Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/February 1890/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Comparative Mythology I
VII. COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY.
By ANDREW DICKSON WHITE, LL. D., L. H. D.,
EX-PRESIDENT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
A FEW years since, Maxime Du Camp, an eminent member of the French Academy, traveling from the Red Sea to the Nile through the Desert of Kosseir, came to a barren slope covered with bowlders, rounded and glossy.
His Mohammedan camel-drivers accounted for them on this wise:
"Many years ago Hadji Abdul-Aziz, a sheik of the dervishes, was traveling on foot through this desert; it was summer; the sun was hot and the dust stilling; thirst parched his lips, fatigue weighed down his back, sweat dropped from his forehead, when looking up he saw—on this very spot—a garden beautifully green, full of fruit, and, in the midst of it, the gardener.
"'O fellow-man cried Hadji Abdul-Aziz, s in the name of Allah, clement and merciful, give me a melon and I will give you my prayers.'
"The gardener answered, 'I care not for your prayers; give me money, and I will give you fruit.'
"'But' said the dervish, 'I am a beggar; I have never had money; I am thirsty and weary, and one of your melons is all that I need.'
"'No,' said the gardener, 'go to the Nile and quench your thirst.'
"Thereupon the dervish, lifting his eyes toward heaven, made this prayer: 'O Allah, thou who in the midst of the desert didst make the fountain of Zem-Zem spring forth to satisfy the thirst of Ismail, father of the faithful; wilt thou suffer one of thy creatures to perish thus of thirst and fatigue?'
"And it came to pass that, hardly had the dervish spoken, when an abundant dew descended upon him, quenching his thirst and refreshing him even to the marrow of his bones.
"Now at the sight of this miracle the gardener knew that the dervish was a holy man, beloved of Allah, and straightway offered him a melon.
"'Not so,’ answered Hadji Abdul-Aziz, 'keep what thou hast, thou wicked man. May thy melons become as hard as thy heart, and thy field as barren as thy soul!'
"And straightway it came to pass that the melons were changed into these blocks of stone, and the grass into this sand, and never since has anything grown thereon,"
In this story, and in myriads like it, we have a survival of that early conception of the universe in which so many of the leading moral and religious truths of the great sacred books of the world are imbedded.
All ancient sacred lore abounds in such mythical explanations of remarkable appearances in nature, and these are most frequently prompted by mountains, rocks, and bowlders seemingly misplaced.
In India we have such typical examples among the Brahmans as the mountain-peak which Durgu threw at Parvati; and among the Buddhists the stone which Devadatti hurled at Buddha.
In Greece the Athenian, rejoicing in his belief that Athena guarded her chosen people, found it hard to understand why the great rock Lycabettus should be just too far from the Acropolis to be of use as an outwork; but a myth was developed which explained all. According to this, Athena had intended to make Lycabettus a defense for the Athenians, and she was bringing it through the air from Pallene for that very purpose; but, unfortunately, a raven met her and informed her of the wonderful birth of Erichthonius, which so surprised the goddess that she dropped the rock where it now stands.
So, too, a peculiar rock at Ægina was accounted for by a long and circumstantial legend to the effect that Peleus threw it at Phocas.
A similar mode of explaining such objects is seen in the mythologies of northern Europe. In Scandinavia we constantly find rocks which tradition accounts for by declaring that they were hurled by the old gods at each other, or at the early Christian churches.
In Teutonic lands, as a rule, wherever a strange rock or stone is found, there will be found a myth or a legend, heathen or Christian, to account for it.
So, too, in Celtic countries; typical of this mode of thought in Brittany and in Ireland is the popular belief that such features in the landscape were dropped by the devil or by fairies.
Even at a much later period such myths have grown and bloomed; Marco Polo gives a long and circumstantial legend of a mountain in Asia Minor which, not long before his visit, was removed by a Christian who had "faith as a grain of mustard-seed," and, remembering the Saviour's promise, transferred the mountain to its present place by prayer, "at which marvel many Saracens became Christians."
Similar mythical explanations are also found, in all the older religions of the world, for curiously marked meteoric stones, fossils, and the like.
Typical examples are found in the imprint of Buddha's feet on stones in Siam and Ceylon; in the imprint of the body of Moses, which down to the middle of the last century was shown near Mount Sinai; in the imprint of Poseidon's trident on the Acropolis at Athens; in the imprint of the hands or feet of Christ on stones in France, Italy, and Palestine; in the imprint of the Virgin's tears on stones at Jerusalem; in the imprint of the feet of Abraham at Jerusalem and of Mohammed on a stone in the Mosque of Khait Bey at Cairo; in the imprint of the fingers of giants on stones in the Scandinavian Peninsula, in north Germany, and in western France; in the imprint of the devil's thighs on a rock in Brittany, and of his claws on stones which he threw at churches in Cologne and Saint Pol-de-Léon; in the imprint of the shoulder of the devil's grandmother on the "elbow-stone" at the Mohrinersee; in the imprint of St. Otho's feet on a stone formerly preserved in the castle church at Stettin; in the imprint of the little finger of Christ and the head of Satan at Ehrenberg; and in the imprint of the feet of St. Agatha at Catania, in Sicily. To account for these appearances and myriads of others, long and interesting legends were developed, and out of this mass we may take one or two as typical.
One of the most beautiful was evolved at Rome. On the border of the mediæval city stands the church of "Domine quo vadis"; it was erected in honor of a stone, which is still preserved, bearing a mark resembling a human footprint—perhaps the bed of a fossil.
Out of this a pious legend grew as naturally as a wild rose in a prairie. According to this story, in one of the first great persecutions the heart of St. Peter failed him, and he attempted to flee from the city; arriving outside the walls he was suddenly confronted by the Master, whereupon Peter in amazement asked, "Lord, where goest thou?" (Domine quo vadis?); to which the Master answered, "To Rome, to be crucified again." The apostle, thus rebuked, returned to martyrdom; the Master vanished, but left, as a perpetual memorial, his footprint in the solid rock.
Still another legend accounts for a curious mark in a stone at Jerusalem. According to this, St. Thomas, after the ascension of the Lord, was again troubled with doubts, whereupon the Virgin Mother threw down her girdle, which left its imprint upon the rock, and thus converted the doubter fully and finally.
And still another example is seen at the very opposite extreme of Europe, in the legend of the priestess of Hertha in the island of Rugen. She had been unfaithful to her vows, and the gods furnished a proof of her guilt by causing her and her child to sink into the rock on which she stood.
Another and very fruitful source of explanatory myths is found in ancient centers of volcanic action, and especially in old craters of volcanoes and fissures filled with water.
In China we have, among other examples, Lake Man, which was once the site of the flourishing city Chiang Shui, overwhelmed and sunk on account of the heedlessness of its inhabitants regarding a divine warning.
In Phrygia the lake and morass near Tyana were ascribed to the wrath of Zeus and Hermes, who, having visited the cities which formerly stood there, and having been refused shelter by all the inhabitants save Philemon and Baucis, sank the wicked cities beneath the lake and morass, but rewarded their benefactors.
Stories of similar import grew up to explain the crater near Sipylos in Asia Minor and that of Avernus in Italy; the latter came to be considered the mouth of the infernal regions, as every school-boy knows when he has read his Virgil.
In the later Christian mythologies we have such typical legends as those which grew up about the old crater in Ceylon; the salt water in it was accounted for by supposing it the tears of Adam and Eve, who retreated to this point after their expulsion from paradise and bewailed their sin during a hundred years.
So, too, in Germany we have multitudes of lakes supposed to owe their origin to the sinking of valleys as a punishment for human sin. Of these are the "Devil's Lake," near Güstrow, which rose and covered a church and its priests on account of their corruption; the lake at Probst-Jesar, which rose and covered an oak-grove and a number of peasants resting in it on account of their want of charity to beggars; and the Lucin Lake, which rose and covered a number of soldiers on account of their cruelty to a poor peasant.
Such legends are found throughout America and in Japan, and will doubtless be found throughout Asia and Africa, and especially among the volcanic lakes of South America, the pitch lakes of the Caribbean Islands, and even about the Salt Lake of Utah; for explanatory myths and legends under such circumstances are inevitable.
To the same manner of explaining striking appearances in physical geography, and especially strange rocks and bowlders, we mainly owe the innumerable stories of the transformation of living beings, and especially of men and women, into these natural features.
In the mythology of China we constantly come upon legends of such transformations—from that of the first counselor of the Han dynasty to those of shepherds and sheep. In the Brahmanical mythology of India, Salagrama, the fossil ammonite, is recognized as containing the body of Vishnu's wife, and the Binlang stone has much the same relation to Siva; so, too, the nymph Raniba was changed, for offending Ketu, into a mass of sand; by the breath of Siva elephants were turned into stone, and in a very touching myth Luxman is changed into stone but afterward released. In the Buddhist mythology a Nat demon is represented as changing himself into a grain of sand.
Among the Greeks such transformation-myths come constantly before us both—the changing of stones to men and the changing of men to stones. Deucalion and Pyrrha, escaping from the flood, repeopled the earth by casting behind them stones which became men and women; Heraulos was changed into stone for offending Mercury; Pyrrhus for offending Rhea; Phineus, and Polydektes with his guests, for offending Perseus; under the petrifying glance of Medusa's head such transformations became a thing of course.
To myth-making in obedience to the desire of explaining striking natural appearances, coupled with the idea that sin must be followed by retribution, we also owe the well-known Niobe myth. Having incurred the divine wrath, she saw those dearest to her destroyed by missiles from heaven, and was finally transformed into a rock on Mount Sipylos which bore some vague resemblance to the human form, and her tears became the rivulets which trickled from the neighboring strata.
Thus, in obedience to a moral and intellectual impulse, a striking geographical appearance was explained, and for ages pious Greeks looked with bated breath upon the rock at Sipylos which was once Niobe, just as for ages pious Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans looked with awe upon the salt pillar at the Dead Sea which was once Lot's wife.
Pausanias, one of the most honest of ancient travelers, gives us a striking exhibition of this feeling. Having visited this monument of divine vengeance at Mount Sipylos, he tells us very naïvely that, though he could discern no human features when standing near it, he thought that he could see them when standing at a distance. There could hardly be a better example of that most common and deceptive of all things—belief created by the desire to believe.
In the pagan mythology of Scandinavia we have such typical examples as Börs slaying the giant Ymir and transforming his bones into bowlders; also "the giant who had no heart" transforming six brothers and their wives into stone; and, in the old Christian mythology, St. Olaf changing into stone the wicked giants who opposed his preaching.
So, too, in Celtic countries we have in Ireland such legends as those of the dancers turned into stone; and in Brittany, the stones at Plessé, which were once hunters and dogs violating the sanctity of Sunday; and the stones of Carnac, which were once soldiers who sought to kill St. Comely.
Teutonic mythology inherited from its earlier Eastern days a similar mass of old legends, and developed a still greater mass of new ones. Thus, near the Königstein, which all visitors to the Saxon Switzerland know so well, is a bowlder which for ages was believed to have once been a maiden transformed into stone for refusing to go to church; and near Rosenberg in Mecklenburg is another curiously shaped stone of which a similar story is told. Near Spornitz, in the same region, are seven bowlders whose forms and position are accounted for by a long and circumstantial legend that they were once seven impious herdsmen; near Brahlsdorf is a stone which, according to a similar explanatory myth, was once a blasphemous shepherd; near Schwerin are three bowlders which were once wasteful servants; and at Neustadt, down to a recent period, was shown a collection of stones which were once a bride and bridegroom with their horses and wagon—all punished for an act of cruelty; and these stories are but typical of thousands.
At the other extremity of Europe we may take, out of the multitude of explanatory myths, that which grew about the well-known group of bowlders near Belgrade. In the midst of them stands one larger than the rest: according to the legend which was developed to account for all these, there once lived there a swineherd, who was disrespectful to the consecrated host; whereupon he was changed into the larger stone, and his swine into the smaller ones. So also at Saloniki we have the pillars of the ruined temple, which are widely believed, especially among the Jews of that region, to have once been human beings, and are therefore known as the "enchanted columns."
Among the Arabs we have an addition to our sacred account of Adam—the legend of the black stone of the Caaba at Mecca, into which the angel was changed who was charged by the Almighty to keep Adam away from the forbidden fruit, and who neglected his duty.
Similar old transformation legends are abundant among the Indians of America, the negroes of Africa, and the natives of Australia and the Pacific islands.
Nor has this making of myths to account for remarkable appearances yet ceased, even in civilized countries.
About the beginning of this century the Grand Duke of Weimar, smitten with the classical mania of his time, placed in the public park near his palace a little altar, and upon this was carved, after the manner so frequent in classical antiquity, a serpent taking a cake from it.
And shortly there appeared, in the town and the country around about, a legend to explain this altar and its decoration. It was commonly said that a huge serpent had laid waste that region in the olden time, until a wise and benevolent baker had rid the world of the monster by means of a poisoned biscuit.
So, too, but a few years since, in the heart of the State of New York, a swindler of genius having made and buried a "petrified giant," one theologian explained it by declaring it a Phœnician idol, and published the Phœnician inscription which he thought he had found upon it; others saw in it proofs that "there were giants in those days," and within a week after its discovery myths were afloat that the neighboring remnant of the Onondaga Indians had traditions of giants who frequently roamed through that region.
To the same stage of thought belongs the conception of human beings changed into trees.
But, in the historic evolution of religion and morality, while changes into stone or rock were considered as punishment, or evidence of divine wrath, those into trees and shrubs were frequently looked upon as rewards, or evidences of divine favor.
A very beautiful and touching form of this conception is seen in such myths as the change of Philemon into the oak, and of Baucis into the linden; of Myrrha into the myrtle; of Melos into the apple-tree; of Attys into the pine; of Adonis into the rose-tree; and in the springing of the vine and grape from the blood of the Titans, the violet from the blood of Attys, and the hyacinth from the blood of Hyacinthus.
Thus it was, during the long ages when mankind saw everywhere miracle and nowhere law, that, in the evolution of religion and morality, striking features in physical geography became connected with the idea of divine retribution.
But, in the natural course of intellectual growth, thinking men began to doubt the historical accuracy of these myths and legends—or, at least, to doubt all save those of the theology in which they happened to be born; and the next step was taken when they began to make comparisons between the myths and legends of different neighborhoods and countries; so came into being the science
of Comparative Mythology—a science sure to be of vast value, because, despite many stumblings and vagaries, it shows ever more and more how our religion and morality have been gradually evolved, and gives a firm basis to faith that higher planes may yet be reached.
Such a science makes the sacred books of the world more and more precious, in that it shows how they have been the necessary envelopes of our highest spiritual sustenance; how even myths and legends apparently the most puerile have been the natural husks and rinds and shells of our best ideas; and how the atmosphere is created in which these husks and rinds and shells in due time wither, shrivel, and fall away, so that the fruit itself may be gathered to sustain a nobler religion and a purer morality.
The coming in of Christianity contributed elements of inestimable value in this evolution, and, at the center of all, the thoughts, words, and life of the Master. But when, in the darkness that followed the downfall of the Roman Empire, there was developed a theology and a vast ecclesiastical power to enforce it, the most interesting chapters in this evolution of religion and morality were unfortunately removed from the domain of science.
So it came that for over eighteen hundred years it has been thought natural and right to study and compare the myths and legends arising east and west and south and north of Palestine with each other, but never with those of Palestine itself; so it came that one of the regions most fruitful in materials for reverent thought and healthful comparison was held exempt from the unbiased search for truth; so it came that, in the name of truth, truth was crippled for ages. While observation, and thought upon observation, and the organized knowledge or science which results from these, progressed as regarded the myths and legends of other countries, and an atmosphere was thus produced giving purer conceptions of the world and its government; myths of that little geographical region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean retained possession of the civilized world in their original crude form, and have at times done much to thwart the noblest efforts of religion, morality, and civilization.
The history of myths—of their growth under the earlier phases of human thought and of their decline under modern thinking—is one of the most interesting and suggestive of human studies; but, since to treat it as a whole would require volumes, I shall select only one small group, and out of this mainly a single myth—one about which there can no longer be any dispute—the group of myths and legends which grew upon the shore of the Dead Sea, and especially that one which grew up to account for the successive salt columns at its southwestern extremity.
The Dead Sea is about thirty-nine geographical miles in length and nine miles in width; it lies in a very deep fissure extending north and south, and its surface is about thirteen hundred feet below that of the Mediterranean. It has, therefore, no outlet, and is the receptacle for the waters of the whole system to which it belongs, including those collected by the Sea of Galilee and brought down thence by the river Jordan.
It certainly—or, at least, the larger part of it—ranks geologically among the oldest lakes on earth. In a broad sense the region is volcanic: on its shore are evidences of volcanic action which must, from the earliest period, have aroused wonder and fear, and stimulated the myth-making tendency to account for them. On the eastern side are impressive mountain-masses which have been thrown up from old volcanic vents; mineral and hot springs abound, some of them spreading sulphurous odors; earthquakes have been frequent, and from time to time these cast up masses of bitumen; concretions of sulphur and large formations of salt constantly appear.
The water which comes from the springs or oozes through the salt layers upon its shores constantly brings in various salts in solution, and, being rapidly evaporated under the hot sun and dry wind, there has been left, in the bed of the lake, a strong brine heavily charged with the usual chlorides and bromides—a sort of bitter "mother liquor." This fluid has become so dense as to have a remarkable power of supporting the human body; is of an acrid and nauseating bitterness; and by ordinary eyes no evidence of life is seen in it.
Thus it was that in the lake itself, and in its surrounding shores, there was enough to make the generation of explanatory myths on a large scale inevitable.
The main northern part of the lake is very deep, the plummet having shown an abyss of thirteen hundred feet, but the southern end is shallow and in places marshy.
The system of which it forms a part shows a likeness to that in South America, of which the mountain lake Titicaca is the main feature; as a receptacle for surplus waters, only rendering them by evaporation, it resembles the Caspian and many other seas; as a sort of evaporating dish for the leachings of salt rock, and consequently holding a body of water unfit to support the higher forms of animal life, it resembles, among others, the Median lake of Urumiah; as a deposit of bitumen, it resembles the pitch lakes of Trinidad.
Striking, then, as was the Dead Sea in its appearance to pre-scientific man, there is nothing in it of extraordinary difficulty to the modern geologist or geographer.
At a very early period, myths and legends, many and long, grew up to explain features then so incomprehensible.
As the myth and legend grew up among the Greeks of a refusal of hospitality to Zeus and Hermes by the village in Phrygia, and the consequent sinking of that beautiful region with its inhabitants beneath a lake and morass, so there came a belief in aoffense by the people of the beautiful valley of Siddim, and the consequent sinking of that valley with its inhabitants beneath the waters of the Dead Sea. Very similar to the accounts of the saving of Philemon and Baucis are those of the saving of Lot and his family.
But the myth-making and miracle-mongering by no means ceased in ancient times; they continued to grow through the
mediæval and modern period until they have quietly withered away in the light of modern scientific investigation, leaving to us the religious and moral truths they inclose.
It would be interesting to trace this whole group of myths: their origin in times prehistoric; their development in Greece and Rome; their culmination during the ages of faith; and their disappearance in the age of science. It would be especially instructive to note the conscientious efforts to prolong their life by making futile compromises between science and theology regarding them; but I shall mention this main group only incidentally, confining myself almost entirely to the one above named—the most remarkable of all—the myth which grew about the salt pillars of Usdum.
I select this mainly because it involves only elementary principles, requires no abstruse reasoning, and because all controversy regarding it is ended. There is certainly now no theologian with a reputation to lose who will venture to revive the idea regarding it which was sanctioned for hundreds, nay thousands, of years by theology, was based on Scripture, and was held by the universal Church until our own century.
The main feature of the salt region of Usdum is a low range of hills near the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, extending in a southeasterly direction for about five miles, and made up mainly of salt rock. This rock is soft and friable, and, under the influence of the heavy winter rains, it has been, without doubt, from a period long before human history, as it is now, cut ever into new shapes, and especially into pillars or columns, which sometimes bear a resemblance to the human form.
A clergyman who visited this spot about ten years since speaks of the appearance of this salt range as follows:
"Fretted by fitful showers and storms, its ridge is exceedingly uneven, its sides carved out and constantly changing; ... and each traveler might have a new pillar of salt to wonder over at intervals of a few years.
Few things could be more certain than that, in the indolent dream-life of the East, myths and legends would grow up to account for this as for other strange appearances in all that region. The question which a religious Oriental put to himself in ancient times at Usdum was substantially that which his descendant today puts to himself at Kosseir: "Why is this region thus blasted?"—"whence these pillars of salt?" or "whence these blocks of granite?"—"what aroused the vengeance of Jehovah or of Allah to work these miracles of desolation?"
And, just as Maxime Du Camp recorded the answer of the modern Shemite at Kosseir, so the compilers of the Jewish sacred books recorded the answer of the ancient Shemite at the Dead Sea; just as Allah at Kosseir blasted the land and transformed the melons into bowlders which are seen to this day, so Jehovah at Usdum blasted the land and transformed Lot's wife into a pillar of salt which is seen to this day.
No more difficulty was encountered in the formation of the Lot legend, to account for that rock resembling the human form, than in the formation of the Niobe legend, which accounted for a supposed human resemblance in the rock at Sipylos; it grew up just as we have seen thousands of similar myths and legends grow up about striking natural appearances in every home of the human race. Being thus consonant with the universal view regarding the relation of physical geography to the divine government, it became a treasure of the Jewish nation and of the Christian Church—a treasure not only to be guarded against all hostile intrusion, but to be increased, as we shall see, by the myth-making powers of Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans for thousands of years.
The spot where the myth originated was carefully kept in mind; indeed, it could not escape, for in that place alone was constantly seen the phenomena which caused the myth. We have a steady chain of testimony through the ages all pointing to the salt pillar as the irrefragable evidence of divine judgment. That great theological test of truth—the dictum of St. Vincent of Lerins—would certainly prove that the pillar was Lot's wife; for it was believed so to be by Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans from the earliest period down to a time almost within present memory—"always, everywhere, and by all." It would stand perfectly the ancient test insisted upon by Cardinal Newman, "Securus judicat orbis terrarum."
For, ever since the earliest days of Christianity, the identity of the salt pillar with Lot's wife has been universally held and supported by passages in Genesis, in St. Luke's Gospel, and in the Second Epistle of St. Peter—coupled with a passage in the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which to this day, by a majority in the Christian Church, is believed to be inspired, and from which are specially cited the words, "A standing pillar of salt is a monument of an unbelieving soul."
Never was chain of belief more continuous. In the first century of the Christian era Josephus refers to the miracle, and declares regarding the statue, "I have seen it, and it remains at this day"; and Clement, Bishop of Rome, one of the most revered fathers of the Church, noted for the moderation of his statements, expresses a similar certainty, declaring that he knew the miraculous statue to be still standing.
In the second century that great father of the Church, bishop and martyr, Irenæus, not only vouched for it, but gave his approval to the belief that the soul of Lot's wife still lingered in the statue, giving it a sort of organic life; thus virtually began in the Church that amazing development of the legend which we shall see taking various forms through the middle ages the story that the salt statue exercised certain physical functions which in these more delicate days can not be alluded to save under cover of a learned language.
This addition to the legend, which in these signs of life, as in other things, is developed almost exactly on the same lines with the legend of the Niobe statue in the rock of Mount Sipylos and the legends of human beings transformed into bowlders in various mythologies, was for centuries regarded as an additional confirmation of revealed truth.
In the third century the myth burst into still richer bloom in a poem long ascribed to Tertullian. In this poem more miraculous characteristics of the statue are revealed. It could not be washed away by rains; it could not be overthrown by winds; any wound made upon it was miraculously healed; and the earlier statements as to its physical functions were amplified in sonorous Latin verse.
With this appeared a new legend regarding the Dead Sea: it became universally believed, and we find it repeated throughout the whole mediæval period, that the bitumen could only be dissolved by such fluids as in the processes of animated nature came from the statue.
The legend thus amplified we shall find dwelt upon by pious travelers and monkish chroniclers for hundreds of years: so it came to be more and more treasured by the universal Church, and held more and more firmly—"always, everywhere, and by all."
In the two following centuries we have an overwhelming mass of additional authority for the belief that the very statue of salt into which Lot's wife was transformed was still existing. In the fourth the continuance of the statue was vouched for by St. Silvia, who visited the place: though she could not see it, she was told by the Bishop of Segor that it had been there some time before, and she concluded that it had been temporarily covered by the sea. In both the fourth and fifth centuries such great doctors in the Church as St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem agreed in this belief and statement; hence it was, doubtless, that the Hebrew word which is translated in the authorized English version "pillar," was translated in the Vulgate, which the vast majority of Christians believe divinely inspired, by the word "statue"; we shall find this fact insisted upon by theologians arguing in behalf of the statue, as a result and monument of the miracle, for over fourteen hundred years afterward.
About the middle of the sixth century Antoninus Martyr visited the Dead Sea region and described it, but curiously reversed a simple truth in these words: "Nor do sticks or straws float there, nor can a man swim, but whatever is cast into it sinks to the bottom." As to the statue of Lot's wife, he threw doubt upon its miraculous renewal, but testified that it was still standing.
In the seventh century the Targum of Jerusalem not only testified that the salt pillar at Usdum was once Lot's wife, but declared that she must retain that form until the general resurrection. In the seventh century, too, Bishop Arculf traveled to the Dead Sea, and his work was added to the treasures of the Church. He develops the legend, and especially that part of it given by Josephus, greatly. The bitumen that floats upon the sea "resembles gold and the form of a bull or camel"; "birds can not live near it"; and "the very beautiful apples" which grow there, when plucked, "burn and are reduced to ashes, and smoke as if they were still burning."
In the eighth century the Venerable Bede takes these statements of Arculf and his predecessors, binds them together in his work on "The Holy Places," and gives the whole mass of myths and legends an enormous impulse.
In the tenth century new force is given to it by the pious Moslem, Mukadassi. Speaking of the town of Segor, near the salt region, he says that the proper translation of its name is "Hell"; and of the lake he says, "Its waters are hot, even as though the place stood over hell-fire."
In the crusading period, immediately following, all the legends burst forth more brilliantly than ever.
The first of these new travelers who makes careful statements is Fulk of Chartres, who in 1100 accompanied King Baldwin to the Dead Sea and saw many wonders; but, though he visited the salt region of Usdum, he makes no mention of the salt pillar: evidently he had fallen on evil times; the older statues had probably been washed away, and no new one had happened to be washed out of the rocks just at that period.
But his misfortune was more than made up by the triumphant experience of a far more famous traveler, half a century later—Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela.
Rabbi Benjamin finds new evidences of miracle in the Dead Sea, and develops to a still higher point the myth and legend of the salt statue of Lot's wife, enriching the world with the statement that it was steadily and miraculously renewed; that, though the cattle of the region licked its surface, it never grew smaller. Again a thrill of joy went through the monasteries and pulpits of Christendom at this increasing "evidence of the truth of Scripture."
Toward the end of the thirteenth century there appeared in Palestine a traveler superior to most before or since—Count Burchard, monk of Mount Sion. He had the advantage of knowing something of Arabic, and his writings show him to have been observant and thoughtful. No statue of Lot's wife appears to have been washed clean of the salt rock during his visit, but he takes it for granted that the Dead Sea is "the mouth of hell," and that the vapor rising from it is the smoke from Satan's furnaces.
These ideas seem to have become part of the common stock, for Ernoul, who traveled to the Dead Sea during the same century, always speaks of it as the "Sea of Devils."
Near the beginning of the fourteenth century came a traveler of far wider influence—Sir John Maundeville.
In the various editions of the book ascribed to him, myths and legends of the Dead Sea and of the pillar of salt—old and new—burst forth into wonderful luxuriance. He brings news of a woman changed into an enormous dragon; of a monster who besought a monk to cast out the devil from him, and who had horns on his head, which horns were shown Maundeville by the monk
who told him the story. He gives full details of the phœnix rising from its own ashes. But all culminates at the Dead Sea.
He tells us that masses of fiery matter are every day thrown up from it as large as a horse; that, though it contains no living thing, it has been shown that men thrown into it can not die; and finally, as if to prove the worthlessness of devout testimony to the miraculous, he says: "And whoever throws a piece of iron therein, it floats; and whoever throws a feather therein, it sinks to the bottom; and, because that is contrary to nature, I was not willing to believe it until I saw it."
He of course mentions Lot's wife, and says that the pillar of salt "stands there to-day," and "has a right salty taste."
Great injustice has been done to Maundeville in holding him a liar of the first magnitude. Never was man further from the thought of lying. He simply abhorred skepticism, and thought it meritorious to believe all pious legends. The ideal Maundeville was a man of overmastering faith, and resembled Tertullian in believing things "because they are impossible"; he was entirely conscientious; the solemn ending of the book shows that he listened, observed, and wrote under the deepest conviction, and those who re-edited his book were probably just as honest in adding the later stories of pious travelers.
The "Travels of Sir John Maundeville," thus appealing to the popular heart, were most widely read in the monasteries and repeated among the people. Innumerable copies were made in manuscript, and finally in print, and so the old myths received a new life.
In the fifteenth century wonders were increased. In 1418 we have the Lord of Caumont, who makes a pilgrimage and gives us a statement which is the result of the theological reasoning of centuries, and especially interesting as a typical example of the theological method in contrast with the scientific. He could not understand how the blessed waters of the Jordan could be allowed to mingle with the accursed waters of the Dead Sea. In spite, then, of the eye of sense, he beheld the water with the eye of faith, and calmly announced that the Jordan water passes through the sea, but that the two masses of water are not mingled. As to the salt statue of Lot's wife, he declares it to be still existing; and, copying a table of indulgences granted by the Church to pious pilgrims, he puts down the visit to the salt statue as giving an indulgence of seven years.
Toward the end of the century we have another traveler yet more influential, Bernard of Breydenbach, Dean of Mainz. His book of travels was published in 1486, at the famous press of Schoeffer, and in various translations it was spread through Europe, exercising an influence wide and deep. His first important notice of the Dead Sea is as follows: "In this, Tirus the serpent is found, and from him the Tiriac medicine is made. He is blind, and so full of venom that there is no remedy for his bite except cutting off the bitten part. He can only be taken by striking him and making him angry; then his venom flies into his head and tail." Breydenbach calls the Dead Sea "the chimney of hell," and repeats the old story as to the miraculous solvent for its bitumen. He, too, makes the statement that the holy water of the Jordan does not mingle with the accursed water of the infernal sea; but increases the miracle which Caumont had announced by saying that, although the waters appear to come together, the Jordan is really absorbed in the earth before it reaches the sea.
As to Lot's wife, various travelers at that time had various fortunes. Some, like Caumont and Breydenbach, took her continued existence for granted; some, like Count John of Solms, saw her and were greatly edified; some, like Hans Werli, tried to find her and could not, but, like St. Silvia, a thousand years before, were none the less edified by the idea that, for some inscrutable purpose, the sea had been allowed to hide her from them; some found her larger than they expected, even forty feet high, as was the salt pillar which happened to be standing at the visit of Commander Lynch in 1848; but this only added a new proof to the miracle, for the text was remembered, "There were giants in those days."
Out of the mass of works of pilgrims during the fifteenth century I select just one more as typical of the theological view then dominant, and this is the noted book of Felix Fabri, a preaching friar of Ulm.
I select him, because even so eminent an authority in our own time as Dr. Edward Robinson declares him to have been the most thorough, thoughtful, and enlightened traveler of that century.
Fabri is greatly impressed by the wonders of the Dead Sea, and typical of his honesty influenced by faith is his account of the Dead Sea fruit; he describes it with almost perfect accuracy, but adds the statement that when mature it is "filled with ashes and cinders."
As to the salt statue, he says: "We saw the place between the sea and Mount Segor, but could not see the statue itself because we were too far distant to see anything of human size; but we saw it with firm faith, because we believed Scripture, which speaks of it; and we were filled with wonder."
To sustain absolute faith in the statue he reminds his readers that "God is able even of these stones to raise up seed to Abraham," and goes into a long argument, discussing such transformations as those of King Atlas and Pygmalion's statue, with a multitude of others, winding up with the case, given in the miracles of St. Jerome, of a heretic who was changed into a log of wood, which was then burned.
He gives a statement of the Hebrews that Lot's wife received her peculiar punishment because she had refused to add salt to the food of the angels when they visited her, and he preaches a short sermon in which he says that, as salt is the condiment of food, so the salt statue of Lot's wife "gives us a condiment of wisdom."
There were indeed many discrepancies in the testimony of travelers regarding the salt pillar—so many, in fact, that at a later period the learned Dom Calmet acknowledged that they shook his belief in the whole matter; but, during this earlier time, under the complete sway of the theological spirit, these difficulties only gave new and more glorious opportunities for faith.
For, if a considerable interval occurred between the washing of one salt pillar out of existence and the washing of another into existence, the idea arose that the statue, by virtue of the soul which still remained in it, had departed on some mysterious excursion; did it happen that one statue was washed out one year in one place and another statue another year in another place, this difficulty was surmounted by believing that Lot's wife still walked about; did it happen that a salt column was undermined by the rains and fell, this was believed to be but another sign of life; did a pillar happen to be covered in part by the sea, this was enough to arouse the belief that the statue from time to time descended into the Dead Sea depths—possibly to satisfy that old fatal curiosity regarding her former neighbors; did some smaller block of salt happen to be washed out near the statue, it was believed that a household dog, also transformed into salt, had followed her back from beneath the deep; did more statues than one appear at one time, that simply made the mystery more impressive.
In facts now so easy of scientific explanation the theologians found wonderful food for discussion.
One great question among them was whether the soul of Lot's wife did really remain in the statue. On one side it was insisted that, as Holy Scripture declares that Lot's wife was changed into a pillar of salt, and as she was necessarily made up of a soul and a body, the soul must have become part of the statue. This argument was clinched by citing that passage in the Book of Wisdom in which the salt pillar is declared to be still standing as "the monument of an unbelieving soul." On the other hand, it was insisted that the soul of the woman must have been incorporeal and immortal, and hence could not have been changed into a substance corporeal and mortal. Naturally, to this it would be answered that the salt pillar was no more corporeal than the ordinary materials of the human body, and that it had been made miraculously immortal, and that "with God all things are possible." Thus long vistas of theological discussion were opened.
As we enter the sixteenth century the Dead Sea myths, and especially the legends of Lot's wife, are still growing. In 1507 Father Anselm of the Minorites declares that the sea sometimes covers the feet of the statue, sometimes the legs, sometimes the whole body.
In 1555 Gabriel Giraudet, priest at Puy, journeyed through Palestine. His faith was robust, and his attitude toward the myths of the Dead Sea is seen by his declaration that its waters are so foul that one can smell them at a distance of three leagues; that straw, hay, or feathers thrown into them will sink, but that iron and other metals will float; that criminals have been kept in them three or four days and could not drown. As to Lot's wife, he says that he found her "lying there, her back toward heaven, converted into salt stone; for I touched her, scratched her, and put a piece of her into my mouth, and she tasted salt."
At the center of all these legends we see, then, the idea that, though there were no living beasts in the Dead Sea, the people of the overwhelmed cities were still living beneath its waters, probably in hell; that there was life in the salt statue; and that it was still curious regarding its old neighbors.
Hence such travelers in the latter years of the century as Count Albert of Löwenstein and Prince Nicholas Radzivill are not at all weakened in faith by failing to find the statue; what the former is capable of believing is seen by his statement that in a certain cemetery at Cairo during one night in the year the dead thrust forth their feet, hands, limbs, and even rise wholly from their graves.
There seemed, then, no limit to these pious beliefs. The idea that there is merit in credulity, with the love of myth-making and miracle-mongering, constantly made them larger. Nor did the Protestant Reformation, which now came in, diminish them at first; it rather strengthened them and fixed them more firmly in the popular mind. They seemed destined to last forever. How they were thus strengthened at first, under Protestantism, and how they were finally dissolved away in the atmosphere of scientific thought, will be shown in the following chapter.