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number of myths arose from men's giving a literal meaning to figurative terms in their own language. To speak in riddles was more than a social game with the ancients, is more than a social game now with various peoples. There were certain things which must not be named, but only referred to indi. rectly. There were times when riddles must be propounded and times when they must not; and riddle-time, says Frazer, was usually in the presence of a dead body or at a sacrifice.
What might follow, a glance at a few Finnish riddles will show. One of them runs, “Beyond the great water a large old man shouts,” and another, “A cry from the forest and light from the hill.” In each case thunder is the answer. The sky is described as a blue field strewn with silver. "A child looks through the hedge” means the sunrise. “A red cock springs from house to house" means fire. "A small white man was sowing, he became very mischievous,” means snow. As Müller remarks, here are elements which in the mind of a poet or a grandmother would soon create a number of delightful myths.
In its contacts with enigmatic language the end of literalism is fable. Speak of fleet horses as children of the wind, and you have the story of Iberian mares impregnated by the west wind. Speak of swift runners as shadow-footed, and there appears on the canvas of Ind the silhouettes of natives asleep under the shade of their gigantic feet. “We are a people without a head,” said the kingless Turkomans, and the Headless People shouldered their way into the map of fable. “Their shoulders are where our heads are,” Indians of Guiana told Raleigh, describing a tall neighbor race, and artists delineated them with eyes, noses, and mouths where their breasts ought to be. Sometimes savage tribes stretch their ears by attaching weights to them; hence, perhaps, the tale of folk who used one ear as mattress, the other as coverlet. As to the people whose feet were turned backward, may these not be, Tylor asks, the Antipodes on the other side of the globe, whose feet, surely enough, are planted “the opposite way” every time they set them down?
The method explains much, although care must be taken that it be not made to explain too much. The germ of fable is found in such figurative epithets as bull-browed, long-headed, horsefaced, ox-eyed, lion-hearted, bird-witted. But for these phrases to fructify in marvel, it would need that in a time more naïve and among a people who knew neither the ends of the world nor the ways of speech, men of one race should use them in telling another the manners and customs of a third. For cultivated minds these conditions cannot be reproduced except in the magic and make-believe of poetry. For the unlettered, alike in lands of culture and of barbarism, they still exist.
Chapter XXIV. The Travel Tales of Mankind
WHEN the travel stories of mankind were first set down in writing the list was already nearly complete. Little was added afterward until the modern age began the systematic collection of a mass of folklore which, with all its significance, had scant literary backgrounds and less than the old geographical quality. This is a strange thing. From generation to generation men increased their stores of knowledge, but from century to century they neither greatly increased nor greatly reduced their stock of fables. There were periods when men forgot the wisdom of the ancient world, but they remembered and repeated its pleasant marvels.
These have had a long journey down the ages. The Greek had them from the Persian, Indian, and Egyptian; the Roman had them from the Greek; the Arab merchant and Christian pilgrim had them from the Roman; the Celtic monk and the viking had them alike from Roman, Arab, and Christian; and the Spanish explorer had them from every mediæval source. In the Spanish Americas of the sixteenth century the Age of Fable blazed forth again and then grew dark.
The things added in this journey to the original stock of travel tales were mainly local legends and variations on older themes. The grasshoppers in one province chirped or were silent in obedience to provincial ordinance, the fountains of another had curative properties, there was an enchanted forest in a third. Celtic glamour passed a wand over familiar ma. terial and it yielded the veiled or sunken islands of the western ocean. The quest of El Dorado came out of a Spanish dream. Nearly all other travel tales are found in the earliest literature. It must be that men told them to one another ages before writing was known.
Various of the older books record them. They are interwoven with myths of the supernatural in epic poetry. They are included in accounts of countries and peoples in histories, encyclopædias, and guide-books. They decorate the narratives of ancient and mediæval travelers. They are compiled in volumes of mirabilia. Instances of these several records are the Odyssey of Homer, the History of Herodotus, the Travels of Marco Polo, and the Collecteanea of Solinus.
The special type of letters which travel tales have developed is the collections of mirabilia. Most, perhaps all, of these have been library pilferings and borrowings. Photios culled from the Indika of Ctesias everything that was difficult to believe, and the rest of this survey of ancient India is lost. Solinus won the name of Pliny's Ape by extracting the curious things from the writings of the Roman encyclopædist and combining them in a work which was standard for a thousand years.
The very skepticism of other writers evidences the industry of the historians of marvel. In his Attic Nights, Gellius, a Roman of the second century A.D., tells of a bundle of musty books which he bought for a few coppers in Brundusium. “They were all in Greek,” he says, "and full of wonders and fables, containing relations of things unheard of and incredible, but written by authors of no small authority-Aristeas of Proconnesos and Isogonos of Nicæa, and Ctesias and Onesikritos and Polystephanos and Hegesias.” Swiftly he lists their races of dog-headed, one-legged, headless, and feathered mortals. “As we perused them,” says the practical but too-scornful Roman, "we felt how wearisome a task it is to read worthless books which conduce neither to adorn nor to improve life.”
When Huc was ascending a Chinese river in the middle of the last century his native servant used to go ashore at every stopping place and bring aboard a stock of pamphlets to read. These products of the ready pens of the literary class included fantastic stories of various kinds, some of them very coarsely written. Says Huc: "The Greeks fixed the abode of their monsters and ephemeral creatures in the east, and the Chinese have returned the compliment by placing theirs in the west, beyond the great seas. There dwell their dog-men, their ears long enough to trail on the ground as they walk; there is the Kingdom of Women, and of the people with a hole right through them at the breast."
Best of all skeptical discussions of prodigy is the Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors (1646), which bears the high name of Sir Thomas Browne. Its author challenges the entire array of travel tales, closes his eyes to the truth hidden in many of them, recites the means by which impostors fabricate imaginary animals, denounces “saltimbancoes, quacksalvers, charlatans, astrologers, fortune tellers, jugglers, geomancers and the like incantatory impostors,” and sounds a warning against Herodotus, Ctesias, Maundeville, Pliny, Ælian, Solinus, Athenæus, Philes, Tzetzes, and “even holy writers such as Basil and Ambrose and Isidore, Bishop of Seville, and Albertus, Bishop of Ratisbone.” Preachers and moralists, he says, have made occasion for error by using for illustration the fables of the phænix, salamander, pelican and basilisk. The root of the matter, he concludes, is the “deceptible condition” of men, of which Satan took advantage in the beginning.
In whatever books one finds these pictures of strange lands and races they have the effect of cameos, in that they are miniatures, and the outlines are not subject to change. The description is always brief, and next to nothing is added to it from age to age. The griffin has no new habits, the dog-faced men lived under the old law, the pygmies of the Middle Ages have not yet won the battles with the cranes which they were waging in the time of Homer. If a traveler sees these strange creatures he has nothing fresh to say of them. The main thing that happens is that they shift their places on the map, retiring always before the advance of knowledge. Æthicus of Istria contributes almost the only really novel touch in a thousand years. He saw, so he says, the Amazons in the region north of the Caspian suckling the centaurs and minotaurs.
That these fables came down through the centuries unchanged is a tribute to the hold of tradition, to men's reverence for the written word. It is also a revelation of the way natural histories and encyclopædias were compiled until about the time of Buffon and Cuvier. When a thing got itself said, it had a good chance of surviving, provided it was interesting. Other men copied it out of a book without demanding proofs, authority taking the place of research. The ancient geographers cited the very poets as authorities.