Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology
Author: Bulfinch, Thomas
If no other knowledge deserves to be called useful but that which helps
to enlarge our possessions or to raise our station in society, then Mythology
has no claim to the appellation. But if that which tends to make us happier
and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for our subject.
For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the
best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.
Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our
own language cannot be understood and appreciated. When Byron calls Rome
"the Niobe of nations," or says of Venice, "She looks a Sea-Cybele fresh from
ocean," he calls up to the mind of one familiar with our subject
illustrations more vivid and striking than the pencil could furnish, but
which are lost to the reader ignorant of mythology. Milton abounds in
similar allusions. The short poem "Comus" contains more than thirty such,
and the ode "On the Morning of the Nativity" half as many. Through "Paradise
Lost" they are scattered profusely. This is one reason why we often hear
persons by no means illiterate say that they cannot enjoy Milton. But were
these persons to add to their more solid acquirements the easy learning of
this little volume, much of the poetry of Milton which has appeared to them
"harsh and crabbed" would be found "musical as is Apollo's lute." Our
citations, taken from more than twenty-five poets, from Spenser to
Longfellow, will show how general has been the practice of borrowing
illustrations from mythology.
The prose writers also avail themselves of the same source of elegant
and suggestive illustration. One can hardly take up a number of the
Edinburgh or Quarterly Review without meeting with instances. In Macaulay's
article on Milton there are twenty such.
But how is mythology to be taught to one who does not learn it through
the medium of the languages of Greece and Rome? To devote study to a species
of learning which relates wholly to false marvels and obsolete faiths, is not
to be expected of the general reader in a practical age like this. The time
even of the young is claimed by so many sciences of facts and things, that
little can be spared for set treatises on a science of mere fancy.
But many not the requisite knowledge of the subject be acquired by
reading the ancient poets in translations? We reply, the field is to
extensive for a preparatory course; and these very translations require some
previous knowledge of the subject to make them intelligible. Let any one who
doubts it read the first page of the "Aeneid," and see what he can make of
"the hatred of Juno," the "decree of the Parcae," the "judgment of Paris,"
and the "honors of Ganymede," without this knowledge.
Shall we be told that answers to such queries may be found in notes, or
by a reference to the Classical Dictionary? We reply, the interruption of
one's reading by either process is so annoying that most readers prefer to
let an allusion pass unapprehended rather than submit to it. Moreover, such
sources give us only the dry facts without any of the charm of the original
narrative; and what is a poetical myth when stripped of its poetry? The
story of Ceyx and Halcyone, which fills a chapter in our book, occupies but
eight lines in the best (Smith's) Classical Dictionary; and so of others.
Our book is an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of
mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have
endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so
that when the reader finds them referred to he may not be at a loss to
recognize the reference. Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but
as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book, yet
by means of it to impart a knowledge of an important branch of education.
The index at the end will adapt it to the purposes of reference, and make it
a Classical Dictionary for the parlor.
Most of the classical legends in this book are derived from Ovid and
Virgil. They are not literally translated, for, in the author's opinion,
poetry translated into literal prose is very unattractive reading. Neither
are they in verse, as well for other reasons as from a conviction that to
translate faithfully under all the embarrassments of rhyme and measure is
impossible. The attempt has been made to tell the stories in prose,
preserving so much of the poetry as resides in the thoughts and is separable
from the language itself, and omitting those amplifications which are not
suited to the altered form.
The Northern mythological stories are copied with some abridgment from
Mallet's Northern Antiquities. These chapters, with those on Oriental and
Egyptian mythology, seemed necessary to complete the subject, though it is
believed these topics have not usually been presented in the same volume with
the classical fables.
The poetical citations so freely introduced are expected to answer
several valuable purposes. They will tend to fix in memory the leading fact
of each story, they will help to the attainment of a correct pronunciation of
the proper names, and they will enrich the memory with many gems of poetry,
some of them such as are most frequently quoted or alluded to in reading and
Having chosen mythology as connected with literature for our province, we
have endeavored to omit nothing which the reader of elegant literature is
likely to find occasion for. Such stories and parts of stories as are
offensive to pure taste and good morals are not given. But such stories are
not often referred to, and if they occasionally should be, the English reader
need feel no mortification in confessing his ignorance of them.
Our book is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the
philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who
wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers,
lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.
We trust our young readers will find it a source of entertainment; those
more advanced a useful companion in their reading those who travel, and visit
museums and galleries of art, an interpreter of paintings and sculptures;
those who mingle in cultivated society, a key to allusions which are
occasionally made; and last of all, those in advanced life, pleasure in
retracing a path of literature which leads them back to the days of their
childhood, and revives at every step the associations of the morning of life.
The permanency of those associations is beautifully expressed in the
well-known lines of Coleridge, in "The Piccolomini," Act ii. Scene 4.
"The intelligible forms of ancient poets,
The fair humanities of old religion,
The Power, the Beauty, and the Majesty
That had their haunts in dale or piny mountain,
Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,
Or chasms and watery depths; all these have vanished.
They live no longer in the faith of reason;
But still the heart doth need a language; still
Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;
Spirits or gods that used to share this earth
With man as with their friend; and at this day
"Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,
And Venus who brings every thing that's fair."
Origin Of Mythology
Statues Of Gods And Goddesses - Poets Of Mythology.
Origin Of Mythology.
Having reached the close of our series of stories of Pagan mythology, an
inquiry suggests itself. "Whence came these stories? Have they a foundation
in truth, or are they simply dreams of the imagination?" Philosophers have
suggested various theories on the subject; and (1) The Scriptural theory;
according to which all mythological legends are derived from the narratives of
Scripture, though the real facts have been disguised and altered. Thus
Deucalion is only another name for Noah, Hercules for Samson, Arion for Jonah,
&c. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World, says, "Jubal, Tubal, and
Tubal-Cain were Mercury, Vulcan, and Apollo, inventors of Pasturage, Smithing,
and Music. The Dragon which kept the golden apples was the serpent that
beguiled Eve. Nimrod's tower was the attempt of the Giants against Heaven."
There are doubtless many curious coincidences like these, but the theory
cannot without extravagance be pushed so far as to account for any great
proportion of the stories.
(2) The Historical theory; according to which all the persons mentioned
in mythology were once real human beings, and the legends and fabulous
traditions relating to them are merely the additions and embellishments of
later times. Thus the story of Aeolus, the king and god of the winds, is
supposed to have risen from the fact that Aeolus was the ruler of some
islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he reigned as a just and pious king, and
taught the natives the use of sails for ships, and how to tell from the signs
of the atmosphere the changes of the weather and the winds. Cadmus, who, the
legend says, sowed the earth with dragon's teeth, from which sprang a crop of
armed men, was in fact an emigrant from Phoenicia, and brought with him into
Greece the knowledge of the letters of the alphabet, which he taught to the
natives. From these rudiments of learning sprung civilization, which the
poets have always been prone to describe as a deterioration of man's first
estate, the Golden Age of innocence and simplicity.
(3) The Allegorical theory supposes that all the myths of the ancients
were allegorical and symbolical, and contained some moral, religious, or
philosophical truth or historical fact, under the form of an allegory, but
came in process of time to be understood literally. Thus Saturn, who devours
his own children, is the same power whom the Greeks called Cronos, (Time,)
which may truly be said to destroy whatever it has brought into existence. The
story of Io is interpreted in a similar manner. Io is the moon, and Argus the
starry sky, which, as it were, keeps sleepless watch over her. The fabulous
wanderings of Io represent the continual revolutions of the moon, which also
suggested to Milton the same idea.
"To behold the wandering moon
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
In the heaven's wide, pathless way."
(4) The Physical theory; according to which the elements of air, fire,
and water were originally the objects of religious adoration, and the
principal deities were personifications of the powers of nature. The
transition was easy from a personification of the elements to the notion of
supernatural beings presiding over and governing the different objects of
nature. The Greeks, whose imagination was lively, peopled all nature with
invisible beings, and supposed that every object, from the sun and sea to the
smallest fountain and rivulet, was under the care of some particular divinity.
Wordsworth, in his Excursion, has beautifully developed this view of Grecian
"In that fair clime the lonely herdsman, stretched
On the soft grass through half a summer's day,
With music lulled his indolent repose;
And, in some fit of weariness, if he,
When his own breath was silent, chanced to hear
A distant strain far sweeter than the sounds
Which his poor skill could make, his fancy fetched
Even from the blazing chariot of the Sun
A beardless youth who touched a golden lute,
And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.
The mighty hunter, lifting up his eyes
Toward the crescent Moon, with grateful heart
Called on the lovely Wanderer who bestowed
That timely light to share his joyous sport;
And hence a beaming goddess with her nymphs
Across the lawn and through the darksome grove
(Not unaccompanied with tuneful notes
By echo multiplied from rock or cave)
Swept in the storm of chase, as moon and stars
Glance rapidly along the clouded heaven
When winds are blowing strong. The Traveller slaked
His thirst from rill or gushing fount, and thanked
The Naiad. Sunbeams upon distant hills
Gliding apace with shadows in their train,
Might with small help from fancy, be transformed
Into fleet Oreads sporting visibly.
The Zephyrs, fanning, as they passed, their wings,
Lacked not for love fair objects whom they wooed
With gentle whisper. Withered boughs grotesque,
Stripped of their leaves and twigs by hoary age,
From depth of shaggy covert peeping forth
In the low vale, or on steep mountain side;
And sometimes intermixed with stirring horns
Of the live deer, or goat's depending beard;
These were the lurking Satyrs, a wild brood
Of gamesome deities; or Pan himself,
The simple shepherd's awe-inspiring god."
All the theories which have been mentioned are true to a certain extent.
It would therefore be more correct to say that the mythology of a nation has
sprung from all these sources combined than from any one in particular. We
may add also that there are many myths which have arisen from the desire of
man to account for those natural phenomena which he cannot understand; and not
a few have had their rise from a similar desire of giving a reason for the
names of places and persons.
Statues Of The Gods.
To adequately represent to the eye the ideas intended to be conveyed to
the mind under the several names of deities, was a task which called into
exercise the highest powers of genius and art. Of the many attempts four have
been most celebrated, the first two known to us only by the descriptions of
the ancients, the others still extant and the acknowledged masterpieces of the
The Olympian Jupiter.
The statue of the Olympian Jupiter by Phidias was considered the highest
achievement of this department of Grecian art. It was of colossal dimensions,
and was what the ancients called "chryselephantine;" that is, composed of
ivory and gold; the parts representing flesh being of ivory laid on a core of
wood or stone, while the drapery and other ornaments were of gold. The height
of the figure was forty feet, on a pedestal twelve feet high. The god was
represented seated on his throne. His brows were crowned with a wreath of
olive, and he held in his right hand a sceptre, and in his left a statue of
Victory. The throne was of cedar, adorned with gold and precious stones.
The idea which the artist essayed to imbody was that of the supreme deity
of the Hellenic (Grecian) nation, enthroned as a conqueror, in perfect majesty
and repose, and ruling with a nod the subject world. Phidias avowed that he
took his idea from the representation which Homer gives in the first book of
the Iliad, in the passage thus translated by Pope: -
"He spoke and awful bends his sable brows,
Shakes his ambrosial curls and gives the nod,
The stamp of fate and sanction of the god.
High heaven with reverence the dread signal took,
And all Olympus to the centre shook."*
Cowper's version is less elegant, but truer to the original. -
"He ceased, and under his dark brows the nod
Vouchsafed of confirmation. All around
The sovereign's everlasting head his curls
Ambrosial shook, and the huge mountain reeled"
The Minerva Of The Parthenon.
This was also the work of Phidias. It stood in the Parthenon, or temple
of Minerva at Athens. The goddess was represented standing. In one hand she
held a spear, in the other a statue of Victory. Her helmet, highly decorated,
was surmounted by a Sphinx. The statue was forty feet in height, and, like
the Jupiter, composed of ivory and gold. The eyes were of marble, and
probably painted to represent the iris and pupil. The Parthenon in which this
statue stood was also constructed under the direction and superintendence of
Phidias. Its exterior was enriched with sculptures, many of them from the
hand of Phidias. The Elgin marbles now in the British Museum are a part of
Both the Jupiter and Minerva of Phidias are lost, but there is good
ground to believe that we have, in several extant statues and busts, the
artist's conceptions of the countenances of both. They are characterized by
grave and dignified beauty, and freedom from any transient expression, which
in the language of art is called repose.
It may interest our readers to see how this passage appears in another
famous version, that which was issued under the name of Tickell,
contemporaneously with Pope's, and which, being by many attributed to Addison,
led to the quarrel which ensued between Addison and Pope.
"This said, his kingly brow the sire inclined;
The large black curls fell awful from behind,
Thick shadowing the stern forehead of the god;
Olympus trembled at the almighty nod."
The Venus De' Medici.
The Venus of the Medici is so called from its having been in the
possession of the princes of that name in Rome when it first attracted
attention, about two hundred years ago An inscription on the base records it
to be the work of Cleomenes, an Athenian sculptor of 200 B.C., but the
authenticity of the inscription is doubtful. There is a story that the artist
was employed by public authority to make a statue exhibiting the perfection of
female beauty, and to aid him in his task, the most perfect forms the city
could supply were furnished him for models. It is this which Thomson alludes
to in his Summer.
"So stands the statue that enchants the world;
So bending tries to veil the matchless boast,
The mingled beauties of exulting Greece."
Byron also alludes to this statue. Speaking of the Florence Museum, he
"There too the goddess loves in stone, and fills
The air around with beauty;" &c.
And in the next stanza,
"Blood, pulse, and breast confirm the Dardan shepherd a prize.
See this last allusion explained in Chapter XXVII.
The Apollo Belvedere.
The most highly esteemed of all the remains of ancient sculpture is the
statue of Apollo, called the Belvedere, from the name of the apartment of the
Pope's palace at Rome in which it is placed. The artist is unknown. It is
supposed to be a work of Roman art, of about the first century of our era. It
is a standing figure, in marble, more than seven feet high, naked except for
the cloak which is fastened around the neck and hangs over the extended left
arm. It is supposed to represent the god in the moment when he has shot the
arrow to destroy the monster Python. (See Chapter III.) The victorious
divinity is in the act of stepping forward. The left arm which seems to have
held the bow is outstretched, and the head is turned in the same direction.
In attitude and proportion the graceful majesty of the figure is unsurpassed.
The effect is completed by the countenance, where, on the perfection of
youthful godlike beauty there dwells the consciousness of triumphant power.
The Diana A La Biche.
The Diana of the Hind, in the palace of the Louvre, may be considered the
counterpart to the Apollo Belvedere. The attitude much resembles that of the
Apollo, the sizes correspond and also the style of execution. It is a work of
the highest order, though by no means equal to the Apollo. The attitude is
that of hurried and eager motion, the face that of a huntress in the
excitement of the chase. The left hand is extended over the forehead of the
Hind which runs by her side, the right arm reaches backward over the shoulder
to draw an arrow from the quiver.
The Poets Of Mythology.
Homer, from whose poems of the Iliad and Odyssey we have taken the chief
part of our chapters of the Trojan war and the return of the Grecians, is
almost as mythical a personage as the heroes he celebrates. The traditionary
story is that he was a wandering minstrel, blind and old, who travelled from
place to place singing his lays to the music of his harp, in the courts of
princes or the cottages of peasants, and dependent upon the voluntary
offerings of his hearers for support. Byron calls him "The blind old man of
Scio's rocky isle," and a well-known epigram, alluding to the uncertainty of
the fact of his birthplace, says, -
"Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread."
These seven were Smyrna, Scio, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Argos, and
Modern scholars have doubted whether the Homeric poems are the work of
any single mind. This arises from the difficulty of believing that poems of
such length could have been committed to writing at so early an age as that
usually assigned to these, an age earlier than the date of any remaining
inscriptions or coins, and when no materials, capable of containing such long
productions were yet introduced into use. On the other hand it is asked how
poems of such length could have been handed down from age to age by means of
the memory alone. This is answered by the statement that there was a
professional body of men, called Rhapsodists, who recited the poems of others,
and whose business it was to commit to memory and rehearse for pay the
national and patriotic legends.
The prevailing opinion of the learned, at this time, seems to be that the
framework and much of the structure of the poems belongs to Homer, but that
there are numerous interpolations and additions by other hands.
The date assigned to Homer, on the authority of Herodotus, is 850 B. C.
Virgil, called also by his surname Maro, from whose poem of the Aeneid we
have taken the story of Aeneas, was one of the great poets who made the reign
of the Roman emperor, Augustus, so celebrated, under the name of the Augustan
age. Virgil was born in Mantua in the year 70 B. C. His great poem is ranked
next to those of Homer, in the highest class of poetical composition, the
Epic. Virgil is far inferior to Homer in originality and invention, but
superior to him in correctness and elegance. To critics of English lineage
Milton alone of modern poets seems worthy to be classed with these illustrious
ancients. His poem of Paradise Lost, from which we have borrowed so many
illustrations, is in many respects equal, in some superior to either of the
great works of antiquity. The following epigram of Dryden characterizes the
three poets with as much truth as it is usual to find in such pointed
"Three poets in three different ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
The first in loftiness of soul surpassed,
The next in majesty, in both the last.
The force of nature could no further go;
To make a third she joined the other two."
From Cowper's Table Talk: -
"Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
And ages ere the Mantuan swan was heard.
To carry nature lengths unknown before,
To give a Milton birth, asked ages more.
Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,
And shot a dayspring into distant climes,
Ennobling every region that he chose;
He sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose,
And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past,
Emerged all splendor in our isle at last.
Thus lovely Halcyons dive into the main,
Then show far off their shining plumes again."
Often alluded to in poetry by his other name of Naso, was born in the
year 43 B. C. He was educated for public life and held some offices of
considerable dignity, but poetry was his delight, and he early resolved to
devote himself to it. He accordingly sought the society of the contemporary
poets, and was acquainted with Horace and saw Virgil, though the latter died
when Ovid was yet too young and undistinguished to have formed his
acquaintance. Ovid spent an easy life at Rome in the enjoyment of a competent
income. He was intimate with the family of Augustus, the emperor, and it is
supposed that some serious offence given to some member of that family was the
cause of an event which reversed the poet's happy circumstances and clouded
all the latter portion of his life. At the age of fifty he was banished from
Rome, and ordered to betake himself to Tomi, on the borders of the Black Sea.
Here, among the barbarous people and in a severe climate, the poet, who had
been accustomed to all the pleasures of a luxurious capital and the society of
his most distinguished contemporaries, spent the last ten years of his life,
worn out with grief and anxiety. His only consolation in exile was to address
his wife and absent friends, and his letters were all poetical. Though these
poems (the Tristia and Letters from Pontus) have no other topic than the
poet's sorrows, his exquisite taste and fruitful invention have redeemed them
from the charge of being tedious, and they are read with pleasure and even
The two great works of Ovid are his Metamorphoses and his Fasti. They
are both mythological poems, and from the former we have taken most of our
stories of Grecian and Roman mythology. A late writer thus characterizes
these poems: -
"The rich mythology of Greece furnished Ovid, as it may still furnish the
poet, the painter, and the sculptor, with materials for his art. With
exquisite taste, simplicity, and pathos he has narrated the fabulous
traditions of early ages, and given to them that appearance of reality which
only a master-hand could impart. His pictures of nature are striking and
true; he selects with care that which is appropriate; he rejects the
superfluous; and when he has completed his work, it is neither defective nor
redundant. The Metamorphoses are read with pleasure by youth, and are re-read
in more advanced age with still greater delight. The poet ventured to predict
that his poem would survive him, and be read wherever the Roman name was
The prediction above alluded to is contained in the closing lines of the
Metamorphoses, of which we give a literal translation below: -
"And now I close my work, which not the ire
Of Jove, nor tooth of time, nor sword, nor fire
Shall bring to nought. Come when it will that day
Which o'er the body, not the mind, has sway,
And snatch the remnant of my life away,
My better part above the stars shall soar,
And my renown endure forevermore.
Where'er the Roman arms and arts shall spread,
There by the people shall my book be read;
And, if aught true in poet's visions be,
My name and fame have immortality."
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