Custom and Myth/Star Myths

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Custom and Myth by Andrew Lang
Star Myths

STAR MYTHS.

Artemus Ward used to say that, while there were many things in the science of astronomy hard to be understood, there was one fact which entirely puzzled him. He could partly perceive how we 'weigh the sun,' and ascertain the component elements of the heavenly bodies, by the aid of spectrum analysis. 'But what beats me about the stars,' he observed plaintively, 'is how we come to know their names.' This question, or rather the somewhat similar question, 'How did the constellations come by their very peculiar names?' has puzzled Professor Pritchard and other astronomers more serious than Artemus Ward. Why is a group of stars called the Bear, or the Swan, or the Twins, or named after the Pleiades, the fair daughters of the Giant Atlas?[1] These are difficulties that meet even children when they examine a 'celestial globe.' There they find the figure of a bear, traced out with lines in the intervals between the stars of the constellations, while a very imposing giant is so drawn that Orion's belt just fits his waist. But when he comes to look at the heavens, the infant speculator sees no sort of likeness to a bear in the stars, nor anything at all resembling a giant in the neighbourhood of Orion. The most eccentric modern fancy which can detect what shapes it will in clouds, is unable to find any likeness to human or animal forms in the stars, and yet we call a great many of the stars by the names of men and beasts and gods. Some resemblance to terrestrial things, it is true, everyone can behold in the heavens. Corona, for example, is like a crown, or, as the Australian black fellows know, it is like a boomerang, and we can understand why they give it the name of that curious curved missile. The Milky Way, again, does resemble a path in the sky; our English ancestors called it Watling Street—the path of the Watlings, mythical giants—and Bushmen in Africa and Red Men in North America name it the 'ashen path,' or 'the path of souls.' The ashes of the path, of course, are supposed to be hot and glowing, not dead and black like the ash-paths of modern running-grounds. Other and more recent names for certain constellations are also intelligible. In Homer's time the Greeks had two names for the Great Bear; they called it the Bear, or the Wain: and a certain fanciful likeness to a wain may be made out, though no resemblance to a bear is manifest. In the United States the same constellation is popularly styled the Dipper, and every one may observe the likeness to a dipper or toddy-ladle.

But these resemblances take us only a little way towards appellations. We know that we derive many of the names straight from the Greek; but whence did the Greeks get them? Some, it is said, from the Chaldæans; but whence did they reach the Chaldæans? To this we shall return later, but, as to early Greek star-lore, Goguet, the author of 'L'Origine des Lois,' a rather learned but too speculative work of the last century, makes the following characteristic remarks: 'The Greeks received their astronomy from Prometheus. This prince, as far as history teaches us, made his observations on Mount Caucasus.' That was the eighteenth century's method of interpreting mythology. The myth preserved in the 'Prometheus Bound' of Æschylus tells us that Zeus crucified the Titan on Mount Caucasus. The French philosopher, rejecting the supernatural elements of the tale, makes up his mind that Prometheus was a prince of a scientific bent, and that he established his observatory on the frosty Caucasus. But, even admitting this, why did Prometheus give the stars animal names? Goguet easily explains this by a hypothetical account of the manners of primitive men. 'The earliest peoples,' he says, 'must have used writing for purposes of astronomical science. They would be content to design the constellations of which they wished to speak by the hieroglyphical symbols of their names; hence the constellations have insensibly taken the names of the chief symbols.' Thus, a drawing of a bear or a swan was the hieroglyphic of the name of a star, or group of stars. But whence came the name which was represented by the hieroglyphic? That is precisely what our author forgets to tell us. But he remarks that the meaning of the hieroglyphic came to be forgotten, and 'the symbols gave rise to all the ridiculous tales about the heavenly signs.' This explanation is attained by the process of reasoning in a vicious circle from hypothetical premises ascertained to be false. All the known savages of the world, even those which have scarcely the elements of picture-writing, call the constellations by the names of men and animals, and all tell 'ridiculous tales' to account for the names.

As the star-stories told by the Greeks, the ancient Egyptians, and other civilised people of the old world, exactly correspond in character, and sometimes even in incident, with the star-stories of modern savages, we have the choice of three hypotheses to explain this curious coincidence. Perhaps the star-stories, about nymphs changed into bears, and bears changed into stars, were invented by the civilised races of old, and gradually found their way amongst people like the Eskimo, and the Australians, and Bushmen. Or it may be insisted that the ancestors of Australians, Eskimo, and Bushmen were once civilised, like the Greeks and Egyptians, and invented star-stories, still remembered by their degenerate descendants. These are the two forms of the explanation which will be advanced by persons who believe that the star-stories were originally the fruit of the civilised imagination. The third theory would be, that the 'ridiculous tales' about the stars were originally the work of the savage imagination, and that the Greeks, Chaldæans, and Egyptians, when they became civilised, retained the old myths that their ancestors had invented when they were savages. In favour of this theory it may be said, briefly, that there is no proof that the fathers of Australians, Eskimo, and Bushmen had ever been civilised, while there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the fathers of the Greeks had once been savages.[2] And, if we incline to the theory that the star-myths are the creation of savage fancy, we at once learn why they are, in all parts of the world, so much alike. Just as the flint and bone weapons of rude races resemble each other much more than they resemble the metal weapons and the artillery of advanced peoples, so the mental products, the fairy tales, and myths of rude races have everywhere a strong family resemblance. They are produced by men in similar mental conditions of ignorance, curiosity, and credulous fancy, and they are intended to supply the same needs, partly of amusing narrative, partly of crude explanation of familiar phenomena.

Now it is time to prove the truth of our assertion that the star-stories of savage and of civilised races closely resemble each other. Let us begin with that well-known group the Pleiades. The peculiarity of the Pleiades is that the group consists of seven stars, of which one is so dim that it seems entirely to disappear, and many persons can only detect its presence through a telescope. The Greeks had a myth to account for the vanishing of the lost Pleiad. The tale is given in the 'Catasterismoi' (stories of metamorphoses into stars) attributed to Eratosthenes. This work was probably written after our era; but the author derived his information from older treatises now lost. According to the Greek myth, then, the seven stars of the Pleiad were seven maidens, daughters of the Giant Atlas. Six of them had gods for lovers; Poseidon admired two of them, Zeus three, and Ares one; but the seventh had only an earthly wooer, and when all of them were changed into stars, the maiden with the mortal lover hid her light for shame.

Now let us compare the Australian story. According to Mr. Dawson ('Australian Aborigines'), a writer who understands the natives well, 'their knowledge of the heavenly bodies greatly exceeds that of most white people,' and 'is taught by men selected for their intelligence and information. The knowledge is important to the aborigines on their night journeys;' so we may be sure that the natives are careful observers of the heavens, and are likely to be conservative of their astronomical myths. The 'Lost Pleiad' has not escaped them, and this is how they account for her disappearance. The Pirt Kopan noot tribe have a tradition that the Pleiades were a queen and her six attendants. Long ago the Crow (our Canopus) fell in love with the queen, who refused to be his wife. The Crow found that the queen and her six maidens, like other Australian gins, were in the habit of hunting for white edible grubs in the bark of trees. The Crow at once changed himself into a grub (just as Jupiter and Indra used to change into swans, horses, ants, or what not) and hid in the bark of a tree. The six maidens sought to pick him out with their wooden hooks, but he broke the points of all the hooks. Then came the queen, with her pretty bone hook; he let himself be drawn out, took the shape of a giant, and ran away with her. Ever since there have only been six stars, the six maidens, in the Pleiad. This story is well known, by the strictest inquiry, to be current among the blacks of the West District and in South Australia.

Mr. Tylor, whose opinion is entitled to the highest respect, thinks that this may be a European myth, told by some settler to a black in the Greek form, and then spread about among the natives. He complains that the story of the loss of the brightest star does not fit the facts of the case.

We do not know, and how can the Australians know, that the lost star was once the brightest? It appears to me that the Australians, remarking the disappearances of a star, might very naturally suppose that the Crow had selected for his wife that one which had been the most brilliant of the cluster. Besides, the wide distribution of the tale among the natives, and the very great change in the nature of the incidents, seem to point to a native origin. Though the main conception—the loss of one out of seven maidens—is identical in Greek and in Murri, the manner of the disappearance is eminently Hellenic in the one case, eminently savage in the other. However this may be, nothing of course is proved by a single example. Let us next examine the stars Castor and Pollux. Both in Greece and in Australia these are said once to have been two young men. In the 'Catasterismoi,' already spoken of, we read: 'The Twins, or Dioscouroi.—They were nurtured in Lacedæmon, and were famous for their brotherly love, wherefore, Zeus, desiring to make their memory immortal, placed them both among the stars.' In Australia, according to Mr. Brough Smyth ('Aborigines of Victoria'), Turree (Castor) and Wanjel (Pollux) are two young men who pursue Purra and kill him at the commencement of the great heat. Coonar toorung (the mirage) is the smoke of the fire by which they roast him. In Greece it was not Castor and Pollux, but Orion who was the great hunter placed among the stars. Among the Bushmen of South Africa, Castor and Pollux are not young men, but young women, the wives of the Eland, the great native antelope. In Greek star-stories the Great Bear keeps watch, Homer says, on the hunter Orion for fear of a sudden attack. But how did the Bear get its name in Greece? According to Hesiod, the oldest Greek poet after Homer, the Bear was once a lady, daughter of Lycaon, King of Arcadia. She was a nymph of the train of chaste Artemis, but yielded to the love of Zeus, and became the ancestress of all the Arcadians (that is, Bear-folk). In her bestial form she was just about to be slain by her own son when Zeus rescued her by raising her to the stars. Here we must notice first, that the Arcadians, like Australians, Red Indians, Bushmen, and many other wild races, and like the Bedouins, believed themselves to be descended from an animal. That the early Egyptians did the same is not improbable; for names of animals are found among the ancestors in the very oldest genealogical papyrus,[3] as in the genealogies of the old English kings. Next the Arcadians transferred the ancestral bear to the heavens, and, in doing this, they resembled the Peruvians, of whom Acosta says: 'They adored the star Urchuchilly, feigning it to be a Ram, and worshipped two others, and say that one of them is a sheep, and the other a lamb . . . others worshipped the star called the Tiger. They were of opinion that there was not any beast or bird upon the earth, whose shape or image did not shine in the heavens.'

But to return to our bears. The Australians have, properly speaking, no bears, though the animal called the native bear is looked up to by the aborigines with superstitious regard. But among the North American Indians, as the old missionaries Lafitau and Charlevoix observed, 'the four stars in front of our constellation are a bear; those in the tail are hunters who pursue him; the small star apart is the pot in which they mean to cook him.'

It may be held that the Red Men derived their bear from the European settlers. But, as we have seen, an exact knowledge of the stars has always been useful if not essential to savages; and we venture to doubt whether they would confuse their nomenclature and sacred traditions by borrowing terms from trappers and squatters. But, if this is improbable, it seems almost impossible that all savage races should have borrowed their whole conception of the heavenly bodies from the myths of Greece. It is thus that Egede, a missionary of the last century, describes the Eskimo philosophy of the stars: 'The notions that the Greenlanders have as to the origin of the heavenly lights—as sun, moon, and stars—are very nonsensical; in that they pretend they have formerly been as many of their own ancestors, who, on different accounts, were lifted up to heaven, and became such glorious celestial bodies.' Again, he writes: 'Their notions about the stars are that some of them have been men, and others different sorts, of animals and fishes.' But every reader of Ovid knows that this was the very mythical theory of the Greeks and Romans. The Egyptians, again, worshipped Osiris, Isis, and the rest as ancestors, and there are even modern scholars, like Mr. Loftie in his 'Essay of Scarabs,' who hold Osiris to have been originally a real historical person. But the Egyptian priests who showed Plutarch the grave of Osiris, showed him, too, the stars into which Osiris, Isis, and Horus had been metamorphosed. Here, then, we have Greeks, Egyptians, and Eskimo, all agreed about the origin of the heavenly lights, all of opinion that 'they have formerly been as many of their own ancestors.'

The Australian general theory is: 'Of the good men and women, after the deluge, Pundjel (a kind of Zeus, or rather a sort of Prometheus of Australian mythology) made stars. Sorcerers (Biraark) can tell which stars were once good men and women.' Here the sorcerers have the same knowledge as the Egyptian priests. Again, just as among the Arcadians, 'the progenitors of the existing tribes, whether birds, or beasts, or men, were set in the sky, and made to shine as stars.'[4]

We have already given some Australian examples in the stories of the Pleiades, and of Castor and Pollux. We may add the case of the Eagle. In Greece the Eagle was the bird of Zeus, who carried off Ganymede to be the cup-bearer of Olympus. Among the Australians this same constellation is called Totyarguil; he was a man who, when bathing, was killed by a fabulous animal, a kind of kelpie; as Orion, in Greece, was killed by the Scorpion. Like Orion, he was placed among the stars. The Australians have a constellation named Eagle, but he is our Sirius, or Dog-star.

The Indians of the Amazon are in one tale with the Australians and Eskimo. 'Dr. Silva de Coutinho informs me,' says Professor Hartt,[5] 'that the Indians of the Amazonas not only give names to many of the heavenly bodies, but also tell stories about them. The two stars that form the shoulders of Orion are said to be an old man and a boy in a canoe, chasing a peixe boi, by which name is designated a dark spot in the sky near the above constellation.' The Indians also know monkey-stars, crane-stars, and palm-tree stars.

The Bushmen, almost the lowest tribe of South Africa, have the same star-lore and much the same myths as the Greeks, Australians, Egyptians, and Eskimo. According to Dr. Bleek, 'stars, and even the sun and moon, were once mortals on earth, or even animals or inorganic substances, which happened to get translated to the skies. The sun was once a man, whose arm-pit radiated a limited amount of light round his house. Some children threw him into the sky, and there he shines.' The Homeric hymn to Helios, in the same way, as Mr. Max Müller observes, 'looks on the sun as a half-god, almost a hero, who had once lived on earth.' The pointers of the Southern Cross were 'two men who were lions,' just as Callisto, in Arcadia, was a woman who was a bear. It is not at all rare in those queer philosophies, as in that of the Scandinavians, to find that the sun or moon has been a man or woman. In Australian fable the moon was a man, the sun a woman of indifferent character, who appears at dawn in a coat of red kangaroo skins, the present of an admirer. In an old Mexican text the moon was a man, across whose face a god threw a rabbit, thus making the marks in the moon.[6]

Many separate races seem to recognise the figure of a hare, where we see 'the Man in the Moon.' In a Buddhist legend, an exemplary and altruistic hare was translated to the moon. 'To the common people in India the spots on the moon look like a hare, and Chandras, the god of the moon, carries a hare: hence the moon is called sasin or sasanka, hare-mark. The Mongolians also see in these shadows the figure of a hare.'[7] Among the Eskimo, the moon is a girl, who always flees from her cruel brother, the sun, because he disfigured her face. Elsewhere the sun is the girl, beloved by her own brother, the moon; she blackens her face to avert his affection. On the Rio Branco, and among the Tomunda, the moon is a girl who loved her brother and visited him in the dark. He detected her wicked passion by drawing his blackened hand over her face. The marks betrayed her, and, as the spots on the moon, remain to this day.[8]

Among the New Zealanders and North American Indians the sun is a great beast, whom the hunters trapped and thrashed with cudgels. His blood is used in some New Zealand incantations; and, according to an Egyptian myth, was kneaded into clay at the making of man. But there is no end to similar sun-myths, in all of which the sun is regarded as a man, or even as a beast.

To return to the stars—

The Red Indians, as Schoolcraft says, 'hold many of the planets to be transformed adventurers.' The Iowas 'believed stars to be a sort of living creatures.' One of them came down and talked to a hunter, and showed him where to find game. The Gallinomeros of Central California, according to Mr. Bancroft, believe that the sun and moon were made and lighted up by the Hawk and the Coyote, who one day flew into each other's faces in the dark, and were determined to prevent such accidents in the future. But the very oddest example of the survival of the notion that the stars are men or women is found in the 'Pax' of Aristophanes. Trygæus in that comedy has just made an expedition to heaven. A slave meets him, and asks him, 'Is not the story true, then, that we become stars when we die?' The answer is 'Certainly;' and Trygæus points out the star into which Ios of Chios has just been metamorphosed. Aristophanes is making fun of some popular Greek superstition. But that very superstition meets us in New Zealand. 'Heroes,' says Mr. Taylor, 'were thought to become stars of greater or less brightness, according to the number of their victims slain in fight.' The Aryan race is seldom far behind, when there are ludicrous notions to be credited or savage tales to be told. We have seen that Aristophanes, in Greece, knew the Eskimo doctrine that stars are souls of the dead. The Persians had the same belief,[9] 'all the unnumbered stars were reckoned ghosts of men.'[10] The German folklore clings to the same belief, 'Stars are souls; when a child dies God makes a new star.' Kaegi quotes[11] the same idea from the Veda, and from the Satapatha Brahmana the thoroughly Australian notion that 'good men become stars.' For a truly savage conception, it would be difficult, in South Africa or on the Amazons, to beat the following story from the 'Aitareya Brahmana' (iii. 33.) Pragapati, the Master of Life, conceived an incestuous passion for his own daughter. Like Zeus, and Indra, and the Australian wooer in the Pleiad tale, he concealed himself under the shape of a beast, a roebuck, and approached his own daughter, who had assumed the form of a doe. The gods, in anger at the awful crime, made a monster to punish Pragapati. The monster sent an arrow through the god's body; he sprang into heaven, and, like the Arcadian bear, this Aryan roebuck became a constellation. He is among the stars of Orion, and his punisher, also now a star, is, like the Greek Orion, a hunter. The daughter of Pragapati, the doe, became another constellation, and the avenging arrow is also a set of stars in the sky. What follows, about the origin of the gods called Adityas, is really too savage to be quoted by a chaste mythologist.

It would be easy to multiply examples of this stage of thought among Aryans and savages. But we have probably brought forward enough for our purpose, and have expressly chosen instances from the most widely separated peoples. These instances, it will perhaps be admitted, suggest, if they do not prove, that the Greeks had received from tradition precisely the same sort of legends about the heavenly bodies as are current among Eskimo and Bushmen, New Zealanders and Iowas. As much, indeed, might be inferred from our own astronomical nomenclature. We now give to newly discovered stars names derived from distinguished people, as Georgium Sidus, or Herschel; or, again, merely technical appellatives, as Alpha, Beta, and the rest. We should never think when 'some new planet swims into our ken' of calling it Kangaroo, or Rabbit, or after the name of some hero of romance, as Rob Roy, or Count Fosco. But the names of stars which we inherit from Greek mythology—the Bear, the Pleiads, Castor and Pollux, and so forth—are such as no people in our mental condition would originally think of bestowing. When Callimachus and the courtly astronomers of Alexandria pretended that the golden locks of Berenice were raised to the heavens, that was a mere piece of flattery constructed on the inherited model of legends about the crown (Corona) of Ariadne. It seems evident enough that the older Greek names of stars are derived from a time when the ancestors of the Greeks were in the mental and imaginative condition of Iowas, Kanekas, Bushmen, Murri, and New Zealanders. All these, and all other savage peoples, believe in a kind of equality and intercommunion among all things animate and inanimate. Stones are supposed in the Pacific Islands to be male and female and to propagate their species. Animals are believed to have human or superhuman intelligence, and speech, if they choose to exercise the gift. Stars are just on the same footing, and their movements are explained by the same ready system of universal anthropomorphism. Stars, fishes, gods, heroes, men, trees, clouds, and animals, all play their equal part in the confused dramas of savage thought and savage mythology. Even in practical life the change of a sorcerer into an animal is accepted as a familiar phenomenon, and the power of soaring among the stars is one on which the Australian Biraark, or the Eskimo Shaman, most plumes himself. It is not wonderful that things which are held possible in daily practice should be frequent features of mythology. Hence the ready invention and belief of star-legends, which in their turn fix the names of the heavenly bodies. Nothing more, except the extreme tenacity of tradition and the inconvenience of changing a widely accepted name, is needed to account for the human and animal names of the stars. The Greeks received from the dateless past of savage intellect the myths, and the names of the constellations, and we have taken them, without inquiry, from the Greeks. Thus it happens that our celestial globes are just as queer menageries as any globes could be that were illustrated by Australians or American Indians, by Bushmen or Peruvian aborigines, or Eskimo. It was savages, we may be tolerably certain, who first handed to science the names of the constellations, and provided Greece with the raw material of her astronomical myths—as Bacon prettily says, that we listen to the harsh ideas of earlier peoples 'blown softly through the flutes of the Grecians.'

This position has been disputed by Mr. Brown, in a work rather komically called 'The Law of Kosmic Order.' Mr. Brown's theory is that the early Accadians named the zodiacal signs after certain myths and festivals connected with the months. Thus the crab is a figure of 'the darkness power' which seized the Akkadian solar hero, Dumuzi, and 'which is constantly represented in monstrous and drakontic form.' The bull, again, is connected with night and darkness, 'in relation to the horned moon,' and is, for other reasons, 'a nocturnal potency.' Few stars, to tell the truth, are diurnal potencies. Mr. Brown's explanations appear to me far-fetched and unconvincing. But, granting that the zodiacal signs reached Greece from Chaldæa, Mr. Brown will hardly maintain that Australians, Melanesians, Iowas, Amazon Indians, Eskimo, and the rest, borrowed their human and animal stars from 'Akkadia.' The belief in animal and human stars is practically universal among savages who have not attained the 'Akkadian' degree of culture. The belief, as Mr. Tylor has shown,[12] is a natural result of savage ideas. We therefore infer that the 'Akkadians,' too, probably fell back for star-names on what they inherited from the savage past. If the Greeks borrowed certain star-names from the Akkadians, they also, like the Aryans of India, retained plenty of savage star-myths of their own, fables derived from the earliest astronomical guesses of early thought.

The first moment in astronomical science arrives when the savage, looking at a star, says, like the child in the nursery poem, 'How I wonder what you are!' The next moment comes when the savage has made his first rough practical observations of the movements of the heavenly body. His third step is to explain these to himself. Now science cannot offer any but a fanciful explanation beyond the sphere of experience. The experience of the savage is limited to the narrow world of his tribe, and of the beasts, birds, and fishes of his district. His philosophy, therefore, accounts for all phenomena on the supposition that the laws of the animate nature he observes are working everywhere. But his observations, misguided by his crude magical superstitions, have led him to believe in a state of equality and kinship between men and animals, and even inorganic things. He often worships the very beasts he slays; he addresses them as if they understood him; he believes himself to be descended from the animals, and of their kindred. These confused ideas he applies to the stars, and recognises in them men like himself, or beasts like those with which he conceives himself to be in such close human relations. There is scarcely a bird or beast but the Red Indian or the Australian will explain its peculiarities by a myth, like a page from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses.' It was once a man or a woman, and has been changed to bird or beast by a god or a magician. Men, again, have originally been beasts, in his philosophy, and are descended from wolves, frogs or serpents, or monkeys. The heavenly bodies are traced to precisely the same sort of origin; and hence, we conclude, come their strange animal names, and the strange myths about them which appear in all ancient poetry. These names, in turn, have curiously affected human beliefs. Astrology is based on the opinion that a man's character and fate are determined by the stars under which he is born. And the nature of these stars is deduced from their names, so that the bear should have been found in the horoscope of Dr. Johnson. When Giordano Bruno wrote his satire against religion, the famous 'Spaccio della bestia trionfante,' he proposed to banish not only the gods but the beasts from heaven. He would call the stars, not the Bear, or the Swan, or the Pleiads, but Truth, Mercy, Justice, and so forth, that men might be born, not under bestial, but moral influences. But the beasts have had too long possession of the stars to be easily dislodged, and the tenure of the Bear and the Swan will probably last as long as there is a science of Astronomy. Their names are not likely again to delude a philosopher into the opinion of Aristotle that the stars are animated.

This argument had been worked out to the writer's satisfaction when he chanced to light on Mr. Max Müller's explanation of the name of the Great Bear. We have explained that name as only one out of countless similar appellations which men of every race give to the stars. These names, again, we have accounted for as the result of savage philosophy, which takes no great distinction between man and the things in the world, and looks on stars, beasts, birds, fishes, flowers, and trees as men and women in disguise. Mr. Müller's theory is based on philological considerations. He thinks that the name of the Great Bear is the result of a mistake as to the meaning of words. There was in Sanskrit, he says,[13] a root ark, or arch, meaning 'to be bright.' The stars are called riksha, that is, bright ones, in the Veda. 'The constellations here called the Rikshas, in the sense of the “bright ones,” would be homonymous in Sanskrit with the Bears. Remember also that, apparently without rhyme or reason, the same constellation is called by Greeks and Romans the Bear. . . . There is not the shadow of a likeness with a bear. You will now perceive the influence of words on thought, or the spontaneous growth of mythology. The name Riksha was applied to the bear in the sense of the bright fuscous animal, and in that sense it became most popular in the later Sanskrit, and in Greek and Latin. The same name, “in the sense of the bright ones,” had been applied by the Vedic poets to the stars in general, and more particularly to that constellation which in the northern parts of India was the most prominent. The etymological meaning, “the bright stars,” was forgotten; the popular meaning of Riksha (bear) was known to everyone. And thus it happened that, when the Greeks had left their central home and settled in Europe, they retained the name of Arktos for the same unchanging stars; but, not knowing why those stars had originally received that name, they ceased to speak of them as arktoí, or many bears, and spoke of them as the Bear.'

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

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


Footnotes[edit]

  1. The attempt is not to explain the origin of each separate name but only of the general habit of giving animal or human names stars.
  2. Mr. Herbert Spencer believes that the Australians were once more civilised than at present. But there has never been found a trace of pottery on the Australian continent, which says little for their civilisation in the past.
  3. Brugsch, History of Egypt, i. 32.
  4. Brough Smith.
  5. Amazonian Tortoise Myths, p. 39.
  6. Sahagun, vii. 3.
  7. Grimm, D. M., Engl. transl., p. 716.
  8. Hartt, op. cit., p. 40.
  9. Kaegi, Der Rig Veda, p. 217.
  10. Mainjo-i-Khard, 49, 22, ed. West.
  11. Op. cit. p. 98.
  12. Prim. Cult., i. 357.
  13. Lectures on Language, pp. 359, 362.