Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 16.djvu/169

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
155
RECENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

remember how, at the Royal Institution, the aged scholar. Bishop Thirlwall, grasped the stick he leaned on, as if to make sure of the ground under his feet, when he heard it propounded that Erinys, the dread avenger of murder, was a personification of the Dawn discovering the deeds of Darkness. Though the study of mythology has grown apace in these later years, and many of its explanations will stand the test of future criticism, I am bound to say that mythologists, always an erratic race, have of late been making wilder work than ever with both myth and real history—finding mythic suns and skies in the kings and heroes of old tradition, with dawns for love-tales, storms for wars, and sunsets for deaths, often with as much real cogency as if some mythologist a thousand years hence should explain the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots as a nature-myth of a beauteous dawn rising in splendor, prisoned in a dark cloud-island, and done to death in blood-red sunset. Learned treatises have of late, by such rash guessings, shaken public confidence in the more sober reasonings on which comparative mythology is founded, so that it is well to insist that there are cases where the derivation of myths from poetic metaphors is really proved beyond doubt. Such an instance is the Hindoo legend of King Bali, whose austerities have alarmed the gods themselves, when Vamana, a Brahmanic Tom Thumb, begs of him as much land as he can measure in three steps; but when the boon is granted, the tiny dwarf expands gigantic into Vishnu himself, and striding with one step across the earth, with another across the air, and a third across the sky, drives the king down into the infernal regions, where he still reigns. There are various versions of the story, of which one may be read in Southey; but in the ancient Vedic hymns its origin may be found when it was not as yet a story at all, only a poetic metaphor of Vishnu, the Sun, whose oft-mentioned act is his crossing the airy regions in his three strides. "Vishnu traversed (the earth), thrice he put down his foot; it was crushed under his dusty step. Three steps hence made Vishnu, unharmed preserver, upholding sacred things." Both in the savage and civilized world there are many myths which may be plainly traced to such poetic fancies before they have yet stiffened into circumstantial tales; and it is in following out these, rather than in recklessly guessing myth-origins for every tradition, that the sound work of the mythologist lies. The scholar must not treat such nature-poetry like prose, spoiling its light texture with too heavy a grasp. In the volume published by our new Folk-Lore Society, which has begun its work so well, Mr. Lang gives an instance of the sportive nature-metaphor which still lingers among popular storytellers. It is Breton, and belongs to that wide-spread tale of which one version is naturalized in England as "Dick Whittington and his Cat." The story runs thus: The elder brother has the cat, while the next brother, who has a cock left him, fortunately finds his way to a land where (there being no cocks) the king has every night to send