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The Meaning of the Ancient Myths

It is perhaps difficult for us to realize that the wonderful gods and goddesses of whom we have been reading were once very real to the people who invented them, but the fact that they are commemorated for all time in the names of our months and days shows how real they were. Some of the stories may seem childish to us, and the ideas which they contain are certainly very different from the ideas of God we have to-day, But it must always be remembered that very nearly all that we know about the marvellous world in which we live has been discovered since the days of the Romans and Northmen. They did not have the opportunity of learning what we have learnt, and if their belief seems childish to us, it is because in some ways the people were childish, when we compare them with ourselves. Grown-up people, however, do not make fun of the wonderful stories which children invent, and many of the myths, as these stories of the gods are called, are very clever and very beautiful.

The earth and the sea, the sun and the moon and the stars, the  seasons, the rain and the snow, the trees and the flowers were all difficult to understand, and those early peoples explained them as best they could. Most of these explanations seem fanciful to us now, but, after all, they were very natural explanations. We shall see this better if we compare the gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans with those of the Northmen. They are very similar in many ways, and many of the stories are similar too.

Jupiter, before he became the ruler of the gods, had to overthrow the Titans, and in the same way Odin had to conquer the frost-giants. The Roman gods had their home on Mount Olympus, from which Jupiter could look down over the earth, while Odin from his palace in Asgard could also see all heaven and earth. Hel, the Goddess of the Underworld, reigned over a dark kingdom, to which came those who died, in the same way as Pluto ruled the underground kingdom of Hades. The Underworlds, too, were very similar; the good among the dead were divided off from the evil, who suffered terrible punishments for their crimes; the entrance in each case was guarded by a fierce dog, Garm in the kingdom of Hel, and the three-headed Cerberus in Hades.

We have already noticed the way in which the Romans and the Northmen explained summer and winter, and the likeness between the punishments of Prometheus and Loki.

In the sun-myths there is much confusion, for although the Greeks and the Romans had a sun-god, Apollo, and the Northmen a god of light, Balder the Beautiful, we find in some stories that the sun is represented by other gods, and even mortals. Frey is really the sun, for it is he who makes the crops grow in the fields, and light like the sun's rays flashes from his sword and from his golden-bristled boar. Juno is the light of heaven, and in the story of Argus, the Hundred-eyed, gives Io, who represents the moon, into the keeping of Argus, the starry sky, but the light of the stars is slowly put out by Mercury, the God of Wind and Rain. The burning of the earth by Phaeton means a drought which is brought to an end by a thunder-storm, the thunderbolt hurled at Phaeton by Jupiter.

In the story of Diana and Endymion, Endymion is a symbol of the setting sun which Diana watches as she mounts the sky. Hercules, too, probably represents the sun. His conquest of the many-headed serpent is the victory of the sun over the darkness, as is Apollo's slaying of Python. The twelve labours of Hercules may represent the twelve constellations in the zodiac, or possibly twelve hours of daylight. Hercules' funeral pyre, which reddens the whole sky like the setting sun, is seen again in the burning of Balder and his ship Ringhorn.

Thor is like Hercules, through his great strength, and just as he put on a woman's dress in order to recover his hammer from the giants, so Hercules on one occasion was forced to dress like a woman. Thor's wife, Sif, represents the earth, while her golden hair is the vegetation. When Loki steals the hair, he brings the same misfortune on the earth as Pluto causes by seizing Persephone. Loki has to visit the dwarfs underground in order to obtain the golden hair, and Mercury seeks Persephone in Hades. Persephone's eating of the pomegranate seeds, which keeps her in the Underworld, is like the refusal of the giantess to weep for Balder.

Another sun-myth is the story of Jason, who obtains the Golden Fleece (the rays of the sun) by killing the dragon, which represents either darkness or drought. Phryxus and Helle represent clouds, as probably do the Argo and the magic ship of Frey. Bellerophon, too, is the sun, who, mounted on Pegasus, the clouds, slays the dragon of drought, and at last, when struck by Jupiter's thunderbolt, falls from the sky into darkness.

We see then that all these myths were attempts to explain or describe what we call Nature--the earth and the sky, the sun, the moon, and so on. As Christianity spread, belief in the myths passed away, but many interesting and curious stories have been left behind which cannot be forgotten as long as we keep the names of our months and days. These names will always remind us of gods and heroes, of stirring deeds and bold adventures, all of which have been preserved too in the writings of the great poets of all times and lands.

Next: Chapter XXII. Notes on Certain Days