Chapter 18 - From the Dead Sea Legends to Comparative Mythology
The Growth of Explanatory Transformation Myths
A few years since, Maxime Du Camp, an eminent member of the French
Academy, travelling from the Red Sea to the Nile through the Desert
of Kosseir, came to a barren slope covered with boulders, rounded
His Mohammedan camel-driver accounted for them on this wise:
"Many years ago Hadji Abdul-Aziz, a sheik of the dervishes, was
travelling on foot through this desert: it was summer: the sun was
hot and the dust stifling; thirst parched his lips, fatigue
weighed down his back, sweat dropped from his forehead, when
looking up he saw - on this very spot - a garden beautifully green,
full of fruit, and, in the midst of it, the gardener.
" 'O fellow-man,' cried Hadji Abdul-Aziz, 'in the name of Allah, clement
and merciful, give me a melon and I will give you my prayers.' "
The gardener answered: 'I care not for your prayers; give me money,
and I will give you fruit.'
" 'But,' said the dervish, 'I am a beggar; I have never had money;
I am thirsty and weary, and one of your melons is all that I need.'
" 'No,' said the gardener; 'go to the Nile and quench your thirst.'
"Thereupon the dervish, lifting his eyes toward heaven, made this
prayer: 'O Allah, thou who in the midst of the desert didst make
the fountain of Zem-Zem spring forth to satisfy the thirst of
Ismail, father of the faithful: wilt thou suffer one of thy
creatures to perish thus of thirst and fatigue?'
"And it came to pass that, hardly had the dervish spoken, when an
abundant dew descended upon him, quenching his thirst and
refreshing him even to the marrow of his bones.
"Now at the sight of this miracle the gardener knew that the
dervish was a holy man, beloved of Allah, and straightway offered
him a melon.
" 'Not so,' answered Hadji Abdul-Aziz; 'keep what thou hast, thou
wicked man. May thy melons become as hard as thy heart, and thy
field as barren as thy soul!'
"And straightway it came to pass that the melons were changed into
these blocks of stone, and the grass into this sand, and never
since has anything grown thereon."
In this story, and in myriads like it, we have a survival of that
early conception of the universe in which so many of the leading
moral and religious truths of the great sacred books of the world
All ancient sacred lore abounds in such mythical explanations of
remarkable appearances in nature, and these are most frequently
prompted by mountains, rocks, and boulders seemingly misplaced.
In India we have such typical examples among the Brahmans as the
mountain-peak which Durgu threw at Parvati; and among the Buddhists
the stone which Devadatti hurled at Buddha.
In Greece the Athenian, rejoicing in his belief that Athena guarded
her chosen people, found it hard to understand why the great rock
Lycabettus should be just too far from the Acropolis to be of use
as an outwork; but a myth was developed which explained all.
According to this, Athena had intended to make Lycabettus a defence
for the Athenians, and she was bringing it through the air from
Pallene for that very purpose; but, unfortunately, a raven met her
and informed her of the wonderful birth of Erichthonius, which so
surprised the goddess that she dropped the rock where it now stands.
So, too, a peculiar rock at AEgina was accounted for by a long and
circumstantial legend to the effect that Peleus threw it at Phocas.
A similar mode of explaining such objects is seen in the
mythologies of northern Europe. In Scandinavia we constantly find
rocks which tradition accounts for by declaring that they were hurled
by the old gods at each other, or at the early Christian churches.
In Teutonic lands, as a rule, wherever a strange rock or stone is
found, there will be found a myth or a legend, heathen or
Christian, to account for it.
So, too, in Celtic countries: typical of this mode of thought in
Brittany and in Ireland is the popular belief that such features in
the landscape were dropped by the devil or by fairies.
Even at a much later period such myths have grown and bloomed.
Marco Polo gives a long and circumstantial legend of a mountain in
Asia Minor which, not long before his visit, was removed by a
Christian who, having "faith as a grain of mustard seed," and
remembering the Saviour's promise, transferred the mountain to its
present place by prayer, "at which marvel many Saracens became
Similar mythical explanations are also found, in all the older
religions of the world, for curiously marked meteoric stones,
fossils, and the like.
Typical examples are found in the imprint of Buddha's feet on
stones in Siam and Ceylon; in the imprint of the body of Moses,
which down to the middle of the last century was shown near Mount
Sinai; in the imprint of Poseidon's trident on the Acropolis at
Athens; in the imprint of the hands or feet of Christ on stones in
France, Italy, and Palestine; in the imprint of the Virgin's tears
on stones at Jerusalem; in the imprint of the feet of Abraham at
Jerusalem and of Mohammed on a stone in the Mosque of Khait Bey at
Cairo; in the imprint of the fingers of giants on stones in the
Scandinavian Peninsula, in north Germany, and in western France; in
the imprint of the devil's thighs on a rock in Brittany, and of his
claws on stones which he threw at churches in Cologne and
Saint-Pol-de-Leon; in the imprint of the shoulder of the devil's
grand mother on the "elbow-stone" at the Mohriner see; in the
imprint of St. Otho's feet on a stone formerly preserved in the
castle church at Stettin; in the imprint of the little finger of
Christ and the head of Satan at Ehrenberg; and in the imprint of
the feet of St. Agatha at Catania, in Sicily. To account for these
appearances and myriads of others, long and interesting legends were
developed, and out of this mass we may take one or two as typical.
One of the most beautiful was evolved at Rome. On the border of the
medieval city stands the church of "Domine quo vadis"; it was
erected in honour of a stone, which is still preserved, bearing a
mark resembling a human footprint - perhaps the bed of a fossil.
Out of this a pious legend grew as naturally as a wild rose in a
prairie. According to this story, in one of the first great
persecutions the heart of St. Peter failed him, and he attempted to
flee from the city: arriving outside the walls he was suddenly
confronted by the Master, whereupon Peter in amazement asked,
"Lord, whither goest thou?" (Domine quo vadis?); to which the Master
answered, "To Rome, to be crucified again." The apostle, thus
rebuked, returned to martyrdom; the Master vanished, but left, as
a perpetual memorial, his footprint in the solid rock.
Another legend accounts for a curious mark in a stone at Jerusalem.
According to this, St. Thomas, after the ascension of the Lord, was
again troubled with doubts, whereupon the Virgin Mother threw down
her girdle, which left its imprint upon the rock, and thus
converted the doubter fully and finally.
And still another example is seen at the very opposite extreme of
Europe, in the legend of the priestess of Hertha in the island of
Rugen. She had been unfaithful to her vows, and the gods furnished
a proof of her guilt by causing her and her child to sink into the
rock on which she stood.
Another and very fruitful source of explanatory myths is found in
ancient centres of volcanic action, and especially in old craters
of volcanoes and fissures filled with water.
In China we have, among other examples, Lake Man, which was once
the site of the flourishing city Chiang Shui - overwhelmed and sunk
on account of the heedlessness of its inhabitants regarding a
In Phrygia, the lake and morass near Tyana were ascribed to the
wrath of Zeus and Hermes, who, having visited the cities which
formerly stood there, and having been refused shelter by all the
inhabitants save Philemon and Baucis, rewarded their benefactors,
but sunk the wicked cities beneath the lake and morass.
Stories of similar import grew up to explain the crater near
Sipylos in Asia Minor and that of Avernus in Italy: the latter came
to be considered the mouth of the infernal regions, as every
schoolboy knows when he has read his Virgil.
In the later Christian mythologies we have such typical legends as
those which grew up about the old crater in Ceylon; the salt water
in it being accounted for by supposing it the tears of Adam and
Eve, who retreated to this point after their expulsion from
paradise and bewailed their sin during a hundred years.
So, too, in Germany we have multitudes of lakes supposed to owe
their origin to the sinking of valleys as a punishment for human
sin. Of these are the "Devil's Lake," near Gustrow, which rose and
covered a church and its priests on account of their corruption;
the lake at Probst-Jesar, which rose and covered an oak grove and a
number of peasants resting in it on account of their want of
charity to beggars; and the Lucin Lake, which rose and covered a
number of soldiers on account of their cruelty to a poor peasant.
Such legends are found throughout America and in Japan, and will
doubtless be found throughout Asia and Africa, and especially among
the volcanic lakes of South America, the pitch lakes of the
Caribbean Islands, and even about the Salt Lake of Utah; for
explanatory myths and legends under such circumstances are
To the same manner of explaining striking appearances in physical
geography, and especially strange rocks and boulders, we mainly owe
the innumerable stories of the transformation of living beings, and
especially of men and women, into these natural features.
In the mythology of China we constantly come upon legends of such
transformations - from that of the first Counsellor of the Han
dynasty to those of shepherds and sheep. In the Brahmanic mythology
of India, Salagrama, the fossil ammonite, is recognised as
containing the body of Vishnu's wife, and the Binlang stone has
much the same relation to Siva; so, too, the nymph Ramba was
changed, for offending Ketu, into a mass of sand; by the breath of
Siva elephants were turned into stone; and in a very touching myth
Luxman is changed into stone but afterward released. In the
Buddhist mythology a Nat demon is represented as changing himself
into a grain of sand.
Among the Greeks such transformation myths come constantly before
us - both the changing of stones to men and the changing of men to
stones. Deucalion and Pyrrha, escaping from the flood, repeopled
the earth by casting behind them stones which became men and women;
Heraulos was changed into stone for offending Mercury; Pyrrhus for
offending Rhea; Phineus, and Polydectes with his guests, for
offending Perseus: under the petrifying glance of Medusa's head
such transformations became a thing of course.
To myth-making in obedience to the desire of explaining unusual
natural appearances, coupled with the idea that sin must be
followed by retribution, we also owe the well-known Niobe myth.
Having incurred the divine wrath, Niobe saw those dearest to her
destroyed by missiles from heaven, and was finally transformed into
a rock on Mount Sipylos which bore some vague resemblance to the
human form, and her tears became the rivulets which trickled from
the neighbouring strata.
Thus, in obedience to a moral and intellectual impulse, a striking
geographical appearance was explained, and for ages pious Greeks
looked with bated breath upon the rock at Sipylos which was once
Niobe, just as for ages pious Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans
looked with awe upon the salt pillar at the Dead Sea which was once
Pausanias, one of the most honest of ancient travellers, gives us
a notable exhibition of this feeling. Having visited this monument
of divine vengeance at Mount Sipylos, he tells us very naively
that, though he could discern no human features when standing near
it, he thought that he could see them when standing at a distance.
There could hardly be a better example of that most common and
deceptive of all things - belief created by the desire to believe.
In the pagan mythology of Scandinavia we have such typical examples
as Bors slaying the giant Ymir and transforming his bones into
boulders; also "the giant who had no heart" transforming six
brothers and their wives into stone; and, in the old Christian
mythology, St. Olaf changing into stone the wicked giants who
opposed his preaching.
So, too, in Celtic countries we have in Ireland such legends as
those of the dancers turned into stone; and, in Brittany, the
stones at Plesse, which were once hunters and dogs violating the
sanctity of Sunday; and the stones of Carnac, which were once
soldiers who sought to kill St. Cornely.
Teutonic mythology inherited from its earlier Eastern days a
similar mass of old legends, and developed a still greater mass of
new ones. Thus, near the Konigstein, which all visitors to the
Saxon Switzerland know so well, is a boulder which for ages was
believed to have once been a maiden transformed into stone for
refusing to go to church; and near Rosenberg in Mecklenburg is
another curiously shaped stone of which a similar story is told.
Near Spornitz, in the same region, are seven boulders whose forms
and position are accounted for by a long and circumstantial legend
that they were once seven impious herdsmen; near Brahlsdorf is a
stone which, according to a similar explanatory myth, was once a
blasphemous shepherd; near Schwerin are three boulders which were
once wasteful servants; and at Neustadt, down to a recent period,
was shown a collection of stones which were once a bride and
bridegroom with their horses - all punished for an act of cruelty;
and these stories are but typical of thousands.
At the other extremity of Europe we may take, out of the multitude
of explanatory myths, that which grew about the well-known group of
boulders near Belgrade. In the midst of them stands one larger than
the rest: according to the legend which was developed to account
for all these, there once lived there a swineherd, who was
disrespectful to the consecrated Host; whereupon he was changed
into the larger stone, and his swine into the smaller ones. So also
at Saloniki we have the pillars of the ruined temple, which are widely
believed, especially among the Jews of that region, to have once been
human beings, and are therefore known as the "enchanted columns."
Among the Arabs we have an addition to our sacred account of
Adam - the legend of the black stone of the Caaba at Mecca, into
which the angel was changed who was charged by the Almighty to keep
Adam away from the forbidden fruit, and who neglected his duty.
Similar old transformation legends are abundant among the Indians
of America, the negroes of Africa, and the natives of Australia and
the Pacific islands.
Nor has this making of myths to account for remarkable appearances
yet ceased, even in civilized countries.
About the beginning of this century the Grand Duke of Weimar,
smitten with the classical mania of his time, placed in the public
park near his palace a little altar, and upon this was carved,
after the manner so frequent in classical antiquity, a serpent
taking a cake from it. And shortly there appeared, in the town and
the country round about, a legend to explain this altar and its
decoration. It was commonly said that a huge serpent had laid waste
that region in the olden time, until a wise and benevolent baker
had rid the world of the monster by means of a poisoned biscuit.
So, too, but a few years since, in the heart of the State of New
York, a swindler of genius having made and buried a "petrified
giant," one theologian explained it by declaring it a Phoenician
idol, and published the Phoenician inscription which he thought he
had found upon it; others saw in it proofs that "there were giants
in those days," and within a week after its discovery myths were
afloat that the neighbouring remnant of the Onondaga Indians had
traditions of giants who frequently roamed through that region.
To the same stage of thought belongs the conception of human beings
changed into trees. But, in the historic evolution of religion and
morality, while changes into stone or rock were considered as
punishments, or evidences of divine wrath, those into trees and
shrubs were frequently looked upon as rewards, or evidences of
A very beautiful and touching form of this conception is seen in
such myths as the change of Philemon into the oak, and of Baucis
into the linden; of Myrrha into the myrtle; of Melos into the
apple tree; of Attis into the pine; of Adonis into the rose tree;
and in the springing of the vine and grape from the blood of the
Titans, the violet from the blood of Attis, and the hyacinth from
the blood of Hyacinthus.
Thus it was, during the long ages when mankind saw everywhere
miracle and nowhere law, that, in the evolution of religion and
morality, striking features in physical geography became connected
with the idea of divine retribution.
But, in the natural course of intellectual growth, thinking men
began to doubt the historical accuracy of these myths and
legends - or, at least, to doubt all save those of the theology in
which they happened to be born; and the next step was taken when
they began to make comparisons between the myths and legends of
different neighbourhoods and countries: so came into being the
science of comparative mythology - a science sure to be of vast
value, because, despite many stumblings and vagaries, it shows ever
more and more how our religion and morality have been gradually
evolved, and gives a firm basis to a faith that higher planes may
yet be reached.
Such a science makes the sacred books of the world more and more
precious, in that it shows how they have been the necessary
envelopes of our highest spiritual sustenance; how even myths and
legends apparently the most puerile have been the natural husks and
rinds and shells of our best ideas; and how the atmosphere is
created in which these husks and rinds and shells in due time
wither, shrivel, and fall away, so that the fruit itself may be
gathered to sustain a nobler religion and a purer morality.
The coming in of Christianity contributed elements of inestimable
value in this evolution, and, at the centre of all, the thoughts,
words, and life of the Master. But when, in the darkness that
followed the downfall of the Roman Empire, there was developed a
theology and a vast ecclesiastical power to enforce it, the most
interesting chapters in this evolution of religion and morality
were removed from the domain of science.
So it came that for over eighteen hundred years it has been thought
natural and right to study and compare the myths and legends
arising east and west and south and north of Palestine with each
other, but never with those of Palestine itself; so it came that
one of the regions most fruitful in materials for reverent thought
and healthful comparison was held exempt from the unbiased search
for truth; so it came that, in the name of truth, truth was
crippled for ages. While observation, and thought upon observation,
and the organized knowledge or science which results from these,
progressed as regarded the myths and legends of other countries,
and an atmosphere was thus produced giving purer conceptions of the
world and its government, myths of that little geographical region
at the eastern end of the Mediterranean retained possession of the
civilized world in their original crude form, and have at times
done much to thwart the noblest efforts of religion, morality, and