culture-myths, as in the cases of Hermes, Prometheus, and Kadmos. The American parallels to these are to be found in the stories of Michabo, Viracocha, Ioskeha, and Quetzalcoatl. "As elsewhere the world over, so in America, many tribes had to tell of .... an august character, who taught them what they knew,—the tillage of the soil, the properties of plants, the art of picture-writing, the secrets of magic; who founded their institutions and established their religions; who governed them long with glory abroad and peace at home; and finally did not die, but, like Frederic Barbarossa, Charlemagne, King Arthur, and all great heroes, vanished mysteriously, and still lives somewhere, ready at the right moment to return to his beloved people and lead them to victory and happiness."[133] Everyone is familiar with the numerous legends of white-skinned, full-bearded heroes, like the mild Quetzalcoatl, who in times long previous to Columbus came from the far East to impart the rudiments of civilization and religion to the red men. By those who first heard these stories they were supposed, with naive Euhemerism, to refer to pre-Columbian visits of Europeans to this continent, like that of the Northmen in the tenth century. But a scientific study of the subject has dissipated such notions. These legends are far too numerous, they are too similar to each other, they are too manifestly symbolical, to admit of any such interpretation. By comparing them carefully with each other, and with correlative myths of the Old World, their true character soon becomes apparent.

[133] Brinton, Myths of the New World, p. 160.

One of the most widely famous of these culture-heroes was Manabozho or Michabo, the Great Hare. With entire unanimity, says Dr. Brinton, the various branches of the Algonquin race, "the Powhatans of Virginia, the Lenni Lenape of the Delaware, the warlike hordes of New England, the Ottawas of the far North, and the Western tribes, perhaps without exception, spoke of this chimerical beast,’ as one of the old missionaries calls it, as their common ancestor. The totem, or clan, which bore his name was looked up to with peculiar respect." Not only was Michabo the ruler and guardian of these numerous tribes,—he was the founder of their religious rites, the inventor of picture-writing, the ruler of the weather, the creator and preserver of earth and heaven. "From a grain of sand brought from the bottom of the primeval ocean he fashioned the habitable land, and set it floating on the waters till it grew to such a size that a strong young wolf, running constantly, died of old age ere he reached its limits." He was also, like Nimrod, a mighty hunter. "One of his footsteps measured eight leagues, the Great Lakes were the beaver-dams he built, and when the cataracts impeded his progress he tore them away with his hands." "Sometimes he was said to dwell in the skies with his brother, the Snow, or, like many great spirits, to have built his wigwam in the far North on some floe of ice in the Arctic Ocean..... But in the oldest accounts of the missionaries he was alleged to reside toward the East; and in the holy formulae of the meda craft, when the winds are invoked to the medicine lodge, the East is summoned in his name, the door opens in that direction, and there, at the edge of the earth where the sun rises, on the shore of the infinite ocean that surrounds the land, he has his house, and sends the luminaries forth on their daily journeys."[134] From such accounts as this we see that Michabo was no more a wise instructor and legislator than Minos or Kadmos. Like these heroes, he is a personification of the solar life-giving power, which daily comes forth from its home in the east, making the earth to rejoice. The etymology of his name confirms the otherwise clear indications of the legend itself. It is compounded of michi, "great," and wabos, which means alike "hare" and "white." "Dialectic forms in Algonquin for white are wabi, wape, wampi, etc.; for morning, wapan, wapanch, opah; for east, wapa, wanbun, etc.; for day, wompan, oppan; for light, oppung." So that Michabo is the Great White One, the God of the Dawn and the East. And the etymological confusion, by virtue of which he acquired his soubriquet of the Great Hare, affords a curious parallel to what has often happened in Aryan and Semitic mythology, as we saw when discussing the subject of werewolves.

[134] Brinton, op. cit. p. 163.

Keeping in mind this solar character of Michabo, let us note how full of meaning are the myths concerning him. In the first cycle of these legends, "he is grandson of the Moon, his father is the West Wind, and his mother, a maiden, dies in giving him birth at the moment of conception. For the Moon is the goddess of night; the Dawn is her daughter, who brings forth the Morning, and perishes herself in the act; and the West, the spirit of darkness, as the East is of light, precedes, and as it were begets the latter, as the evening does the morning. Straightway, however, continues the legend, the son sought the unnatural father to revenge the death of his mother, and then commenced a long and desperate struggle. It began on the mountains. The West was forced to give ground. Manabozho drove him across rivers and over mountains and lakes, and at last he came to the brink of this world. ’Hold,’ cried he, ’my son, you know my power, and that it is impossible to kill me.’ What is this but the diurnal combat of light and darkness, carried on from what time ’the jocund morn stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops,’ across the wide world to the sunset, the struggle that knows no end, for both the opponents are immortal?"[135]

[135] Brinton, op. cit. p. 167.

Even the Veda nowhere affords a more transparent narrative than this. The Iroquois tradition is very similar. In it appear twin brothers,[136] born of a virgin mother, daughter of the Moon, who died in giving them life. Their names, Ioskeha and Tawiskara, signify in the Oneida dialect the White One and the Dark One. Under the influence of Christian ideas the contest between the brothers has been made to assume a moral character, like the strife between Ormuzd and Ahriman. But no such intention appears in the original myth, and Dr. Brinton has shown that none of the American tribes had any conception of a Devil. When the quarrel came to blows, the dark brother was signally discomfited; and the victorious Ioskeha, returning to his grandmother, "established his lodge in the far East, on the horders of the Great Ocean, whence the sun comes. In time he became the father of mankind, and special guardian of the Iroquois." He caused the earth to bring forth, he stocked the woods with game, and taught his children the use of fire. "He it was who watched and watered their crops; ’and, indeed, without his aid,’ says the old missionary, quite out of patience with their puerilities, ’they think they could not boil a pot.’ " There was more in it than poor Brebouf thought, as we are forcibly reminded by recent discoveries in physical science. Even civilized men would find it difficult to boil a pot without the aid of solar energy. Call him what we will,—Ioskeha, Michabo, or Phoibos,—the beneficent Sun is the master and sustainer of us all; and if we were to relapse into heathenism, like Erckmann-Chatrian’s innkeeper, we could not do better than to select him as our chief object of worship.

[136] Corresponding, in various degrees, to the Asvins, the Dioskouroi, and the brothers True and Untrue of Norse mythology.

The same principles by which these simple cases are explained furnish also the key to the more complicated mythology of Mexico and Peru. Like the deities just discussed, Viracocha, the supreme god of the Quichuas, rises from the bosom of Lake Titicaca and journeys westward, slaying with his lightnings the creatures who oppose him, until he finally disappears in the Western Ocean. Like Aphrodite, he bears in his name the evidence of his origin, Viracocha signifying "foam of the sea"; and hence the "White One" (l’aube), the god of light rising white on the horizon, like the foam on the surface of the waves. The Aymaras spoke of their original ancestors as white; and to this day, as Dr. Brinton informs us, the Peruvians call a white man Viracocha. The myth of Quetzalcoatl is of precisely the same character. All these solar heroes present in most of their qualities and achievements a striking likeness to those of the Old World. They combine the attributes of Apollo, Herakles, and Hermes. Like Herakles, they journey from east to west, smiting the powers of darkness, storm, and winter with the thunderbolts of Zeus or the unerring arrows of Phoibos, and sinking in a blaze of glory on the western verge of the world, where the waves meet the firmament. Or like Hermes, in a second cycle of legends, they rise with the soft breezes of a summer morning, driving before them the bright celestial cattle whose udders are heavy with refreshing rain, fanning the flames which devour the forests, blustering at the doors of wigwams, and escaping with weird laughter through vents and crevices. The white skins and flowing beards of these American heroes may be aptly compared to the fair faces and long golden locks of their Hellenic compeers. Yellow hair was in all probability as rare in Greece as a full beard in Peru or Mexico; but in each case the description suits the solar character of the hero. One important class of incidents, however is apparently quite absent from the American legends. We frequently see the Dawn described as a virgin mother who dies in giving birth to the Day; but nowhere do we remember seeing her pictured as a lovely or valiant or crafty maiden, ardently wooed, but speedily forsaken by her solar lover. Perhaps in no respect is the superior richness and beauty of the Aryan myths more manifest than in this. Brynhild, Urvasi, Medeia, Ariadne, Oinone, and countless other kindred heroines, with their brilliant legends, could not be spared from the mythology of our ancestors without, leaving it meagre indeed. These were the materials which Kalidasa, the Attic dramatists, and the bards of the Nibelungen found ready, awaiting their artistic treatment. But the mythology of the New World, with all its pretty and agreeable naivete, affords hardly enough, either of variety in situation or of complexity in motive, for a grand epic or a genuine tragedy.

But little reflection is needed to assure us that the imagination of the barbarian, who either carries away his wife by brute force or buys her from her relatives as he would buy a cow, could never have originated legends in which maidens are lovingly solicited, or in which their favour is won by the performance of deeds of valour. These stories owe their existence to the romantic turn of mind which has always characterized the Aryan, whose civilization, even in the times before the dispersion of his race, was sufficiently advanced to allow of his entertaining such comparatively exalted conceptions of the relations between men and women. The absence of these myths from barbaric folk-lore is, therefore, just what might be expected; but it is a fact which militates against any possible hypothesis of the common origin of Aryan and barbaric mythology. If there were any genetic relationship between Sigurd and Ioskeha, between Herakles and Michabo, it would be hard to tell why Brynhild and Iole should have disappeared entirely from one whole group of legends, while retained, in some form or other, throughout the whole of the other group. On the other hand, the resemblances above noticed between Aryan and American mythology fall very far short of the resemblances between the stories told in different parts of the Aryan domain. No barbaric legend, of genuine barbaric growth, has yet been cited which resembles any Aryan legend as the story of Punchkin resembles the story of the Heartless Giant. The myths of Michabo and Viracocha are direct copies, so to speak, of natural phenomena, just as imitative words are direct copies of natural sounds. Neither the Redskin nor the Indo-European had any choice as to the main features of the career of his solar divinity. He must be born of the Night,—or of the Dawn,—must travel westward, must slay harassing demons. Eliminating these points of likeness, the resemblance between the Aryan and barbaric legends is at once at an end. Such an identity in point of details as that between the wooden horse which enters Ilion, and the horse which bears Sigurd into the place where Brynhild is imprisoned, and the Druidic steed which leaps with Sculloge over the walls of Fiach’s enchanted castle, is, I believe, nowhere to be found after we leave Indo-European territory.

Our conclusion, therefore, must be, that while the legends of the Aryan and the non-Aryan worlds contain common mythical elements, the legends themselves are not of common origin. The fact that certain mythical ideas are possessed alike by different races, shows that in each case a similar human intelligence has been at work explaining similar phenomena; but in order to prove a family relationship between the culture of these different races, we need something more than this. We need to prove not only a community of mythical ideas, but also a community between the stories based upon these ideas. We must show not only that Michabo is like Herakles in those striking features which the contemplation of solar phenomena would necessarily suggest to the imagination of the primitive myth-maker, but also that the two characters are similarly conceived, and that the two careers agree in seemingly arbitrary points of detail, as is the case in the stories of Punchkin and the Heartless Giant. The mere fact that solar heroes, all over the world, travel in a certain path and slay imps of darkness is of great value as throwing light upon primeval habits of thought, but it is of no value as evidence for or against an alleged community of civilization between different races. The same is true of the sacredness universally attached to certain numbers. Dr. Blinton’s opinion that the sanctity of the number four in nearly all systems of mythology is due to a primitive worship of the cardinal points, becomes very probable when we recollect that the similar pre-eminence of seven is almost demonstrably connected with the adoration of the sun, moon, and five visible planets, which has left its record in the structure and nomenclature of the Aryan and Semitic week.[137]

[137] See Humboldt’s Kosmos, Tom. III. pp. 469-476. A fetichistic regard for the cardinal points has not always been absent from the minds of persons instructed in a higher theology as witness a well-known passage in Irenaeus, and also the custom, well-nigh universal in Europe, of building Christian churches in a line east and west.

In view of these considerations, the comparison of barbaric myths with each other and with the legends of the Aryan world becomes doubly interesting, as illustrating the similarity in the workings of the untrained intelligence the world over. In our first paper we saw how the moon-spots have been variously explained by Indo-Europeans, as a man with a thorn-bush or as two children bearing a bucket of water on a pole. In Ceylon it is said that as Sakyamuni was one day wandering half starved in the forest, a pious hare met him, and offered itself to him to be slain and cooked for dinner; whereupon the holy Buddha set it on high in the moon, that future generations of men might see it and marvel at its piety. In the Samoan Islands these dark patches are supposed to be portions of a woman’s figure. A certain woman was once hammering something with a mallet, when the moon arose, looking so much like a bread-fruit that the woman asked it to come down and let her child eat off a piece of it; but the moon, enraged at the insult, gobbled up woman, mallet, and child, and there, in the moon’s belly, you may still behold them. According to the Hottentots, the Moon once sent the Hare to inform men that as she died away and rose again, so should men die and again come to life. But the stupid Hare forgot the purport of the message, and, coming down to the earth, proclaimed it far and wide that though the Moon was invariably resuscitated whenever she died, mankind, on the other hand, should die and go to the Devil. When the silly brute returned to the lunar country and told what he had done, the Moon was so angry that she took up an axe and aimed a blow at his head to split it. But the axe missed and only cut his lip open; and that was the origin of the "hare-lip." Maddened by the pain and the insult, the Hare flew at the Moon and almost scratched her eyes out; and to this day she bears on her face the marks of the Hare’s claws.[138]

[138] Bleek, Hottentot Fables and Tales, p. 72. Compare the Fiji story of Ra Vula, the Moon, and Ra Kalavo, the Rat, in Tylor, Primitive Culture, I. 321.

Again, every reader of the classics knows how Selene cast Endymion into a profound slumber because he refused her love, and how at sundown she used to come and stand above him on the Latmian hill, and watch him as he lay asleep on the marble steps of a temple half hidden among drooping elm-trees, over which clambered vines heavy with dark blue grapes. This represents the rising moon looking down on the setting sun; in Labrador a similar phenomenon has suggested a somewhat different story. Among the Esquimaux the Sun is a maiden and the Moon is her brother, who is overcome by a wicked passion for her. Once, as this girl was at a dancing-party in a friend’s hut, some one came up and took hold of her by the shoulders and shook her, which is (according to the legend) the Esquimaux manner of declaring one’s love. She could not tell who it was in the dark, and so she dipped her hand in some soot and smeared one of his cheeks with it. When a light was struck in the hut, she saw, to her dismay, that it was her brother, and, without waiting to learn any more, she took to her heels. He started in hot pursuit, and so they ran till they got to the end of the world,—the jumping-off place,—when they both jumped into the sky. There the Moon still chases his sister, the Sun; and every now and then he turns his sooty cheek toward the earth, when he becomes so dark that you cannot see him.[139]

[139] Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 327.

Another story, which I cite from Mr. Tylor, shows that Malays, as well as Indo-Europeans, have conceived of the clouds as swan-maidens. In the island of Celebes it is said that "seven heavenly nymphs came down from the sky to bathe, and they were seen by Kasimbaha, who thought first that they were white doves, but in the bath he saw that they were women. Then he stole one of the thin robes that gave the nymphs their power of flying, and so he caught Utahagi, the one whose robe he had stolen, and took her for his wife, and she bore him a son. Now she was called Utahagi from a single white hair she had, which was endowed with magic power, and this hair her husband pulled out. As soon as he had done it, there arose a great storm, and Utahagi went up to heaven. The child cried for its mother, and Kasimbaha was in great grief, and cast about how he should follow Utahagi up into the sky." Here we pass to the myth of Jack and the Beanstalk. "A rat gnawed the thorns off the rattans, and Kasimbaha clambered up by them with his son upon his back, till he came to heaven. There a little bird showed him the house of Utahagi, and after various adventures he took up his abode among the gods."[140]

[140] Tylor, op. cit., p. 346.

In Siberia we find a legend of swan-maidens, which also reminds us of the story of the Heartless Giant. A certain Samojed once went out to catch foxes, and found seven maidens swimming in a lake surrounded by gloomy pine-trees, while their feather dresses lay on the shore. He crept up and stole one of these dresses, and by and by the swan-maiden came to him shivering with cold and promising to become his wife if he would only give her back her garment of feathers. The ungallant fellow, however, did not care for a wife, but a little revenge was not unsuited to his way of thinking. There were seven robbers who used to prowl about the neighbourhood, and who, when they got home, finding their hearts in the way, used to hang them up on some pegs in the tent. One of these robbers had killed the Samojed’s mother; and so he promised to return the swan-maiden’s dress after she should have procured for him these seven hearts. So she stole the hearts, and the Samojed smashed six of them, and then woke up the seventh robber, and told him to restore his mother to life, on pain of instant death, Then the robber produced a purse containing the old woman’s soul, and going to the graveyard shook it over her bones, and she revived at once. Then the Samojed smashed the seventh heart, and the robber died; and so the swan-maiden got back her plumage and flew away rejoicing.[141]

[141] Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, II. 299-302.

Swan-maidens are also, according to Mr. Baring-Gould, found among the Minussinian Tartars. But there they appear as foul demons, like the Greek Harpies, who delight in drinking the blood of men slain in battle. There are forty of them, who darken the whole firmament in their flight; but sometimes they all coalesce into one great black storm-fiend, who rages for blood, like a werewolf.

In South Africa we find the werewolf himself.[142] A certain Hottentot was once travelling with a Bushwoman and her child, when they perceived at a distance a troop of wild horses. The man, being hungry, asked the woman to turn herself into a lioness and catch one of these horses, that they might eat of it; whereupon the woman set down her child, and taking off a sort of petticoat made of human skin became instantly transformed into a lioness, which rushed across the plain, struck down a wild horse and lapped its blood. The man climbed a tree in terror, and conjured his companion to resume her natural shape. Then the lioness came back, and putting on the skirt made of human skin reappeared as a woman, and took up her child, and the two friends resumed their journey after making a meal of the horse’s flesh.[143]

[142] Speaking of beliefs in the Malay Archipelago, Mr. Wallace says: "It is universally believed in Lombock that some men have the power to turn themselves into crocodiles, which they do for the sake of devouring their enemies, and many strange tales are told of such transformations." Wallace, Malay Archipelago, Vol. I. p. 251.

[143] Bleek, Hottentot Fables and Tales, p. 58.

The werewolf also appears in North America, duly furnished with his wolf-skin sack; but neither in America nor in Africa is he the genuine European werewolf, inspired by a diabolic frenzy, and ravening for human flesh. The barbaric myths testify to the belief that men can be changed into beasts or have in some cases descended from beast ancestors, but the application of this belief to the explanation of abnormal cannibal cravings seems to have been confined to Europe. The werewolf of the Middle Ages was not merely a transformed man,—he was an insane cannibal, whose monstrous appetite, due to the machinations of the Devil, showed its power over his physical organism by changing the shape of it. The barbaric werewolf is the product of a lower and simpler kind of thinking. There is no diabolism about him; for barbaric races, while believing in the existence of hurtful and malicious fiends, have not a sufficiently vivid sense of moral abnormity to form the conception of diabolism. And the cannibal craving, which to the mediaeval European was a phenomenon so strange as to demand a mythological explanation, would not impress the barbarian as either very exceptional or very blameworthy.

In the folk-lore of the Zulus, one of the most quick-witted and intelligent of African races, the cannibal possesses many features in common with the Scandinavian Troll, who also has a liking for human flesh. As we saw in the preceding paper, the Troll has very likely derived some of his characteristics from reminiscences of the barbarous races who preceded the Aryans in Central and Northern Europe. In like manner the long-haired cannibal of Zulu nursery literature, who is always represented as belonging to a distinct race, has been supposed to be explained by the existence of inferior races conquered and displaced by the Zulus. Nevertheless, as Dr. Callaway observes, neither the long-haired mountain cannibals of Western Africa, nor the Fulahs, nor the tribes of Eghedal described by Barth, "can be considered as answering to the description of long-haired as given in the Zulu legends of cannibals; neither could they possibly have formed their historical basis..... It is perfectly clear that the cannibals of the Zulu legends are not common men; they are magnified into giants and magicians; they are remarkably swift and enduring; fierce and terrible warriors." Very probably they may have a mythical origin in modes of thought akin to those which begot the Panis of the Veda and the Northern Trolls. The parallelism is perhaps the most remarkable one which can be found in comparing barbaric with Aryan folk-lore. Like the Panis and Trolls, the cannibals are represented as the foes of the solar hero Uthlakanyana, who is almost as great a traveller as Odysseus, and whose presence of mind amid trying circumstances is not to be surpassed by that of the incomparable Boots. Uthlakanyana is as precocious as Herakles or Hermes. He speaks before he is born, and no sooner has he entered the world than he begins to outwit other people and get possession of their property. He works bitter ruin for the cannibals, who, with all their strength and fleetness, are no better endowed with quick wit than the Trolls, whom Boots invariably victimizes. On one of his journeys, Uthlakanyana fell in with a cannibal. Their greetings were cordial enough, and they ate a bit of leopard together, and began to build a house, and killed a couple of cows, but the cannibal’s cow was lean, while Uthlakanyana’s was fat. Then the crafty traveller, fearing that his companion might insist upon having the fat cow, turned and said, " ’Let the house be thatched now then we can eat our meat. You see the sky, that we shall get wet.’ The cannibal said, ’You are right, child of my sister; you are a man indeed in saying, let us thatch the house, for we shall get wet.’ Uthlakanyana said, ’Do you do it then; I will go inside, and push the thatching-needle for you, in the house.’ The cannibal went up. His hair was very, very long. Uthlakanyana went inside and pushed the needle for him. He thatched in the hair of the cannibal, tying it very tightly; he knotted it into the thatch constantly, taking it by separate locks and fastening it firmly, that it might be tightly fastened to the house." Then the rogue went outside and began to eat of the cow which was roasted. "The cannibal said, ’What are you about, child of my sister? Let us just finish the house; afterwards we can do that; we will do it together.’ Uthlakanyana replied, ’Come down then. I cannot go into the house any more. The thatching is finished.’ The cannibal assented. When he thought he was going to quit the house, he was unable to quit it. He cried out saying, ’Child of my sister, how have you managed your thatching?’ Uthlakanyana said, ’See to it yourself. I have thatched well, for I shall not have any dispute. Now I am about to eat in peace; I no longer dispute with anybody, for I am now alone with my cow.’ " So the cannibal cried and raved and appealed in vain to Uthlakanyana’s sense of justice, until by and by "the sky came with hailstones and lightning Uthlakanyana took all the meat into the house; he stayed in the house and lit a fire. It hailed and rained. The cannibal cried on the top of the house; he was struck with the hailstones, and died there on the house. It cleared. Uthlakanyana went out and said, ’Uncle, just come down, and come to me. It has become clear. It no longer rains, and there is no more hail, neither is there any more lightning. Why are you silent?’ So Uthlakanyana ate his cow alone, until he had finished it. He then went on his way."[144]

[144] Callaway, Zulu Nursery Tales, pp. 27-30.

In another Zulu legend, a girl is stolen by cannibals, and shut up in the rock Itshe-likantunjambili, which, like the rock of the Forty Thieves, opens and shuts at the command of those who understand its secret. She gets possession of the secret and escapes, and when the monsters pursue her she throws on the ground a calabash full of sesame, which they stop to eat. At last, getting tired of running, she climbs a tree, and there she finds her brother, who, warned by a dream, has come out to look for her. They ascend the tree together until they come to a beautiful country well stocked with fat oxen. They kill an ox, and while its flesh is roasting they amuse themselves by making a stout thong of its hide. By and by one of the cannibals, smelling the cooking meat, comes to the foot of the tree, and looking up discovers the boy and girl in the sky-country! They invite him up there; to share in their feast, and throw him an end of the thong by which to climb up. When the cannibal is dangling midway between earth and heaven, they let go the rope, and down he falls with a terrible crash.[145]

[145] Callaway, op. cit. pp. 142-152; cf. a similar story in which the lion is fooled by the jackal. Bleek, op. cit. p. 7. I omit the sequel of the tale.

In this story the enchanted rock opened by a talismanic formula brings us again into contact with Indo-European folk-lore. And that the conception has in both cases been suggested by the same natural phenomenon is rendered probable by another Zulu tale, in which the cannibal’s cave is opened by a swallow which flies in the air. Here we have the elements of a genuine lightning-myth. We see that among these African barbarians, as well as among our own forefathers, the clouds have been conceived as birds carrying the lightning which can cleave the rocks. In America we find the same notion prevalent. The Dakotahs explain the thunder as "the sound of the cloud-bird flapping his wings," and the Caribs describe the lightning as a poisoned dart which the bird blows through a hollow reed, after the Carib style of shooting.[146] On the other hand, the Kamtchatkans know nothing of a cloud-bird, but explain the lightning as something analogous to the flames of a volcano. The Kamtchatkans say that when the mountain goblins have got their stoves well heated up, they throw overboard, with true barbaric shiftlessness, all the brands not needed for immediate use, which makes a volcanic eruption. So when it is summer on earth, it is winter in heaven; and the gods, after heating up their stoves, throw away their spare kindlingwood, which makes the lightning.[147]

[146] Brinton, op. cit. p. 104.

[147] Tylor, op. cit. p. 320.

When treating of Indo-European solar myths, we saw the unvarying, unresting course of the sun variously explained as due to the subjection of Herakles to Eurystheus, to the anger of Poseidon at Odysseus, or to the curse laid upon the Wandering Jew. The barbaric mind has worked at the same problem; but the explanations which it has given are more childlike and more grotesque. A Polynesian myth tells how the Sun used to race through the sky so fast that men could not get enough daylight to hunt game for their subsistence. By and by an inventive genius, named Maui, conceived the idea of catching the Sun in a noose and making him go more deliberately. He plaited ropes and made a strong net, and, arming himself with the jawbone of his ancestress, Muri-ranga-whenua, called together all his brethren, and they journeyed to the place where the Sun rises, and there spread the net. When the Sun came up, he stuck his head and fore-paws into the net, and while the brothers tightened the ropes so that they cut him and made him scream for mercy, Maui beat him with the jawbone until he became so weak that ever since he has only been able to crawl through the sky. According to another Polynesian myth, there was once a grumbling Radical, who never could be satisfied with the way in which things are managed on this earth. This bold Radical set out to build a stone house which should last forever; but the days were so short and the stones so heavy that he despaired of ever accomplishing his project. One night, as he lay awake thinking the matter over, it occurred to him that if he could catch the Sun in a net, he could have as much daylight as was needful in order to finish his house. So he borrowed a noose from the god Itu, and, it being autumn, when the Sun gets sleepy and stupid, he easily caught the luminary. The Sun cried till his tears made a great freshet which nearly drowned the island; but it was of no use; there he is tethered to this day.

Similar stories are met with in North America. A Dog-Rib Indian once chased a squirrel up a tree until he reached the sky. There he set a snare for the squirrel and climbed down again. Next day the Sun was caught in the snare, and night came on at once. That is to say, the sun was eclipsed. "Something wrong up there," thought the Indian, "I must have caught the Sun"; and so he sent up ever so many animals to release the captive. They were all burned to ashes, but at last the mole, going up and burrowing out through the GROUND OF THE SKY, (!) succeeded in gnawing asunder the cords of the snare. Just as it thrust its head out through the opening made in the sky-ground, it received a flash of light which put its eyes out, and that is why the mole is blind. The Sun got away, but has ever since travelled more deliberately.[148]

[148] Tylor, op. cit. pp. 338-343.

These sun-myths, many more of which are to be found collected in Mr. Tylor’s excellent treatise on "The Early History of Mankind," well illustrate both the similarity and the diversity of the results obtained by the primitive mind, in different times and countries, when engaged upon similar problems. No one would think of referring these stories to a common traditional origin with the myths of Herakles and Odysseus; yet both classes of tales were devised to explain the same phenomenon. Both to the Aryan and to the Polynesian the steadfast but deliberate journey of the sun through the firmament was a strange circumstance which called for explanation; but while the meagre intelligence of the barbarian could only attain to the quaint conception of a man throwing a noose over the sun’s head, the rich imagination of the Indo-European created the noble picture of Herakles doomed to serve the son of Sthenelos, in accordance with the resistless decree of fate.

Another world-wide myth, which shows how similar are the mental habits of uncivilized men, is the myth of the tortoise. The Hindu notion of a great tortoise that lies beneath the earth and keeps it from falling is familiar to every reader. According to one account, this tortoise, swimming in the primeval ocean, bears the earth on his back; but by and by, when the gods get ready to destroy mankind, the tortoise will grow weary and sink under his load, and then the earth will be overwhelmed by a deluge. Another legend tells us that when the gods and demons took Mount Mandara for a churning-stick and churned the ocean to make ambrosia, the god Vishnu took on the form of a tortoise and lay at the bottom of the sea, as a pivot for the whirling mountain to rest upon. But these versions of the myth are not primitive. In the original conception the world is itself a gigantic tortoise swimming in a boundless ocean; the flat surface of the earth is the lower plate which covers the reptile’s belly; the rounded shell which covers his back is the sky; and the human race lives and moves and has its being inside of the tortoise. Now, as Mr. Tylor has pointed out, many tribes of Redskins hold substantially the same theory of the universe. They regard the tortoise as the symbol of the world, and address it as the mother of mankind. Once, before the earth was made, the king of heaven quarrelled with his wife, and gave her such a terrible kick that she fell down into the sea. Fortunately a tortoise received her on his back, and proceeded to raise up the earth, upon which the heavenly woman became the mother of mankind. These first men had white faces, and they used to dig in the ground to catch badgers. One day a zealous burrower thrust his knife too far and stabbed the tortoise, which immediately sank into the sea and drowned all the human race save one man.[149] In Finnish mythology the world is not a tortoise, but it is an egg, of which the white part is the ocean, the yolk is the earth, and the arched shell is the sky. In India this is the mundane egg of Brahma; and it reappears among the Yorubas as a pair of calabashes put together like oyster-shells, one making a dome over the other. In Zulu-land the earth is a huge beast called Usilosimapundu, whose face is a rock, and whose mouth is very large and broad and red: "in some countries which were on his body it was winter, and in others it was early harvest." Many broad rivers flow over his back, and he is covered with forests and hills, as is indicated in his name, which means "the rugose or knotty-backed beast." In this group of conceptions may be seen the origin of Sindbad’s great fish, which lay still so long that sand and clay gradually accumulated upon its back, and at last it became covered with trees. And lastly, passing from barbaric folk-lore and from the Arabian Nights to the highest level of Indo-European intelligence, do we not find both Plato and Kepler amusing themselves with speculations in which the earth figures as a stupendous animal?

[149] Tylor, op. cit. p. 336. November, 1870


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Chicago: John Fiske, "V. Myths of the Barbaric World.," Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology (London: Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues)), Original Sources, accessed June 3, 2023,

MLA: Fiske, John. "V. Myths of the Barbaric World." Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, Vol. Volume One, London, Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Original Sources. 3 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Fiske, J, 'V. Myths of the Barbaric World.' in Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, ed. and trans. . cited in November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, Smith, Elder & Co., London. Original Sources, retrieved 3 June 2023, from