Custom and Myth, by Andrew Lang

Hottentot Mythology.

‘What makes mythology mythological, in the true sense of the word, is what is utterly unintelligible, absurd, strange, or miraculous.’ So says Mr. Max Müller in the January number of the Nineteenth Century for 1882. Men’s attention would never have been surprised into the perpetual study and questioning of mythology if it had been intelligible and dignified, and if its report had been in accordance with the reason of civilised and cultivated races. What mythologists wish to discover is the origin of the countless disgusting, amazing, and incongruous legends which occur in the myths of all known peoples. According to Mr. Müller —

There are only two systems possible in which the irrational element in mythology can be accounted for. One school takes the irrational as a matter of fact; and if we read that Daphne fled from Phœbus, and was changed into a laurel tree, that school would say that there probably was a young lady called Aurora, like, for instance, Aurora Königsmark; that a young man called Robin, or possibly a man with red hair, pursued her, and that she hid behind a laurel tree that happened to be there. This was the theory of Euhemeros, re-established by the famous Abbé Bernier [Mr. Müller doubtless means Banier], and not quite extinct even now. According to another school, the irrational element in mythology is inevitable, and due to the influence of language on thought, so that many of the legends of gods and heroes may be rendered intelligible if only we can discover the original meaning of their proper names. The followers of this school try to show that Daphne, the laurel tree, was an old name for the dawn, and that Phoibos was one of the many names of the sun, who pursued the dawn till she vanished before his rays. Of these two schools, the former has always appealed to the mythologies of savage nations, as showing that gods and heroes were originally human beings, worshipped after their death as ancestors and as gods, while the latter has confined itself chiefly to an etymological analysis of mythological names in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and other languages, such as had been sufficiently studied to admit of a scientific, grammatical, and etymological treatment.

This is a long text for our remarks on Hottentot mythology; but it is necessary to prove that there are not two schools only of mythologists: that there are inquirers who neither follow the path of Abbé Banier, nor of the philologists, but a third way, unknown to, or ignored by Mr. Müller. We certainly were quite unaware that Banier and Euhemeros were very specially concerned, as Mr. Müller thinks, with savage mythology; but it is by aid of savage myths that the school unknown to Mr. Müller examines the myths of civilised people like the Greeks. The disciples of Mr. Müller interpret all the absurdities of Greek myth, the gods who are beasts on occasion, the stars who were men, the men who become serpents or deer, the deities who are cannibals and parricides and adulterers, as the result of the influence of Aryan speech upon Aryan thought. Men, in Mr. Müller’s opinion, had originally pure ideas about the gods, and expressed them in language which we should call figurative. The figures remained, when their meaning was lost; the names were then supposed to be gods, the nomina became numina, and out of the inextricable confusion of thought which followed, the belief in cannibal, bestial, adulterous, and incestuous gods was evolved. That is Mr. Müller’s hypothesis; with him the evolution, a result of a disease of language, has been from early comparative purity to later religious abominations. Opposed to him is what may be called the school of Mr. Herbert Spencer: the modern Euhemerism, which recognises an element of historical truth in myths, as if the characters had been real characters, and which, in most gods, beholds ancestral ghosts raised to a higher power.

There remains a third system of mythical interpretation, though Mr. Müller says only two methods are possible. The method, in this third case, is to see whether the irrational features and elements of civilised Greek myth occur also in the myths of savages who speak languages quite unlike those from whose diseases Mr. Müller derives the corruption of religion. If the same features recur, are they as much in harmony with the mental habits of savages, such as Bushmen and Hottentots, as they are out of accord with the mental habits of civilised Greeks? If this question can be answered in the affirmative, then it may be provisionally assumed that the irrational elements of savage myth are the legacy of savage modes of thought, and have survived in the religion of Greece from a time when the ancestors of the Greeks were savages. But inquirers who use this method do not in the least believe that either Greek or savage gods were, for the more part, originally real men. Both Greeks and savages have worshipped the ghosts of the dead. Both Greeks and savages assign to their gods the miraculous power of transformation and magic, which savages also attribute to their conjurers or shamans. The mantle (if he had a mantle) of the medicine-man has fallen on the god; but Zeus, or Indra, was not once a real medicine-man. A number of factors combine in the conception of Indra, or Zeus, as either god appears in Sanskrit or Greek literature, of earlier or later date. Our school does not hold anything so absurd as that Daphne was a real girl pursued by a young man. But it has been observed that, among most savage races, metamorphoses like that of Daphne not only exist in mythology, but are believed to occur very frequently in actual life. Men and women are supposed to be capable of turning into plants (as the bamboo in Sarawak), into animals, and stones, and stars, and those metamorphoses happen as contemporary events — for example, in Samoa.187

When Mr. Lane was living at Cairo, and translating the Arabian Nights, he found that the people still believed in metamorphosis. Any day, just as in the Arabian Nights, a man might find himself turned by an enchanter into a pig or a horse. Similar beliefs, not derived from language, supply the matter of the senseless incidents in Greek myths.

Savage mythology is also full of metamorphoses. Therefore the mythologists whose case we are stating, when they find identical metamorphoses in the classical mythologies, conjecture that these were first invented when the ancestors of the Aryans were in the imaginative condition in which a score of rude races are to-day. This explanation they apply to many other irrational elements in mythology. They do not say ‘Something like the events narrated in these stories once occurred,’ nor ‘A disease of language caused the belief in such events,’ but ‘These stories were invented when men were capable of believing in their occurrence as a not unusual sort of incident.’

Philologists attempt to explain the metamorphoses as the result of some oblivion and confusion of language. Apollo, they say, was called the ‘wolf-god’ (Lukeios) by accident: his name really meant the ‘god of light.’ A similar confusion made the ‘seven shiners’ into the ‘seven bears.’ These explanations are distrusted, partly because the area to be covered by them is so vast. There is scarcely a star, tree, or beast, but it has been a man or woman once, if we believe civilised and savage myth. Two or three possible examples of myths originating in forgetfulness of the meaning of words, even if admitted, do not explain the incalculable crowd of metamorphoses. We account for these by saying that, to the savage mind, which draws no hard and fast line between man and nature, all such things are possible; possible enough, at least, to be used as incidents in story. Again, as has elsewhere been shown, the laxity of philological reasoning is often quite extraordinary; while, lastly, philologists of the highest repute flatly contradict each other about the meaning of the names and roots on which they agree in founding their theory.188

By way of an example of the philological method as applied to savage mythology, we choose a book in many ways admirable, Dr. Hahn’s Tsuni Goam, the Supreme Being of the Khoi Khoi.189 This book is sometimes appealed to as a crushing argument against the mythologists who adopt the method we have just explained. Let us see if the blow be so very crushing. To put the case in a nutshell, the Hottentots have commonly been described as a race which worshipped a dead chief, or conjurer — Tsui Goab his name is, meaning Wounded Knee, a not unlikely name for a savage. Dr. Hahn, on the other hand, labours to show that the Hottentots originally worshipped no dead chief, but (as a symbol of the Infinite) the Red Dawn. The meaning of the name Red Dawn, he says, was lost; the words which meant Red Dawn were erroneously supposed to mean Wounded Knee, and thus arose the adoration and the myths of a dead chief, or wizard, Tsui Goab, Wounded Knee. Clearly, if this can be proved, it is an excellent case for the philological school, an admirable example of a myth produced by forgetfulness of the meaning of words. Our own opinion is that, even if Tsui Goab originally meant Red Dawn, the being, as now conceived of by his adorers, is bedizened in the trappings of the dead medicine-man, and is worshipped just as ghosts of the dead are worshipped. Thus, whatever his origin, his myth is freely coloured by the savage fancy and by savage ideas, and we ask no more than this colouring to explain the wildest Greek myths. What truly ‘primitive’ religion was, we make no pretence to know. We only say that, whether Greek religion arose from a pure fountain or not, its stream had flowed through and been tinged by the soil of savage thought, before it widens into our view in historical times. But it will be shown that the logic which connects Tsui Goab with the Red Dawn is far indeed from being cogent.

Tsui Goab is thought by the Hottentots themselves to be a dead man, and it is admitted that among the Hottentots dead men are adored. ‘Cairns are still objects of worship,’190 and Tsui Goab lies beneath several cairns. Again, soothsayers are believed in (p. 24), and Tsui Goab is regarded as a deceased soothsayer. As early as 1655, a witness quoted by Hahn saw women worshipping at one of the cairns of Heitsi Eibib, another supposed ancestral being. Kolb, the old Dutch traveller, found that the Hottentots, like the Bushmen, revered the mantis insect. This creature they called Gaunab. They also had some moon myths, practised adoration of the moon, and danced at dawn. Thunberg (1792) saw the cairn-worship, and, on asking its meaning, was told that a Hottentot lay buried there.191 Thunberg also heard of the worship of the mantis, or grey grasshopper. In 1803 Liechtenstein noted the cairn-worship, and was told that a renowned Hottentot doctor of old times rested under the cairn. Appleyard’s account of ‘the name God in Khoi Khoi, or Hottentot,’ deserves quoting in full:—

Hottentot: Tsoei’koap.

Namaqua: Tsoei’koap.

Koranna: Tshu’koab, and the author adds: ‘This is the word from which the Kafirs have probably derived their u-Tixo, a term which they have universally applied, like the Hottentots, to designate the Divine Being, since the introduction of Christianity. Its derivation is curious. It consists of two words, which together mean the “wounded knee.” It is said to have been originally applied to a doctor or sorcerer of considerable notoriety and skill amongst the Hottentots or Namaquas some generations back, in consequence of his having received some injury in his knee. Having been held in high repute for extraordinary powers during life, he appeared to be invoked even after death, as one who could still relieve and protect; and hence, in process of time, he became nearest in idea to their first conceptions of God.’

Other missionaries make old Wounded Knee a good sort of being on the whole, who fights Gaunab, a bad being. Dr. Moffat heard that ‘Tsui Kuap’ was ‘a notable warrior,’ who once received a wound in the knee. Sir James Alexander192 found that the Namaquas believed their ‘great father’ lay below the cairns on which they flung boughs. This great father was Heitsi Eibib, and, like other medicine-men, ‘he could take many forms.’ Like Tsui Goab, he died several times and rose again. Hahn gives (p. 61) a long account of the Wounded Knee from an old chief, and a story of the battle between Tsui Goab, who ‘lives in a beautiful heaven,’ and Gaunab, who ‘lives in a dark heaven.’ As this chief had dwelt among missionaries very long, we may perhaps discount his remarks on ‘heaven’ as borrowed. Hahn thinks they refer to the red sky in which Tsui Goab lived, and to the black sky which was the home of Gaunab. The two characters in this crude religious dualism thus inhabit light and darkness respectively.

 

As far as we have gone, Tsui Goab, like Heitsi Eibib among the Namas, is a dead sorcerer, whose graves are worshipped, while, with a common inconsistency, he is also thought of as dwelling in the sky. Even Christians often speak of the dead with similar inconsistency. Tsui Goab’s worship is intelligible enough among a people so credulous that they took Hahn himself for a conjurer (p. 81), and so given to ancestor-worship that Hahn has seen them worship their own fathers’ graves, and expect help from men recently dead (pp. 112, 113). But, while the Khoi Khoi think that Tsui Goab was once a real man, we need not share their Euhemerism. More probably, like Unkulunkulu among the Zulus, Tsui Goab is an ideal, imaginary ancestral sorcerer and god. No one man requires many graves, and Tsui Goab has more than Osiris possessed in Egypt.

If the Egyptians in some immeasurably distant past were once on the level of Namas and Hottentots, they would worship Osiris at as many barrows as Heitsi Eibib and Tsui Goab are adored. In later times the numerous graves of one being would require explanation, and explanations would be furnished by the myth that the body of Osiris was torn to pieces and each fragment buried in a separate tomb.

Again, lame gods occur in Greek, Australian, and Brazilian creeds, and the very coincidence of Tsui Goab’s lameness makes us sceptical about his claims to be a real dead man. On the other hand, when Hahn tells us that epical myths are now sung in the dances in honour of warriors lately slain (p. 103), and that similar dances and songs were performed in the past to honour Tsui Goab, this looks more as if Tsui Goab had been an actual person. Against this we must set (p. 105) the belief that Tsui Goab made the first man and woman, and was the Prometheus of the Hottentots.

 

So far Dr. Hahn has given us facts which entirely fit in with our theory that an ancestor-worshipping people, believing in metamorphosis and sorcery, adores a god who is supposed to be a deceased ancestral sorcerer with the power of magic and metamorphosis. But now Dr. Hahn offers his own explanation. According to the philological method, he will ‘study the names of the persons, until we arrive at the naked root and original meanings of the words.’ Starting then with Tsui Goab, whom all evidence declares to be a dead lame conjurer and warrior, Dr. Hahn avers that ‘Tsui Goab, originally Tsuni Goam, was the name by which the Red Men called the Infinite.’ As the Frenchman said of the derivation of jour from dies, we may hint that the Infinite thus transformed into a lame Hottentot ‘bush-doctor’ is diablement changé en route. To a dead lame sorcerer from the Infinite is a fall indeed. The process of the decline is thus described. Tsui Goab is composed of two roots, tsu and goa. Goa means ‘to go on,’ ‘to come on.’ In Khoi Khoi goa-b means ‘the coming on one,’ the dawn, and goa-b also means ‘the knee.’ Dr. Hahn next writes (making a logical leap of extraordinary width), ‘It is now obvious that //goab in Tsui Goab cannot be translated with knee,’— why not? —‘but we have to adopt the other metaphorical meaning, the approaching day, i.e., the dawn.’ Where is the necessity? In ordinary philology, we should here demand a number of attested examples of goab, in the sense of dawn, but in Khoi Khoi we cannot expect such evidence, as there are probably no texts. Next, after arbitrarily deciding that all Khoi Khois misunderstand their own tongue (for that is what the rendering here of goab by ‘dawn’ comes to), Dr. Hahn examines tsu, in Tsui. Tsu means ‘sore,’ ‘wounded,’ ‘painful,’ as in ‘wounded knee’— Tsui Goab. This does not help Dr. Hahn, for ‘wounded dawn’ means nothing. But he reflects that a wound is red, tsu means wounded: therefore tsu means red, therefore Tsui Goab is the Red Dawn. Q.E.D.193

This kind of reasoning is obviously fallacious. Dr. Hahn’s point could only be made by bringing forward examples in which tsu is employed to mean red in Khoi Khoi. Of this use of the word tsu he does not give one single instance, and, in fact, does give another word for ‘red,’ or ‘bloody.’ His etymology is not strengthened by the fact that Tsui Goab has once been said to live in the red sky. A red house is not necessarily tenanted by a red man. Still less is the theory supported by the hymn which says Tsui Goab paints himself with red ochre. Most idols, from those of the Samoyeds to the Greek images of Dionysus, are and have been daubed with red.194 By such reasoning is Tsui Goab proved to be the Red Dawn, while his gifts of prophecy (which he shares with all soothsayers) are accounted for as attributes of dawn, of the Vedic Saranyu.

Turning from Tsui Goab to his old enemy Gaunab, we learn that his name is derived from //gau, ‘to destroy,’ and, according to old Hottentot ideas, ‘no one was the destroyer but the night’ (p. 126). There is no apparent reason why the destroyer should be the night, and the night alone, any more than why ‘a lame broken knee’ should be ‘red’ (p. 126). Besides (p. 85), Gaunab is elsewhere explained, not as the night, but as the malevolent ghost which is thought to kill people who die what we call a ‘natural’ death. Unburied men change into this sort of vampire, just as Elpenor, in the Odyssey, threatens, if unburied, to become mischievous. There is another Gaunab, the mantis insect, which is worshipped by Hottentots and Bushmen (p. 92). It appears that the two Gaunabs are differently pronounced. However that may be, a race which worships an insect might well worship a dead medicine-man.

The conclusion, then, to be drawn from an examination of Hottentot mythology is merely this, that the ideas of a people will be reflected in their myths. A people which worships the dead, believes in sorcerers and in prophets, and in metamorphosis, will have for its god (if he can be called a god) a being who is looked on as a dead prophet and sorcerer. He will be worshipped with such rites as dead men receive; he will be mixed up in such battles as living men wage, and will be credited with the skill which living sorcerers claim. All these things meet in the legend of Tsui Goab, the ‘so-called supreme being’ of the Hottentots. His connection with the dawn is not supported by convincing argument or evidence. The relation of the dawn to the Infinite again rests on nothing but a theory of Mr. Max Müller’s.195 His adversary, though recognised as the night, is elsewhere admitted to have been, originally, a common vampire. Finally, the Hottentots, a people not much removed from savagery, have a mythology full of savage and even disgusting elements. And this is just what we expect from Hottentots. The puzzle is when we find myths as low as the story of the incest of Heitsi Eibib among the Greeks. The reason for this coincidence is that, in Dr. Hahn’s words, ‘the same objects and the same phenomena in nature will give rise to the same ideas, whether social or mythical, among different races of mankind,’ especially when these races are in the same well-defined state of savage fancy and savage credulity.

Dr. Hahn’s book has been regarded as a kind of triumph over inquirers who believe that ancestor-worship enters into myth, and that the purer element in myth is the later. But where is the triumph? Even on Dr. Hahn’s own showing, ancestor-worship among the Hottentots has swamped the adoration of the Infinite. It may be said that Dr. Hahn has at least proved the adoration of the Infinite to be earlier than ancestor-worship. But it has been shown that his attempt to establish a middle stage, to demonstrate that the worshipped ancestor was really the Red Dawn, is not logical nor convincing. Even if that middle stage were established, it is a far cry from the worship of Dawn (supposed by the Australians to be a woman of bad character in a cloak of red ’possum skin) to the adoration of the Infinite. Our own argument has been successful if we have shown that there are not only two possible schools of mythological interpretation — the Euhemeristic, led by Mr. Spencer, and the Philological, led by Mr. Max Müller. We have seen that it is possible to explain the legend of Tsui Goab without either believing him to have been a real historical person (as Mr. Spencer may perhaps believe), or his myth to have been the result of a ‘disease of language,’ as Mr. Müller supposes. We have explained the legend and worship of a supposed dead conjurer as natural to a race which believes in conjurers and worships dead men. Whether he was merely an ideal ancestor and warrior, or whether an actual man has been invested with what divine qualities Tsui Goab enjoys, it is impossible to say; but, if he ever lived, he has long been adorned with ideal qualities and virtues which he never possessed. The conception of the powerful ancestral ghost has been heightened and adorned with some novel attributes of power: the conception of the Infinite has not been degraded, by forgetfulness of language, to the estate of an ancestral ghost with a game leg.

 

If this view be correct, myth is a disease of thought, far more than a disease of language. The comparative importance of language and thought was settled long ago, in our sense, by no less a person than Pragapati, the Sanskrit Master of Life.

‘Now a dispute once took place between Mind and Speech, as to which was the better of the two. Both Mind and Speech said: “I am excellent!” Mind said: “Surely I am better than thou, for thou dost not speak anything that is not understood by me; and since thou art only an imitator of what is done by me and a follower in my wake, I am surely better than thou!” Speech said: “Surely I am better than thou, for what thou knowest I make known, I communicate.” They went to appeal to Pragâpati for his decision. He (Pragâpati) decided in favour of Mind, saying (to Speech): “Mind is indeed better than thou, for thou art an imitator of its deeds, and a follower in its wake; and inferior, surely, is he who imitates his better’s deeds, and follows in his wake.”’

So saith the ‘Satapatha Brahmana.’196

187 Turner’s Samoa, pp. 77, 119.

188 See examples in ‘A Far-travelled Tale,’ ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ and ‘The Myth of Cronus.’

189 Trübner, 1881.

190 Hahn, p. 23.

191 Ibid., p. 45.

192 Expedition, i. 166.

193 Dr. Hahn (p. 27) gives /ava, or /ana, as Hottentot for ‘red,’ derived from /au, ‘to bleed.’

194 Hahn himself (p. 91) mentions a Hottentot god daubed with red earth, and noticed as long ago as 1691.

196 Sacred Books of the East, xii. 130, 131.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03