Custom and Myth, by Andrew Lang

The Art of Savages.237

‘Avoid Coleridge, he is useless,’ says Mr. Ruskin. Why should the poetry of Coleridge be useful? The question may interest the critic, but we are only concerned with Mr. Ruskin here, for one reason. His disparagement of Coleridge as ‘useless’ is a survival of the belief that art should be ‘useful.’ This is the savage’s view of art. He imitates nature, in dance, song, or in plastic art, for a definite practical purpose. His dances are magical dances, his images are made for a magical purpose, his songs are incantations. Thus the theory that art is a disinterested expression of the imitative faculty is scarcely warranted by the little we know of art’s beginnings. We shall adopt, provisionally, the hypothesis that the earliest art with which we are acquainted is that of savages contemporary or extinct. Some philosophers may tell us that all known savages are only degraded descendants of early civilised men who have, unluckily and inexplicably, left no relics of their civilisation. But we shall argue on the opposite theory, that the art of Australians, for example, is really earlier in kind, more backward, nearer the rude beginnings of things, than the art of people who have attained to some skill in pottery, like the New Caledonians. These, again, are much more backward, in a state really much earlier, than the old races of Mexico and Peru; while they, in turn, show but a few traces of advance towards the art of Egypt; and the art of Egypt, at least after the times of the Ancient Empire, is scarcely advancing in the direction of the flawless art of Greece. We shall be able to show how savage art, as of the Australians, develops into barbarous art, as of the New Zealanders; while the arts of strange civilisations, like those of Peru and Mexico, advance one step further; and how, again, in the early art of Greece, in the Greek art of ages prior to Pericles, there are remains of barbaric forms which are gradually softened into beauty. But there are necessarily breaks and solutions of continuity in the path of progress.


Fig. 1. — An Australian Shield.

One of the oldest problems has already risen before us in connection with the question stated: Is art the gratification of the imitative faculty? Now, among the lowest, the most untutored, the worst equipped savages of contemporary races, art is rather decorative on the whole than imitative. The patterns on Australian shields and clubs, the scars which they raise on their own flesh by way of tattooing, are very rarely imitations of any objects in nature. The Australians, like the Red Indians, like many African and some aboriginal Indian races, Peruvians, and others, distinguish their families by the names of various plants and animals, from which each family boasts its descent. Thus you have a family called Kangaroos, descended, as they fancy, from the kangaroo; another from the cockatoo, another from the black snake, and so forth. Now, in many quarters of the globe, this custom and this superstition, combined with the imitative faculty in man, has produced a form of art representing the objects from which the families claim descent. This art is a sort of rude heraldry — probably the origin of heraldry. Thus, if a Red Indian (say a Delaware) is of the family of the Turtle, he blazons a turtle on his shield or coat, probably tattoos or paints his breast with a figure of a turtle, and always has a turtle, reversed, designed on the pillar above his grave when he dies, just as, in our mediæval chronicles, the leopards of an English king are reversed on his scutcheon opposite the record of his death. But the Australians, to the best of my knowledge, though they are much governed by belief in descent from animals, do not usually blazon their crest on their flesh, nor on the trees near the place where the dead are buried. They have not arrived at this pitch of imitative art, though they have invented or inherited a kind of runes which they notch on sticks, and in which they convey to each other secret messages. The natives of the Upper Darling, however, do carve their family crests on their shields. In place of using imitative art, the Murri are said, I am not quite sure with what truth, to indicate the distinction of families by arrangements of patterns, lines and dots, tattooed on the breast and arms, and carved on the bark of trees near places of burial. In any case, the absence of the rude imitative art of heraldry among a race which possesses all the social conditions that produce this art is a fact worth noticing, and itself proves that the native art of one of the most backward races we know is not essentially imitative.

Three tall shields
Fig. 2.

Any one who will look through a collection of Australian weapons and utensils will be brought to this conclusion. The shields and the clubs are elaborately worked, but almost always without any representation of plants, animals, or the human figure. As a rule the decorations take the simple shape of the ‘herring-bone’ pattern, or such other patterns as can be produced without the aid of spirals, or curves, or circles. There is a natural and necessary cause of this choice of decoration. The Australians, working on hard wood, with tools made of flint, or broken glass, or sharp shell, cannot easily produce any curved lines. Every one who, when a boy, carved his name on the bark of a tree, remembers the difficulty he had with S and G, while he got on easily with letters like M and A, which consist of straight or inclined lines. The savage artist has the same difficulty with his rude tools in producing anything like satisfactory curves or spirals. We engrave above (Fig. 1) a shield on which an Australian has succeeded, with obvious difficulty, in producing concentric ovals of irregular shape. It may be that the artist would have produced perfect circles if he could. His failure is exactly like that of a youthful carver of inscriptions coming to grief over his G’s and S’s. Here, however (Fig. 2), we have three shields which, like the ancient Celtic pipkin (the tallest of the three figures in Fig. 3), show the earliest known form of savage decorative art — the forms which survive under the names of ‘chevron’ and ‘herring-bone.’ These can be scratched on clay with the nails, or a sharp stick, and this primeval way of decorating pottery made without the wheel survives, with other relics of savage art, in the western isles of Scotland. The Australian had not even learned to make rude clay pipkins, but he decorated his shields as the old Celts and modern old Scotch women decorated their clay pots, with the herring-bone arrangement of incised lines. In the matter of colour the Australians prefer white clay and red ochre, which they rub into the chinks in the woodwork of their shields. When they are determined on an ambush, they paint themselves all over with white, justly conceiving that their sudden apparition in this guise will strike terror into the boldest hearts. But arrangements in black and white of this sort scarcely deserve the name of even rudimentary art.

Decorated pottery and wooden objects
Fig. 3. — Savage Ornamentation.

Showing human and animal figures
Fig. 4. — An Australian Stele.

The Australians sometimes introduce crude decorative attempts at designing the human figure, as in the pointed shield opposite (Fig. 2, a), which, with the other Australian designs, are from Mr. Brough Smyth’s Aborigines of Victoria. But these ambitious efforts usually end in failure. Though the Australians chiefly confine themselves to decorative art, there are numbers of wall-paintings, so to speak, in the caves of the country which prove that they, like the Bushmen, could design the human figure in action when they pleased. Their usual preference for the employment of patterns appears to me to be the result of the nature of their materials. In modern art our mechanical advantages and facilities are so great that we are always carrying the method and manner of one art over the frontier of another. Our poetry aims at producing the effects of music; our prose at producing the effects of poetry. Our sculpture tries to vie with painting in the representation of action, or with lace-making in the production of reticulated surfaces, and so forth. But the savage, in his art, has sense enough to confine himself to the sort of work for which his materials are fitted. Set him in the bush with no implements and materials but a bit of broken shell and a lump of hard wood, and he confines himself to decorative scratches. Place the black in the large cave which Pundjel, the Australian Zeus, inhabited when on earth (as Zeus inhabited the cave in Crete), and give the black plenty of red and white ochre and charcoal, and he will paint the human figure in action on the rocky walls. Later, we will return to the cave-paintings of the Australians and the Bushmen in South Africa. At present we must trace purely decorative art a little further. But we must remember that there was once a race apparently in much the same social condition as the Australians, but far more advanced and ingenious in art. The earliest men of the European Continent, about whom we know much, the men whose bones and whose weapons are found beneath the gravel-drift, the men who were contemporary with the rhinoceros, mammoth and cave-bear, were not further advanced in material civilisation than the Australians. They used weapons of bone, of unpolished stone, and probably of hard wood. But the remnants of their art, the scraps of mammoth or reindeer bone in our museums, prove that they had a most spirited style of sketching from the life. In a collection of drawings on bone (probably designed with a flint or a shell), drawings by palæolithic man, in the British Museum, I have only observed one purely decorative attempt. Even in this the decoration resembles an effort to use the outlines of foliage for ornamental purposes. In almost all the other cases the palæolithic artist has not decorated his bits of bone in the usual savage manner, but has treated his bone as an artist treats his sketch-book, and has scratched outlines of beasts and fishes with his sharp shell as an artist uses his point. These ancient bones, in short, are the sketch-books of European savages, whose untaught skill was far greater than that of the Australians, or even of the Eskimo. When brought into contact with Europeans, the Australian and Eskimo very quickly, even without regular teaching, learn to draw with some spirit and skill. In the Australian stele, or grave-pillar, which we have engraved (Fig. 4), the shapeless figures below the men and animals are the dead, and the boilyas or ghosts. Observe the patterns in the interstices. The artist had lived with Europeans. In their original conditions, however, the Australians have not attained to such free, artist-like, and unhampered use of their rude materials as the mysterious European artists who drew the mammoth that walked abroad amongst them.


Fig. 5. —a, A Maori Design; b, Tattoo on a Maori’s Face.

We have engraved one solitary Australian attempt at drawing curved lines. The New Zealanders, a race far more highly endowed, and, when Europeans arrived amongst them, already far more civilised than the Australians, had, like the Australians, no metal implements. But their stone weapons were harder and keener, and with these they engraved the various spirals and coils on hard wood, of which we give examples here. It is sometimes said that New Zealand culture and art have filtered from some Asiatic source, and that in the coils and spirals designed, as in our engravings, on the face of the Maori chief, or on his wooden furniture, there may be found debased Asiatic influences.238 This is one of the questions which we can hardly deal with here. Perhaps its solution requires more of knowledge, anthropological and linguistic, than is at present within the reach of any student. Assuredly the races of the earth have wandered far, and have been wonderfully intermixed, and have left the traces of their passage here and there on sculptured stones, and in the keeping of the ghosts that haunt ancient grave-steads. But when two pieces of artistic work, one civilised, one savage, resemble each other, it is always dangerous to suppose that the resemblance bears witness to relationship or contact between the races, or to influences imported by one from the other. New Zealand work may be Asiatic in origin, and debased by the effect of centuries of lower civilisation and ruder implements. Or Asiatic ornament may be a form of art improved out of ruder forms, like those to which the New Zealanders have already attained. One is sometimes almost tempted to regard the favourite Maori spiral as an imitation of the form, not unlike that of a bishop’s crozier at the top, taken by the great native ferns. Examples of resemblance, to be accounted for by the development of a crude early idea, may be traced most easily in the early pottery of Greece. No one says that the Greeks borrowed from the civilised people of America. Only a few enthusiasts say that the civilised peoples of America, especially the Peruvians, are Aryan by race. Yet the remains of Peruvian palaces are often by no means dissimilar in style from the ‘Pelasgic’ and ‘Cyclopean’ buildings of gigantic stones which remain on such ancient Hellenic sites as Argos and Mycenæ. The probability is that men living in similar social conditions, and using similar implements, have unconsciously and unintentionally arrived at like results.


Fig. 6. — From a Maori’s Face.

Few people who are interested in the question can afford to visit Peru and Mycenæ and study the architecture for themselves. But any one who is interested in the strange identity of the human mind everywhere, and in the necessary forms of early art, can go to the British Museum and examine the American and early Greek pottery. Compare the Greek key pattern and the wave pattern on Greek and Mexican vases, and compare the bird faces, or human faces very like those of birds, with the similar faces on the clay pots which Dr. Schliemann dug up at Troy. The latter are engraved in his book on Troy. Compare the so-called ‘cuttle-fish’ from a Peruvian jar with the same figure on the early Greek vases, most of which are to be found in the last of the classical vase-rooms upstairs. Once more, compare the little clay ‘whorls’ of the Mexican and Peruvian room with those which Dr. Schliemann found so numerous at Hissarlik. The conviction becomes irresistible that all these objects, in shape, in purpose, in character of decoration, are the same, because the mind and the materials of men, in their early stages of civilisation especially, are the same everywhere. You might introduce old Greek bits of clay-work, figures or vases, into a Peruvian collection, or might foist Mexican objects among the clay treasures of Hissarlik, and the wisest archæologist would be deceived. The Greek fret pattern especially seems to be one of the earliest that men learnt to draw. The svastika, as it is called, the cross with lines at right angles to each limb, is found everywhere — in India, Greece, Scotland, Peru — as a natural bit of ornament. The allegorising fancy of the Indians gave it a mystic meaning, and the learned have built I know not what worlds of religious theories on this ‘pre-Christian cross,’ which is probably a piece of hasty decorative work, with no original mystic meaning at all.239 Ornaments of this sort were transferred from wood or bone to clay, almost as soon as people learned that early art, the potter’s, to which the Australians have not attained, though it was familiar to the not distant people of New Caledonia. The style of spirals and curves, again, once acquired (as it was by the New Zealanders), became the favourite of some races, especially of the Celtic. Any one who will study either the ornaments of Mycenæ, or those of any old Scotch or Irish collection, will readily recognise in that art the development of a system of ornament like that of the Maoris. Classical Greece, on the other hand, followed more in the track of the ancient system of straight and slanted lines, and we do not find in the later Greek art that love of interlacing coils and spirals which is so remarkable among the Celts, and which is very manifest in the ornaments of the Mycenæan hoards — that is, perhaps, of the ancient Greek heroic age. The causes of these differences in the development of ornament, the causes that made Celtic genius follow one track, and pursue to its æsthetic limits one early motif, while classical art went on a severer line, it is, perhaps, impossible at present to ascertain. But it is plain enough that later art has done little more than develop ideas of ornament already familiar to untutored races.

It has been shown that the art which aims at decoration is better adapted to both the purposes and materials of savages than the art which aims at representation. As a rule, the materials of the lower savages are their own bodies (which they naturally desire to make beautiful for ever by tattooing), and the hard substances of which they fashion their tools and weapons. These hard substances, when worked on with cutting instruments of stone or shell, are most easily adorned with straight cut lines, and spirals are therefore found to be, on the whole, a comparatively late form of ornament.


Fig. 7. — Bushman Dog.

We have now to discuss the efforts of the savage to represent. Here, again, we have to consider the purpose which animates him, and the materials which are at his service. His pictures have a practical purpose, and do not spring from what we are apt, perhaps too hastily, to consider the innate love of imitation for its own sake. In modern art, in modern times, no doubt the desire to imitate nature, by painting or sculpture, has become almost an innate impulse, an in-born instinct. But there must be some ‘reason why’ for this; and it does not seem at all unlikely that we inherit the love, the disinterested love, of imitative art from very remote ancestors, whose habits of imitation had a direct, interested and practical purpose. The member of Parliament who mimics the crowing of a cock during debate, or the street boy who beguiles his leisure by barking like a dog, has a disinterested pleasure in the exercise of his skill; but advanced thinkers seem pretty well agreed that the first men who imitated the voices of dogs, and cocks, and other animals, did not do so merely for fun, but with the practical purpose of indicating to their companions the approach of these creatures. Such were the rude beginnings of human language; and whether that theory be correct or not, there are certainly practical reasons which impel the savage to attempt imitative art. I doubt if there are many savage races which do not use representative art for the purposes of writing — that is, to communicate information to persons whom they cannot reach by the voice, and to assist the memory, which, in a savage, is perhaps not very strong. To take examples. A savage man meets a savage maid. She does not speak his language, nor he hers. How are they to know whether, according to the marriage laws of their race, they are lawful mates for each other? This important question is settled by an inspection of their tattooed marks. If a Thlinkeet man of the Swan stock meets an Iroquois maid of the Swan stock they cannot speak to each other, and the ‘gesture-language’ is cumbrous. But if both are tattooed with the swan, then the man knows that this daughter of the swan is not for him. He could no more marry her than Helen of Troy could have married Castor, the tamer of horses. Both are children of the Swan, as were Helen and Castor, and must regard each other as brother and sister. The case of the Thlinkeet man and the Iroquois maid is extremely unlikely to occur; but I give it as an example of the practical use, among savages, of representative art.

Among the uses of art for conveying intelligence we notice that even the Australians have what the Greeks would have called the σκυτάλη, a staff on which inscriptions, legible to the Aborigines, are engraven. I believe, however, that the Australian σκυτάλη is not usually marked with picture-writing but with notches — even more difficult to decipher. As an example of Red Indian picture-writing we publish a scroll from Kohl’s book on the natives of North America. This rude work of art, though the reader may think little of it, is really a document as important in its way as the Chaldæan clay tablets inscribed with the record of the Deluge. The coarsely-drawn figures recall, to the artist’s mind, much of the myth of Manabozho, the Prometheus and the Deucalion, the Cain and the Noah of the dwellers by the great lake. Manabozho was a great chief, who had two wives that quarrelled. The two stumpy half-figures (4) represent the wives; the mound between them is the displeasure of Manabozho. Further on (5) you see him caught up between two trees — an unpleasant fix, from which the wolves and squirrels refused to extricate him. The kind of pyramid with a figure at top (8) is a mountain, on which, when the flood came, Manabozho placed his grandmother to be out of the water’s way. The somewhat similar object is Manabozho himself, on the top of his mountain. The animals you next behold (10) were sent out by Manabozho to ascertain how the deluge was faring, and to carry messages to his grandmother. This scroll was drawn, probably on birch bark, by a Red Man of literary attainments, who gave it to Kohl (in its lower right-hand corner (11) he has pictured the event), that he might never forget the story of the Manabozhian deluge. The Red Indians have always, as far as European knowledge goes, been in the habit of using this picture-writing for the purpose of retaining their legends, poems, and incantations. It is unnecessary to say that the picture-writing of Mexico and the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt are derived from the same savage processes. I must observe that the hasty indications of the figure used in picture-writing are by no means to be regarded as measures of the Red Men’s skill in art. They can draw much better than the artist who recorded the Manabozhian legend, when they please.


Fig. 8. — Red Indian Picture-writing: the Legend of Manabozho.

In addition to picture-writing, Religion has fostered savage representative art. If a man worships a lizard or a bear, he finds it convenient to have an amulet or idol representing a bear or a lizard. If one adores a lizard or a bear, one is likely to think that prayer and acts of worship addressed to an image of the animal will please the animal himself, and make him propitious. Thus the art of making little portable figures of various worshipful beings is fostered, and the craft of working in wood or ivory is born. As a rule, the savage is satisfied with excessively rude representations of his gods. Objects of this kind — rude hewn blocks of stone and wood — were the most sacred effigies of the gods in Greece, and were kept in the dimmest recesses of the temple. No Demeter wrought by the craft of Phidias would have appeared so holy to the Phigalians as the strange old figure of the goddess with the head of a mare. The earliest Greek sacred sculptures that remain are scarcely, if at all, more advanced in art than the idols of the naked Admiralty Islanders. But this is anticipating; in the meantime it may be said that among the sources of savage representative art are the need of something like writing, and ideas suggested by nascent religion.

Depicting four hunters with a captive beast
Fig. 9. — Bushman Wall-painting.

The singular war-picture (Fig. 9) from a cave in South Africa, which we copy from the Cape Monthly Magazine, probably represents a magical ceremony. Bushmen are tempting a great water animal — a rhinoceros, or something of that sort — to run across the land, for the purpose of producing rain. The connection of ideas is scarcely apparent to civilised minds, but it is not more indistinct than the connection between carrying a bit of the rope with which a man has been hanged and success at cards — a common French superstition. The Bushman cave-pictures, like those of Australia, are painted in black, red, and white. Savages, like the Assyrians and the early Greeks, and like children, draw animals much better than the human figure. The Bushman dog in our little engraving (Fig. 7) is all alive — almost as full of life as the dog which accompanies the centaur Chiron, in that beautiful vase in the British Museum which represents the fostering of Achilles. The Bushman wall-paintings, like those of Australia, seem to prove that savage art is capable of considerable freedom, when supplied with fitting materials. Men seem to draw better when they have pigments and a flat surface of rock to work upon, than when they are scratching on hard wood with a sharp edge of a broken shell. Though the thing has little to do with art, it may be worth mentioning, as a matter of curiosity, that the labyrinthine Australian caves are decorated, here and there, with the mark of a red hand. The same mysterious, or at least unexplained, red hand is impressed on the walls of the ruined palaces and temples of Yucatan — the work of a vanished people.

Depicting two horse-like animals
Fig. 10. — Palæolithic Art.


Fig. 11. — Red Indian Art: the Thunder-bird.

There is one singular fact in the history of savage art which reminds us that savages, like civilised men, have various degrees of culture and various artistic capacities. The oldest inhabitants of Europe who have left any traces of their lives and handiwork must have been savages. Their tools and weapons were not even formed of polished stone, but of rough-hewn flint. The people who used tools of this sort must necessarily have enjoyed but a scanty mechanical equipment, and the life they lived in caves from which they had to drive the cave-bear, and among snows where they stalked the reindeer and the mammoth, must have been very rough. These earliest known Europeans, ‘palæolithic men,’ as they are called, from their use of the ancient unpolished stone weapons, appear to have inhabited the countries now known as France and England, before the great Age of Ice. This makes their date one of incalculable antiquity; they are removed from us by a ‘dark backward and abysm of time.’ The whole Age of Ice, the dateless period of the polishers of stone weapons, the arrival of men using weapons of bronze, the time which sufficed to change the climate and fauna and flora of Western Europe, lie between us and palæolithic man. Yet in him we must recognise a skill more akin to the spirit of modern art than is found in any other savage race. Palæolithic man, like other savages, decorated his weapons; but, as I have already said, he did not usually decorate them in the common savage manner with ornamental patterns. He scratched on bits of bone spirited representations of all the animals whose remains are found mixed with his own. He designed the large-headed horse of that period, and science inclines to believe that he drew the breed correctly. His sketches of the mammoth, the reindeer, the bear, and of many fishes, may be seen in the British Museum, or engraved in such works as Professor Boyd Dawkins’s Early Man in Britain. The object from which our next illustration (Fig. 12) was engraved represents a deer, and was a knife-handle. Eyes at all trained in art can readily observe the wonderful spirit and freedom of these ancient sketches. They are the rapid characteristic work of true artists who know instinctively what to select and what to sacrifice.

Depicting a crouching deer
Fig. 12. — Palæolithic Art: a Knife-handle.


Fig. 13. — Eskimo Drawing: a Reindeer Hunt.

Some learned men, Mr. Boyd Dawkins among them, believe that the Eskimo, that stunted hunting and fishing race of the Western Arctic circle, are descendants of the palæolithic sketchers, and retain their artistic qualities. Other inquirers, with Mr. Geikie and Dr. Wilson, do not believe in this pedigree of the Eskimo. I speak not with authority, but the submission of ignorance, and as one who has no right to an opinion about these deep matters of geology and ethnology. But to me, Mr. Geikie’s arguments appear distinctly the more convincing, and I cannot think it demonstrated that the Eskimo are descended from our old palæolithic artists. But if Mr. Boyd Dawkins is right, if the Eskimo derive their lineage from the artists of the Dordogne, then the Eskimo are sadly degenerated. In Mr. Dawkins’s Early Man is an Eskimo drawing of a reindeer hunt, and a palæolithic sketch of a reindeer; these (by permission of the author and Messrs. Macmillan) we reproduce. Look at the vigour and life of the ancient drawing — the feathering hair on the deer’s breast, his head, his horns, the very grasses at his feet, are touched with the graver of a true artist (Fig. 14). The design is like a hasty memorandum of Leech’s. Then compare the stiff formality of the modern Eskimo drawing (Fig. 13). It is rather like a record, a piece of picture-writing, than a free sketch, a rapid representation of what is most characteristic in nature. Clearly, if the Eskimo come from palæolithic man, they are a degenerate race as far as art is concerned. Yet, as may be seen in Dr. Rink’s books, the Eskimo show considerable skill when they have become acquainted with European methods and models, and they have at any rate a greater natural gift for design than the Red Indians, of whose sacred art the Thunder-bird brooding over page 298 is a fair example. The Red Men believe in big birds which produce thunder. Quahteaht, the Adam of Vancouver’s Island, married one, and this (Fig. 11) is she.


Fig. 14. — Palæolithic Sketch: a Reindeer.

We have tried to show how savage decorative art supplied the first ideas of patterns which were developed in various ways by the decorative art of advancing civilisation. The same progress might be detected in representative art. Books, like the guide-book to ancient Greece which Pausanias wrote before the glory had quite departed, prove that the Greek temples were museums in which the development of art might be clearly traced. Furthest back in the series of images of gods came things like that large stone which was given to Cronus when he wished to swallow his infant child Zeus, and which he afterwards vomited up with his living progeny. This fetich-stone was preserved at Delphi. Next came wild bulks of beast-headed gods, like the horse-headed Demeter of Phigalia, and it seems possible enough that there was an Artemis with the head of a she-bear. Gradually the bestial characteristics dropped, and there appeared such rude anthropomorphic images of Apollo — more like South Sea idols than the archer prince — as are now preserved in Athens. Next we have the stage of semi-savage realism, which is represented by the metopes of Selinus in Sicily, now in the British Museum, and by not a few gems and pieces of gold work. Greek temples have fallen, and the statues of the gods exist only in scattered fragments. But in the representative collection of casts belonging to the Cambridge Archæological Museum, one may trace the career of Greek art backwards from Phidias to the rude idol.

Three different ornaments depicting hunters and their prey
Fig. 15. — Archaic Greek Gems.

‘Savage realism’ is the result of a desire to represent an object as it is known to be, and not as it appears. Thus Catlin, among the Red Indians, found that the people refused to be drawn in profile. They knew they had two eyes, and in profile they seemed only to have one. Look at the Selinus marbles, and you will observe that figures, of which the body is seen in profile, have the full face turned to the spectator. Again, the savage knows that an animal has two sides; both, he thinks, should be represented, but he cannot foreshorten, and he finds the profile view easiest to draw. To satisfy his need of realism he draws a beast’s head full-face, and gives to the one head two bodies drawn in profile. Examples of this are frequent in very archaic Greek gems and gold work, and Mr. A. S. Murray suggests (as I understand him) that the attitude of the two famous lions, which guarded vainly Agamemnon’s gate at Mycenæ, is derived from the archaic double-bodied and single-headed beast of savage realism. Very good examples of these oddities may be found in the Journal of the Hellenic Society, 1881, pl. xv. Here are double-bodied and single-headed birds, monsters, and sphinxes. We engrave (Fig. 15) three Greek gems from the islands as examples of savagery in early Greek art. In the oblong gem the archers are rather below the Red Indian standard of design. The hunter figured in the first gem is almost up to the Bushman mark. In his dress ethnologists will recognise an arrangement now common among the natives of New Caledonia. In the third gem the woman between two swans may be Leda, or she may represent Leto in Delos. Observe the amazing rudeness of the design, and note the modern waist and crinoline. The artists who engraved these gems on hard stone had, of necessity, much better tools than any savages possess, but their art was truly savage. To discover how Greek art climbed in a couple of centuries from this coarse and childish work to the grace of the Ægina marbles, and thence to the absolute freedom and perfect unapproachable beauty of the work of Phidias, is one of the most singular problems in the history of art. Greece learned something, no doubt, from her early knowledge of the arts the priests of Assyria and Egypt had elaborated in the valleys of the Euphrates and the Nile. That might account for a swift progress from savage to formal and hieratic art; but whence sprang the inspiration which led her so swiftly on to art that is perfectly free, natural, and god-like? It is a mystery of race, and of a divine gift. ‘The heavenly gods have given it to mortals.’

237 The illustrations in this article are for the most part copied, by permission of Messrs. Cassell & Co., from the Magazine of Art, in which the Essay appeared.

238 Part of the pattern (Fig. 5, b) recurs on the New Zealand Bull-roarer, engraved in the Essay on the Bull-roarer.

239 See Schliemann’s Troja, wherein is much learning and fancy about the Aryan Svastika.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lang/andrew/custom_and_myth/chapter14.html

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