Thomas Bulfinch Charles Mills Gayley.

The classic myths in English literature and in art: based originally on ... online

. (page 4 of 55)
Online LibraryThomas Bulfinch Charles Mills GayleyThe classic myths in English literature and in art: based originally on ... → online text (page 4 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ing is fixed for all time, having lost its power of growth ; whereas
a tale that passes from mouth to mouth, with no record by which
to check its accuracy in particulars, is free to expand. It changes
with the moods of those who tell it, and the intellectual and moral
standards of those who listen. People to-day are unimaginative and
literal. They also expect that the pictures which illustrate their
books shall follow the individual conceptions of the author closely.
When the story is dramatized a certain latitude is granted to the
actor; the artist, however, who illustrates the book has no such
freedom. He is expected to take precisely the author*s view of a
fictitious character, and, consequently, his individuality may show
itself only in the technique. In antiquity there were no standard
books of fiction or of myths. When writing came into use with the
sixth century before Christ, the individual versions of this or that
great epic poem or drama were preserved ; but the great mass of
the people knew them, not because they had read the manuscripts,

iSec Preface.

Digitized by



but because they had heard them acted or recited. Book illustra-
tions, therefore, were unknown. Yet so powerful was the impres-
sion which the m)rths made on the people that most of the artists
drew their inspiration from them. Artists and poets alike wished
to make real the powerful characters of Greek tradition. To make
a literally true illustration of any one version of a great myth was
not the aim of a classic artist.

Another difficulty is found in the fact that few ancient myths
continued to be equally interesting to the people all the time. It is
therefore necessary for us, in choosing illustrations, to draw on all
periods of ancient art, the crude beginning and the decline as well
as the brief span of fine art. The comparatively meager store of
genuinely classic works of art acts as one of the greatest obstacles
to the compilation of a continuous record of classic myths in classic
art. To give such a record, however, rather than to illustrate his
book, must be the aim of the author who publishes to-day a version
of ancient mythology together with such pictures or reliefs or statues
as are preserved. The modem reader of such a book should there-
fore appreciate this fact : he must make allowance for the gradual
development of ancient art. The picture is not there for the sake
of strengthening the written work, but for its own sake. It often
offers an independent version of the myth which he reads, and at
all times may give him an insight into the mental make-up of the
classic people.

Sculpture was the finest art of the Greeks, if one may judge by
the remains. In this province the artists worked according to the
best principles of art, making their apf)eal directly to the nobler
side of man. Before an ancient statue one feels tJie power of an
idea immediately, and not by the circuitous route of remembering
a sequence of words which may have aimed to suggest a similar
idea. The Greeks were the least literal in their sculpture. Their
marbles, therefore, cannot yield illustrations which the modem
editor can use, except when they embody, like the Demeter of
Knidos (Fig. 29) or the Athena of Velletri (Fig. 10), a well-defined
character-conception. The modem reader, on the other hand, can-
not fail to notice that this conception never does justice to the
character of the goddess as it appears in all the myths, and very

Digitized by



rarely even to that characteristic which may dominate the particular
version of any one myth. If such pictures, however, were entirely
omitted from the book, the best means of appreciating the essential
nobility of the Greek mind would be lost.

None of the Greek masterpieces of painting are extant. Their
attenuated influence, however, may be traced in the Italian wall
paintings from Pompeii and elsewhere. Painting permits greater
literalness than sculpture. The picture from Herculaneum, for
instance, ^ lo, Argus, and Mercury (Fig. 47), — tells a definite
story and one which is also told by the poets. But the painter
has considered the making of a pleasing picture first, and given
only a secondary thought to accuracy of tradition. This must be
so ; for while we may without displeasure Usten to the descrip-
tion of a monster, we cannot see his actual representation without
discomfort. When we hear how the companions of Ulysses were
turned into swine, the tragic note is never lost. To paint this scene,
however, and not to border on the ridiculous or the burlesque is
given only to the greatest artist — ff it is at all possible.

Fortunately for our purposes of illustration, there was a class of
secondary artists in Greece which did not always shrink from select-
ing subjects ill adapted for art, and from rendering them with
slight variations so that they are neither bad to look at nor altogether
untrue. These were the painters of vases. Some of them were
masters of their craft (cf. Fig. 1 16), others were of only mediocre
skill. All, however, like their nobler brethren, were primarily con-
cerned with the decorative and technical side of their art and but
secondarily with their subject. If the story, for instance, called for
four persons and their space for five, they unhesitatingly added the
fifth person, and, vice versa, removed one without compunction if
they had place for fewer figures than the story demanded. Being,
moreover, commercial people, they painted according to fashion.
Whatever version of a myth happened to be popular, that they
selected, so that it has been possible to trace by their vases the
changes which several myths underwent from the sixth century

A careful student notices the similarity of types in many of these
pictures and realizes that the ancient painter of vases started out

Digitized by



with a certain stock-in-trade which he altered as little as possible,
adding something new only where it was absolutely necessary.

From these observations it is clear that the works of men who
were least gifted artistically are the best adapted for the purposes
of book illustrations ; for a painter is literal in the inverse ratio of
his worth as artist. Nothing, therefore, could be less fair than to
judge Greek vase painting by the collection of pictures here offered.
Only paintings like Figures 85 and loi, for instance, can give a
hint of the best that these men produced.

Going gradually down the scale of artists one finally comes to
the level of the makers of Roman sarcophagi, in whose honor it can
only be said that to descend lower. is impossible. Several myths,
however, — the story of the fall of Phaethon (Fig. 59), for instance,
— are not illustrated in art before the decadent period of imperial
Roman sculpture. It is therefore necessary to draw also upon this

Of course unity of art or school or excellence cannot be pre-
served in a set of pictures which groups the Demeter of Knidos
(Fig. 29), the blinding of Polyphemus (Fig. 171), and the fall of
Phaethon (Fig. 59). But individually the pictures help to fix in
memory the particular stories that they are chosen to illustrate ;
and collectively they show how strongly the myths here retold in-
fluenced the noblest fancy of the great artists as well as the recep-
tive minds of mediocre artisans. The suggestive power of classic
myths, moreover, was not confined to antiquity. When learning and
culture returned to the world in the Renaissance, this power also
returned. Raphael (see Fig. 12) and Michelangelo (see Fig. 183)
were under its sway, and so are many modem artists (see Figs. 72
and 154). They did not all understand the classic spirit equally,
therefore some of their pictures are modem in everything save the
tide, while others have caught the truth with singular accuracy and
are modem only in technique. Adding these Italian and more recent
pictures to the collection further destroys mere unity, but it insures,
on the other hand, a full appreciation of the abiding and ennobling
power of ancient mythology.

Digitized by


Digitized by






1. Purpose of the Study. Interwoven with the fabric of our
English literature, of our epics, dramas, lyrics, and novels, of our
essays and orations, like a golden warp where the woof is only too
often of silver, are the myths of certain ancient nations. It is the
purpose of this work to relate some of these myths, and to illus-
trate the uses to which they have been put in English literature,
and, mcidentally, in art.

2. The Fable and the Myth. Careful discrimination must be
made between the fable and the myth. A fable is a story, like that
of King Log, or the Fox and the Grapes, in which characters and
plot, neither pretending to reality nor demanding credence, are
fabricated confessedly as the vehicle of moral or didactic instruc-
tion. Dr. Johnson narrows still further the scope of the fable :
** It seems to be, in its genuine state, a narrative in which beings
irrational^ and sometimes inanimate , are, for the purpose of moral
instruction, feignfsd to act and speak with human interests and
passions." Myths, on the other hand, are stories of anonymous
origin, prevalent among primitive peoples and by them accepted
as true, concerning supernatural beings and events, or natural
beings and events influenced by supernatural agencies. Fables are
made by individuals ; they may be told in any stage of a nation's
history, — by a Jotham when the Israelites were still under the
Judges, 1 200 years before Christ, or by Christ himself in the

Digitized by



days of the most critical Jewish scholarship ; by a Menenius
when Rome was still involved in petty squabbles of plebeians and
patricians, or by Phaedrus and Horace in the Augustan age of
Roman imperialism and Roman letters ; by an iEsop, well-nigh
fabulous, to fabled fellow-slaves and Athenian tyrants, or by La
Fontaine to the Grand Monarch and the most highly civilized
race of seventeenth-century Europe.

Fables are vessels made to order into which a lesson may be
poured. Myths are bom, not made. They are bom in the infancy
of a people. They owe their features not to any one historic indi-
vidual, but to the imaginative efforts of generations of story-tellers.
The myth of Pandora, the first woman, endowed by the immortals
with heavenly graces, and of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven
for the use of man ; the myth of the earthbom giants that in the
beginning contested with the gods the sovereignty of the universe ;
of the moon-goddess who, with her buskined nymphs, pursues the
chase across the azure of the heavens, or descending to earth cher-
ishes the youth Endymion, — these myths, germinating in some
quaint and childish interpretation of natural events or in some fire-
side fancy, have put forth unconsciously, under the nurture of the
simple folk that conceived and tended them, luxuriant branches and
leaves of narrative, and blossoms of poetic comeliness and form.

The myths that we shall relate present wonderful accounts of the
creation, histories of numerous divine beings, adventures of heroes
in which 'magical and ghostly agencies play a part, and where
animals and inanimate nature don the attributes of men and gods.
Many of these myths treat of divinities once worshiped by the
Greeks and the Romans, and by our Norse and German fore-
fathers in the dark ages. Myths, more or less like these, may be
found in the literatures of nearly all nations ; many are in the
memories and mouths of savage races at this time existent. But
the stories here narrated are no longer believed by any one. The
so-called divinities of Olympus and of Asgard have not a single
worshiper among men. They dwell only in the realm of memory
and imagination ; they are enthroned in the palace of art.

The stories of Greek, Roman, Norse, and German mythology
that have most influenced our English literature will follow in the

Digitized by



order named. The Romans, being by nature a practical, not a
poetic, people, incorporated in their literature the mythology of
the Greeks. We shall, however, append to our description of the
Greek gods a brief account of the native Latin divinities that
retained an individuality in Roman literature.

3. Origin of the World.^ There were among the Greeks several
accounts of the beginning of things. Homer tells us that River
Ocean, a deep and mighty flood, encircling land and sea Hke a
serpent with its tail in its mouth, was the source of all. Accord-
ing to other myths Night and Darkness were the prime elements

Fig. I. Jupiter surveying the World

of Nature, and from them sprang Light. Still a third theory,
attributed to Orpheus, asserts that Time was in the beginning,
but had himself no beginning ; that from him proceeded Chaos,
a yawning abyss wherein brooded Night and Mist and fiery air,
or JEther ; that Time caused the mist to spin round the central
fiery air till the mass, assuming the form of a huge world 'egg,
flew, by reason of its rapid rotation, into halves. Of these, one
was Heaven, the other Earth. From the center of the egg pro-
ceeded Eros (Love) and other wondrous beings.

1 Supplementary information concerning many of the myths may be found in the corre-
sponding sections of the Commentary. For the pronunciation of names see Index, and Rules
preceding the Index.

Digitized by



But the most consistent account of the origin of the worid and
of the gods is given by the poet Hesiod, who tells us that Chaos,
the yawning abyss, composed of Void, Mass, and Darkness in
confusion, preceded all things else. Next came into being broad-
bosomed Earth, and beautiful Love who should rule the hearts of
gods and men. But from Chaos itself issued Erebus,^ the mys-
terious darkness that is under Earth, — and Night, dwelling in
the remote regions of sunset.

From Mother Earth proceeded first the starry vault of Heaven,
durable as brass or iron, where the gods were to take up their abode.
Earth brought forth next the mountains and fertile fields, the stony
plains, the sea, and the plants and animals that possess them.

4. Origin of the Gods. So far we have a history of the throes
and changes of the physical world; now begins the history of
gods and of men. For in the heart of creation Love begins to
stir, making of material things creatures male and female, and
bringing them together by instinctive affinity. First Erebus and
Night, the children of Chaos, are wedded, and from them spring
Light and Day ; then Uranus, the personified Heaven, takes Gcea,
the Earth, to wife, and from their union issue Titans and hundred-
handed monsters and Cyclopes.

The Titans^ appear to be the personification of mighty con-
vulsions of the physical world, of volcanic eruptions and earth-
quakes. They played a quarrelsome part in mythical history;
they were instigators of hatred and strife. Homer mentions spe-
cially two of them, lapetus and Cronus ; but Hesiod enumerates
thirteen. Of these, the more important are Oceanus and Tethys,
Hyperion and Thea, Cronus and Rhea, lapetus, Themis, and
Mnemosyne. The three Cyclopes represented the terrors of roll-
ing thunder, of the lightning-flash, and of the thunderbolt ; and,
probably, for this reason, one fiery eye was deemed enough for
each. The hundred-handed monsters, or Hecatonchires, were also
three in number. In them, probably, the Greeks imaged the sea
with its multitudinous waves, its roar, and its breakers that seem
to shake the earth. These lightning-eyed, these hundred-handed

1 So far as possible, Latin designations, or Latinized forms of Greek names, are used.
* On the Titans, etc., Preller*8 Griech. MythoL i, z7*

Digitized by



monsters, their father Uranus feared, and attempted to destroy by
thrusting them into Tartarus, the profound abysm of the earth.
Whereupon Mother Earth, or Gaea, indignant, called for help upon
her elder children, the Titans. None dared espouse her cause
save Cronus, the crafty. With an iron sickle he lay in wait for
his sire, fell upon hun, and drove him, grievously wounded, from
the encounter. From the blood of the mutilated Uranus leaped
into being the Furies, whose heads writhe with serpents ; the
Giants, a novel race of monsters; and the Melic Nymphs, in-
vidious maidens of the ashen spear.

5. The Rule of Cronus. Now follows the reign of Cronus, lord
of Heaven and Earth. He is, from the beginning, of incalculable
years. In works of art his head is veiled, to typify his cunning and
his reserve ; he bears the sickle not only as memento of the means
by which he brought his father's tyranny to end, but as symbol of
the new period of growth and golden harvests that he ushered in.

For unknown ages Cronus and Rhea, his sister-queen, governed
Heaven and Earth. To them were born three daughters, Vesta,
Ceres, and Juno, and three sons, Pluto, Neptune, and Jupiter.
Cronus, however, having learned from his parents that he should
be dethroned by one of his own children, conceived the well-inten-
tioned but ill-considered device of swallowing each as it was bom.
His queen, naturally desirous of discouraging the practice, — -when
it came to the turn of her sixth child, palmed off on the insatiable
Cronus a stone carefully enveloped in swaddling clothes. Jupiter
(or Zeus), the rescued infant, was concealed in the island of Crete,
where, nurtured by the nymphs Adrastea and Ida, and fed on the
milk of the goat Amalthea, he in due season attained maturity.
Then, assisted by his grandmother Gaea, he constrained Cronus to
disgorge the burden of his cannibal repasts. First came to light
the memorable stone, which was placed in safe keeping at Delphi ;
then the five brothers and sisters of Jupiter, ardent to avenge
themselves upon the unnatural author of their existence and
their captivity.

6. The War of the Titans. In the war which ensued lapetus
and all the Titans, except Oceanus, ranged themselves on the side
of their brother Cronus against Jupiter and his recently recovered

Digitized by



kinsfolk. Jupiter and his hosts held Mount Olympus. For ages
victory wavered in the balance. Finally Jupiter, acting again under
the advice of Gaea, released from Tartarus, where Uranus had con-
fined them, the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires. Instantly they
hastened to the battle-field of Thessaly, the Cyclopes to support
Jupiter with their thunders and lightnings, the hundred-hauided
monsters with the shock of the earthquake. Provided with such
artillery, shaking earth and sea, Jupiter issued to the onslaught.
With the gleam of the lightning the Titans were blinded, by the
earthquake they were laid low, with the flames they were well-nigh
consumed : overpowered and fettered by the hands of the Hecaton-
chires, they were consigned to the yawning cave of Tartarus.
Atlas, the son of lapetus, was doomed to bear the heavens on his
shoulders. But a more famous son of the same Titan, Prometheus,
who had espoused the cause of Jove, acquired dignity hereafter to
be set forth.

7. The Division of Empire. In the council of the gods that
succeeded, Jupiter was chosen Sovereign of the World. He dele-
gated to his brother Neptune (or Poseidon) the kingdom of the sea
and of all the waters ; to his brother Pluto (or Hades), the govern-
ment of the underworld, dark, unseen, mysterious, where the spirits
of the dead should dwell, and of Tartarus, wherein were held the
fallen Titans. For himself Jupiter retained Earth and the Heaven,
into whose broad and sunny regions towered Olympus, the favored
mountain of the greater gods.^

8. The Reign of Jupiter. New conflicts, however, awaited this
new dynasty of Heaven — conflicts, the subject of many a tale
among the ancients. Gaea, though she had aided her grandson
Jupiter in the war against Cronus, was soon seized with compunc-
tions of conscience ; and contemplating the cruel fate of her sons
the Titans, she conceived schemes of vengeance upon their con-
queror. Another son was bom to her — Typhon^ a monster more
awful than his predecessors — whose destiny it was to dispute the
sway of the almighty Zeus. From the neck of Typhon dispread
themselves a hundred dragon-heads ; his eyes shot fire, and from
his black-tongued chaps proceeded the hissing of snakes, the

1 On signification of Uranus, Cronus, Zeus, see Preller, i. 37, 38, and Commentary, §§ 4, 24.

Digitized by



bellowing of bulls, the roaring of lions, the barking of dogs, pip-
ings and screams, and, at times, the voice and utterance of the
gods themselves. Against Heaven this horror lifted himself ; but
quailing before the thunderbolt of Jove, he too descended to
Tartarus, his own place and the abode of his brethren. To this
day, however, he grumbles and hisses, thrusts upward a fiery
tongue through the crater
of a volcano, or, breathing
siroccos, scorches trees and

Later still, the Giants,
offspring of the blood that
fell from the wounded Ura-
nus, renewed the revolt
against the Olympian gods.
They were creatures nearer
akin to men than were the
Titans, or the Cyclopes, or
Typhon. They clothed them-
selves in the skins of beasts,
and armed themselves with
rocks and trunks of trees.
Their bodies and lower limbs

were of snakes. They were ^^^ ^ ^^^^^^ ^^^ ^^^^^

awful to encounter or to look

upon. They were named, like men, the earthbom; and their
characteristics would suggest some prehistoric brutish race, hot-
headed, not amenable to reason.^ Of the Giants, the more mighty
were Alcyoneus of the winter storms and icebergs, Pallas, and
Enceladus, and Porphyrion the fire-king, — leader of the crew.
In the war against them, Juno and Minerva, divinities of the new
dynasty of Heaven, took active part, — and Hercules, an earthly
son of Jupiter, whose arrows aided in their defeat. It was from
the overthrow of Pallas that Athena (or Minerva) derived, according
to certain records, her proud designation of Pallas-Athena.^ In

1 Roscher, Ausf. Lex., Article Giganten [J. Ilberg].

* The name more probably signifies Brandisher [of the Lance].

Digitized by



due course, like the Titans and Typhon, the Giants were buried
in the abyss of eternal darkness. What other outcome can be
expected when mere physical or brute force joins issue with the
enlightened and embattled hosts of heaven ?

Fig. 3. Zeus and Giants

9. The Origin of Man was a question which the Greeks did not
settle so easily as the Hebrews. Greek traditions do not trace all
mankind to an original pair. On the contrary, the generally
received opinion was that men grew out of trees and stones, or
were produced by the rivers or the sea. Some said that men and
gods were both derived from Mother Earth, hence both autochtho-
nous ; and some, indeed, claimed an antiquity for the human race
equal to that of the divinities. All narratives, however, agree in
one statement, — that the gods maintained intimate relations with
men until, because of the growing sinfulness and arrogance of
mankind, it became necessary for the immortals to withdraw their

10. Prometheus, a Creator. There is a story which attributes
the making of man to Prometheus, whose father lapetus had,
with Cronus, opposed the sovereignty of Jupiter. In that conflict,
Prometheus, gifted with prophetic wisdom, had adopted the cause

Digitized by



of the Olympian deities. To him
and his brother Epimetheus was
now committed the office of
making man and providing him
and all other animals with the
faculties necessary for their
preservation. Prometheus was
to overlook the work of Epime-
theus. Epimetheus proceeded
to bestow upon the different
animals the various gifts of
courage, strength, swiftness, sa-
gacity ; wings to one, claws to 2-
another, a shelly covering to a S
third. But Prometheus himself g
made a nobler animal than these. 2
Taking some earth and knead- s
ing it with water, he made man g
in the image of the gods. He g
gave him an upright stature, so 2
that while other animals turn £
their faces toward the earth, 4
man gazes on the stars. Then 2
since Epimetheus, always rash,
and thoughtful when too late,

Online LibraryThomas Bulfinch Charles Mills GayleyThe classic myths in English literature and in art: based originally on ... → online text (page 4 of 55)