Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/Schamir
IT will be remembered that, on the giving of the law from Sinai, Moses was bidden erect God an altar: “Thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it” (Exod. xx. 35). And later: “There shalt thou build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them” (Deut. xxvii. 6). Such an altar was raised by Joshua after the passage of Jordan: “An altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron” (Joshua viii. 31).
When King Solomon erected his glorious temple, “the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer, nor axe, nor any tool of iron, heard in the house while it was in building” (1 Kings vi. 7). And the reason of the prohibition of iron in the construction of the altar is given in the Mischna iron is used to shorten life, the altar to prolong it (Middoth 3, 4). Iron is the metal used in war; with it, says Pliny, we do the best and worst acts: we plough fields, we build houses, we cleave rocks; but with it, also, come strife, and bloodshed, and rapine. The altar was the symbol of peace made between God and man, and therefore the metal employed in war was forbidden to be used in its erection. The idea was extended by Solomon to the whole temple. It is not said that iron was not used in the preparation of the building stones, but that no tool was heard in the fitting together of the parts.
That temple symbolized the Church triumphant in heaven when the stones, hewn afar off in the quarries of this world, are laid noiselessly in their proper place, so that the whole, “fitly framed together, groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord;” an idea well expressed in the ancient hymn “Angulare fundamentum:”
“Many a blow and biting sculpture
Polish’d well those stones elect,
In their places well compacted
By the heavenly Architect.”
Nothing in the sacred narrative implies any miraculous act having been accomplished in this erecting a temple of stones hewn at a distance; and in the account of the building of the temple in the Book of Chronicles no reference is made to the circumstance, which would have been the case had any marvel attended it.
The Septuagint renders the passage, ὁ οἰκος λίΘοις ἀκροτόμοις ἀργοîς ᾠκοδομήΘη. The word ἀκρότομος is used by the LXX in three places, for חלּﬦשׁ, which is rough, hard, unhewn stone. Where it says in Deuteronomy (viii. 15), “Who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint,” the LXX use ἀκρότομος. Where the Psalmist says, “Who turned the flint-stone into a springing well” (Ps. cxiv. 8), and Job, “He putteth His hand upon the rock” (xxviii. 9), they employ ἀκρότομος. So, too, in the Book of Wisdom (xi. 4), “Water was given them out of the flinty rock,” ἐκ πέτρας ἀκροτόμου, which is paralleled by “the hard stone,” λίΘος σκληρός. And in Ecclesiasticus, Ezekias is said to have “digged the hard rock with iron,” ὤρυξε σιδήρῳ ἀκρότομον (xlviii. 17).
ΛίΘος ἀκρότομος is, therefore, not a hewn stone, but one with natural angles, unhewn. Thus Suidas uses the expression, σκληρὰ καί ἄτμητος, and Theodotion calls the sharp stone used by Zipporah in circumcising her son, ἀκρότομος. The ἀργοîς of the LXX signifies also the rough natural condition of the stones. Thus Pausanias speaks of gold and silver in unfused, rough lumps as ἄργυρος καί χρυσὸς ἀργός. Apparently, then, the LXX, in saying that the temple was erected of ἀκροτόμοις ἀργοîς, express their meaning that the stones were unhewn and in their natural condition, so that the skill of Solomon was exhibited in putting together stones which had never been subjected to the tool. This is also the opinion of Josephus, who says, “The whole edifice of the temple is, with great art, compacted of rough stones, ἐκ λίΘων ἀκροτόμων, which have been fitted into one another quite harmoniously, without the work of hammer or any other builder’s tool being observable, but the whole fits together without the use of these, and the fitting seems to be rather one of free will than force through mechanical means.” And therein lay the skill of the king, for the unshapen blocks were pieced together as though they had been carefully wrought to their positions. And Procopius says that the temple was erected of unhewn stones, as it was forbidden of God to lift iron upon them, but that, nevertheless, they all fitted into one another. We see in these passages tokens of the marvellous having been supposed to attach to a work which was free from any miraculous interposition. But at this point fable did not stop. Upon the carrying away of the Jews to Babylon, they were brought into contact with a flood of Iranian as well as Chaldæan myths, and adopted them without hesitation.
Around Solomon accumulated the fables which were related of Dschemschid and other Persian heroes, and were adopted by the Jews as legends of native production. It was not sufficient that Solomon should have skilfully pieced together the rough stones : he was supposed to have hewn them by supernatural means, without the tool of iron.
As Solomon, thus ran the tale, was about to build the temple without the use of iron, his wise men drew his attention to the stones of the high priest’s breastplate, which had been cut and polished by something harder than themselves. This was schamir, which was able to cut where iron would not bite. Thereupon Solomon summoned the spirits to inform him of the whereabouts of this substance. They told him schamir was a worm of the size of a barley corn, but so powerful that the hardest flint could not resist him. The spirits advised Solomon to seek Asmodeus, king of the devils, who could give him further information. When Solomon inquired where Asmodeus was to be met with, they replied that, on a distant mountain, he had dug a huge cistern, out of which he daily drank. Solomon then sent Benaiah with a chain, on which was written the magic word “schem hammphorasch,” a fleece of wool and a skin of wine. Benaiah, having arrived at the cistern of Asmodeus, undermined it, and let the water off by a little hole, which he then plugged up with the wool; after which he filled the pit with wine. The evil spirit came, as was his wont, to the cistern, and scented the wine. Suspecting treachery, he refused to drink, and retired; but at length, impelled by thirst, he drank, and, becoming intoxicated, was chained by Benaiah and carried away. Benaiah had no willing prisoner to conduct: Asmodeus plunged and kicked, upsetting trees and houses. In this manner he came near a hut in which lived a widow, and when she besought him not to injure her poor little cot, he turned aside, and, in so doing, broke his leg. “Rightly,” said the devil, “is it written: ‘a soft tongue breaketh the bone!’” (Prov. xxv. 15). And a diable boiteux he has ever remained. When in the presence of Solomon, Asmodeus was constrained to behave with greater decorum. Schamir, he told Solomon, was the property of the Prince of the Sea, and that prince entrusted none with the mysterious worm except the moor-hen, which had taken an oath of fidelity to him. The moor-hen takes the schamir with her to the tops of the mountains, splits them, and injects seeds, which grow and cover the naked rocks. Wherefore the bird is called Naggar Tura, the mountain-carver. If Solomon desired to possess himself of the worm, he must find the nest of the moor-hen, and cover it with a plate of glass, so that the mother bird could not get at her young without breaking the glass. She would seek schamir for the purpose, and the worm must be obtained from her.
Accordingly, Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, sought the nest of the bird, and laid over it a piece of glass. When the moor-hen came, and could not reach her young, she flew away and fetched schamir, and placed it on the glass. Then Benaiah shouted, and so terrified the bird, that she dropped the worm and flew away. Benaiah by this means obtained possession of the coveted schamir, and bore it to Solomon. But the moor-hen was so distressed at having broken her oath to the Prince of the Sea that she slew herself. According to another version, Solomon went to his fountain, where he found the dæmon Sackar, whom he captured by a ruse, and chained down. Solomon pressed his ring to the chains, and Sackar uttered a cry so shrill that the earth quaked.
Quoth Solomon, “Fear not; I shall restore you to liberty if you will tell me how to burrow noiselessly after minerals and metals.”
“I know not how to do so,” answered the Jin; “but the raven can tell you: place over her eggs a sheet of crystal, and you shall see how the mother will break it.”
Solomon did so, and the mother brought a stone and shattered the crystal. “Whence got you that stone?” asked Solomon.
“It is the stone Samur,” answered the raven; “it comes from a desert in the uttermost east.” So the monarch sent some giants to follow the raven, and bring him a suitable number of stones.”
According to a third version, the bird is an eagle, and schamir is the Stone of Wisdom.
Possessed of this schamir, Solomon wrought the stones for his temple.
Rabbinical fantasy has developed other myths concerning this mysterious force, resident in worm or stone. On the second day of Creation were created the well by which Jacob met Rebecca, the manna which fed the Israelites, the wonder-working rod of Moses, the ass which spake to Balaam, and schamir, the means whereby without iron tool Solomon was to build the House of God. Schamir is not in early rabbinical fable a worm; the treatise Sota gives the first indication of its being regarded as something more than a stone, by terming it a “creature,” בר׳תא. “Our Rabbis have taught us that schamir is a creature as big as a barley-corn, created in the hexameron, and that nothing can resist it. How is it preserved? It is wrapped in a wisp of wool, and kept in a leaden box full of small grains like barley-meal.” After the building of the temple schamir vanished.
The story passed to the Greeks. Ælian relates of the ἔποϮ or hoopoe, that a bird had once a nest in an old wall, in which there was a rent. The proprietor plastered over this crack. The hoopoe finding that she could not get to her young, flew away in quest of a plant πόα, which she brought, and applied to the plaster, which at once gave way, and admitted her to her young. Then she went forth to seek food, and the man again stopped up the hole, but once more the hoopoe removed the obstacle by the same means. And this took place a third time again. What Ælian relates of the hoopoe, Pliny tells of the woodpecker. This bird, he says, brings up its young in holes; and if the entrance to them be plugged up never so tight, the bird is able to make the plug burst out.
In the English Gesta Romanorum is the following story. There lived in Rome a noble emperor, Diocletian by name, who loved the virtue of compassion above every thing. Therefore he desired to know which of all the birds was most kindly affectioned towards its young. One day, the Emperor was wandering in the forest, when he lit upon the nest of a great bird called ostrich, in which was the mother with her young. The king took the nest along with the poults to his palace, and put it into a glass vessel. This the mother-bird saw, and, unable to reach her little ones, she returned into the wood, and after an absence of three days came back with a worm in her beak, called thumare. This she dropped on the glass, and by the power of the worm, the glass was shivered, and the young flew away after their mother. When the Emperor saw this, he highly commended both the affection and the sagacity of the ostrich. On which we may remark, that a portion of that sagacity was wanting to those who applied the myth to that bird which of all others is singularly deficient in the qualities with which Diocletian credited it. Similar stories are told by Vincent of Beauvais in his “Historical Mirror,” and by gossiping, fable-loving, and delightful Gervase of Tilbury. The latter says that Solomon cut the stones of the temple with the blood of a little worm called thamir, which when sprinkled on the marble, made it easy to split. And the way in which Solomon obtained the worm was this. He had an ostrich, whose chick he put in a glass bottle. Seeing this, the ostrich ran to the desert, and brought the worm, and with its blood fractured the vessel. “And in our time, in the reign of Pope Alexander III., when I was a boy, there was found at Rome, a vial full of milky liquid, which, when sprinkled on any kinds of stone, made them receive such sculpture as the hand of the graver was wont to execute. It was a vial discovered in a most ancient palace, the matter and art of which was a subject of wonder to the Roman people.”
Gervase drew from Comestor (Regum lib. iii. c. 5).
“If you wish to burst chains,” says Albertus Magnus, “go into the wood, and look for a woodpecker’s nest, where there are young; climb the tree, and choke the mouth of the nest with any thing you like. As soon as she sees you do this, she flies off for a plant, which she lays on the stoppage; this bursts, and the plant falls to the ground under the tree, where you must have a cloth spread for receiving it” But then, says Albertus, this is a fancy of the Jews.
Conrad von Megenburg relates: “There is a bird which in Latin is called merops, but which we in German term Bömheckel (i.e. Baumhacker), which nests in high trees, and when one covers its children with something to impede the approach of the bird, it brings a herb, and holds it over the obstacle, and it gives way. The plant is called herba meropis, or woodpecker-plant, and is called in magical books chora.”
In Normandy, the swallow knows how to find upon the sea-beach a pebble which has the marvellous power of restoring sight to the blind. The peasants tell of a certain way of obtaining possession of this stone. You must put out the eyes of a swallow’s young, whereupon the mother-bird will immediately go in quest of the stone. When she has found it and applied it, she will endeavour to make away with the talisman, that none may discover it. But if one has taken the precaution to spread a piece of scarlet cloth below the nest, the swallow, mistaking it for fire, will drop the stone upon it.
I met with the story in Iceland. There the natives tell that there is a stone of such wondrous power, that the possessor can walk invisible, can, at a wish, provide himself with as much stock-fish and corn-brandy as he may desire, can raise the dead, cure disease, and break bolts and bars. In order to obtain this prize, one must hard-boil an egg from the raven’s nest, then replace it, and secrete oneself till the mother-bird, finding one of her eggs resist all her endeavours to infuse warmth into it, flies off and brings a black pebble in her beak, with which she touches the boiled egg, and restores it to its former condition. At this moment she must be shot, and the stone be secured.
In this form of the superstition schamir has the power of giving life. This probably connects it with those stories, so rife in the middle ages, of birds or weasels, which were able to restore the dead to life by means of a mysterious plant. Avicenna relates in his eighth book, “Of Animals,” that it was related to him by a faithful old man, that he had seen two little birds squabbling, and that one was overcome; it therefore retired and ate of a certain herb, then it returned to the onslaught; which when the old man observed frequently, he took away the herb, and when the bird came and found the plant gone, it set up a great cry and died. And this plant was lactua agrestis.
In Fouqué’s “Sir Elidoc,” a little boy Amyot is watching by a dead lady laid out in the church, when “suddenly I heard a loud cry from the child. I looked up, a little creature glided by me; the shepherd’s staff of the boy flew after it; the creature lay dead, stretched on the ground by the blow. It was a weasel. . . . Presently there came a second weasel, as if to seek his comrade, and when he found him dead, a mournful scene began; he touched him as if to say, ‘Wake up, wake up, let us play together!’ And when the other little animal lay dead and motionless, the living one sprang back from him in terror, and then repeated the attempt again and again, many times. Its bright little eyes shone sadly, as if they were full of tears. The sorrowful creature seemed as though it suddenly bethought itself of something. It erected its ears, it looked round with its bright eyes, and then swiftly darted away. And before Amyot and I could ask each other of the strange sight, the little animal returned again, bearing in its mouth a root, a root to which grew a red flower; I had never before seen such a flower blowing; I made a sign to Amyot, and we both remained motionless. The weasel came up quickly, and laid the root and the flower gently on its companion’s mouth; the creature, but now stiff in death, stretched itself, and suddenly sprang up, with the root still in its mouth. I called to Amyot, ‘The root! take it, take it, but do not kill!’ Again he flung his staff, but so dexterously that he killed neither of the weasels, nor even hurt them. The root of life and the red blossoms lay on the ground before me, and in my power.” With this, naturally enough, the lady who is speaking restores the corpse to life. Sir Elidoc is founded on a Breton legend, the Lai d’Eliduc of Marie de France; but another tale from the same country makes the flower yellow; it is a marigold, which, when touched on a certain morning by the bare foot of one who has a pure heart, gives the power to understand the language of birds. This is the same story as that of Polyidus and Glaucus. Polyidus observed a serpent stealing towards the corpse of the young prince. He slew it; then came another serpent, and finding its companion dead, it fetched a root by which it restored life to the dead serpent. Polyidus obtained possession of the plant, and therewith revived Glaucus. In the Greek romance of Rhodante and Dosicles is an incident of similar character. Rhodante swallows a poisoned goblet of wine, and lies as one dead, deprived of sense and motion. In the meanwhile, Dosicles and Cratander are chasing wild beasts in the forest. There they find a wounded bear, which seeks a certain plant, and, rolling upon it, recovers health and vigour instantaneously. The root of this herb was white, its flowers of a rosy hue, attached to stalk of purplish tinge. Dosicles picked the herb, and with it returned to the house where he found Rhodante apparently dead; with the wondrous plant he, however, was able to restore her. The same story is told in Germany, in Lithuania, among the modern Greeks and ancient Scandinavians.
Germany teems with stories of the marvellous properties of the Luckflower.
A man chances to pluck a beautiful flower, which in most instances is blue, and this he puts in his breast, or in his hat. Passing along a mountain side, he sees the rocks gape before him, and entering, he sees a beautiful lady, who bids him help himself freely to the gold which is scattered on all sides in profusion. He crams the glittering nuggets into his pockets, and is about to leave, when she calls after him, “Forget not the best!” Thinking that she means him to take more, he feels his crammed pockets, and finding that he has nothing to reproach himself with in that respect, he seeks the light of day, entirely forgetting the precious blue flower which had opened to him the rocks, and which has dropped on the ground.
As he hurries through the doorway, the rocks close upon him with a thunder-crash and cut off his heel. The mountain-side is thenceforth closed to him for ever.
Once upon a time a shepherd was driving his flock over the Ilsenstein, when, wearied with his tramp, he leaned upon his staff. Instantly the mountain opened, for in that staff was the “Springwort.” Within he saw the Princess Ilse, who bade him fill his pockets with gold. The shepherd obeyed, and was going away, when the princess exclaimed, “Forget not the best!” alluding to his staff, which lay against the wall. But he, misunderstanding her, took more gold, and the mountain clashing together, severed him in twain. In some versions of the story, it is the pale blue flower—
“The blue flower, which—Bramins say—
Blooms nowhere but in Paradise”—
which exclaims in feeble, piteous tone, “Forget-me-not!” but its little cry is unheeded.
Thus originated the name of the beautiful little flower. When this story was forgotten, a romantic fable was invented to account for the peculiar appellation.
In the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, it is a word, “sesame,” which makes the rocks part, and gives admission to the treasures within; and it is oblivion of the magic word which brings destruction upon the luckless wretch within. But sesame is the name of a well-known eastern plant, sesamum orientale; so that probably in the original form of the Persian tale absorbed into the Arabian Nights, a flower was employed to give admission to the mountain. But classic antiquity has also its rock-breaking plant, the saxifraga, whose tender rootlets penetrate and dissolve the hardest stones with a force for which the Ancient were unable to account.
Isaiah, describing the desolation of the vineyard of Zion, says that “There shall come up briars and thorns” (v. 6), יחיח נלשיﬨ לשﬦיר (vii. 23: cf. also ix. 17; x. 17). And, “Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briars” (xxxii. 13), where שﬦיר is combined with םיצ. The word שיﬦ never stands alone, but is always joined with שﬦיר, which the LXX render ἄκανθα καί χόρτος; the word in the fifth chapter they render χέρσος ἄκανθα; that in the seventh, χέρσος and ἄκανθα; so that χέρσος is put for שﬦר, and ἄκανθα for שיﬦ. The word in the ninth chapter is ἄγρωστις ξηρά, that in the tenth, ὡσεί χόρτον τὴν ὕλην. Upon both names the translators are not agreed. Now, this word “smiris” is used by Isaiah alone as the name of a plant. The smiris, as we have seen, is a stone-breaking substance, and the same idea which is rendered in Latin by saxifraga is given in the Hebrew word used by Isaiah, so that we may take שיﬦ שﬦיר to mean saxifraga and thorn. In the North, we have another object, to which are attributed the same properties as to the “Springwort” and schamir, and that is the Hand of Glory. This is the hand of a man who has been hung, and it is prepared in the following manner: wrap the hand in a piece of winding-sheet, drawing it tight, so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain; then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpetre, salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle till it is well dried, then expose it to the sun in the dog-days, till it is completely parched, or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin-wax, and Lapland sesame. Observe the use of this herb: the hand of glory is used to hold this candle when it is lighted. Douster Swivel, in the “Antiquary,” adds, “You do make a candle, and put into de hand of glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonisth; and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall find none at all!” Southey places it in the hands of the enchanter Mohareb, when he would lull to sleep Yohak, the giant guardian of the caves of Babylo He—
“From his wallet drew a human hand,
Shrivell’d, and dry, and black;
And fitting, as he spake,
A taper in his hold,
Pursued: ‘A murderer on the stake had died;
I drove the vulture from his limbs, and lopt
The hand that did the murder, and drew up
The tendon strings to close its grasp;
And in the sun and wind
Parch’d it, nine weeks exposed.
The taper … But not here the place to impart,
Nor hast thou undergone the rites
That fit thee to partake the mystery.
Look! it burns clear, but with the air around,
Its dead ingredients mingle deathliness.’”
Several stories of this terrible hand are related in Henderson’s “Folklore of the Northern Counties of England.” I will only quote one, which was told me by a labouring man in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and which is the same story as that given by Martin Anthony Delrio in his “Disquisitiones Magicæ,” in 1593, and which is printed in the Appendix to that book of M. Henderson.
One dark night, after the house had been closed, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn, in the midst of a barren moor.
The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; though there was not a spare bed in the house, he might lie along on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.
All in the house went to bed except the servant lassie, who from the kitchen could see into the large room through a small pane of glass let into the door. When every one save the beggar was out of the room, she observed the man draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract a brown withered human hand from his pocket, and set it upright in the candlestick; he then anointed the fingers, and, applying a match to them, they began to flame. Filled with horror, the girl rushed up the back stairs, and endeavoured to arouse her master and the men of the house; but all in vain, they slept a charmed sleep; and finding all her efforts ineffectual, she hastened downstairs again. Looking again through the small window, she observed the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb gave no light: this was because one of the inmates of the house was not asleep. The beggar began collecting all the valuables of the house into a large sack no lock withstood the application of the flaming hand. Then, putting it down, the man entered an adjoining apartment. The moment he was gone, the girl rushed in, and seizing the hand, attempted to extinguish the quivering yellow flames, which wavered at the fingers’ ends. She blew at them in vain; she poured some drops from a beer-jug over them, but that only made the fingers burn the brighter; she cast some water upon them, but still without extinguishing the light. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashing it over the four lambent flames, they went out immediately.
Uttering a piercing cry, she rushed to the door of the room the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole house was aroused, and the thief was secured and hung.
We must not forget Tom Ingoldsby’s rendering of a similar legend:—
To the Dead Man’s knock!
Fly, bolt, and bar, and band!
Nor move, nor swerve,
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
Sleep, all who sleep!—Wake, all who wake!
But be as the dead for the Dead Man’s sake!
“Now lock, nor bolt, nor bar avails,
Nor stout oak panel thick-studded with nails.
Heavy and harsh the hinges creak,
Though they had been oil’d in the course of the week.
The door opens wide as wide may be,
And there they stand,
That murderous band,
Lit by the light of the Glorious Hand,
By one!—by two!—by three!”
But, instead of pursuing the fable through its further ramifications, let us apply the schamir of comparative mythology to the myth itself, and see whether before it the bolts do not give way, and the great doors of the cavern of mysteries expand, and discover to us the origin of the superstitious belief in this sea-prince’s worm, the stone of wisdom, sesame, forget-me-not, or the hand of glory.
What are its effects ?
It bursts locks, and shatters stones, it opens in the mountains the hidden treasures hitherto concealed from men, or it paralyzes, lulling into a magic sleep, or, again, it restores to life.
I believe the varied fables relate to one and the same object—and that, the lightning.
But what is the bird which bears schamir, the worm or stone which shatters rocks? It is the storm-cloud, which in many a mythology of ancient days was supposed to be a mighty bird. In Greek iconography, Zeus, “the æther in his moist arms embracing the earth,” as Euripides describes him, is armed with the thunderbolt, and accompanied by the eagle, a symbol of the cloud.
has for its essential attributes the cloud and its bolt, and when the æther was represented under human form, the cloud was given shape as a bird. It is the same storm-cloud which as “blood-thirsting eagle” banquets its “full on the black viands of the liver” of Prometheus. The same cloud in its fury is symbolized by the Phorcidæ with their flashing eye and lightning tooth—
and also by the ravening harpies. In ancient Indian mythology, the delicate white cirrus cloud drifting overhead was a fleeting swan, and so it was as well in the creed of the Scandinavian, whilst the black clouds were ravens coursing over the earth, and returning to whisper the news in the ear of listening Odin. The rushing vapour is the roc of the Arabian Nights, which broods over its great luminous egg, the sun, and which haunts the sparkling valley of diamonds, the starry sky. The resemblance traced between bird and cloud is not far fetched: it recurs to the modern poet as it did to the Psalmist, when he spoke of the “wings of the wind.” If the cloud was supposed to be a great bird, the lightnings were regarded as writhing worms or serpents in its beak. These fiery serpents, ἑλικίαι γραμμοειδŵς Φερόμενοι, are believed in to this day by the Canadian Indians, who call the thunder their hissing. It was these heavenly reptiles which were supposed by the Druids to generate the sun, the famous anguineum so coveted and so ill comprehended. The thunderbolt shattering all it struck, was regarded as the stone dropped by the cloud-bird. A more forced resemblance is that supposed to exist between the lightning and a heavenly flower, blue, or yellow, or red, and yet there is evidence, upon which I cannot enter here, that so it was regarded.
The lightning-flashing cloud was also supposed to be a flaming hand. The Greek placed the forked dart in the hand of Zeus—
Dextera sacras jaculatus arces;”
and the ancient Mexican symbolized the sacrificial fire by a blood-red hand impressed on his sanctuary walls. The idea may have been present in the mind of the servant of Elijah when he told his master that he saw from the top of Carmel rising “A little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand. And it came to pass, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings xviii. 44). In Finnish and Esthonian mythology, the cloud is a little man with a copper hand, who, rising from the water, becomes a giant.
The black cloud with the lambent flames issuing from it was the original of the magical hand of glory.
The effects produced by the lightning are differently expressed. As shattering the rocks, schamir is easily intelligible. It is less so as giving access to the hidden treasures of the mountains. The ancient Aryan had the same name for cloud and mountain. To him the piles of vapour on the horizon were so like Alpine ranges, that he had but one word whereby to designate both. These great mountains of heaven were opened by the lightning. In the sudden flash he beheld the dazzling splendour within, but only for a moment, and then, with a crash, the celestial rocks closed again. Believing these vaporous piles to contain resplendent treasures of which partial glimpse was obtained by mortals in a momentary gleam, tales were speedily formed, relating the adventures of some who had succeeded in entering these treasure-mountains. The plant of life, brought by weasel or serpent, restores life to one who was dead. This myth was forged in Eastern lands, where the earth apparently dies from a protracted drought. Then comes the cloud. The lightning flash reaches the barren, dead, and thirsty land; forth gush the waters of heaven, and the parched vegetation bursts once more into the vigour of life, restored after suspended animation. It is the dead and parched vegetation which is symbolized by Glaucus, and the earth still and without the energy of life which is represented by the lady in the Lai d’Eliduc. This reviving power is attributed in mythology to the rain as well. In Sclavonic myths, it is the water of life which restores the dead earth, a water brought by a bird from the depths of a gloomy cave. A prince has been murdered,—that is, the earth is dead; then comes the eagle bearing a vial of the reviving water the cloud with the rain; it sprinkles the corpse with the precious drops, and life returns.
But the hand of glory has a very different property—it paralyzes. In this it resembles the Gorgon’s head or the basilisk. The head of Medusa, with its flying serpent locks, is unquestionably the storm-cloud; and the basilisk which strikes dead with its eye is certainly the same. The terror inspired by the outburst of the thunder-storm is expressed in fable by the paralyzing effect of the eye of the cockatrice, the exhibition of the Gorgon’s countenance, and the waving of the glorious hand.
Strained as some of these explanations may seem, they are nevertheless true. We, with our knowledge of the causes producing meteorological phenomena, are hardly able to realize the extravagance of the theories propounded by the ignorant to account for them.
How Finn cosmogonists could have believed the earth and heaven to be made out of a severed egg, the upper concave shell representing heaven, the yolk being earth, and the crystal surrounding fluid the circumambient ocean, is to us incomprehensible: and yet it remains a fact that so they did regard them. How the Scandinavians could have supposed the mountains to be the mouldering bones of a mighty Jötun, and the earth to be his festering flesh, we cannot conceive: yet such a theory was solemnly taught and accepted. How the ancient Indians could regard the rain-clouds as cows with full udders, milked by the winds of heaven, is beyond our comprehension, and yet their Veda contains indisputable testimony to the fact that so they were regarded.
Nonnus Dionysius (v. 163 et seq.) spoke of the moon as a luminous white stone, and Democritus regarded the stars as πέτρους. Lucretius considered the sun as a wheel (v. 433), and Ovid as a shield—
“Ipse Dei clypeus, terra cum tollitur ima,
Mane rubet: terraque rubet, cum conditur ima.
Candidus in summo . . . .”—(Metam. xv. 192 sq.)
As late as 1600, a German writer would illustrate a thunder-storm destroying a crop of corn by a picture of a dragon devouring the produce of the field with his flaming tongue and iron teeth (Wolfii Memorabil. ii. p. 505); and at the present day children are taught that the thunder-crash is the voice of the Almighty.
The restless mind of man, ever seeking a reason to account for the marvels presented to his senses, adopts one theory after another, and the rejected explanations encumber the memory of nations as myths, the significance of which has been forgotten.
- Gittin, Ixviii. Eisenmeyer: Neu-entdecktes Judenthum. Königsberg, 1711, i. p. 351.
- Collin de Plancy: Légendes de l’Ancien Test. Paris, 1861, p. 280.
- Sota, xlviii. 8.
- Ælian, Hist. Animal, iii. 26.
- Vincent Bellov., Spec. Nat. 20, 170.
- Gervasii Tilberiensis Otia Imp., ed. Liebrecht. Hanov. 1856, p. 48.
- De Mirab. Mundi. Argent. 1601, p. 225.
- De Animalibus. Mantua, 1479, ult. pag.
- Apud Mone, Anzeiger, viii. p. 614.
- Bode, Volksmährchen a. d. Bretagne. Leipz. 1847, p. 6.
- Apollodorus, ii. 3.
- Cassel, Ueber Schamir, in Denkschrift d. Königl. Akad. der Wissenschaften. Erfurt, 1856, p. 76. The Oriental word “smiris” passed into use among the Greeks as the name of the hardest substance known, used in polishing stones, and is retained in the German “Smirgel,” and the English “emery.”
- Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal. Paris, 1818.
- Thalaba the Destroyer, book v.
- Cicero, De N. Deorum, xvi.
- Compare with this the Psyche in “The Golden Ass,” and the Fair One with the Golden Locks of the Countess d’Aulnay.