Charles De Berard Mills.

The tree of mythology, its growth and fruitage: genesis of the nursery tale, saws of folk-lore, etc.; online

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away, are not more dreadful than these horrid spectres
that have so haunted ; indeed they are of that same
brood. The disposition has ever appeared to dwell
in the sinister, to worship the sombre, the gloomy,
the harm-inflicting powers, or in other cases to offer
at the shrine of the foulest sensualism. And the
grossest of paganisms have sprung up and luxuriated
on this prolific soil.

There is less of this element, particularly of the
first mentioned type, in the Greek than in most other
mythologies, — it is said to be doubtful that the god
Thanatos was ever represented in Greek art, and
Herakles, as we saw, is depicted as having struggled
victoriously with death itself, — yet it is by no means
absent there. The early Aryans also, were in the
main, worshippers of light, and the sinister aspects,
the dark powers, come little to the foreground. But
with many races, with all savages and barbarians,
this side is not only represented, it is predominant.
And it opens the way to all types and forms of super-
stitions and degrading witcheries. These abundantly
appear in the religions of the red races in America,
the Maoris, &c. Nay, other faiths, and those occupy-
ing prominent place in the history of civilization

73 MYTHS Arising from metaphor.

and religions, Hebrew and Christian, have not been,
are not, free from this dark and blighting shadow.

The sinister and malevolent powers or forces per-
sonified have unequivocal position in the beliefs of
Christendom. It is the mythology which is not
purged out, and still rears its structures of terror to
paralyze and enslave the souL The myth-making
faculty has been busy, filling the realm of the unseen
with spectres, peopling the universe with person-
alities, many of them as truly Gorgons, Ogres,
demons, as any that were ever conceived in the past,
or rule to-day in the South Seas. The dreadful
power of these nightmares, grim ghosts of the im-
agination, to stifle and throttle the best life of the
soul, cannot be exaggerated.


It would be very interesting to trace the stories,
myths, in their transformations and their various ad-
ventures as they go down in history and spread over
the world. Something of this has already been seen
in the last chapter, but there is much more than could
there be touched upon. They are very tenacious of
life, and they survive long, turning up in shapes and
places where we least expect them. The human
mind tends ever to localize and individualize; it
likes the concrete, the tangible and determinate, and
hence almost all the stories, many of them at least,
have been attached to some historic person, been
made to do duty in some specific history. Herakles
must belong to the royal family of Argos, must be
leader of the Herakleidai, go through twelve mortal
labors, &c. There may have been an Endymion King
of Elis, and there must in all probability have been
an Achilleus, a great military chieftain among the

The story of Sigurd, Brynhild, and the Niflungs, is
historicised in the Nibelungen Lay; personages



known to history have been woven into the narrative.
The story of Hamlet is founded in a myth from the
Norse, and the like fact holds in all probability with
the Iliad of Homer, in its relation to old Greek or
Aryan mythology. Language has been aptly called
by Richter, " A dictionary of faded metaphors." So,
as John Fiske felicitously expresses it, these poems
may be characterized "as embodying 'faded nature-
myths.'" The disguises, metamorphoses and inver-
sions are, have been, so deep, that the real germ and
kernel at bottom long since ceased to be suspected.
" The gods of ancient mythology," says Prof. Max
Miiller, " were changed into the demigods and heroes
of ancient epic poetry; and these demigods again
became at a later age the principal characters of our
nursery tales." Again: — "The divine myth becomes
an heroic legend, and the heroic legend fades away
into a nursery tale. Our nursery tales have been
well called the modern pafois of the ancient sacred
mythology of the Aryan race." *

In the old Vedic mythology we find the Ribhus,
the winds or the summer breezes, are deified, and
as they waft the smoke of the sacrifices to heaven,
they are addressed as assisting at the sacred offerings,
but in a later age, when their real signification was
lost, they were anthropomorphized into a sacred
caste of priests. Wunsch f'Wish or Will^ figiires in

* Chips, II, 247, 263.


the mythology of Northern Europe, and to it the
poets of the thirteenth century assign hands, eyes,
knowledge, blood, passions, &c. In olden times men
mtist have said as they stood witnessing in any one
great power, or great courage and performance,
' He is a Sampson,' ' He is a Hercules '; or of a beauti-
ful radiant maiden, ' She is fair as the dawn,' and thus
erewhile the myth became attached to and inextri-
cably interwoven and mingled with a person.

There are relations of this quality doubtless in the
old Greek and Roman mythology, and it became long
ago quite impossible accurately to discriminate and
separate away the fiction from the fact. There are
grains of history pretty surely or quite probably
imbedded in the legends of Herakles, Meleagros,
Endymion, &c., but we have no solvent whereby to
detect them. So in this remote past, we have to tread
to an extent on ambiguous ground. Among the
savage or semi-barbarous races, we find it impossible
to determine whether historic elements may not be
present in their myths, as for example the Toltec tale
of Quetzalcohuatl. It is easy to see that there must
have been various reciprocity of influence, the two
sides acting and reacting on each other ; what was
told and truly of some person, would be transferred
and attached to some god or goddess ; and, viceversd,
what was conceived of a god, would be brought to
earth and attributed to a person. Hence there would


be no end of inversions, transmutations, and whimsical
or grotesque conceits.

But coming to more recent times, where our per-
spective is nearer, we find that the heroic legends
are in a large degree, perhaps in many cases wholly,
fictitious and groundless as history ; they have been
drawn from the myths, and in them alone have their
life. Some of them have a kernel apparently, others
not even that, of historic truth deep' within the
various husks and wrappages. England's patron
Saint George may have been a Christian martyr who
suffered nobly in Asia Minor near the beginning of
the fourth century, but Saint George and the Dragon
are a myth borrowed from the tales of Orient and
Occident. We have one prototype in the myth of
Apollon and the Python, or perhaps more original
still in tale of Indra and Ahi in ancient Hindu.
Analogues and equivalents we have in Herakles and
the Hydra, Perseus and the sea-monster, Sigurd and
Fafnir, Beowulf and Grendel. All this is descrip-
tive of the deliverance of the earth from the fangs of
a monster, either the storm-cloud, — in the case of
Herakles the throttling serpents of night, — or the icy
prison of cold, of winter.

What causes surprise is the universality of this
speech. It is everywhere, certainly wherever any of
the Aryan race are found. Nay, there are traces of


the same essential story in the literatures of the
Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Babylonians. In Saint
George we have the myth Christianized, touched
afresh with new colors, and the hero thus presented
has become one of the most venerated and popular of
all the saints in the calendar. The patron saint of
England now since early in the fifteenth century, he
has been that of Aragon and Portugal, and the order
of the knights of Saint George has been widely in-
stituted. In the time of the crusades he appeared
once in light on the walls of Jerusalem, waving his
sword, and led the victorious assault on the Holy
City. It is not wonderful he has been long and
gratefully remembered.

The belief in Saint Ursula is widely spread in the
Christian world. She has a church at Cologne, and
thither thousands pilgrim to seek the intercession of
the saint. The bones of the virgins are shewn in that
city to-day to the pious worshipers. Ursula, the
relation goes, was the only daughter of Nothus, an
illustrious and wealthy British prince, and was sought
in marriage by the son of " a certain most ferocious
tyrant." Ursula had dedicated herself to celibacy,
but as there were perils in the way of refusing accept-
ance of the proposition, she consented to the mar-
riage on one condition: she should be permitted first for
the space of three years to cruise over the seas in eleiven
elegantly furnished galleys, that were to be supplied


by the tyrant, and should be accompanied by ten
peerless virgins, each of them besides herself to have
a thousand damsels under her. The condition wa&
aecepted, the galleys and virgins obtained, and for
three years these damsels traversed the seas. The
wind once blew their ships up the Rhine to Cologne,
to Basle, whence they crossed the Alps on foot, de-
scended into Italy, and visited the tombs of the
apostles at Rome. On their return they encountered
the Huns at Cologne, and were all, the eleven
thousand, ruthlessly slain. This the chronicler Sige-
bert of Gemblours, close of the eleventh century,
puts at 453.*

Early in the twelfth century, in digging to relay
the walls of the city, an old Roman cemetery was
struck upon, and the abundance of bones discovered
here furnished, after various diiEculties and the
clearing of them up by special revelation,^for there
were found heaps and heaps of bones, not women's
only, but men's and children's as well, and so a fear-
ful scandal at one time was imminent, — the authentic
relics of the martyrdom.

In Thinis in Ancient Egypt, the tomb of Osiris was
shown ; who could doubt that the god had actually
been slain and was buried, since here were palpably
his bones ? The teeth of the Kalydonian boar were

^Baring Gould, Cvrious Myths, 2d Series, p. 58.


carried by Augustus Caesar to Rome, and Pausanias
had been priviliged to see the hide of the animal in
a temple at Tegea. Who should any more doubt the
story of the terrible conflict of Herakles with the
savage beast, and his victory too, since here were the
proofs laid indisputably before the eye ? And these
bones plainly exhibited to all in the cists reaching all
round the spacious church of the saint, — they stand
as witnesses unimpeachable of the visit here, and the
slaughter by the murderous Huns, of these more than
myriad virgins.

But curiously enough we find it all, so far as the
pretended piece of history is concerned, a fabrication ;
the saint never existed, and the entire story has
grown out of a myth of the ancient Germans in regard
to their moon-goddess, Holda or Horsel. Journey-
ing from cloud-land and night, — and England was
deemed that cloud-land and region of phantoms
by the Germans, as it is believed the land of souls by
the peasantry to this day, — attended by her thousands
of companions, the pure stars, she suffered martyr-
dom; herself and her attendants are extinguished in
the light of the risen day.

Various other tales have arisen from this myth, or
stand as its counterparts. The story of Tannhauser,
a renowned knight and troubadour in the thirteenth
century, is one. Once on his way to Wartberg in
the twilight of evening he passed the Horselberg, or


mountain of Venus, and was allured by the appari-
tion of a female of surpassing beauty, none other,
he presently saw, than the goddess herself. He
followed her beckoning him forward into the cavern
called the cave of Venus, and there spent seven years
in junketing and revelry at her court, oblivious of all
beside. Similar stories are diffused widely through
Europe ; there are several Venusbergs in Germany,
one in Italy, and in Scotch, Norse, &c., are tales of
heroes who had like experiences with Tannhauser's.
Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas of Ercildoune, —
Horsel's hill or mount, — was enchanted by a strange
lady of elfin race beneath Eilden tree, and remained
with her in the underground land for seven years.
The myth, originally of solar character, — compare
the story of Odysseus in the cave of Kalypso, night,
('Greek Kalupto, to cover^, — then in the case of Hor-
sel, lunar, has undergone great change in Christian
hands to come to bear the form that we have in the
story of Tannhauser. For there is a long relation of
his satiety and home-sickness in the cave, his return
to the fresh earth and light of day, his journey to
;^ome for absolution, and its refusal by Pope Urban,
the miraculous budding in his hands, of the pastoral
staff within three days, and the attempt on his part in
vain to overtake and recover the disheartened wan-
derer, who returned to the cave that seemed his sole


In the Pied Piper of Hameln, we have another ex-
ample of the heroic legend springing up from an old
myth. The piping of this noted character was tragic
for the town of Hameln, for the number of little
children that were drawn by him into the side of the
mountain, was just one hundred and thirty, and the
time laid down in the year 1284, For long period
the calamity marked the great epoch in the history
of the town, public documents were dated from it,
and no music was permitted even on wedding
occasions to be played in the streets along which the
piper had passed. Similar things are related of other
places, of Brandenberg, Lorch, the Hartz mountains,
&c. And singularly enough a like story is told in

The whistling of ghosts is widely believed in
among the peasantry in England, and marvelous tales
are told of the " Seven Whistlers," and " Gabriel's
Hounds," mysterious specter-dogs that with fiendish
yells haunt the midnight air. Among the colliers of
Leicestershire, no monition is so quickly and im-
plicitly heeded as the warning voice of the Seven
Whistlers, birds declaring some impending danger.
The same belief prevails in some part of our own
country, at least it is found in the Blue Ridge region
in Virginia. Once in the life of every man the Seven
Whistlers' call is heard. They are birds upon whom
no mortal eye has ever rested ; they visit generally


in the gloaming, and the weird whistle and rush of
their wings always brings portent of something^
momentous soon to come.*

In England, in the rural districts, angels are thought
to pipe or to sing to those about to die ; in Germany
this singing is attributed to the elves, and little chil-
dren if they listen to it are caught up by Frau Holle
and taken to wander in the forests. We have remin-
iscence of this old belief in the hymnology ; angels
are described as calling to the soul and bidding it

In this tale of the Piper, is historicised the myth of
the wind, or the wind-god Odin, coursing through
the air, sweeping over the tree tops or past the win-
dows, with his cavalcade of ghosts. And in the pi-
ping is hinted the music not seldom heard in the
breeze. This was thought to be ominous, signifying
the call of souls to their home. The tale of the Jew
in the Thorn-bush is one variant. In the story of the
Piper, in its present form, is preserved quite possibly
some dim remembrance of a pestilence or epidemic

" The Gabriel hounds, as they call them In Durham and some parts of
Yorkshire, are described as monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse
the air and are often heard though seldom seen. Sometimes they appear
to hang over a house, and then death and calamity are sure to visit it."
Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Cowntiea of England, tfcc, p. 129.

In Devonshire, Mr. Henderson tells us, the pack is called the
" WIsht hounds," the name derived from Wodin's name Wunsch, cor-
rupted into " Wlsht."


that was especially fatal among children. In the
part which describes the Piper as having piped the
rats from the town and drowned them in the river
Weser, we probably have a statement of the same
fact, under a difiFerent version, which the closing part
of the story relates. Perhaps the union of the two-
came, as Mr. Keary suggests, from the meeting of the
two peoples, Slavonic and German, and the joining
together of their legends, giving us the two rolled
up into one. At any rate the mouse seems to have
been symbolic, signifying the soul.* A little red
mouse, it is related, is sometimes seen to issue from
the mouth of the sleeper ; it indicates the departure
of the soul. In German superstition it is believed
that when the head of a house dies, even the mice in
the house abandon it. The river, f'the Weser^, and
the mountain, are both symbols of death, and so botb
statements are probably simply variants of one and
the same thing.

William Tell, as we now know, is another myth
tarnslated into heroic history. His infallible arrow,.
like the shaft of Phoibos Apollo, is the solar ray that
never misses its mark. And his unrivalled power and
skill as an oarsman, traversing the seas of night, and
bringing to the land upon which he leaps with re-
gained liberty, is no less significant as indicating his-

*Xbe mouse among the Russians Isawell known figure forthe soul, says-
Mr, Balston, Sonera of the Ruaiian People, 109.


solar character. There have been almost as many
Tells as peoples to record the course and conquests of
the sun. We have him in our William of Cloudeslee;
the Danes in Palnatoki ; the Norwegians, Russians,
Icelanders, Finns, Turks, &c., all tell the same story,
with some change of circumstance and name. In
modified form it is in the Greek, in the legend of
Lykian Sarpedon ; it was in Persia, and rather pro-
bably was known in India. Max Miiller says of
^' William Tell, the good archer, whose mythological
character is established beyond contradiction," that
he is " the last reflection of the sun-god, whether we
call him Indra, or Apollo, or Ulysses."

In King Arthur also we have another instance of
this. It is difficult, may be impossible, to determine
how far there may be historic kernel in this legend.
Possibly there is some basis in the actual occurrences
of early times in Britain, for what is said of this hero
and his court. But as Mr. Baring Gould well re-
marks, " The Arthur of romance is actually a demigod>
believed in long before the birth of the historic
Arthur." The Round Table, the Queen, Lancelot,
&c., reproduce to us elements that we find in far earlier
time, that are mythic. In Arthur we have Sigurd,
Perseus, Phoibos Apollo ; in fact every one of the
bright solar heroes celebrated in Oriental or Occi-
dental myth, reappears in him.


His birth was miraculous; he was the son of
Igraine, wife of Duke Gorlois, by Uther Pendragon,.
as Herakles was son of Alkmene,.the afi&anced of
Amphitryon, by Zeus. Soon as born he is wrapped
in a cloth of gold, as was Phoibos by the nymphs, as
was Cyrus. His brand Excalibur, which he alone of
all was able to unfix from the anvil in the rock, — as
Theseus alone availed to lift the stone beneath which
were placed his father's sword and sandals, — where-
with unaided he slew four hundred and seventy
Saxons in a single battle, and which was thrown into
the lake at the end of his life and attended with such
miraculous omens, — was like Roland's blade Duran-
dal, the workmanship of the fairies, and so powerful
he could cleave the Pyrenees with it at a blow. It
was like Beowulf's enchanted sword wherewith he
kills Grendel, the monster. And for Guenevere
and Lancelot, we have prototype in Paris and Helen,,
or, going farther, in the Panis and Sarama in old
Hindu mythology. In Arthur we note again an in-
stance of the marvelous transformations effected by
time, and the pronounced tendency to the ethical,,
which we shall have occasion to refer to hereafter.

In Hamlet also we have a similar example. This
character has come down from the Norse mythology.
It is in Haveloc the Dane presented in English story,
this name appearing again in Higelac of the Beowulf
Saga, and one of the heroes in that myth. Havelok-


is one of the fatal Children born to be kings, con-
spired against, betrayed, but destined to destroy their
enemies and come at length to their rightful estate.
The plot to put him to death is defeated by means as
miraculous as in the cases of Cyrus and Romulus.
From a scullion-boy in Earl Godric's kitchen, he be-
-comes the husband of Goldborough, daughter of
.iEchelwald, — who had been conspired against and
preserved in like supernatural manner, — and goes
over to Denmark where he dispossesses the usurper,
and recovers the throne of his father, King Birkabeyn.

In an early French poem dealing with the same
theme, the name of the heroine however being diflFer-
ent, the hero is Havelok Curan, the same with the
Danish hero whom the Angles call Anlaf-cwiran.
The variants Anlaf, Anelaph and Hanelocke are in
Latinized form Amlethus, and we are thus brought to
our familiar name Hamlet.

There are other features in the story that savor
strongly of the mythic. Hamlet's father was poisoned
while sleeping in his orchard on an afternoon ; Ham-
let came to his death in the same manner. It was
given out of the father, in order to cover the uncle's
guilt, that he had been stung by a serpent. These both
are features familiar in so many mythical stories, —
the sleep of Endymion, the serpent in the tale of
Eurydike and many others, the poison, sometimes the
thorn, that slew such numberless beautiful maidens,


&c. Orendil, the father, who reappears in Hjarrandi,
Horant, of the Gudrun Lay, is a marvelous singer,
able to charm all men with his sweet sounds. The
incidents in his life as those of his father Oygel, are
as clearly of mythic type as those of Tell or the
Achaian heroes on their way to Ilion. He becomes
possessed of a grey coat, recovered from the body of
a whale, which no one else can put on, but which fits
him perfectly and makes him invulnerable. This
coat is like and the equivalent of the sword which
only one man in all the world can draw from its
fastening; like the scabbard of Arthur's Excalibur
which make its possessor invulnerable. That grey
coat becomes at length the holy coat of Treves, where
Orendil's father had been king.*

The story of Hamlet, as Mr. Fiske fittingly says,
is " unmistakably that of the quarrel of summer and
winter." The prince is moody like Achilleus, and
both of them are as veritably personations of the sun-
god, as was Odin or Indra. But, as in the case of
Achilleus presented in the Iliad, the character had
long been supposed to be historic; all the circum-
stances of veritable history had been woven about
the name, ages and centuries ere the play of the great
dramatist was written. Doubtless Shakspeare be-
lieved himself, as many long time before had sup-
posed they were, dealing with the life and deeds of

*Cox, Mythology and Folk-Lore, pp. 304-309.


a flesh and blood hero, genuine prince of Denmark.
And under the touch of this master's magic wand,
everything herein seems very concrete and real.

The prototype of Lear and Cordelia appears in the
old Hindu epic, the Mahabharata ; and here the con-
ception was originally mythic, describing the devo-
tion of the young dawn or sun to the old father. In
this epic the youngest son, Puru, for his self-surren-
der in taking on the old age, out of regard to his
father, for the latter's deliverance, is finally made
heir of the kingdom. The two elder, having each
refused when besought to do this, are expelled from
it. The variation from this as told in the tale of
Lear, is no wider than easily occurs in the develop-
ment of the same myths by peoples distant from each

The tale of Romeo and Juliet, we have in an Ori-
ental form in the Tuti-Nameh, Persian; and this
seems plainly to come from a primeval nature-myth.
The beautiful girl and the lover, separated by what-
ever hard fate here, are united in death : the evening
aurora and the sun expire together, and are one in
the world of the shades. The same thing is enacted
in the loves and tragic end of Pyramos and Thysbe.

The story of Portia also appears to have like origin.
Her transformation is represented in the Gaelic
story of the Chest, where the maiden disguises her-

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Online LibraryCharles De Berard MillsThe tree of mythology, its growth and fruitage: genesis of the nursery tale, saws of folk-lore, etc.; → online text (page 5 of 17)