Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Popular Tales
By Alexander Macbain, M.A.,

Mr Alexander Macbain, M.A., of Raining’s School, thereafter read a paper on “Popular Tales.” Here follows Mr Macbain’s paper:—

The first characteristic of folk-tale is its frank disregard of the ordinary conditions of our existence, and its equally frank belief in the human kinship of the whole world—animate and inanimate, The hero, in his seven-league boots, or on his wind-outstripping steed, annihilates space and time with almost electric speed, and sea and land are the same to him; for his boots and his steed can carry him with equal ease over both—nay, his powers of jumping fiery or prickly hedges, or of springing from his spear point to the window of his fair one high aloft in the towers, show scant respect to the law of gravitation. Animals have a human reason, and often a power of speech; indeed, they appear in the tales as far more intelligent and knowing than the heroes, for it is generally by their means they perform, or are kept from performing, those wonderful tasks they have been called upon to accomplish. Dogs, birds, frogs, and all animals speak on occasions; and more than this, they may marry the heroes or the heroines! Not only are I animals humanised, or made to act like human beings, but all nature besides, plants and trees, stocks and stones, mountain and fell, wind and rain and sky, the sun and the moon—all are alive with the life and spirit we see in man and beast. A piece of apple or a human spittle answers to enquiries put. The stones of the earth tell Luga of the Long Arms that his father is buried beneath where they are. “Here thy father lies, O Luga; grievous was Kian’s strait when he was forced to take the shape of a pig on seeing the three sons of Turenn.” And as here, men may turn themselves, or be turned, into animals; and more than that, they may even be turned into plant, tree, stone, or any inanimate object, and still retain reason and power of self-recovery, or of being recovered by others. A hero or heroine may become an animal, beast or bird or fish or insect; he or she may become a ship or a sword or a ladder, as the exigencies of the occasion may demand. People’s hearts and people’s strength may lie in some object or other, either about their own person, or well hidden somewhere else. Giants may have no heart in their body ; a hero’s strength may be, Samson-like, in his hair, or his prowess may depend on an old knapsack, a hat, and a horn. The life of this earth is not differentiated from the life beyond. Heroes pay flying visits to the realms of the departed; nay, a tailor, neither good nor honest, may accidentally squeeze himself into heaven, and sitting on the best chair he saw there—the Throne of the most High, for the occupant happened to be away—he may see an old woman washing clothes down on earth at a stream, and secretly stealing handkerchiefs, and he may throw the footstool at her head in his virtuous wrath. Social life in these tales takes peculiar features. We have kings and queens and princes as our commonest acquaintances; gorgeous palaces, with surfeit of gold and silver, are our usual places of rest and abode. Families have a habit of going in threes, the youngest of whom is the best; step-mothers are nearly always wicked, and always witches; stepchildren are always ill-treated. Husbands and wives get separated over the infringement of some command, or the unwitting breaking of some mystic rule. In the Gaelic tale of the Hoodie, the husband, who had already been a hoodie and had been rescued by the bride from this form, asks her, as they proceed in a coach to one of their country houses, whether she had fogotten anything, and she said, “I forgot my coarse comb.” “The coach in which they were fell a withered faggot, and he went away as a hoodie.” Such are the leading characteristics of the popular or folk-tales. There is pervading all over their world a supernatural power which manifests itself in magic and enchantments, and no higher power is known ; and to this power of magic, embodied in the medicine man of modem savage life, and in the wicked and in the wise ones of the folk-tales, all else must bow and yield.

Many interesting problems spring up in connection with these folk-tales, and the very first is, “What is the origin and meaning of them?" And when we find that similar tales—the same in plot, and practically the same in incidents and characters—exist among all the nations of Europe and parts of Asia, some even being found still more widely distributed, appearing in savage lands, it becomes a question of first importance how these tales were diffused through so many peoples. Did they start up independently in the different countries, or were they directly borrowed by one people from another, or did they filter slowly through the nations, starting each from some one place? And, when we have considered these questions, the relationship of these tales to the mythology, religion, and folk-lore of a people comes forward for settlement. Were the folk-tales—or rather, the predecessors of our modem folktales—were they developed into myths at times, and did they thus become mythology, or did mythology break down and become popular tales, or did both processes take place? These last questions, as can be seen, are intimately connected with the first question we have to ask, and answer if possible, viz., “What is the origin of these tales?"

To answer these questions, as far as they can be answered in our present state of knowledge, we must adopt the methods of science, and first begin with a classification of our materials. And, first, let us fix the place of the folk-tale itself among its kindred tales of mythology and imagination. By mythology we mean the belief in a supernatural order, which real knowledge causes us to regard as non-existent. Myths propose unscientific—that is, forged or invented—answers to such questions as the origin of man, the origin of the world, of the stars, the sun, and the moon. How was fire discovered? What was the origin of death? These are some of its questions. Mythology is, therefore, founded on the same impulse and necessity as our science ; it attempts to explain man and his surroundings.

It is, therefore, essentially explanatory; it gives a working hypothesis of phenomena around and beyond. The folk-tale is not explanatory—it is literary. Mythology and religion are practical, but the folk-tale is artistic. It may point a moral, or convey warnings as to taboo, but it is essentially a tale. Fables and tales in regard to beasts or natural objects that immediately and obviously arise from the habits and characteristics of these, do not belong properly to our subject. Beast fables, with all stories that are intended to convey a moral, or explain a natural fact, must now be excluded from our investigation. The origin of these is easily understood, and they may arise naturally in any country or clime. The cunning of the fox is everywhere, and, practically, the same answer is given to the question, Why the bear or hyaena has a stumpy tail? by dwellers in the torrid and the arctic zones. Æsop’s fables are familiar as examples of the moral beast-tales; and our experience can bring up many tales started to explain a place name, or other etymological puzzle. But in the pure folktale there is not evident either myth or explanation. A doggie asks, for service rendered, successively three farmer’s daughters to marry him ; the two eldest refuse, but the youngest accepts him, and, on being married, he becomes a splendid man. Three children are born and spirited away on the night of their birth. The mother confesses on the third occasion that the husband stole them, and then he left her. She pursued him, and, after much trial, reached the town where he was and of which his father was king. Here she found that he was going to marry the Daughter of the King of the Skies. By means of a shears and a needle that could work of themselves, she causes such stir that she is invited to the palace, and soon manages to recall herself to her husband’s mind. That is the outline of a common tale—the Cupid and Psyche root. The distinction is great between it and a nature myth. We may instance such a myth as that of the Tongan islanders, who say that the god Tangaola one day went to fish in the sea, and, feeling something heavy at the end of his line, he drew it up, and there perceived the top of rocks, which continued to increase in size and number till they formed a large continent, but the line broke, and only the Tongan islands remained above the surface. But this Tongan myth is rude compared to the mythic ideas involved in the history and actions of the higher gods of Greece and Scandinavia—as, for instance, the sky god Zeus and the weather god Thor, each with his bolt or his hammer representing the lightning. We have, therefore, at least three classes of tales, which we must distinguish from folk-tales proper:—

Mythologic tales.
Tales with morals.
Tales explanatory of the characteristics of beasts or of natural objects.

The further classification of the folk-tales themselves is also a necessity, for it will be at once observed that these tales consist of merely “different arrangements of a rather limited set of incidents,” and that their classification and reduction to a few leading roots are possible. Von Hahn, over twenty years ago, led the way in this very desirable and scientific process of classifying the tales. His classification is elaborate, and, indeed, exhaustive. He has forty formulae, as he calls them—that is, forty leading forms of tales; but the real roots are much fewer than that. Indeed, the root incidents can almost all be counted by a score. Von Hahn’s classification, along with two others, will be found at the end of this paper.

Mythic tales and folk-tales have been, till lately, mixed together, and whatever explanation was given of the one was held sufficient for the other. Mythology was considered by some a broken-down remembrance of early revealed religion. Others thought that myths were tales founded on real historic events. Jupiter, the god, was once an earthly king, they held ; the water-horees and monsters of folk-lore were dim recollections of the monster animals of primeval times. Others, again, held that the tales, apart from the myths, were intended to convey moral truth —“to point a moral and adorn a tale.” Myths, also on this theory, were practically allegories. These are three theories that held sway for a long time; but the discoveries made during this century in philology, and the consequent extended kinship it showed between European nations and Eastern nations, had soon an effect on mythology and folk-lore. Not merely was there seen to be a group of languages allied, to which the name Indo-European or Aryan could be applied, but it was observed that their mythologies had also a general resemblance the one to the other. Grimm saw this, and proceeded to examine the matter. He practically started the solar theory of mythology—a theory taken up and illustrated in 1856 by Mr Max Muller,, and energetically, enthusiastically, and minutely worked out some years later by Sir George, then Mr. Cox. His work, “The Mythology of the Aryan Nations,” was in its way an-epoch-making book. The theory is as follows.

The same myths and folk-tales, practically, are found from India to the west of Ireland, and the reason for this is that these nations, as they are linguistically descended from one parent language, so also are their mythologies descended from one parent mythology. The Sanscrit is the oldest Indo-European language— that is, the nearest to the parent tongue ; so also is the mythology it contains nearest the parent mythology. That mythology was a literary embodiment of the worship of nature. Anthropomorphic polytheism was its form, and the chief deities were the powers of sky, light, and air. The sun-god was the chief personage in the myths. Every mythological name has been analysed, and in the analysis, rightly or wrongly, some atmospheric or solar reference has been found. Mr Max Miiller and Sir G. Cox appear to slightly diverge as to the origin of metaphor; Mr Muller is satisfied that metaphor is natural to man in his early stage; he “lisped in metaphors, for the metaphors came.” When man called the dawn a maiden, he knew that was metaphoric and poetic. Sir G. Cox, on the other hand, thinks that man believed nature really to be alive and animate like himself when he said so, and hence it was no metaphor originally. But, as man advanced from this childish stage, he recognised the absurdity of attributing life to sun and moon and clouds and dawn, and, therefore, he divorced, unconsciously and in the course of time, the personal elements and the stories thereto attached from the material objects that were explained by anthropomorphic or spirit agency. Hence Zeus, which means sky or shining one, and the sky were no longer one, but two. The one meant the sky in its unpoetical and non-metaphoric form; the other was the old sky-power divorced from the sky, and made into a personal being with a life history. That life history was got from the old facts t)f his previous connection with the sky, which were applied to him in that earlier stage, metaphorically and poetically (according to Max Muller), or as a real matter of belief (according to Cox). In any case, the divorcement was caused by forgetfulness, on the part of succeeding generations, of the point of view from which their ancestors looked on these powers of air and sky, and from the consequent misconception of the metaphors formerly employed, which were in the later period transferred to the individual, or spirit apart from the object.

Apollo was thus divorced from the material sun; but the life of Apollo was composed from the old metaphoric or personal material which was applied to the sun at the earlier stage. Oblivion or forgetfulness of the more primitive use of epithets, or of the spirit explanations, is here relied on; but the richness of mythological incident requires more than this. Many names would be, metaphorically, applied to the sun, and many epithets—names of animals and epithets widely varying. This is polyonymy. These names would also apply to other objects as well; and hence, besides forgetfulness, some considerable confusion and mixing of incidents would arise from polyonymy and homonymy—in fact, the theory of polyonymy and homonymy is elastic enough for anything. Mr Max Muller thus describes how a myth or tale might arise on his theory:—“But suppose that the exact meaning of the word *gloaming" had been forgotten, and that a proverbial expression, such as ‘The gloaming sings the sun to sleep' had been preserved, would not the gloaming very soon require an explanation, and would long hesitate to tell their children that the gloaming was a good old woman who came every night to put the sun into his bed, and who would be very angry if she found any little children still awake t The children would soon talk among themselves about Nurse Gloaming, and, as they grew up, would tell their children again of the same wonderful old nurse. It was in this and in similar ways that in the childhood of the world many a story grew up which, when once repeated and sanctioned by a popular poet, became part and parcel of what we are accustomed to call the mythology of ancient nations.”

Let us now take an actual example of the use of this theory in explanation of a well-known myth, which is also a well-known incident in the folk-tales. Phrixos and Hell£ were the children of Athamas by Nepheld Nephel disappears, and Athamas marries Ino, who acts as stepmother to Phrixos and Hell^ with the usual result. Nephete, who is immortal, helps her children to escape, and they ride away through the air on a ram with a golden fleece. Poor Hell£ fell from off the ram as they were crossing the Hellespont, which was called after her name on that account. Phrixos arrived in safety at Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, where Æetes ruled as king. Phrixos then sacrificed the ram, and gave the fleece to Æetes, who placed it on an oak tree in the grove of Ares. That is the myth or tale; and it must be said that, on the face of it, it presents some points favourable to explanation by this theory. Nephele means cloud on the linguistic-forgetful-of-metaphor theory, that is easy; Nephele, originally, really is the cloud, and not a person. Athamas is Semitic (so Sir G. Cox says), being a form of Tammuz, the sun-god. The cloud and the sun, therefore, have two children—Phrixos and Hell4; what should they be f Phrixos is the cold, clear air (Sir G. Cox says), and Heil is the air as warmed by the fostering heat of the sun [Parenthetically, it may be remarked that Phrixos means, and is allied philologically to, “bristling Hell" is not so easily settled as to derivation]. Nephele dies or departs; Athamas marries Ino, the open and glaring day, for she is called Ino Leukothea. The open and glaring day hates and drives forth the cold air and the warm air, and these fly away on a ram with a golden fleece—that is to say, on the sunlit cloud; the taking away, or going away with the golden fleece is the carrying away of the sunlit clouds of evening from the regions of the gloaming to those of the dawn, where they are left to be brought back again by the sun—that is by Jason. The whole natural history of the myth, then, is this The sun and the cloud have two children—cold air and warm air, The cloud goes aloft. The open and glaring day ill-treats and casts forth cold air and warm, and they run away upon the back of the evening sunlit cloud, but warm air falls off, and cold ail arrives in the east with sunlit cloud alone, and then sacrifices 01 kills it. It is very pretty, very ingenious, and very untrue to nature, and to the science of meteorology as well as to history. The whole “solar theory” is of this same type, at least when applied tc folk-tales—pretty, ingenious, untrue. The sun pursues the dawn, and overtakes her at even; that explains the story of the ever-fleeing maiden pursued, and finally overtaken, by the lover. That maid is Daphne, Prokris, Cinderella, and the other nameless and numberless ladies who fly, leaving slippers or other tokens behind them. The sun-god is the hero of every tale, be the hero animal or man. This theory makes the folk-tales merely the detritus, a* Max Muller says, of mythology, and practically the detritus of solar mythology. The theory has made the greatest shipwreck over the enchantments and spells under which heroes appear ir these folk-tales. In a Gaelic tale the hero comes on the scene at first as a hoodie or a doggie; among other nations he may be a bear, or, as in Germany, a frog, and hence the story-name “frog-prince.” In Sanscrit, too, there is a similar story of a beautiful girl that was a frog, Bheki, sitting at a well. A king asked her to be his wife, and she consented on condition that he should never show her a drop of water. One day, being tired, she asked the king for water; he forget his promise, brought water, and Bheki disappeared. Now, here is a poser for the solar mythologists. But, like the Scotch theologian, he looks the difficulty boldly in the face, and passes on. This is what Mr Max Miiller says of it:— “The story of Bheki must have grown up gradually, beginning with a short saying about the sun—such as that Bheki, the sun, will die at the sight of water, as we should say, that the sun will set when it approaches the water from which it rose in the morning. Thus, viewed as a woman, the sun-frog might be changed into a woman, and married to a king; viewed as a man, he might be married to a princess. In either case, stories would naturally arise to explain, more or less fully, all that seemed strange in these marriages between frog and man, and the change from sun to frog, and from frog to man, which was at first due to the mere spell of language, would, in our nursery tales, be ascribed to miraculous charms more familiar to a later age.” And such, according to Max Mtiller, is the origin of these beast heroes and heroines, and the consequent theory of enchantment. The whole world of enchantment is based on forgotten metaphors. Such a mm of “might, could, would, should, or must,” as the above passage presents, could hardly be met with in any writer outside a solar mythologist. “The sun must have been called Bheki.” Why must it t But was it? It was not; the idea is absurd Hence we cannot for a moment believe that these beast forms arose from forgotten metaphors; nor could forgotten metaphors explain how savages still believe in such stories, and the possibility of such transformations, such marriages, and consequent incidents.

The fact is, the theory is utterly unscientific. It proceeds quite on the wrong lines. It never asks whether modem savages, or men in a similar stage of culture with the early Aryans and our early ancestors, ever think, act, and speak as these Aryans must have done if this theory is true. The poetic power it ascribes to savages is simply non-existent. The intense solicitude with which primitive man watched the sun, the dawn, the cloud, the rain, and the dew, and the way he described their trials, loves, and sorrows have no counter-part in modern savage life, nor did they ever have in ancient savage life. The savage and barbarous man is too busy with his own love-affairs to attend much to the scorching love of the sun for the dew. There is such a blank monotony about the sun turning up under all sorts of mythological disguises as chief hero that we thoroughly sympathise with Mr Lang when he complains of him as that “eternal lay-figure.” No historical hero, no custom, no belief is out of danger until the sun-hero receives his quietus. In addition to the fact that the “solar” theory is inadequate to cope with the difficulties of the folk-tales —and, indeed, with the details of the higher mythology—there is another objection. Mr Max Miiller reduces mostly all myths and tales to solar origin; other theorists hold that atmospheric phenomena play the heaviest part, such as storms and lightning. For instance, M. Decharme makes Phrixos “the demon of thunder,” and Helld “a goddess of lightning.” These scientists do not agree among themselves, not merely on the main lines and details of folk-tale explanations, but they differ often widely in the interpretation of the higher mythology. And one sympathises strongly with Mr Lang’s remark that there “is an improbable monotony in the theory which resolves most of old romance into a series of remarks about the weather.” We must, however, admit that, in the higher reaches of mythology, Aryan myth is a personification of the phenomena and conceptions of nature, and that the orbs of heaven, the sky, day and night, the clouds, and the lightning are the foundation and the most important part of the whole fabric. Nor need we deny that some folk-tales are the detritus of the old mythology, although we have to maintain, on the other hand, that myths are often sublimated folk-tales, as Mr Lang has so well proved in the case of the Jason myth.

So much for the “ solar-myth” theory of explaining the origin of folk-tales. The same theorists hold that the diffusion of the tales throughout Indo-European peoples points, as the similarity of language does, to a common origin also of mythology. There are some difficulties, however, which this theory does not recognise. First, some of the most characteristic folk-tales have been found among savages and other non-Aryan peoples. Not merely have single incidents been found, for that is quite common, but often several incidents are connected in exactly a similar way among savage tribes, the same beginning, middle, and denouement of plot appearing. The tale in Campbell’s collection, “The Battle of the Birds,” of which there is an Irish variant, and also other Gaelic versions, the fullest being Mrs Mackellar’s version in a late number of the Celtic Magazine, entitled the “Bodach Glas,” finds its next closest parallel in a negro story from Jamaica, and hence is an African story, for the scene is in Africa. The incident of the bathing of three sisters, and the hero’s capture of the youngest, who helps him against her father, appears in the African as in the Gaelic tale; the tasks are replaced by the hero being asked to discover which is the youngest daughter, and this he does, guessing her correctly, by her own help, under three disguises, two of them animal; then the couple fly, pursued by the father. The lady throws behind her a rose, a pebble, and a phial of water, which produced respectively a broad wood, a range of rocky mountains, and a rushing river, which carried away the father, horse and all* This extraordinary coincidence makes the problem of the diffusion of folk-tales a very difficult one indeed, for it is not easy to believe that the negroes who recited the stories to “Monk” Lewis as Ananci African stories could have learnt them from Scotch or Irish settlers in Jamaica. The stories are redolent of African life. The incident where the heroine hides in a tree above a well, with the consequence that two other women who successively come to the well and see her face there, and, fancying it is their own, think themselves too handsome for anything, appears in a Madagascar story, as also does in the same story the throwing behind of objects which develop into obstructions to the pursuit by the giant or ogre. The heroine hara here throws behind her a broom, an egg, a cane, and a pebble, which respectively became a dense thicket, a lake, a dense forest, and an inaccessible precipice. Secondly, as an objection to this theory of Aryan diffusion, there can be no doubt that neighbouring Aryan nations have their folktales more like each other than these tales are to those of Aryan nations farther away. Teutonic and Celtic fairy tales are more like each other than either are to those of Aiyan nations in Asia. Bat the linguistic theorist might reply that so, too, are their languages and manners and customs. Yet, there is just a suspicion of the one influencing the other, though perhaps nothing more. In any case, the problem of the diffusion of the tales has not yet been solved.

Some theorists, like Mr Ralston and Mr Clouston, maintain that these tales are borrowed from the East, and they look to India as the source of them. On the face of it, such a view does not commend itself to a scientific enquirer. That some tales have been borrowed from the East is true. Several were introduced by the translators of eastern tales in the 12th century and onwards. But we can recognise these with no great difficulty, especially among Gaelic tales, for they want the peculiarities of Gaelic imagination and the local colouring of our country. When we find a company on a green-coloured hillock, and a shadow of a shower comes from the western airt going to the eastern airt, and a rider on a black filly comes out of the shower; when we meet with Fionn and his men on Beinn Eidinn, “on a hillock behind the wind and in front of the sun, where they could see every person and nobody could see them when we speed along with a steed that would catch the swift March wind that was before him, and the swift March wind that was behind him could not catch him; when the hunter on the hunting hill gets suddenly enveloped in a Druidic mist, and is swept away; when men so enchanted lose and regain limbs with no apparent discomfort; when we find richness of description and descriptive epithets; when we meet with piled up minutiee in alliterative order; and when, in short, we find the language, the sense and the imaginative power all combine into a harmonious and highly artistic effect, we may be sure that here we have a genuine Gaelic tale. On the other hand, tales of adventure, tales of cunning heroes and crafty rogues, fables about beasts, and stories that carry a moral, may not be native at all; but if the smack of Gaelic imagination is felt in them, that is an almost infallible sign of native origin.

And why, it may be asked, should India, or even Asia, be the cradle of such stories? The assumption is ue scientific ; it will not do to say that the stories are too imaginative for our temperate climate, where fancy is more restrained by the rude battle with the realities of natural forces. Our ancestors all along must have had stories and tales at all stages—savage, barbaric, and civilised; that is capable of proof, for savages everywhere delight in such now. The words of M. Gaidoz, one of the best of Continental folk-lorists, can best express our argument. He says:— “For us, however, who believe in the polygenism of tales, the question is badly put when the origin of tales in the mass is spoken of, and when it is wished to attribute them to one people or to one epoch. This appears to us as little scientific as if one claimed to determine a country of origin for the flora of France. Such and such a plant comes from Persia, says one; then our flora comes from Persia. By a like process, another would make it come from China or America; and other theorists, arguing from the fact that the French came from the high plateaux of Asia, could also well say that they carried their plants with them from the same region. In short, our flora, like every other, is composed of indigenous plants, and exotic plants come from different parts of the world, and become native by acclimatisation. What must be got is the history of each species by itself, and then it is possible to give an account of the history and the course of migration. What has been done for the flora has to be done for the tales : to study separately each tale, each incident even, to tiy and determine its affiliation, and, if possible, its place of origin.” So says M. Gaidoz. Besides, the stories which Mr Clouston and others give as Indian originals, are too often either wide of the mark or are sorry stuff to build the beauteous superstructure of western story upon.

The likeness of Aryan folk-tales to each other is greater undoubtedly than their likeness to tales among savages, and this likeness is greater in proportion as the races live beside each other. The same is true also of their languages. This points to the common origin of Aryan folk-tales in the original Aryan times. Yet, it is hard to believe that these tales were elaborated then and kept up in their entirety for three or four thousand years or more. Grimm’s tales and Campbell’s tales often present the same story with the same series of incidents similarly combined. The Cinderella story, for example, is widely diffused, and everywhere presents the same plot and much the same incidents. It is hard to decide the matter, for the difficulty is twofold; first, Could folk-tales preserve intact plot and incidents for three, four, or five thousand years? and secondly, How are we to regard the similar tales that appear in Africa and Asia among non-Aryan tribes? These questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered.

If we dismiss the solar theory of the origin of these tales, if we refuse to consider them, on the whole, the detritus of the old mythology, what, then, is their origin ? That question again is not easy. It is easy enough to overthrow a theory such as the solar one: to establish another is a different matter. The solar theory professed two things in regard to the tales. It professed to account for the incidents, and also for the plot of the tale ; and, secondly, it accounted for the irrational element in the tales—the enchantments and the human character of beast and bird and tree and stone. The plot arose from the incidents in the career of the personified sun or moon; and the irrational element arose from the descendants misunderstanding or forgetting the metaphors and poetic language of their ancestors. If the sun was playfully called a frog as he squatted on the verge of the western sea, then an unpoetic posterity at once fancied the sun-hero was a frog-man—one time a frog and another a man—and accounted for it by magic. We saw how futile, how absurd and unscientific indeed, such a theory is. We can account for the irrational element in these tales with the utmost ease; for, as a matter of fact, there is scarcely an irrational idea contained in them but finds its counterpart in some savage belief or practice of modern times. Belief in the kinship with animals, and hence the possibility of marriage with them ; belief in the metamorphosis of living or dead persons into animals ; the idea that inanimate objects have spirits in them and may speak; the notion that one’s soul can leave the body and have a life apart—a belief not yet dead in the Highlands, as the idea of the bee-soul proves; and the belief in the possibility of visiting the lower world—all these beliefs are rampant in the modern savage life. Again, the practices and customs which appear in the tales as so strange are perfectly well known amongst barbarians and savages. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, the queer etiquette of marriage life going to the extremest of prudery, as when it is tabooed to a woman ever to see her husband naked, or when the husband visits the wife only by stealth or at night, or when the wife never speaks to him for a long period after marriage or never mentions his name; the custom in polygamous families that the youngest son is the heir and the head of the family— these and several others, such as bride-winning or bride capture, which appear in the tales, are still in practice among savage tribes. The irrational element in the tales is therefore easily accounted for.

But when we come to the actual construction of the tale—the plot with its incidents—it is not so easy to account for matters. Such tales as regard the wicked step-mother who ill-treats her stepchildren and favours her own, ultimately driving away or ruining the former, are easily enough accounted for. So, too, is the flight of children from cannibalism or from human sacrifice. The flight of a lady and her lover from a giant or wizard father is also easy, for it belongs to bride-winning and bride-capture: but the incident is always complicated by the details of the pursuit* in which barriers of wood, rock, and lake are successively placed by symbolic incantations between the couple and the pursuer. These incidents, with the magic power displayed, are all natural to savage life. Flight implies pursuit in such a case, and the barriers would naturally suggest themselves to people living in a world full of belief in magic. The bride is purchased or captured in barbaric and savage life; but, naturally enough, the price may be changed into the accomplishment of some difficult tasks, the solving of a riddle, or the conquering of the girl or her father in a race. The number three is nearly always the proper number, and it is hard to say why. The youngest brother is naturally the best, because in polygamous families he is the heir and head of the family. The gratitude of the animals which the hero assists is seen in their assisting him in turn, and this, no doubt, points a moral, and this may have originally started some tales, teaching, as it does, kindness to animals. The giant who has no heart in his body, because he is afraid he may himself lose it, is wheedled by the woman to tell, after three trials, where it is; once the idea of a heartless giant is given, the story would here naturally follow. These giants have no wits, and hence the hero easily tricks them. The monster that requires a human being each year or oftener belongs to the lowest category of savage local gods who delight in human sacrifice. That a hero—a culture hero—should arise to release people from such an incubus in their worship must have been often an actual fact.

Other tales depend on the idea of taboo or prohibition. The bride must not see the husband undressed. The breaking of such taboos causes the husband to leave her, and she has to win him back. This appears often in the tales. In the tale of Cupid and Psyche it is fully brought out. Psyche lighted a lamp and saw the god, which she was strictly forbidden to do, and he disappeared. In other cases, the wife mentions some fact in her husband’s presence which she ought not to do, as in the Highland tale of the Hoodie, when she told him she forgot her coarse comb ; or she conleases that her husband stole the children, and he leaves her, as in the Gaelic tale, The Daughter of the King of the Skies. The husband may leave the wife and stay away many years, as in the cess of Ulysses, where she remains faithful throughout.

These tales illustrate customs and enforce taboos, as we see; they tell of a practice, and they point a moral. Hence, they are both artistic and useful. But we must not dwell too much on the idea that their object is merely didactic or moral, and not also artistic and for amusement. Morals they do point, as in the Bluebeard story, which warns against curiosity in forbidden things, and rather savage morals, too, for the youngest sister in that story acts with as much curiosity as the other two, but she has, by her kindness, enlisted in her service some being who helps her out of her difficulties. Similarly there are many tales which pourtray with admiration cunning and cleverness of all kinds, generally immoral cleverness.

There are incidents, however, which at present we cannot explain. The bride is often supplanted by her maid, who palms herself off as the mistress, and is married to the hero; but all ends well latterly. Again, why does the husband forget his first wife when he leaves her, and is kissed on reaching home by his mother or his hound? And then she hides in a tree, and her reflection in the spring causes two other women to think themselves pretty. Such incidents, as Mr Lang says, are among the real difficulties of the subject. Nor again can we easily explain the tissue of plot in each story, though we can explain single incidents. Why should the hero appear as a hoodie first, and on marriage become a man, and thereafter leave his wife ? The hero under spells is here connected with the taboo incident. That is not the case in the Cupid and Psyche form of it, for the hero there is a god throughout. The Cinderella story is very difficult to explain in its entirety. But in discussing these tales, we should remember their undoubted antiquity ; their incidents are survivals among us, according to our theory, of savage thought—survivals of a time when our ancestors had beliefs and practices akin to the savages of our own time. That the incidents should intermingle with each other, producing other forms of tales, elaborate and complicated, in the long lapse of ages past, is but what we should expect. It is difficult for us to trace the kaleidoscopic changes that took place in these incidents and these tales in the far distant past,

“In the fathomless years forgotten whereover the dead gods reign.”

Of the classifications which follow, Von Hahn’s, as condensed by Mr Ralston, is the first. Von Hahn’s classification is founded upon no theory; but the second classification is based upon the anthropological theory of explanation. It is founded largely on Mr Lang’s headings in his article on “ Mythology” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The savage customs and ideas which correspond to those which appear in the tales are, as far as possible, given under each head. It differs from Von Hahn in taking, not the whole story or incident, but the single facts, and classifying them. The third classification is that employed by Mr Nutt in classifying Campbell’s Highland tales. The “husk” refers to the disguised of the hero or heroine under animal form or under servile guise, and the “taboo” refers to the breaking of some mystic command as doing-something contrary “to the custom of women.” The numbers after the headings in Mr Nutt’s table, such as 43, 14, 4, &c., refer to the number of each tale in Mr Campbell’s book that comes-under the particular heading, wholly or partially. Campbell’s-work contains 86 numbered tales, and of these, some 41 only are pure folk tales, along with which may be classified half-a-dozen hero stories of the Fenian and heroic cycles. The rest of the tales comprise two classes—(1) Popular tradition and folk-lore^, which make some dozen numbers; and (2) Folk stories, which. concern clever thieves, feigned fools, and clever and curious incidents in life. Of these there are about 23. Mr Nutt’s table, a» published in the Folk-lore Record, vol. V., does not contain the references to the numbers in Campbell. They have been kindly sent by Mr Nutt to the writer, who alone is responsible for error in their use. Unclassed are the opening of 38 and the poetry of 74.





(A) Desertion.

1. Psyche.—Supernatural husband deserts wife.
2. Melusina.—Supernatural wife deserts husband.
3. Penelope.—Faithful wife recovers truant husband.

(B) Expulsion.

4. Calumniated wife banished, but restored.

(C) Sale or Purchase.

5—6. Access to spouse or loved one bought.


(A) Children longed for.

7. They assume for a time monstrous shapes.
8. They are made victims to a vow or promise.
9. Their birth is attended by various wonders.

(B) Exposure of children.

10. Amphion.—Babe exposed by unmarried mother.
11. Ædipus.—Babe exposed by married parents.
12. Danse.—Mother and babe exposed together.
13. Andromeda—Daughter exposed to a monster.

(C) Step-children.

14. Little Snow White.—Stepmother persecutes girl.
15. Phrixus and Helle.—Stepmother persecutes a brother and sister.
16. Youngest brother ill-treated by elder brothers.
17. Cinderella.—Youngest sister ill-treated.
18. Dioscuri.—Twins help each other.
19. Sister (or mother) betrays brother (or son).
20. Sister saves brother from enchantment.
21. Heroine supplanted by step-sister (or servant).
22. Magic brothers-in-law assist hero.


(A) Bride winning.
23. Bride won by heroic exploits.
24. Bride won by ingenuity.

(B) Abduction of Heroine.

25. Proserpine.—Heroine carried off by force.
26. Helen and Paris.
27. Medea and Jason.

(C) Various subjects.

28. Swan-maidens robbed of garments, and married.
29. Snake-brought herbs restore life.
30. Bluebeard.—A Forbidden Chamber opened.
31. Punchkin, or the Giant without any heart.
32. Grateful Beasts assist hero.
33. Hop-o’-my-Thumb.—Hero tiny, but brave
34. A strong fool works wonders.
35. Faithful John, or Bama and Luxman.
36. Disguisal of hero or heroine.


37. Hero is killed by demon, but revives.
38. Hero defeats demon.
39. Hero tricks demon.
40. Lower world visited.


I. Bride or bridegroom transgresses mystic command, and the other disappears.
[Savage nuptial etiquette often forbids seeing or naming husband.]

II. Husband leaves wife, and returns after many years.
Penelope formula: Gaelic, “The Baker of Beauly.” [Admiration for female constancy.]

III.. Attempted avoidance of fate or prophecy.

1. Parents or friends expose fateful children.
2. Heroic Expulsion and Return formula.

IV. The Wicked Stepmother and her Step-children.
[Cruelty of Stepmother is world-wide and world-old,.]

V. Slaughter of a devastating monster.

Perseus and Andromeda story.
[Belief in monsters is wide-spread.]

VI. Flight, generally by miraculous aid, from cannibalism, human sacrifice, or incest.
[Danger from cannibalism, is often reed in Savage life.]

VII. Bride given to whoever accomplishes difficult adventures.
[Reminiscence of Savage capture or purchase of bride.]

VIII. Flight of a lady and her lover from giant or wizard father.
[Bride-winning, and chase for purchase money.]

IX. The false bride.
The maid pretends to be the mistress, and degrades the bride to the rank of servant.

X. The bride that brings forth beast-children.
[A common Savage belief not yet lost in Europe.]

XI. The youngest brother is the successful adventurer.
[A reminiscence of the Savage and ancient Jiingsten-recht} whereby the youngest son is heir and head of the family.]

XII. Grateful beasts, aided by hero or heroine, aid him or her in turn.
[Savages believe animals to be endowed with reason and capable of speech.; especially human beings metamorphosed into animals.]

1. The animals are ordinary ones, but act humanly.
2. The animals are human beings under spells.

XIII. The separable soul or strength.
The giant that has no heart in his body. [A common Savage idea.]

XIV. Magic shoes, garments, and implements; gold-producing and other magic animals.

XV. The strong man, his adventures and comrades, such as Keen-eye, Quick-ear, &c.
[Savage admiration of physical powers.]

XVI. The ogre is blinded by the hero, and deceived by a pun on hero’s pretended name.
Tricking of giants and demons.
[Stories of witless giant strength are world-wide, as also of circumvented demons.]

XVII. Disguisal and discovery of hero or heroine.
Cinderella story.

XYIII. Descent into Hades by the hero.
[Savages believe now that journeys can be made there.]

XIX The Knight Errant.
Tales of a hero’s adventures by land and sea; such are Conall Gulban, Sir Ualabh O’Com, &c.
[Love of stories of adventure common to all races.]


I.—Husk-Taboo Group.

1. Cinderella root 43.
2. Catskin root. 14.
3. Goldenlocks root. 4, 9, 16, 32, 44, 58.
4. Beauty and Beast root. 86 (Female form).
5. Black Bull o’ Norroway (Cupid and Psyche) root. 2, 3, 12, 44.
6. Melusina root. 86 (?).
7. Bluebeard root. 13 (?), 41.

II—Hutic Group.

1. Frog prince root. 33.
2. Swan maid root. 10, 44.
3. Seven Swans root.

III.—Calumniated Wife Group.

Genoveva root. 18.

IV.—Recovered Heroine Group.

Gudrun root. 1, 4, 38, 76.

V.—Abducted Heroine Group.

Helen root. 60.

VI.—Dispossessed Prince Group (Expulsion and Return Formula). Romulus root. 35, 74, 76, 82.

VII.—Task Group.

1. For bride winning. Brunhilde root. 2, 10, 22, 51, 58, 61, 76, 80.
2. For hero winning. 17, 36.
3. Task imposed by stepmother. Hercules root. 1, 46, 84.
4. Task undergone to avenge injury to superior. 52.

VIII.— Wisdom-giving Fish or Snake Group.

Fionn or Siegfried or Melampus root. 47, 82.

IX.—Tiny Hero Group.

Tom Thumb root. 69.

X.—Struggle of Man and Monster.

1. Hero slain by monster. 23.
2. Hero overcomes monster. 5, 6, 7, 30, 45 (2), 75.
3. Hero tricks monster. 37, 42.

Return to our Historic Articles Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus