Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/18

This page has been validated.

tion of the uncultivated. All along our Northern coasts and in our Western mountains are to be found such figures—like the Stone-face, at the White Mountains; the Bishop Rock, at Campobello, on the Maine coast; and the Master of Life, at the entrance to Lake Superior. So in the North and West of our country there are many erratic bowlders, some oval, or glistening with native copper or mica scales, or balanced on convex prominences so that they readily oscillate. In unenlightened but pious minds, such curious figures naturally inspire veneration and worship as the abodes of spirits, as was the case with the Ojibways, Ottawas, and Dakotas; or they give rise to wild myths of transformation, such as the Indian legends abound in. So, where the rocky and mountainous aspect of nature produces cataracts or dangerous rapids, and the waters roar and toss their white manes in the air, these places—as, e. g., Niagara, the mouth of the Wabash, or the Brear Beaux Falls on the Wisconsin—became to the savage the haunt of spirits or demons, who must be propitiated with offerings of tobacco and meat.

And this mention of tobacco may serve to turn our thoughts to remembrance of the influence of trees and plants in drawing forth religious veneration. Wherever plants are found, like tobacco, or the Peruvian coca, the snake-root, the Indian hemp, the wine of Bacchanal worship, that had a special effect; whether stimulating, narcotic, poisonous, or curative, they were held to possess supernatural power, and were used for various magic rites and became sacred. The soma of the ancient Aryans even became exalted to a place among the gods, and to drink it was the means of gaining immortality. So, likewise, the mysterious whisperings of the wind in ancient forests, or the inexplicable movements of some half-blown-down tree, as the heat of the sun contracted or lengthened its twisted roots, and caused it alternately to rise and fall, have more than once attracted the superstitious awe of the barbarian, and supplied new objects for his adoration.

Thus do the peculiarities of natural objects supply molds in which the metal of religious faith, already lying latent, readily sets. And not only directly, but indirectly, do they shape the forms of faith. The rushing river, e. g., not merely attracts the reverence of the primitive man to itself, but by its swift and treacherous motion, its sinuous course, and snake-like hiss and gleam, it is personified as a mighty divine serpent, and next makes sacred by association the serpents of the country about. The sky, personified by the ancient Egyptian as a heavenly goose, enveloping and hatching the cosmic egg, made sacred henceforth all geese to the pious dwellers by the Nile. In climes like Egypt, where the skies are rainless and the whole aspect of nature equable, almost unchanging, there the gods are marked by calmness of bearing and serenity of nature. We must go to the slopes of the Himalayas or the ridges of the Apennines to find the howling Rudra, with his attendant Maruts, the pounders, rushing wildly through the