The Mythical Origin of Death By John Reynolds Francis 1900
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As is well known, a myth is a fabulous or imaginary statement or narrative conveying an important truth, generally of a moral or religious nature; an allegory, religious or historical, of spontaneous growth and popular origin, generally involving some supernatural or superhuman claim of power; a tale of some extraordinary personage or country that has been gradually formed by, or has grown out of, the admiration and veneration of successive generations— Webster.
In consequence of the great age of mankind and the prevailing ignorance that existed throughout the world in times past, myths have become exceedingly numerous, and having been very important factors in the formation of national characters as well as in shaping the destinies of individuals, they now survive simply as relics of the baneful influences that evolved them. The myths of ancient times now constitute the attic rubbish of modern literature, of no substantial use to humanity, only so far as they illustrate the peculiar nature and idiosyncrasies of those who were wholly unable to comprehend even the simple rudiments of modern advancement. Myth and Superstition are boon companions. They are never separate in any kingdom, empire, or nationality. They exist simply because ignorance has enthroned them as factors in the lives and destinies of people, where they exert a commanding influence.
The ancients were remarkably ingenious in the employment of this word death, not only alluding to the keys belonging thereto, but asserting (Isaiah xxviii.,15): "We have made a covenant with death"—conveying the idea that death is a personage capable of counseling with men and entering into a contract wherein specific action is expressly stipulated. Being ignorant of the real character of death, and not supposing for a moment it is a beneficent ordinance of nature, they allude to it in connection with mundane affairs in a very singular manner. "And I will kill her children with death" (Rev. ii.,23), as if death could be used as an effective external instrument in causing death. Again the startling announcement is made (Rev. vi.,8): "And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death." As if there can be more than one death, it is stated (Exodus x.,17): "Now, therefore, forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat your God, that He may take away from me this death only." Death, too, is represented as a personage (Jer. ix.,21): "For Death is come up unto our windows and is entered into our palaces to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets." Death is also alluded to as possessing snares (Psalms xviii.,5).
It is now believed by Christians generally that the account in Genesis of the fall of man and the subsequent introduction of death into the world, should not be construed literally. The enlightened judgment of Christendom at the present time is that death is an ordinance of nature, a beneficent measure on the part of Divine Providence, and that whatever allusion is made thereto in the Bible, must be regarded as figurative illustrations by those who, though undoubtedly inspired, infused their own fancies and predictions in a great deal of their speaking and writing, which, it is claimed, was inspired by God Himself.
Death is simply one beneficent stage of nature, controlled by Divine Providence, whereby an enlarged sphere of existence is disclosed to the aspiring soul, and of which the ancients caught faint glimpses in dreams and visions, and which induced the drawing of weird pictures and rude metaphors of death on their part. "O death, I will be thy plagues" (Hosea xiii.,14), might have been considered a brilliant metaphor or figure of speech by those of olden times, but to the modern thinker it conveys no intelligible idea or lesson.
I have introduced these few examples of marvelous superstition in order to illustrate the exceeding large vein of credulity that permeates human nature, distorting it and giving rise to Myths of the Origin of Death.
The problems of the mythologist are to account, if he can, first for the origin and next for the distribution of myths. Plainly the myths of men must have their source in certain conditions of the human intellect. That these conditions do not exist in full force among civilized men is obvious enough, because men of all civilizations, Egyptian, Hindoo, and Greek, have been as much puzzled as we modern peoples are to account for the origin of myths. The mental conditions, therefore, which naturally and necessarily produce myths must be strange, on the whole, to civilized men. We are, therefore, led to ask whether this mental stage has not existed, and whether it does not still exist, among the mere backward races, savages as we rather indiscriminately call them. If we do find widely prevalent among the lower races a condition of thought which would necessarily beget the myths of the lower races, and if among the upper races myths similar in character be traced, the problem of the mythologist will be partially solved. Myths, or certain myths, will be the productions of the human mind in the savage state; and when these legends occur among civilized races, they will either be survivals from savagery or narratives borrowed from savages.
Let us apply this system to a single case; namely, to the myths concerning the origin of death.
Now, it is plain enough that civilized men, in a scientific age, would never dream of inventing a story to account for so necessary and inevitable an incident as death. "All men are mortal," is the very type among us of a universal affirmative statement, and how men come to be mortal needs no explanation. So the case seems to civilized and scientific man. But his own children have not attained to his belief in death. The certainty and universality of death do not enter into the thoughts of our little ones.
Now, there are still many tribes of men who practically disbelieve in death. To them death is always a surprise and an accident, an unnecessary, irrelevant intrusion on the living world. "Natural deaths are, by many tribes, regarded as supernatural," says Mr. Tylor. These tribes have no conception of death as the inevitable, eventful obstruction and cessation of the powers of the bodily machine; the stopping of the pulses and processes of life by violence or decay or disease. To persons who regard death thus, his intrusion into the world (for death, of course, is thought to be a person) stands in great need of explanation. That explanation, as usual, is given in myths. But before studying these widely different myths, let us first establish the fact that death really is regarded as something non-natural and intrusive. The modern savage readily believes in and accounts, in a scientific way, for violent deaths. The spear or club breaks or crushes a hole in a man. and his soul flies out. But the deaths he disbelieves in are natural deaths. These he is obliged to explain as produced by some supernatural cause, generally the action of malevolent spirits impelled by witches. Thus the savage holds that, violence apart and the action of witches apart, man would even now be immortal. "There are rude races of Australia and South America," writes Mr. Tylor, "whose intense belief in witchcraft has led them to declare that if men were never bewitched, and never killed by violence, they would never die at all. Like the Australians, the Africans will inquire of their dead 'what sorcerer slew them by his wicked arts.'" "The natives," says Sir George Grey, speaking of the Australians, "do not believe that there is such a thing as death from natural causes." On the death of an Australian native from disease, a kind of magical coroner's inquest is held by the conjurers of the tribe, and the direction in which the wizard lives who slew the dead man is ascertained by the movements of worms and insects. The process is described at full length by Mr. Brough Smyth in his "Aborigines of Victoria." Turning from Australia to Hindostan, we find that the Puwarrees (according to Heber's narrative) attribute all natural deaths to a supernatural cause; namely, witchcraft. That is, the Puwarrees do not yet believe in the universality and necessity of death. He is an intruder brought by magic arts into our living world. Again, in his "Ethnology of Bengal," Dalton tells us that the Hos (an aboriginal non-Aryan race) are of the same opinion as the Puwarrees. "They hold that all disease in men or animals is attributable to one of two causes: the wrath of some evil spirit or the spell of some witch or sorcerer. These superstitions are common to all classes of the population of this province." In the New Hebrides disease and death are caused, as Mr. Codrington found, by tamates, or ghosts. In New Caledonia, according to Erskine, death is the result of witchcraft practiced by members of a hostile tribe, for who would be so wicked as to bewitch his fellow-tribesman? The Andaman Islanders attribute all natural deaths to the supernatural influence of e reu chaugala, or to jura-win, two spirits of the jungle and the sea. The death is avenged by the nearest relation of the deceased, who shoots arrows at the invisible enemy. The negroes of Central Africa entertain precisely similar ideas about the nonnaturalness of death. Mr. Duff Macdonald, in his recent book, "Africana," writes: "Every man who dies what we call a natural death is really killed by witches." It is a far cry from the Blantyre Mission in Africa to the Eskimo of the frozen north. But so uniform is human nature in the lower races that the Eskimo precisely agree, as far as theories of death go, with the Africans, the aborigines of India, the Andaman Islanders, the Australians, and the rest. Dr. Rink found that "sickness or death coming about in an accidental manner was always attributed to witchcraft, and it remains a question whether death on the whole was not originally accounted for as resulting from magic." It is needless to show how these ideas survived into civilization. Bishop Jewell, denouncing witches before Queen Elizabeth, was, so far, mentally on a level with the Eskimo and the Australian. The familiar and voluminous records of trials for witchcraft, whether at Salem or at Edinburgh, prove that all abnormal and unwonted deaths and diseases, in animals or in men, were explained by our ancestors as the results of supernatural mischief.
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It has been made plain (and the proof might be enlarged to any extent) that the savage does not regard death as "God's great ordinance," universal and inevitable and natural. But, being curious and inquisitive, he cannot help asking himself: "How did this terrible invader first enter a world where he now appears so often?" This is, properly speaking, a scientific question; but the savage answers it, not by collecting facts and generalizing from them, but by inventing a myth. This is his invariable habit. Does he want to know why this tree has red berries, why that animal has brown stripes, why this bird utters its peculiar cry, where fire came from, why a constellation is grouped in one way or another, why his race of men differs from the whites,—in all these, and in all other intellectual perplexities, the savage invents a story to solve the problem. Stories about the origin of death are, therefore, among the commonest fruits of the savage imagination. As those legends have been produced to meet the same want by persons in a very similar mental condition, it inevitably follows that they all resemble each other with considerable closeness. We need not conclude that all the myths we are about to examine came from a single original source, or were handed about, with flint arrow-heads, seeds, shells, beads, and weapons, in the course of savage commerce. Borrowing of this sort may, or rather must, explain many difficulties as to the diffusion of some myths. But the myths with which we are concerned now, the myths of the origin of death, might conceivably have been separately developed by simple and ignorant men seeking to discover an answer to the same problem.
The myths of the origin of death fall into a few categories. In many legends of the lower races men are said to have become subject to mortality because they infringed some mystic prohibition or taboo of the sort which is common among untutored peoples. The apparently untrammeled Polynesian, or Australian, or African, is really the slave of countless traditions which forbid him to eat this object or to touch that, or to speak to such and such a person, or to utter this or that word. Races in this curious state of ceremonial subjection often account for death as the punishment imposed for breaking some taboo. In other cases, death is said to have been caused by a sin of omission, not of commission. People who have a complicated and minute ritual (like so many of the lower races) persuade themselves that death burst on the world when some passage of the ritual was first omitted, or when some custom was first infringed. Yet again, death is fabled to have first claimed us for his victims in consequence of the erroneous delivery of a favorable message from some powerful supernatural being, or because of the failure of some enterprise which would have resulted in the overthrow of death, or by virtue of a pact or covenant between death and the gods. Thus it will be seen that death is often (though by no means invariably) the penalty of infringing a command, or of indulging in a culpable curiosity. But there are cases, as we shall see, in which death, as a tolerably general law, follows on a mere accident. Some one is accidentally killed, and this "gives death a lead" (as they say in the hunting-field) over the fence which had hitherto severed him from the world of living men. It is to be observed, in this connection, that the first of men who died is usually regarded as the discoverer of a hitherto "unknown country," the land beyond the grave, to which all future men must follow him. Bin dir Woor, among the Australians, was the first man who suffered death, and he (like Yama in the Vedic myth) became the Columbus of the new world of the dead.
Let us now examine in detail a few of the savage stories of the origin of death. That told by the Australians may be regarded with suspicion, as a refraction from a careless hearing of the narrative in Genesis. The legend printed by Mr. Brough Smyth was told to Mr. Bulwer by "a black fellow far from sharp," and this black fellow may conceivably have distorted what his tribe had heard from a missionary. This sort of refraction is not uncommon, and we must always guard ourselves against being deceived by a savage corruption of a Biblical narrative. Here is the myth, such as it is: "The first created man and woman were told" (by whom we do not learn) "not to go near a certain tree in which a bat lived. The bat was not to be disturbed. One day, however, the woman was gathering fire-wood, and she went near the tree. The bat flew away, and after that came death." More evidently genuine is the following legend of how death "got a lead" into the Australian world: "The child of the first man was wounded. If his parents could heal him, death would never enter the world. They failed. Death came." The wound, in this legend, was inflicted by a supernatural being. Here death acts on the principle ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute, and the premier pas was made easy for him. We may continue to examine the stories which account for death as the result of breaking a taboo. The Ningphos of Bengal say they were originally immortal. They were forbidden to bathe in a certain pool of water. Some one, greatly daring, bathed, and, ever since, Ningphos have been subject to death. The infringement, not of a taboo, but of a custom, caused death in one of the many Melanesian myths on this subject. Men and women had been practically deathless because they cast their old skins at certain intervals. But a grandmother had a favorite grandchild who failed to recognize her when she appeared as 3 young woman in her new skin. With fatal good-nature the grandmother put on her old skin again, and instantly men lost the art of skin-shifting, and death finally seized them.
The Greek myth of the origin of death is the most important of those which turn on the breaking of a prohibition. The story has unfortunately become greatly confused in the various poetical forms which have reached us. As far as can be ascertained, death was regarded in one early Greek myth as the punishment of indulgence in forbidden curiosity. Men appear to have been free from death before the quarrel between Zeus and Prometheus. In consequence of this quarrel Hephaestus fashioned a woman out of earth and water, and gave her to Epimetheus, the brother of the Titan. Prometheus had forbidden his brother to accept any gift from the gods, but the bride was welcomed nevertheless. She brought her magical coffer; this was opened; and men who, according to Hesiod, had hitherto lived exempt from "maladies that bring down fate," were overwhelmed with the "diseases that stalk abroad by night and day." Now, in Hesiod (Works and Days, 70-100) there is nothing said about unholy curiosity. Pandora simply opened her casket and scattered its fatal contents. But Philodemus assures us that, according to a variant of the myth, it was Epimetheus who opened the forbidden coffer, whence came death.
Leaving the myths which turn on the breaking of a taboo, and reserving for consideration the New Zealand story, in which the origin of death is the neglect of a ritual process, let us look at some African myths of the origin of death. It is to be observed that in these (as in all the myths of the most backward races) many of the characters are not gods, but animals.
The Bushman story lacks the beginning. The mother of the little hare was lying dead, but we do not know how she came to die. The moon then struck the little hare on the lip, cutting it open, and saying: "Cry loudly, for your mother will not return, as I do, but is quite dead." In another version the moon promises that the old hare will return to life, but the little hare is sceptical, and is hit in the mouth as before. The Hottentot myth makes the moon send the hare to men with the message that they will revive as he (the moon) does. But the hare "loses his memory as he runs" (to quote the French proverb which may be based on a form of this very tale), and the messenger brings the tidings that men shall surely die and never revive. The angry moon then burns a hole in the hare's mouth. In yet another Hottentot version the hare's failure to deliver the message correctly caused the death of the moon's mother (Bleek, "Bushman Folklore"). In this last variant we have death as the result of a failure or transgression. Among the more backward natives of South India (Lewin's "Wild Races of South India") the serpent is concerned, in a suspicious way, with the origin of death. The following legend might so easily arise from a confused understanding of the Mohammedan or Biblical narrative that it is of little value for our purpose. At the same time, even if it is only an adaptation, it shows the characteristics of the adapting mind. God had made the world, trees, and reptiles, and then set to work to make man out of clay. A serpent came and devoured the still inanimate clay images while God slept. The serpent still comes and bites us all, and the end is death. If God never slept, there would be no death. The snake carries us off while God is asleep. But the oddest part of this myth remains. Not being able always to keep awake, God made a dog to drive away the snake by barking. And that is why dogs always howl when men are at the point of death. Here we have our own rural superstition about howling dogs twisted into a South Indian myth of the origin of death. The introduction of death by a pure accident recurs in a myth of Central Africa reported by Mr. Duff MacDonald. There was n time when the man blessed by Sancho Panza had not yet "invented sleep." A woman it was who came and offered to instruct two men in the still novel art of sleeping. "She held the nostrils of one, and he never awoke at all," and since then the art of dying has been facile.
A not unnatural theory of the origin of death is illustrated by a myth from Pentecost Island and a Red Indian myth. In the legends of very many races we find the attempt to account for the origin of evil by a simple dualistic myth. There were two brothers who made things; one made things well, the other made them ill. In Pentecost Island it was Tagar who made things well, and he appointed that men should die for five days only, and live again. But the malevolent Suque caused men "to die right out." The Red Indian legend of the same character is printed in the "Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology" (1879-80), p. 45. The younger of the Cinau-av brothers said: "When a man dies, send him back in the morning and let all his friends rejoice." "Not so," said the elder; "the dead shall return no more." So the younger brother slew the child of the elder, and this was the beginning of death.
There is another and a very quaint myth of the origin of death in Banks Island. At first, in Banks Island, as elsewhere, men were immortal, The economical results were just what might have been expected. Property became concentrated in the hands of a few,—that is, of the first generations, while all the younger people were practically paupers. To heal the disastrous social malady, Qat (the maker of things, who was more or less a spider), sent for Mate—that is, Death. Death lived near a volcanic crater of a mountain, where there is now a byway into Hades, or Panoi, as the Melanesians call it. Death came and went through the empty forms of a funeral feast for himself. Tangaro, the Fool, was sent to watch Mate, and to see by what way he returned to Hades, that men might avoid that path in future. Now, when Mate fled to his own place, this great Fool, Tangaro, noticed the path, but forgot which it was and pointed it out to men under the impression that it was the road to the upper, not the under, world. Ever since that day men have been constrained to follow Mate's path to Panoi and the dead. Another myth is somewhat different, but, like this one, attributes death to the imbecility of Tangaro, the Fool. The New Zealand myth of the origin of death is pretty well known, as Mr. Tylor has seen in it the remnants of a solar myth, and has given it a "solar" explanation. It is an audacious thing to differ from so cautious and learned an anthropologist as Mr. Tylor, but the writer ventures to give his reasons for dissenting, in this case, from the view of the author of "Primitive Culture." Maui is the great hero of Maori mythology. He was not precisely a god, still less was he one of the early elemental gods, yet we can scarcely regard him as a man. He rather answers to one of the race of Titans, and especially to Prometheus, the son of a Titan. Maui was prematurely born, and his mother thought the child would be no credit to her already numerous and promising family. She therefore (as native women too often did in the South Sea Islands) tied him up in her long tresses and tossed him out to sea. The gales brought him back to shore; one of his grandparents carried him home, and he became much the most illustrious and successful of his household. So far Maui had the luck which so commonly attends the youngest and least considered child in folklore and mythology. This feature in his myth may be a result of the very widespread custom of jungsten Recht (Borough English), by which the youngest child is heir, at least, of the family hearth. Now, unluckily, at the baptism of Maui (for a pagan form of baptism is a Maori ceremony) his father omitted some of the Karakias, or ritual utterances proper to be used on such occasions. This was the fatal original mistake whence came man's liability to death, for hitherto men had been immortal. So far, what is there "solar" about Maui? Who are the Sun's brethren,—and Maui had many? How could the Sun catch the Sun in a snare, and beat him so as to make him lame? This was one of Maui's feats, for he meant to prevent the Sun from running too fast through the sky. Maui brought fire, indeed, from the under world, as Prometheus stole it from the upper world, but many men and many beasts do as much as the myths of the world, and it is hard to see how the exploit gives Maui "a solar character." Maui invented barbs for hooks and other appurtenances of early civilization, with which the sun has no more to do than with patent safety-matches. His last feat was to attempt to secure human immortality forever. There are various legends on this subject. Some say Maui noticed that the sun and moon rose again from their daily death, by virtue of a fountain in Hades (Hine-nui-te-po) where they bathed. Others say he wished to kill Hine-nui-te-po (conceived of as a woman) and to carry off her heart. Whatever the reason, Maui was to be swallowed up in the giant frame of Hades, or Night, and if he escaped alive, death would never have power over men. He made the desperate adventure, and would have succeeded but for the folly of one of the birds which accompanied him. This little bird, which sings at sunset, burst out laughing inopportunely, wakened Hine-nui-te-po, and she crushed to death Maui and all hopes of earthly immortality. Had he only come forth alive men would have been deathless. Now, except that the bird which laughed sings at sunset, what is there "solar" in all this? The sun does daily what Maui failed to do, passes through darkness and death back into light and life. Not only does the sun daily succeed where Maui failed, but (Taylor's "New Zealand") it was his observation of this fact which encouraged Maui to risk the adventure. If Maui were the sun we should all be immortal, for Maui's ordeal is daily achieved by the sun. But Mr. Tylor says ("Primitive Culture," i. 336): "It is seldom that solar characteristics are more distinctly marked in the several details of a myth than they are here." To us the characteristics seem to be precisely the reverse of solar. Throughout the cycle of Maui he is constantly set in direct opposition to the sun, and the very point of the final legend is that what the sun could do Maui could not. Literally, the one common point between Maui and the sun is that the little bird, the tiwakawaka, which sings at the daily death of day, sang at the eternal death of Maui. It will very frequently be found that the "solar hero" of mythologists is no more solar than Maui was a photographer.
Without pausing to consider the Tongan myth of the origin of death, we may go on to investigate the legends of the Aryan races. According to the Satapatha Brahmana, death was made, like the gods and other creatures, by a being named Prajapati. Now, of Prajapati half was mortal, half was immortal. With this mortal half he feared death, and concealed himself from death in earth and water. Death said to the gods: "What hath become of him who created us?" They answered: "Fearing thee hath he entered the earth." The gods and Prajapati now freed themselves from the dominion of death by celebrating an enormous number of sacrifices. Death was chagrined by their escape from the "nets and clubs" which he carries in the Aitareya Brahmana. "As you have escaped me, so will men also escape," he grumbled. The gods appeased him in the promise that, in the body, no man henceforth forever, should invade death. "Every one who is become immortal shall do so by first parting with his body." Among the Aryans of India, as we have already seen, death has a protomartyr, Yama, "the first of men who reached the river, spying out a path for many" (Atharva Neda, vi.283). Here Yama corresponds to Tangaro, the Fool, in the myth of the Soloman Islands. But Yama is not regarded as a maleficent being like Tangaro. The Rig Veda (x. 14) speaks of him as "King Yama, who departed to the mighty streams and sought out a road for many;" and again, the Atharva Veda names him "the first of men who died, and the first who departed to the celestial world." With him the Blessed Fathers dwell forever in happiness. Mr. Max Muller, however, takes Yama to be "a character suggested by the setting sun," a claim which is also put forward, as we have seen, for the Maori hero Maui. It is Yama, according to the Rig Veda, who sends the birds (a pigeon is one of his messengers) as warnings of approaching death. Among the Iranian race Yima appears to have been the counterpart of the Vedic Yama. He is now King of the Blessed; originally he was the first of men over whom death won his earliest victory. With this victory are vaguely connected legends of a serpent who killed King Yima, in punishment, apparently, of a sin. But it is hard to trace this myth in any coherent shape among the sacred books of the Iranian religion.
We have now hastily examined some typical instances of myths of the origin of death. Our point is proved if it be admitted that such myths would naturally arise only among races which have not the scientific conception of the nature and universality of death. It has been shown that the death myths of savages do correspond with their prevalent conceptions of the nature of death, and it is inferred that the similar myths of Greeks, Hindoos, and Persians, are either survivals from the time when these races were uncivilized, or are examples of borrowing from uncivilized peoples. This theory of myths has no real novelty, being precisely that by which Eusebius, in his "Praeparatio Evangelica," replied to the various philosophical and moral theories of the contemporary pagan Greeks. "Your myths began," Eusebius argues, "when your ancestors knew neither law nor civilization. You have never ventured to lay aside these ancient stories, of which you are now ashamed, as you show by your various apologetic explanations, none of which have the advantage of agreeing with each other." Thus the ancient Father actually anticipated the latest results of modern comparative science.