Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/June 1875/A Curious Question of Horses' Ribs
|←The Cyclone in the Universe||Popular Science Monthly Volume 7 June 1875 (1875)
A Curious Question of Horses' Ribs
By Friedrich Max Müller
|Geographical Work of 1874→|
SYLVIUS said that man had formerly an intermaxillary bone. If he has it no longer, he ought to have it. In this he was right. The same Sylvius, in his answer to Vesalius, said that Galen was not wrong when he described man as having seven bones in his sternum, "for," said he, "in ancient times the robust chests of heroes might very well have had more bones than our degenerate day can boast." In this he was wrong.
I take these statements from Mr. Lewes's "Life of Goethe" (p. 343), and I have to confess that I have not verified them. They interested me, however, as bearing on a controversy that has been carried on for some time between scholars and anatomists, viz., whether another animal, the horse, instead of losing, has developed in course of time some bones which it did not originally possess. Horses have now thirty-six ribs; sometimes, it is said, thirty-eight. But there is a passage in the "Rig-Veda," which speaks apparently of only thirty-four ribs in horses. It was M. Pictrement, who, in his work "Les Origines du Cheval domestique d'après la Paléontologie, la Zoologie, l'Histoire et la Philologie" (Paris, 1870), first called attention to this curious statement, and drew from it the conclusion, supported by some very ingenious arguments, that at the time of the Vedic poets, say about 1500 b. c., there existed a race of horses with only thirty-four ribs. Other zoölogists, and more particularly M. Sanson, raised some strong objections, but M. Pictrement replied to them in his "Mémoire sur les Chevaux à trente-quatre côtes des Aryas de l'Époque Védique" (Paris, 1871), and the question is still sub judice.
M. Pictrement's reasoning may best be given in his own words:
Having by these considerations established the possibility of an ancient race of horses with only thirty-four ribs, M. Pictrement appealed for its reality to a passage in the most ancient literary document of the whole Aryan world, the "Rig-Veda."
The passage in which the thirty-four ribs of the horse are mentioned occurs in the 162d hymn of the first book of the "Rig-Veda Samhita." I translated the whole of that hymn in my "History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature" (1860, p. 553). The hymn is ascribed to Dirghatamas, and describes the sacrifice of the horse in very full detail. In the eighteenth verse we read:
This passage is curious in many respects. It refutes the statement of Strabo (xv., 54), that the Indians did not slaughter their victims: "They do not slay the victim, but suffocate it, to the end that it may not be offered to the god mutilated, but entire." It also seems to imply that the horses then offered at the sacrifices had only thirty-four ribs. This statement, however, startled even the orthodox commentators in India, and Sayana remarks in his commentary on this passage, that other animals, such as goats, etc., have only twenty-six ribs, as might be proved by what he considers as far more convincing than ocular evidence, viz., a passage from the "Brahmanas," in which it is said, "Its ribs are twenty-six." In another passage, in his commentary on the "Satapatha brahmana," xiii., 5, 1, 18, Sayana returns to the same subject, but unfortunately that passage, as edited by Prof. Weber, is so corrupt that I at least cannot make sense of it, though it is clear that Sayana says there that their ribs are thirty-six. Another commentator, Mahidhara, explaining the horse-sacrifice, as prescribed in the "Yagurveda," seems to have no anatomical misgivings, but states that the horse has thirty-four, goats and other animals twenty-six ribs.
I confess that I was myself very much puzzled by the passage in the "Rig-Veda." It was quite clear that the reading katustrimsat, thirty-four, cannot be called in question; it was equally clear that that number would not have been mentioned except for some special purpose. That it was the habit of the ancient Hindoos to count the various bones of the human or animal skeleton, may be seen in the "Law-book of Yagnavalkya," iii., 85, et seq. There we read:
Similar passages occur elsewhere, and establish the fact that the ancient anatomists of India made a point of knowing the exact number of the bones in the different portions of the bodies both of men and animals.
Not being able to find a satisfactory solution of my difficulty, I applied to Prof. Huxley, and I am glad, with his permission, to print the following letter, which offers a most ingenious, and, to my mind, satisfactory solution:
"26 Abbey Place, N. W."
"I remain, yours very truly, T. H. Huxley."
I have little doubt that Prof. Huxley has solved the riddle. It is open to translate either the thirty-four, or thirty-four ribs; but, whether we adopt the one or the other rendering, it seems clear that the poet must have had some reason for mentioning that number. If thirty-four was the usual number of a horse's ribs in his time, then there seems little reason for giving the number. "Cut the ribs" would have conveyed the same meaning as "cut the thirty-four ribs." If, on the contrary, the number thirty-four was mentioned because it was exceptional, then the poet, and his commentators too, would have said more about the anomaly. Every thing becomes intelligible if we admit that, in cutting open the horse, two ribs were not to be cut, so that they might remain and keep the carcass together. In that case to mention the number of ribs that were to be cut had a purpose, though it is strange that tradition, which in India possesses such extraordinary tenacity in unimportant matters, should not have preserved the original purport of the words of Dirghatamas. I have looked in vain for a passage where the cutting of the thirty-four ribs in the horse-sacrifice is more fully described; but I ought to add that in the oldest descriptions of the sacrifice of other animals, preserved in the Aitareya-Brahmana and the Srauta-Sutras of Alvarayana, nothing it said of leaving two ribs undivided. "Twenty-six are his ribs," we read: "let him take them out in order; let him not spoil any limb."—Academy.