Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology, by John Fiske

II. The Descent of Fire.

IN the course of my last summer’s vacation, which was spent at a small inland village, I came upon an unexpected illustration of the tenacity with which conceptions descended from prehistoric antiquity have now and then kept their hold upon life. While sitting one evening under the trees by the roadside, my attention was called to the unusual conduct of half a dozen men and boys who were standing opposite. An elderly man was moving slowly up and down the road, holding with both hands a forked twig of hazel, shaped like the letter Y inverted. With his palms turned upward, he held in each hand a branch of the twig in such a way that the shank pointed upward; but every few moments, as he halted over a certain spot, the twig would gradually bend downwards until it had assumed the likeness of a Y in its natural position, where it would remain pointing to something in the ground beneath. One by one the bystanders proceeded to try the experiment, but with no variation in the result. Something in the ground seemed to fascinate the bit of hazel, for it could not pass over that spot without bending down and pointing to it.

My thoughts reverted at once to Jacques Aymar and Dousterswivel, as I perceived that these men were engaged in sorcery. During the long drought more than half the wells in the village had become dry, and here was an attempt to make good the loss by the aid of the god Thor. These men were seeking water with a divining-rod. Here, alive before my eyes, was a superstitious observance, which I had supposed long since dead and forgotten by all men except students interested in mythology.

As I crossed the road to take part in the ceremony a farmer’s boy came up, stoutly affirming his incredulity,

and offering to show the company how he could carry the rod motionless across the charmed spot. But when he came to take the weird twig he trembled with an ill-defined feeling of insecurity as to the soundness of his conclusions, and when he stood over the supposed rivulet the rod bent in spite of him — as was not so very strange. For, with all his vague scepticism, the honest lad had not, and could not be supposed to have, the foi scientifique of which Littre speaks.23

23 “Il faut que la coeur devienne ancien parmi les aneiennes choses, et la plenitude de l’histoire ne se devoile qu’a celui qui descend, ainsi dispose, dans le passe. Mais il faut que l’esprit demeure moderne, et n’oublie jamais qu’il n’y a pour lui d’autre foi que la foi scientifique.’— LITTRS.

Hereupon I requested leave to try the rod; but something in my manner seemed at once to excite the suspicion and scorn of the sorcerer. “Yes, take it,” said he, with uncalled-for vehemence, “but you can’t stop it; there’s water below here, and you can’t help its bending, if you break your back trying to hold it.” So he gave me the twig, and awaited, with a smile which was meant to express withering sarcasm, the discomfiture of the supposed scoffer. But when I proceeded to walk four or five times across the mysterious place, the rod pointing steadfastly toward the zenith all the while, our friend became grave and began to philosophize. “Well,” said he, “you see, your temperament is peculiar; the conditions ain’t favourable in your case; there are some people who never can work these things. But there’s water below here, for all that, as you’ll find, if you dig for it; there’s nothing like a hazel-rod for finding out water.”

Very true: there are some persons who never can make such things work; who somehow always encounter “unfavourable conditions” when they wish to test the marvellous powers of a clairvoyant; who never can make “Planchette” move in conformity to the requirements of any known alphabet; who never see ghosts, and never have “presentiments,” save such as are obviously due to association of ideas. The ill-success of these persons is commonly ascribed to their lack of faith; but, in the majority of cases, it might be more truly referred to the strength of their faith — faith in the constancy of nature, and in the adequacy of ordinary human experience as interpreted by science.24 La foi scientifique is an excellent preventive against that obscure, though not uncommon, kind of self-deception which enables wooden tripods to write and tables to tip and hazel-twigs to twist upside-down, without the conscious intervention of the performer. It was this kind of faith, no doubt, which caused the discomfiture of Jacques Aymar on his visit to Paris,25 and which has in late years prevented persons from obtaining the handsome prize offered by the French Academy for the first authentic case of clairvoyance.

24 For an admirable example of scientific self-analysis tracing one of these illusions to its psychological sources, see the account of Dr. Lazarus, in Taine, De l’Intelligence, Vol. I. pp. 121-125.

25 See the story of Aymar in Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. I. pp. 57-77. The learned author attributes the discomfiture to the uncongenial Parisian environment; which is a style of reasoning much like that of my village sorcerer, I fear.

But our village friend, though perhaps constructively right in his philosophizing, was certainly very defective in his acquaintance with the time-honoured art of rhabdomancy. Had he extended his inquiries so as to cover the field of Indo-European tradition, he would have learned that the mountain-ash, the mistletoe, the white and black thorn, the Hindu asvattha, and several other woods, are quite as efficient as the hazel for the purpose of detecting water in times of drought; and in due course of time he would have perceived that the divining-rod itself is but one among a large class of things to which popular belief has ascribed, along with other talismanic properties, the power of opening the ground or cleaving rocks, in order to reveal hidden treasures. Leaving him in peace, then, with his bit of forked hazel, to seek for cooling springs in some future thirsty season, let us endeavour to elucidate the origin of this curious superstition.

The detection of subterranean water is by no means the only use to which the divining-rod has been put. Among the ancient Frisians it was regularly used for the detection of criminals; and the reputation of Jacques Aymar was won by his discovery of the perpetrator of a horrible murder at Lyons. Throughout Europe it has been used from time immemorial by miners for ascertaining the position of veins of metal; and in the days when talents were wrapped in napkins and buried in the field, instead of being exposed to the risks of financial speculation, the divining-rod was employed by persons covetous of their neighbours’ wealth. If Boulatruelle had lived in the sixteenth century, he would have taken a forked stick of hazel when he went to search for the buried treasures of Jean Valjean. It has also been applied to the cure of disease, and has been kept in households, like a wizard’s charm, to insure general good-fortune and immunity from disaster.

As we follow the conception further into the elf-land of popular tradition, we come upon a rod which not only points out the situation of hidden treasure, but even splits open the ground and reveals the mineral wealth contained therein. In German legend, “a shepherd, who was driving his flock over the Ilsenstein, having stopped to rest, leaning on his staff, the mountain suddenly opened, for there was a springwort in his staff without his knowing it, and the princess [Ilse] stood before him. She bade him follow her, and when he was inside the mountain she told him to take as much gold as he pleased. The shepherd filled all his pockets, and was going away, when the princess called after him, ‘Forget not the best.’ So, thinking she meant that he had not taken enough, he filled his hat also; but what she meant was his staff with the springwort, which he had laid against the wall as soon as he stepped in. But now, just as he was going out at the opening, the rock suddenly slammed together and cut him in two.”26

26 Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, p. 177.

Here the rod derives its marvellous properties from the enclosed springwort, but in many cases a leaf or flower is itself competent to open the hillside. The little blue flower, forget-me-not, about which so many sentimental associations have clustered, owes its name to the legends told of its talismanic virtues.27 A man, travelling on a lonely mountain, picks up a little blue flower and sticks it in his hat. Forthwith an iron door opens, showing up a lighted passage-way, through which the man advances into a magnificent hall, where rubies and diamonds and all other kinds of gems are lying piled in great heaps on the floor. As he eagerly fills his pockets his hat drops from his head, and when he turns to go out the little flower calls after him, “Forget me not!” He turns back and looks around, but is too bewildered with his good fortune to think of his bare head or of the luck-flower which he has let fall. He selects several more of the finest jewels he can find, and again starts to go out; but as he passes through the door the mountain closes amid the crashing of thunder, and cuts off one of his heels. Alone, in the gloom of the forest, he searches in vain for the mysterious door: it has disappeared forever, and the traveller goes on his way, thankful, let us hope, that he has fared no worse.

27 The story of the luck-flower is well told in verse by Mr. Baring Gould, in his Silver Store, p. 115, seq.

Sometimes it is a white lady, like the Princess Ilse, who invites the finder of the luck-flower to help himself to her treasures, and who utters the enigmatical warning. The mountain where the event occurred may be found almost anywhere in Germany, and one just like it stood in Persia, in the golden prime of Haroun Alraschid. In the story of the Forty Thieves, the mere name of the plant sesame serves as a talisman to open and shut the secret door which leads into the robbers’ cavern; and when the avaricious Cassim Baba, absorbed in the contemplation of the bags of gold and bales of rich merchandise, forgets the magic formula, he meets no better fate than the shepherd of the Ilsenstein. In the story of Prince Ahmed, it is an enchanted arrow which guides the young adventurer through the hillside to the grotto of the Peri Banou. In the tale of Baba Abdallah, it is an ointment rubbed on the eyelid which reveals at a single glance all the treasures hidden in the bowels of the earth

The ancient Romans also had their rock-breaking plant, called Saxifraga, or “sassafras.” And the further we penetrate into this charmed circle of traditions the more evident does it appear that the power of cleaving rocks or shattering hard substances enters, as a primitive element, into the conception of these treasure-showing talismans. Mr. Baring-Gould has given an excellent account of the rabbinical legends concerning the wonderful schamir, by the aid of which Solomon was said to have built his temple. From Asmodeus, prince of the Jann, Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada, wrested the secret of a worm no bigger than a barley-corn, which could split the hardest substance. This worm was called schamir. “If Solomon desired to possess himself of the worm, he must find the nest of the moor-hen, and cover it with a plate of glass, so that the mother bird could not get at her young without breaking the glass. She would seek schamir for the purpose, and the worm must be obtained from her.” As the Jewish king did need the worm in order to hew the stones for that temple which was to be built without sound of hammer, or axe, or any tool of iron,28 he sent Benaiah to obtain it. According to another account, schamir was a mystic stone which enabled Solomon to penetrate the earth in search of mineral wealth. Directed by a Jinni, the wise king covered a raven’s eggs with a plate of crystal, and thus obtained schamir which the bird brought in order to break the plate.29

28 1 Kings vi. 7.

29 Compare the Mussulman account of the building of the temple, in Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 337, 338. And see the story of Diocletian’s ostrich, Swan, Gesta Romanorum, ed. Wright, Vol I. p. lxiv. See also the pretty story of the knight unjustly imprisoned, id. p. cii.

In these traditions, which may possibly be of Aryan descent, due to the prolonged intercourse between the Jews and the Persians, a new feature is added to those before enumerated: the rock-splitting talisman is always found in the possession of a bird. The same feature in the myth reappears on Aryan soil. The springwort, whose marvellous powers we have noticed in the case of the Ilsenstein shepherd, is obtained, according to Pliny, by stopping up the hole in a tree where a woodpecker keeps its young. The bird flies away, and presently returns with the springwort, which it applies to the plug, causing it to shoot out with a loud explosion. The same account is given in German folk-lore. Elsewhere, as in Iceland, Normandy, and ancient Greece, the bird is an eagle, a swallow, an ostrich, or a hoopoe.

In the Icelandic and Pomeranian myths the schamir, or “raven-stone,” also renders its possessor invisible — a property which it shares with one of the treasure-finding plants, the fern.30 In this respect it resembles the ring of Gyges, as in its divining and rock-splitting qualities it resembles that other ring which the African magri-cian gave to Aladdin, to enable him to descend into the cavern where stood the wonderful lamp.

30 “We have the receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.”— Shakespeare, Henry IV. See Ralston, Songs of the Russian People, p. 98

According to one North German tradition, the luck-flower also will make its finder invisible at pleasure. But, as the myth shrewdly adds, it is absolutely essential that the flower be found by accident: he who seeks for it never finds it! Thus all cavils are skilfully forestalled, even if not satisfactorily disposed of. The same kind of reasoning is favoured by our modern dealers in mystery: somehow the “conditions” always are askew whenever a scientific observer wishes to test their pretensions.

In the North of Europe schamir appears strangely and grotesquely metamorphosed. The hand of a man that has been hanged, when dried and prepared with certain weird unguents and set on fire, is known as the Hand of Glory; and as it not only bursts open all safe-locks, but also lulls to sleep all persons within the circle of its influence, it is of course invaluable to thieves and burglars. I quote the following story from Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology”: “Two fellows once came to Huy, who pretended to be exceedingly fatigued, and when they had supped would not retire to a sleeping-room, but begged their host would allow them to take a nap on the hearth. But the maid-servant, who did not like the looks of the two guests, remained by the kitchen door and peeped through a chink, when she saw that one of them drew a thief’s hand from his pocket, the fingers of which, after having rubbed them with an ointment, he lighted, and they all burned except one. Again they held this finger to the fire, but still it would not burn, at which they appeared much surprised, and one said, ‘There must surely be some one in the house who is not yet asleep.’ They then hung the hand with its four burning fingers by the chimney, and went out to call their associates. But the maid followed them instantly and made the door fast, then ran up stairs, where the landlord slept, that she might wake him, but was unable, notwithstanding all her shaking and calling. In the mean time the thieves had returned and were endeavouring to enter the house by a window, but the maid cast them down from the ladder. They then took a different course, and would have forced an entrance, had it not occurred to the maid that the burning fingers might probably be the cause of her master’s profound sleep. Impressed with this idea she ran to the kitchen and blew them out, when the master and his men-servants instantly awoke, and soon drove away the robbers.” The same event is said to have occurred at Stainmore in England; and Torquermada relates of Mexican thieves that they carry with them the left hand of a woman who has died in her first childbed, before which talisman all bolts yield and all opposition is benumbed. In 1831 “some Irish thieves attempted to commit a robbery on the estate of Mr. Naper, of Loughcrew, county Meath. They entered the house armed with a dead man’s hand with a lighted candle in it, believing in the superstitious notion that a candle placed in a dead man’s hand will not be seen by any but those by whom it is used; and also that if a candle in a dead hand be introduced into a house, it will prevent those who may be asleep from awaking. The inmates, however, were alarmed, and the robbers fled, leaving the hand behind them.”31

31 Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England, p. 202

In the Middle Ages the hand of glory was used, just like the divining-rod, for the detection of buried treasures.

Here, then, we have a large and motley group of objects — the forked rod of ash or hazel, the springwort and the luck-flower, leaves, worms, stones, rings, and dead men’s hands — which are for the most part competent to open the way into cavernous rocks, and which all agree in pointing out hidden wealth. We find, moreover, that many of these charmed objects are carried about by birds, and that some of them possess, in addition to their generic properties, the specific power of benumbing people’s senses. What, now, is the common origin of this whole group of superstitions? And since mythology has been shown to be the result of primeval attempts to explain the phenomena of nature, what natural phenomenon could ever have given rise to so many seemingly wanton conceptions? Hopeless as the problem may at first sight seem, it has nevertheless been solved. In his great treatise on “The Descent of Fire,” Dr. Kuhn has shown that all these legends and traditions are descended from primitive myths explanatory of the lightning and the storm-cloud.32

32 Kuhn, Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Gottertranks. Berlin, 1859.

To us, who are nourished from childhood on the truths revealed by science, the sky is known to be merely an optical appearance due to the partial absorption of the solar rays in passing through a thick stratum of atmospheric air; the clouds are known to be large masses of watery vapour, which descend in rain-drops when sufficiently condensed; and the lightning is known to be a flash of light accompanying an electric discharge. But these conceptions are extremely recondite, and have been attained only through centuries of philosophizing and after careful observation and laborious experiment. To the untaught mind of a child or of an uncivilized man, it seems far more natural and plausible to regard the sky as a solid dome of blue crystal, the clouds as snowy mountains, or perhaps even as giants or angels, the lightning as a flashing dart or a fiery serpent. In point of fact, we find that the conceptions actually entertained are often far more grotesque than these. I can recollect once framing the hypothesis that the flaming clouds of sunset were transient apparitions, vouchsafed us by way of warning, of that burning Calvinistic hell with which my childish imagination had been unwisely terrified;33 and I have known of a four-year-old boy who thought that the snowy clouds of noonday were the white robes of the angels hung out to dry in the sun.34 My little daughter is anxious to know whether it is necessary to take a balloon in order to get to the place where God lives, or whether the same end can be accomplished by going to the horizon and crawling up the sky;35 the Mohammedan of old was working at the same problem when he called the rainbow the bridge Es-Sirat, over which souls must pass on their way to heaven. According to the ancient Jew, the sky was a solid plate, hammered out by the gods, and spread over the earth in order to keep up the ocean overhead;36 but the plate was full of little windows, which were opened whenever it became necessary to let the rain come through.37 With equal plausibility the Greek represented the rainy sky as a sieve in which the daughters of Danaos were vainly trying to draw water; while to the Hindu the rain-clouds were celestial cattle milked by the wind-god. In primitive Aryan lore, the sky itself was a blue sea, and the clouds were ships sailing over it; and an English legend tells how one of these ships once caught its anchor on a gravestone in the churchyard, to the great astonishment of the people who were coming out of church. Charon’s ferry-boat was one of these vessels, and another was Odin’s golden ship, in which the souls of slain heroes were conveyed to Valhalla. Hence it was once the Scandinavian practice to bury the dead in boats; and in Altmark a penny is still placed in the mouth of the corpse, that it may have the means of paying its fare to the ghostly ferryman.38 In such a vessel drifted the Lady of Shalott on her fatal voyage; and of similar nature was the dusky barge, “dark as a funeral-scarf from stem to stern,” in which Arthur was received by the black-hooded queens.39

33 “Saga me forwhan byth seo sunne read on aefen? Ic the secge, forthon heo locath on helle. — Tell me, why is the sun red at even? I tell thee, because she looketh on hell.” Thorpe, Analecta Anglo-Saxonica, p. 115, apud Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 63. Barbaric thought had partly anticipated my childish theory.

34 “Still in North Germany does the peasant say of thunder, that the angels are playing skittles aloft, and of the snow, that they are shaking up the feather beds in heaven.”— Baring-Gould, Book of Werewolves, p. 172.

35 “The Polynesians imagine that the sky descends at the horizon and encloses the earth. Hence they call foreigners papalangi, or ‘heaven-bursters,’ as having broken in from another world outside.”— Max Muller, Chips, II. 268.

36 “— And said the gods, let there be a hammered plate in the midst of the waters, and let it be dividing between waters and waters.” Genesis i. 6.

37 Genesis vii. 11.

38 See Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, p 120; who states also that in Bengal the Garrows burn their dead in a small boat, placed on top of the funeral-pile.

In their character of cows, also, the clouds were regarded as psychopomps; and hence it is still a popular superstition that a cow breaking into the yard foretokens a death in the family.

39 The sun-god Freyr had a cloud-ship called Skithblathnir, which is thus described in Dasent’s Prose Edda: “She is so great, that all the AEsir, with their weapons and war-gear, may find room on board her”; but “when there is no need of faring on the sea in her, she is made. . . . with so much craft that Freyr may fold her together like a cloth, and keep her in his bag.” This same virtue was possessed by the fairy pavilion which the Peri Banou gave to Ahmed; the cloud which is no bigger than a man’s hand may soon overspread the whole heaven, and shade the Sultan’s army from the solar rays.

But the fact that a natural phenomenon was explained in one way did not hinder it from being explained in a dozen other ways. The fact that the sun was generally regarded as an all-conquering hero did not prevent its being called an egg, an apple, or a frog squatting on the waters, or Ixion’s wheel, or the eye of Polyphemos, or the stone of Sisyphos, which was no sooner pushed to the zenith than it rolled down to the horizon. So the sky was not only a crystal dome, or a celestial ocean, but it was also the Aleian land through which Bellerophon wandered, the country of the Lotos-eaters, or again the realm of the Graiai beyond the twilight; and finally it was personified and worshipped as Dyaus or Varuna, the Vedic prototypes of the Greek Zeus and Ouranos. The clouds, too, had many other representatives besides ships and cows. In a future paper it will be shown that they were sometimes regarded as angels or houris; at present it more nearly concerns us to know that they appear, throughout all Aryan mythology, under the form of birds. It used to be a matter of hopeless wonder to me that Aladdin’s innocent request for a roc’s egg to hang in the dome of his palace should have been regarded as a crime worthy of punishment by the loss of the wonderful lamp; the obscurest part of the whole affair being perhaps the Jinni’s passionate allusion to the egg as his master: “Wretch! dost thou command me to bring thee my master, and hang him up in the midst of this vaulted dome?” But the incident is to some extent cleared of its mystery when we learn that the roc’s egg is the bright sun, and that the roc itself is the rushing storm-cloud which, in the tale of Sindbad, haunts the sparkling starry firmament, symbolized as a valley of diamonds.40 According to one Arabic authority, the length of its wings is ten thousand fathoms. But in European tradition it dwindles from these huge dimensions to the size of an eagle, a raven, or a woodpecker. Among the birds enumerated by Kuhn and others as representing the storm-cloud are likewise the wren or “kinglet” (French roitelet); the owl, sacred to Athene; the cuckoo, stork, and sparrow; and the red-breasted robin, whose name Robert was originally an epithet of the lightning-god Thor. In certain parts of France it is still believed that the robbing of a wren’s nest will render the culprit liable to be struck by lightning. The same belief was formerly entertained in Teutonic countries with respect to the robin; and I suppose that from this superstition is descended the prevalent notion, which I often encountered in childhood, that there is something peculiarly wicked in killing robins.

40 Euhemerism has done its best with this bird, representing it as an immense vulture or condor or as a reminiscence of the extinct dodo. But a Chinese myth, cited by Klaproth, well preserves its true character when it describes it as “a bird which in flying obscures the sun, and of whose quills are made water-tuns.” See Nouveau Journal Asiatique, Tom. XII. p. 235. The big bird in the Norse tale of the “Blue Belt” belongs to the same species.

Now, as the raven or woodpecker, in the various myths of schamir, is the dark storm-cloud, so the rock-splitting worm or plant or pebble which the bird carries in its beak and lets fall to the ground is nothing more or less than the flash of lightning carried and dropped by the cloud. “If the cloud was supposed to be a great bird, the lightnings were regarded as writhing worms or serpents in its beak. These fiery serpents, elikiai gram-moeidws feromenoi, are believed in to this day by the Canadian Indians, who call the thunder their hissing.”41

41 Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, Vol. II. p. 146. Compare Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 237, seq.

But these are not the only mythical conceptions which are to be found wrapped up in the various myths of schamir and the divining-rod. The persons who told these stories were not weaving ingenious allegories about thunder-storms; they were telling stories, or giving utterance to superstitions, of which the original meaning was forgotten. The old grannies who, along with a stoical indifference to the fate of quails and partridges, used to impress upon me the wickedness of killing robins, did not add that I should be struck by lightning if I failed to heed their admonitions. They had never heard that the robin was the bird of Thor; they merely rehearsed the remnant of the superstition which had survived to their own times, while the essential part of it had long since faded from recollection. The reason for regarding a robin’s life as more sacred than a partridge’s had been forgotten; but it left behind, as was natural, a vague recognition of that mythical sanctity. The primitive meaning of a myth fades away as inevitably as the primitive meaning of a word or phrase; and the rabbins who told of a worm which shatters rocks no more thought of the writhing thunderbolts than the modern reader thinks of oyster-shells when he sees the word ostracism, or consciously breathes a prayer as he writes the phrase good bye. It is only in its callow infancy that the full force of a myth is felt, and its period of luxuriant development dates from the time when its physical significance is lost or obscured. It was because the Greek had forgotten that Zeus meant the bright sky, that he could make him king over an anthropomorphic Olympos. The Hindu Dyaus, who carried his significance in his name as plainly as the Greek Helios, never attained such an exalted position; he yielded to deities of less obvious pedigree, such as Brahma and Vishnu.

Since, therefore, the myth-tellers recounted merely the wonderful stories which their own nurses and grandmas had told them, and had no intention of weaving subtle allegories or wrapping up a physical truth in mystic emblems, it follows that they were not bound to avoid incongruities or to preserve a philosophical symmetry in their narratives. In the great majority of complex myths, no such symmetry is to be found. A score of different mythical conceptions would get wrought into the same story, and the attempt to pull them apart and construct a single harmonious system of conceptions out of the pieces must often end in ingenious absurdity. If Odysseus is unquestionably the sun, so is the eye of Polyphemos, which Odysseus puts out.42 But the Greek poet knew nothing of the incongruity, for he was thinking only of a superhuman hero freeing himself from a giant cannibal; he knew nothing of Sanskrit, or of comparative mythology, and the sources of his myths were as completely hidden from his view as the sources of the Nile.

42 “If Polyphemos’s eye be the sun, then Odysseus, the solar hero, extinguishes himself, a very primitive instance of suicide.” Mahaffy, Prolegomena, p. 57. See also Brown, Poseidon, pp. 39, 40. This objection would be relevant only in case Homer were supposed to be constructing an allegory with entire knowledge of its meaning. It has no validity whatever when we recollect that Homer could have known nothing of the incongruity.

We need not be surprised, then, to find that in one version of the schamir-myth the cloud is the bird which carries the worm, while in another version the cloud is the rock or mountain which the talisman cleaves open; nor need we wonder at it, if we find stories in which the two conceptions are mingled together without regard to an incongruity which in the mind of the myth-teller no longer exists.43

43 The Sanskrit myth-teller indeed mixes up his materials in a way which seems ludicrous to a Western reader. He describes Indra (the sun-god) as not only cleaving the cloud-mountains with his sword, but also cutting off their wings and hurling them from the sky. See Burnouf, Bhagavata Purana, VI. 12, 26.

In early Aryan mythology there is nothing by which the clouds are more frequently represented than by rocks or mountains. Such were the Symplegades, which, charmed by the harp of the wind-god Orpheus, parted to make way for the talking ship Argo, with its crew of solar heroes.44 Such, too, were the mountains Ossa and Pelion, which the giants piled up one upon another in their impious assault upon Zeus, the lord of the bright sky. As Mr. Baring-Gould observes: “The ancient Aryan had the same name for cloud and mountain. To him the piles of vapour on the horizon were so like Alpine ranges, that he had but one word whereby to designate both.45 These great mountains of heaven were opened by the lightning. In the sudden flash he beheld the dazzling splendour within, but only for a moment, and then, with a crash, the celestial rocks closed again. Believing these vaporous piles to contain resplendent treasures of which partial glimpse was obtained by mortals in a momentary gleam, tales were speedily formed, relating the adventures of some who had succeeded in entering these treasure-mountains.”

44 Mr. Tylor offers a different, and possibly a better, explanation of the Symplegades as the gates of Night through which the solar ship, having passed successfully once, may henceforth pass forever. See the details of the evidence in his Primitive Culture, I. 315.

45 The Sanskrit parvata, a bulging or inflated body, means both “cloud” and “mountain.” “In the Edda, too, the rocks, said to have been fashioned out of Ymir’s bones, are supposed to be intended for clouds. In Old Norse Klakkr means both cloud and rock; nay, the English word CLOUD itself has been identified with the Anglo-Saxon clud, rock. See Justi, Orient und Occident, Vol. II. p. 62.” Max Muller, Rig-Veda, Vol. 1. p. 44.

This sudden flash is the smiting of the cloud-rock by the arrow of Ahmed, the resistless hammer of Thor, the spear of Odin, the trident of Poseidon, or the rod of Hermes. The forked streak of light is the archetype of the divining-rod in its oldest form — that in which it not only indicates the hidden treasures, but, like the staff of the Ilsenstein shepherd, bursts open the enchanted crypt and reveals them to the astonished wayfarer. Hence the one thing essential to the divining-rod, from whatever tree it be chosen, is that it shall be forked.

It is not difficult to comprehend the reasons which led the ancients to speak of the lightning as a worm, serpent, trident, arrow, or forked wand; but when we inquire why it was sometimes symbolized as a flower or leaf; or when we seek to ascertain why certain trees, such as the ash, hazel, white-thorn, and mistletoe, were supposed to be in a certain sense embodiments of it, we are entering upon a subject too complicated to be satisfactorily treated within the limits of the present paper. It has been said that the point of resemblance between a cow and a comet, that both have tails, was quite enough for the primitive word-maker: it was certainly enough for the primitive myth-teller.46 Sometimes the pinnate shape of a leaf, the forking of a branch, the tri-cleft corolla, or even the red colour of a flower, seems to have been sufficient to determine the association of ideas. The Hindu commentators of the Veda certainly lay great stress on the fact that the palasa, one of their lightning-trees, is trident-leaved. The mistletoe branch is forked, like a wish-bone,47 and so is the stem which bears the forget-me-not or wild scorpion grass. So too the leaves of the Hindu ficus religiosa resemble long spear-heads.48 But in many cases it is impossible for us to determine with confidence the reasons which may have guided primitive men in their choice of talismanic plants. In the case of some of these stories, it would no doubt be wasting ingenuity to attempt to assign a mythical origin for each point of detail. The ointment of the dervise, for instance, in the Arabian tale, has probably no special mythical significance, but was rather suggested by the exigencies of the story, in an age when the old mythologies were so far disintegrated and mingled together that any one talisman would serve as well as another the purposes of the narrator. But the lightning-plants of Indo-European folk-lore cannot be thus summarily disposed of; for however difficult it may be for us to perceive any connection between them and the celestial phenomena which they represent, the myths concerning them are so numerous and explicit as to render it certain that some such connection was imagined by the myth-makers. The superstition concerning the hand of glory is not so hard to interpret. In the mythology of the Finns, the storm-cloud is a black man with a bright copper hand; and in Hindustan, Indra Savitar, the deity who slays the demon of the cloud, is golden-handed. The selection of the hand of a man who has been hanged is probably due to the superstition which regarded the storm-god Odin as peculiarly the lord of the gallows. The man who is raised upon the gallows is placed directly in the track of the wild huntsman, who comes with his hounds to carry off the victim; and hence the notion, which, according to Mr. Kelly, is “very common in Germany and not extinct in England,” that every suicide by hanging is followed by a storm.

46 In accordance with the mediaeval “doctrine of signatures,” it was maintained “that the hard, stony seeds of the Gromwell must be good for gravel, and the knotty tubers of scrophularia for scrofulous glands; while the scaly pappus of scaliosa showed it to be a specific in leprous diseases, the spotted leaves of pulmonaria that it was a sovereign remedy for tuberculous lungs, and the growth of saxifrage in the fissures of rocks that it would disintegrate stone in the bladder.” Prior, Popular Names of British Plants, Introd., p. xiv. See also Chapiel, La Doctrine des Signatures. Paris, 1866.

47 Indeed, the wish-bone, or forked clavicle of a fowl, itself belongs to the same family of talismans as the divining-rod.

48 The ash, on the other hand, has been from time immemorial used for spears in many parts of the Aryan domain. The word oesc meant, in Anglo-Saxon, indifferently “ash-tree,” or “spear”; and the same is, or has been, true of the French fresne and the Greek melia. The root of oesc appears in the Sanskrit as, “to throw” or “lance,” whence asa, “a bow,” and asana, “an arrow.” See Pictet, Origines Indo-Europeennes, I. 222.

The paths of comparative mythology are devious, but we have now pursued them long enough I believe, to have arrived at a tolerably clear understanding of the original nature of the divining-rod. Its power of revealing treasures has been sufficiently explained; and its affinity for water results so obviously from the character of the lightning-myth as to need no further comment. But its power of detecting criminals still remains to be accounted for.

In Greek mythology, the being which detects and punishes crime is the Erinys, the prototype of the Latin Fury, figured by late writers as a horrible monster with serpent locks. But this is a degradation of the original conception. The name Erinys did not originally mean Fury, and it cannot be explained from Greek sources alone. It appears in Sanskrit as Saranyu, a word which signifies the light of morning creeping over the sky. And thus we are led to the startling conclusion that, as the light of morning reveals the evil deeds done under the cover of night, so the lovely Dawn, or Erinys, came to be regarded under one aspect as the terrible detector and avenger of iniquity. Yet startling as the conclusion is, it is based on established laws of phonetic change, and cannot be gainsaid.

But what has the avenging daybreak to do with the lightning and the divining-rod? To the modern mind the association is not an obvious one: in antiquity it was otherwise. Myths of the daybreak and myths of the lightning often resemble each other so closely that, except by a delicate philological analysis, it is difficult to distinguish the one from the other. The reason is obvious. In each case the phenomenon to be explained is the struggle between the day-god and one of the demons of darkness. There is essentially no distinction to the mind of the primitive man between the Panis, who steal Indra’s bright cows and keep them in a dark cavern all night, and the throttling snake Ahi or Echidna, who imprisons the waters in the stronghold of the thunder-cloud and covers the earth with a short-lived darkness. And so the poisoned arrows of Bellerophon, which slay the storm-dragon, differ in no essential respect from the shafts with which Odysseus slaughters the night-demons who have for ten long hours beset his mansion. Thus the divining-rod, representing as it does the weapon of the god of day, comes legitimately enough by its function of detecting and avenging crime.

But the lightning not only reveals strange treasures and gives water to the thirsty land and makes plain what is doing under cover of darkness; it also sometimes kills, benumbs, or paralyzes. Thus the head of the Gorgon Medusa turns into stone those who look upon it. Thus the ointment of the dervise, in the tale of Baba Abdallah, not only reveals all the treasures of the earth, but instantly thereafter blinds the unhappy man who tests its powers. And thus the hand of glory, which bursts open bars and bolts, benumbs also those who happen to be near it. Indeed, few of the favoured mortals who were allowed to visit the caverns opened by sesame or the luck-flower, escaped without disaster. The monkish tale of “The Clerk and the Image,” in which the primeval mythical features are curiously distorted, well illustrates this point.

In the city of Rome there formerly stood an image with its right hand extended and on its forefinger the words “strike here.” Many wise men puzzled in vain over the meaning of the inscription; but at last a certain priest observed that whenever the sun shone on the figure, the shadow of the finger was discernible on the ground at a little distance from the statue. Having marked the spot, he waited until midnight, and then began to dig. At last his spade struck upon something hard. It was a trap-door, below which a flight of marble steps descended into a spacious hall, where many men were sitting in solemn silence amid piles of gold and diamonds and long rows of enamelled vases. Beyond this he found another room, a gynaecium filled with beautiful women reclining on richly embroidered sofas; yet here, too, all was profound silence. A superb banqueting-hall next met his astonished gaze; then a silent kitchen; then granaries loaded with forage; then a stable crowded with motionless horses. The whole place was brilliantly lighted by a carbuncle which was suspended in one corner of the reception-room; and opposite stood an archer, with his bow and arrow raised, in the act of taking aim at the jewel. As the priest passed back through this hall, he saw a diamond-hilted knife lying on a marble table; and wishing to carry away something wherewith to accredit his story, he reached out his hand to take it; but no sooner had he touched it than all was dark. The archer had shot with his arrow, the bright jewel was shivered into a thousand pieces, the staircase had fled, and the priest found himself buried alive.49

49 Compare Spenser’s story of Sir Guyon, in the “Faery Queen,” where, however, the knight fares better than this poor priest. Usually these lightning-caverns were like Ixion’s treasure-house, into which none might look and live. This conception is the foundation of part of the story of Blue-Beard and of the Arabian tale of the third one-eyed Calender

Usually, however, though the lightning is wont to strike dead, with its basilisk glance, those who rashly enter its mysterious caverns, it is regarded rather as a benefactor than as a destroyer. The feelings with which the myth-making age contemplated the thunder-shower as it revived the earth paralyzed by a long drought, are shown in the myth of Oidipous. The Sphinx, whose name signifies “the one who binds,” is the demon who sits on the cloud-rock and imprisons the rain, muttering, dark sayings which none but the all-knowing sun may understand. The flash of solar light which causes the monster to fling herself down from the cliff with a fearful roar, restores the land to prosperity. But besides this, the association of the thunder-storm with the approach of summer has produced many myths in which the lightning is symbolized as the life-renewing wand of the victorious sun-god. Hence the use of the divining-rod in the cure of disease; and hence the large family of schamir-myths in which the dead are restored to life by leaves or herbs. In Grimm’s tale of the Three Snake Leaves,” a prince is buried alive (like Sindbad) with his dead wife, and seeing a snake approaching her body, he cuts it in three pieces. Presently another snake, crawling from the corner, saw the other lying dead, and going, away soon returned with three green leaves in its mouth; then laying the parts of the body together so as to join, it put one leaf on each wound, and the dead snake was alive again. The prince, applying the leaves to his wife’s body, restores her also to life.”50 In the Greek story, told by AElian and Apollodoros, Polyidos is shut up with the corpse of Glaukos, which he is ordered to restore to life. He kills a dragon which is approaching the body, but is presently astonished at seeing another dragon come with a blade of grass and place it upon its dead companion, which instantly rises from the ground. Polyidos takes the same blade of grass, and with it resuscitates Glaukos. The same incident occurs in the Hindu story of Panch Phul Ranee, and in Fouque’s “Sir Elidoc,” which is founded on a Breton legend.

50 Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Nations, Vol. 1. p. 161.

We need not wonder, then, at the extraordinary therapeutic properties which are in all Aryan folk-lore ascribed to the various lightning-plants. In Sweden sanitary amulets are made of mistletoe-twigs, and the plant is supposed to be a specific against epilepsy and an antidote for poisons. In Cornwall children are passed through holes in ash-trees in order to cure them of hernia. Ash rods are used in some parts of England for the cure of diseased sheep, cows, and horses; and in particular they are supposed to neutralize the venom of serpents. The notion that snakes are afraid of an ash-tree is not extinct even in the United States. The other day I was told, not by an old granny, but by a man fairly educated and endowed with a very unusual amount of good common-sense, that a rattlesnake will sooner go through fire than creep over ash leaves or into the shadow of an ash-tree. Exactly the same statement is made by Piny, who adds that if you draw a circle with an ash rod around the spot of ground on which a snake is lying, the animal must die of starvation, being as effectually imprisoned as Ugolino in the dungeon at Pisa. In Cornwall it is believed that a blow from an ash stick will instantly kill any serpent. The ash shares this virtue with the hazel and fern. A Swedish peasant will tell you that snakes may be deprived of their venom by a touch with a hazel wand; and when an ancient Greek had occasion to make his bed in the woods, he selected fern leaves if possible, in the belief that the smell of them would drive away poisonous animals.51

51 Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, pp. 147, 183, 186, 193.

But the beneficent character of the lightning appears still more clearly in another class of myths. To the primitive man the shaft of light coming down from heaven was typical of the original descent of fire for the benefit and improvement of the human race. The Sioux Indians account for the origin of fire by a myth of unmistakable kinship; they say that “their first ancestor obtained his fire from the sparks which a friendly panther struck from the rocks as he scampered up a stony hill.”52 This panther is obviously the counterpart of the Aryan bird which drops schamir. But the Aryan imagination hit upon a far more remarkable conception. The ancient Hindus obtained fire by a process similar to that employed by Count Rumford in his experiments on the generation of heat by friction. They first wound a couple of cords around a pointed stick in such a way that the unwinding of the one would wind up the other, and then, placing the point of the stick against a circular disk of wood, twirled it rapidly by alternate pulls on the two strings. This instrument is called a chark, and is still used in South Africa,53 in Australia, in Sumatra, and among the Veddahs of Ceylon. The Russians found it in Kamtchatka; and it was formerly employed in America, from Labrador to the Straits of Magellan.54 The Hindus churned milk by a similar process;55 and in order to explain the thunder-storm, a Sanskrit poem tells how “once upon a time the Devas, or gods, and their opponents, the Asuras, made a truce, and joined together in churning the ocean to procure amrita, the drink of immortality. They took Mount Mandara for a churning-stick, and, wrapping the great serpent Sesha round it for a rope, they made the mountain spin round to and fro, the Devas pulling at the serpent’s tail, and the Asuras at its head.”56 In this myth the churning-stick, with its flying serpent-cords, is the lightning, and the armrita, or drink of immortality, is simply the rain-water, which in Aryan folk-lore possesses the same healing virtues as the lightning. “In Sclavonic myths it is the water of life which restores the dead earth, a water brought by a bird from the depths of a gloomy cave.”57 It is the celestial soma or mead which Indra loves to drink; it is the ambrosial nectar of the Olympian gods; it is the charmed water which in the Arabian Nights restores to human shape the victims of wicked sorcerers; and it is the elixir of life which mediaeval philosophers tried to discover, and in quest of which Ponce de Leon traversed the wilds of Florida.58

52 Brinton, Myths of the New World, p. 151.

53 Callaway, Zulu Nursery Tales, I. 173, Note 12.

54 Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 238; Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 254; Darwin, Naturalist’s Voyage, p. 409.

“Jacky’s next proceeding was to get some dry sticks and wood, and prepare a fire, which, to George’s astonishment, he lighted thus. He got a block of wood, in the middle of which he made a hole; then he cut and pointed a long stick, and inserting the point into the block, worked it round between his palms for some time and with increasing rapidity. Presently there came a smell of burning wood, and soon after it burst into a flame at the point of contact. Jacky cut slices of shark and roasted them.”— Reade, Never too Late to Mend, chap. xxxviii.

55 The production of fire by the drill is often called churning, e. g. “He took the uvati [chark], and sat down and churned it, and kindled a fire.” Callaway, Zulu Nursery Tales, I. 174.

56 Kelly, Indo-European Folk-Lore, p. 39. Burnouf, Bhagavata Purana, VIII. 6, 32.

57 Baring-Gould, Curious Myths, p. 149.

58 It is also the regenerating water of baptism, and the “holy water “ of the Roman Catholic.

The most interesting point in this Hindu myth is the name of the peaked mountain Mandara, or Manthara, which the gods and devils took for their churning-stick. The word means “a churning-stick,” and it appears also, with a prefixed preposition, in the name of the fire-drill, pramantha. Now Kuhn has proved that this name, pramantha, is etymologically identical with Prometheus, the name of the beneficent Titan, who stole fire from heaven and bestowed it upon mankind as the richest of boons. This sublime personage was originally nothing but the celestial drill which churns fire out of the clouds; but the Greeks had so entirely forgotten his origin that they interpreted his name as meaning “the one who thinks beforehand,” and accredited him with a brother, Epimetheus, or “the one who thinks too late.” The Greeks had adopted another name, trypanon, for their fire-drill, and thus the primitive character of Prometheus became obscured.

I have said above that it was regarded as absolutely essential that the divining-rod should be forked. To this rule, however, there was one exception, and if any further evidence be needed to convince the most sceptical that the divining-rod is nothing but a symbol of the lightning, that exception will furnish such evidence. For this exceptional kind of divining-rod was made of a pointed stick rotating in a block of wood, and it was the presence of hidden water or treasure which was supposed to excite the rotatory motion.

In the myths relating to Prometheus, the lightning-god appears as the originator of civilization, sometimes as the creator of the human race, and always as its friend,59 suffering in its behalf the most fearful tortures at the hands of the jealous Zeus. In one story he creates man by making a clay image and infusing into it a spark of the fire which he had brought from heaven; in another story he is himself the first man. In the Peloponnesian myth Phoroneus, who is Prometheus under another name, is the first man, and his mother was an ash-tree. In Norse mythology, also, the gods were said to have made the first man out of the ash-tree Yggdrasil. The association of the heavenly fire with the life-giving forces of nature is very common in the myths of both hemispheres, and in view of the facts already cited it need not surprise us. Hence the Hindu Agni and the Norse Thor were patrons of marriage, and in Norway, the most lucky day on which to be married is still supposed to be Thursday, which in old times was the day of the fire-god.60 Hence the lightning-plants have divers virtues in matters pertaining to marriage. The Romans made their wedding torches of whitethorn; hazel-nuts are still used all over Europe in divinations relating to the future lover or sweetheart;61 and under a mistletoe bough it is allowable for a gentleman to kiss a lady. A vast number of kindred superstitions are described by Mr. Kelly, to whom I am indebted for many of these examples.62

59 In the Vedas the rain-god Soma, originally the personification of the sacrificial ambrosia, is the deity who imparts to men life, knowledge, and happiness. See Breal, Hercule et Cacus, p. 85. Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 277.

60 We may, perhaps, see here the reason for making the Greek fire-god Hephaistos the husband of Aphrodite.

61 “Our country maidens are well aware that triple leaves plucked at hazard from the common ash are worn in the breast, for the purpose of causing prophetic dreams respecting a dilatory lover. The leaves of the yellow trefoil are supposed to possess similar virtues.”— Harland and Wilkinson, Lancashire Folk-Lore, p. 20.

62 In Peru, a mighty and far-worshipped deity was Catequil, the thunder-god, . . . . he who in thunder-flash and clap hurls from his sling the small, round, smooth thunder-stones, treasured in the villages as fire-fetishes and charms to kindle the flames of love.”— Tylor, op. cit. Vol. II. p. 239

Thus we reach at last the completed conception of the divining-rod, or as it is called in this sense the wish-rod, with its kindred talismans, from Aladdin’s lamp and the purse of Bedreddin Hassan, to the Sangreal, the philosopher’s stone, and the goblets of Oberon and Tristram. These symbols of the reproductive energies of nature, which give to the possessor every good and perfect gift, illustrate the uncurbed belief in the power of wish which the ancient man shared with modern children. In the Norse story of Frodi’s quern, the myth assumes a whimsical shape. The prose Edda tells of a primeval age of gold, when everybody had whatever he wanted. This was because the giant Frodi had a mill which ground out peace and plenty and abundance of gold withal, so that it lay about the roads like pebbles. Through the inexcusable avarice of Frodi, this wonderful implement was lost to the world. For he kept his maid-servants working at the mill until they got out of patience, and began to make it grind out hatred and war. Then came a mighty sea-rover by night and slew Frodi and carried away the maids and the quern. When he got well out to sea, he told them to grind out salt, and so they did with a vengeance. They ground the ship full of salt and sank it, and so the quern was lost forever, but the sea remains salt unto this day.

Mr. Kelly rightly identifies Frodi with the sun-god Fro or Freyr, and observes that the magic mill is only another form of the fire-churn, or chark. According to another version the quern is still grinding away and keeping the sea salt, and over the place where it lies there is a prodigious whirlpool or maelstrom which sucks down ships.

In its completed shape, the lightning-wand is the caduceus, or rod of Hermes. I observed, in the preceding paper, that in the Greek conception of Hermes there have been fused together the attributes of two deities who were originally distinct. The Hermes of the Homeric Hymn is a wind-god; but the later Hermes Agoraios, the patron of gymnasia, the mutilation of whose statues caused such terrible excitement in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, is a very different personage. He is a fire-god, invested with many solar attributes, and represents the quickening forces of nature. In this capacity the invention of fire was ascribed to him as well as to Prometheus; he was said to be the friend of mankind, and was surnamed Ploutodotes, or “the giver of wealth.”

The Norse wind-god Odin has in like manner acquired several of the attributes of Freyr and Thor.63 His lightning-spear, which is borrowed from Thor, appears by a comical metamorphosis as a wish-rod which will administer a sound thrashing to the enemies of its possessor. Having cut a hazel stick, you have only to lay down an old coat, name your intended victim, wish he was there, and whack away: he will howl with pain at every blow. This wonderful cudgel appears in Dasent’s tale of “The Lad who went to the North Wind,” with which we may conclude this discussion. The story is told, with little variation, in Hindustan, Germany, and Scandinavia.

63 In Polynesia, “the great deity Maui adds a new complication to his enigmatic solar-celestial character by appearing as a wind-god.”— Tylor, op. cit. Vol. II. p. 242.

The North Wind, representing the mischievous Hermes, once blew away a poor woman’s meal. So her boy went to the North Wind and demanded his rights for the meal his mother had lost. “I have n’t got your meal,” said the Wind, “but here’s a tablecloth which will cover itself with an excellent dinner whenever you tell it to.” So the lad took the cloth and started for home. At nightfall he stopped at an inn, spread his cloth on the table, and ordered it to cover itself with good things, and so it did. But the landlord, who thought it would be money in his pocket to have such a cloth, stole it after the boy had gone to bed, and substituted another just like it in appearance. Next day the boy went home in great glee to show off for his mother’s astonishment what the North Wind had given him, but all the dinner he got that day was what the old woman cooked for him. In his despair he went back to the North Wind and called him a liar, and again demanded his rights for the meal he had lost. “I have n’t got your meal,” said the Wind, “but here’s a ram which will drop money out of its fleece whenever you tell it to.” So the lad travelled home, stopping over night at the same inn, and when he got home he found himself with a ram which did n’t drop coins out of its fleece. A third time he visited the North Wind, and obtained a bag with a stick in it which, at the word of command, would jump out of the bag and lay on until told to stop. Guessing how matters stood as to his cloth and ram, he turned in at the same tavern, and going to a bench lay down as if to sleep. The landlord thought that a stick carried about in a bag must be worth something, and so he stole quietly up to the bag, meaning to get the stick out and change it. But just as he got within whacking distance, the boy gave the word, and out jumped the stick and beat the thief until he promised to give back the ram and the tablecloth. And so the boy got his rights for the meal which the North Wind had blown away. October, 1870.

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