Were an Englishman to sit down, purposing to write the history of his native country previous to the Norman conquest — to sketch the outlines of the Anglo-Saxon constitution, laws, and customs; were he to speak confidently of the old Saxon kings; their attendants, military and civil; to unfold the origin of their people, the structure of their language, and their primitive settlements; it would not be too much to expect that he
should have some knowledge of the Saxon tongue.
And yet, what must be said of the confidence of the antiquarians of Greece, who, though themselves Hellenes, have, with a profound ignorance of the early language of Pelasgian Hellas, turned twilight into darkness, by absurd attempts to derive the words and customs of remote antiquity from the Greek language — a language at that period not in existence? But this vainglorious confidence is not the only thing for which they are answerable.
They have thereby unwittingly originated a gigantic system of absurdities and a tissue of tales, the opprobrium of history, and the torment of the inquiring mind. We feel that all this mass of error has a foundation in positive fact; we feel that agency, the most vital, the most energetic, the most constant, is at work; mighty actors come and go upon the scene, and mighty changes take place. And yet we are called upon by Theorisers to renounce the
instincts of our nature; to class the siege of Troy, the Argonautic expedition, the history of Heracles, the history of Theseus — nay, the whole busy, crowded scene of early Hellas, with the product of mythopoeic propensities, and secretions from the fancy. Alas! for this dream!
I shall prove incontrovertibly, not only that such things were distorted facts, but I shall demonstrate that the
Centaurs were not mythical — that the Athenian claim to the symbol of the Grasshopper was not mythical — that the Autochthons were not mythical — that the serpent Pytho was not mythical — that Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth were not mythical — that Zeus was not mythical — that Apollo was not mythical— that the Pierian Muses were not mythical — that Cecrops was neither legendary nor mythical, but as historical as King Harold. And this I purpose to effect, not by any rationalizing process, but by the very unpoetical evidence of latitude and longitude, which will certainly not be deemed of a legendary nature.
I would here repeat a remark made on another occasion on the historical basis of mythology. Perhaps within the whole compass of mythology there is no system altogether more plausible than the Grecian. Its coherence betrays art in arrangement, but weakness in the main incidents. A basis, however, it undoubtedly possessed, which was neither of an inventive nor fictitious character. What that basis was, is certainly not to be eliminated from either poet or logographer, or historian, independent of extraneous aids. Such aids are presented to the inquiring mind in those two most durable records of a nation, — its language and its monuments. These adjuncts, though of foreign origin, are, fortunately, available for the elucidation of Greek mythology. There is nothing more calculated to blunt the keenness of investigation than any theoretic maxim which lays down some general position to meet general difficulties. Here, acquiescence must be the rule, and research the exception. Nothing can be more tempting to indolence. To assume individual or national feeling as the exponent oi fact, and fact too possibly foreign to that individual or nation, must be a perilous mode of rescuing from error or re-establishing truth. The theory of “The Myth,” as laid down by some distinguished Grerman writers, and adopted by certain authors in this country, is, at best, only capable of sound application where a people has had no connection with another nation, either by commerce, war, religion, or other inter-communication, — a category, in fact, which history scarcely supposes. There is, says this theory, a tendency in the human mind, when excited by any particular feeling, to body forth that feeling in some imaginary fact, scene, or circumstance, in the contemplation of which it may find relief. And we are gravely told that whatever thought arose in a man’s mind, whatever sensation varied his consciousness, could be expressed by him only in one way, namely, by dragging forth the concrete images, fictions, or inventions that he felt arise contemporaneously with it. But this is a complete Petitio Principii. The great myth of antiquity are not feelings bodied forth to relieve the mind; still less are they concrete images, fictions, and inventions. Whenever an important mythus has existed, an important fact has been its basis. Great principles do not arise from idealities; a national myth cannot be generated without a national cause, and a national cause implies agency, not invention; but a theory based upon the evidences oi feeling, is as mythological as a myth itself.
In this investigation, the corruptions of language to be encountered (and they must be honestly encountered and fairly vanquished) include positively nothing less than the whole circle of early Greek history. When I use the term “early,” I allude to all the genealogies, local histories, and heroic agencies of what is called “Mythical and Legendary Greece” — a phraseology, however, most unfortunate, and totally wide of the fact; for to him who reads these chronicles in their plain, original sense, no nation will appear less connected with mythology than the Pelagic or Hellenic.
The wrecks of noble institutions — of a mighty people, far advanced in civilization, highly religious, skillful in the arts, skillful in political science — everywhere strike the gaze and excite the pity of him who truly reads the old annals of Greece; — annals, not such, indeed, as are left us by Homer; for in his time the glory had well-nigh passed away, and the Avatar of a new incarnation, which was scarcely more godlike than the last, was again about to descend upon Hellas. History, then, the most interesting — the most eventful — the most indubitable, is hers. But it is not the history of the gods of Homer — the gods of Hesiod; nor is it history drawn from the etymologies of Plato, the etymologies of the logographers, or the antiquarians of Greece, men who knew nothing of the ancient language of their own country. It is not such a system that can become a correct guide to the student of history.
He will, in all cases where it is possible, go to the fountain head; he will throw from him the corrupt text and the corrupt commentaries of centuries — his inheritance of ignorance; and, calling in the testimony of a dialect coeval with the first Pelasgian and the first Hellenic settlements, will appeal to truth, and the decisions of judgment unclouded by prejudice.
He who would master the Protean struggles of language, as it roams from east to west^ assuming every variety of complexion and every form — though beneath that everlasting change there is an everlasting steadfastness — will bring to the effort, not only a keen vision, but will possess a power of discerning, beneath disguises ever- varying, the strongest likeness; beneath dissimilar nationality, a unity of parentage. To command success, he will exercise a jealous vigilance over his discoveries; he will bring to the test of experience his choicest theories; but if he have not this test of verification, he will still look upon them as theories, but not facts.
I shall not here enlarge upon philology in connection with the Pelasgian settlements, polity, and religion. He
who may desire ample evidences of the affiliation, the structure, and the relative rank of the great families of language, and of the precision with which they may be classified, will find an excellent manual in the masterly work of Professor Bopp.
On Indo-Classical affinities, we have had many admirable works, written by men of the highest talent. Sir
W. Jones leading the way. But it is this very idea of their being affinities, and affinities only, that has effectually
barred the path to decisive results. A vowel, a stray consonant, a consonant too much, a vowel too little — the merest non-coidentity of forms: these were once sufficient to draw down the wrath of the philological guardians of the treasure-house of time, with a warning to the rash scrutiniser of its contents, that nothing is to be found within.
Yet there is much gold there. I beg to impress upon the mind of the reader, that I do not deal in affinities; that I do not deal in etymologies: with the latter, particularly, I have no manner of concern. I am not writing a book of antiquarian amusement. That which I am writing is History — history, as marvelously as it is correctly preserved. As I am now about to speak of the first settlers in the land of Hellas it would be well for the reader to discard totally, if possible — if not, as much as possible — all preconceived notions of the immigrants into this remarkable land; and I trust I shall not incur the charge of presumption, if I counsel him, in the usual forensic strain, “to dismiss from his mind all previous reports, and to be guided solely by the evidence that will be brought before him.” And, lest I should be imagined to be indulging in easy self-confidence, it will be proper to remark that the evidence is already taken; that it is in a foreign language; and that I merely perform the office of an interpreter, — with what degree of fidelity it will not be difficult for the reader to decide.
It was not enough for us to have inherited a mass of disfigured documents, — but alas! our work was to be made more difficult, by the superscription of new tales over the old parchment! Fortunately for us, no erasures have been made. Our only method now is to restore the text of the old history. But how are we to begin? Our way seems effectually barred by the dictum of those theorists who virtually define “ancient history” as “invention.” I deeply regret this spirit of theorizing; it has been gaining ground of late years in Germany; and, but recently, its most able exponent in this country has carried this principle into the regions of hypercriticism. “The real question at issue,” says an able writer in the Edinburgh Eeview, “is not so much whether there ever was a basis of historical truth for the poetical legend; whether any such events as the siege of Thebes, or the expedition against Troy, actually occurred; as whether we are now able to extricate this kernel of truth from the mass of fable with which it is overgrown, and to exhibit the naked skeleton of historical fact, stripped of all its coverings of poetical embellishment”. When we find the same nation who were the colonists of Greece, composing not only history but mathematical treatises in a poetic form, this poetical form will produce, in our minds, no solid objection against the statements contained therein. When we discover that a nation holds a belief in tutelary divinities, active in the defence of their prime heroes or most pious worshippers, — the statement of such interference, founded on such a belief, will not in the slightest degree invalidate any matter of fact recorded in such a document — or rather, any records consistent with common sense. If the Centaurs, the Muses, Poseidon, Erectheus, the Autocthons, the Tettiges or Grasshopper symbols of the Athenians, be proved geographically, by latitude and longitude, to repose upon an historical basis — perfectly rational, perfectly harmonious with the first colonisation of Greece — I believe it will be readily granted, that, after this, such subjects as the siege of Thebes and the siege of Troy will present no difficulties.
Speaking of these primitive histories, Mr. Grote has observed: “I describe the earlier times by themselves, as conceived by the faith and feeling of the first Greeks and known only through their legends; without presuming to measure how much or how little of historical matter these legends may contain. If the reader blame me for not assisting to determine this, — if he ask me, why I do not withdraw the curtain and disclose the picture^ I reply, in the words of the painter Zeuxis, when the same question was addressed to him, on exhibiting his masterpiece of imitative art: ‘The curtain is the picture.’ What we now read as poetry, and legend, was once accredited history, and the only genuine history which the first Greeks could conceive or relish of their past time. The curtain conceals nothing behind, and cannot by any ingenuity be withdrawn. I undertake to show it only as it stands; not to efface it — still less to repaint it .”
To say that “the curtain is the picture,” is, fortunately for history, a mythical saying; and to affirm that “the curtain contains nothing behind, and cannot by any ingenuity be withdrawn,” rests on that feeling which, thirty years since, would have classed the railway locomotive, and its glowing eye of night, with the eye of the Cyclops. The case may be stated as follows: — The Picture is Indian — the Curtain is Grecian; and that Curtain is now withdrawn.