Under the Sun/Some Sea-Folk
Ocean-folk. — Mermaids and Manatees. — The Solemnity of Shapelessness. — Herds of the Sea-gods. — Sea-things. — The Octopus and its Kind. — Terrors of the Deep Sea. — Sea-serpents. — Credible and Incredible Varieties. — Delightful possibilities in Cuttle-fish. — Ancient and Fish-like Monsters. — Credulity as to Monsters, Disastrous. — Snakes in Legend and in Nature. — Mr. Ruskin on Snakes. — The Snake-folk. — Shesh, the Snake-god. — Primeval Turtles and their Contemporary Aldermen. — Impropriety of Flippancy about Turtles.
MERMAIDS, though still reasonably abundant at country fairs in Europe, appear to have become extinct in the British Isles.
The latest authenticated appearance is that of the supposed mermaid which was discovered sporting in the sea off the Caithness shore, but which — by his own confession — turned out to be Sir Humphrey Davy bathing.
Since then, there have been several claimants to the title, but all have collapsed under the disintegrating touch of scientific inquiry, which, resolving the several compositions into their primal elements, classified them in detail as being part monkey, part salmon, and part leather.
Some no doubt — and I for one — regret the extinction of the mermaid, but the less superstitious majority will congratulate Science on having at last reduced to one or two facts all the miscellaneous congregation of sirens, mermaids, mermen, tritons, sea-cows, sea-swine, sea-horses, mer-devils, sea-lions, water-satyrs, and Undines, — all the wilderness of aquatic prodigies delineated in Aldrovandus his “History of Monsters,” or spoken of from eye-witness by Maundeville, Olaus Magnus, and many another. The sub-order of the Sirenia now includes all those wonderful animals that have given the silly world so much pleasant fable, and wise men so much trouble, and they are now known as the Rhytinidæ and the Manatidæ. The first are extinct. Like the dodos, — which were so common in the Mauritius, when that island was first discovered, that the sailors chased them about by hundreds, knocking them on the head with stones, but of which now there are only two beaks, one foot, and a few feathers to bear witness that this great bird ever existed, — the Rhytina Stelleri, or Northern Manatee, was found swarming in 1741 upon the shores of an island in Behring’s Straits. For ten months the shipwrecked sailors entirely supported life upon its flesh and oil, and so it happened that when, just twenty-seven years later, an expedition went out to inquire if a manatee fishery would be profitable, it was found that not a single specimen remained. The family of Rhytina had been actually extinguished from the world’s list of living things in twenty-seven years, and the only remains of this astonishing animal at present known to -exist are one skull and a few other fragments in European museums. Of the other sub-family, the Manatidæ proper, many species are known to naturalists, and the commonest of these, the manatee of the American coast, is called by showmen the “West India Mermaid.”
Those who go to visit one, however, should dismiss from their minds all the fancies with which literature has invested these sea-folk, of rosy mermaids golden-haired, and jolly mermen with Bacchus faces, crowned with coral. Some, no doubt, expect a shapely Triton with flowing beard and his conch-shell slung by his side, or dainty lady of those siren islands
“Whence fairy-like music steals over the sea,
Entrancing the senses with charmed melody.”
Others, on the other hand, visit it with preconceived ideas of some narwhal or whale creation, expecting a grampus-like thing, or anticipating a porpoise. But it is necessary to approach the mermaid with an imagination absolutely blank, for, whatever you try to imagine, you will be utterly discomfited by the reality.
Who, indeed, could soberly put before his mind the actual features of this sea-monster, so absurd in its shapelessness that if it were to be exhibited dead the most credulous rustic would sneer at it as a clumsy hoax? Even alive, the thing looks like a make-up, and a discreditable one; for in places the tail and paddling-paws — they are not fins nor yet legs — appear to have been injured, and the stuffing looks as if it was coming out. The ragged edges of the skin, if such an integument is to be called skin, frays away into threads, and, if it were not that the manatee winks occasionally, the spectator might be justified in asserting his own ability to make a better monster. But it is this very simplicity of its composition that renders the preposterous creature so astonishing and so absurd. Gustave Doré found out the secret, that, to depict the perfection of a monster only one element of incongruous monstrosity should be utilized at a time, and the result of his knowledge has been his incomparable creatures of fancy. On the other hand, from ignorance of this rule, the prodigious beings of Hindoo fable are habitually stupid and foolish, for the artist overlays his subject with such a multitude of deformities that the complete composition is silly and senseless. The Hindoos, therefore, should go to the manatee, and take a lesson in the wonderful effects to be produced by avoiding elaborateness of detail, for nothing in the animal world can be imagined less diversified in feature than this mermaid of the West Indies. In the lower world of creatures the slug alone presents us with an equally sober monotony of outline; and if a seven-foot slug were sewn up in an old tarpaulin, the result would be a tolerable reproduction of the manatee. One end would have to be flattened out into a gigantic beaver’s tail, and the other be shaped snout-wise. The details of mouth, nose, eyes, and ears might be left to the creature’s own fancy, or to accident.
Having no legs, it stands on its tail, and to keep its balance has to bend the head forward and bow the body. In this attitude of helpless humility the strange thing stands motionless many minutes together, and then, with a ghost-like, dreadful solemnity, it begins slowly to stiffen and straighten its tail, and thus, gradually rising into an erect posture, thrusts its nostrils above the surface. But only for an instant, for ere it seems to have had time to take a breath, the great body begins to sink back into its despondent position, and the small paddling-paws drop motionless and helpless as before. The deliberate sloth with which the manœuvre is executed has something of dignity in it, but otherwise the manatee is as ridiculous as it is helpless. The clumsy snout is constantly twitching like a rabbit’s, but the gesture that seems so appropriate in the nervous, vigilant little rodent is immeasurably ludicrous in this huge monstrosity. The eyes, again, now contracted to a pin’s point, now expanded full to gaze at you with expressionless pupils, seem to move by a mechanism beyond the creature’s control. Voiceless and limbless, the bulky cetacean sways to and fro, the very embodiment of stupid, feeble helplessness, a thing for shrimps to mock at and limpets to grow upon.
A carcass of such proportions, such an appalling contour, should, to satisfy æsthetic requirements, possess some stupendous villany of character, should conceal under such an inert mass of flesh some hideous criminal instinct. Yet this great shapeless being, this numskull of the deep sea, is the most innocent of created things. It lives on lettuce. In its wild state it browses along the meadows of the ocean bed, cropping the seaweeds just as kine graze upon the pastures of earth, inoffensive and sociable, rallying as cattle do for mutual defence against a common danger, placing the calves in the middle, while the bulls range themselves on the threatened quarter. These are the herds which the poets make Proteus and the sea-gods tend, the harmless beeves with whom the sad Parthenope shared her sorrows! These are the actual realities that have given rise to so many a pretty fiction, the dull chrysalids from which have swarmed so many butterflies.
It is disappointing to those who cherish old-world fancies; but to Science the lazy, uncouth manatee is a precious thing. Science, indeed, has seldom had a more pleasing labor than the examination and identiflcation of this animal; for, though so ludicrously simple in appearance, it is a veritable casket of physiological wonders.
It is the only creature known that has three eyelids to each eye, and two hearts. In most of its points it bears a close affinity to the elephant, but in others of equal importance it is unmistakably a w^hale! Its teeth, bones, and skin are all delightful studies to the naturalist, and he is thankful, therefore, that the manatee is what it is, and not the veritable mermaid that less prosaic minds would have it. Even these, however, may find some consolation for the loss of their ocean folk in learning of the strange ways of this strange beast, and its tranquil life below the sea, nibbling about in great meadows of painted seaweed. Some travellers have given it a voice. Captain Colnett has left it on record that one remained by his ship for three hours, “uttering sounds of lamentation like those produced by the female human voice when expressing the deepest distress;” and another mariner tells us how, when sailing in an open boat, they surprised a manatee asleep, and, thinking it to be a merman, they hesitated to harpoon it, and how on a sudden the creature awoke, and with an angry shout plunged into the depths! Anger, nevertheless, appears to be utterly foreign to its character, for among the Malays the name of the Eastern species is a synonym for gentle affection, and every writer, from Buffon to our time, bears evidence to its sociability and remarkable absence of fear of men. But, alas for the manatee! Its virtues are its bane, for whether among the West India islands or the creeks of the Guiana and the Brazilian coast, in the estuaries of the Oronoko and the Amazon, in the river-mouths of Western Africa, or in the archipelago of the Eastern seas, the same fearless confidence in man is rapidly hastening its extinction. The flesh is excellent food, the blubber yields a fine oil, the skin is of valuable toughness, and so before long the manatee of the warm seas may be expected to be as extinct as its congener of the cold North, — the lost rhytina of Behring’s Straits.
Victor Hugo, in his Guernsey romance, “The Toilers of the Sea,” presented the world with a monster, a terror of the deep waters, something like the gruesome spider-grab of Erckmann-Chatrian, but even more horrible. It was the pieuvre, a colossal cuttle-fish, which had its den far down in the sea among the roots of the rocks; a terrible long-armed thing that lurked in the caverns of the deep, grappling from its retreat with any passing creature, paralyzing it by fastening one by one a thousand suckers upon it, and slowly dragging its victim, numbed with pain, towards the awful iron beak that lay in the centre of the soft, cruel arms. The novelist’s pieuvre was hideous enough, and his description surpassing in its horrors, but in Schiller’s poem of “The Diver,” a thing of similar character, but rendered even more awful by not being described at all, compasses the death of the hero. He did not, like Victor Hugo’s sailor, have a protracted struggle with the mysterious creature, and then come back to his friends with details of its personal appearance, but he dived out of sight and never returned. Schiller does not attempt, therefore, to describe the indescribable thing, but simply calling it das, throws the reader back in imagination upon all the horrible legends of the Mediterranean coasts and islands, to guess for himself the sort of monster it must have been that had seized the hapless diver and devoured him at its leisure in the twilight depths of the sea.
Such monsters as these, it has been dryly thought, belong only to legend and fable and poem, but this is not the case. Pieuvres of the Victor Hugo type, and “things” such as Schiller hints at, are, it is true, exaggerated specimens of the species, but their congeners — and dreadful ones, too — do actually exist, for they have been seen and fought with and described, and scientific conditions are all amply satisfied by those descriptions. Not long ago, a government diver at Belfast, Victoria, had a narrow escape from losing his life in the clutch of a huge octopus. It had seized his left arm, causing dreadful agony by the fastening of its suckers upon the limb; but the diver had an iron bar in his right hand, and, after a struggle that seemed to him to last twenty minutes, during which the monster tried hard to drag him down, he battered his assailant into a shapeless mass, and freed himself from its horrid grasp. Schiller’s “Taucher” had no iron bar, and his bones, therefore, went to increase the- heap which pieuvres, so Victor Hugo says, accumulate at the mouths of their deep-sea dens.
It is all-important, for the existence of these monstrous poulpes, cuttle-fish, octopuses, or sepias, that Science should countenance them; for, so long as professors array their calmly sceptical opinions on the one side, no number of sworn affidavits from the public as to personal encounters with the pieuvre will suffice to establish the creature as a verity. In the case of that other terror of the ocean, the sea-serpent, science goes dead against its existence, and Professor Owen speaks far too weightily for even sober official accounts of the great snake to be accepted as convincing evidence in its behalf. Thus Captain M’Quhae, of Her Majesty’s ship “Dædalus,” declared, in a report to the Admiralty thirty years ago, that he and his officers had seen sixty feet of a marine monster, with the head of a snake, under conditions which, taken with the trustworthiness and sobriety of his evidence, places the record of his encounter with “the great sea-serpent” above all others that either preceded or followed it. Yet even this account, so cautious in its language, and given by men so eminently capable of judging of objects seen at sea, was completely met at every point by the scientific verdict of “impossible.”
That sixty-foot monsters besides whales may exist Professor Owen does not deny, for have we not already seals of thirty feet and sharks of forty, besides congers of unknown lengths? But he says this: if sea-serpents have been in the seas from the first, and are still there in such numbers as reports would have us believe, how is it that no single fragment of one, fossilized or not, has ever yet been washed ashore or dug up? The negative evidence from the utter absence of any remains weighs, therefore, with the scientific mind, and ought also with public opinion, against even such positive evidence as that of the commander of the “Dædalus;” for, after all, just as positive evidence from just as trustworthy witnesses abounds for the proof of ghosts. So the grand old kraken, the great sea-worm, remains still without identity; and though I trust humanity will never abandon any of its “glorious old traditions,” especially such a fascinating one as the sea-serpent, I would caution it in the matter of any kraken professing to be more than a hundred yards long, lest it should be said of them that they prefer “the excitement of the imagination to the satisfaction of the judgment.”
For monster cuttle-fishes, however, the public has the permission of science to believe anything it likes; and, in fact, the more the better. It may swell out the bag-like bodies of the poulpe to any dimensions consistent with the containing capacities of an ocean, and pull out their arms until, like Denys de Montford’s octopus, they are able to twist one tentacle round each of the masts of a line-of-battle ship, and, holding on with the rest to the bottom of the sea, to engulf the gallant vessel with all sail set. Science is helpless to oppose the belief in such monsters, for they are scientifically possible, and, from the sizes already recorded, there is no limit reasonably assignable to their further extension, so that everybody is at liberty to revel “by authority” in cuttle-fishes as big as possible. The Victorian octopus referred to above measured only eight feet, but this proved almost sufficient to kill a strong man, while the body belonging to a specimen of such dimensions would have been quite heavy enough, had the arms once fairly grappled the victim, to sink him to the bottom of the sea, where, anchoring itself by its suckers to a rock in the sea-bed, the monster could have eaten its prey at leisure. The octopus, moreover, is very active, as the nature of its usual food — fishes and crustaceans — requires it should be; and the danger, therefore, to man, from the huge specimens which travellers have recorded — that of M. Sander Rang, for instance, the body of which was as large as “a large cask” — would be very terrible indeed; but fortunately gigantic specimens, though indisputably existing, are not common on populous coasts.
In a paper once read to the British Association by Colonel Smith, the writer adduced many instances of colossal sepias, among them an enormity of forty feet, and another, hardly less, of which fragments are preserved in the Haarlem Museum. General Eden records one of over twenty feet in length, and another creature of the same order, taken up on a ship at sea, which had arms that measured no less than thirty-six feet. In this way, increasing foot by foot, each enlarging specimen becomes a possibility, until at last there would be no reason for disbelieving even that wonderful story of Captain Blaney, who mistook a dead cuttle-fish for a bank, and landed on it with sixty men! But this was of course very long ago indeed, and may now be relegated to the limbo of Pontoppidan’s famous monsters, — the krakens with lions’ manes, that got up on end and roared, and pieuvres that hunted ships at sea. If ever, however, the cuttle fish should reach its fullest length and greatest bulk, the sea-serpent itself would have but a poor chance with it, so that we have, after all, the satisfaction of knowing that, though science forbids us to possess a kraken, we do possess in actual fact another monster which, if the kraken did exist, could probably catch it and eat it up.
Sea-serpents, in spite of repeated efforts to obtain respectable recognition, have been hitherto regarded as mythical. For one thing, they showed no judgment in the selection of individuals to whom to exhibit themselves; and the testimony of their existence afforded by the masters of ships unknown on Lloyd’s registers, and by American captains “of undoubted veracity” served only to plunge the monsters of the deep seas more profoundly into the obscurity of fable. Their opportunities for declaring themselves have been many, but they have preferred to come to the surface only when unscientific and untrustworthy witnesses happened to be passing overhead. A score of appearances of the sea-serpent have been recorded in as many years, but not one has gained credence, because, in the first place, of this defect in the credibility of the narrators, and in the next, because each man described such a different monster.
The whole marine fauna, from the narwhal to the octopus, was drawn upon for contributions to the hybrid thing which we were asked to believe was the veritable kraken; but when all the tusks and tails, legs and manes, fiery eyes and scales, horses’ heads and wings came to be fitted on to a serpentine form of prodigious bulk and length, the miscellaneous result was so outrageous that credulity was staggered, and men, in despair, refused to believe even in a decent sea-serpent, or any sea-serpent at all.
A moderate animal of about fifty or a hundred feet in length, with the girth of an average barrel or two, and, say, half-a-dozen plausible propellers or even a twin screw, with a respectable snake’s head at one end and coming to a proper point at the other, — such a creature would have been admitted into every household as an article of belief, and have largely assisted in developing the young idea as to Behemoth and Leviathan and the other wonders of the sea, which, in default of a definite beast, have so long loomed hazily in the child-mind as mere figures of speech. When, however, we were gravely asked to introduce to the notice of our schoolchildren a heterogeneous patchwork monstrosity that stood up from its middle to rest its chin on the topgallant-stunsail-boom of a three-masted ship; that spouted and roared at one end and lashed up the sea into little bubbles at the other; that reared horned heads out of water, glaring the while with eyes of flame upon the trembling mariners, shaking aloft a more than leonine mane of hair, and paddling in the air with great uplifted paws, — parents, I think did well to warn off so disreputable an apparition from the sacred ground of infant schools and nurseries, and the scientific world showed judgment in withdrawing its approbation from such a disorganizing beast.
Nature insists upon her proprieties being observed, and so long as man remembers this, his zoological beliefs will remain fit to lie upon every breakfast table.
But if once we fall from the strict paths of possibility, our facts become improbable, and there will be an inrush of creatures trampling across, flying over, and swimming through every rule of natural history, every law of creation. If once the key is turned to let in these disturbing dualities, a mob of indeterminate things — gryphons and sphinxes, basilisks and dragons, wolf-men and vampires, unicorns and cockatrices — will crowd into the orderly courts of knowledge, and, breaking down all the bulwarks of our rational beliefs, will seat themselves triumphantly among the ruins of science!
No such dismal prospect of scientific chaos need, however, be entertained from the latest appearance of the sea-serpent, an animal which, from its description, would seem one that may be confidently admitted into the best conducted families as an article of household faith. Captain Cox, master of the British ship “Privateer,” states that a hundred miles west of Brest, at five o’clock on the afternoon of a fine, clear da}^, he saw, some three hundred yards off, about twenty feet of a black snakelike body, three feet in diameter, moving through the water towards his ship. As it approached, he distinctly perceived its eel-like head and its eyes; but the seaserpent, when it got so close as this, took fright and plunged with a great splash under the water, and then, turning itself round with a mighty disturbance of the sea, made off, raising its head frequently as it went. Now, here there is no extraordinary demand made upon credulity-, for the merest infant can comfortably entertain the idea, in twenty-foot lengths, at any rate, of a snake as thick as an eighteen-gallon cask. The color, too, is simple black, and the head has no features more surprising than eyes.
The great sea-serpent, therefore, is, after all, found to come within the compass of the ordinary human understanding, and we are not asked to believe in more than a somewhat magnified conger-eel. In behavior, also, the present animal differs agreeably and rationally from all preceding avatars of the great sea-worm, as the Danes call it; for except that it splashed extravagantly when it turned round in the water, it did not demean itself otherwise than might respectably be permitted to a snake of such dimensions. At the same time, however, such is the weakness of human nature, there will be vestiges of regret for the turbulent, ill-behaved monstrosity that has hitherto done duty as the sea-serpent. The present worm is perhaps just a little too tame. If it had only shown a scale or two, or sparkled slightly at the nostrils, or betrayed some tendency towards horns or claws, shaken just a little mane, — not too much, of course, — or snorted, or brayed, or even squeaked moderately, we should have been better satisfied. We should have felt that we had got something. As it is, we have got only a huge eel, — no crest of hair, no flames, no ravening jaws, — a dull eel, too, that behaved with disappointing respectability, not even rising to a spout or a roar. It kept itself horizontal on the water, instead of standing on one end, and when it wished to go in the opposite direction, did so by the ordinary process of moving round, instead of leaping dolphin-wise or turning a prodigious somersault. All this is discouraging, but it is an ill-conditioned mind that cannot accept the inevitable with composure, and, after all, half a sea-serpent is better than none.
For until his latest revelation, we had really no sea-serpent to speak of; and now that we have at least twenty feet well authenticated, we may rest for the time contented. The only consolation is that the rest of the Soe Ormen may one day more completely fulfil our aspirations for something to wonder at and disbelieve in; for who can tell what singularities of contour remained hidden in the sea when the commonplace head and shoulders were exposed, or who even can guess at the length of the whole? Delightful possibilities, therefore, still remain to us; and, while we can safely add one end of the new monster to our marine zoology we can cling with the other to all the fauna of old-world fancy. Twenty feet of an eel need not prevent us hoping for another hundred of something else; nor are we compelled from so commonplace a commencement to argue a commonplace termination. Meanwhile, we have a solid instalment of three fathoms of a sea-serpent to work upon, and it will be discreditable to national enterprise if something more — and a great deal more, too — does not come of it before long.
Favorable to such discovery is the habitat now assigned to the great conger, for it lies on the highway of our commerce. Hitherto, fiords on the Scandinavian coast, the headlands of Greenland, and other unfrequented waterways have been selected by krakens and aaletusts for their exhibitions; and though Danes, Swedes, and Norsemen generally have long believed in the existence of these monsters of the deep, their haunts were so much out of the way of regular sea traffic, that only fishermen, the most superstitious and credulous of mankind, could say they had actually seen them. Now and again a glimpse was said to have been caught in more accessible waters of some bulky thing answering in length of body to the description of a serpent, but flaws in the Evidence always marred the value of the great vision. Six hundred feet of one, was, for instance, recorded off the English coast, but here the length alone sufficed to quench belief; while the other, with eyes “large and blue, like a couple of pewter plates,” found basking off the shore of Norway, was discredited by its possessing legs. Exactly a hundred years ago a whole ship’s crew vouched for the following awful apocalypse of the terrors of the sea: “A hundred fathoms long, with the head of a horse; the mouth large and black, and a white mane hanging from the neck. It raised itself so high that it reached above the top of the mast, and it spouted water like a whale;” and, what is more, the skipper shot it!
Captain Cox, then, will have to work hard before he can bring his worm abreast of so thrilling a creature; but, meanwhile, he has commenced well. To him we owe the latest confirmation of one of the oldest of the world’s superstitions, and though, in confirming it, he has divested the thing of our fancy of all that made it precious, he has given us in place of the rampageous sea-serpent of our ancestors, tinkered out of scraps from half the beasts in nature, a plausible and well-conducted eel. Asa first attempt at a sea-serpent fit to be figured in a standard book it is commendable, but what I should like to see now is — the other end of it.
It is one of the disappointments of my life that I have never heard Mr. Ruskin lecture on Snakes. Both the subject and the lecturer present to the imagination such boundless possibilities that no one could guess where the snakes would take Mr. Ruskin before he had done with them, or where Mr. Ruskin would take the snakes. Without a horizon on any side of him, the speaker could hold high revel among a multitude of delightful phantasies, and make holiday with all the beasts of fable. Ranging from Greek to Saxon and from Latin to Norman, Mr. Ruskin could traverse all the cloud-lands of myth and the solid fields of history, lighting the way as he went with felicitous glimpses of a wise fancy, and bringing up in quaint disorder, and yet in order too, all the grotesque things that heraldry owns and the old world in days past knew so much of: the wyvern, with its vicious aspect but inadequate stomach; the spiny and always rampant dragon-kind; the hydra, that unhappy beast which must have suffered from so many headaches at once, and been racked at times, no doubt, with a multitudinous toothache; the crowned basilisk, king of the reptiles and chiefest of vermin; the gorgon, with snakes for hair, and the terrible echidna; the cockatrice, fell worm, whose first glance was petrifaction, and whose second, death; the salamander, of such subtle sort that he digested flames; the chimæra, shapeless yet deadly; the dread cerastes; the aspic, pretty worm of Nilus, but fatal as lightning and as swift; and the dypsas, whose portentous aspect sufficed to hold the path against an army of Rome’s choicest legions. All these, and many more, are at the lecturer’s service as he travels from age to age of serpent adoration, and turns with skilful hand the different facets of his diamond subject to the listener’s ear. From astronomy, where Serpentarius, baleful constellation, glitters, and refulgent Draco rears his impossible but delightful head, the speaker could run through all the forms of dragon idealism, recalling to his audience as he went on his way, beset with unspeakable monsters, the poems of Greek and of older mythologies, and touching on our own fictions of asp and adder, and other strange reptile things, — defining, however, ah the while, with the bold outlines of a master-hand, the vast scheme of creation, wherein the chain of resemblance is never snapped and like slides into like, until the whole stands revealed complete, a puzzle for the grown-up children of men to put together in a thousand different ways, but one which will never fit in properly, piece to piece, unless the ultimate design be a perfect circle, a serpent with its tail in its mouth, a coil without a break. Fresh, racy morals, too, are to be drawn from the reptile kind; so that, though on an excursion into strange lands, and seeing only the strangest creatures in them, an audience might understand, even in such fantastic company, that the whole of them — the flowers that were snakes, and the birds that were beasts, and many things that were neither one nor the other — fitted in somehow or other, by hook or by crook, by tooth or by nail, into a comprehensive scheme of unity.
What a subject, indeed, for such a lecturer to choose; Professor Huxley once selected the snake theme, and, bringing to bear on it all the vast resources of his scientific mind, made the topic instinct with interest. There yet remained, however, for Mr. Ruskin’s magic, ample space and verge for holiday-making, for just as it was with the chimæra in Coleridge’s problem, that went bombonating, (booming like a bumble-bee) in space, so there is such a prodigious quantity of room to spare in the realms of snake fancy that no lecturer need fear to come into collision with any solids, let him dissipate as he will. Again, it happens that nearly all the world of myths converges upon, or radiates from, the great serpent fact; so that Mr. Ruskin, sitting in the very centre of the fairy web, could shake as he liked all the strands to its utmost circumference. Seated by the shores of old romance, he could at any time have thrown his pebbles where he would, certain of raising ripples everywhere, and of disturbing from each haunted reed-bed flocks of fabled things. But how much greater was his power of raising these spirits of past story when he circled over the same regions of imagination bestriding a winged snake — churning up the old waters with a Shesh of his own, and summoning into sight at the sound of his pipe all the mystery-loving reptiles of mythology, like one of the old Psylli or the Marmarids, or one of the Magi, sons of Chus, “tame, at whose voice, spellbound, the dread cerastes lay.”
Eastern charmers, with their bags of battered snakes, not a tooth among them all, become very poor impostors indeed, compared with our modern master of reptile manipulation. The Hindoo’s snakes are feeble, jaded vermin, sick of the whole exhibition as mere ill-timed foolery, tired of the everlasting old pipe that they have to get up to dance to, and weary of longing for just one hour of vigorous youth, when their poison fangs were still in their jaws, that they might send the old man who charms them to his forefathers in exactly twenty minutes by the clock. But Mr. Ruskin works only with fresh-caught subjects, or, at any rate, with old subjects so revivified that they leap from under his hand, each of them a surprise. The wise snakes of Colchis and of Thebes and of Delphi — I need not identify them more exactly — fall briskly into their places in the ring of the creative system, and every flower furnishes forth a Pythonissa to tell our new Apollo the secrets of a new cult. Does genius feed on snakes, that it never grows old? The ancients said that the flesh of the ophidians, though the deadliest of created things, gave eternal youth, and even cured death, itself; and, though fatal as the shears of Atropos, the poison of asps was the supreme drug in the cabinet of the God of Doctors.
Even to our own day the legend comes down, tamed of course to suit the feeble representatives of the serpent kind that are found in this country; for in English folk-lore it is an article of belief that the flesh of vipers is an antidote to their poison, and that, though “the beauteous adder hath a sting, it bears a balsam too.” All dangerous swellings also, such as erysipelas and goitres, may be cured, it is satisfactory to know on rustic authority, by eating a viper from the tail upwards, like a carrot; or, simpler still, by rubbing the affected part with a harmless grass-snake, and; then burying the worm alive in a bottle. But the justice here appears to me very defective, and will no doubt recall that duel the other day, where two women went out to fight “for all the world like men.” They exchanged shots, and one bullet taking effect on a neighbor’s boy, as he was scrambling through the hedge, and the other having hit a cow that was looking over the gate, the seconds declared that honor was satisfied. I recommend, therefore, that when the snake has effected the cure, it should not be bottled and buried, but should be put back into some bank or hedgerow to carry on its useful war against snails and slugs and worms.
There are few things a snake has not been found at one time or another to resemble, and there is nothing apparently that a snake is not able to do — except swallow a porcupine. One species, a native of Assam, is in itself an epitome of all the vices; for in its vindictive ferocity it not only stalks its prey and pounces upon it, but chases it swiftly, and tracks it like a bloodhound, relentlessly, drives it up trees, and climbs after it like a squirrel, hunts it into rivers, and dives after it like a seal, gets up on one end to pick it off a perch, or grovels like a mole after it if it tries to escape by tunnelling in the earth. So, at any rate, the Assamese say, and their word is as good as that of the Greeks in the matter of snakes. What awful parallels in the past, again, can be found in Nature adequate to the tales of terror that travellers have had to tell of the python which arrests in full career the wind-footed bison, of the boa-constrictor, that hurls itself from overhanging rocks and trees in coils of dreadful splendor upon even the jaguar and the puma, of the anaconda, the superb dictator of the Brazilian forests! Do the hydras, dragons, or chimæras of antiquity surpass these three in terrors? Nor among the lesser evils of the serpent folk of old, the cockatrices, basilisks, and asps, do we find any to surpass our own life-shattering worms, the cobra or the rattlesnake.
The snakes of antiquity, it is true, have come down to us dignified and made terrible by the honors and fears of past ages, when the Egyptians and the Greeks bound the aspic round the heads of their idols as the most regal of tiaras, and crowned in fancy the adder and the cerastes; when nations tenanted their sacred groves with even more sacred serpents, entrusted to their care all that kings held most precious and the gems that were still undug, confided the diamond mines to one and — more valued then than diamonds — the carbuncle to another, deifying some of their worms, and giving the names of others to their gods. But the actual facts known to science of modern snakes, the deadlier sorts of the ophidians, invest them with terrors equal to any creatures of fable, and with the superstitious might entitle them to equal honors with the past objects of Ammonian worship and still the reverence of all Asia, the central figures in the rites of Ops or Thermuthis, or whatever we may call the old gods now.
Science has now driven out Superstition, planting a more beautiful growth of beliefs in its place, and of these beliefs Mr. Ruskin is the trustee and the python, the oracle, the artistic Apollo.
It is one of the penalties of extended empire that frontiers shall be constantly vexed, just as the sea along its margin is forever astir. But it is seldom that duties as a Great Power bring a nation into reluctant collision with such a strange, half-mythical folk as the Nagas of the northeastern frontiers of India with whom the English have periodically to fight. The Afghan hills were picturesque enough, and the rolling grass lands of Zululand were instinct with romance; yet neither Afghan nor Zulu can claim a tithe of the superstitious obscurity of the dwellers on the Naga hills, or affect pretensions to half their traditions. Indeed, what people on earth would dare to measure pedigrees with the snake-folk, or count ancestors against a race who claim to have a lineal descent from before the creation of man?
There are gaps, it is true, in the chain that would suffice to break even a herald’s heart; but what else could be expected in the family trees of tribes that were old when the children of the Sun and the Moon, in the first generation, found them possessing the earth? Their progenitors flourished even before time and space had established their empire, and they count among the events of their national history the birth of the Creator.
Before history commences, and when gods were half men, and men were demigods, the Nagas inhabited India. They were contemporaries of the pygmies who fought with the partridge-folk for possession of the Ganges’ banks; contemporaries of the monkey races that furnished long-tailed contingents to the conquering army of Rama, and gave deities to India; contemporaries of Garud, king of the bird-gods, and of Indra and Krishna, and all the merry-making pantheon of Vedic Hindostan. But there came from over the hill passes on the northwest, which nowadays men call the Khyber and the Kurram, nation after nation of Aryans, who, as moon-children and sun-children, fell upon the aborigines, and drove them from every spot worth possessing.
They hunted them to the tops of the mountains, and into the very hearts of the forests, and, adding insult to injury, nicknamed the dispossessed people snakes, monkeys, and devils, representing them in their history as only half human, and thus hoped, no doubt, to justify their ill-treatment of them. Here and there these aboriginal tribes are still to be found in fragments, as primitive to-day as they were when first the Aryan invaders pretended to mistake them for wild beasts and vermin. Thus, in the northeastern corner of India are the Nagas, the Snakes, a medley of small tribes without cohesion, or even the power of cohesion, professing allegiance, in this nineteenth century of ours, some of them to potentates long ago extinct, others to the Empire of Burmah. The authority of British India is, of course, gradually becoming familiar to them and, very gradually also, being admitted; but it is probable that when the Afghan hills have become as settled as the Punjab, and Zululand as commonplace as Natal, the Nagas will still be found cherishing those wild notions of aboriginal independence that have made their reclamation seem so hopeless.
How can they ever consent to the dry formalities of civilization and the reign of law so long as they believe that Shesh, the great serpent, lies coiled under their hills, — governing the upper earth through his snake-limbed lieutenants, and recording his impressions of terrestrial affairs by the lustre of a great gem, the kanthi-stone, which he has erected in insolent revenge to light up his subterranean kingdom when he was driven from the sunlight by the more powerful gods of the Aryans?
This Shesh is a reptile worthy of homage, and maybe accepted without hesitation and in defiance of all sea-serpents, past and future, as the greatest snake on record. When Vishnu and the gods met to extort from the sea the ichor of immortality, they plucked up from the Himalayan range the biggest mountain in it, and this they made their churn, while round it, as the strongest tackle they could think of, they bound the serpent Shesh. And the gods took hold of the head and the devils took hold of the tail, and, alternately tugging, they made the mountain spin round and round until the sea was churned into froth, and from the churning came up all the treasures of the deep, and the most precious possessions of man, and last of all immortality. The gods and the devils scrambled for the good things, but nothing more is said of the serpent who had been so useful, nor what he got for his services. Antiquaries in the West incline to think that he remained in the sea and became the kraken, but the Nagas believe him to be still under their hills, dispensing fate by the light of a diamond. When this misconception is removed from their minds the Nagas may be able to remark other errors of their beliefs and ways; but meanwhile they are in utter heathendom, and as delightfully free from misgivings with regard to their methods of asserting their liberty as are the tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, buffaloes, or wild pigs that share their beautiful country with them.
While disciplined troops were being equipped with scientific weapons, and the machinery of a great government was slowly set in motion, the naked Nagas were squatting on their hillsides, taking augury from the flight of jungle-cocks. The British soldiers marched as military science dictated, but the Nagas shaped their course from or towards us at the dictation of their omens — passing deer or falling reeds. On the one side there were Sniders and mountain guns, and on the other spears and daos. So it took little prophesying to foretell, that, let the cocks fly as they would, and the reeds fall to the right or to the left, the snake-men had a troubled season before them, and Shesh another sad experience to record on his gem-lit page.
Much has been written and said about the amiable reptile which men call a turtle; but many, I regret to say, have approached the subject in a spirit of levity which is very unbecoming. To be flippant about turtles is as intolerable as if one were to be frivolous about aldermen.
Even in his native waters the turtle is not of a lighthearted kind, for his gestures are solemn and his demeanor circumspect. His spirits never rise to the frolicking point. In captivity the creature assumes a sepulchral deliberation in manner, and his natural sobriety deepens at times into positive dejection. He prowls about on tip-toes as if contemplating a burglary, and never betrays any symptoms of alacrity or enthusiasm.
Death, however, gloriously transfigures the turtle. The poor, moping thing which when alive ate even grass apologetically, which seemed always pleading for forbearance and proclaiming itself humble, is at once canonized by the simple process of cooking. The despised worm that yesterday nibbled the herbage at our feet soars to-day a butterfly above our heads. The martyr has become a saint. Festivity and luxury hasten to greet when dead the creature they laughed at when living; and the modest turtle which in the morning was the sport of children is in the evening the favorite dish of princes. The lesser planets of the culinary firmament revolve round it in deferential orbits, confessing that their light is borrowed, that a greater attraction than their own holds the guests in station and regulates the festive board. No wonder, then, that the East believes this creature is an embodiment of the Divinity, and that the world rests upon a tortoise! The splendid significance of the Vedic legend is not less striking than its beauty, for here we see at once that the alderman keeps up the price of turtle, which keeps up the weight of the earth, and so the alderman himself becomes an avatar of the solar myth. Thus does history work in cycles and a pagan religion stand revealed.
It would be a nice point to decide whether the alderman was created for the turtle or the turtle for the alderman. Much is to be said on both sides. It is difficult to imagine either of them preceding the other in point of time, and equally difficult to consider them as eternally co-existent in point of space. Yet they must have been both contemporary and contiguous from the beginning of time, or else we are confronted with the preposterous problem of aldermen apart from turtles. Who knows when either began; or, if they proceeded from matter at different spots on the earth’s surface? Who can tell us what natural forces first brought them into contact?
For myself I dare not trust my imagination in such depths of conjecture, but prefer, more comfortably, to avoid the difficulty, and to believe that aldermen and turtles were simultaneous. The primitive alderman, it is certain, could not have eaten up the original turtle, or the species would then and there, in that one disastrous meal, have become extinct. He spared it until it laid eggs, and then he ate it. When he died he bequeathed the secret to his son, who, becoming an alderman in due time, ate turtles likewise, and so on to the present day. The civic soup may therefore be added to the many other remarkable survivals of instinct in a species long after the necessity for its exercise has died out.
We, for instance, see the pensive bear dancing in public places, lifting up its hind feet one after the other in mechanical alternation, and holding its fore paws off the ground altogether, and we forget perhaps at first why it does so. The truth is that dancing is associated in Bruin's memory with the hot plates on which he was taught to dance, and no sooner therefore does he hear the tune played which once was the signal for the fire to be lit beneath him, than by instinct he gets up on his hind legs and keeps moving them one after the other off the surface which he still imagines is being heated. It does not matter to him that neither the country green nor the provincial market-place is fitted up with ovens for baking bears, for the original association of a certain tune with certain hot sensations on the soles of his feet is too strong for him, and he proceeds to dance. In the same way the alderman, feeling hungry, looks round for a turtle. It is not because this excellent reptile is the only edible thing obtainable, but because hunger, an inherited sensation, is associated in his mind by indissoluble bonds of memory with turtle fat.
Once upon a time, in the age of Diluvia and Catastrophe, the primeval alderman, being unclothed, fled the vertical rays of the sun, and, seeking shelter in the umbrageous swamp, saw there the pristine turtle. Sitting aloof he watched the creature crawling painfully about, and noted that it was a thing of inconsiderable agility and suitable, therefore, to be a easy prey. Being himself of aldermanic proportions, he was averse to arduous exercise; so he surveyed the turtle, pleased. Anon he grew hungry, and hunger arousing him to comparative activity, he circumvented the unsuspecting turtle, that is to say, he got between it and the water, and soon made a prisoner of the slowly moving thing. Examination increased his satisfaction, for he found the turtle carried its own soup tureen on its back, and there and then, gathering in his simple way a few sticks from the adjoining brake, this primeval alderman enjoyed the delights of green- fat soup, — calling it, in his barbarous but expressive dialect, callipee, and the outer integuments of more solid meat which he found upon the stomach, callipash. So ever afterwards when he felt hungry, and too lazy to pick acorns, he circumvented a turtle.
Since then, of course, many years have past. Aldermen now wear clothes, and need not go about catching their meals, and the umbrageous swamps of a tertiary Britain are now the site of the city of London; but the old instinct, as we perceive, still survives, and the hungry alderman always calls for turtle.
Nor could the civic magnate do better. Some viands that have long been traditional for their excellence have ceased to be paraded on high days, and, to omit the more recondite, I need only cite the, swan, once the dish of honor at every public feast; the hog barbecued; the ox roasted whole; the peacock garnished with his tail and russet pippins; the sturgeon and the stuffed pike; the bedizened boar’s head. Each had conspicuous merits, and there are still those who maintain that the new meats cannot compare with the old. Let this be as it may, the turtle need never fear rivalry, and the alderman need never dread its extinction. In the seas of Florida alone it swarms in such prodigious quantity that well-authenticated cases are on record of small craft having to heave to until a shoal had passed, while in the remoter corners of the earth it still luxuriates in all its pristine multitudes, unthinned by capture and unmolested by man.
So long, therefore, as the alderman will remain constant to his soup, his soup will never desert him.
It is touching but strange that two species so widely separated, or, at any rate, so distantly connected as the common councilman and the common turtle, should display this mutual sympathy.
The latter is rather an ungainly animal, full in the stomach and short-legged, moving on rough ground with great difficulty. It is described in works on natural history as having a short round snout, a wide mouth, and a body very wide across the shoulders. It is further described as being very voracious. Yet there is nothing in these traits of person and character to detract from its estimable properties as an article of diet; and so long as it continues to secrete green fat, aldermen should not quarrel with the turtle either for the shortness of its legs or the rotundity of its body or the gluttony of its appetite.