Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][ocr errors]

A Voyage to These Strangely Peopled Countries of the World's Yesterdays

Would Be a Voyage Along the Bays, Gulfs, and Promontories of the Human Mind in Its States of Dream

the forests, pastures, and waters of the mimic world of the map, but the text would point out novel things about them.

A voyage to these strangely peopled countries of the world's yesterdays would be a voyage along the bays, gulfs, and promontories of the human mind in its states of dream.

There are three chambers in the house of the mind. One of them is a place where pleasant bedtime stories are told. Another is the art gallery of hope and memory. The third is a museum where runs the law of topsy-turvy. The name of the house is Illusion.

A glance through a few of the older books of travel will show illusion weaving its careless spells over plain records of wandering. “We fared on,” says Sindbad, “from sea to sea and from island to island and city to city in all delight and contentment, buying and selling wherever we touched, and taking our solace and our pleasure.” The words prepare the reader for enchantments. One of the Hakluyt narratives speaks of “Zanzibar, on the backeside of Africa.” This is geography somehow touched with magic. When Drake was cruising around South America, his chronicler recites that on a certain day “wee had a very sweet smell from off the land.” Simple as are the words, their quality is dreamlike. The account of Raleigh's third voyage to Guiana has this passage: “There being divers whales playing about our pinnesse, one of them crossed our stemme and going under, rubbed her backe against our keele." The lines unlock the frolic wonder of the sea.

The same quality illuminates reports of other lands and peoples taken almost at random. The ancient Cimbri, says Strabo, explained their wandering life and piracy by the fact that once they had dwelt on a peninsula and had been driven out by a very high tide. The ancient Getae wept at births and laughed at funerals; and in the Arabian Nights Abdallah of the Sea broke off his friendship with Abdallah of the Land, when he learned that his people mourned rather than rejoiced over their dead. Purchas tells of a Livonian people, ignorant but unashamed, that “aske who learne the Hares in the woods their prayers.” The same writer declares that Ethiopians hold their color in such estimation that they paint the saints and angels black, but “the Divell and wicked persons they paint white."

Pinkerton describes a tribe of white Indians east of the Andes, whose naked and beautiful women use a guttural speech and emphasize every remark by striking their thighs with great force. The Eskimos attributed the Northern Lights to the merriment of the ghosts. A Florida tribe made a cult of the devil because the Spaniards feared him.

The thing these statements have in common is that perhaps none of them is quite true, and yet one wishes to believe all of them. The shaping influence in the traditional world is the

power

of wish. The poets may seem to use it more than other men, and children more than grown-ups, but it is the province of mankind.

[ocr errors]

Chapter II. The Earth Itself

ENVELOPING old stories of legendary lands and peoples as with an outer husk are beliefs which relate to the world as a whole. These concern the shape of the earth, the texture of the heavens, the distribution of land and water, the contours of continents, and the precise number of islands, countries, and cities. What they disclose is the instinct of men working through the apparent confusion of nature toward order. In all of them is the sense of symmetry, of balance, and because they are excursions into the unknown, the method of allegory. The true symmetry of the universe—the great annual journey of the earth around a sun itself in motion in a firmament so vast that through the ages the stars seem not to have changed their places -was not grasped. The result was errors, picturesque sometimes, sometimes more useful than truth.

Wherever one stands, the meeting line of the sky and earth forms a circle of which one is the center. This picture shaped the primitive geography. The earth was a disk and each people seemed to itself to be at the central point. In Homer it was a disk surrounded by a river called the Ocean Stream. The farther shore of this river supported the brazen dome of heaven, and earth and heaven were kept apart by the pillars which Atlas bore on his shoulders. Thales taught that the earth was a sort of drum floating upright in the wilderness of waters. The ancient Hebrews thought that the earth was a rising plain which floated like a lotus flower in the waters. The Tibetans believed the earth to be cone-shaped. The Chinese thought that all other lands were grouped as islands about their own. The Celts thought the earth rested on columns and in the Irish sea-tales various islands are pictured as standing on pillars. In North America the plains tribes thought that the Rocky Mountains supported the sky, the Pacific coast tribes conceived of the earth as an island swimming in the cosmic waters, and

« PreviousContinue »