Mythology, Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of

Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology

Author: Bulfinch, Thomas


If no other knowledge deserves to be called useful but that which helps

to enlarge our possessions or to raise our station in society, then Mythology

has no claim to the appellation. But if that which tends to make us happier

and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for our subject.

For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the

best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.

Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our

own language cannot be understood and appreciated. When Byron calls Rome

"the Niobe of nations," or says of Venice, "She looks a Sea-Cybele fresh from

ocean," he calls up to the mind of one familiar with our subject

illustrations more vivid and striking than the pencil could furnish, but

which are lost to the reader ignorant of mythology. Milton abounds in

similar allusions. The short poem "Comus" contains more than thirty such,

and the ode "On the Morning of the Nativity" half as many. Through "Paradise

Lost" they are scattered profusely. This is one reason why we often hear

persons by no means illiterate say that they cannot enjoy Milton. But were

these persons to add to their more solid acquirements the easy learning of

this little volume, much of the poetry of Milton which has appeared to them

"harsh and crabbed" would be found "musical as is Apollo's lute." Our

citations, taken from more than twenty-five poets, from Spenser to

Longfellow, will show how general has been the practice of borrowing

illustrations from mythology.

The prose writers also avail themselves of the same source of elegant

and suggestive illustration. One can hardly take up a number of the

Edinburgh or Quarterly Review without meeting with instances. In Macaulay's

article on Milton there are twenty such.

But how is mythology to be taught to one who does not learn it through

the medium of the languages of Greece and Rome? To devote study to a species

of learning which relates wholly to false marvels and obsolete faiths, is not

to be expected of the general reader in a practical age like this. The time

even of the young is claimed by so many sciences of facts and things, that

little can be spared for set treatises on a science of mere fancy.

But many not the requisite knowledge of the subject be acquired by

reading the ancient poets in translations? We reply, the field is to

extensive for a preparatory course; and these very translations require some

previous knowledge of the subject to make them intelligible. Let any one who

doubts it read the first page of the "Aeneid," and see what he can make of

"the hatred of Juno," the "decree of the Parcae," the "judgment of Paris,"

and the "honors of Ganymede," without this knowledge.

Shall we be told that answers to such queries may be found in notes, or

by a reference to the Classical Dictionary? We reply, the interruption of

one's reading by either process is so annoying that most readers prefer to

let an allusion pass unapprehended rather than submit to it. Moreover, such

sources give us only the dry facts without any of the charm of the original

narrative; and what is a poetical myth when stripped of its poetry? The

story of Ceyx and Halcyone, which fills a chapter in our book, occupies but

eight lines in the best (Smith's) Classical Dictionary; and so of others.

Our book is an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of

mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have

endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so

that when the reader finds them referred to he may not be at a loss to

recognize the reference. Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but

as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book, yet

by means of it to impart a knowledge of an important branch of education.

The index at the end will adapt it to the purposes of reference, and make it

a Classical Dictionary for the parlor.

Most of the classical legends in this book are derived from Ovid and

Virgil. They are not literally translated, for, in the author's opinion,

poetry translated into literal prose is very unattractive reading. Neither

are they in verse, as well for other reasons as from a conviction that to

translate faithfully under all the embarrassments of rhyme and measure is

impossible. The attempt has been made to tell the stories in prose,

preserving so much of the poetry as resides in the thoughts and is separable

from the language itself, and omitting those amplifications which are not

suited to the altered form.

The Northern mythological stories are copied with some abridgment from

Mallet's Northern Antiquities. These chapters, with those on Oriental and

Egyptian mythology, seemed necessary to complete the subject, though it is

believed these topics have not usually been presented in the same volume with

the classical fables.

The poetical citations so freely introduced are expected to answer

several valuable purposes. They will tend to fix in memory the leading fact

of each story, they will help to the attainment of a correct pronunciation of

the proper names, and they will enrich the memory with many gems of poetry,

some of them such as are most frequently quoted or alluded to in reading and


Having chosen mythology as connected with literature for our province, we

have endeavored to omit nothing which the reader of elegant literature is

likely to find occasion for. Such stories and parts of stories as are

offensive to pure taste and good morals are not given. But such stories are

not often referred to, and if they occasionally should be, the English reader

need feel no mortification in confessing his ignorance of them.

Our book is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the

philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who

wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers,

lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.

We trust our young readers will find it a source of entertainment; those

more advanced a useful companion in their reading those who travel, and visit

museums and galleries of art, an interpreter of paintings and sculptures;

those who mingle in cultivated society, a key to allusions which are

occasionally made; and last of all, those in advanced life, pleasure in

retracing a path of literature which leads them back to the days of their

childhood, and revives at every step the associations of the morning of life.

The permanency of those associations is beautifully expressed in the

well-known lines of Coleridge, in "The Piccolomini," Act ii. Scene 4.

"The intelligible forms of ancient poets,

The fair humanities of old religion,

The Power, the Beauty, and the Majesty

That had their haunts in dale or piny mountain,

Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,

Or chasms and watery depths; all these have vanished.

They live no longer in the faith of reason;

But still the heart doth need a language; still

Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;

Spirits or gods that used to share this earth

With man as with their friend; and at this day

"Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,

And Venus who brings every thing that's fair."

Origin Of Mythology

Statues Of Gods And Goddesses - Poets Of Mythology.

Origin Of Mythology.

Having reached the close of our series of stories of Pagan mythology, an

inquiry suggests itself. "Whence came these stories? Have they a foundation

in truth, or are they simply dreams of the imagination?" Philosophers have

suggested various theories on the subject; and (1) The Scriptural theory;

according to which all mythological legends are derived from the narratives of

Scripture, though the real facts have been disguised and altered. Thus

Deucalion is only another name for Noah, Hercules for Samson, Arion for Jonah,

&c. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World, says, "Jubal, Tubal, and

Tubal-Cain were Mercury, Vulcan, and Apollo, inventors of Pasturage, Smithing,

and Music. The Dragon which kept the golden apples was the serpent that

beguiled Eve. Nimrod's tower was the attempt of the Giants against Heaven."

There are doubtless many curious coincidences like these, but the theory

cannot without extravagance be pushed so far as to account for any great

proportion of the stories.

(2) The Historical theory; according to which all the persons mentioned

in mythology were once real human beings, and the legends and fabulous

traditions relating to them are merely the additions and embellishments of

later times. Thus the story of Aeolus, the king and god of the winds, is

supposed to have risen from the fact that Aeolus was the ruler of some

islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he reigned as a just and pious king, and

taught the natives the use of sails for ships, and how to tell from the signs

of the atmosphere the changes of the weather and the winds. Cadmus, who, the

legend says, sowed the earth with dragon's teeth, from which sprang a crop of

armed men, was in fact an emigrant from Phoenicia, and brought with him into

Greece the knowledge of the letters of the alphabet, which he taught to the

natives. From these rudiments of learning sprung civilization, which the

poets have always been prone to describe as a deterioration of man's first

estate, the Golden Age of innocence and simplicity.

(3) The Allegorical theory supposes that all the myths of the ancients

were allegorical and symbolical, and contained some moral, religious, or

philosophical truth or historical fact, under the form of an allegory, but

came in process of time to be understood literally. Thus Saturn, who devours

his own children, is the same power whom the Greeks called Cronos, (Time,)

which may truly be said to destroy whatever it has brought into existence. The

story of Io is interpreted in a similar manner. Io is the moon, and Argus the

starry sky, which, as it were, keeps sleepless watch over her. The fabulous

wanderings of Io represent the continual revolutions of the moon, which also

suggested to Milton the same idea.

"To behold the wandering moon

Riding near her highest noon,

Like one that had been led astray

In the heaven's wide, pathless way."

Il Penseroso

(4) The Physical theory; according to which the elements of air, fire,

and water were originally the objects of religious adoration, and the

principal deities were personifications of the powers of nature. The

transition was easy from a personification of the elements to the notion of

supernatural beings presiding over and governing the different objects of

nature. The Greeks, whose imagination was lively, peopled all nature with

invisible beings, and supposed that every object, from the sun and sea to the

smallest fountain and rivulet, was under the care of some particular divinity.

Wordsworth, in his Excursion, has beautifully developed this view of Grecian


"In that fair clime the lonely herdsman, stretched

On the soft grass through half a summer's day,

With music lulled his indolent repose;

And, in some fit of weariness, if he,

When his own breath was silent, chanced to hear

A distant strain far sweeter than the sounds

Which his poor skill could make, his fancy fetched

Even from the blazing chariot of the Sun

A beardless youth who touched a golden lute,

And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.

The mighty hunter, lifting up his eyes

Toward the crescent Moon, with grateful heart

Called on the lovely Wanderer who bestowed

That timely light to share his joyous sport;

And hence a beaming goddess with her nymphs

Across the lawn and through the darksome grove

(Not unaccompanied with tuneful notes

By echo multiplied from rock or cave)

Swept in the storm of chase, as moon and stars

Glance rapidly along the clouded heaven

When winds are blowing strong. The Traveller slaked

His thirst from rill or gushing fount, and thanked

The Naiad. Sunbeams upon distant hills

Gliding apace with shadows in their train,

Might with small help from fancy, be transformed

Into fleet Oreads sporting visibly.

The Zephyrs, fanning, as they passed, their wings,

Lacked not for love fair objects whom they wooed

With gentle whisper. Withered boughs grotesque,

Stripped of their leaves and twigs by hoary age,

From depth of shaggy covert peeping forth

In the low vale, or on steep mountain side;

And sometimes intermixed with stirring horns

Of the live deer, or goat's depending beard;

These were the lurking Satyrs, a wild brood

Of gamesome deities; or Pan himself,

The simple shepherd's awe-inspiring god."

All the theories which have been mentioned are true to a certain extent.

It would therefore be more correct to say that the mythology of a nation has

sprung from all these sources combined than from any one in particular. We

may add also that there are many myths which have arisen from the desire of

man to account for those natural phenomena which he cannot understand; and not

a few have had their rise from a similar desire of giving a reason for the

names of places and persons.

Statues Of The Gods.

To adequately represent to the eye the ideas intended to be conveyed to

the mind under the several names of deities, was a task which called into

exercise the highest powers of genius and art. Of the many attempts four have

been most celebrated, the first two known to us only by the descriptions of

the ancients, the others still extant and the acknowledged masterpieces of the

sculptor's art.

The Olympian Jupiter.

The statue of the Olympian Jupiter by Phidias was considered the highest

achievement of this department of Grecian art. It was of colossal dimensions,

and was what the ancients called "chryselephantine;" that is, composed of

ivory and gold; the parts representing flesh being of ivory laid on a core of

wood or stone, while the drapery and other ornaments were of gold. The height

of the figure was forty feet, on a pedestal twelve feet high. The god was

represented seated on his throne. His brows were crowned with a wreath of

olive, and he held in his right hand a sceptre, and in his left a statue of

Victory. The throne was of cedar, adorned with gold and precious stones.

The idea which the artist essayed to imbody was that of the supreme deity

of the Hellenic (Grecian) nation, enthroned as a conqueror, in perfect majesty

and repose, and ruling with a nod the subject world. Phidias avowed that he

took his idea from the representation which Homer gives in the first book of

the Iliad, in the passage thus translated by Pope: -

"He spoke and awful bends his sable brows,

Shakes his ambrosial curls and gives the nod,

The stamp of fate and sanction of the god.

High heaven with reverence the dread signal took,

And all Olympus to the centre shook."*

Cowper's version is less elegant, but truer to the original. -

"He ceased, and under his dark brows the nod

Vouchsafed of confirmation. All around

The sovereign's everlasting head his curls

Ambrosial shook, and the huge mountain reeled"

The Minerva Of The Parthenon.

This was also the work of Phidias. It stood in the Parthenon, or temple

of Minerva at Athens. The goddess was represented standing. In one hand she

held a spear, in the other a statue of Victory. Her helmet, highly decorated,

was surmounted by a Sphinx. The statue was forty feet in height, and, like

the Jupiter, composed of ivory and gold. The eyes were of marble, and

probably painted to represent the iris and pupil. The Parthenon in which this

statue stood was also constructed under the direction and superintendence of

Phidias. Its exterior was enriched with sculptures, many of them from the

hand of Phidias. The Elgin marbles now in the British Museum are a part of


Both the Jupiter and Minerva of Phidias are lost, but there is good

ground to believe that we have, in several extant statues and busts, the

artist's conceptions of the countenances of both. They are characterized by

grave and dignified beauty, and freedom from any transient expression, which

in the language of art is called repose.

It may interest our readers to see how this passage appears in another

famous version, that which was issued under the name of Tickell,

contemporaneously with Pope's, and which, being by many attributed to Addison,

led to the quarrel which ensued between Addison and Pope.

"This said, his kingly brow the sire inclined;

The large black curls fell awful from behind,

Thick shadowing the stern forehead of the god;

Olympus trembled at the almighty nod."

The Venus De' Medici.

The Venus of the Medici is so called from its having been in the

possession of the princes of that name in Rome when it first attracted

attention, about two hundred years ago An inscription on the base records it

to be the work of Cleomenes, an Athenian sculptor of 200 B.C., but the

authenticity of the inscription is doubtful. There is a story that the artist

was employed by public authority to make a statue exhibiting the perfection of

female beauty, and to aid him in his task, the most perfect forms the city

could supply were furnished him for models. It is this which Thomson alludes

to in his Summer.

"So stands the statue that enchants the world;

So bending tries to veil the matchless boast,

The mingled beauties of exulting Greece."

Byron also alludes to this statue. Speaking of the Florence Museum, he

says, -

"There too the goddess loves in stone, and fills

The air around with beauty;" &c.

And in the next stanza,

"Blood, pulse, and breast confirm the Dardan shepherd a prize.

See this last allusion explained in Chapter XXVII.

The Apollo Belvedere.

The most highly esteemed of all the remains of ancient sculpture is the

statue of Apollo, called the Belvedere, from the name of the apartment of the

Pope's palace at Rome in which it is placed. The artist is unknown. It is

supposed to be a work of Roman art, of about the first century of our era. It

is a standing figure, in marble, more than seven feet high, naked except for

the cloak which is fastened around the neck and hangs over the extended left

arm. It is supposed to represent the god in the moment when he has shot the

arrow to destroy the monster Python. (See Chapter III.) The victorious

divinity is in the act of stepping forward. The left arm which seems to have

held the bow is outstretched, and the head is turned in the same direction.

In attitude and proportion the graceful majesty of the figure is unsurpassed.

The effect is completed by the countenance, where, on the perfection of

youthful godlike beauty there dwells the consciousness of triumphant power.

The Diana A La Biche.

The Diana of the Hind, in the palace of the Louvre, may be considered the

counterpart to the Apollo Belvedere. The attitude much resembles that of the

Apollo, the sizes correspond and also the style of execution. It is a work of

the highest order, though by no means equal to the Apollo. The attitude is

that of hurried and eager motion, the face that of a huntress in the

excitement of the chase. The left hand is extended over the forehead of the

Hind which runs by her side, the right arm reaches backward over the shoulder

to draw an arrow from the quiver.

The Poets Of Mythology.

Homer, from whose poems of the Iliad and Odyssey we have taken the chief

part of our chapters of the Trojan war and the return of the Grecians, is

almost as mythical a personage as the heroes he celebrates. The traditionary

story is that he was a wandering minstrel, blind and old, who travelled from

place to place singing his lays to the music of his harp, in the courts of

princes or the cottages of peasants, and dependent upon the voluntary

offerings of his hearers for support. Byron calls him "The blind old man of

Scio's rocky isle," and a well-known epigram, alluding to the uncertainty of

the fact of his birthplace, says, -

"Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,

Through which the living Homer begged his bread."

These seven were Smyrna, Scio, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Argos, and


Modern scholars have doubted whether the Homeric poems are the work of

any single mind. This arises from the difficulty of believing that poems of

such length could have been committed to writing at so early an age as that

usually assigned to these, an age earlier than the date of any remaining

inscriptions or coins, and when no materials, capable of containing such long

productions were yet introduced into use. On the other hand it is asked how

poems of such length could have been handed down from age to age by means of

the memory alone. This is answered by the statement that there was a

professional body of men, called Rhapsodists, who recited the poems of others,

and whose business it was to commit to memory and rehearse for pay the

national and patriotic legends.

The prevailing opinion of the learned, at this time, seems to be that the

framework and much of the structure of the poems belongs to Homer, but that

there are numerous interpolations and additions by other hands.

The date assigned to Homer, on the authority of Herodotus, is 850 B. C.


Virgil, called also by his surname Maro, from whose poem of the Aeneid we

have taken the story of Aeneas, was one of the great poets who made the reign

of the Roman emperor, Augustus, so celebrated, under the name of the Augustan

age. Virgil was born in Mantua in the year 70 B. C. His great poem is ranked

next to those of Homer, in the highest class of poetical composition, the

Epic. Virgil is far inferior to Homer in originality and invention, but

superior to him in correctness and elegance. To critics of English lineage

Milton alone of modern poets seems worthy to be classed with these illustrious

ancients. His poem of Paradise Lost, from which we have borrowed so many

illustrations, is in many respects equal, in some superior to either of the

great works of antiquity. The following epigram of Dryden characterizes the

three poets with as much truth as it is usual to find in such pointed

criticism: -

On Milton.

"Three poets in three different ages born,

Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.

The first in loftiness of soul surpassed,

The next in majesty, in both the last.

The force of nature could no further go;

To make a third she joined the other two."

From Cowper's Table Talk: -

"Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,

And ages ere the Mantuan swan was heard.

To carry nature lengths unknown before,

To give a Milton birth, asked ages more.

Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,

And shot a dayspring into distant climes,

Ennobling every region that he chose;

He sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose,

And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past,

Emerged all splendor in our isle at last.

Thus lovely Halcyons dive into the main,

Then show far off their shining plumes again."


Often alluded to in poetry by his other name of Naso, was born in the

year 43 B. C. He was educated for public life and held some offices of

considerable dignity, but poetry was his delight, and he early resolved to

devote himself to it. He accordingly sought the society of the contemporary

poets, and was acquainted with Horace and saw Virgil, though the latter died

when Ovid was yet too young and undistinguished to have formed his

acquaintance. Ovid spent an easy life at Rome in the enjoyment of a competent

income. He was intimate with the family of Augustus, the emperor, and it is

supposed that some serious offence given to some member of that family was the

cause of an event which reversed the poet's happy circumstances and clouded

all the latter portion of his life. At the age of fifty he was banished from

Rome, and ordered to betake himself to Tomi, on the borders of the Black Sea.

Here, among the barbarous people and in a severe climate, the poet, who had

been accustomed to all the pleasures of a luxurious capital and the society of

his most distinguished contemporaries, spent the last ten years of his life,

worn out with grief and anxiety. His only consolation in exile was to address

his wife and absent friends, and his letters were all poetical. Though these

poems (the Tristia and Letters from Pontus) have no other topic than the

poet's sorrows, his exquisite taste and fruitful invention have redeemed them

from the charge of being tedious, and they are read with pleasure and even

with sympathy.

The two great works of Ovid are his Metamorphoses and his Fasti. They

are both mythological poems, and from the former we have taken most of our

stories of Grecian and Roman mythology. A late writer thus characterizes

these poems: -

"The rich mythology of Greece furnished Ovid, as it may still furnish the

poet, the painter, and the sculptor, with materials for his art. With

exquisite taste, simplicity, and pathos he has narrated the fabulous

traditions of early ages, and given to them that appearance of reality which

only a master-hand could impart. His pictures of nature are striking and

true; he selects with care that which is appropriate; he rejects the

superfluous; and when he has completed his work, it is neither defective nor

redundant. The Metamorphoses are read with pleasure by youth, and are re-read

in more advanced age with still greater delight. The poet ventured to predict

that his poem would survive him, and be read wherever the Roman name was


The prediction above alluded to is contained in the closing lines of the

Metamorphoses, of which we give a literal translation below: -

"And now I close my work, which not the ire

Of Jove, nor tooth of time, nor sword, nor fire

Shall bring to nought. Come when it will that day

Which o'er the body, not the mind, has sway,

And snatch the remnant of my life away,

My better part above the stars shall soar,

And my renown endure forevermore.

Where'er the Roman arms and arts shall spread,

There by the people shall my book be read;

And, if aught true in poet's visions be,

My name and fame have immortality."

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