Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/302

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

which meet in Bethlehem, and that he was called by a name composed of the four principal planets: thus he was formed as a microcosm, the miniature counterpart and organic epitome of the universe, the synopsis and symbol of all created things.

There is a tendency in every savage tribe and isolated people to regard the portion of the earth which it happens to inhabit, and especially the spot which is the cradle of the race or around which its sacred traditions cluster, as not only the political and religious but also as the physical center of the world. Such were Jerusalem to the Jews and imperial and papal Rome, urbs et orbis, to the ancient Romans and mediæval Romanists; such has Benares been from time immemorial to multitudes of Hindus, and such is Mecca to-day to millions of Moslems. Before the discoveries of the Western hemisphere, made by Columbus and his compeers, not even the most enlightened peoples had any proper sense of their relations to the rest of mankind, either morally or geographically. International ethics and comities began with the growth of clearer and more correct ethnical notions, and have always kept pace with it. The knowledge of the rotundity of the earth gave a strong and permanent impulse in this direction, and has contributed not a little to the recognition of the equal rights of all races of mankind.

The language of every civilized nation contains curious survivals of the primitive conceptions which sprung out of what might be called the self-conceited and self-centered spirit of the savage. It is interesting to note how a single people, emerging from barbarism and taking the lead in civilization at an early period, imposes its forms of speech, and especially its geographical terms, upon after ages and upon remote races of men for whom they have really no meaning. We still speak of certain countries as the Levant and the Orient, the 'Ανατολή' of the Greeks, but these designations have no significance except for the dwellers on the shores of the Mediterranean, with whom they originated. So, too, Asia means etymologically the land of the rising sun and Europe the land of the setting sun, and these names expressed the actual position of the two continents in their relation to the Greeks. But to an American, and especially to a Californian, Europe is an Eastern and Asia a Western continent, and these strictly ethnocentric appellations would be wholly unsuitable and extremely confusing were it not for the fact that their etymology has become obscured and their primitive signification been forgotten, or is at least lost sight of and ignored, so that they are now mere arbitrary terms or distinguishing signs, with no suggestion of the geographical direction or situation of the regions to which they are applied, just as we speak of Chester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Berlin, or Munich without thinking of a Roman camp. King Edwin's castle, a ford