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Nursery Tales (Fairy Tales) come, most of them certainly, from [mythology]. Max Muller calls them, as we saw, the "modern patois of the ancient sacred mythology." They are the Prakrit in relation to the high Sanscrit, a descendant, and of now inferior caste, from the ancient speech of the gods. Rightly interpreted, they conduct us to the same fountain-head, and are of exceeding interest, as showing what changes ages, the repeating from lip to lip through unnumbered generations, have wrought, and also what fadeless reminiscences they carry of the original thought. The gods and heroes of myth and legend become at length fairies and imps, or elves and ogres.
These tales have been industriously gathered in our time; the brothers Grimm have done unrivaled work in Germany, picking up the stories in the spinning rooms of the peasantry; Campbell in the rude cotters' huts in the Scotch Highlands; Asbjornsen and Moe in Norway; Afzelius in Sweden; Ralston in Russia, and so on. Like work has been done in India. Something has been accomplished also in the same direction among the Tartars, Zulus, Kaffirs, American Indians, &c. All have, though they may not possess a literature, household stories.
We have a new province of knowledge opened, which is full of invitation and enrichment for the mind. Curious enough reminiscences or survivals are turning up, coming in phrases, saws, &c., current in our common speech.
Saint George, Slayer of the Dragon, himself, as we have seen, a reflection of Indra or Apollon, becomes in the nursery, Jack the Giant Killer, and Jack climbing the Bean-Stalk (the tree Yggdrasil?) to the Ogre's Castle, whence he obtained the great wealth. Brynhild, after being wounded with a thorn by Odin, was doomed to a magic sleep, from which she was brought back to new life by Sigurd. So Little Red Riding Hood, with her scarlet robe—the twilight— was devoured by the wolf, but delivered by the hunter, who ripped open the beast, from whose maw she came forth bright and unharmed.
Of similar purport is the story of Tom Thumb, who was swallowed by the cow, and came out unhurt; of Saktideva in the Hindu, who was swallowed by the fish, but liberated by the servants of the king who cut the monster open. And going into Hebrew, we find the story of Jonah swallowed by the whale, and erewhile thrown out sound and whole upon the dry land. The tale of the Wolf and Seven Kids in German folk-lore, is of the same meaning. Like stories are told among the Zulus and the Basutos in South Africa, and in North America among the Algonquins and the Greenlanders; in Asia, too, among the Karens.
The Karens say that Twa Wya, going to the Sun that he might make him grow, was so increased by the Sun that his head touched the sky. He went forth on various adventures over the earth, and was after a time swallowed by a snake; the reptile being cut open, Twa Wya came back to life. The Basutos tell that Litaolane their hero was swallowed by a monster, but that he cut his way out, and set free all the inhabitants of the world. The Zulus say the maw of the monster that devoured the Princess, and men, dogs, &c, has forests, rivers, hills, cattle, and people living there, and when at length he is cut open, out come they all; the cock appears first, and he cries out in his rapture of joy, "Kukuluku,—I see the world." In the Algonquin, Manabozho angling for the King of Fishes, was swallowed up, canoe and all; he belabored the monster with his war-club, until he would fain have cast him out again, but Manabozho set his canoe across the fish's throat inside and dispatched him; the fish drifted ashore and the gulls pecked a place by which the hero could come out. This myth of day, night, and dawn, under manifold variations seems to be spread over the globe.
So the Sleeping Beauty reproduces the story of Brynhild, and the image is almost as bright and clear as the original. In Russian, Vasilissa the beautiful is sent to the house of Baba Yaga the witch, and is doomed to to wander long and lone and shuddering, in the forest. Riders appear before her, one white, clad in white, and the horse under him white. "And the day began to dawn." Another rider appears, this one red, red in his clothing, and mounted on a red horse. "The sun began to rise." She was liberated, traveled all day, and towards night arrived at the witch's house, when a black rider mounted on a black horse appeared, and plunged suddenly through the gates of Baba Yaga. The witch tells her, "The white rider is my clear Day, the red rider my red Sun, and the black rider my black Night."
"The countless stories," says Max Muller, "of all the princesses and snow-white ladies, who were kept in dark prisons, and were inevitably delivered by a young bright hero, can all be traced back to mythological traditions, about the Spring being released from the bonds of winter, the Sun being rescued from the darkness of the night, the Dawn being brought from the far West, the Waters being set free from the prison of the clouds."
Cinderella, i. e., Cinder-lass, and her Slipper, seems originally a myth of the dawn; the presenting of the fair maiden to the prince of day, and loss of her by the prince when he would pursue her, reproducing here the story of Eurydike and Orpheus, of Ushas and Indra, &c. The same we have in the Hindu tale of Urvasi and Pururavas, so charmingly told by Kalidasa, and rendered fittingly into our own tongue by the late Dr. H. H. Wilson.
Cinderella appears in the Greek, in the story of Rhodopis, and her sandal conveyed by the eagle to Psammetichus. Similar purport lies in the tale of Boots and the Princess. The oldest form of the myth, perhaps, is in the story of Apala, the watermaiden, and Indra. Apala draws Soma or ambrosia, which she presents to Indra; he frees her from her ugly and deformed appearance, and she shines a princess.
In the Norse tale of Bushy Bride, we have clear traces still of the original myth, the meaning almost throughout transparent. While the hero lay in a pit full of snakes (symbol of the darkness), a lovely lady came into the palace-kitchen and asked for a brush. "Then she brushed her hair, and as she brushed, down dropped gold."—Bushy Bride brushed her hair, and the gold was the tinge of day upon the morning sky. —The story says she had a little dog Flo—Hindu Sarameya, dog of the morning, Greek Hermes, the morning breeze; him she sent out to descry the day. "'Run out little Flo, and see if it will soon be day.' This she did three times, and the third time that she sent the dog, it was just about the time the dawn begins to peep."
In the story of Jack the Giant Killer, we have plainly a transmuted myth of the morning. Jack had an enchanting harp, bags of gold and diamonds, and a red hen which daily laid a golden egg. "The harp," says Mr. Baring Gould, "is the wind, the bags are the clouds dropping the sparkling rain, and the golden egg laid every morning is the dawn-produced sun." By a similar figure in the Arabian tale, or rather the Indian, the roc's egg is the sun, the roc here however being the rushing storm-cloud.
Jack and Jill represent to us a very old story, and probably in a modified and somewhat degenerated form, it has become that of the Man in the Moon. In the old Norse myth Mani, the moon, stole two children from their parents and carried them to heaven. Hjuki and Bil were their names. They were carrying water that they had just drawn from a well, in a bucket suspended by a pole from their shoulders. Children, pole, and bucket together, were transferred to the moon, and there they may be seen to this day. Thus were the moon-spots explained, and such account is given to-day by the Swedish peasants.
The names were originally personifications of waxing and waning. They became eventually Jack and Jill, and the fall of one, then of the other, or the vanishing of the moon-spots successively, involving the spilling of the pail of water, was invoked to explain the increased rain-fall in the waning phases of the moon.
Our legend of Herne the Hunter, or the Wild Huntsman, extensively held in Germany and France, takes its source in the myth of Odin the Wind-god. A spectral hunter, he appears by night, the tramp of his horses' feet, the baying of the dogs, and his 'holloa,' being distinctly audible to the peasants. Like Odin, he is Hackelbarend, cloak-bearing. The two dogs reproduce the two hounds of Hindu mythology,— hounds of Yama,—where they were, as in the Huntsman, the wind. In the middle ages, this legend is the story of the Phantom Army. Hosts were seen encountering hosts in mid-air, the tramp, the clangor, the heavy discharges of artillery were distinctly heard, and showers of blood afterwards falling on the earth, attested the fearful carnage. The life of this old belief appears not yet to have passed away, for the writer remembers in his early childhood to have heard from the lips of the seniors like relations. In the Hartz (Harz) to-day, as Grimm tells us, the wild chase is heard thundering past the Eichelberg, with its 'hoho,' and clamor of hounds. The march of the furious host has also been extensively connected with the Emperor Charles—Charles the Great,—and in England with King Arthur.
The Wandering Jew also is descendant and representative of Odin. And finally we have in the grand veneur that hunts in the forest of Fontainebleau, in the Harlequin of comedy, and the Robin Hood of the Nursery tales, the reappearance of Odin. If, as John Fiske supposes, our word God is etymologically Odin, we have a noteworthy illustration in this of the changes in sense which a term may undergo, and see what an ancestry lies behind our words of most exalted ethereal sense.
In the Master Thief,—Scottish tale of Shifty Lad,— we have Hermes, who is the most adroitly cunning, and abounding in sly mischief, of all the gods in the old mythology. This noted Thief, as the story tells, completely tricks a plain farmer who at successive times drives his oxen on the way, first steals one, then another, and finally a third, all without the owner's in the least suspecting at the time what is being done. Finally, he crowns his feats by practising upon the sharpers themselves; he over-reaches the clan of thieves at whose instance he had undertaken his exploits upon the farmer. Paul Pry and Peeping Tom of Coven try give us reflection of the same god Hermes, capricious, mischievous and subtle, prying into all secret places, entering by key-holes and slinking back through the same, stealing Apollo's cattle, and then in coolest manner denying the theft, as if it were absurd and cruel to suspect it of one so small, yet with a roguish twinkle in the eye, and compelling a laugh even from the enraged god himself.
In other tales, as of Blue Beard for example, we have with whatever of historic woof, the warp from mythic sources. Blue Beard, as Mr. Tylor informs us, was a historic person. His name was Gilles de Retz [Gilles de Rais]; he was Sieur de Laval, Marshal of France, and nicknamed Barbe-Bleue, as he had a beard of blueblack shade. He was convicted of having murdered many infants,—a practice he had long pursued undetected, that he might renew his strength by bathing in their blood,—and finally burned at the stake in Nantes, in 1440. His character of wife-murderer, however, carries back to a tale of a certain Count of Poher, who was, if he lived at all, a thousand years earlier. This count had murdered many wives, but at last after he had killed the beautiful Trifine, retribution overtook him. The forbidden chamber into which none might look and live, is mythic. It is the treasure house of Ixion, which none might enter without being destroyed like Hesioneus, or betrayed by marks of gold or blood; it belongs with the lightning caverns of many a legend, rich in gold, diamonds, &c., whence few that went in ever escaped, none without disaster. Blue-Beard and his prototpye Count savor strongly of the devouring night monsters of mythology.
The Babes in the Wood are of mythic origin. They carry remotely to the Asvins, the Twins in the Hindu mythology, represented there as two horses. They are dawn and gloaming, or day and night; "Twin sisters are they," says the Veda, "one black, the other white." As horses they appear in the Norse tale of Dapplegrim. The German tale of the Two Brothers is in much, based upon the same elements as this of the Babes. The meaning is all transparent enough,—the journey in the forest, the coming of the younger brother to the town where all are in grief because the king's daughter on the morrow is to be given over to be devoured by a dragon, the recovery by the warrior of a sword that was buried beneath a great stone, the slaying of the dragon, and union in marriage on the mountain top with the princess. It repeats the old, old story that we have heard so oft in so many myths, tales of which as Mr. Cox has well said, "Mankind will never grow weary."
Sweet Briar Rose (Dornroschen) pricks her finger with a spindle—the sleep-thorn,—falls into a sleep of a hundred years, and is roused by the kiss of the pure knight. Snow-White and Rosy-Red tell their own story. Like the mother of the sun-child in the Marchen of the Almond Tree, "who is as white as snow and red as blood," the mother of Little Snow White must die as soon as her eyes have rested on her babe.
There are many forms in which the marriage of the dawn with the companion it has not seen and may not see, is told. One conspicuous example we have in Beauty and the Beast, which again is the tale of Psyche and Eros. The same also in the Gaelic tale of the Daughter of the Skies; it is found also in Hindu folk-lore. Boots, robbed of the enchanting princess of whom he is in search, himself the brother of Cinderella, and who is shifty and effective in dealing with the Trolls, always outwitting these giants of darkness, is counterpart and representative of Odysseus, and later of Jack the Giant Killer.
In Rapunzel (German), the maiden, who here represents Persephone, is shut up in the witch's garden, which is enclosed by high walls,—the earth locked in the icy arms of winter. The prince finds and reaches her, ascending to her home on the long golden locks of the maiden. "For Rapunzel had long and beautiful hair, as fine as spun gold,"— which it was. In the House in the Wood, we have the tale again of Persephone; in the Iron Stove, tale of Dantae shut up in her brazen dungeon; in the Glass Coffin, the Glistening Heath in which lay the sleeping, imprisoned Brynhild.
In the Jew among the Thorns, we have reproduced the story of the marvelous harp of Hermes, the lyre of Orpheus and Amphion. The Jew cannot but dance, try he never so hard to resist the miraculous fiddler. The boar's tusk that slew Adonis, and the dart that destroyed Baldur and Sigurd, is, in the tales, the sleep-thorn or the spindle that pierced the hand of the maiden, and put her and all else about the palace, into death-like slumber which lasted a hundred years. The serpent that bit Eurydike becomes in the legend the adder that stung the foot of one of Arthur's knights, and so brought on the commencement of that fearful battle in which the king received his mortal wound. The winged sandals of Hermes and Perseus, become 'the seven leagued boots' of the tales.
The radiance of the dawn, Ushas, Eos, is, in the tale of Cinderella, the dress contained in the nut, which, when opened, glowed with the splendor of stars and sun. In the aureole about the head of Christian saints, we see the golden glory which surrounded the head of Phoibos or Asklepios. The magnificent dawn is again, in the fairy tale, the prince's ball room. In the maypole is representative and reminiscence of the stauros, cross of Osiris, the trident of Poseidon, the rod of wealth and happiness of Apollon given to Hermes, or back of all probably the phallic emblem.
The disguises and metamorphoses are innumerable, the Proteus has changed form without end, yet in many cases it is quite possible to trace back to the original. Doubtless the belief universal once, and held uniformally by all savage races to-day, in the near affinity, almost identity, of the animal creation with humanity, so that there may be, there are, perpetual metamorphoses and transmutations of beasts into men and men into beasts, has had much to do with introducing so constantly the presence of animals as leading actors in all the tales and fables. Like thing may be said of plants, trees, &c., which we very frequently find, for they also were believed to be intelligent and rational.
In Grimm's tales very many have their interpretations from mythic sources. The world, it is said, is well agreed that Scheherezade abundantly earned her life by her admirable stories told on the thousand and one nights in the Caliph's court.—And they, by the by, are to be unlocked in instances certainly not a few, by the key of mythology.—The authors of these capitally told tales, distant and unknown as they are, richly deserve the grateful remembrance of all that have come after them.
In the account of the Witches' Sabbath, the old beldames riding on broomsticks through the air, speeding on for the Brocken, scene of their revels, we have the story of the Swan-maidens, hastening to join the flight of Odin. Old Mother Goose is a modern form of a middle-age witch, in this case good-natured, kindly, purged of the sinister and malign elements that make Witches and Ogres objects of terror. "Roland to the dark Tower came," gives us Orpheus descending to Hades, Perseus entering the den of the Gorgons, Wainamoinen going down to Manala, Tuoni's dwelling. The Wishing-Cap gained by Fortunatus, is the petasos or winged cap of Hermes, the giver of all good. The grey or gleaming robe of Orendil, which again represents the garment bestowed upon Medeia by Helios, and the scabbard of Excalibur, each having the property of making its owner invulnerable, comes down in survival, as already hinted, as the holy coat of Treves.
Odin, if by one transformation he has given name to our supreme deity, is under another relation an Abgott, ex-god, degraded from his throne in the old mythology; the name in Christendom stands for a dreaded sprite. The nymphs of the waters and the trees of the olden time, are the fays, fairies, elves, or the imps and ogres of the folk-lore of to-day. The Loreley that drowns the unhappy boatman in the rapids, is the river-demon of old. The healing waterspirits of wells have only taken saints' names, and the old observance of rites at their sacred waters is still maintained in France, in Ireland, and in Scotland. So Puck, Bugaboo, Bugbear, Hobgoblin, Ogre, &c., standing for little now in the general belief, names bandied in sport, were grave, yes, solemn realities once, and reveal their ancestry quickly to the discerning eye.
There may have been things written for mere sport without aim, purport, or purpose, done in the wild random play of the imagination. 'The Song of Sixpence,' 'The Cow jumping over the Moon,' &c., may, for aught I know, be such; or again, there may be, as has been supposed by some, a mythic meaning at the foundation of most even of this. It has been well said, there is little sheer nonsense in the world; most that seems such, proves to have had some sense when we dig down deep enough to find the original form of expression. Every quirk and conceit is capable of some rational interpretation, and all the trivialities of Nursery Tales bear what was once a serious and felt meaning.
Even the strange, grotesque, and seemingly utterly senseless, features of some of the Hindu myths and legends, are found to have a reason for being, a ground real or aptly supposed in the fact of things; none are to be dismissed as chimeras and fictions of a disordered or imbecile brain. Often what they give is, where we may least suspect it, rich and suggestive. These studies inspire us with new respect for the human mind.
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