Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/May 1892/Evolution in Folklore
AN OLD STORY IN A NEW FORM.
By DAVID DWIGHT WELLS.
To the historian folk lore is both a blessing and a curse. It presents an almost insurmountable barrier to scientific investigation; for, to separate the kernel of truth from the mass of superstitious chaff by which it is surrounded, is a task in comparison with which the proverbial finding of the needle in the hay-stack sinks into insignificance. Viewed in another aspect, however, folk lore is of the greatest importance to the inquirer in the past, for it forms the connecting link in the evolution of a tribe, a race, or a nation.
Long after a people has passed away as a unit, its traditions will survive, and, wherever they may be found, they will point conclusively to the existence of some portion of that race. The legend, however, seldom retains much of its original form, and this is not to be wondered at. Common experience teaches us daily how a story can grow in the mouths of men, and when it comes to be a matter of generations and not of days, it naturally undergoes many marked changes. The legend or folk-lore story adapts itself also to its surroundings, which, parasite-like, cling to it so effectually that often it is extremely difficult to distinguish the original legend in its corrupted form.
These changes are especially noticeable when the race or tribe has migrated from one country to another, and a careful study of the alterations which take place in the typical legends of a people illuminates the history of the race itself.
It is not my intention to enter into any such elaborate taking; but merely to present to the public a curious example of an evolution of folk lore which has come to my notice, and trace its passage for a few generations.
This story came to me from a gentleman who was born about the beginning of this century in Essequibo, British Guiana, South America. His father was an English planter, and owned estates and slaves. Brought up, as was the narrator, among these slaves, he heard from them many of the traditions of their race, which his excellent memory preserved in their original entirety. Perhaps the most pleasing of these which his kindly spirit prompted him to relate for the amusement of children, and the only one of which I have any clear recollection, was—
The Story of the Hunter.—Once upon a time a hunter lived in a little hut on the edge of a great wood in Africa. He lived by himself, for his father and mother had died many years before, leaving him nothing but the hut in which he dwelt, and three magic arrows, which he was only to use in time of great danger. This hunter had two very large and fierce dogs one called Ya-me-o-ro, and the other Con-ga-mo-ro-to—which followed him everywhere he went. In this wood was a great herd of white cows, which the hunter killed when he had need of meat, and whose skins he dried and made into clothes. These cows hated the hunter, and would have torn him in pieces many times, had it not been for his faithful dogs, that always hunted with him, and which the cows feared to attack. So the hunter lived peacefully, and for many a day all went well with him.
One evening about sunset the hunter, while seated in his hut, heard cries and groans coming from the woods; and, taking his dogs, went out to find the cause of them. He had not gone far when he came upon a fair, strange woman, lying upon the ground, apparently in great distress. She was tall and slender, and more beautiful than any one that he had ever seen. When she saw him she begged for food and shelter, saying that she was dying of hunger and thirst, and had fallen fainting where he had found her. The hunter carried her back to his hut, and nursed her as tenderly as he could until she became well and strong again. "When she was herself again, she thanked him for his goodness, and said that on the next day she must set out on the journey which she was making when she fell sick. Then for the first time the hunter felt what it was to be lonely; for as he had always lived by himself he had never before missed the company of other people. So he entreated her not to leave him, and the fair stranger, seeing his loneliness and remembering his kindness, stayed with him and became his wife.
Not many days after this the hunter started in the morning to hunt, and called his dogs to go with him; but the fair stranger begged that they might be left at home, to guard her from the white cows. Now, the hunter had never before gone to the woods without them; but she begged so hard that he would leave them with her, that at last he tied them up in the hut, so that they should not follow him, and went forth to hunt alone.
After he had gone some way he heard behind him a great noise, and looking back saw all the white cows in the forest, who had gathered together and were about to tear him to pieces. The hunter was greatly frightened, and ran like the wind for his home. But, fast as he ran, the cows followed faster, and he knew that they would catch him long before he could reach his hut. Then he remembered his three magic arrows, which he always carried with him in his belt, and taking one of them, he stuck it in the ground and put his foot upon the butt. In a moment he felt himself shooting up through the air, and found he was on the top of a tall palm tree which had sprung up out of the ground, and whose smooth trunk no cow could climb.
The fury of the white cows when they saw their victim thus snatched from their grasp was terrible to see. The woods echoed with their cries of rage, and with lowered heads they charged the palm, butting it till it rocked as if in the midst of a tempest. When they saw that they could not overthrow it in this way, they all at once rushed into the midst of the woods, but returned in a few moments bearing sharp axes, with which they began to cut down the tree. Its trunk, however, was strong and tough; but the cows flew at it in a great crowd, and when one was tired another took her place. Great chips flew from the palm, and the hunter as he sat in the tree-top could hear the song of the axes as they bit into the hard wood:
Now the tree began to shake, as it had been almost cut through,and the hunter in great terror cried to his dogs at the top of his voice:
but all in vain.
Then he took the second of his magic arrows, and, fitting it to his bow, he shot it down into the ground. At once another palm sprang up, taller and stronger than the first, to which the hunter leaped. And he was not a moment too soon; for the tree he had left tottered from its base and fell with a great crash to the ground.
When the white cows saw the second tree, they were very angry, and rushed at it again with their axes, plying stroke on stroke in their rage and fury, while the hunter kept calling his dogs by name:
Soon the second tree was ready to fall, and the hunter had to shoot his last arrow into the ground, when a palm taller and larger than either of the others sprang up into the air. Now he saw that unless help came quickly his end was near; for he had no more arrows, and above the din of the axes he called as loud as he was able:
Come, Ya-me-o-ro! come, Con-ga-mo ro-to!
Suddenly he saw the fair stranger approaching, and he called to her to help him, and run back and loose the dogs; but she laughed at him, saying that his dogs could not aid him now; and as she spoke she changed into a white cow herself, and the hunter saw that she was the queen of the herd, who had become a woman only to entrap him. Still the axes kept crying:
and the tree was almost cut through. For the last time the hunter called his dogs to come to his help:
Come, Ya-me-o-ro! come, Con-ga-mo-ro-to!
and as he did so he heard a crashing sound in the bushes, and the dogs, who had at last gnawed their ropes apart, made their appearance and sprang upon the white cows.
First they attacked the queen and tore her to pieces, and then, turning upon the rest of the herd, they killed many and put the others to night, so that the hunter was saved.
Such is the form of the legend as I received it from the gentleman referred to above, whose culture and the position he held in society warrants me in believing him to be an authority on this matter.
He was born in 1805, and must have heard the legend at least as early as 1810. He received it from his negro nurse, a slave, whom his father had bought direct from the coast of Africa. Assuming the woman to be of a responsible age, which she must have been to have had the care of children, it was unquestionably current on the coast of Africa in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and probably for a long antecedent period.
The most unique feature of this tale, and that which made it especially attractive to children, was the hunters musical call of the dogs, and the song of the axes. The narrator sang these, repeating them many times in the course of the story to a curious refrain which I have attempted to reproduce in the music given above.
This, indeed, was the chief charm of the story, and so well was it executed that one could almost hear the ring of the axes as they rebounded from the tree, while the changes of voice in the cries of the hunter represented his increasing anxiety and fear as time went on and no aid came to him. It is difficult to describe the effect thus produced; to appreciate it, it was necessary to hear it.
Nearly a hundred years later this story was current again in Georgia, where it was made public by the facile pen of Mr. Joel Chandler Harris, better known as the author of the Uncle Remus stories. As will be seen on examination, it has changed considerably, but its principal points remain unaltered. I regret that I can not reproduce Mr. Harris's story in full, but a copyright prevents me from doing more than making a few brief quotations.
This story, which Mr. Harris entitles "The Little Boy and his Dogs," appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, February 18, 1886, and is somewhat as follows:
A little boy lives with his mother in a hut beside a road. He is her only child; but Uncle Remus, who tells the story, informs us that the boy once had a little sister, who had been stolen away—how, it is not related—and whom her brother searches the woods in vain to find. One day, while engaged in this pursuit, he meets two ladies wearing long veils, who come to his mother's house and ask for some water, when the following conversation occurs:
"Reckly he holler out, 'Mammy, mammy! what you reckon? Dey'er lapping de water! De 'oman she holler back, 'I reckon dat's de way de quality folks does, honey.'"
Then the ladies ask for some bread and eat it, so as to cause the little boy to cry:
"Mammy, mammy! what you reckon? Dey'er got great long tushes." De 'oman she holler back, "I reckon all de quality folks has got 'em, honey."
Then they wash their hands, and again the boy cries:
"Mammy, mammy! what you reckon? Dey got little bit er hairy hans and arms." De 'oman she holler back, "I reckon all de quality folks has got 'em, honey."
The ladies now request that the little boy show them the way to the cross-roads, which he refuses to do until admonished by his mother.
"Now," says Uncle Remus, "dish yer little boy had two mighty bad dogs. One un urn waz name Minny minny Morack, en de oter one was name Follerlinsko, en de waz so bad dey hatter be tied in de yard day an' night, 'cep w'en dey wuzen't ahuntin'."
Before setting out, however, the boy places a pan of water in the kitchen, and sticks a willow twig near by in the ground, telling his mother that when the water turns to blood and the willow shakes, she is to loose the dogs and send them to hunt for him. He then proceeds to conduct the ladies to the cross-roads; but after he has gone some way perceives, on looking behind him, that the supposed ladies are walking on all fours. This strikes him as somewhat suspicious, and he hastens to climb up a big pine tree near at hand for safety. The ladies try and persuade him to come down, threatening to tell his mother of his disobedience; but in vain; the little boy prefers to remain where he is. "Den," says Uncle Remus, "de quality ladies got mighty mad. Dey walked 'roun' dat tree en fairly snorted. Dey pulled off der bonnets, en der veils, en der dresses, en, lo en behole! de little boy seed dey wuz two great big pant'ers. . . . Dey tried to climb de tree, but dey had done trim der claws so dey could git on gloves, en dey couldn't clam no mo'.
"Den one un em sot down in de road en made a kuse mark in de sand, en der great long tails turned to axes, dan de gun to cut de tree down. . . .
"But wiles the little boy wuz settin' up dar skeered mighty nigh ter def, hit come inter his min' dat he had some eggs in his pocket w'at he done brung with 'im fer ter eat w'enever he git hongry. He tuck out one er de eggs en broke it en say, 'Place fill up,' en bless you soul! de place fill up sho' miff, en de tree look des 'zackly like nobody ain't bin a-cuttin' on it."
This occurs three times, when, just at the critical moment, as his eggs are all exhausted, his mother sees that the water in the pan has turned to blood and that the willow twig is shaking, so she releases the dogs. The little boy hears them coming, and calls out: "Come on, my good dogs! here, dogs, here!;
The dogs come in the nick of time, and kill the panthers, who are unable to escape, since they have not time to change their axes back into tails. Here the story wanders off to the finding of the small boy's sister, who is rescued from the clutches of "Brer Bar."
There is, I think, no question but that these two stories have a common origin; the resemblance is so strong that it hardly seems necessary to mention it in detail.
The hunter, changed to a little boy in the version of Mr. Harris; who is possessed of two dogs which he rashly leaves at home; who is attacked by wild beasts in human guise who chop with axes the tree into which he climbs to escape them; the miraculous restoration of the trees, and the rescue by the dogs, appear in each narrative.
As I have before stated, nearly a hundred years must have intervened between the telling of the two legends, and the variation in the second is plainly due to the change of scene and of environment which befell the people who preserved and told the story.
It is only the artist who can successfully set a narrative in a scene with which he is not familiar, and make the environment seem real. Folk lore, however, is no artist's tale; it is told by a child of the soil, who unconsciously clothes his narration with the scenes and incidents with which he is best acquainted. The gentleman to whom the story was told in the early part of the century received it from a native African, who had heard it in her own country; while Mr. Harris must have obtained his from a Georgia negro, who had grown up in exile and slavery. The local coloring was, of course, totally different.
The hero in what, if I may be permitted, I shall call the unadulterated version of the story, is a hunter; and this is very natural, for hunting must have been one of the chief occupations among the uncivilized negro tribes of Africa. In Mr. Harris's version he becomes a little boy; but this is perhaps the author's regulation little boy, who figures so often in the "Uncle Remus" stories. In the same way another change, which at, first would seem to be due to local environment, can be shown to be produced by other causes. I refer to the substitution in the later story of panthers for white cows. In portions of Africa cows can not exist, and, whether this was the case in the region occupied by the tribe whose legend this was, I am unable to say; but it is certain that at some time or other they must have seen white cows, otherwise they would not have told about them. The panther, on the other hand, is a native of Africa; and, indeed, there are no panthers in our Southern States, unless the name is erroneously applied to the American puma. It is, therefore, quite likely that in the original legend, as it was currently known in Africa, both the cows and the panthers might have figured, since both were known to the people.
A little further examination of the two stories will, however, illustrate strikingly the changes due to locality.
In the first place, take the ladies into which the animals transformed themselves. In Mr. Harris's version they are spoken of as "quality folks," but there were no quality people in a civilized sense in Africa, and in their stead we find a "fair stranger," whom one could well imagine would seem a mysterious being to a lonely African hunter. So, too, we find that the three magic arrows of the first story have changed to three eggs in the second, and a palm to a pine tree, which latter change involves for Mr. Harris an explanation of why the panthers couldn't climb the tree, which was not needed in the first version. Such are some of the local changes which the legend has undergone during the past century. Others could doubtless be found, but I prefer to pass from these to changes of greater significance. Before doing so, however, let me say a word in regard to the names of the dogs. Ya-me-o-ro and Con-ga-mo-ro-to have an Eastern tone that fits exactly with the African legend; but where, within the confines of Georgia, did Mr. Harris unearth such remarkable combinations of letters as "Minny minny Morack" and "Follerlinsko"? Uncle Remus, I am sure, could never have pronounced them, and one is inclined to believe that they were conjured up by the author's fertile brain to take the place of the euphonious forgotten titles.
Though change of locality has much to do with the alterations occurring in folk lore, it is by no means the only factor which brings about such results. Contact with a foreign predominant race, and with its customs and legends, has an equally great effect.
In the first quotation which I made from Mr. Harris's version one of these alterations just noted is to be found. The ladies are discussed, by the little boy and his mother, in regard to their manner of drinking, their hands, and their teeth. Now, this inquiry and thirst after information on the part of the little boy is thoroughly English in spirit. The native African would never have asked such questions, because he was by nature lazy and indifferent. It also suggests very strongly the story of Red Riding Hood, which has almost become a classic in the English tongue. Red Riding Hood, the reader will remember, visits a wolf, disguised as her grandmother; asks him a series of questions somewhat like those just referred to, and beginning, "But what great eyes you have, grandmother!" "The better to see you with, my dear." Indeed, this tendency for inquiry is prominent in most English legends, and I think there is ground at least for the surmise whether Mr. Harris's negro has not unconsciously transplanted into his own legend the characteristics of the legends belonging to the race which he served.
One other factor of moment remains to be noticed, and this, I think, is more important than all, and is due to the change in the national life of the people whose legend it was i. e., from a state of freedom to one of slavery. One example will suffice, I think, to show plainly what I mean. In the first version of the story, which was originally told by a negro born free, the laws of cause and effect are carefully observed throughout. The hunter is attacked by the white cows because he destroys them, and in his death they recognize their safety. Now, in the second version of the story, which Mr. Harris must have obtained from a Georgia negro whose ancestors from whom he had received the legend had been slaves for three or four generations, there is no logical sequence of events, and an apparent ignorance displayed of the same law of cause and effect. Here the panthers merely appear, and attack the little boy, for no assignable reason whatsoever. It might be argued that their desire for food was a sufficient cause, but it is not the custom of panthers to disguise themselves for the purpose of entrapping their prey. According to the unwritten canons of all legends, these disguises may only be assumed on important occasions. This, however, does not affect the significance of the change. In a free tribe, whose members were dependent on their own unaided efforts for support, the laws of cause and effect would naturally be clearly understood, and a legend which disregarded these would be held in contempt: for these people believed their legends to be true. They must, therefore, of course, conform to the laws of their existence, so that they might possess the semblance of truth. When the story comes to be repeated years after in a state of slavery, and by one who heard it from slaves, the laws of cause and effect are disregarded, and very naturally; for why should the negro trouble himself about such matters, when food and clothing were provided for him by his master, and he was looked after in his old age?
Another alteration due to this change may be noted in the difference of the persons of the actors already mentioned. In Africa, it was a national legend, and the hero was accordingly a man; in Georgia, the heroic period of the race had passed away, and the legend had degenerated into a story told to please a child, and in which a child held the prominent part.
There is one more very curious point in regard to the treatment of the hunter by the woman, which has an ethical significance which seems more than national. The woman, after entrapping the hunter by her charms and depriving him of his strength in the shape of the dogs, surrenders him to his enemies.
Between the Aryan and negro races there is a very great difference—the difference between a race that has a written language and one that has not. It would seem that their religions might have little or nothing in common; yet in this legend of the woman and the hunter have we not a counterpart of the legend of Samson and Delilah, in the Bible, where the woman, having deprived him of his strength, gives him over to his enemies?
Thus we see that among all races it has been customary to incorporate cardinal virtues and cardinal vices in legendary form, and it is only too likely that Delilahs existed on the coast of Africa as well as elsewhere; and, alas! as men daily learn, are still among us.
Such are some of the changes in an example of folk lore which a century has wrought: but they are not greater than the changes which the people whose folk lore it is have undergone, and which, as I think I have shown, in no uncertain manner.
The legend, we might almost say. is the gauge of a people, for it clearly shows the risings and fallings in its social and mental condition. It is interesting to note how the one noted has remained intact in its general outlines, in spite of the disintegration of the tribe with whom it probably originated. Folk lore is one of the few immortal possessions of a nation. Its greatness may fade, and its name be forgotten among men, but while the world exists its national legends will still remain. Thus, out of the ignorance of a people, may be built their only monument of lasting fame.