Friday, April 22, 2016

Mythology and Fairy-tales by H.M. Selby 1911

Myths and Fairy-tales by H.M. Selby 1911

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Boys and girls who are well versed in nursery lore, as all boys and girls ought to be, cannot fail to be struck, when they first make acquaintance with classical literature, by the similarity of the stories they find there to those which were their delight long before they knew even of the existence of Latin and Greek. Here, as in the nursery tales, they find themselves in a world of marvels in which move the giant, the witch, the wicked stepmother, the dragon, and various other personages that charmed and terrified them in their earlier days. Nor is this all. There is a likeness also in the more minute particulars of the two sets of stories.

Perseus, like Jack the Giant-killer, has shoes of swiftness, a cap of invisibility, and other magic equipments. Psyche, like Cinderella, is the youngest child. Even the tone of thought is similar, -so similar that children can feel it, though they will probably be unable to describe their impression; e.g., the struggle between the gods and the Titans, the conflict of Prometheus with Zeus. Are they not merely—on a grander scale—the warfare of little Jack against the great giants, in which he gains the victory by pitting intellectual against physical force?

And now suppose that one of these children who have been struck by this likeness between the classical and the fairy stories should, later on, devote himself to the study of mythology and folk-lore, he will make further discoveries along the same line. In all the mythologies he studies he will find the likeness to the nursery-tales that he noticed in the Greek mythology; nay, he will find an even closer resemblance to the tales he loved in childhood in the mythology of other peoples,-e.g., in that of the Norsemen and of the Celtic nations,—while in folk-lore he will find, not only the original form of many nursery-tales, but also a store of raw material which has not been utilized for the amusement of children; and among this raw material he discovers, as one would expect, many things which have parallels in the classics,—e.g., he sees in mermaids an analogue of the Sirens; and not only does he find giants, but he comes on a giant blinded much in the same way as the Cyclops Polyphemus was blinded by Ulysses. He also finds a curious story which recalls another incident in the conflict between Ulysses and Polyphemus. This story assumes various forms, but the main motif is always the same. One version runs as follows:

A fairy came into a house and was attacked by a girl who said her name was “Ainsel” (“Own Self”), so that, when the fairy called out to her mother, “Ainsel is hurting me,” her mother only said, “More fool you!” or words to that effect. Of course our student at once remembers how Ulysses, when asked his name by Polyphemus, replies, “Outis” (i.e., “Nobody”), so that, when Polyphemus vociferated, “Outis is hurting me,” the other Cyclopes did not go to his rescue, since he was (as they thought) declaring that no one was harming him.

Our student also finds, as he extends his investigations, additional examples of the resemblance between the ways of mythland and those of fairyland; e.g., he finds the heroes and heroines of folk-tales retained in fairyland if they accept food there, just as Persephone was kept in Hades because she ate two pomegranate seeds.

If our student is interested, not merely in the collection of stories, but also in their origin, he will see indications in some of the fairy and folk tales of their having developed out of nature myths. He may be sceptical as to the identification of Red Riding Hood with the sun or summer, and of the wolf which devours her with night or winter, but he will easily recognize the kinship of the Sleeping Beauty to Persephone, seeing in the long slumber of the heroine and all around her the torpor of winter, especially when he reads how the birds began to sing on the coming of the Prince, in whom he will at once recognize the Sun Hero.

Now, what conclusion are we to draw from this resemblance between the two sets of stories?

It is obvious that the fairy-stories cannot be derived from the Greek ones, as they resemble other myths even more closely. One can only suppose that the fairy-stories arose out of a survival of local paganism, modified by Christian ideas.

Let us trace the development of these modern fancies out of the ancient ones a little more in detail, taking as an example the fairies themselves.

In every mythology there are superhuman beings below the rank of deities. The Persians have their Peris; the Arabs their Jinn (or Genii, as they are called in the “Arabian Nights”); the Greeks their Nymphs and Demigods. It is natural that belief in these less exalted beings should survive that in the greater deities, for such a belief would meet with less opposition from spiritual authorities. A Christian priest would denounce as idolatry the worship of Zeus or Wodin (Odin), but the making of offerings to nymphs or valkyries would, in his eyes, be nothing worse than superstition,-a regrettable practice, of course, but not a deadly sin.

The beings in Greek mythology whom one most readily connects with fairies are the nymphs, especially the wood-nymphs (the Dryades and Hamadryades), though the water-nymphs, too, -the Naiades, especially,–have survived in folk-lore, being transformed into the water-sprites of the Norsemen.

One important point of resemblance between nymphs and fairies is that neither are immortal, though both live through many generations of men. Sometimes the duration of their life depends on that of the tree in which they dwell, and one finds them both protesting against its destruction.

Again, when we read how the nymphs of Crete tended the infant Zeus, and the nymphs of Nysa the baby Bacchus, we instinctively recall the guardian fairy who makes children her especial charge.

But the fairy is more than a survival of the nymph. For a parallel to some of her aspects and characteristics, we must go to more exalted beings; viz., to the older deities themselves. When the belief in these deities dies out, the memories of their nature and functions and of incidents in their history, which still remain in men's minds, get transferred to the fairies. For instance, in the story of “Jack and the Bean-stalk,” we are told that Jack's guardian fairy had, for a time, been powerless to aid him, because she had been deprived of her magic powers as a punishment for some offence. Does not this remind us how Apollo was condemned, after slaying the Cyclopes, to serve Admetus like a human slave, and how other gods were sentenced to a temporary loss of their divine nature?

Again, can one look at the Hermes of Praxiteles holding the infant Bacchus without thinking that Hermes, as well as the nymphs, must have contributed to the evolution of the fairy, especially when one remembers that the messenger god has a magic wand?

Once more, who can read how the Fates were present at the birth of Meleager and decreed that his life should depend on the preservation of the brand then on the fire, without thinking of the fairies who came to the christening feast of the Sleeping Beauty, especially of the malignant fairy who doomed the infant princess to wound herself with the spindle? Yes, the guardian fairy must be, to some extent, a survival of those dread and august deities,—the Fates.

The conception of the guardian fairy has also been modified by Christian influence, to which we owe, among other things, the representation of that beneficent being as a godmother.

The guardian fairy has, moreover, much in common with the guardian angel, though she concerns herself with many things belonging to the lighter side of life which would be beneath the notice of an angel; e.g., one could hardly imagine an angel sending Cinderella to the ball and equipping her for the festivity in the manner of that paragon of fairy godmothers with whom we make acquaintance in the dear old nursery tale.

And what of the witch, the villain of the fairy-tale? Who are her Greek analogues? There can be but one answer from any one who has read how Circe transformed men into animals, how Medea gathered magic herbs in the light of the moon. Calypso, too, is a prototype of the witch, though of a kind of witch less known to children than to their elders, -the enchantress of mediaeval legend, who, by her charms, lures men to their ruin.

But the earlier witches differ in one important respect from the witches of the nursery-tale. The latter are entirely malignant, whereas the former do good as well as evil. Circe and Calypso are helpful, as well as harmful, to Ulysses; Medea aids Jason to get the Golden Fleece and restores his father, Aeson, to life. Witches of this mixed character do figure in folk-lore, where we also find many malignant fairies like the one who plays the villain's part in the story of “The Sleeping Beauty,” as well as playfully mischievous sprites like Puck.

The worst sort of witch—viz., the one who traffics with evil spirits, and who is even sometimes of diabolical parentage-has, naturally, no exact parallel in Greek legend, since there is no purely evil power in Greek mythology. It is true, there is a faint foreshadowing of black magic in some of the later conceptions relating to Hecate, but this being, even at her worst, is regarded as an aspect of the lovely moon-goddess, the sister of the sun-god, Apollo; while Circe learned from her father, the Sun, the magic which she handed on to her niece, Medea; and Calypso owes her powers to her descent from the sea-gods, who are always associated with wisdom:

In concluding this notice of a few, out of the many, points of resemblance between myths and fairy-tales, which go to prove the descent of the latter from the former, I would remark that this kinship explains the attraction that fairy-tales have for children, Since the myth, the ancestor of the fairy-tale, belongs to the childhood of the human race.

It may be said that it is not only children by whom these tales are loved, that they are dear also to us elders. That is true, but do we not regard them as we do our discarded toys? We all feel a tenderness for our old hoops and balls and-women, at least—especially for our old dolls; but we have no wish to play with them again. We have found something better. And, in like manner, we love the fairy-tales, but we have no desire to believe in them; and many of us realize that, thanks to science and philosophy and higher forms of religion, we have caught glimpses of marvels and beauties beside which the fairy-tales appear as stage scenery against natural landscape.

“Earth outgrows the mythic fancies
Sung beside her in her youth,
And those debonaire romances
Sound but dull beside the truth.” -
—“The Dead Pan,” by E. B. Browning.

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