L'Aurore et le Jour*

F. Max Muller

[Extracted from Chips from a German Workshop, vol. 4, NOTE B, pp. 475-9.]


To look for fragments of ancient mythology in modern folk-lore is like looking for Sanskrit or Greek in English or French. We now and then meet with a modern word which seems hardly to have suffered at all from the wear and tear of centuries, and looks as fresh and sharp as if it had just been issued from the mint; but such cases are rare, and frequently they are deceptive. Lolling maybe the Sanskrit lal, roi is the Sanskrit ragan, daughter is the Sanskrit duhitar; but to call is certainly not [Greek], nor can Wodan be identified with Buddha, or Paradue with the Sanskrit Paradesa. Then come all the doubts as to whether what we find so strangely like in English and Sanskrit comes direct from the primeval Aryan inheritance, or whether it was borrowed at a later time by one heir from the other. Sugar sounds very much like Sanskrit sarkara, grit, pebbles; it is in fact the same word. But the Sanskrit sarkara passed through Persian and Arabic before it reached Europe, where it appears as [Greek], sarcharum, zucchero, granulated sugar. In English the word has reached the very point from which it started, [p.476] for cabmen now speak of the sharp stones on newly macadamised roads as sugar, Sanskrit sarkara.

There is but one safe path to follow in these researches into the origin of words or stories. We must trace the modern words back to their most ancient forms in their own language, and the modern stories back to their most ancient version in their own country, before we attempt any comparison. Without this process all combinations are guesswork, sometimes very attractive and almost irresistible, but always dangerous, and never of any really scientific value.

M. Husson, in a small volume just published, called 'La Chaine Traditionelle,' has selected some well-known popular stories, and has pointed out in them fragments of ancient mythology, such as we find in the Vedas and elsewhere. His analysis is always clever and ingenious, but the conviction which it carries must greatly depend on the disposition of the readers. It may be or it may not be, is what many will say after reading his book, though few will put it down without feeling that some of the coincidences discovered by the author are very strange and very startling.

He begins with the story of Little Red Riding-Hood, and he points out that, like her, the Dawn in the Veda is represented as a young maiden, as carrying messages, as bringing food, as travelling along to join the old Dawn, and as intercepted and swallowed by the Wolf, whether as the representative of the sun, or of the night. All this is true, and might be supported by ample evidence. Even the fact that the dawn was rescued from the mouth of the wolf may be matched by the German story which represents Rothkappchen as cut out of the wolf's stomach. But in spite of all this, it would be a bold assertion to say that the story of Red Riding-Hood was really a metamorphosis of an ancient story of the rosy-fingered Eos or the Vedic Ushas with her red horses, and that the two ends, Ushas [p.477] and Rothkappchen, are really held together by an unbroken traditional chain.

Everything is changed as soon as, in addition to the coincidences in characteristic events, we have the evidence of language. Names are stubborn things, and those who imagine they can dispute away their evidence by joking on Mr. John Bright as a solar hero, forget that in ancient times, to say nothing of mythological periods, names were not what they are with us, inherited, accidental, and meaningless, but real cognomina, given with a purpose, which purpose it is for us to discover. We read, for instance, in the Veda that the being swallowed by the wolf is called Vartika. Now, Vartika has a meaning; it means a quail, i.e. the returning bird. But as a being delivered by the Asvins, the representatives of Day and Night, Vartika can only be the returning dawn, delivered from the mouth of the wolf, i.e. the dark night, or, in a different application, the returning year, Vertumnus, delivered from the prison of the winter. The Greek word for quail is the same, it is [Greek]; and when we read that Apollo and Artemis, the children of Latona, the night, were born in Ortygia, which is an old name of Delos, we see that there is here a real traditional chain between Vartika, the Dawn, and Ortygia, the Dawnland; we feel we have arrived at a living mythological germ, which was afterwards developed independently in Greece and India.

M. Husson's identification of Cendrillon and Sodewa-Bai with the Dawn that 'stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops' is again very ingenious; but will it convince the unbelievers who see nothing but human elements in all these stories, and shake their head at everything short of the positive proof afforded by identity of name? M. Husson has himself, with reference to Mr. Fergusson's work, 'Tree and Serpent Worship,' pointed out qu'il y a serpent et serpent, that the serpent occurs in different parts of the world as a symbol of various and totally independent conceptions.

[p.478]

Sometimes the serpent represents darkness and evil, sometimes be is the Agathodaemon, the genius loci, sometimes he is the symbol of an autochthonous race. In one myth the serpent represents the sun, in another lightning and the thunderbolt, in another the serpents are meant for serpentine rivers. In India, as in Europe, serpents are the guardians of treasures; though poisonous, they are supposed to possess the art of healing, the gift of wisdom, the power of prophecy. The serpent with seven heads exists in India and Babylon, in the steppes of Russia, and in the ruins of Cambodia. There is an Aryan, there is a Semitic, there is a Turanian, there is an African serpent; and who but an evolutionist would dare to say that all these conceptions came from one and the same original germ, that they are all held together by one traditional chain?

But although we doubt whether M. Husson will convert those who do not like to be converted, his book can hardly fail to make them feel a little uneasy.

M. Husson is very successful in unravelling one of the stories found in the 'Contes de ma Mere l'Oie,' published by Perrault, and there called La Belle au Bois. It is the world-wide story of the maiden who receives a wound, falls into a deep sleep, and can only be delivered by a truly solar hero. Perrault, who wrote in 1697, knew nothing as yet of solar theories, yet in the simplicity of his heart he tells us that the children born of the marriage between La Belle au Bois and the young prince who called her back to life were called l'Aurore and Le Jour, while in a Breton story (Luzel, 'Rapport,' p. 8) La Belle au Bois herself goes by the name of La Princesse Tourne-sol. Another strange coincidence is that La Belle au Bois has a little dog, called Poufle. In a Norse story, the heroine who pines away in the kitchen, sitting on the ashes (Cendrillon), has a little dog called Flo. She says to him: 'Run along, little dog Flo, and see whether it will soon be day!' This is repeated three times; and at the very moment when the dog looked [p.479] out for the third time, the dawn began to rise. It is impossible to read this, as M. Husson points out, without thinking of the well-known Vedic Story of Sarama, the dog of Indra, and most likely a name of the morning. ('Lectures on the Science of Language,' vol. ii. p. 506.)

There are many comparisons of the same character in M. Husson's book, all of them very ingenious and suggestive, but few supported by strong and irresistible evidence. In his comparisons of names, M. Husson is less successful; and such comparisons as Ahrimanand the Vedic Aryaman, or the tree Ash in Egyptian, and the Teutonic Ask, will certainly be quoted against him and against the system of mythological interpretation which he follows. Nothing but the strictest adherence to the rules of comparative philology can lead to solid results in comparative mythology, and silence the objections of those who seem to think that there is nothing irrational in mythology that requires explanation.

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* La Chaine Traditionelle: Contes et Legendes au point de vue mythique. Par Hyacinthe Husson. (Paris, 1874)