Custom and Myth/A Far-Travelled Tale


A modern novelist has boasted that her books are read 'from Tobolsk to Tangiers.' This is a wide circulation, but the widest circulation in the world has probably been achieved by a story whose author, unlike Ouida, will never be known to fame. The tale which we are about to examine is, perhaps, of all myths the most widely diffused, yet there is no ready way of accounting for its extraordinary popularity. Any true 'nature-myth,' any myth which accounts for the processes of nature or the aspects of natural phenomena, may conceivably have been invented separately, wherever men in an early state of thought observed the same facts, and attempted to explain them by telling a story. Thus we have seen that the earlier part of the Myth of Cronus is a nature-myth, setting forth the cause of the separation of Heaven and Earth. Star-myths again, are everywhere similar, because men who believed all nature to be animated and personal, accounted for the grouping of constellations in accordance with these crude beliefs.[1] Once more, if a story like that of 'Cupid and Psyche' be found among the most diverse races, the distribution becomes intelligible if the myth was invented to illustrate or enforce a widely prevalent custom. But in the following story no such explanation is even provisionally acceptable.

The gist of the tale (which has many different 'openings,' and conclusions in different places) may be stated thus: A young man is brought to the home of a hostile animal, a giant, cannibal, wizard, or a malevolent king. He is put by his unfriendly host to various severe trials, in which it is hoped that he will perish. In each trial he is assisted by the daughter of his host. After achieving the adventures, he elopes with the girl, and is pursued by her father. The runaway pair throw various common objects behind them, which are changed into magical obstacles and check the pursuit of the father. The myth has various endings, usually happy, in various places. Another form of the narrative is known, in which the visitors to the home of the hostile being are, not wooers of his daughter, but brothers of his wife.[2] The incidents of the flight, in this variant, are still of the same character. Finally, when the flight is that of a brother from his sister's malevolent ghost, in Hades (Japan), or of two sisters from a cannibal mother or step-mother (Zulu and Samoyed), the events of the flight and the magical aids to escape remain little altered. We shall afterwards see that attempts have been made to interpret one of these narratives as a nature-myth; but the attempts seem unsuccessful. We are therefore at a loss to account for the wide diffusion of this tale, unless it has been transmitted slowly from people to people, in the immense unknown prehistoric past of the human race. *** Before comparing the various forms of the myth in its first shape—that which tells of the mortal lover and the giant's or wizard's daughter—let us give the Scottish version of the story. This version was written down for me, many years ago, by an aged lady in Morayshire. I published it in the 'Revue Celtique'; but it is probably new to story-comparers, in its broad Scotch variant.


   There once lived a king and a queen. They were long married and had
   no bairns; but at last the queen had a bairn, when the king was away
   in far countries. The queen would not christen the bairn till the
   king came back, and she said, 'We will just call him Nicht Nought
   Nothing until his father comes home.' But it was long before he came
   home, and the boy had grown a nice little laddie. At length the king
   was on his way back; but he had a big river to cross, and there was a
   spate, and he could not get over the water. But a giant came up to
   him, and said, 'If you will give me Nicht Nought Nothing, I will carry
   you over the water on my back.' The king had never heard that his son
   was called Nicht Nought Nothing, and so he promised him. When the
   king got home again, he was very happy to see his wife again, and his
   young son. She told him that she had not given the child any name but
   Nicht Nought Nothing, until he should come home again himself. The
   poor king was in a terrible case. He said, 'What have I done? I
   promised to give the giant who carried me over the river on his back,
   Nicht Nought Nothing.' The king and the queen were sad and sorry, but
   they said, 'When the giant comes we will give him the hen-wife's
   bairn; he will never know the difference.' The next day the giant
   came to claim the king's promise, and he sent for the hen-wife's
   bairn; and the giant went away with the bairn on his back. He
   travelled till he came to a big stone, and there he sat down to rest.
   He said,

   'Hidge, Hodge, on my back, what time of day is it?' The poor little
   bairn said, 'It is the time that my mother, the hen-wife, takes up the
   eggs for the queen's breakfast.'

   The giant was very angry, and dashed the bairn on the stone and killed

   . . . . .

   The same adventure is repeated with the gardener's son.

   . . . . .

   Then the giant went back to the king's house, and said he would
   destroy them all if they did not give him Nicht Nought Nothing this
   time. They had to do it; and when he came to the big stone, the giant
   said, 'What time of day is it?' Nicht Nought Nothing said, 'It is the
   time that my father the king will be sitting down to supper.' The
   giant said, 'I've got the richt ane noo;' and took Nicht Nought
   Nothing to his own house and brought him up till he was a man.

   The giant had a bonny dochter, and she and the lad grew very fond of
   each other. The giant said one day to Nicht Nought Nothing, 'I've
   work for you to-morrow. There is a stable seven miles long and seven
   miles broad, and it has not been cleaned for seven years, and you must
   clean it to-morrow, or I will have you for my supper.'

   The giant's dochter went out next morning with the lad's breakfast,
   and found him in a terrible state, for aye as he cleaned out a bit, it
   aye fell in again. The giant's dochter said she would help him, and
   she cried a' the beasts of the field, and a' the fowls o' the air, and
   in a minute they a' came, and carried awa' everything that was in the
   stable and made a' clean before the giant came home. He said, 'Shame
   for the wit that helped you; but I have a worse job for you
   to-morrow.' Then he told Nicht Nought Nothing that there was a loch
   seven miles long, and seven miles deep, and seven miles broad, and he
   must drain it the next day, or else he would have him for his supper.
   Nicht Nought Nothing began early next morning and tried to lave the
   water with his pail, but the loch was never getting any less, and he
   did no ken what to do; but the giant's dochter called on all the fish
   in the sea to come and drink the water, and very soon they drank it
   dry. When the giant saw the work done he was in a rage, and said,
   'I've a worse job for you to-morrow; there is a tree seven miles high,
   and no branch on it, till you get to the top, and there is a nest, and
   you must bring down the eggs without breaking one, or else I will have
   you for my supper.' At first the giant's dochter did not know how to
   help Nicht Nought Nothing; but she cut off first her fingers and then
   her toes, and made steps of them, and he clomb the tree, and got all
   the eggs safe till he came to the bottom, and then one was broken. The
   giant's dochter advised him to run away, and she would follow him. So
   he travelled till he came to a king's palace, and the king and queen
   took him in and were very kind to him. The giant's dochter left her
   father's house, and he pursued her and was drowned. Then she came to
   the king's palace where Nicht Nought Nothing was. And she went up
   into a tree to watch for him. The gardener's dochter, going to draw
   water in the well, saw the shadow of the lady in the water, and
   thought it was herself, and said, 'If I'm so bonny, if I'm so brave,
   do you send me to draw water?' The gardener's wife went out, and she
   said the same thing. Then the gardener went himself, and brought the
   lady from the tree, and led her in. And he told her that a stranger
   was to marry the king's dochter, and showed her the man: and it was
   Nicht Nought Nothing asleep in a chair. And she saw him, and cried to
   him, 'Waken, waken, and speak to me!' But he would not waken, and
   syne she cried,

   'I cleaned the stable, I laved the loch, and I clamb the tree,
         And all for the love of thee,
         And thou wilt not waken and speak to me.'

   The king and the queen heard this, and came to the bonny young lady,
   and she said,

   'I canna get Nicht Nought Nothing to speak to me for all that I can

   Then were they greatly astonished when she spoke of Nicht Nought
   Nothing, and asked where he was, and she said, 'He that sits there in
   the chair.' Then they ran to him and kissed him and called him their
   own dear son, and he wakened, and told them all that the giant's
   dochter had done for him, and of all her kindness. Then they took her
   in their arms and kissed her, and said she should now be their
   dochter, for their son should marry her.

   And they lived happy all their days.

In this variant of the story, which we may use as our text, it is to be noticed that a lacuna exists. The narrative of the flight omits to mention that the runaways threw things behind them which became obstacles in the giant's way. One of these objects probably turned into a lake, in which the giant was drowned.[3] A common incident is the throwing behind of a comb, which changes into a thicket. The formula of leaving obstacles behind occurs in the Indian collection, the 'Kathasarit sagara' (vii. xxxix.). The 'Battle of the Birds,' in Campbell's 'Tales of the West Highlands,' is a very copious Gaelic variant. Russian parallels are 'Vasilissa the Wise and the Water King,' and 'The King Bear.'[4] The incident of the flight and the magical obstacles is found in Japanese mythology.[5] The 'ugly woman of Hades' is sent to pursue the hero. He casts down his black head-dress, and it is instantly turned into grapes; he fled while she was eating them. Again, 'he cast down his multitudinous and close-toothed comb, and it instantly turned into bamboo sprouts.' In the Gaelic version, the pursuer is detained by talkative objects which the pursued leave at home, and this marvel recurs in Zululand, and is found among the Bushmen. The Zulu versions are numerous.[6] Oddly enough, in the last variant, the girl performs no magic feat, but merely throws sesamum on the ground to delay the cannibals, for cannibals are very fond of sesamum.[7]*** Here, then, we have the remarkable details of the flight, in Zulu, Gaelic, Norse, Malagasy,[8] Russian, Italian, Japanese. Of all incidents in the myth, the incidents of the flight are most widely known. But the whole connected series of events—the coming of the wooer; the love of the hostile being's daughter; the tasks imposed on the wooer; the aid rendered by the daughter; the flight of the pair; the defeat or destruction of the hostile being—all these, or most of these, are extant, in due sequence, among the following races. The Greeks have the tale, the people of Madagascar have it, the Lowland Scotch, the Celts, the Russians, the Italians, the Algonquins, the Finns, and the Samoans have it. Now if the story were confined to the Aryan race, we might account for its diffusion, by supposing it to be the common heritage of the Indo-European peoples, carried everywhere with them in their wanderings. But when the tale is found in Madagascar, North America, Samoa, and among the Finns, while many scattered incidents occur in even more widely severed races, such as Zulus, Bushmen, Japanese, Eskimo, Samoyeds, the Aryan hypothesis becomes inadequate.

To show how closely, all things considered, the Aryan and non-Aryan possessors of the tale agree, let us first examine the myth of Jason. *** The earliest literary reference to the myth of Jason is in the 'Iliad' (vii. 467, xxiii. 747). Here we read of Euneos, a son whom Hypsipyle bore to Jason in Lemnos. Already, even in the 'Iliad,' the legend of Argo's voyage has been fitted into certain well-known geographical localities. A reference in the 'Odyssey' (xii. 72) has a more antique ring: we are told that of all barques Argo alone escaped the jaws of the Rocks Wandering, which clashed together and destroyed ships. Argo escaped, it is said, 'because Jason was dear to Hera.' It is plain, from various fragmentary notices, that Hesiod was familiar with several of the adventures in the legend of Jason. In the 'Theogony' (993-998) Hesiod mentions the essential facts of the legend: how Jason carried off from Æetes his daughter, 'after achieving the adventures, many and grievous,' which were laid upon him. At what period the home of Æetes was placed in Colchis, it is not easy to determine. Mimnermus, a contemporary of Solon, makes the home of Æetes lie 'on the brink of ocean,' a very vague description.[9] Pindar, on the other hand, in the splendid Fourth Pythian Ode, already knows Colchis as the scene of the loves and flight of Jason and Medea. *** 'Long were it for me to go by the beaten track,' says Pindar, 'and I know a certain short path.' Like Pindar, we may abridge the tale of Jason. He seeks the golden fleece in Colchis: Æetes offers it to him as a prize for success in certain labours. By the aid of Medea, the daughter of Æetes, the wizard-king, Jason tames the fire-breathing oxen, yokes them to the plough, and drives a furrow. By Medea's help he conquers the children of the teeth of the dragon, subdues the snake that guards the fleece of gold, and escapes, but is pursued by Æetes. To detain Æetes, Medea throws behind the mangled remains of her own brother, Apsyrtos, and the Colchians pursue no further than the scene of this bloody deed. The savagery of this act survives even in the work of a poet so late as Apollonius Rhodius (iv. 477), where we read how Jason performed a rite of savage magic, mutilating the body of Apsyrtos in a manner which was believed to appease the avenging ghost of the slain. 'Thrice he tasted the blood, thrice spat it out between his teeth,' a passage which the Scholiast says contains the description of an archaic custom popular among murderers.

Beyond Tomi, where a popular etymology fixed the 'cutting up' of Apsyrtos, we need not follow the fortunes of Jason and Medea. We have already seen the wooer come to the hostile being, win his daughter's love, achieve the adventures by her aid, and flee in her company, delaying, by a horrible device, the advance of the pursuers. To these incidents in the tale we confine our attention.

Many explanations of the Jason myth have been given by Scholars who thought they recognised elemental phenomena in the characters. As usual these explanations differ widely. Whenever a myth has to be interpreted, it is certain that one set of Scholars will discover the sun and the dawn, where another set will see the thunder-cloud and lightning. The moon is thrown in at pleasure. Sir G. W. Cox determines[10] 'that the name Jason (Iasôn) must be classed with the many others, Iasion, Iamus, Iolaus, Iaso, belonging to the same root.' Well, what is the root? Apparently the root is 'the root i, as denoting a crying colour, that is, a loud colour' (ii. 81). Seemingly (i. 229) violet is a loud colour, and, wherever you have the root i, you have 'the violet-tinted morning from which the sun is born.' Medea is 'the daughter of the sun,' and most likely, in her 'beneficent aspect,' is the dawn. But (ii. 81, note) ios has another meaning, 'which, as a spear, represents the far-darting ray of the sun'; so that, in one way or another, Jason is connected with the violet-tinted morning or with the sun's rays. This is the gist of the theory of Sir George Cox.

Preller[11] is another Scholar, with another set of etymologies. Jason is derived, he thinks, from ιαομαι, to heal, because Jason studied medicine under the Centaur Chiron. This is the view of the Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius (i. 554). Jason, to Preller's mind, is a form of Asclepius, 'a spirit of the spring with its soft suns and fertile rains.' Medea is the moon. Medea, on the other hand, is a lightning goddess, in the opinion of Schwartz.[12] No philological reason is offered. Meanwhile, in Sir George Cox's system, the equivalent of Medea, 'in her beneficent aspect,' is the dawn.

We must suppose, it seems, that either the soft spring rains and the moon, or the dawn and the sun, or the lightning and the thunder-cloud, in one arrangement or another, irresistibly suggested, to early Aryan minds, the picture of a wooer, arriving in a hostile home, winning a maiden's love, achieving adventures by her aid, fleeing with her from her angry father and delaying his pursuit by various devices. Why the spring, the moon, the lightning, the dawn—any of them or all of them—should have suggested such a tale, let Scholars determine when they have reconciled their own differences. It is more to our purpose to follow the myth among Samoans, Algonquins, and Finns. None of these races speak an Aryan language, and none can have been beguiled into telling the same sort of tale by a disease of Aryan speech.

Samoa, where we find our story, is the name of a group of volcanic islands in Central Polynesia. They are about 3,000 miles from Sidney, were first observed by Europeans in 1722, and are as far removed as most spots from direct Aryan influences. Our position is, however, that in the shiftings and migrations of peoples, the Jason tale has somehow been swept, like a piece of drift-wood, on to the coasts of Samoa. In the islands, the tale has an epical form, and is chanted in a poem of twenty-six stanzas. There is something Greek in the free and happy life of the Samoans—something Greek, too, in this myth of theirs. There was once a youth, Siati, famous for his singing, a young Thamyris of Samoa. But as, according to Homer, 'the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian, and made an end of his singing, for he boasted and said that he would vanquish even the Muses if he sang against them,' so did the Samoan god of song envy Siati. The god and the mortal sang a match: the daughter of the god was to be the mortal's prize if he proved victorious. Siati won, and he set off, riding on a shark, as Arion rode the dolphin, to seek the home of the defeated deity. At length he reached the shores divine, and thither strayed Puapae, daughter of the god, looking for her comb which she had lost. 'Siati,' said she, 'how camest thou hither?' 'I am come to seek the song-god, and to wed his daughter.' 'My father,' said the maiden, 'is more a god than a man; eat nothing he hands you, never sit on a high seat, lest death follow.' So they were united in marriage. But the god, like Æetes, was wroth, and began to set Siati upon perilous tasks: 'Build me a house, and let it be finished this very day, else death and the oven await thee.'[13]

Siati wept, but the god's daughter had the house built by the evening. The other adventures were to fight a fierce dog, and to find a ring lost at sea. Just as the Scotch giant's daughter cut off her fingers to help her lover, so the Samoan god's daughter bade Siati cut her body into pieces and cast her into the sea. There she became a fish, and recovered the ring. They set off to the god's house, but met him pursuing them, with the help of his other daughter. 'Puapae and Siati threw down the comb, and it became a bush of thorns in the way to intercept the god and Puanli,' the other daughter. Next they threw down a bottle of earth which became a mountain; 'and then followed their bottle of water, and that became a sea, and drowned the god and Puanli.'[14]

This old Samoan song contains nearly the closest savage parallel to the various household tales which find their heroic and artistic shape in the Jason saga. Still more surprising in its resemblances is the Malagasy version of the narrative. In the Malagasy story, the conclusion is almost identical with the winding up of the Scotch fairy tale. The girl hides in a tree; her face, seen reflected in a well, is mistaken by women for their own faces, and the recognition follows in due course.[15]

Like most Red Indian versions of popular tales, the Algonquin form of the Jason saga is strongly marked with the peculiarities of the race. The story is recognisable, and that is all.

The opening, as usual, differs from other openings. Two children are deserted in the wilderness, and grow up to manhood. One of them loses an arrow in the water; the elder brother, Panigwun, wades after it. A magical canoe flies past: an old magician, who is alone in the canoe, seizes Panigwun and carries him off. The canoe fleets along, like the barques of the Phæacians, at the will of the magician, and reaches the isle where, like the Samoan god of song, he dwells with his two daughters. 'Here, my daughter,' said he, 'is a young man for your husband.' But the daughter knew that the proposed husband was but another victim of the old man's magic arts. By the daughter's advice, Panigwun escaped in the magic barque, consoled his brother, and returned to the island. Next day the magician, Mishosha, set the young man to hard tasks and perilous adventures. He was to gather gulls' eggs; but the gulls attacked him in dense crowds. By an incantation he subdued the birds, and made them carry him home to the island. Next day he was sent to gather pebbles, that he might be attacked and eaten by the king of the fishes. Once more the young man, like the Finnish Ilmarinen in Pohjola, subdued the mighty fish, and went back triumphant. The third adventure, as in 'Nicht Nought Nothing,' was to climb a tree of extraordinary height in search of a bird's nest. Here, again, the youth succeeded, and finally conspired with the daughters to slay the old magician. Lastly the boy turned the magician into a sycamore tree, and won his daughter. The other daughter was given to the brother who had no share in the perils.[16] Here we miss the incident of the flight; and the magician's daughter, though in love with the hero, does not aid him to perform the feats. Perhaps an Algonquin brave would scorn the assistance of a girl. In the 'Kalevala,' the old hero, Wäinämöinen, and his friend Ilmarinen, set off to the mysterious and hostile land of Pohjola to win a bride. The maiden of Pohjola loses her heart to Ilmarinen, and, by her aid, he bridles the wolf and bear, ploughs a field of adders with a plough of gold, and conquers the gigantic pike that swims in the Styx of Finnish mythology. After this point the story is interrupted by a long sequel of popular bridal songs, and, in the wandering course of the rather aimless epic, the flight and its incidents have been forgotten, or are neglected. These incidents recur, however, in the thread of somewhat different plots. We have seen that they are found in Japan, among the Eskimo, among the Bushmen, the Samoyeds, and the Zulus, as well as in Hungarian, Magyar, Celtic, and other European household tales.

The conclusion appears to be that the central part of the Jason myth is incapable of being explained, either as a nature-myth, or as a myth founded on a disease of language. So many languages could not take the same malady in the same way; nor can we imagine any series of natural phenomena that would inevitably suggest this tale to so many diverse races.

We must suppose, therefore, either that all wits jumped and invented the same romantic series of situations by accident, or that all men spread from one centre, where the story was known, or that the story, once invented, has drifted all round the world. If the last theory be approved of, the tale will be like the Indian Ocean shell found lately in the Polish bone-cave,[17] or like the Egyptian beads discovered in the soil of Dahomey. The story will have been carried hither and thither, in the remotest times, to the remotest shores, by traders, by slaves, by captives in war, or by women torn from their own tribe and forcibly settled as wives among alien peoples.

Stories of this kind are everywhere the natural property of mothers and grandmothers. When we remember how widely diffused is the law of exogamy, which forbids marriage between a man and woman of the same stock, we are impressed by the number of alien elements which must have been introduced with alien wives. Where husband and wife, as often happened, spoke different languages, the woman would inevitably bring the hearthside tales of her childhood among a people of strange speech. By all these agencies, working through dateless time, we may account for the diffusion, if we cannot explain the origin, of tales like the central arrangement of incidents in the career of Jason.[18]


  1. Primitive Culture, i. 357: 'The savage sees individual stars a animate beings, or combines star-groups into living celestial creatures or limbs of them, or objects connected with them.'
  2. This formula occurs among Bushmen and Eskimo (Bleek and Rink).
  3. The events of the flight are recorded correctly in the Gaeli variant 'The Battle of the Birds.' (Campbell, Tales of the Wes Highlands, vol. i. p. 25.)
  4. Ralston, Russian Folk Tales, 132; Köhler, Orient und Occident, ii 107, 114.
  5. Ko ti ki, p. 36.
  6. Callaway, pp. 51, 53, 64, 145, 228.
  7. See also 'Petrosinella' in the Pentamerone, and 'The Mastermaid in Dasent's Tales from the Norse.
  8. Folk-Lore Journal, August 1883.
  9. Poetæ Minores Gr. ii.
  10. Mythol. Ar., ii. 150.
  11. Gr. My., ii. 318.
  12. Sonne, Mond und Sterne, pp. 213, 229.
  13. This proves that the tale belongs to the pre-Christian canniba age.
  14. Turner's Samoa, p. 102. In this tale only the names of th daughters are translated; they mean 'white fish' and 'dark fish.'
  15. Folk-Lore Journal, August 1883.
  16. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, ii. 94-104.
  17. Nature, March 14, 1884.
  18. The earlier part of the Jason cycle is analysed in the author' preface to Grimm's Märchen (Bell & Sons).