Art. VII.—Thoughts on Comparative Mythology.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 22nd December, 1897.]
In venturing to write on so vast a subject as comparative mythology, I can only hope to offer a very small contribution towards the knowledge of the subject. It appears presumptuous for a pigmy to venture among the giants engaged in conflict, but my excuse is that the weapons employed grow blunted in the long-protracted fight, and the contestants are sometimes grateful for a fresh supply, even if of rough and homely manufacture. “Many men, many minds,” and it may be that something of use may be added to the controversy. If not, the earnest desire may be “counted for righteousness.”
The field of comparative mythology is at present occupied by two parties. It is difficult in a few words to explain the position, but, roughly, the opinions of the opposing forces are as follows: One party considers that mythology has arisen from a desire to represent the forces of nature (perhaps the phenomena of nature) symbolically, and that by a “disease of language” these symbols have grown to be considered as personal beings, and have become deities, &c. These thinkers hold that the student of mythology must search in the literature of the ancient people to which any particular myth belongs if it is wished to understand what the myth once meant. It is a necessary adjunct to such study that a most careful and accurate scholarship in classical and Oriental languages be attained before any explanation of the meaning of myths handed down to us by peoples speaking those languages be attempted.
The other party contends that mythology has had little to do with language; that the same idea or similar ideas spring up almost spontaneously among all races when on a certain level of barbarism or civilisation. It is asserted that if we wish to understand the meaning of a myth invented by barbarians we must go among modern savages and find out from them what they understand on the subject, if any similar belief to that under consideration is to be found among them.
There is, of course, much to be said on both sides; the literature published on the subject is already enormous; the side-issues are endless; and the whole question, except to master-minds strong enough to hold firmly to main principles of their argument, appears confused and intricate, almost beyond comprehension. It can only, then, be the hope of illustrating some particular incident, or supplying some lost
link in the chain of evidence, that can make an outsider's thoughts on the subject worth taking into consideration.
I am led into doing my little part by the issue of a new book by the Right Hon. Professor Max Müller. It is called “Contributions to the Science of Mythology” (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897). I propose to make a series of running comments on those parts of the book which offer points that have struck me as capable of further illustration. I have not the presumption either to criticize the main argument or spoil the reader's enjoyment of the work by making long extracts.
Vol. I., page 6: The professor alludes to the legend of Tuna, and notes that the white kernel of the coco-nut was in Mangaia called “the brains of Tuna.” He says,—
Considering that “coco-nut” was used in Mangaia in the sense of head (testa), the kernel or flesh of it might well be called the brain.
This is certainly true, and the remark may be further strengthened by considering the native words actually used in the legend. “The brains of Tuna” is rendered in Mangaia as te roro o Tuna. Now, roro is a widely-known Polynesian word, and the complexity with which the two ideas “flesh of the coco-nut” and “brain” are interwoven renders confusion between the two almost a certainty; or, rather, makes the identity of each almost inseparable from the other. Thus, while in Maori roro means “the brain,” in Samoa lolo is used for “the coco-nut prepared for making scented oil.” In Hawaiian lolo means “the brain”; in Mangareva roro is “the skull,” and also “milk from coco-nuts”; in Mangaian roro is “brains”; in Fiji lolo is “the milk of the coco-nut squeezed from the kernel when scraped.” This proves that in ancient Polynesian the one word probably covered both meanings—” brains” and “the soft part of coco-nut.”
Page 75. The gods being once given, we can account for goddesses, for heroes and heroines. It is the gods who require explanation, and we know now with perfect certainty that in their first apparition they were simply the agents postulated as behind the most striking phenomena of nature.
This is a broad and far-reaching statement of position. It insists on the absolute necessity of drawing a mental line between mythology and folk-lore—that is, as I understand it, between the almost abstract conception of personified forces of nature and the elevation of heroic personages by means of miraculous machinery to the ranks of gods and demi-gods. It is difficult to give instances from New Zealand mythology, because it is only now beginning to emerge from obscurity; but we may consider Ao, the representative of Day or the Upper World (as opposed to Po, Night, the Lower World), as being one of the great forces, the scarcely-personified deities;
while Maui, as a hero, belongs more to the domain of folklore.*
It is said by the priests of Tahiti that it was impossible that the Maori of New Zealand could inherit the highest forms of the old Polynesian religion, because Ngatoro-a-rangi, who arrived here in the “Arawa” canoe, was the only great priest accompanying the expedition from Hawaiki—that he was only a priest of the third rank, and, as such, was not initiated in the higher mysteries. Be that as it may, there is to be found in old Maori songs and incantations vestiges of an infinitely higher conception of a divine being than any that for a long time we were taught were to be found within the Maori Pantheon. If we look over the sea to the men of the same race as the Maori we shall find that they based their beliefs on nature-forces, and had embodied these mentally in conceptions of such forces existing in awful majesty as uncreated deities governing the universe. Consider the solemn litanies with which the natives of Hawaii worshipped their Trinity—Light, Sound, and Stability (Kane, Ku, and Lono), or, as the Maori called them, Tane, Tu, and Rongo. Here is a fragment of this litany:—
The Priest: O Tane and Tu, the builder, is it true?
The Congregation: It is true, it is so.
The Priest: O great Rongo, dwelling on the water, is it true?
The Congregation: It is true, it is so.
The Priest: Quickened, increasing, moving. Raised up is the continent (island, division). Is it true?
The Congregation: It is true, it is so; it is true, it is so. The true god.
All together: Tane-po-rangi, O heavenly father, with Tu, the builder, in the blazing heaven, with great Rongo of the flashing eyes, a god, the god of lightning, the fixed light of heaven, standing on the earth, on the earth of Tane-tumu-whenua; he is god. It is true, it is so; it is so, it is true; he is the true god.
So, too, in Tahiti, Taaroa (Maori, Tangaroa)—who is in many places in Polynesia regarded as the god of ocean—appears in the mythology of the eastern groups as an abstract and apparently omnipresent deity. The Tahitian chant says,—
He abides—Taaroa by name—
In the immensity of space.
There was no earth, there was no heaven,
There was no sea, there was no mankind;
Taaroa is the root,
Taaroa is the rock (or foundation),
Taaroa is the light,
Taaroa is within.
[Footnote] * This remark is subject to the fuller consideration given to the true position of Maui in mythology in a subsequent part of this paper.
Tangaroa was also regarded as a primal deity in the Marquesas, where he is called “Tanaoa” :—
In the beginning, Space and companions;
Space was the high heaven,
Tanaoa filled and dwelt in the whole heavens.
And Mutuhei was entwined above.
There was no voice, there was no sound,
No living things were moving,
There was no day, there was no light.
It is through the mythology of these Marquesans that we are able to recognise these primal gods as nature-forces. Everything is vast, immense, mysterious; no place for mere human heroes here. In the boundless Night resided Tanaoa, whose name here means Darkness. With him reigned Silence (Mutuhei); but in this realm of Darkness and Silence lay the unawakened germ of all that was hereafter to come. Evolved from himself, Light (Atea) made war on Darkness, drove him away, and confined him within limits. Proceeding from Light came Sound (Ono, or Rongo), who destroyed and broke up for ever the rule of Silence over the universe. In the struggle between Light and Darkness, Sound and Silence, the Dawn (Atanua) arose. Light took the Dawn for wife, and from their union sprang the lesser gods. As we read this cosmogony we almost seem to be listening to some old Aryan hymn setting forth the marriage of the Sun and the Dawn. Atea and Tangaroa may change their attributes, and we shall find them do so if we wander from island to island, and allow the lapse of time to weave ridiculous stories round the deities of a decaying faith, but the fact will remain, never to be explained away, that Light and Darkness, Sound and Dawn were primal gods of the Polynesian, anterior to all heroworship, and more ancient than all folk-tales. If any one should say that such broad and abstract conceptions were impossible to these simple islanders, I would quote their lofty and magnificent hymn, where among many other fine expressions they say,—
O thrones placed in the middle of the upper heavens!
O thrones whereon to seat the Lord of love!
The great Lord Atea established in love.
Born is his first son, his princely son.
O the great prince! O the sacred superior!
O the princely son! first born of divine power.
O the Lord of everything! here, there, and always.
O the Lord of the heavens and the entire sky!
O Atea! their life, body, and spirit.
Here there is no lack of the higher religious feeling, and it is a long leap downwards before we come to the deified human hero. Even when, however, the myth has become a folk-tale it is often certain that if we could trace the folk-tale
to its fountain-head we should arrive at a myth-source—that is, at the observation of natural phenomena. I class the Maui legends rather as folk-tales than as myths only, because they are related as if they belonged to a lower stratum of thought than that we have been considering. They are told with a familiarity, with an absence of reverence, that to me seems to mark a distinction. The name of Maui is not regarded like that of Io, the Supreme Being, a name to be uttered with whispered breath, and never under a roof, only out under the great vault of heaven. Yet the deeds ascribed to Maui are of supernatural interest. He was the Sun-catcher, the Fire-bringer, the fisherman who drew the world of Day up from the abyss of Night, the hero who died in the attempt to win immortality for men. Nevertheless his story is told in colloquial language, with laughter for Maui the crafty, Maui the deceiver of gods and men. The deeds related of him shrink, on account of the strong human personality so forcibly presented in the legends, until we forget how impossible it is that the actions he is said to have performed could have been executed by any creature in human likeness or akin to our race. We seem to see him, and know him well as a brother; he sleeps on his mother's arm; he plaits his ropes, prepares his bait, chooses his weapon, performs his devotions, and, at last, dies as a mortal dies. But when we meditate on the story, stripping away the conversational freedoms and familiarities that loving sympathy with the hero has caused the narrator to add to his narrative, we find that Maui, though he is the sun-catcher, is himself the sun; though he brings fire from the under-world for mortals, he is himself the solar fire. It can be proved in many ways. How else can we explain such a verse as that in the ancient Hawaiian song:—
A-Taranga the husband, Hina-ka-te ahi the wife;
Born was Maui the foremost; born was Maui the middle one;
Born was Maui Tikitiki; born was Maui from the apron (maro).
From the girdle that A-Taranga had fastened,
Pregnant was Hina, and a fowl (moa) was born,
A hen's egg was the offspring that Hina conceived.
If this is related of human beings it is not to be explained. However, we know from other sources that Hina was the Moon-goddess, and that when she bore Maui (himself an immature birth*) and the egg she was bringing forth Light and Darkness, the holy twins, as Leda brought forth the swan's egg that produced Castor and Pollux, and as in the
[Footnote] * The Maori regarded premature births with superstitious awe, and looked with dread upon an abortion or miscarriage. Such abortive births were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers, generally of a malignant character.
Veda we are told that Saranyu bore the twins of Day and Night, the Asvins.* It is riddling talk, but there is an answer to the riddle.
I may say here, while speaking of Maui as a purely mythical personage, that consideration of the legends regarding him helps to make me a sceptic and a heretic on the subject of Maori genealogy. Some genealogies are very interesting, and when compared with others are full of points of study, especially if viewed with the eyes of the psychologist or anthropologist. But, historically, beyond a few generations back from living natives, they are, in my opinion, totally unreliable. For instance, in the pedigree of Major Ropata, Maui is shown as his direct ancestor twenty-eight generations ago.† Allowing twenty-five years to a generation, this gives seven hundred years. So that, according to this account, it is only seven centuries ago (say, in the year that Richard Cœurde-lion died) since Maui pulled up the North Island of New Zealand from the sea. Similarly, if we consider the genealogies of Mangaia Island as given us by the late Dr. W. Wyatt Gill,‡ we find that between the high priest of Motoro, living in A.D. 1830, and his first ancestor, Papaaunuku (i.e., in Maori, Papa-tu-a-nuku = Mother Earth, the wife of Rangi, Heaven), there were only nine generations. This would be startling if we could not compare it with three genealogies given by Grimm in his “Teutonic Mythology,”§ in which he shows that the Princes of Kent, Bernicia, and Essex all traced their descent directly to the god Woden in nine generations also.∥
Page 78. It is said with a certain amount of plausibility that these ancient races must have remembered also something else—some real heroes, some real battles—and that they would have talked and sung of
[Footnote] * Hina, the sister of Maui (the Light-god), is known to the Maori as Hina-uri—i.e., Hina the dark one.
[Footnote] † For pedigree, see Tregear's “Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary,” p. 668. There can be no doubt that this is the legendary Maui, because he is given as the son of Taranga, daughter of Muriranga-whenua.
[Footnote] ‡ “Savage Life in Polynesia,” p. 227.
[Footnote] § Vol. i., 165.
them rather than of the battle between Light and Darkness, between Day and Night, between Sunshine and Rain, between Spring and Winter. So it seems, but it has been shown that even in our own time nothing is so striking as the forgetfulness of the people where there is no printed literature to keep up the memory of great events. Experiments have been made, and it was found that peasants living near Leipzig know nothing of the great battle, except what they may have learnt at school. I myself heard an old woman assuring her friends that after Waterloo Napoleon had been hiding in England for many years, and had at last come back to Paris to fight the Germans. To test the retentiveness of the memory of peasants similar experiments have been made in the neighbourhood of the great battlefields of Frederick the Great. The people all knew some anecdote, more or less mythical, of the Olle Fritze, but of the battles near their own villages—of the position of the armies, of the flight of the enemy, of acts of valour and all the rest—they knew nothing at all. Places are shown where the king is supposed to have jumped on horseback over a river which no one but an old heathen god or a hero could ever have jumped—that is to say, popular legends were beginning to absorb historical reality.
The above remarks as to the forgetfulness of a people without printed literature need qualification. The modern instances adduced illustrate the weakness of memory among people accustomed to rely upon literature to preserve their history. They have therefore allowed their legendary memory to become almost rudimentary from disuse. Among races totally unacquainted with literature the converse of the statement takes place. With the Polynesians, for instance, the most laborious efforts were used to insure strictness in handing down their ancient legends, just as in those instances of the oral transmission of the Vedas in India, so well described by Professor Max Müller himself. Printed books are the enemies of memory.
The last sentence in the above quotation—that relating to the leap of the king across a river—may perhaps bear an illustration from my own experience. Many years ago I was walking with a Maori on the bank of the Waikato River, near the village of Te Whetu. The native chief said to me, “I will show you something that no white man has ever yet seen. I will show you our ancestor, Raukawa.” This Maori belonged to the Tribe of Ngati-raukawa. We left the river-side and proceeded up a narrow valley. Turning a sharp angle in it, we came upon a huge conical stone. It was about 30 ft. in height, if my memory serves me. About 20 ft. up was a bright patch of red ochre. The Maori said, “Do you see the kura (red mark)?” I answered, “Yes, what is it?” He replied, “That is the blood that flowed from the wound when he was killed. That is my ancestor, Raukawa. He was a giant; he leapt across the Waikato River at the place where Cambridge now stands.” I said, “I should like to understand exactly what you mean. Do you want me to know that this stone was set up in memory of your ancestor, and
made sacred for him?” He answered, “No, this is my ancestor himself.” I then said, “You must know that you are talking nonsense. A stone cannot give life to a race of men, nor could it leap across the Waikato. You mean that the stone has been named for Raukawa, or else, perhaps, that your giant forefather was turned into stone by the gods and the petrified hero stands in this spot.” “No,” he replied doggedly, “that is Raukawa, and the red mark is the place where he was mortally wounded.” I shook my head in despair. I could not follow his thought, but I feel sure that he believed in some queer idea of personality in the stone.
Page 80. Some of these riddles seem to arise quite spontaneously. Nothing was more natural for the ancient Aryas than to speak of the rising sun as the “child of the morning,” and of the setting sun as the “child of the evening.” Nor did it require any poetical effort to speak of the two as “twins,” and as the “children of day and night.” But, from another point of view, the day might be called the offspring, which would mean no more than the product, of the rising sun, and the night the offspring of the setting sun. Thus the riddle was ready at hand. Even a savage might be tempted to ask, How can the sun beget his parents? And this question is actually asked in one of the hymns of the Rig-Veda (I., 95, 4): “Who can comprehend that hidden god (Agni)? The young child has given birth to his mother.”
In this quotation we see, as I think, the very heart of all mythology, and an explanation why this puzzling mythology is a “disease of language.” No other mode is there of explaining the monstrous and inexplicably disgusting tales told concerning the lives and actions of the deities, unless we refer them to riddling descriptions of personified natural phenomena. As to classical and Oriental mythology, the ground is already occupied by great scholars; but I may perhaps be allowed to call the attention of Polynesian students to this mode of interpretation of our own myths. What else can explain the legend of the god Tane and his daughter Hine-a-tauira?* I need not repeat the tradition; I give the references. The story, if told of one of the rulers of the universe, is horrible; but when we know that Tane, the great Heaven-father, is the Lord of Light, then we understand the imagery of the tradition, and recognise its veiled truth. It is idle to suppose that even savages would ascribe to the higher Powers faults and moral defects which they would look upon with loathing in one of themselves. Many of us have in our youth sat open-mouthed and wondering to find that cultured people like the Greeks and Romans could relate with sobriety the accounts they have given us of their great deities. The actions of Jupiter and Juno, of Apollo and Venus, were
[Footnote] * Shortland's “Maori Religion,” p. 22; White's “Ancient History of the Maori,” i., 145.
actions that would have been held infamous among human citizens. We cannot conceive such citizens building temples, and offering incense to such atrocious conceptions—nay, that even while regulating their daily lives in modes conformable to exalted ideas of morality they could worship beings whose conduct, as related by priest and poet, was tainted with diabolical crime. Comparative mythology has come to explain this mystification, this benumbing ignorance of ours in regard to the thoughts and devotions of the men of an elder day; and it shows us that the action of natural phenomena has been riddled about till Light and Darkness, Dawn and Sunset, Storm and Calm, Fire and Water—aye, even Beauty and Ugliness—have been hidden under names that when misunderstood (“diseased”) have brought about as a result unbelievable life-histories of divine personages. As an example, take the Samoan tradition of Space. It says,—
Space had a long-legged seat. At another birth Cloudy Heavens brought forth a head. This was the head that was said to have fallen from the heavens. Space set it upon his high stool, and said to it, “O beloved! be a son; be a second with me on the earth.” Space started back, for all of a sudden the body of a man-child was added to the head. The child was sensible, and inquired who his father was. Space replied, “Your father is yonder in the east, yonder in the west, yonder towards the sea, and yonder inland, yonder above and yonder below.” Then the boy said, “I have found my name, call me ‘All-the-sides-of-heaven.”” And from him sprang the four divisions, East, West, North, and South.
Who would be surprised if he were to find in some other place the above legend humanised?—that is, that there was a chief once who was named “The Sides of Heaven”; that he had fathers named East and West, who were also his sons, East and West. It is enigmatic, riddling, but not inexplicable. Riddles such as these are still asked as an amusement in Samoa. There, for instance, the natives find recreation in making puzzling inquiries about natural objects. They will say, “There is a man who calls out continually, day and night.” The explanation is, “The surf on the reef.” Again, they say, “A man who has a white head stands above the fence, and reaches to the heavens.” Explanation: “The smoke rising from the oven.” And so on. There is no difference between such riddles and that quoted by Mannhardt from the Russian, “What is the red gown before the forest and before the grove?” and answered by the Lett legend that tells how the Sun-daughter (the Dawn) hangs her red gown on the great oak-tree.*
Whether we speak of sun, or surf, or smoke in this manner the observed action of the natural object has, as soon as
[Footnote] * Max Müller, Cont. Sci. Myth. i., 83.
it is clothed with language, the disease-germ which will one day cause its real origin to be forgotten in the supernatural, and legends will be told about divine beings named Sun, or Surf, or Smoke. This is the genesis of all primal myths, whether related by Greek, Brahmin, or Polynesian.
Page 174. Some of these thoughts evoked in man by the aspect of nature can be discovered even among the so-called savage races of the world. But we must not imagine that because they go naked they are the same as the ancient Aryas. What there now is left of savages consists to a great extent of decadent races defeated in the universal struggle for life, driven back by more vigorous conquerors to the very edge of the habitable world, or taking refuge in deserts where there was no competition, no rivalry, no war or discord. They have become stunted intellectually, and often physically also…. One thing they may possess that is really genuine and old—their language—but that is the very thing which we are told we need not study in order to understand the modern savage.
It is this idea, so forcibly put in the above quotation, that is confirmed by the study of Polynesian myths and folk-lore, and still more in the study of the language. It is true, of course, that inquiry into a language is beset with many snares and pitfalls, but no one who really loves it can investigate the language of Polynesia without being impressed with the belief that herein lies embalmed the memories of other and far different epochs of enlightenment and culture than the present social and religious condition of the people would have led us to believe. Here we have barbaric or semi-barbaric tribes, in many of their customs and usages little above the veriest savage, but they possess (to use metaphor) rudimentary muscles and bones of social polity which show to the eye of the inquirer a former stage of existence, just as surely as the whale or the python exhibits an undeveloped or atrophied primal structure to the investigations of the comparative anatomist. These island peoples were probably not always island peoples; their pedigree is as ancient, if it could be traced, as that of the most civilised nation, even up to the first few human creatures that lived upon earth. Who shall say that, being barbarians, they always have been barbarians? It would, indeed, be impossible to prove, and my own belief is exactly opposed to such a notion. To what does this view of the subject lead us? To the position that if we rely too much upon modern custom or modern ignorance among savages to explain the birth of myth among primitive men we may be led entirely astray, since our modern savages may not be primitive men at all, if by primitive we understand “original,” “untouched,” “near the fountain-head of innocence.” They may be, and probably are, the degraded descendants and broken remnants of mighty peoples, and their simplicity is not the result of innocence, but of ignorance and decay. For
instance, the infinitely intricate marriage systems of Australia and Fiji do not appear to have the merit of simplicity, while the tapu systems and the esoteric forms of Polynesian religion, of which we get occasional glimpses, are much more like broken-up relicts of antiquated and cumbrous ceremonials derived from ancient beliefs than the product of the mind of an untaught barbarian prostrate before the bunch of bloodstained feathers or other fetish upon which he relies for success in war or the chase, whatever may be the abstract idea that first made his fetish sacred. It is true that without modern cannibalism it would hardly have been possible for us to conceive a social condition in which cannibalism was common, and so the habits and customs of our own ancestors could not have been comprehended with the force and vividness impressed upon our minds by comparative anthropology.
Now we are able to realise the horror of man-eating; the coarseness and indelicacy therein associated with the profaned human body; the shocking cruelty and loss of much fine feeling that the existence of this one evil practice entails. It is only when we find the Fijians tying the babies of the foe by the feet to the mastheads of the canoes, so that the tender little heads might batter against the mast as the victors sailed into port among welcoming friends, that we learn its horror. Only when, as in Mangaia, we hear of the party sent to find a victim for Rongo entering a house and informing one of the girls that she is “the fish of the god”; her aunt dressing the weeping maiden in her best attire, that she might go decently outside to receive the fatal blow; then the naked body, impaled on a long spear, is carried off to the altar—when we read such tales we realise the infamous cruelty of such a custom. But we must not allow our detestation to overcome other knowledge that we gain at the same time, for we find that these same men, though cannibals by custom, were brave, were hospitable, were clever and adroit, were generally peaceable, kind in their homes, and certainly religious, even ready to die a painful death rather than do anything they thought impious or displeasing to the gods. Such knowledge it is well to gain; but there is danger to correct thinking if we project from this information inferences based thereon, and certainly not applicable to other nations or peoples under different influences, or at another stage of development. The ideas of the Fijian or the Mangaian may not explain the ideas of the Brahmin or the Greek, although their customs may illustrate forcibly to us similar customs once, perhaps, common to all. When their religious ideas are proved to have affinity, such as their myths having sprung from observation of nature-forces, then this shows that at one time or other they reached the
same intellectual level, just as the worship of a painted stone in America would show that the worshipper was on the religious level of the worshipper of a painted stone in Africa. Neither of these stages, however, may be the stage of primitive man. Modern cannibalism does not explain the story of Chronos (Saturn) devouring his children as soon as they were born, because the word “Chronos” is still transparent as “Time,” and we understand how Time devours his own children; but if we considered the legend as relating to some old Greek cannibal of the name of Chronos we might (had the name become “diseased” out of recognition) have said, “Oh, yes, eating one's children is a well-known custom among savages; this is certainly an historical legend.”
Page 508. It may be that the language of the Veda and Avesta can help us to explain the name of one who, according to Eustathius, was the father of Ouranos—nay, who was also called the father of Kronos. This is Akmon, which in Greek means “meteoric stone, thunderbolt, and anvil.” But how could Akmon in any of these senses be called the father of Ouranos? The riddle, like many other mythological riddles, has been solved by etymology. Akmon is clearly the Vedic asman, which means “stone,” and afterwards “thunderbolt,” but also “heaven”; so that its dual is actually used in the sense of heaven and earth. It is clear, therefore, that the sky had once been conceived as a stone vault, and this is confirmed by the fact that in the Avesta also asman means “sky,” and has remained the name for “sky” to the present day in the modern Persian word for “sky,” which is âsmân… In Sanscrit the sun also is conceived as a stone—for instance, in the Sat.-br., ix., 2, 3, 14; asau vâ âdityo-smâ prisnih (That sun is a dazzling stone).
Here we open up a most interesting train of thought, with unending collaterals; it is as to the connection between stone and god. It might have had its lowest expression in the worship of a simple stone as a “fetish,” but even in this it appears doubtful whether the worship of the stone was not preceded by some more abstract idea. What savage, of however low a grade, could conceive that a stone could help him—that it was a superior being, that it was, as he says, “his father and mother”? Of the two considerations—viz., the transference of the idea of deity from a simple unshaped stone up to the unseen mighty beings inhabiting the heavens, or the attribution of certain powers of great gods to material objects such as stones—I prefer the latter. The transfer of supernatural powers from a deity to its symbol seems easy enough when one notes the constant craving in superstitious people for some image or material object on which to look as well as meditate. Sacredness grows round such symbols until it is hard to distinguish between reverence for the object itself or for the unseen being it represents.
In the early days of even the most cultured nations there was a time when stones of the rudest character were worshipped. The Greeks and Romans had beautiful statues of
their gods, but in their primitive days unhewn stones found plenty of worshippers. In England so late as the eleventh century King Canute had to forbid the worship of stones in England; while in Brittany it is doubtful whether at the present moment the reverence paid to sacred stones is not deeply ingrained in the hearts of the people. In Ireland not only are there traces of stone-worship everywhere, but so late as the last century there was, on the Island of Inniskea, a rude stone named Neevougi, worshipped as an idol, and kept rolled round in yards of flannel, just as the Pacific-islanders swathe their images of gods. This idol was brought out and served with incantations to calm the sea for fishing expeditions, but also to wreck the ships of strangers. Neevougi was also a potent god in times of sickness. Mahomet found the Arabians worshipping a black stone that had fallen from heaven, and that stone—the Kaaba at Mecca—has been kissed by thousands of adoring lips even in the present year. The worship of stones prevailed among the Jews until the second century of our era, as we find from the Mishna.* They laid offerings before the Markulim, or Mercury, a kind of menhir. Their margamah was a “heap” of stones generally piled under a sacred tree, and each passer-by added a stone to the heap. A similar custom is known among the Melanesians. At Valuva, in Saddle Island, every travelling stranger throws his stone on the heap as he goes along. It is not necessary to make further reference to the innumerable examples of stone-worship that have been collected in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, but we may notice a few instances nearer home. The Motumotu Tribe, of New Guinea, worship certain sacred stones in rivers, and many rocks and mountains are sacred. At Aneityum, in the New Hebrides, one stone, resembling a fish, is set up as a fisherman god, another resembling a bread-fruit is the bread-fruit god. The Solomon-islanders are greatly addicted to stone-worship, not only of large stones associated with powerful ghosts, but also of small sacred stones that can be carried about by sorcerers. In Samoa the gods Fonge, Toafa, Nave, and others are of stone; in Fiji offerings are made to stones of phallic shape near Vuna. In New Zealand no Maori of old times ever passed the sacred stone at the head of the Hokianga (brought by Nukutawhiti) without breaking off a raurekau branch, laying it on the stone, and reciting a particular charm. There is a similar custom in the Banks and Solomon Islands, in which groups the natives place sticks, leaves, &c., at a place of steep descent, or where a difficult path begins.† At Nikunau they show a
[Footnote] * “Mishna,” Aboda Zarah, iv., 1.
[Footnote] † Codrington, “The Melanesians,” 186.
certain chivalry in their religious matters, for among the different slabs or pillars of sandstone set up here and there among the houses the slab representing a goddess is laid flat and that symbolizing a god is placed upright. This is done lest the slab representing a lady should grow tired of standing for a long time.
These examples, interesting from an anthropological point of view, do not affect the mythological side of stone-worship, nor do they explain it. We must turn to the “word-disease” theory again before we unravel allusions to stones in the Polynesian hymns. The Maori words for stone are “kowhatu” and “powhatu.” These appear to be compounds of whatu, and whatu is sometimes found in old legends and chants with the meaning of stone, but generally a stone of a peculiar kind. At present whatu means the “stone of a fruit, a kernel, a hailstone, the pupil of the eye”; and, in Hawaii, “the eyeball.” Everywhere in Polynesia forms of this word are in use as stone—viz., fatu, haku, atu, &c., and it is found through all languages of the Pacific—Melanesian, Micronesian, Malay, and others—as vatu, batu, watu, patu, &c. When we find that this word has in some places acquired a secondary meaning—that of Lord or God—we must try to ascertain how it arose. That whatu, or fatu, is so applied is certain. The Marquesan hymn above quoted calls “the great Lord Atea” “Te Fatu nui Atea”; “the exalted Lord” is “Te Fatu tikitiki”; “the Lord of Ocean” is “Te Fatu moana.” In the Chatham Islands the name of Tangaroa, the Lord of Ocean, is Tangaroa-whatu-moana. In Tahiti the translation of “Master and Lord” is “O te Orometua e te Fatu.” In Hawaii Keawe is alluded to as Haku o Hawaii, “Lord of Hawaii.” We thus see that the word was applied as a title to their highest gods. But there are most interesting examples of its use in sacrifice and incantation that might perhaps show whether the idea of sanctity grew upward or downward. Old priestly teachings reveal that when the Maori people left their ancient country (wherever that was) they brought away with them certain small precious stones of a reddish colour—very hard stones, made sacred with incantations, and dedicated to the gods. These were the whatu-kura, the sacred stones;* and through all their wanderings these were religiously guarded as a means of communicating with their deities, as a kind of Urim and Thummim. When they arrived at a new island or country one of these stones was always set into another of a larger size (a hole being bored in the larger stone for the reception of the other) so soon as they could procure a suitable local stone for the purpose. This symbolized the union
[Footnote] * Or “red stones.”
between the old condition and the new. The two stones, one within the other, were then enclosed in a great wooden or stone pillar set up in the most sacred place, and never approached afterwards save by the high priest; for others to draw near it would be desecration: If the wanderings again began the stone was removed from its hiding-place, and carried off to make sacred some other shore. Can we hope to know why the red stone was sacred? Probably it arises as follows: We have all read how in the ancient world the gates of a city or the foundation of a tower were “set up” on a murdered human being. “In thy eldest son thou shalt set up the gates thereof.” In Fiji it was the custom till very lately to plant each of the main posts of a chief's new house on the body of a victim: and in New Zealand the larger posts of a pa fence sometimes had each the body of a man buried under it. So, also, here, on the construction of a large guest-house, or a meeting-house of the tribe, a victim was sacrificed and buried at the base of the main pillar. But first the heart was cut out and was named whatu (stone, kernel, core—i.e., cor, heart). This was cooked and eaten by the priest as the god's portion.* In Samoa fatu was a name of the heart. Is it not possible that this whatu (the heart) was the original symbolized by the red stone carried as whatu-kura to be a medium of the gods, and enclosed in another stone (that acted as a sort of body to the life-giving whatu) on arriving in a new country? That the person killed was not always a slave, but sometimes a very precious offering indeed, may be gathered from the chant beginning Mana-mana hau,† where it says,—
Then Taraia built his house,
Placing his youngest child
As a whatu for the rearmost pillar
Of his house, of Te Raro-akiaki.
The confusion of words noticed by Professor Max Müller as existing between akmon and asman, between “stone” and “sun,” is shown to exist also in Polynesia between “stone” and “star.” Fetu or whetu (a star) is probably a divergent from whatu (a stone). In Melanesian Futuna the word for “star” is fatu. This appears still more likely when we consider that in Maori whatu means “the pupil of the eye,” and in Hawaiian “the eye-ball.” We know that in Polynesia some stars were considered to be eyes, especially eyes of chiefs and heroes, just as in the ancient German mythology it is said that “Odin took Thiassi's eyes and threw them against
[Footnote] * Sometimes the victim himself was called whatu.
[Footnote] † “The Polynesian Journal,” v., 153.
the sky, where they formed two stars.”* If, then, whatu (the eye-ball) could become whetu—that is, “stone” could become “star”—it is easy to see how confusion could arise as to a division in the adoration paid to the god dwelling in the star and that paid to his earthly representative, the stone named after him. That the sun was actually worshipped under the symbol of a stone is certain. The Rev. Mr. McQueen, of Skye, says that in almost every village the sun, called “Grugach, or the Fair-haired,” is represented by a rude stone, and he further adds that libations of milk were poured on the gruaich-stones.† In the Banks Islands (Melanesia) the sun is often represented by a stone in some of their magical ceremonies. “The stone to represent the sun might also be laid upon the ground, with a circle of white rods radiating from it for its beams.”‡ So that we find in localities so widely separated as Scotland, India, and Melanesia sun and stone worshipped as one, and probably called by the same word in priestly mysteries. The genesis of the idea becomes apparent. It arises from the immobility of the stone. Mountains and rocks endure, man passes by them like a flitting cloud, and so the great stones gather about them thoughts of eternity, of endless existence, of enduring peace. The sun, the lord of light, is called a rock or stone because he is the type of enduring majesty—of the unchanging duration of the times and seasons of the world. He is the foundation. As Taaroa said, “I am the rock.” Then the idea of sacredness is transferred from the enduring eternal rock in the heavens, seen only by the spiritual eye, to the lesser rock, the stone set up in honour of the ideal; so that the eye of the prosaic and unimaginative may rest thereon in comfort.
As to the sacred stone, okaka, put as a heart into the effigy of raupo (bulrush) when the priest is removing the curse called “apiti”; and also as to the stones named for enemies and buried when the curse called “kanga” is being removed, all these are of interest; but my paper has already grown to inordinate length, and many of the ideas suggested by Professor Müller's book must be left for some other occasion.