Ladies of the Minoan Court

From the painting by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.

Myths of Crete & Pre-Hellenic Europe

When I first saw learned of the existence of this book, I was a little suprised, since very little concrete information is available on this topic, and even less was known in 1917. However, to paraphrase a recent President of the United States, Myths of Crete depends on what your definition of of is….

There is substantial mythology about Crete. The Minoan civilization, which predated the better known classical Hellenic period by several hundred years, disappeared catastrophically, battered by volcanic eruptions and barbarian incursions. Successive generations, starting with the classical Greeks, created a vast number of myths about the vanished sea-empire. The Homeric epics, Daedalus and Icarus, King Minos and the Minotaur, and even, as Mackenzie points out, Atlantis, were all influenced by hearsay and speculation about the lost Cretan empire.

At the beginning of the 20th century archeologists finally started to excavate the Minoan ruins. Based lagely on circumstantial evidence such as the vivid wall art and the startling Goddess iconography, popularizers like Mackenzie built an entire new set of myths about the ancient Cretans. This mythology was eagerly adopted by neo-pagans, starting with Robert Graves, who wrote a little-known science fiction novel on the subject, Watch the Northwind Rise.

What do we actually know about Minoan mythology as of today? In a word, nothing. The Minoans developed the first known European writing systems, known as Linear A and B. Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952. Only commercial documents have been found, as befits a sea-trading empire. The other Minoan script, Linear A, remains a mystery. Although the phonetic values of some Linear A symbols have been tenatively identified, they have yet to be translated. So we have no translated Minoan religious documents to work with, although we can infer that certain Linear A texts are magical or religious in nature because they are inscribed on ritual objects.

We can assume from the prevelence of female images in ritual contexts that the Minoans worshipped one or more Goddesses. We also know that animals played an important role in their rituals, particularly snakes and bulls. However, any attempt at this point to make definite statements about their mythology or spiritual practices is inferential at best.

One factual correction must be noted. The story of Schliemann’s Atlantis bequest, reported in Chapter V, page 98, turned out to be a complete hoax. This yarn appeared in a sensationalist Hearst newspaper in 1914, and as this book was written only a few years later, we can probably forgive Mackenzie for reporting it as fact. The entire article, How I found the Lost Atlantis, along with our analysis of it, is also at sacred-texts.

Nevertheless, Mackenzie, who also wrote Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, manages to stretch the subject matter out into a full 300 page book. Informative, well researched and very readable, Myths of Crete is a unique book about a very opaque period of history.

–J.B. Hare, June 2002.


This volume deals with the myths and legends connected with the ancient civilization of Crete, and also with the rise and growth of the civilization itself, while consideration is given to various fascinating and important problems that arise in the course of investigating pre-Hellenic habits of thought and habits of life, which are found to have exercised a marked influence in the early history of Europe. In the first two chapters the story of European civilization is carried back to remote Palæolithic times, the view having been urged, notably by Mosso, that a connection existed between the civilization of the artistic cave-dwellers in France and Spain, and that of the Island of Minos. It is shown that these civilizations were not, however, contemporary, but separated by thousands of years, and that in accounting for close resemblances the modern dogma of independent evolution is put to a severe test. The data summarized in the Introduction emphasize the need for caution in attempting to solve a complex problem by the application of a hypothesis which may account for some resemblances but fails to explain away the marked differences that existed even between contemporary civilizations of the Neolithic, Copper, and Bronze Ages.

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To enable the reader to become familiar with the geological, ethnological, and archæological evidence regarding the earliest traces and progressive activities of man in Europe, who laid the foundations of subsequent civilizations, a popular narrative is given in the first chapter, the scientific data being cast in the form of a legend following the manner of Hesiod’s account of the Mythical Ages of the World in the Work and Days, and of that of the Indian sage Markandeya’s story of the “Yugas” in the Máhabhárata, and of Tuan MacCarell’s narrative of his experiences in the various Irish Ages. Footnotes provide the necessary references.

Consideration is also given, in dealing with Cretan origins, to Schliemann’s hypothesis regarding the “Lost Atlantis”, and the connection he believed existed between the Mexican, early European, and Nilotic civilizations. It is brought out that the historical elements in Plato’s legend are susceptible of a different explanation.

Cretan civilization has not yet been rendered articulate, for its script remains a mystery, but of late years a flood of light has been thrown upon it by the archæologists, among whom Sir Arthur Evans is pre-eminent. We can examine the remains of the palace of Minos; tread the footworn stones of the streets of little towns; examine pottery and frame a history of it; gaze on frescoes depicting scenes of everyday life in ancient Crete, on seal engravings which show us what manner of ships were built and navigated by mariners who ruled the Mediterranean Sea long before the Phœnician period, what deities were worshipped and what ceremonies were performed; we can study a painted sarcophagus which throws light on funerary customs and conceptions of the Otherworld,

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and stone vases which afford glimpses of boxers, bull-baiters, soldiers, and processions; and we can also examine the jewellery, weapons, and implements of the ancient folk. With the aid of these and other data we are enabled to reconstruct in outline the island civilization and study its growth over a period embraced by many centuries. It has even been found possible to arrange a system of Cretan chronology) approximate dates being fixed with the aid of artifacts, evidently imported from Egypt, and of Cretan artifacts found in the Nilotic area and elsewhere. The idea of the “Hellenic miracle” no longer obtains. It is undoubted that Crete was the forerunner of Greece, and that the Hellenes owed a debt to Cretan civilization the importance of which was not realized even by the native historians of ancient Greece.

Various problems arise in dealing with the growth of civilization in Crete and the influence exercised by it in Central and Western Europe. These include the race question, the migrations of peoples from the area in which the agricultural mode of life was first adopted, the question of cultural contact, of trade routes on sea and land. of homogeneity of beliefs of common origin, and of the influence of locality in the development of beliefs and material civilization. In the pages that follow, these problems are presented in their various aspects, and such representative evidence as is available has been utilized with purpose to throw light upon them.

Readers cannot fail to be impressed by the note of modernity which prevails in the story of Cretan life. It is emphasized to a remarkable degree in Minoan art. In this connection the coloured illustrations in the present volume. by Mr. John Duncan, A.R.S.A., are of peculiar

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interest. In preparing these designs Mr. Duncan has deliberately sought to follow the style of the Minoan artists themselves, as displayed in the relics of frescoes, and in pottery, seal engravings and impressions, &c., recently unearthed. The colours are confined to those used by the native craftsmen, while the decorative borders are essentially Cretan in character. In the Plate facing p. 248 a suggestive parallel is drawn between Celtic and Minoan patterns and symbols. It will be noted that the Celtic treatment of complicated patterns of common origin is more thorough and logical than the Minoan, as, for instance, when we compare No. 3, which has incomplete curves, with the finished and exact No. 4. The examples dealt with include a symbol of the Egypto-Libyan goddess Neith.

The note of modernity in Cretan art inclines us perhaps to be somewhat generous and enthusiastic in our praises of it. An eminent archæologist has declared that “it yields to none that was contemporary and hardly to any that came after it”. This is a strong claim, especially when we give consideration to the extraordinarily full and varied art of Egypt. In Crete, for instance, we do not meet with the skilled technique and psychological insight of some of Egypt’s notable portraiture in stone, nor with faces of such high intellectual and moral qualities; nor do we meet with the masculine energy, the disciplined ferocity and brilliant directness of appeal that characterize the finest products of Assyrian art; nor can we help noting the absence of the idealistic tendencies of Greek art, with its aim to visualize mental and spiritual impressions, its moral ascendancy, and its preoccupation with the idea of beauty of form and character. No doubt it

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is because Cretan art is infused with a lyrical carelessness and freedom, not only in subject, but also in execution, that it makes a very special appeal to modern eyes. There are certainly notable instances of excellency in delicate modelling, a love of colour–who can refrain, for instance, from admiring the golden afternoon effects of Vasiliki pottery?–a delight in natural objects, a marked absence of formalism in the best work, and an extreme and arresting grace, especially in the ivory work. Yet it is possible to overestimate the artistic value of such works as the “Harvester Vase” (p. 212), with its liveliness of movement and expression, and to commend even its defects, and forget that there are finer examples of low relief in Egypt, where the artists have left us in no doubt as to what they meant; it is possible also to infuse our art criticisms with archæological enthusiasm, as when, for instance, we gaze on the fresco of the Cup Bearer (p. 118), which is an impression of a very ordinary, good-looking, young man, with formal eyes, and hand and arm out of drawing. Yet while, as a whole, Cretan art is very unequal, there are a few masterpieces which set it on a high level. The ivory figurine of “The Leaper” is one of these (p. 48). Its Parisian elegance and Greek-like accuracy and beauty of modelling take the eye at once. It is much worn, but the unbroken parts exhibit fine craftsmanship. The bones and muscles of the arm and hand especially are expressed with the modesty and animation of nature; there is none of the gross exaggeration so often found in Assyrian art. Another outstanding masterpiece is the bull’s head in steatite (p. 108). We are struck by its fine dignity, the noble poise of the head, the alert eye, the mobility of the pricked ears, and the

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combination of naturalism with simplicity, grace, and loftiness of treatment. A contrast is presented by the other bull’s head in plaster relief (p. 124), with the magnificent blaze of the great eye and the exhausted gasp of mouth and nostrils; the noble animal has evidently fallen a victim in the ring; it is powerful and grand even when death takes it. Special mention may also be made of the goat suckling its kid, an admirable piece of realism characterized by grace and insight (p. 152).

The spirit of naturalism pulsating in Cretan art is also found in Palæolithic art, of which two notable examples are given (p. 20) from the cave paintings. These remarkable relics of the Pleistocene Age are typical products of Palæolithic art, the advanced condition of which suggests a long history, and even the existence, in such remote times, not only of devoted personal study, but also of an organized system of training. The civilization reflected by such an art must have been of no mean order. Evidently it met with disaster during the Fourth Glacial Period, but subsequent discoveries may yet demonstrate that its influence was not wholly lost to mankind.



IN relating how Crete has risen into prominence as the seat of a great and ancient civilization, one is reminded of the fairy story of Cinderella. The archæological narrative begins with the discovery made by Schliemann of traces of a distinctive and high pre-Hellenic culture amidst the ruins of the Peloponnesian cities of Tiryns and Mycenæ, which he assigned to the Homeric Age. Evidence was soon forthcoming that this culture was not of indigenous character, but had been imported from some unknown area after it had reached its highest development and was beginning to show signs of decadence -a sure indication of its great antiquity. A dramatic search followed for the centre of origin and diffusion. The wonderful slipper had been found, but where was Cinderella? In the end, after several claims had been urged, the last comer was proved to be the missing princess of culture, and the last comer was Crete. Research on that island had been long postponed on account of the disturbed political conditions that prevailed under the Turkish regime.

A new first chapter has since been added to the history of European civilization. We no longer begin with Hellenic Greece, or believe that Hellenic culture sprang full-grown into being like the fabled deity who leapt from her parent’s head. In this volume it is shown that the

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myths and legends preserved in the works of various classical writers regarding the sources of Grecian culture were well founded, and that the traditions of the “Heroic Age” did not have origin in the imaginations of poets and dramatists. But, wise as we chance to be, after the event, we need not regard with scorn the historians of a past generation who hesitated to sift and utilize such elusive myths as the Cretan origins of Zeus and Demeter, and the semi-historical references to Crete, in the works of Homer, Thucydides, and others, to find a sure basis for a convincing narrative worthy of the name of history.

It is only within recent years that the necessary archaeological data have been available which enables students of ancient civilization to draw with some degree of confidence upon the abundant but confused contents of the storehouse of folk memory.

The discovery that Crete was the birth-place of Ægean civilization, which radiated in the pre-Hellenic times throughout Europe–“the little leaven that leavened the whole lump”–does not, however, set a limit to the work of research, or solve all the problems which are involved. Although it has been demonstrated that the Cretan leaven was in existence and at work at the dawn of the Egyptian Dynastic Age, and when the Sumerians were achieving their earliest triumphs in the Tigro-Euphratean valley, we are still confronted with the problem of remote origin. The earliest settlers in Crete had, as their artifacts demonstrate, already obtained a comparatively high degree of Neolithic culture. Houses were built of stone as well as of wattles daubed with clay, a sea trade was in existence, for obsidian was imported from Melos, and a section of the community had adopted the agricultural mode of life. Withal, beliefs were well developed and had assumed a fixity which remained until they were merged in the

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accumulated mass of Grecian inheritance, and suffered, as a result, for long ages, complete loss of identity. The earliest settlement of people at Knossos has been assigned to about 10,000 B.C., an approximate dating which is based on the evidence of the archaeological strata.

But the earliest traces of an artistic culture in Europe belong to a still more remote age. Although during the vast periods of the Neolithic, or Late Stone Age, there existed savage communities, just as happens to be the case at the present day in various parts of the world, there were also, as in Crete, Egypt, and Babylonia, refined and progressive peoples who were already “heirs of all the Ages”–the Ages when ancient Europe passed through stages of climatic oscillations of such pronounced character that the remains of mankind are found in strata yielding alternately tropical, temperate, and Arctic flora and fauna. The period in question, the lengthiest in the history of civilization, is the archaeological Palæolithic, or Early Stone Age. Towards its close, for which the minimum dating is 20,000 B.C., there existed in Europe at least two races, whose cultures are referred to as Aurignacian and Magdalenian. A stage called Azilian links the Palæolithic with the Neolithic Age, and the continuity of culture from the earliest times is now generally regarded as an established fact.

The story of Cretan civilization may constitute, as has been said, the first chapter of European history. But the “Introduction” is derived from the Palæolithic Age, before and during the Fourth Glacial Epoch of the geologists.

Our introductory data are obtained from the famous Palæolithic cave-dwellings of France and Spain, which are dealt with in Chapters I and II. No definite traces are yet obtainable, among the scanty human remains that

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have been discovered, of racial types resembling those of early Egypt or early Crete, but remarkable evidence has been forthcoming which not only establishes the great antiquity of certain artistic motifs -of finished artistic skill and even of certain customs that afterwards appeared on the Island of Minos and in the Nilotic and Tigro-Euphratean areas.

The links with Crete are so close and suggestive that writers like Angelo Mosso have expressed the belief in the Neolithic and Cretan origin of Aurignacian and Magdalenian art. But the geologists have established beyond a shadow of doubt that the civilization of which this art is an eloquent expression must be assigned to the latter part of the Pleistocene period, when the reindeer roamed through the valleys of France.

Those ancient Palæolithic hunters were skilled artists and carvers of bone and ivory. They painted and engraved on cave roofs the figures of animals with a realism and freedom which were never surpassed in Greece; they also carved ivory female figurines in the round which are worthy of comparison with similar artistic products of Egypt, and not always to their disadvantage.

“The resemblances”, writes Mosso, “between the most ancient female figures in France and the Neolithic figures of Crete and Egypt are very striking.” Among the rock pictures of women he sees “the girdle and the Egyptian mode of hairdressing”. Describing a Palæolithic painting, he writes: “The women’s hair flows down upon their shoulders like that of the Minoan women; the bosom is uncovered and the breasts much developed. The triangular shape of the heads indicates a hood or a kind of mitre. Two of them wear a bracelet on the upper arm near the elbow, and all have a very slender waist, with the body shaped like an hour-glass.” He

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also comments in another instance on the skirts, which were also characteristic of Crete. 1Comparisons between the Cretan frescoes and the Palæolithic cave-paintings of Spain and France have likewise been made by the Abbé Breuil, Don Juan Cabre Aguila, and other Continental archæologists.

One of the racial types which existed during the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods, or stages of culture, was the Cro-Magnon. It can still be traced in Europe, especially in the French Dordogne valley, and among the Berbers in North Africa, as Dr. Collignon has shown. 2 Evidence of Cro-Magnon migration in Late Pleistocene times has also been forthcoming from Belgium, while traces of their burial customs have been found in Moravia and elsewhere. How and by what route Aurignacian influence reached Crete, after the lapse of thousands of years, we have as yet no means of knowing. It seems reasonable to assume that this civilization did not end without leaving heirs somewhere. The Greeks were heirs of Crete, and yet it is but quite recently that this fact has been fully demonstrated.

Not only has the antiquity of European art been established; the Palæolithic data which have been accumulated emphasize also the remote beginnings of certain magical and religious beliefs and practices. The suggestion is thus rendered plausible that some of the widespread myths and folk-tales may be as old as the French and Spanish cave-paintings and ivory carvings. Who will venture, for instance, to date the origin of that far-travelled tale about the lovers who escape from the giant’s den and throw down pebbles which become mountains and twigs which create forests, to delay their angry

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pursuer? The late Mr. Andrew Lang has shown that it is found in Zulu, Gaelic, Norse. Malagasy, Russian, Italian, and Japanese folk-literatures. The author “will never”, he wrote, “be known to fame”, although, among storytellers, he has achieved “the widest circulation in the world”. 1

A now popular hypothesis, first urged by Hugh Miller, is usually held to offer a conclusive explanation for the wonderful resemblances between certain legends collected in various parts of the world. “I have seen”, Miller wrote about eighty years ago, “in the museum of the Northern Institution (Inverness) a very complete collection of stone battle-axes. some of which have been formed little earlier than the last age. by the rude natives of America and the South Sea Islands, while others, which have been dug out of the cairns and tumuli of our own country, bear witness to the unrecorded feuds and forgotten battle-fields of twenty centuries ago. I was a good deal struck by the resemblance which they bear to each other; a resemblance so complete, that the most practised eye can hardly distinguish between the weapons of the old Scot and the New Zealander. . . . Man in a savage state is the same animal everywhere, and his constructive powers, whether employed in the formation of a legendary story or of a battle-axe, seem to expatiate almost everywhere in the same ragged track of invention. For even the traditions of this first stage may be identified., like his weapons of war, all the world over.” 2

Since Miller’s day experts have become so familiar with the stone implements and weapons of primitive men that they experience no difficulty, not only in distinguishing between the characteristic products of various

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countries, but also of the various ages, or stages of culture, in one particular area. We find ourselves, however, on less sure ground when we deal with traditional tales. Miller’s hypothesis in regard to these must still receive acceptance but with certain qualifications. It certainly accounts for striking resemblances, although not for equally striking differences. If it were to be urged in every instance, the work of research would be stultified and rendered somewhat barren. “There is a well-known tendency”, as Mr. Hogarth reminds us, “to find one formula to explain all things, and an equally notorious one to overwork the latest formula.” 1

The intensive study of the mythology of a particular civilization, like that of Crete or Egypt, for instance, reveals marked local divergencies which are not easily accounted for. It is an extremely risky proceeding, therefore, when we find a fragment of a legend, or a clue to some archaic religious custom, in a cultural centre like Crete, to undertake the work of reconstruction by selecting something from Australia, adding a Chinese idea, and completing the whole with contributions from Russia, Greenland, or Mexico. We may find similar symbols in different countries, but it does not follow that they had originally all the same significance; similar alphabetical signs have not always the same phonetic values. The human mind is not like a mould which produces automatically the same shapes for the same purposes, or the same ideas to account for the same problems, in every part of the world.

Myths are products of beliefs, and beliefs are products of experiences. They are also pictorial records of natural phenomena. Mankind have not had the same experiences everywhere, nor have they found the world

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lacking in variety of contour and climate. Certain peoples, for instance, have achieved progress in civilizations based on the agricultural mode of life. Their beliefs have consequently been influenced by their agricultural experiences, and their myths have been given an agricultural significance. Before the Calendar was invented, the farmer who profited from the experiences of his ancestors, and handed on his knowledge to posterity, did not speak about “ploughing in spring” and “reaping in autumn”, or explain the futility of sowing seed, say, in December and expecting crops in April. He framed instead a system of myths which guided the agricultural operations of his kin for long centuries. In India, which suffers at one season from great heat and drought, he conceived the Drought Demon which imprisoned the fertilizing waters in a mountain cave. just when the world is about to perish, the god Indra comes to its rescue armed with his thunderbolt. He attacks and slays the demon, exclaiming:

I am the hurler of the bolt of thunder;

For man flow freely now the gleaming waters.

After this thunder-battle, rain descends in torrents, the withered grass sprouts luxuriantly, and the rice harvest follows.

In Babylonia the demon is the water-monster Tiamat, who enters the Euphrates and causes it to flood. She is slain and cut up by Merodach, who thus sets the world in order. Then the farmer sows his seeds. In Egypt the inundation of the Nile is brought about by Ra, who, having undertaken to destroy his human enemies, relents and withdraws the waters, so that seeds may be cast in the fertilized soil and the harvest gathered in season. Pious worshippers of the deities who controlled the forces

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of nature were expected to perform ceremonies and offer sacrifices to assist or propitiate them. Thus the local forms of religion were shaped by local phenomena of which the myths are reflections.

Peoples who lived among the mountains and followed the pastoral mode of life had different experiences from those who found their food-supply in river valleys. In districts where the rainfall was regular and abundant they knew nothing of India’s droughts, or Egypt’s floods. On the other hand, they might have experiences of binding frost, fierce blizzards, and snow-blocked passes, which forced them to migrate to districts where they could winter their flocks and herds. Their myths were consequently based on experiences and natural phenomena which contrasted sharply with those of the Nilotic and Tigro-Euphratean peoples, with the result that their systems of religious beliefs developed upon different lines. Similarly, peoples who dwelt upon islands and along sea-coasts and gathered the harvest of the deep, and forest-dwellers who lived on fruits and trophies of the chase, formulated and perpetuated modes of thought which were products of their particular modes of life in different environments. It is obvious, therefore, that the mind of man did not everywhere follow “the same rugged track of invention”. In different districts and at different periods sections of mankind achieved independent development on sharply differentiated lines, with the result that religious conceptions, like outstanding racial types, had their areas of characterization.

Consideration should next be given to cultural influence resulting from contact. The oscillations of climate which followed the last glacial epoch caused widespread migrations of peoples. Racial types which are still recognizable were already fixed; mankind at the dawn of

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the Neolithic or Late Stone Age had attained full mental 1 and physical development. Races were distributed far and wide, and settlers favoured those areas which were suitable for their habits of life. The barriers of ice and snow which had separated peoples for thousands of years vanished before the warm sun, and as the various races prospered and increased they came into contact with one another. Let us picture a pastoral tribe issuing from a region of steppe lands and entering a valley occupied by agriculturists. They come with a heritage of beliefs and customs as alien as their language to those who rear crops and dwell in villages. The small farmers regard them as demons, and go out to battle to conquer or be conquered. If the invaders prevail, they remain in the district and in time fuse with the conquered. Then the beliefs of the mingled peoples are fused also. The result is a compromise between the distinctive religions. In the valley the earlier faith secures ascendancy because the invaders have no agricultural religion and no words even for “corn” and “furrow” and “plough”. But a portion of the conquerors follow their old habits of life as pastoralists and hunters, and occupy the grazing-lands round the valley and among the hills, where they find a new Olympus for their gods. In time a pantheon is formed which embraces the deities of conquered and conquerors.

Trade springs up between various communities and the influence of culture flows along the trade routes. The knowledge of how to grow corn passes from tribe to tribe. But the isolated hunters in a northern valley who become agriculturists do not simply import implements and seeds; those who instruct them how to till the soil instruct them also regarding the ceremonies which are necessary to ensure growth and the harvest.

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So the agricultural religion of Egypt or Babylon passes through Europe and Asia, and is adopted by peoples who mix with it their own peculiar local practices inherited for untold generations from their remote ancestors.

In Denmark the northern huntsman and fisherman came into contact with the little farmers from the south, or tribes who had acquired the southern art of agriculture. They learned to sow the seed in sorrow and to beat their breasts when they cut the corn, and thus slew the corn spirit, and to return rejoicing carrying the sheaves. Magical ceremonies were considered to be as essential to agricultural success as ploughs and reaping-hooks, Consequently they adopted the magical ceremonies that had origin somewhere on the shores of the Mediterranean or in the Nile valley. So we find in Denmark the myth of Scef, the child god, who comes over the sea with the first sheaf of corn, which so closely resembles the Babylonian myth of Tammuz, who comes as a child from the Underworld and the Deep every new year.

The non-agricultural mountain-folk, who migrated hither and thither, knew naught of the corn-child. They conceived of a god who shaped the mountains with his hammer, the thunderbolt; each blow was a peal of thunder. He also hammered the sky into shape. Meteorites which fell from the sky were found to be of iron; it was consequently believed that the sky was formed of iron, which became known as “the metal of heaven”. Iron was regarded as a protective charm. It was associated with the great deity who slew demons. A mortal had only to “touch iron” to drive demons away, for by doing so he established a magical connection between himself and the hammer deity.

Worshippers of the mountain-god went northward and called him Thor. In Asia Minor he was Tarku and

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Teshub; in India, Indra, son of Dyaus; in Greece, Zeus. Those worshippers who reached Palestine called him Pathach (the Hebrew name), and those who settled in Egypt knew him as Ptah, and, although thunderstorms are rare in Egypt, the Memphites never forgot the hammer of Ptah and the heaven of iron which he had beaten into shape. In time Ptah acquired new attributes. As the artisan-god he was credited with the invention of the Egyptian potter’s wheel, on which he shaped the sun and moon, and the first man and woman. He was thus localized. Yet he ever remained distinctive among the deities of Egypt.

Tradition dies hard. Once an idea became impressed on the human mind it remained there, and new ideas were superimposed upon it. The Egyptians achieved great progress as thinkers and artisans, yet they dung to beliefs and customs of savage origin. So did the Greeks, who never forgot Cronos, the bloodthirsty god who swallowed his children and had to be murdered by his heir. It does not follow, however, that this tendency to conserve ancient beliefs and modes of thought was opposed to the growth of culture, or that men and women who perpetuated them were as ignorant and bloodthirsty as their primitive ancestors. In our own day an individual with a university degree may dread to spill salt, regard a black cat as lucky, and refuse to occupy a hotel bedroom numbered 13. Motor-cars and flying-machines carry mascots, as did the galleys of ancient Egypt, Crete, and Phœnicia. The writer has seen a Girton girl perpetuating a religious custom of her remote ancestors by attaching a rag to a tree that overhangs a “wishing well”, and wishing silently her wish quite as fervently as do less highly cultured members of her sex in places as far removed as the Scottish Highlands and the Island of Crete.

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Superstitious practices which are familiar in our everyday lives have a long history. They have survived nearly two thousand years of Christian influence. Who will undertake to date their origins? They may go back to the Bronze Age, the Late Stone Age, and even to the interglacial periods of the Palæolithic Age. The following comparative notes will serve to illustrate the antiquity of at least one remarkable folk-belief.

In Upper Egypt discovery has been made of bodies which were buried in hot dry sands about sixty centuries ago. Not only have the bones, skin, hair, muscles, and eyes been preserved, but even the internal organs. The contents of stomachs and intestines have been examined by Dr. Netolitzky, the Russian scientist, who ascertained in this way what food the ancient people ate. “The occasional presence of the remains of mice in the alimentary canals of children, under circumstances which prove that the small rodent had been eaten after being skinned, is”, writes Professor Elliot Smith, “a discovery of very great interest, for Dr. Netolitzky informs me that the body of a mouse was the last resort of medical practitioners in the East several millennia later as the remedy for children in extremis.” 1 Until comparatively recently the liver of a mouse was in the Scottish Highlands the “old wife’s cure” for children dangerously ill. The writer was informed regarding it in more than one locality, long before the Egyptian discovery was made, by women who professed to have had experience of the efficacy of the mouse cure.

The ashes of a mouse baked alive used to be a cure for rheumatism in Suffolk. In Lincolnshire fried mice were given to children suffering from whooping-cough and quinsy. According to Henderson 2 a whooping-cough

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patient in the northern counties had to be seated on a donkey, with face towards the tail, when the mouse was being eaten. The custom of entombing a live mouse in an ash-tree, to cure children or charm cattle against attack, prevailed in Leicestershire. 1 A similar custom obtained in Scotland, where the shrew-mouse was believed to paralyse a limb it chanced to creep over. 2 The traditional fear of mice among women is of interest in this connection. Roasted mouse was, in the north-eastern counties of Scotland, a cure for cold or sore throat.

In Egypt the mouse was associated with the lunar god Thoth, who cured Horus when he was bitten by the scorpion, restored the sight of his eye which was blinded by the black Set pig, and assisted in uniting the fragments of the body of Osiris. The mouse crouches at the base of his rod of destiny, on which he measured out the lives of men. 3 In Greece the mouse was associated with Apollo. This god was identified by the Romans with the sun, but Homer knew him as Smintheus Apollo, “Mouse Apollo”, who struck down the Greeks with his arrows of pestilence. 4 According to Strabo, there were many places which bore the Apollo mouse name. 5 Mouse feasts were held at Rhodes, Gela, Lesbos, and Crete. According to a Trojan story, the settlement took place in Anatolia of Cretans who were advised by an oracle to select the first place where they were attacked by the children of the soil. At Hamaxitus, in the Troad, a swarm of mice ate their bow-strings and the leather of their armour, and they decided to make that place their home. 6 In India

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the mouse was associated with Rudra, to whom the poet prayed:

Give unto me of thy medicines, Rudra,

So that my years may reach to a hundred. 1

Rudra, like Apollo, sent diseases, and was therefore able to prevent and cure them.

The mouse feasts referred to by ancient writers may have been held to ensure long life among those who, like the Egyptians, connected the mouse with the moon, the source of fertility and growth and the measurer of the days of man. The Egyptian lunar god Khonsu was the divine physician and the love-god. All fertility deities, indeed, cured diseases. The King of Mitanni sent the image of Ishtar to Thebes when Pharaoh Amenhotep III was ill. Isaiah refers to the mouse-eating practice: “They that sanctify themselves and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord.” 2 When the Philistines, who came from Crete, were stricken by a pestilence, they placed five golden mice in the ark and sent it back to the Israelites. 3 Thus we find the Highland mouse-cure belief going back for 6000 years and reaching to the remotest areas settled by representatives of the Mediterranean race. Other superstitions may be as old, or older. The ancient Egyptians, like our own people, inherited beliefs from their savage ancestors.

The evidence summarized in this volume (Chapter II) regarding Palæolithic customs and beliefs tends to emphasize that, while mankind everywhere may arrive at similar conclusions under similar circumstances, some conceptions were handed down by tradition and distributed over wide

p. xxxii

areas by wandering peoples long before the dawn of the Neolithic period in Europe and Egypt. If the mouse cure can be traced back for sixty centuries it may well have been known for a further sixty centuries. In Palæolithic times, at least 20,000 years ago, the spine of a fish was laid on the corpse when it was entombed, just as the “ded” amulet, which was the symbol of the backbone of Osiris, was laid on the neck of the Egyptian mummy. Anthropologists have favoured the theory that the animal-headed deities of Egypt are links between animal and anthropomorphic deities. Animal-headed deities with arms uplifted in the Egyptian attitude of adoration figure in Palæolithic cave-drawings. The process of change, if such it was, must therefore have commenced thousands of years before the Dynastic Egyptians became supreme in the Nile valley. It used to be urged that the Phœnicians were the inventors of alphabetic script, but linearized signs “of curiously alphabetic aspect–at times even in groups–are seen engraved on reindeer horns or ivory, or on the surface of the rock itself”, which were the work of Palæolithic folk in the Fourth Glacial Period. “Certain signs”, says Sir Arthur Evans, from whom we quote, “carved on a fragment of reindeer horn, are specially interesting from the primitive anticipation that they present of the Phœnician alef. . . . It is interesting to observe that among the existing peoples of the extreme north of Europe, whose conditions most nearly represent those of the old Reindeer folk, the relics of pure pictography were preserved to modern times. . . . These Lapp pictographs themselves belong to a widely diffused primitive group–illustrated by the paintings and carvings on rocks and other materials–which extends across the whole Fenno-Tataric region from the White Sea to the Urals and throughout Siberia to the borders of China.

Terra-cotta Disk from Phæstos, with pictographic script which reads from the centre outwards, but has not been deciphered. It is believed to have come from Lycia, Asia Minor. Heads with feather head-dress similar to that worn by the Philistines appear on the disk.

By Donald A. Mackenzie


With Illustrations in Colour by John Duncan, A.R.S.A. and from Photographs

xxi:1 Dawn of Mediterranean Civilization, Angelo Masso, pp. 175 et sq.

xxi:2 Quoted in Ripley’s The Races of Europe, pp. 172 et seq.

xxii:1 Custom and Myth, pp. 87 et seq.

xxii:2 Scenes and Legends, pp. 31-32 (1835).

xxiii:1 Ionia and the East, p. 107

xxvi:1 That is, so far as can be indicated by skull capacity.

xxix:1 The Ancient Egyptians, p. 43.

xxix:2 Folk-lore of Northern Counties, p. 144.

xxx:1 Leicester County Folk-lore Series, p. 29. In White’s Selborne reference is made to the “shrew ash” in Hampshire.

xxx:2 Dalzell’s Darker Superstitions of Scotland, pp. 191-2.

xxx:3 Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, A. Wiedemann, p. 226.

xxx:4 The Iliad, I, 1 et seq.

xxx:5 Strabo, XIII, 604.

xxx:6 Strabo, XIII, 604, and also Ælian, H. A., XII, 5.

xxxi:1 Rigveda, II, 33.

xxxi:2 Isaiah, lxvi, 17.

xxxi:3 Samuel, i, 5-6.

About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
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