Sunday, May 1, 2016
The Month of May in Comparative Mythology 1887
The Month of May in Comparative Mythology, article in The Unitarian Review 1877
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Maia is mentioned in the Greek mythology as the mother, by Zeus, of Hermes, and in the Roman as the companion or wife of Vulcan. She was generally supposed to have given her name to the month of May, though there was a difference of opinion upon that point. For, according to one writer, the name was derived from maiores, or "the elders," as that of June was derived from juniores, or "the juniors," in honor of the two classes into which Romulus divided the Roman people, the one being appointed to maintain the republic by their counsels, and the other by their arms. Others, again, derived the name from Jupiter, who was called Mains, from his majesty, and still others from the Earth, which, on account of its magnitude, was called Maia, whence in the sacred rites the goddess Maia was termed Mater Magna, "the Great Mother."
As these conjectures indicate, however, little was known of the real origin of the name. But the researches of modern scholars have thrown considerable light upon it, and these researches lead us back into the earliest ages of Indian imagination and thought. Instead of a Supreme Being, Buddhism supposes the primal cause of that series of creations and destructions we call the world to dwell alone, self-subsistent, inscrutable, above luminous spaces that contain the germs of all future beings. For all that exists is without reality, merely the result of illusion, the evil that afflicts us being existence itself. But while the intellectual elements, which are scattered through matter, free themselves from its grossness, the universal soul remains in repose until the laws of fate require a new creation, from which, however, those beings are excepted who have succeeded in extricating themselves wholly from matter, and, having become Buddhas, have passed into nirvana, or the eternity of nothingness, whence, nevertheless, they sometimes descend and become incarnate on earth, in order to preserve the memory of the true doctrine of life. Now, this deluding principle of the world, this power or attribute by force of which matter is forever "changing its forms, is Maia, the basis, to the Indians, of the visible world, reflecting in manifold ways the divine ray of light that descends into this illusory sphere of the senses; for, though Brahma abides by himself in eternal solemnity and splendor, he has, nevertheless, wrapped himself about as with a mantle of joyous self-forgetfulness, and so, out of the mere pleasure of making himself manifest, out of love to the world, he has willed the agency of Maia.
Thus the world exists through Maia, and really exists to us; though, as opposed to the infinite being, it is nothing but a phantom. And hence Maia is the point of separation between existence and non-existence. She is the mother ,— in Egyptian Mouth, in Persian Mami, in Greek mitéra, in Latin mater, in German Mutter,— not merely of the world, but, as Bauer remarks, of that whole system of divinities in the Indian mythology from which every other mythology has drawn so largely. For in this separation of the attribute of love into subject and object lay the primal existence of the world. Things exist, and do not exist; that is, they exist only in separation, and not above it. Love is the world-mother, and has no beginning, though, when knowledge is attained, it has an end; and hence its children are mere delusions, images that vanish, while Brahma, the self-subsistent, alone abides. For these ancient thinkers saw that the basis of creation could be none other than love; but they saw also that love is in the end an illusion, and that knowledge alone is all-embracing and.all-enduring.
But of this Maia, this illusion of the senses, which is forever metamorphosing matter and presenting it under various seductive forms, these perfective beings, these Buddhas, are wholly masters, destroying it at pleasure or availing themselves of it for the redemption of mankind. For, descending in the form of a resplendent beam of light, they assume a mortal body through the power of Maia, and toil on silently and without rest for the welfare of those they have come to save, yet never doing violence to the free will of man.
Now, further, in the creation of the world, according to the Indian cosmogony, water was the primal agent and the beginning of all things. As Brahma, therefore, when he created the world manifested himself through the element of water, so the female principle of nature, the world-mother, Maia-Bhavani, the universal world-soul, was, according to the Indian conception, water also. And hence, when this conception became personified, became an avatar, the figure representing it was fashioned as half man, half fish; and so the Indian Maia became the mother not merely of the Syrian fish goddesses, but, in general, of all those female divinities who, like Aphrodite, sprang from the waves of the sea.
In the Greek mythology, Maia was the world-mother, uniting in her person all the loves of Zeus, bearing to the father of the gods, in the grotto of Mt. Cyllene in Arcadia, which was the symbol of the world body, the all-creating Hermes demiourgos, artificer both of intellectual and material things; for Hermes was the son of Maia. Hence she was called the Pleiad, either because the yearly regeneration of nature was announced by the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, or because etymologically Maia signified water (Sanscrit Ma), and the Pleiades are the rain-stars. For it was only later that the idea of deception, illusion, was attached to her name, when it came to be observed in what manifold forms the humid element appears,— an idea which probably received some support also from etymology; for Mag (whence mageia and our word magic) signified to deceive.
In the Attic mysteries, Dionysos, the principle of all individuality in the world, is the creator and conductor of souls into the body; and, as such, he is possessed of the second cup, that of distribution,— the first, that in which the universal soul of the world is mixed, being held by the higher demiurge. The souls which issue forth from Dionysos' cup take upon themselves individuality and are born, some for the preservation of the economy of the world, others by way of penalty, and still others voluntarily, out of inclination to the world,— an inclination whicli is the consequence of the gaze that Dionysos took into a mirror out of mere curiosity, before applying himself to the creation of individual things. And this curiosity and pleasure in creation is the joying image of the world fashioned out of mere illusions by Maia, mother of souls, called also by the poets Proserpina, as the nurse of all individual things. It is from an inclination to individual existence that souls leave their heavenly home; and when, arrived in this life, they find themselves in the motley kingdom of Dionysos, some, the humid souls, tarry gladly amid these manifold sensuous forms, as in a grotto that mirrors their lives in thousand-fold colors. And here below it is that Maia, mother of all created things, sits and weaves the many garments, these material bodies, with which she clothes souls as they descend; and the more a soul craves earthly existence, the more garments does she envelope it in, and the more difficult therefore is it for such a soul to return,— for these garments are all to be thrown of one after another ere it can begin to ascend.
It was under the name of Carmenta, however, that Maia passed from Arcadia into Italy; Carmenta, the giver of life, the universal mother and nurse, nymph and muse and prophetess and singer, weaver (from carminare) of the veil of nature and of the threads of mortal life. For, while she nourishes and fashions the child, Carmenta is forever spinning the threads of fate on which its future is to hang. The Roman conception of Maia is obscure, indeed; but its Indian origin is manifest in the conception of water as the cause of all things. Lydus says that in his day (in the first half of the sixth century) Maia was the term for water among the Syrians, and adds that it was not without reason that Varro attributed the name of the month to maia (water), for that agitation, movement, growth, was ascribed by the philosophers to the motion of the water which exists in the depths of the earth. At the first festivals, therefore, of Maia among the Latins prayers were offered to her for the averting of earthquakes. Hence, too, he says, the mythologers make Maia the daughter of Atlas, and her son Mercury the presiding genius of water, for which reason fountains were consecrated to him in his fanes.
The humid elements overspread all things, and it is only by activity that their ill effect can be averted. Activity, therefore, so essential to the existence of man, was personified as Evanderos, vir strenuus, the last son of the race of Maia or Carmenta, the last Hermes, champion (promaxos) of the tribes with whom the history of Latium begins; and thus we reach at length, as Creuzer remarks, in the old Italian conception of Evander and his Carmenta, the point discernible in all ancient religions, where mind and matter blend in mysterious union. Almost all the Roman festivals, indeed, show traces of the influence exercised upon the Roman mind in the early ages by an open-air life and familiarity with nature. The founding of Rome, for instance, was celebrated by a shepherd's feast in honor of the goddess Pales, the Italian Bhavani; that is, of the Divinity who bestows and upholds life. Hence, Maia with the Romans came to personify the fruitfulness of the earth rather than the element of humidity; and some writers, therefore, recognized in her only the earth goddess to whom honors were to be rendered on the first of May, because the warmth of the earth was then first manifest. And they affirmed that her name was derived from majus,— that is, "magnitude," — whence she was called the Great Mother, adducing in proof that swine were sacrificed to her, that being a sacrifice peculiar to rites paid to the earth goddess; and, further, that Mercury, the god of speech and eloquence, was invoked in conjunction with her, because it was only upon contact with the earth that the new-born child received its voice.
The chief spring festival at Rome was that which occurred on the 28th of April, and, lasting till the 3d of May, was celebrated with rites even more extravagant than those which characterized the Lupercalia. The people crowned their houses with flowers, scattered roses in the streets, and plunged into all those revels of which the Roman Carnival still in part preserves the memory; yet the more boisterous the gayety, the more sombre was the gloom which followed it. For the swelling earth, it was fancied, let loose the evil spirits enchained in nature, and, the way to the lower world being open, the shades of the departed came and went, and the air was heavy with unwholesome ghosts; and hence it became a Roman proverb that the month of May was a fatal one for marriages.
The old English May-day festivals, also, which we make such a painful effort to preserve, may have had their origin in these Roman customs, so that, in the thin processions of pale little children, with wintry faces and airy costumes, who wind through our busy streets and over our stony hillsides, the phallic festivals of India and Egypt which took place upon the sun entering Taurus, in commemoration of the renewed fertility of nature, transmitted thus through Rome and England, may still perhaps be maintaining a precarious and forgotten existence.
But as the image of the Virgin, set up in every forest and glade, came at last to concentrate upon herself the reverence which was at first paid to her son, the Indian Maia once more reappeared; the conception of a goddess-mother was once again dominant in Europe, as it was of old in Asia. The silence of the gospel as to the history of the mother of Jesus afforded license for the pious imagination of the worshipper and the most pious fraud of the priest. No story was too absurd to be reproduced, if it did but concern "Our Lady"; and so all the legends of the East were ransacked by Catholic believers, as they had been ages before by Greek mythologers. Maia and Isis were confounded with Mary, and out of the bosom of the most orthodox faith sprang the most profane syncretism.
Self-centred in the simplicity and severity of their religions conceptions, the Jews had no doctrine of a Virgin Mother, but Christianity required one as soon as, under the influence of the mediaeval Church, it degenerated into polytheism; and it found it already existing in the Indian Maia, the first virgin and the first wife, first of the beings that issued from the bosom of Brahma, mother of love, and of the first-born of the Creator begotten before the beginning of time. The representations of Maia giving suck to Buddha were reproduced in those of Mary nursing the infant Jesus, as were likewise those of Isis nursing Horus. For not merely does the archaic type of the Yirgin, as it appears in the portraits of her attributed to St. Luke, remind one of Isis, but the very representation of Isis appears in several images of the Virgin worshipped in Europe. At Pay-en-Yela, the image of the latter was painted black, and the tradition was that it had come from Egypt; and there were black images of "Our Lady" also at Loretto, and Einsiedeln, and Chartres, and elsewhere; while in the poem in honor of the Virgin composed by Conrad of Wurzburg, at the end of the thirteenth century, there occur several allusions to the Virgin Mary as being black, as also several passages which bear decisive marks of an Oriental origin,— one, for instance, in which the Holy Ghost is represented as descending during the night into the bosom of a flower, which grows upon the banks of the sea, and slumbering there as Brahma slumbers in the lotus that floats upon the waves.
We ought, perhaps, to add in conclusion that Welcker, certainly a great authority, maintains that Maia, the mother of Hermes by Zeus, is as diverse from the Roman earth goddess as from the Indian Maia; and that the root of her name is the same from which the ancients (Plato in Cratylus) derived MWSA, muse; and, further, that she was never a nature goddess, but was merely devised at a late period, in order to obtain Hermes, the god of telluric fertility, from Zeus, without doing violence to that ideal of marriage which God and nature so impressed upon the mind. But the current of authority, which runs as we have indicated it, certainly has in its favor a great underlying sentiment, an all-pervading principle, rudely apprehended though it was in the Indian cosmogony and the Greek philosophy, which, though they recognized the analogies of nature, had not ascended into that higher spiritual region into which those analogies finally conduct the purified soul. For Maia was not a morbid creation of superstition or an arbitrary dogma of the intellect, but a living, permanent fact in nature and life, as supreme and beautiful and all-embracing now as in the earliest age of Indian imagination or in the last stage of neo-Platonic thought; for Maia is she that bringeth forth into light the things that are hidden in darkness,—virtue, faith, content, aspiration, joy.— H. J. W.
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