Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/William Tell
I SUPPOSE that most people regard the story of Tell and the apple as an historical event; and with corresponding interest, when they undertake the regular Swiss round, visit the marketplace of Altorf, where is pointed out the site of the lime-tree to which Tell’s child was bound, and contemplate the plaster statue which is asserted to mark the spot where Tell stood to take aim. Once, moreover, there stood another monument erected near Lucerne in commemoration of this event, a wooden obelisk, painted to look like granite, surmounted by a rosy-cheeked apple transfixed by a golden arrow. This gingerbread memorial of bad taste has perished, struck by lightning. We shall in the following pages demolish the very story which that erection was intended to commemorate.
It is one of the painful duties of the antiquarian to dispel many a popular belief, and to probe the groundlessness of many an historical statement. The antiquarian is sometimes disposed to ask with Pilate, “What is truth?” when he finds historical facts crumbling beneath his touch into mythological fables; and he soon learns to doubt and question the most emphatic declarations of, and claims to, reliability.
Sir Walter Raleigh, in his prison, was composing the second volume of his history of the world. Leaning on the sill of his window, he meditated on the duties of the historian to mankind, when suddenly his attention was attracted by a disturbance in the court-yard before his cell. He saw one man strike another whom he supposed by his dress to be an officer; the latter of once drew his sword, and ran the former through the body. The wounded man felled his adversary with a stick, and then sank upon the pavement. At this juncture the guard came up, and carried off the officer insensible, and then the corpse of the man who had been run through.
Next day Raleigh was visited by an intimate friend, to whom he related the circumstances of the quarrel and its issue. To his astonishment, his friend unhesitatingly declared that the prisoner had mistaken the whole series of incidents which had passed before his eyes.
The supposed officer was not an officer at all, but the servant of a foreign ambassador; it was he who had dealt the first blow; he had not drawn his sword, but the other had snatched it from his side, and had run him through the body before any one could interfere; whereupon a stranger from among the crowd knocked the murderer down with his stick, and some of the foreigners belonging to the ambassador’s retinue carried off the corpse. The friend of Raleigh added that government had ordered the arrest and immediate trial of the murderer, as the man assassinated was one of the principal servants of the Spanish ambassador.
“Excuse me,” said Raleigh, “but I cannot have been deceived as you suppose, for I was eye-witness to the events which took place under my own window, and the man fell there on that spot where you see a paving-stone standing up above the rest.”
“My dear Raleigh,” replied his friend, “I was sitting on that stone when the fray took place, and I received this slight scratch on my cheek in snatching the sword from the murderer, and upon my word of honor, you have been deceived upon every particular.”
Sir Walter, when alone, took up the second volume of his history, which was in MS., and contemplating it, thought—“If I cannot believe my own eyes, how can I be assured of the truth of a tithe of the events which happened ages before I was born?” and he flung the manuscript into the fire.
Now I think that I can show that the story of William Tell is as fabulous as—what shall I say?—any other historical event.
It is almost too well known to need repetition.
In the year 1307, Gessler, Vogt of the Emperor Albert of Hapsburg, set a hat on a pole, as symbol of imperial power, and ordered every one who passed by to do obeisance towards it. A mountaineer of the name of Tell boldly traversed the space before it without saluting the abhorred symbol. By Gessler’s command he was at once seized and brought before him. As Tell was known to be an expert archer, he was ordered, by way of punishment, to shoot an apple off the head of his own son. Finding remonstrance vain, he submitted. The apple was placed on the child’s head, Tell bent his bow, the arrow sped, and apple and arrow fell together to the ground. But the Vogt noticed that Tell, before shooting, had stuck another arrow into his belt, and he inquired the reason.
“It was for you,” replied the sturdy archer. “Had I shot my child, know that it would not have missed your heart.”
This event, observe, took place in the beginning of the fourteenth century. But Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish writer of the twelfth century, tells the story of a hero of his own country, who lived in the tenth century. He relates the incident in horrible style as follows:—
“Nor ought what follows to be enveloped in silence. Toki, who had for some time been in the king’s service, had, by his deeds, surpassing those of his comrades, made enemies of his virtues. One day, when he had drunk too much, he boasted to those who sat at table with him, that his skill in archery was such, that with the first shot of an arrow he could hit the smallest apple set on the top of a stick at a considerable distance. His detractors, hearing this, lost no time in conveying what he had said to the king (Harald Bluetooth). But the wickedness of this monarch soon transformed the confidence of the father to the jeopardy of the son, for he ordered the dearest pledge of his life to stand in place of the stick, from whom, if the utterer of the boast did not at his first shot strike down the apple, he should with his head pay the penalty of having made an idle boast. The command of the king urged the soldier to do this which was so much more than he had undertaken, the detracting artifices of the others having taken advantage of words spoken when he was hardly sober. As soon as the boy was led forth, Toki carefully admonished him to receive the whir of the arrow as calmly as possible, with attentive ears, and without moving his head, lest by a slight motion of the body he should frustrate the experience of his well-tried skill. He also made him stand with his back towards him, lest he should be frightened at the sight of the arrow. Then he drew three arrows from his quiver, and the very first he shot struck the proposed mark. Toki being asked by the king why he had taken so many more arrows out of his quiver, when he was to make but one trial with his bow, ‘That I might avenge on thee,’ he replied, ‘the error of the first, by the points of the others, lest my innocence might happen to be afflicted, and thy injustice go unpunished.’”
The same incident is told of Egil, brother of the mythical Velundr, in the Saga of Thidrik.
In Norwegian history also it appears with variations again and again. It is told of King Olaf the Saint (d. 1030), that, desiring the conversion of a brave heathen named Eindridi, he competed with him in various athletic sports; he swam with him, wrestled, and then shot with him. The king dared Eindridi to strike a writing-tablet from off his son’s head with an arrow. Eindridi prepared to attempt the difficult shot. The king bade two men bind the eyes of the child and hold the napkin, so that he might not move when he heard the whistle of the arrow. The king aimed first, and the arrow grazed the lad’s head. Eindridi then prepared to shoot; but the mother of the boy interfered, and persuaded the king to abandon this dangerous test of skill. In this version, also, Eindridi is prepared to revenge himself on the king, should the child be injured.
But a closer approximation still to the Tell myth is found in the life of Hemingr, another Norse archer, who was challenged by King Harald, Sigurd’s son (d. 1066). The story is thus told:—
“The island was densely overgrown with wood, and the people went into the forest. The king took a spear and set it with its point in the soil, then he laid an arrow on the string and shot up into the air. The arrow turned in the air and came down upon the spear-shaft and stood up in it. Hemingr took another arrow and shot up; his was lost to sight for some while, but it came back and pierced the nick of the king’s arrow. . . . . Then the king took a knife and stuck it into an oak; he next drew his bow and planted an arrow in the haft of the knife. Thereupon Hemingr took his arrows. The king stood by him and said, ‘They are all inlaid with gold; you are a capital workman.’ Hemingr answered, ‘They are not my manufacture, but are presents.’ He shot, and his arrow cleft the haft, and the point entered the socket of the blade.
“‘We must have a keener contest,’ said the king, taking an arrow and flushing with anger; then he laid the arrow on the string and drew his bow to the farthest, so that the horns were nearly brought to meet. Away flashed the arrow, and pierced a tender twig. All said that this was a most astonishing feat of dexterity. But Hemingr shot from a greater distance, and split a hazel nut. All were astonished to see this. Then said the king, ‘Take a nut and set it on the head of your brother Bjorn, and aim it at from precisely the same distance. If you miss the mark, then your life goes.’
“Hemingr answered, ‘Sire, my life is at your disposal, but I will not adventure that shot.’ Then out spake Bjorn, ‘Shoot, brother, rather than die yourself.’ Hemingr said, ‘Have you the pluck to stand quite still without shrinking?’ ‘I will do my best,’ said Bjorn. ‘Then let the king stand by,’ said Hemingr, ‘and let him see whether I touch the nut.’
“The king agreed, and bade Oddr Ufeig’s son stand by Bjorn, and see that the shot was fair. Hemingr then went to the spot fixed for him by the king, and signed himself with the cross, saying, ‘God be my witness that I had rather die myself than injure my brother Bjorn; let all the blame rest on King Harald.’
“Then Hemingr flung his spear. The spear went straight to the mark, and passed between the nut and the crown of the lad, who was not in the least injured. It flew farther, and stopped not till it fell. “Then the king came up and asked Oddr what he thought about the shot.”
Years after, this risk was revenged upon the hard-hearted monarch. In the battle of Stamfordbridge an arrow from a skilled archer penetrated the wind-pipe of the king, and it is supposed to have sped, observes the Saga writer, from the bow of Hemingr, then in the service of the English monarch.
The story is related somewhat differently in the Faroe Isles, and is told of Geyti, Aslak’s son. The same Harald asks his men if they know who is his match in strength. “Yes,” they reply; “there is a peasant’s son in the uplands, Geyti, son of Aslak, who is the strongest of men.” Forth goes the king, and at last rides up to the house of Aslak. “And where is your youngest son?”
“Alas! alas! he lies under the green sod of Kolrin kirkgarth.” Come, then, and show me his corpse, old man, that I may judge whether he was as stout of limb as men say.”
The father puts the king off with the excuse that among so many dead it would be hard to find his boy. So the king rides away over the heath. He meets a stately man returning from the chase, with a bow over his shoulder. “And who art thou, friend?” “Geyti, Aslak’s son.” The dead man, in short, alive and well. The king tells him he has heard of his prowess, and is come to match his strength with him. So Geyti and the king try a swimming-match.
The king swims well; but Geyti swims better, and in the end gives the monarch such a ducking, that he is borne to his house devoid of sense and motion. Harald swallows his anger, as he had swallowed the water, and bids Geyti shoot a hazel nut from off his brother’s head. Aslak’s son consents, and invites the king into the forest to witness his dexterity.
“On the string the shaft he laid,
And God hath heard his prayer;
He shot the little nut away,
Nor hurt the lad a hair.”
Next day the king sends for the skilful bowman:
“List thee, Geyti, Aslak’s son,
And truly tell to me,
Wherefore hadst thou arrows twain
In the wood yestreen with thee?”
The bowman replies:
“Therefore had I arrows twain
Yestreen in the wood with me,
Had I but hurt my brother dear,
The other had pierced thee.”
A very similar tale is told also in the celebrated Nialleus Maleficarum of a man named Puncher, with this difference, that a coin is placed on the lad’s head instead of an apple or a nut. The person who had dared Puncher to the test of skill, inquires the use of the second arrow in his belt, and receives the usual answer, that if the first arrow had missed the coin, the second would have transfixed a certain heart which was destitute of natural feeling.
We have, moreover, our English version of the same story in the venerable ballad of William of Cloudsley.
The Finn ethnologist Castrén obtained the following tale in the Finnish village of Uhtuwa:—
A fight took place between some freebooters and the inhabitants of the village of Alajärwi. The robbers plundered every house, and carried off amongst their captives an old man. As they proceeded with their spoils along the strand of the lake, a lad of twelve years old appeared from among the reeds on the opposite bank, armed with a bow, and amply provided with arrows; he threatened to shoot down the captors unless the old man, his father, were restored to him. The robbers mockingly replied that the aged man would be given to him if he could shoot an apple off his head. The boy accepted the challenge, and on successfully accomplishing it, the surrender of the venerable captive was made.
Farid-Uddin Âttar was a Persian dealer in perfumes, born in the year 1119. He one day was so impressed with the sight of a dervish, that he sold his possessions, and followed righteousness. He composed the poem Mantic Uttaïr, or the language of birds. Observe, the Persian Âttar lived at the same time as the Danish Saxo, and long before the birth of Tell. Curiously enough, we find a trace of the Tell myth in the pages of his poem. According to him, however, the king shoots the apple from the head of a beloved page, and the lad dies from sheer fright, though the arrow does not even graze his skin.
The coincidence of finding so many versions of the same story scattered through countries as remote as Persia and Iceland, Switzerland and Denmark, proves, I think, that it can in no way be regarded as history, but is rather one of the numerous household myths common to the whole stock of Aryan nations. Probably, some one more acquainted with Sanskrit literature than myself, and with better access to its unpublished stores of fable and legend, will some day light on an early Indian tale corresponding to that so prevalent among other branches of the same family. The coincidence of the Tell myth being discovered among the Finns is attributable to Russian or Swedish influence. I do not regard it as a primeval Turanian, but as an Aryan story, which, like an erratic block, is found deposited on foreign soil far from the mountain whence it was torn.
Mythologists will, I suppose, consider the myth to represent the manifestation of some natural phenomena, and the individuals of the story to be impersonifications of natural forces. Most primeval stories were thus constructed, and their origin is traceable enough. In Thorn-rose, for instance, who can fail to see the earth goddess represented by the sleeping beauty in her long winter slumber, only returning to life when kissed by the golden-haired sun-god Phœbus or Baldur? But the Tell myth has not its signification thus painted on the surface, and though it is possible that Gessler or Harald may be the power of evil and darkness, and the bold archer the storm-cloud with his arrow of lightning and his iris bow, bent against the sun, which is resting like a coin or a golden apple on the edge of the horizon, yet we have no guarantee that such an interpretation is not an overstraining of a theory.
In these pages and elsewhere I have shown how some of the ancient myths related by the whole Aryan family of nations are reducible to allegorical explanations of certain well-known natural phenomena; but I must protest against the manner in which our German friends fasten rapaciously upon every atom of history, sacred and profane, and demonstrate all heroes to represent the sun; all villains to be the demons of night or winter; all sticks and spears and arrows to be the lightning; all cows and sheep and dragons and swans to be clouds.
In a work on the superstition of Werewolves, I have entered into this subject with some fulness, and am quite prepared to admit the premises upon which mythologists construct their theories; at the same time I am not disposed to run to the extravagant lengths reached by some of the most enthusiastic German scholars. A wholesome warning to these gentlemen was given some years ago by an ingenious French ecclesiastic, who wrote the following argument to prove that Napoleon Bonaparte was a mythological character. Archbishop Whately’s “Historic Doubts” was grounded on a totally different line of argument; I subjoin the other, as a curiosity and as a caution.
Napoleon is, says the writer, an impersonification of the sun.
1. Between the name Napoleon and Apollo, or Apoleon, the god of the sun, there is but a trifling difference; indeed, the seeming difference is lessened, if we take the spelling of his name from the column of the Place Vendôme, where it stands Néapoléo. But this syllable Ne prefixed to the name of the sun-god is of importance; like the rest of the name it is of Greek origin, and is νη or ναι, a particle of affirmation, as though indicating Napoleon as the very true Apollo, or sun.
His other name, Bonaparte, makes this apparent connection between the French hero and the luminary of the firmament conclusively certain. The day has its two parts, the good and luminous portion, and that which is bad and dark. To the sun belongs the good part, to the moon and stars belongs the bad portion. It is therefore natural that Apollo or Né-Apoleón should receive the surname of Bonaparte.
2. Apollo was born in Delos, a Mediterranean island ; Napoleon in Corsica, an island in the same sea. According to Pausanias, Apollo was an Egyptian deity; and in the mythological history of the fabulous Napoleon we find the hero in Egypt, regarded by the inhabitants with veneration, and receiving their homage.
3. The mother of Napoleon was said to be Letitia, which signifies joy, and is an impersonification of the dawn of light dispensing joy and gladness to all creation. Letitia is no other than the break of day, which in a manner brings the sun into the world, and “with rosy fingers opes the gates of Day.” It is significant that the Greek name for the mother of Apollo was Leto. From this the Romans made the name Latona which they gave to his mother. But Lœto is the unused form of the verb lœtor, and signified to inspire joy; it is from this unused form that the substantive Letitia is derived. The identity, then, of the mother of Napoleon with the Greek Leto and the Latin Latona, is established conclusively.
4. According to the popular story, this son of Letitia had three sisters; and was it not the same with the Greek deity, who had the three Graces?
5. The modern Gallic Apollo had four brothers. It is impossible not to discern here the anthropomorphosis of the four seasons. But, it will be objected, the seasons should be females. Here the French language interposes; for in French the seasons are masculine, with the exception of autumn, upon the gender of which grammarians are undecided, whilst Autumnus in Latin is not more feminine than the other seasons. This difficulty is therefore trifling, and what follows removes all shadow of doubt.
Of the four brothers of Napoleon, three are said to have been kings, and these of course are, Spring reigning over the flowers, Summer reigning over the harvest, Autumn holding sway over the fruits. And as these three seasons owe all to the powerful influence of the Sun, we are told in the popular myth that the three brothers of Napoleon drew their authority from him, and received from him their kingdoms. But if it be added that, of the four brothers of Napoleon, one was not a king, that was because he is the impersonification of Winter, which has no reign over anything. If however it be asserted, in contradiction, that the winter has an empire, he will be given the principality over snows and frosts, which, in the dreary season of the year, whiten the face of the earth. Well! the fourth brother of Napoleon is thus invested by popular tradition, commonly called history, with a vain principality accorded to him in the decline of the power of Napoleon. The principality was that of Canino, a name derived from cani, or the whitened hairs of a frozen old age,—true emblem of winter. To the eyes of poets, the forests covering the hills are their hair, and when winter frosts them, they represent the snowy locks of a decrepit nature in the old age of the year:
Consequently the Prince of Canino is an impersonification of winter;—winter whose reign begins when the kingdoms of the three fine seasons are passed from them, and when the sun is driven from his power by the children of the North, as the poets call the boreal winds. This is the origin of the fabulous invasion of France by the allied armies of the North. The story relates that these invaders—the northern gales—banished the many-colored flag, and replaced it by a white standard. This too is a graceful, but, at the same time, purely fabulous account of the Northern winds driving all the brilliant colors from the face of the soil, to replace them by the snowy sheet.
6. Napoleon is said to have had two wives. It is well known that the classic fable gave two also to Apollo. These two were the moon and the earth. Plutarch asserts that the Greeks gave the moon to Apollo for wife, whilst the Egyptians attributed to him the earth. By the moon he had no posterity, but by the other he had one son only, the little Horus. This is an Egyptian allegory, representing the fruits of agriculture produced by the earth fertilized by the Sun. The pretended son of the fabulous Napoleon is said to have been born on the 20th of March, the season of the spring equinox, when agriculture is assuming its greatest period of activity.
7. Napoleon is said to have released France from the devastating scourge which terrorized over the country, the hydra of the revolution, as it was popularly called. Who cannot see in this a Gallic version of the Greek legend of Apollo releasing Hellas from the terrible Python? The very name revolution, derived from the Latin verb revolvo, is indicative of the coils of a serpent like the Python.
8. The famous hero of the 19th century had, it is asserted, twelve Marshals at the head of his armies, and four who were stationary and inactive. The twelve first, as may be seen at once, are the signs of the zodiac, marching under the orders of the sun Napoleon, and each commanding a division of the innumerable host of stars, which are parted into twelve portions, corresponding to the twelve signs. As for the four stationary officers, immovable in the midst of general motion, they are the cardinal points.
9. It is currently reported that the chief of these brilliant armies, after having gloriously traversed the Southern kingdoms, penetrated North, and was there unable to maintain his sway. This too represents the course of the Sun, which assumes its greatest power in the South, but after the spring equinox seeks to reach the North; and after a three months’ march towards the boreal regions, is driven back upon his traces following the sign of Cancer, a sign given to represent the retrogression of the sun in that portion of the sphere. It is on this that the story of the march of Napoleon towards Moscow, and his humbling retreat, is founded.
10. Finally, the sun rises in the East and sets in the Western sea. The poets picture him rising out of the waters in the East, and setting in the ocean after his twelve hours’ reign in the sky. Such is the history of Napoleon coming from his Mediterranean isle, holding the reins of government for twelve years, and finally disappearing in the mysterious regions of the great Atlantic.
- This anecdote is taken from the Journal de Paris, May, 1787; which derived it from “Letters on Literature, by Robert Heron” (i. e. John Pinkerton, F.A.S.), 1785. But whence did Pinkerton obtain it?
- Oxonian in Iceland, p. 15.