Page images
PDF
EPUB

Chapter IV. The Animal Kingdom

Much of the literature of marvel relates to real animals. The savage could see no great difference between them and him- . self; that their bodies were unlike his did not seem important. They could reason like him, they could understand what he said to them, they had souls which, like his own, lived after death. A beast could assume human shape, a man could become a beast, and it was totemic theory that some beasts were ancestors of some men.

There were tribes that acted as if they were beasts, or birds. The Bororo Indians identified themselves with gorgeous red birds that lived in the heart of the Brazilian forest, and treated them as if they were fellow mortals. Travelers have told of savages who ate maggots bred in the carcasses of animals, and on ceremonial occasions thereafter writhed, roared, barked, or grunted, in keeping with the nature of the snake, lion, jackal, or hippopotamus whose body had been the table of their feast. The people of an Alaskan island mistook the first Russian party that landed there for cuttlefish, because the men had buttons on their clothes.

Abundant traces of a belief that animals were beings of a higher order than men are found in early religion, magic, and medicine. Many of them were worshiped. Out of a fear that their spirits might work harm, all of them were propitiated even when pursued or killed. Portions of their dead bodies were used as amulets and to work spells. Their brains, blood, entrails, and excrements were a principal part of the Roman pharmacopeia in the most brilliant age of the Empire; the witches' broth in Macbeth is an Augustan brew. Along with hundreds of like prescriptions, Pliny recites that a mole's right foot and the earth thrown up by ants are remedies for scrofula, that a bat’s heart is an antidote for ant venom, that a hen's brains will cure snake poison and the owlet's a bee sting, that profuse perspiration may be checked by rubbing the body with ashes of burnt goats' horns mixed with oil of myrtle, and that catarrh may be relieved by kissing a mule's nostrils.

Curious as these things may seem, they come naturally from the fact that primitive man had mainly to do with animals. Outside of his tribal group he knew other men only as enemies. But all about were furred and feathered and not unfriendly creatures whose acts had a certainty and finality lifting them above the doubts and fears that harassed him. He seemed a late comer and guest in an animal world. So he did what timid peoples are wont to do. He put himself under the protection of beings more gifted than himself. He became a vassal of the beasts. This was the first feudalism.

The savage was glad to assert his kinship with the brute. In the Indian west it was through the First People, who had the human shape but an animal nature, and were transformed into beasts and birds; a beast or a bird then created the second race of men. The natives of Vancouver Island thought that when nobody was about animals laid aside their skins and were people. In places the tradition lingers that migratory birds become men when in other lands. A traveler far from home was amazed when a stranger called him by name and asked about each member of the family. The mystery was solved when he learned how this intimate knowledge was gained; the stranger was the stork that each year built its nest upon his roof.

Both in skin-shifting and shape-shifting the blood relationship between man and brute was avowed. In the one, the hero of savage epic, by donning or doffing an animal skin, put on or put off the beast nature. In the other, the human or animal actor strutted for a space on his cousin's stage. Wizards could transform themselves, as men thought, into wolves and hyenas; the world-wide legend of the werewolf traces from the time when metamorphosis was the alpha and omega of myth. Its survivals strew the classics. Io became a heifer, Actæon a stag, Antigone a stork, Arachne a spider, Itys a pheasant, Philomela a nightingale, and Progne a swallow.

Animals took on human form to get better acquainted with men. Indian story tells of a man who unwittingly married a female buffalo. An Indian woman wedded a stranger who bade her always throw the bones in a certain place, and whenever he went out to eat she heard the barking of a dog near the bone-heap; that was what he was. There are stories from every continent of the union of women with reptiles that masqueraded as men. Perhaps because they can assume the erect posture, bears were often parties to alliances of this kind. It was thought in Iceland that they were men bewitched and that their progeny were born human but turned into cubs at a touch of the dam's paw. The Votiaks of the American northwest say the bear traces back to man and knows his speech. When the hide is off, the California Indians aver that bears are just like people. In a Coos Indian story a girl married a fine-looking man whom she met while picking berries; but when he took her to the ancestral lodge, she found herself in a bear camp. There is a Tlingit tale of a hunter who was captured by a female grizzly-object, matrimony

The mitigation of these world stories is that they are liter. alistic misreadings of old totemistic custom. Yet it is pleasant enough to learn from a Tahltan tale that caribou "like to be called people.”

Under totemism, men chose their elder brothers, the brutes, for guardians, took their names, deposited their own souls with them for safekeeping, and, after death, entered their bodies. Where totemism was unknown it was thought that the larger prowling animals might be tenanted by demons and that their weird howls at night were incidents of beast debates which had the destinies of men as their topic. It was well not to affront them even by naming them; better to use ingratiating epithets, such as "blue-foot," "gold-foot," "gray-beard," "broa

“broad-brow," "Aash-eye,” “forest-brother.” The lesser sort were rogue heroes in the beast epics--among the Hottentots the jackal; among the Bantus, the rabbit; among the Orientals, the fox; among the American Indians, the turtle, coyote, and raven.

As a memorial of the antique relation between man and beast, three out of every hundred persons in England and America bear animal names. There is a wealth of detail as to how that relation was carried down through legend into history. The woodpecker directed the Aryan migrations, the wolf suckled the founders of Rome, the nest of the eagle determined the winter camps of the legions, the flights of birds fixed the sites of cities, and their entrails decided for nations the issues of war and peace. Animal forms range the entire field of early man's interests. Deified bulls, rams, crocodiles, hawks, and ibises thronged the hospitable pantheon of Egypt. In the speculation of various peoples the snake, the elephant, the whale, the boar, the turtle, or the catfish supported the world, and when the creature moved itself earthquake followed. The dove of Hebrew deluge story found the earth. The larger animals were in the sky as constellations before history began. When the moon is in eclipse there are men to believe that it has been swallowed by a snake, a wolf, a frog, a crab.

In their primitive judicial processes men took oath in the name of the sacred animal. In their agriculture they conceived of the life of the grain as residing in an animal corn spirit—a horse, a pig, a goat, or a dog, which hid itself in the last clump of grain to be cut. In their marriage ceremonies, the cock, duck, goat, or goose was a fertility emblem. Totem beasts are tattooed on the bodies of savages. Animal outlines, at first as a strong magic, were used upon pottery, clothes, and weapons, and as decoration are still used. In animal masks and with magical intent, dances are performed which mimic the ways of beasts. Their feet, horns, claws, and teeth enter the medicine bag of the shaman. When at last death comes to the savage, perhaps a turkey buzzard or a humming bird convoys his soul to the other world, or a dog guards the bridge over which it is to pass to a happier realm, where the hunting of animals begins

anew.

The reverence paid to the least considered of animals may serve to show in what regard all of them were held and to explain the marvels told about them. Scattered through the literature and folklore of various peoples is a copious mass of traditions as to vermin worship and to practices just suggested by the fact that Beelzebub, the devil of Jewish Scripture, is the Semitic god of flies. There was a classic deity known as the mouse-Apollo and tame mice were kept in his sanctuary. The Philistines sent to Israel, with the captured Ark, golden images of mice. Isaiah bears witness that certain of the Jews met secretly in gardens and ate swine's flesh and mice for sacra. mental purposes. In old stories the soul is pictured as issuing from the mouths of dying or sleeping persons in the form of a mouse. The Chams of Indo-China erected a pillar to the god rat. Herodotus tells of the destruction of an Assyrian army in Egypt by the aid of mice auxiliaries. It is still the custom in some districts of Europe for peasants to exorcise mice from the crops by running wildly with lighted torches around the fields on the eve of Twelfth Day; to put the milk teeth of children in a rat runway, so that the second teeth shall be as white and strong as the rodent's; to treat white mice with kindness so as to bring luck to the house, and even to post a writing with a message of good will where rats and mice can see it.

While domestic animals which had killed or maimed persons were regularly tried in the criminal courts of ancient Greece and mediæval Europe, ecclesiastical courts long exercised jurisdiction over smaller animal offenders. The curse of the Church was relied upon to reach vermin against which the secular law knew itself to be powerless; yet anathema was not pronounced without judicial process. On complaint of ravaged parishes, field mice, locusts, and beetles were summoned to appear in court on a certain day and counsel was appointed to defend them. In defense of accused rats in the diocese of Autun, Chassenée, the brilliant French advocate of the sixteenth century, laid the foundations of his fame. He cited biblical and classical writers, interposed various technical objections, attributed the failure of his clients to appear to the absence of safe conducts, and demanded that the plaintiffs give bond that their cats would not molest the defendant rodents in their jour. ney to court. On their refusal to give bond the case was adjourned without day.

Many such cases were compromised by setting aside a plot of land to which the accused creatures might repair for sanctuary. In the suit of Franciscan friars in Brazil in 1713 against white ants which had invaded their monastery, the compromise was influenced by the plea of counsel that the defendants not only had prior possession of the ground, but were more industrious than the complaining monks. Ecclesiastical suits were brought at various times against caterpillars, cockchafers, flies, leeches, moles, snails, slugs, weevils, and worms. From the

« PreviousContinue »