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Chapter III. Inanimate Nature
The progress of knowledge has been an advance from poetry to prose. In part it has consisted in forgetting the things that were not so. Through most of the story of mankind everything was fabulous. There were no inanimate objects at the beginning. Sticks and stones had a soul. This belief passed, but some quality of marvel remained—the rhythm of the moon repeated in things terrestrial; the loves and antipathies of the plants; the properties of gems to bring good fortune or ill, to promote fecundity, to test the continence of men and women. There was an unwieldy mass of topographical legends. Every township had its shrine, or wonder-working well, or hill or tree that broke a law of nature. There were strange cures for aches and pains. Illusion was everywhere. The lumber rooms of history are stored with traditions in which is the faint fragrance of faded wonder.
Sea and sky had each their part in the drama of life. To the Celt the voices of the waves carried warning, or sympathy, or prophecy. The ninth wave was larger than those before it, and mystery was in it. It was thought that no man or animal beside the Gallic sea died with a rising tide. The sun sank into the ocean with a hissing sound, and there were races on both sides of the world that heard it. The moon, Pliny said, “is not unjustly regarded as the star of our life.” All seas were purified when it was full, the Nile waxed and waned with it, and sap in trees, and even men's blood, increased or diminished with its phases. The time of the rising of the Dog Star was a sort of zero hour for many things in nature and husbandry.
The Table of the Sun
There was a Table of the Sun, where the earth itself presided as host. Herodotus was the first to describe it. He says that when Cambyses, the Persian king, was in Egypt, he sent spies into Ethiopia under the pretense of bearing gifts to court, but in reality to see if the table were a fact. The spies came back with various stories—that the Ethiopians drank only milk and water, that they lived to be one hundred and twenty years old, that the Fountain of Youth bubbled up in that country, and that they had seen the Table of the Sun. This was set by direction of the magistrates in a meadow in the outskirts of the capital city, and the people of the land said that the earth itself brought forth the food spread upon the table for all comers. For a full description one may use with advantage the idiomatic paraphrase of Purchas:
“Of the Table of the Sunne thus writeth Friar Luys de Urreta: that the king in a curious braverie, and sumptuous vanitie, caused there to bee set by night in a certain field store of white bread, and the choysest wines; hanged also on the Trees great varietie of Fowles, rost and boyled, and set on the ground, Mutton, Lambe, Veale, Beefe, with many other dainties ready dressed. Travellers and hungry persons which came hither and found this abundance, seeing no bodie which prepared, or which kept the same, ascribed it to Jupiter Hospitalis his bounty and hospitality, shewing himselfe a Protector of poore
Travellers, and called this field the Table of the Sunne. The report hereof passed through the world, and brought many Pilgrims from farre Countries, to visit the same. Plato the Prince of Philosophers entred into Aethiopia, led with desire to see this renowned Table and to eate of those delicacies. The Aethi. opians, since their Christianity, in zealous detestation of Idol. atry, will not so much as name this field, and these ancient Rites.”
It has been suggested that the legend derives from the system of dumb trading between civilized and savage peoples which in Africa antedates history. If this be so, the wheat was supplied by merchants rather than by the king, the magistrates laid down the rules for the voiceless market, and the natives, coming after the merchants had withdrawn, left gold in exchange for what they took away.
The Mountain of Lodestone
Agib, son of a sultan and by his vicissitudes become the Third Calendar of the Arabian Nights, had embarked with all the royal fleet on a tour of his provinces. A storm blew them out of their course, and then by virtue of the iron in the ships they were drawn irresistibly toward a black mountain or mine of adamant that loomed before them. They saw upon it a dome of fine brass and on the dome a brazen horse, carrying a rider who had a plate of lead on his breast, on which talismanic characters were graven. Suddenly "all the nails and iron in the ships flew toward the mountain, where they were fixed, by the violence of the attraction, with a horrible noise; the ships split asunder, and their cargoes sunk into the sea," with all the men save Agib himself. He gained the shore, climbed to the dome, and slept there, in his sleep receiving good counsel. The next day he shot three arrows of lead from a bow of brass at the brazen horse and its rider. They were toppled over, the sea rose and engulfed the mountain, and Agib was ferried off to fresh adventures.
Some Bedouin or Persian story-teller of the bazaars may have added the detail of the heaven-kissing statue and its overthrow, but the body of the narrative is one of the oldest of legends. Men have always been curious about the lodestone. The tale of the magnetic mountain to which ships built with iron bolts are drawn is found in Aristotle, Pliny, and Ptolemy, in the Arab geographies, in Chinese writings, and in the reports of explorers clear to the close of the mediæval period. Ogier the Dane in the Charlemagne cycle was wrecked on such a mountain and like Agib was spared for sensuous delights. In a twelfth-century poem, when the ship of Duke Ernst entered the Klebermeer, it was drawn to the rock called Magnes and found itself among “many a work of keels,” over which the masts rose like a tangled forest.
Ptolemy is the most definite of the early writers. “There are said to be ten islands,” he says, "forming a continuous group called Maniolai, from which ships with iron nails are said to be unable to move away, and hence they are built with wooden bolts. The inhabitants are reputed to be cannibals.” Dampier, Gemelli-Careri, and many others identify Maniolai with Manila, and assume that the magnetic islands were the Philippines; but Gerini, a sagacious editor of Ptolemy's eastern geog. raphy, believes they were the Nicobars.
The River Sambation
Rising in a pious Jewish fable, first recited in Josephus, the River Sambation has flowed for eighteen centuries through the geography of legend. It separated the lost Ten Tribes from other Jews, or from the subjects of Prester John. Some said it was in Caucasia, others in Arabia; and from as far east as China and as far west as Ethiopia it was reported. Josephus placed it between Raphanea and a district of Agrippa's king. dom; it was called the Sabbatic river because it ran only on Saturdays, its bed being dry the other six days of the week. Pliny had it, however, that on Saturdays the stream rested. Much was heard of it in the Middle Ages. Eldad Hadani, a ninth-century traveler, said it was in the land of Cush. It had little water, but sand and stones rolled restlessly down its bed with a noise “like the waves of the sea and a stormy wind”; on the Sabbath their tumult was stilled and flames surrounded the river so that none could pass.
. The stream was in India, spice groves bordered it, and quantities of precious stones went down in its billowing sand to the sea; so said the letter of Prester John. It was fifty days' journey inland from Aden, said the Jewish traveler Obadiah di Bertinoro, for thus Arab traders had told him. A Jewish geographer, Abraham Farissol, also of the fifteenth century, identified it with the Ganges. Abraham Yazel, a Jewish scholar of the next century, told of a bottle filled with its sand, and save on the Sabbath the sand was in motion. A Christian whom he quoted had seen the river in the dominions of the Grand Turk. It was from one to four miles broad, with plenty of water, but dangerous to navigate because of the rocks and sand that rolled along with the current: “ships which venture on it lose their way, and indeed no ship is yet known to have returned safely from this river.” An Arabian in Lisbon carried an hour-glass filled with this uneasy sand on Friday afternoons through a street of shops run by Jews who had professed Christianity. “Ye Jews,” he exclaimed, “shut up your shops, for now the Sabbath comes.
The last word from the Sambation was in 1847, when the governor of Aden told a messenger seeking aid for Jews of the Holy Land that there was a great Jewish kingdom forty stages inland, but that the river was not there; it was in China.
Classic mythology peopled lakes, rivers, brooks, and springs with female divinities of a minor rank known as naiads, who were endowed with prophetic power and were able to inspire those who drank of these waters. The belief in the nymphs waned, but a belief in the singular properties of the waters long persisted. Many stories relate to the mental effects thereof. If you drink of a pool in the cave of the Clarian Apollo at Colophon, says Pliny, you will acquire powers of oracle; but you will not live long. Ctesias tells of an Indian fountain the waters of which, when drawn, coagulated like a cheese; if a little of this were triturated and the powder administered in a potion, anybody who drank of it would become delirious, rave all that day, and blab out whatever he had done. Therefore did the king use this water as the modern drug, scopolamin, has been used, to detect the guilt of persons accused. In Ethiopia, according to Diodorus, Semiramis discovered a small lake the sweet red waters of which impelled people who drank of them to confess their faults. Pliny recites that at the temple of the god Trophonius in Bæotia near the river Hercynnus are two fountains, one promoting remembrance and the other forgetfulness; one is called Mnemosyne, the other Lethe. The Fountain of the Sun
The Fountain of the Sun was rediscovered by a modern traveler, Belzoni, in the oasis of Jupiter Ammon. He found that the ruins of the temple of Jupiter Ammon served as a basement for nearly a whole village, in the vicinity of which was this famous fountain in a deep well. According to old report it was warm at midnight and cold at noon. The fact is its temperature does not vary between night and day, and its apparent changes are due to the greater or less heat of the surrounding air, as the day advances or declines.