Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/March 1889/South Slavic Moon-Myths

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1049798Popular Science Monthly Volume 34 March 1889 — South Slavic Moon-Myths1889Friedrich Salomon Krauss



THE South Slavic peoples have a number of popular songs reciting with many variations the theme of the wedding of the sun or the moon with the morning star or dawn. The relatives of these luminaries also play a part in the wedding processions, and appear variously as the nuptial dignitaries—Saint John, the thunderer Elias, and the holy Virgin Mary. The story runs along so plausibly that one can not tell by reasoning what is signified by the invocation of these higher beings; in other words, with all its clearness it is quite obscure. But the learned mythologist easily does away with all difficulties, and applies his artificial explanations with the greatest satisfaction. Parallels are easily drawn from Grecian, Roman, Indian, Germanic, or Lithuanian mythology, and the thing is done. The stereotyped conclusion of the mythologists is drawn to the effect that a people that entertains such speculations must have formerly had a high degree of culture, and have been of equal birth with the oldest civilized nations.

The answer to such talk is, that the stories of these sun and moon weddings have no support in the faith of the people, and are in no wise consonant with their other national and religious notions. Certain fables are indeed appealed to, that tell how the youth, in search of his ever-vanishing love, inquires in turn of the wind-mother, the sun-mother, and the moon-mother. But, to accept these in explanation, we have to pass off as specifically Slavic what is really and confessedly an all-world story, and in which there is, therefore, nothing significant of the South Slavic superstition.

It is not necessary to believe that there is any illusion in the matter. While the popular thinking is often illogical and takes poetry for truth, real misapprehension exists only among individuals, and the popular mind takes a fixed direction. Examination of the songs in which these moon-marriages are mentioned will show that they are exclusively lyrics or short songs, such as are sung by the processions at the bringing of the bride from the parental home, or which greet her as she enters the house of her spouse. The significance of the part played in them by the stars is explained by the popular custom of giving to the wedding-guests. particularly to those who have anything to do with the ceremonies, pet names by which they are called till the affair is over. A stereotyped name for the bride is Danica (the morning star), and for the groom Sunce (the sun) or Mjesec (the moon). The principal groomsman is addressed as Saint John; the god-father as Elias; the first bridesmaid as Mary; and the other guests usually receive names of flowers. The three chief personages after the bridal pair have generally the stereotyped name and a newly borrowed pet name. Evidently a poetical expression rules in these affairs, by which the figurative characterizations of the higher spheres of the sky have been adapted to the transferred names. Among the more than a hundred songs of this kind we cite one from B. Petranovic's collection of Servian popular songs, which relates how the suitor wakened the passion of his sweetheart:

"The morning star said angrily to the oon,
Where have you tarried, my bright moon, so long?
Where have you tarried, where have you idled the time?
Where I tarried I idled no time:
We were eating for you a supper of sweets;
We saw for you a maid as handsome as pearl;
Her hair was fragrant with sweet-smelling blossoms—
Oh, would that the flowers were for me!
Then jealous anger possessed the morning star.
And she speeded in rage over the clear sky."

The poetic imagery is, I think, perfectly comprehensible. It is of common application in popular verse. Let us recollect that every literature of the kind has only a comparatively limited stock of comparisons and figures, and that it is, therefore, obliged to make a narrow means suffice for all occasions. It does not readily waste its poetical material, and it is turned from its course only when the occasion is an extraordinary one. Metaphors drawn from the stars are still in full vigor, but find their complete adaptation only in poetry. But there is not a trace of mythological mysticism in it.

It may be observed, in explanation of the popular faith about the moon, that the people regard its regularly recurring decrease and increase wholly according to the apparently good or ill working of its phases upon the fortunes of man and the world. Of the phenomena themselves they have no settled opinion, although some incline to accept a fable which is peculiar to the Croats on the Steiermark border as a popular myth. I prefer to regard it as a part of the apocryphal folk-lore of the middle ages, or perhaps as of German origin. Saint Elias, as the national saint, lord of the highest mountains, lends it his name only to save the trivial story from ridicule. It runs:

The holy Elias once had a long leisure-spell, and went out walking. Coming to a small bay, lie sat down and rested there for three days, till, getting hungry, he began to catch crabs and eat them. He relished them so well as to eat up nearly all there were. But God would not let this come to pass, and therefore raised a great wind that took the saint up into the air. He traveled through space for three days, and reached the moon in the night. Here the saint was punished by having to look down into the sea all the night long and see the crabs grow. Then so great hunger came upon Elias that he bit off piece after piece from the moon and swallowed them; and if God the Lord had not been gracious enough to order the moon to increase, the saint would have died of hunger after eating it, and have fallen to the earth and been broken into a thousand pieces. Yet God spared him and transplanted him to the moon; else he would have eaten up all the crabs in the sea, and at another time would have had only empty disappointment. Thus the moon decreases and increases according as the saint eats or fasts.

If we divest the fable of its unessentials, which may be set to the account of some unknown poet, there is left a feature of international folk-lore, viz., that sins have to be expiated in the moon. As in German superstition, so also in that of the South Slavs, the man in the moon is a desecrator of the holy Sabbath rest. Sometimes he is a wood-cutter, sometimes a blacksmith. The story reads that a wood-cutter, having stolen some wood in the forest on Sunday, was condemned to be a wood-destroyer in the moon for all eternity. He can be seen at full moon, sometimes with an axe in his hand, sometimes with a bundle of sticks on his back.

Another version tells that there was once a blacksmith who knew how to make skeleton keys with which one could open any lock, and, because he did this on Sundays and holidays, was condemned to work forever in the moon. It may be in deference to the conception of the ghost of Frau Mictlwoch, who was punished for desecrating a holy day by spinning, that a spinner is sometimes substituted for a man in the moon. The Swabians also find a spinner there.

A maiden was accustomed to spin late on Saturday in the moonlight. At one time the new moon on the eve of Sunday drew her up to itself, and since then she has sat in the moon and spun. And now, when the "gossamer days" set in late in the summer, the white threads float around in the air. These threads are the spinnings of the lunar spinner.

The moon is especially a weird avenger of human arrogance, and has its humors, according to which things go well or ill with it. In its waxing it has a special force and a certain good-will for the earth and its inhabitants, while in its wane it is friendly to no one. The good woman must not do any sewing in the decrease of the moon, for the stitches will not hold; farming-tools must not be left in the field, because, it is believed, if they are, crops will not again thrive there. If an unbaptized child is exposed to the moonlight, it will lose its luck for its whole life. If one points at the moon with the finger he will suffer from swellings around the nail; and whoever spits at the moon will lose all his teeth. These beliefs, too, are international. The same is the case with the religious notions about the new moon. Sorceries of every kind, to be successful, must be performed on Sunday night of the new moon. The hair must be cut only in the increase of the moon, otherwise there is danger of getting headache. If a person returning home in the evening sees the full moon, he ought to take some money out of his purse, and utter an incantation that will make it increase a hundred times during the month.

The moon is also supposed to have an influence over animals and plants. Cucumbers become very large by lying three nights in moonshine. Trees, of which it is intended to make timber for a house, must be felled only in the full moon, else some one in the family will die very soon. Sheep must be sheared in the increase of the moon, for the wool is then longest and most durable. Swine should be slaughtered at the same season, when they are at their fattest and in the most healthy condition.

What Tacitus says of the Germans, that they believe that certain things are best undertaken in the new moon or before its full, is also applicable to the South Slavic superstitions. In both German and South Slavic popular lore, the moon is only a fetich, and South Slavic belief at least affords no ground for the supposition that it is honored as a divinity; and I have no hesitation in declaring that the finely drawn speculations of Slavic mythologists respecting the moon are only learned but vain dreams.

We may remark, in conclusion, that peasants are wont to predict the approaching phases of the weather from the color of the moon. They have the belief that the moon is like a sponge, and can instantly absorb the clouds, and as quickly let them loose again to darken the sky. If the moon shines silvery clear, fine weather is at hand; if it looks reddish, there will be wind; and a pale moon is a sign of impending rain. Some believe that if the horn of the new moon shows a little spot, the weather at full moon will be foul; if there is no spot, it will be fair till the end of the month.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.

Prof. Nehring believes that the dog is descended from various still-surviving species of wolves and jackals. It is not particularly difficult, he says, to tame jackals, and many attempts to domesticate wolves have been made in recent times.